The Spitalfields Nobody Knows
On Easter Monday, it is my pleasure to commence a new series in collaboration with Joanna Moore – conceived in homage to Geoffrey Fletcher and “The London Nobody Knows,” we shall be introducing you to lesser-known corners of Spitalfields and telling you their stories, each one illustrated with drawings by Joanna. (You can click on these pictures to enlarge them if you wish.)
The Old St Patrick’s School in Buxton St, dating from the eighteen sixties, stands upon the grass of Allen Gardens beside the Georgian vicarage of the former All Saints church – the last survivors of the nineteenth century streets that once stood here, long before the park was laid out. Enfolded by its lofty garden wall, containing huge exotic shrubs and dripping with climbing plants, this finely proportioned cluster of buildings rises with tall attenuated chimneys, like some mysterious castle of romance. St Patrick’s School is a tantalising enigma to those who walk through here regularly and have heard tales of the secret tropical garden which is rumoured to exist behind these implacable walls.
The Watchhouse on the corner of St Matthew’s Churchyard in Wood St was built in 1754 and, with the growing trade in human corpses for dissection, in 1792 it was necessary to appoint a watchman who was paid ten shillings and sixpence a week to be on permanent guard against resurrectionists. A reward of two guineas was granted for the apprehension of any body-snatchers and the watchman was provided with a blunderbuss and permission to fire from an upper window, once a rattle had been sounded three times. The churchwarden who lives there today told me that, according to the terms of his lease, he still holds this right – and the blunderbuss and rattle are stored in the house to this day. The small structure at the rear originally housed the parish fire engine, in the days when it was just a narrow cart. In 1965, the Watchhouse gained notoriety of another kind when fascist leader Oswald Mosley stood upon the step to give his last open air public speech.
Gibraltar Walk off the Bethnal Green Rd is a handsome terrace of red brick nineteenth century artisans’ workshops that once served the furniture trade when it was the primary industry in this area. Of modest construction, yet designed with careful proportions, the terrace curls subtly along Gibraltar Walk, turning a corner and extending the length of Padbury Court, to create one long “L” shaped structure. These appealing back streets still retain their cobbles and there are even a couple of signs left from the days of furniture factories, but, most encouragingly, the majority of these premises are still in use today as workshops for small industries, keeping the place alive.
In Emanuel Litvinoff’s memoir, “Journey Through a Small Planet” describing his childhood in Cheshire St in the nineteen twenties, he recalls the feared Pedley St Arches where, “Couples grappled against the dripping walls and tramps lay around parcelled in old newspaper. The evil of the place was in its gloom, its putrid stench, in the industrial grime of half a century with which it was impregnated.” And today, with a gut-wrenching reek of urine, graced by a profusion of graffiti and scattered with piles of burnt rubbish, the place retains its authentic insalubrious atmosphere – a rare quality now, that is in demand by the numerous street fashion photo shoots, crime dramas and pop videos which regularly use this location. There is a scheme to turn the Great Eastern Railway Viaduct into a raised park – like the High Line in New York – but in the meantime wildlife flourishes peaceably upon these graceful decaying structures dating from the earliest days of the railway, constructed between 1836 and 1840 to bring the Eastern Counties Line from Romford to the terminus at Shoreditch High St.
Drawings copyright © Joanna Moore
More of “The Spitalfields Nobody Knows” next week, but in the meantime you may like to read further about Joanna Moore