All posts tagged Spitalfields

Brady Street Jewish Cemetery Title
If you had asked anyone in the East End where Brady Street Jewish Cemetery was in the late 1800s, they would have stared at you blankly. Unsurprising really, as the thoroughfare now known as Brady Street was then known as North Street, and some years before that, Ducking Pond Lane.

A short stroll away from bustling Whitechapel Tube Station, Brady Street is a nondescript aside off the Whitechapel Road, but behind a high brick wall on the western side of the road hides a quiet and calm cemetery – part of the strong Jewish influence that had come to dominate Spitalfields and the surrounding areas.

Yiddish signs were already an everyday sight in the Victorian East End – theatre posters and newspapers of the time carried the language and Jewish culture began to permeate the already ancient buildings. By the turn of the century, for example, there were 15 kosher butchers in Wentworth Street alone.

A number of smaller synagogues called ‘chevras’ had been built in the area and these provided welfare to the Jewish community as well as being a place of worship. It became obvious therefore, that the Jewish people in the area needed somewhere to bury their dead.

Old Map of Brady Street Cemetery

Map showing the ‘Jews Burial Ground’ in North Street

Brady Street Jewish Cemetery (It was marked as the much brasher ‘Jews Burial Ground’ in maps of the day) was originally leased by the New Synagogue at the end of May 1761 – The freehold transferring to them when they bought it in 1795.

When the cemetery became full in the 1790s, the decision was made to place a four foot layer of fresh earth over the central part of the site, creating a flat topped mound, called the ‘Strangers Ground’ which was used for subsequent burials. Because of the additional layer, the headstones are placed back to back to identify the ‘occupants’ of the graves.

Eventually, the site was given notice that burials should discontinue from the beginning of February 1856. The closure date was extended a number of times, but the cemetery eventually closed on 31st May 1858.

However, in 1980, the local council began proceeding to apply for a compulsory purchase order so the site could be redeveloped. As the law stands, any cemetery that has had no internments for 100 years can have its occupants removed and the land reclaimed for commercial use.

Victor Rothschild's Tomb

Victor Rothschild’s Tomb

In order to protect the cemetery from this fate, a one off internment took place in 1990; that of the third Baron, Nathaniel Mayer Victor Rothschild, who was buried by his ancestor Nathan Mayer Rothschild – founder of the British branch of the Rothschild banking dynasty. As a result of this action, the site cannot be developed until at least 2090.

Access to the cemetery is limited, but you can still see into one corner by peering through the ivy covered wrought iron gateway near its entrance.

Walk a short distance from Spitalfields Market on a Sunday between 9am and 3pm, and you will stumble upon another world famous East End Market – and one of London’s oldest – Petticoat Lane.  Originally called Peticote Lane, the area around Petticoat Lane was decimated by the Great Plague of 1665, when London lost a fifth of its entire population.

The existing market has been operating in its current location from the mid 1700’s and was named after the Petticoats and Lace that were sold in the area by the Huguenot weavers who had populated Spitalfields after fleeing their native France. Another interpretation of the name is that unscrupulous traders would “steal your petticoat from you at one end of the market and sell it back to you at the other end…”!

Petticoat Lane Market was not formally recognised as a trading area until an Act of Parliament was passed in 1936 but its relationship for being populated by ne’er do wells and fraudsters made it unpopular with the authorities and a popular way of disrupting the market was for emergency vehicles such as police cars and fire engines to be driven from one end of Petticoat Lane to the other with sirens blaring and bells ringing!

Nowadays, the market has a more salubrious reputation, selling items such as leather jackets at the Aldgate East end, whilst the rest of the market is largely given over to bargain clothing. A large selection of fashion items are always on sale with many end of season lines being made available at knock down prices at almost a thousand stalls.

Other items such as bric-a-brac, electrical good and shoes are also readily available, and whilst many visit the market for the items sold on the stalls, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the lane itself is lined with shops selling a huge range of highly coloured African and Asian fabrics.


So, where exactly is ‘Petticoat Lane’? The sign at the top of the article is a bit of a misnomer as due to the prudishness of the Victorians, Petticoat Lane was renamed Middlesex Street in 1846 – the thought of a lane being named after ladies undergarments was deemed far too racy!

Spitalfields Market
Spitalfields Market in the East End first came into being when Charles the First granted a licence for ‘flesh, fowl and roots’ to be sold on the Spittle Fields – a field adjacent to the hospital and priory of St Mary’s Spittel – which then was an area of London that had remained relatively rural until the Great Fire of London.

Traders had begun operating beyond the city gates – on the site where today’s market stands, following the Great Fire in 1666.

The market was re-founded in 1682 by Charles II as a result of the necessity of providing fresh produce to the ever growing population of the new suburb of London.

Spitalfields Market was a huge success and was open for six days a week throughout most of the eighteen century, but the market began to fall into decline after 1876.

A market porter, Robert Horner, decided to do something about the situation. He bought a short lease on the whole market, and began work on developing new market buildings.

These buildings were sited on the rectangular patch of open ground which retained the name Spittle Fields: Nowadays, the area covered is defined by Crispin Street to the west, Lamb Street to the north, Red Lion Street to the east and Paternoster Row which later became known as Brushfield Street to the south.

Spitalfields Market Floor

However, the market’s popularity was instrumental in its downfall – due to its location, deep in the heart of London; the narrow streets made traffic congestion a real problem. Finally, in 1991, the market was moved to Leyton over in East London, and it seemed that Spitalfields Market was destined to be a name consigned to the history books.

Nevertheless, following almost two decades of careful restoration and regeneration, the market now houses a new collection of artisans. Independent retailers now rub shoulders with restaurants and vintage clothing stalls, bringing this part of the East End back to vibrant life…

The Rag Trade
The area of the East End known as Spitalfields has been home to clothing manufacturing businesses (often referred to as ‘The Rag Trade’) for over 250 years.  Started primarily by the Huguenots, religious refugees from Eighteenth century France, the Rag Trade has dominated the area ever since.

Spitalfields represented the most concentrated Huguenot settlement in England and it was said that you were as likely to hear French being spoken in the streets of the East End as the mother tongue of English. In fact, the amount of Huguenot migration from France was so great (estimated at almost twenty five thousand individuals – a huge amount given the population at the time) that it is believed that amongst the current population in the South East of England, more than 90% may have Huguenot ancestors.
Huguenot Wever in the East End

The Huguenots were talented weavers who became very successful and their businesses soon boomed. They invested the money they made to construct the tall, impressive town houses that line the streets of the Brick Lane area (for a chance to glimpse into their world, see the article on Dennis Severs House on this website). With their long windows to let in the maximum amount of light, a factor essential for a weaver, together with their high ceilings, these properties are now highly sought after.

By the nineteenth century the weavers had long gone (primarily due to the joint factors of employment restrictions and mechanisation) and the properties had started to fall into disrepair. The once grand Huguenot homes were then turned into lodging houses where London’s poorest and most desperate could spend the night for a penny. Those who could not even afford the cost of a bed would end up sleeping whilst sitting upright on a bench, their tired and weary bodies held in place by a rope.

The properties became filthy, flea-ridden doss houses where petty crime was rife. Home to gin soaked Whitechapel prostitutes, these sorry individuals would have slept in these common lodging houses whilst Jack the Ripper committed his horrendous murders in the streets outside.

As the French weavers moved out another group of settlers began to move in. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the persecution of Jews in Russia became even fiercer, and a wave of pogroms swept across Russia and neighbouring countries. Many Jewish families fled Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914, prompted by economic hardship and increasingly ferocious persecution and moved to the East End for a fresh start.

A large numberJewish Tailors in the East End of Jews who landed in England were actually intending to make their way to America, but about 120,000 stayed in this country. Attracted by the East End’s reputation as a place for cheap living, (and by the fact that it had been home to a Jewish population in previous decades), large numbers of Jews settled in Spitalfields, often finding work in the ‘rag trade’. Indeed, by the end of the Nineteenth century, Jews represented about 95 per cent of the population in the Wentworth Street district of Spitalfields and had also settled around Whitechapel, Aldgate and Mile End.

Eventually, the Jewish community moved further out to the suburbs, such as Golders Green and Hendon, and in their wake, the clothing trade was taken over by another ethnic group, that of Bengali Muslims, who remain to this day. Indeed a visit to Brick Lane nowadays finds the senses assaulted with the sights, sounds and smells of the Indian sub-continent.

Despite initial appearances, Dennis Severs’ House is not a museum at all, but a private house that is open to members of the general public and acts as a sort of ‘time capsule’ to The East End of London’s past.

Dennis Severs, an American who sadly passed away in 1999 bought this run-down, and un-modernized Eighteenth century house in 1979. Rather than follow his contemporaries, he decided not to restore the building, but instead to “bring it to life“. Other artists were moving into the Spitalfields area at the time, and given its background as a slum area, was quite bohemian. For example, artists Gilbert & George live nearby.

Severs decided to live here, at 18 Folgate Street, E1, without electricity and other home comforts we now take for granted. Folgate Street is an atmospheric narrow road with tall townhouses and period lampposts. In fact, there’s a gas lamp flickering over the entrance to the house and should you fancy a drink, The Water Poet pub is opposite. Red wooden shutters cover the windows on the ground floor of the building and silhouette cut-outs appear in the first floor windows

Severs set about the house, creating a Huguenot silk weaver’s home for a ‘Mr Isaac Jervis, his family, and their descendants’.

The Jervis family are imaginary – a fiction of Severs – but the attention to detail in the building is incredible. However, Severs was not a historian and never wanted anyone to think of his home as a museum. It was his interpretation of how Eighteenth century domestic life would have been, and unlike state funded museums around the country, was put together on a very limited budget.

Unlike so many museums, a visit to Denis Severs’ House gives us a glimpse into the lives of the fictional inhabitants he created. Before the public are admitted (on strictly limited days, incidentally) fresh food, drink and flowers are added so although you never see them there are plenty of signs that the Jervis family are close by. It’s all lit by candlelight and there’s a real fire burning in the kitchen.


There are ten rooms to explore and each looks like a real home, with full domestic trappings – It’s dark inside – remember it is only lit by candlelight – but there are plenty of hints around to help you find out more about the family. As you move around the home it seems more real as it is not ‘perfect’, and you get to see the rooms a visitor would not normally enter.

By the time you reach the top floor, the scene that opens up before you is as if time has moved on – paint is peeling off the walls, everything is dirty and there are holes in the ceiling. It gives you a real sense of the poverty that would have befallen the ‘family’ in later life.

Try out this hidden gem (the nearest tube station is Liverpool Street) – it’s an unusual London Tourist Attraction – one that is far away from the so called tourist trail.