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The Spitalfields Nobody Knows

April 25, 2011
by the gentle author


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

Joanna Moore, Artist

The Return of Joanna Moore

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Anne D. permalink
    April 25, 2011

    Joyeuses Pâques

  2. April 25, 2011

    Thank you both for these wonderful stories and pictures.

  3. Michael permalink
    April 26, 2011

    I can confirm that there are indeed many tortoises behind the walls of Old St Patrick’s School. They wander freely about the garden and hibernate through the winter in whatever nook or cranny they can find. Each tortoise has a number painted on it’s shell to enable the owner to do a roll call from time to time and ensure all are present and correct.

  4. April 26, 2011

    This is fascinating – particularly, for me, regarding the Watchhouse. I used to pass that building all the time, and always wondered what it was for – it looks so isolated on the corner, facing nothing – and who might have lived there. Wonderful illustrations too.

  5. April 27, 2011

    I love the way you bring Spitalfields to life, with the links between the old and the new. These illustrations are gorgeous, showing you the structure under all the grime!

  6. Peter Holford permalink
    May 29, 2011

    I recently discovered that my gg-grandparents lived on Gibraltar Walk in 1825. I found various websites describing the slum conditions in 1848, 1871 and 1932 with photos to match (1932 ones of course). I just imagined that the whole area would have been redeveloped. This is a surprise and good to see that the old bits of the East End that I vaguely remember are thought worthy of preserving.

  7. Elaine Napier permalink
    September 25, 2011

    This is lovely – really interesting and the drawings are charming. My family history is all around the East End, orris weavers, trimming manufacturers, bootmakers. So interesting to see all these secret corners – I knew that the watchman of St Matthew’s was entitled to hold a blunderbuss and rattle to keep away resurrectionists, but had no idea that this building still existed. Keep showing us this wonderful history please!

  8. August 19, 2012

    I grew up and played in all these places ,had friends who were cabinet makers who worked in gibralter walk and the train steps as we called them (Pedley St Railway bridge)was always scary to a kid going over them.
    We played football with coats for goalposts in Allan Gardens .My mum aunts and neighbours all used to go to Allan gardens to sunbathe in the summer. One of my first girlfriends used to live in the house opposite the Watchouse in St Matthews row her father played the organ in St Matthews church.They had a great vicar there at the time his name was Cyril Rowe.

  9. Sonia Murray permalink
    August 19, 2012

    A very talented artist! Perspective in the drawing of Gibraltar Walk, a difficult subject, is perfect. Lovely to see that these old London streets have not been bulldozed to make more high rise monstrosities!

  10. July 30, 2015

    St. Anne’s (latterly St. Patrick’s School), Buxton Street, Spitalfields was run by the Marist Brothers for many years, there being a large Catholic (mainly Irish) community in the area in the late 19th Century. The order sent Brother Walfrid, founder of Celtic Football Club in Glasgow to run the school and he did much good work not just educating a very poor community but in helping to raise funds to feed them and meet other needs. As in Glasgow he arranged football matches to raise funds for the poor. Indeed his team, Celtic remained a charity from 1887-94 before professionalism (and greed) led them to become a limited company. Walfrid is remembered very well in Glasgow and a fine statue of him sits outside Celtic’s stadium. Little is known of the fine work this great humanitarian did in London but one can be assured that it followed the pattern used in Glasgow. He was in many ways the a product of post famine Ireland doing what he could to help others in the desperate conditions of Victorian Britain’s squalid inner cities.

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