Our thanks to Andrew Grave for this review of our Walking Tour with Rachel Kolsky and Legalinx. With a background in business research and analysis, Andrew provides training and support to corporate information teams and to organisations without an information function through his company Research Counts.
Like a lot of people, my first awareness of the Spitalfields area was through the famous Bangladeshi street of Brick Lane with its curry houses and colourful shops. Learning that SLA Europe was organising a tour of Spitalfields, I was keen to join and discover more about the area.
We met in Bishop’s Square near Spitalfields Market. It is London’s oldest market but has been modernised and reduced in size by the City of London. It is still home to many independent traders and well worth a visit! Our guide for the evening was Rachel Kolsky. Not only is Rachel a prize-winning Blue Badge London Tour Guide but she is also an SLA member of 30 years.
Rachel soon knuckled down to business and explained that Spitalfields was renowned for its immigrant communities. For a long time the area fell outside the boundaries of the City’s guilds making it an easier area for immigrants to work in. It also benefited from its proximity to the City and the docks.
In addition to the current Bangladeshi community, the area has been home to other communities, most of whom have left their mark on the area. I emphasise most because Rachel explained that whilst there had been a sizeable Irish community at one stage, they have left little evidence of their time here. The two other communities who left their mark here were the Jewish and French Huguenots communities.
The Huguenots were French Protestants who fled persecution in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. There had been a small silk industry in Spitalfields but the Huguenots developed it significantly. They built large houses to accommodate their looms which still exist today. Rachel pointed out that the looms were located in large attics the top of their houses and contained large, multiple windows so that the weavers could get as much light as possible. Following a downturn in the Irish linen industry in the 1730s, many Irish linen workers crossed the sea to work in Spitalfields silk industry.
As well as the many houses in the area, the Huguenots also were responsible for the French names of many of the streets including Fournier Street. Eventually, Spitalfields silk industry declined and many Huguenots moved out to the suburbs and another immigrant community took their place.
The Jewish communities comprised Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe and before them impoverished Jews from the Netherlands who sought better economic prospects.
One of the first indications of Jewish inhabitants in the area was highlighted by Rachel. She showed us a tiny mezuzah in the doorway of a house. A mezuzah comprises a case with the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael in it. Whilst the example Rachel showed us was very subtle, we learnt that modern cases may be a lot larger and more ornate.
The Jewish imprint was most evident in the large Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor. Opened in in Leman Street in 1854, it relocated to what is now Brune Street in 1902. It closed in 1992 to merge with another organisation. Rachel informed us that the Kitchen cleverly contained space above the first floor which had been rented out to generate income to help fund the kitchen’s charitable efforts.
Other evidence of the Jewish community’s presence includes a number of current and former Synagogues.
As each community in time grew more prosperous, they were able to move out from the relatively cramped conditions of Spitalfields into London’s suburbs. The Jewish community favoured the Northern Line and many families were able to sell up and move to Golders Green, Finchley and Kingsbury.
One building which has reflected the changing face of the area is the building now known as the London Jamme Masjid on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane. Built as a Huguenot Church in 1743, when congregations dwindled it was briefly used by a Christian movement aimed which tried to convert Jews to Christianity. In 1819 it became a Methodist Chapel, in 1897 an Orthodox Synagogue and in 1975 a Mosque.
In contrast to the Jamme Masjid is the imposing Grade 1 Christ Church in Commercial Street whose use has remained unaltered. Built between 1714 and 1729, it was one of twelve churches built by the optimistically-titled Commission for Building Fifty New Churches. Located in what originally was a Huguenot area, Rachel explained that the church had always struggled to get large congregations due to its mismatch to the religion of the area. By 1960, the church was in a poor state of repair and services were held elsewhere. In 1976 the Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields was formed to raise money and restore the building. 1987 saw the resumption of church services there.
In the 1970s and 1980s Bangladeshi men started coming to the UK for work in substantial numbers. This was driven by war and poverty at home. Initially it was working men who made the trip; their families followed later on. Rachel stated that historically seamen found that shipping-related labouring in London was far better paid than back home and so remained behind in London long after their ships had returned home.Over time, Brick Lane developed its distinctive ambience with its numerous Balti and curry houses.
Spitalfields today is home to some well-known artists including Gilbert and George and Tracey Emin. They have lived there since the area was a working fruit market and considered an undesirable and unlawful area. Tracey is a keen enthusiast of the area and has bought and restored a row of houses which she is selling off to sympathetic owners.
Author Jeanette Winterson (“Oranges are not the only Fruit”) bought a derelict Georgian house in Brushfield Street, converting the top into a flat and the bottom into organic food shop Verde & Co.
There is also a wealth of street art with colourful graffiti from local artists adorning the area adding a bohemian feel to the neighbourhood.
With a slight nip in the August air we retired to the warmth of the Kings Stores pub to discuss what we’d seen and to network over a swift half or two.
Thanks are due to our sponsors LegalinX-7Side who made this event possible. LegalinX-7Side is a market- leading provider of accurate, trusted and critical business, property and consumer information. Product and service lines include UK and international company information, formations & secretarial, anti-money laundering and credit reports.