Old, New, and Wonderful: Spitalfields

The idea behind my ‘The Old, The New, and The Wonderful’ segments is to highlight what London does best. That eclectic mix of history, where the modern sits next to the ancient in contented harmony, a city built on wonderful and quirky stories.
You can find my first blog post like this, all about Cannon Street, here.

Each of my blog posts on this theme focuses on a particular area, which means that, at some point, you can visit these parts of London for yourself and find everything I’ve described within walking distance – like a mini, self-guided tour!

We’re going to start on Brune Street. So imagine you’ve arrived at Liverpool Street station. You can meander down Artillery Lane – the name harking back to a time when the area was Henry VIII’s ‘Old Artillery Ground’ and was used for weapons’ practice – then bear right onto White’s Row for just a moment until you turn right onto Tenter Ground.

Before we even get to our first stop, we’re walking alongside so much history. Tenter Ground is a lovely remnant of the area’s connection to the cloth industry because, amazingly, the name goes back at least 378 years to when the area was just that, a tenter ground. But what is a tenter ground, you ask, beyond a place to grow tents? (It’s not actually that.)
A tenter ground was where cloth producers would take newly woven and washed textiles to be dried. The space would have rows and rows of frames or tenters, the cloth would be hooked onto the frames and stretched to prevent shrinkage as the cloth dried.

According to British History Online, the tenter ground was there from at least 1642, but here it is on a map from 1746 and you can see the lines of tenters (the orange dot marks Brune Street):

John Rocque’s London 10 Miles Round Map, 1746 (Photo: British Library, Museum of London Archaeology, and Layers of London) and London 2020 (Photo: Layers of London)

Another cool little fact which nerds like me love, is that the stretch and strain on the cloths hooked up to these frames is where we get the English phrase ‘to be on tenterhooks’ from!

At the end of Tenter Ground, you’ll find Brune Street. Turn left and you’ll find our first stop.

Let’s kick things off with a bit of wonder: the Jewish Soup Kitchen

This is a lovely story about community in the East End. It’s also a pretty stunning building. First of all, let’s read the building – it tells us quite a lot without us even having any context. It is handily labelled for us by the sign which reads ‘Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor’, we even known when it was built from the 1902 above the door. And if you were curious about the 5662 to the left of it, that’s not how many portions of soup they ladled out that year, that’s actually the equivalent year in the Jewish calendar. Just above the dates, there’s even a nice little soup tureen carved into the triangular pediment.

The soup kitchen has been here since 1902, but it had actually been founded in 1854 on nearby Leman Street and had moved around a bit before finding a larger and more permanent home here. Starting in the 1880s, England had seen a large influx of the Jewish population as they fled growing persecution and pogroms in eastern Europe. It’s thought that as many as 120,000 Jewish came to England and many of them settled in London’s East End. At that time, the East End was one of London’s poorest areas, and you have to imagine that many of the people fleeing their homes didn’t really have the option to bring much with them so when they arrived they often needed some kind of support to help them back on their feet.

Very little help came from the government so the responsibility was left to the community to aid those most in need. In a lot of cases, this support came from the pre-existing Jewish community in London, which is what happened with the soup kitchen on Brune Street.

We get a sense of how much it was in demand by the design of the building. On the right is a ‘Way In’ and on the left is a ‘Way Out’. It was so busy that they had to operate a one-way system to help people as efficiently as possible. It is thought that at its height, the soup kitchen provided meals to over 5,000 people a week.

This contrast between the old and the new, the orange and the blue genuinely makes this one of my favourite photos of London.

Due to the popularity of the kitchen, as much as they might have wanted to, it wasn’t possible to provide for everyone and so you had to ballot for a spot. For the winter of 1932, the provision of food was “soup and bread on each of these evenings [Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays] and Kosher margarine and sardines on alternative evenings.  In addition, pilchard and an extra portion of bread are given on Thursdays to help the poor over the weekend”.

It was still popular into the 1950s and kept running until 1992 when there were still 100 people on its books who were still regularly using the kitchen. Thankfully the kitchen wasn’t completely lost and its role was merged with a charity called Jewish Care. The building in front of you is now luxury apartments – the 2 bed at the top was put up for sale for about £1.8m.
Here is the soup kitchen in use in 1990, captured by photographer Stuart Freedman, just as he was starting out in his career. He had no idea that he was recording a time capsule of the wonderful community work here, shortly before it closed. Thank you for letting me use them.

Our next stop is ‘The New’ – some of the street art which Spitalfields is famous for!

Street art you will find literally all over Spitalfields, so sometimes it’s nice just to go there for a wander and see what you discover. Street art is also, by its nature, temporary and ever-changing – very much a ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ vibe – so while I will share some pictures of my favourite pieces which I’ve seen over the years, please be aware that, depending on when you’re reading this, some of these works of art might already have disappeared!

I will, however, give you a couple of spots to hunt out where you’ll be sure to find something!

We’re going to keep walking along Brune Street. At the end, take a left, then turn right onto Fashion Street. Walking along Fashion Street you will hopefully see these two wonderful works of art at either end of the street. The one on the left is Tracy by Dreph and on the right is Joe’s Kid by Jimmy C:

Dreph is famous for these beautiful large-scale portraits. This one was part of a series featuring ten Black women who Dreph knew personally and have undertaken amazing community work – each painting has a story attached for why they are important. Jimmy C, at the other end of the street, is known for his Pointillist-style point-drip technique. This piece shows a granddaughter-grandfather duo. The granddaughter, Dani, used to own the cafe behind, before it was a Pho Village. Although it’s sad that her cafe is no longer there, I think it’s nice that the painting continues its legacy.

Past Jimmy C and at the end of Fashion Street, turn left and now we’re on Brick Lane. Brick Lane generally is a great place to come and explore in London’s East End; there’s always something going on (I mean, maybe not at the moment because of Lockdown 2.0, but you catch my drift). Best day for the market is on a Sunday, but like I said, it’s worth enjoying any day of the week.

About halfway between Fashion Street and the next turning, Fournier Street, there is a narrow dead-end street on the left, just before Picky Wops Pizza (basically, if you pass the Jamme Masjid mosque, you’ve already gone too far). Even before you go down that street, there is an epic piece of street art on the corner of the building by Fanakapan. I’ve done a blog post just about him because I love his work so much – I actually compare him to 17th century artist, Pieter Claesz (as you do).

Both of the works below are by Fanakapan. The one on the left was what it looked like before and on the right is what it looks like now (the right-hand photo is from Fanakapan’s Instagram). You can also see the little street we’re about to take on the left.

Down to the left, you are always guaranteed to find some pretty nifty street art, but like I said before, it changes so quickly so I know for a fact that the photos below are already out of date. They give you an idea of what you can find though.

Possible detour:

Another guaranteed street art goldmine, if you want to see a bit more of Brick Lane and have a bit of a longer walk, is to keep going down Brick Lane until you reach Buxton Street. Turn right, go through Allen Gardens towards an industrial-looking railway bridge on the other side and when you get there you’ll see an underpass which takes you underneath said bridge. Through there, you’ll find the amazing Nomadic Community Garden. I find it quite nostalgic because it makes me feel like I’m living back in Berlin.

We, however, aren’t going to go so far up Brick Lane and instead turn left down Fournier Street. It feels a bit like a time capsule as you walk past the houses built by Huguenot silkweavers in the eighteenth century. When you come out on the other side of the street, you’ll be greeted by the facade of Spitalfields Market!

Our final stop and also the perfect spot to grab a bit to eat: Old Spitalfields Market

Spitalfields Market is super popular with people visiting the East End, both for its eclectic range of stalls and its incredible street food.

In normal times, Spitalfields Market operates seven days a week and is a great place to come for arts and crafts, antiques, even a vinyl market here twice a month, plus some of the best food from all over the world. It’s closed for England’s mini-lockdown this November, but is planning to be back up and running from 2nd December.

Photo: Diliff, Wikimedia Commons

At the centre of the covered market complex is a large black cube called the Kitchens, inhabited by ten eateries, handpicked for their amazing food. One of my favourites has gotta be Yum Bun. There are also loads of other tantalisingly tasty places which surround the Kitchens like little satellites as well.

But you’re right, attentive reader, all of this is sounding pretty modern and I promised you something old! Well, the market hasn’t always been like this. It started its life waaaaay back in the seventeenth century as a trading point “for fruit, fowl and root” and was established a formal market in 1682, when it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II. The Charter gave permission for a market on Thursdays and Saturdays near Spital Square. It started off as a fruit and veg market, and eventually expanded from operating two days a week to six to meet the needs of London’s growing population. 

The current covered market structure came about in the early nineteenth century. It was constructed by Robert Horner, a former market porter, who rejuvenated the site after a period of decline. Eventually, this wholesale fruit and veg market outgrew its confines and was was moved to Leyton in East London where it still exists today as New Spitalfields Market. The market that occupies the Spitalfields site today, called Old Spitalfields Market, is a result of a regen project completed in 2005. It’s all a tad confusing – the market that’s there now is technically the newer one but is called “old”, presumably because it’s based in the old site, but the original, historic wholesale market is the “new” market when it’s not really new, it’s just in a new location in Leyton…
At this point, you’re telling me you actually don’t really care, you just want to go and get some scrumptious food, and that’s fair enough because you’re absolutely right. Go! Run away! Enjoy! Try everything and then come back and let me know your favourites in the comments – I’m always looking for good recommendations.

Published by Amber | Rambling London Tours

Hello, my name is Amber. A few things about me. I am a born and bred Londoner so I absolutely adore my home city, but I love travel too, which means I'm always excited about exploring new places as well as taking other travellers (like you) around the places I love. I have been working in tourism on and off since 2014, both in the UK and briefly in Australia, and in 2020 I qualified as a professional Blue Badge Tour Guide for London and the South East of England. I love history, I have a History degree, and I think tourism is the perfect way to make sure I always keep learning, meeting new people, while also giving me a career where the world is my office! Hopefully I will have the pleasure of meeting you too.

4 thoughts on “Old, New, and Wonderful: Spitalfields

  1. It was so interesting to take this virtual tour with you Amber! I loved reading about the history of this part of London! I have visited this area before but next time I will go there I will make sure to follow your steps!

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