If you’re anything like me, or indeed 97% of London’s population, you spend the majority of your time whilst wandering the streets either looking at your phone, watching your feet to make sure you don’t trip over any remains of last night’s chicken wings or discarded copies of the Evening Standard, or staring daggers into the back of the dawdler in front of you. What you don’t do, is look up. Up, beyond your eyeline, to see some of the parts of the city that we so often miss. Up there, beyond adverts and hoardings, hustle and bustle, are icons and information about the history of the city. It’s spirit if you will. And that’s what Katie, who runs Look Up London, is showing us on this Sunday morning, encouraging us to lift our gaze and look up to learn more about the spirit of Spitalfields.
Katie is an engaging guide, her enthusiasm for the city fluently conveyed. She’s clearly done her research, having been blogging about London for the last three years, and she imparts enough knowledge to educate and interest us without it being overwhelming. ‘On a mission to reveal the secrets hidden above your eyeline’ she runs walking tours around the area.
‘There are three things to remember about Spitalfields’ she tells us. ‘Radicalism, immigration and industry. Sitting just outside of the city walls the East End has always been a place where the rules and regulations of the financial and government stronghold doesn’t quite stretch. It’s something that is represented by Kenny Hunter’s Goat sculpture that stands at the entrance to Spitalfield’s Market; the goat being a somewhat wayward creature that doesn’t follow the crowd, unlike sheep.
Taking its name from the fields around the hospital – ‘spital – the area has seen huge changes, the economic ones accelerated over recent years. Street names like Gun and Artillery give clues to Henry VIII’s selling of the area to convert to army barracks. After the immigration persecuted Huguenots in the 17th and 18th centuries, the area became home for the fabric and textile industries, particularly silk weavers. This was due to large attics and airy light rooms available at the top of buildings on streets such as Fournier Street. Waves of Jewish communities fleeing Russia moved over in the 18th century, and many street signs are still written in both Yiddish and English. Today it is home to a large Bengali community; Brick Lane famed for its curry houses.
There’s plenty of clues to what the building that are now trendy pubs and coffee shops once were. The A Gold store in Brushfield Street was originally opened in 1880 by Amelia Gold, and the original shop front can still be seen. The signs of a bakery are found in the form of Philip Lindsey Clark’s Sculptures in Widegate Street. Frying Pan Alley is so named due to the frying pans hung outside by the ironmongers who used to operate there. We look up to see what some of them might have been before – warehouses, weavers, pubs, and the art deco Mayfair cinema.
One of the most fascinating buildings was built on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street in 1742. La Neuve Eglise was a Huguenot chapel, then in 1809 started to be used by missionaries as The Jews’ Chapel, where they promoted Christianity to the expanding Jewish population, before being adapted as a Methodist Chapel in 1819. Then in 1898, the building was consecrated as the Machzikei HaDath, or Spitalfields Great Synagogue, and most recently in 1976, to serve the expanding Bangledeshi community, it was adapted again as the London Jamme Masjid (Great London Mosque). The fluid and ebbing nature of the area is something that fascinates me. How people make a place their own but with echoes of the past.
It’s hard to imagine now with all the glass buildings and money dripping from the surrounding banks that Spitalfields was once one of the poorest areas, up to twenty families houses in each building and the slums being no go areas for many. The decline of the textile industry in the 19th century led to a poverty-stricken, over populated area with little work available, where drinking and prostitution were often the only escapes from a troubled life, and crime ran rife. These were the days of Jack the Ripper, and the Ten Bells pub on Commercial Street, where victim Mary Kelly drank, still stands. We see the Jewish Soup Kitchen in Lehman Street, and the Providence Row Night Refuge.
One of the most striking things is the echoes of past years that run through the threads of the story. Immigration from refugees fleeing conflict, tension between communities, concern for jobs, and steady gentrification pushing workers further out to the suburbs continues. We finish up in Altab Ali park, named after a 25-year-old Bangladeshi clothing worker of the same name who was brutally stabbed here in 1978. It prompted mobilisation and protests and a coming together of communities, and despite ongoing friction this has been repeated over recent years. Along the path down the centre of the park are letters spelling out a fragment of a poem by Rabindranath Tagore: ‘The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly.’ People may come and go, but the spirit of Spitalfields lives on – and as Katie taught us, you often have to look up to find it.