The History of Spitalfields

The city of London has a gleaming business district with an ever-evolving skyline, and it’s pretty difficult to imagine what the capital looked like even 50 years ago before all of the major new developments and construction. Even more inconceivable is Roman Londinium, its moniker after the Emperor Claudius founded the town in 50 AD. 

Quaker Street Cafe is situated in Spitalfields, which takes its name from St Mary’s Spittel Hospital, founded almost 900 years ago in 1197. The East end is an area recognised for its cultural diversity, and has been this way for centuries. Historically, Spitalfields has hosted transient immigrant communities, after the success of the market on Thursdays and Saturdays in Spital Square. It appealed to settlers from Ireland, France, Poland and Russia to name a few. Particularly Jewish families escaping the harsh conditions in the Eastern European Pogroms, and in contrast entrepreneurial Jews from the Netherlands. From the 1880’s to the 1970’s, Spitalfields most likely had one of the Largest Jewish communities in Europe, with 40 Synagogues. This is greatly reflected in the cuisine Shoreditch and Spitalfields have to offer, such as the famed 24 hour Beigel Bake on Brick lane.

The significance of the Bangladeshi community in Spitalfields is a great one. After major political upheaval in Bangladesh, starting with the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, Bangladeshis left to find work and security in England. Upon arrival however, they faced many problems such as overcrowded accommodation, language and cultural barriers. Some even found their professional qualifications were not recognised here, and so they had to completely start afresh. One of the many ways they did this was by opening curry houses, with their popularity and influence giving Brick Lane the nickname of Banglatown. Brick Lane was incredibly important in the second wave of the development of Anglo-Indian cuisine.

The area of Spitalfields was also connected to the silk trade in the 15th century, having been established by French Protestant refugees (huguenots) after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Edict allowed the Huguenots to practice their religion without state persecution, and its revocation saw Huguenot churches burned to the ground, with protestant schools being closed. Upon leaving France, the Huguenots brought with them invaluable skills such as knowledge on silk, silversmithing, watchmaking and cabinet making. During this period France lost many skilled craftsmen, and East London gained a few!

It’s important to remember how much immigration positively contributes to our experiences as Londoners and tourists, despite the small number of people who think otherwise. Roughly 300 community languages are spoken in London, which is the largest in Europe – a figure we should be extremely proud of. Equally as important to remember, is that accepting a British identity is accepting you’re only as British as the Germanic settlers who first arrived on English soil.



The featured image on this page is a photo taken by 
@TimSW2008 on Flickr, who is the owner and photographer. 
The image shows Spitalfields Market in 1988 before it's 
                 Image license here.