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Coordinates: 51°31′00″N 0°04′30″W / 51.5166°N 0.0750°W / 51.5166; -0.0750

Spitalfields is located in Greater London

 Spitalfields shown within Greater London
OS grid reference TQ335815
London borough Tower Hamlets
Ceremonial county Greater London
Region London
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Post town LONDON
Postcode district E1
Dialling code 020
Police Metropolitan
Fire London
Ambulance London
EU Parliament London
London Assembly City and East
List of places: UK • England • London

Spitalfields is an area in the borough of Tower Hamlets, in the East End of London, near to Liverpool Street station and Brick Lane. The area straddles Commercial Street and is home to many markets, including the historic Old Spitalfields Market, founded in the 17th century, Sunday UpMarket, and the various other Brick Lane Markets on Brick Lane and Cheshire Street.





The name Spitalfields is a contraction of 'hospital fields', in reference to "The New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopgate" founded here in 1197.[1]


Spitalfields was the location of one of Roman London's large extramural cemeteries, situated to the east of the Bishopsgate thoroughfare, which roughly follows the line of Ermine Street: the main highway to the north from Londinium.[2] The presence of a Roman cemetery here was noticed by the antiquarian John Stow as far back as 1576 and became the focus of a major archaeological excavation in the 1990s, following the redevelopment of Spitalfields Market. Perhaps the most spectacular find was the discovery in 1999 of a sarcophagus containing the remains of a high status, silk clad, Roman lady, complete with jet accessories and a unique glass phial.[2][3]

In 1197 the former Roman cemetery became the site of a priory called "The New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopgate", latterly known as St Mary Spital, founded by Walter Brunus and his wife Roisia.[1] This religious foundation was one of the biggest hospitals in medieval England and was the focus of a large medieval cemetery which included a stone charnel house and mortuary chapel. This latter has recently been uncovered by archaeologists and preserved for public viewing. The Priory and Hospital were dissolved in 1539 under Henry VIII. Although the chapel and monastic buildings were mostly demolished, the area of the inner precinct of the priory maintained an autonomous administrative status as the liberty of Norton Folgate. The adjacent outer precincts of the priory, to the south, were re-used as an Artillery Ground and placed under the special jurisdiction of the Tower of London as one of the Tower liberties.[4]


Spitalfields' historic association with the silk industry was established by French Protestant (Huguenots) refugees who settled in this area after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). By settling here, outside the bounds of the City of London, they hoped to avoid the restrictive legislation of the City Guilds. The Huguenots brought with them little, apart from their skills, and an Order in Council of 16 April 1687 raised £200,000 for the relief of their poverty. In December 1687, the first report of the committee set up to administer the funds reported that 13,050 French refugees were settled in London, primarily around Spitalfields, but also in the nearby settlements of Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Mile End new town.[5]

The late 17th and 18th centuries saw an estate of well appointed terraced houses, built to accommodate the master weavers controlling the silk industry, and grand urban mansions built around the newly created Spital Square. Christ Church, Spitalfields on Fournier Street, designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, was built during the reign of Queen Anne to demonstrate the power of the established church to the dissenting Huguenots. More humble weavers dwellings were congregated in the Tenterground.[6]

There has been a market on the site since 1638 when Charles I gave a licence for flesh, fowl and roots to be sold in what was then known as Spittle Fields.[7] The Market currently receives around 25,000 visitors every week.[7]

From the 1730s Irish weavers came here, after a decline in the Irish linen industry to take up work in the silk trade. The 18th century saw periodic crises in the silk industry, bought on by imports of French silk – in a lull between the wars between the two rivals; and imports of printed calicos. The depression in the trade, and thence the prices paid to weavers, led to protests. In 1769, the Spitalfield Riots occurred, where attempts were made to break up meetings of weavers, called to discuss the threat to wages, caused by another downturn in the market for silk. This ended with an Irish and a Huguenot weaver being hanged in front of the Salmon and Ball public house at Bethnal Green.[5]

Victorian era

By the Victorian era, the silk industry had entered a long decline and the old merchant dwellings had degenerated into multi-occupied slums. Spitalfields became a by-word for urban deprivation, and by 1832, concern of a London cholera epidemic, led The Poor Man's Guardian (18 February 1832) to write of Spitalfields:

The low houses are all huddled together in close and dark lanes and alleys, presenting at first sight an appearance of non-habitation, so dilapidated are the doors and windows:- in every room of the houses, whole families, parents, children and aged grandfathers swarm together.

In 1860, a treaty was established with France, allowing the import of cheaper French silks. This left the many weavers in Spitalfields, and neighbouring Bethnal Green and Shoreditch indigent. New trades such as furniture and boot making came to the area; and the large windowed Huguenot houses were found suitable for tailoring, attracting a new population of Jewish refugees drawn to live and work in the textile industry.[5]

By the later 19th century inner Spitalfields had eclipsed rival claimants to the dubious distinction of being the worst criminal rookery of London with common lodging-houses in the Flower and Dean Street area being a focus for the activities of robbers and prostitutes. The latter street was dubbed in 1881 as being "perhaps the foulest and most dangerous street in the metropolis".[8] Another claimant to the distinction of being "the worst street in London" was nearby Dorset Street, which was highlighted by the brutal killing and mutilation of a young woman named Mary Kelly in her lodgings here by the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888.[9] This was the climax of a whole series of slayings of local prostitutes known as the Whitechapel Murders. The sanguinary activities of "Jack" was one of the factors which prompted the demolition of some of the worst streets in the area 1891-94.[10] Deprivation, however, continued and was brought to notice by social commentators such as Jack London in his The People of the Abyss (1903). He highlighted 'Itchy Park', next to Christ Church, Spitalfields, as a notorious rendezvous for homeless vagrants.

Modern Spitalfields

In the late 20th century the Jewish presence diminished, to be replaced by an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants, who also worked in the local textile industry and made Brick Lane the curry capital of London.

Another development, from the 1960s onwards, has been a campaign to save the housing stock of old merchant terraces to the west of Brick Lane from demolition. Many have been conserved by exponents of a 'New Georgian' ethos, such as the architectural historian and TV pundit Dan Cruickshank. Such gentrification has, however, caused massive inflation in house prices and the removal of the last of the vagrants from this area.[11]

Current 'urban regeneration' has also seen the erection of large modern office blocks, between Bishopsgate and Spitalfields Market. These represent, in effect, an expansion of the City of London, northwards, beyond its traditional bounds, into this area. However, a rear-guard action by conservationists has resulted in the preservation of Old Spitalfields Market and the provision of shopping, leisure amenities and a new plaza behind the city blocks.[11]

The area within Tower Hamlets now forms part of the council ward of Spitalfields and Banglatown. Its name represents the modern association of the Bangladeshi community with this area and neighbouring Brick Lane.

Art scene

The area is well known for its arts scene. Whitechapel Art Gallery is located at the bottom of Brick Lane, and amongst the many well known artists living in Spitalfields are Gilbert and George, Tracey Emin and Stuart Brisley.

TV presenter, architecture expert and Georgian fanatic Dan Cruickshank was both an active campaigner for Spitalfields, and continues to live in the area. Dennis Severs forswore modern comforts at 18 Folgate Street, living a unique life. The house, a time capsule of the 18th century, is now open to the public.

Writer Jeanette Winterson turned a derelict Georgian house into an organic food shop, Verde's, as part of the Slow Food movement.

In literature

Spitalfields figures in many classic and contemporary works of literature, which reflect its sense of mystery and its fascinating multicultural heritage, including:

In film

19th century Spitalfields was recreated as the setting for the film From Hell about Jack the Ripper. This included a reconstruction (in Prague) of the notorious Ten Bells pub (still extant on Commercial Street): alleged to have been a rendezvous of some of the Ripper's prostitute victims, before they were murdered. In the film Johnny Depp (as Inspector Abberline) is seen drinking there with Ripper victim Mary Jane Kelly.

Notable people associated with Spitalfields

  • Wolf Mankowitz (1924–1998), writer, playwright and screenwriter, of Russian Jewish descent, was born in Fashion Street in Spitalfields.
  • Jeanette Winterson (1959 - ), writer, lives on Brushfield Street where she also runs a delicatessen.
  • Tracey Emin (1963 - ), artist, resides in Fournier Street.
  • Gilbert & George (1943 - ;1942 - ), artists, reside in Fournier Street.
  • Basil Henriques (1890–1961), for whom Henriques Street (formerly Berner Street) is named.
  • Dennis Severs (1944–1999), lived at 18 Folgate Street 1979 - 1999.
  • Dan Cruickshank (1949 - ), lives in Spitalfields.
  • Samantha Morton, actor, lives on the corner of Fournier and Wilkes.
  • Keith Mansfield, writer and publisher, lives in the area
  • Joe Wright (1972 - ), film director, recent addition to Wilkes Street.
  • Sandra Esquilant (1948 - ), landlady of The Golden Heart, listed among the 100 most influential people in art.[12]
  • Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), philosopher, was born here.
  • Jack Sheppard (1702–1724), highwayman and multiple absconder, born in White's Row, Spitalfields.
  • Sir Benjamin Truman (1699/1700–1780), brewer.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), was born in Spitalfields, possibly at 21 Hanbury Street.[13]
  • Obadiah Shuttleworth (d.1734), musician
  • Jack the Ripper: all of his victims or presumed victims lived in Spitalfields and two (Chapman and Kelly) were murdered there (the others being murdered in nearby Whitechapel):
    • Annie Chapman (c. 1841 - 1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, resided at a common lodging house at 35 Dorset Street, Spitalfields. Her body was found at 29 Hanbury Street, Spitalfields[13]
    • Mary Jane Kelly (c. 1863–1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, lived, and murdered, at 13 Millers Court, just off Dorset Street
    • Martha Tabram (1849–1888), possible victim of Jack the Ripper, resided at a common lodging house at 19 George Street, Spitalfields.[14]
    • Mary Ann Nichols (1845–1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, resided at a common lodging house at 18 Thrawl Street, Spitalfields.[15][16]
    • Elizabeth Stride (1843–1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, resided at a common lodging house at 32 Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields.
    • Catherine Eddowes (1842–1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, resided with her partner John Kelly at Cooney's common lodging house at 55 Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields.[17]
  • Joe Loss LVO OBE (22 June 1909 in Spitalfields – 6 June 1990), founder of the Joe Loss Orchestra.

See also


  1. ^ a b Thomas, Sloane and Phillpotts (1997) Excavations at the Priory and Hospital of St Mary Spital, London. Museum of London: London: 19-20
  2. ^ a b Thomas, Christopher. Life and death in London's East End: 2000 years at Spitalfields. Museum of London Archaeology Service. pp. 7–29. ISBN 1-901992-49-7. 
  3. ^ Discovering people at Spitalfields market
  4. ^ Thomas: pp. 30-75
  5. ^ a b c Industries: Silk-weaving, A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2: General; Ashford, East Bedfont with Hatton, Feltham, Hampton with Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton (1911), pp. 132-137. Date accessed: 04 March 2009
  6. ^ Thomas: pp. 76-95
  7. ^ a b Old Spitalfields Market Published 2008. Retrieved 17 June 2009.
  8. ^ White, Jerry (2007-01-04). London in the Nineteenth Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God. Jonathan Cape. pp. 323. ISBN 978-0224062725. 
  9. ^ The Worst Street in London Fiona Rule (Ian Allan Ltd, 2008) ISBN 978-0711033450
  10. ^ White: p. 331
  11. ^ a b Taylor, William (2001-05-24). This Bright Field: A Travel Book in One Place. Methuen Publishing. ISBN 978-0413746900. 
  12. ^ "One day Gilbert & George walked into the bar, and my life changed" Published 17 Dec 2006. Retrieved 5 Oct 2009.
  13. ^ a b (ed.) Sheppard, F. H. W.. 'The Wood-Michell estate: Hanbury Street west of Brick Lane' Survey of London: volume 27 - Spitalfields and Mile End New Town. pp. 189–193. Retrieved 2008-06-02. 
  14. ^ Stewart Evans and Donald Rumbelow (2006) Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates: 51-55
  15. ^ Stewart Evans and Donald Rumbelow (2006) Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates: 56-62
  16. ^ Paul Begg (2006) Jack the Ripper: The Facts: 42
  17. ^ Stewart Evans and Donald Rumbelow (2006) Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates: 114-40


The nearest London Underground station is Liverpool Street. London Liverpool Street is also a National Rail station.

Opening in June 2010, the nearest London Overground station is Shoreditch High Street

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SPITALFIELDS, a district of London, England, in the western part of the metropolitan borough of Stepney. The name is derived from the fact that the land belonged to a priory of St Mary Spital, founded in 11 9 7. Excavations have revealed a Roman burial-place here. The name is well known in connexion with the silk industry established here by French refugees after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685.

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