Signs of Spitalfields’ links to the County of Middlesex can be found in the most unlikely of places – as I discovered last weekend.
The name “Spitalfields” is thought to originate from the hospital or priory of St Mary Spital built on the east side of Bishopsgate in 1197.
The earliest recorded use of the area – which was once mainly open fields/nursery gardens – was as a Roman cemetery. From 1670 to 1710 French Huguenots sought sanctuary for religious persecution building a community in Spitalfields and making use of their weaving skills to create rapid expansion of the area’s silk industry. Spitalfields became known as “Weaver Town”. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Irish (working in the docks), Jewish (tailoring/dress-making) and Bangladeshi communities (textiles/restaurant trade) were established – all of which have left their mark in this distinctive area.
The Parish of Christchurch, Spitalfields, Middlesex
In 1729 Spitalfields was detached from the parish of Stepney and became a civil parish divided into two ecclesiastical subdivisions – Christchurch, Spitalfields and St. Stephen’s Spitalfields.
The boundary for Christchurch, Spitalfields is inconspicuously marked by a sign reading “Christchurch, Middlesex. Boundary 1871. Church Wardens R A Cole and W Roach”. This sign can be found above the shop fronts for Whistles and A Gold at No 42 Brushfield Street.
The history of Christ-Church, Spitalfields goes back to around 1711 when the 50 New Churches Act. This Act was passed by Parliament response to the fear at that time of lack of churches in certain parts of the country and other faiths being worshipped by incoming communities. Christchurch was one of the the 50 new churches built. As part of the initiative, all the new churches had to have spires higher than any of the nearby non-conformist places of worship. Built between 1714 and 1729 (by Nicholas Hawksmoor) the spire of Christ Church is about 62m in height so must have fitted the bill – being something of the sky-scrapper – at that time.
View of Christchurch from Brushfield Street
After centuries of worship in its local community, Christ Church became extremely run-down. In the late 1950s, it was deemed derelict and unsuitable to hold services.
For a while, it was believed that it was likely to be demolished but for the efforts of a committee which included writer, John Betjeman (a passionate observer of Middlesex life in his poem entitled “Middlesex” written in 1954) who successfully fought to save it. In Collin’s Guide to English Parish Churches, Betjeman described Christ Church as ‘A huge, heavy galleon of white Portland stone anchored among the red-brick Queen Anne houses of the weavers.’ It took decades to raise the money for the full restoration that has finally returned one of the capital’s most stunning churches to its full glory.
Above – Christ-Church, Spitalfields
Look Up To The Old Shop/Business Signage To Tap Into The Past
A number of old business frontages from times past still exist in the Spitalfields area, just adding to the feel of stepping back in time as you explore the surrounding streets.
The shop A Gold, at 42 Brushfield Street, below the Christchurch, Middlesex boundary sign – was owned by Amelia Gold a Hungarian Jew who ran a French millinery business from the premises in the 1880s. Her original shop sign still survives but the business is now known as Cundall & Garcia who supply lunch to the army of city workers in the area. 42 Brushfield Street is located inside what used to be Henry VIII’s artillery ground where soldiers once practised archery and musketry.
Donovan Bros (who sold packaging, paper bags and coloured papers) – below – can be found in Crispin Street.
Above – S Schwartz – Entrance to Worrell’s yard and dwelling house – Fournier St
The Anomaly of Fournier Street
Fournier Street also contains the unusual feature of having both a House No 11 and 11 and a half (rather than 11a and 11b)! I’ve not seen this strange numbering anywhere else – but if anyone has please comment below this article.
The Street With The County’s Name
Just a few hundred yards south of Spitalfields, another reminder of the County, is found in the form of Middlesex Street. In Tudor times, this street was known as Hogs Lane as it was thought that city bakers were allowed to keep pigs in the lane outside the city wall. Another theory is that the street was used as an ancient droving trail. By 1608, the area became a commercial district for second hand clothes and bric-a-brac known as Petticoat Lane. From the mid 18th century it became a centre of clothes manufacturing and sale of new garments. In about 1830, its name changed from Petticoat Lane to Middlesex Street (supposedly the Victorians were offended by a street with the same name as a ladies’ undergarment) but the old name continues to be used and associated with the market in the area.
Video Tours Of Middlesex Street
Watch the following clip to take a tour of modern day Middlesex Street.
or travel back in time to 1903 to take a stroll through the Sunday Market.
Summary Of Things To Do In Spitalfields
Immerse yourself in the life and times of a Huguenot family in Spitalfields in a visit to Denis Severs House at 18 Folgate Street.
Enjoy a traditional Indian curry in Brick Lane.
Visit Spitalfields Market – now open 7 days a week.
Explore Christchurch in Spitalfields. Open Sunday – Friday.
Experience Petticote Lane, Sunday Market (Monday to Friday Petticoat Lane Market is located on Wentworth Street but on Sundays it spreads out much further). Address: Middlesex Street, E1
Nearest Tube Stations:
Aldgate (Circle and Metropolitan lines)
Aldgate East (Hammersmith & City and District lines)
Liverpool Street (Circle, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan, Central lines)