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History of Spitalfields

  • council: Tower Hamlets
  • phone code: 020
  • postcode area: E1
  • county: Greater London

Spitalfields is full of contrasts - quirky, historic, trend-settingly modern, tatty and smart. It's the kind of place where it pays to look beyond the obvious. Many of Spitalfields' attractions are the less obvious, smaller kind, but nonetheless worth visiting.

Wandering around you'll find houses so old and unloved their interiors haven't been changed for centuries and others whose owners have seized on the chance to lavish thousands on their restoration to former glories. Your sense of smell will no doubt guide you towards the many Bangladeshi restaurants for which Brick Lane is famous. If you follow the road northwards towards Bethnal Green Road, you get an insight into the changing nature of the area. Coffee shops, art galleries, designers' studios are all popping up in unexpected corners as evidence that the area is already a magnet for a very diverse group of inhabitants, almost all of them from other areas of the country and the world.

At the same time, this is where you'll find true Cockneys, people who've lived here for all their lives, people with stories to tell and wares to sell in the many street markets. And throughout the year, there are events which contribute to making the area even more vibrant and welcoming.

A brief history
The name 'Spitalfields' was named after a Hospital and Priory known as St. Mary's Spital, founded in 1197. Most building in the area took place in the mid-17th century after the Great Fire of London. Spitalfields market was established in the 1680s. Spitalifelds became a parish in its own right in 1729 when Hawkesmoor's Christ Church was consecrated.

Spitalfields lies at the heart of the East End, an area known for its spirit and strong sense of community. Throughout its history, it has been an area of constant change.Following the edict of Nantes in 1685, the Huguenots fled France, bringing with them the skills of silk weaving and building the once grand houses in the conservation area around Fournier Street. Today's leather and textile trades are a continuation of this earlier tradition of weaving.

Spitalfields fell into decline after the 1820's and gained a reputation as cheap area in which to live, proving a magnet to numerous waves of immigrants.

The potato famine led to an influx of men from Ireland, bringing in workers to build the nearby docks. Jewish families found a haven from pogroms in Europe and many became traders. More recently, Bangladeshi settlers have contributed to the richness of life in the borough of Tower Hamlets, many of them establishing restaurants in and around Brick Lane.

Nowadays, the best way to explore Spitalfields and appreciate its rich history is on foot. It's within a few minutes' walk of several tube stations, as the map shows.

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