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Lost Spitalfields

July 6, 2013
by the gentle author

Looking towards Spitalfields from Aldgate East

London can be a grief-inducing city. Everyone loves the London they first knew, whether as the place they grew up or the city they arrived in, and everyone loses it. As the years pass, the city bound with your formative experience changes, bearing less and less resemblance to the place you discovered. Your London is taken from you. Your sense of loss grows until eventually your memory of the London you remember becomes more vivid than the London you see before you and you become a stranger in the place that you know best. This is what London can do to you.

In Spitalfields, the experience has been especially poignant in recent years with the redevelopment of the ancient market. Yet these photographs reveal another Spitalfields that only a few people remember, this is lost Spitalfields.

Spital Sq was an eighteenth century square linking Bishopsgate with the market that was destroyed within living memory, existing now only as a phantom presence in these murky old photographs and in the fond remembrance of senior East Enders. On the eastern side of Spitalfields, the nineteenth century terraces of Mile End New Town were erased in ‘slum clearances’ and replaced with blocks of social housing while, to the north, the vast Bishopsgate Goodsyard was burned to the ground in a fire that lasted for days in 1964.

Yet contemplating the history of loss in Spitalfields sets even these events within a sobering perspective. Only a feint pencil sketch of the tower records the Priory of St Mary which stood upon the site of Spital Sq until Henry VIII ‘dissolved’ it and turned the land into his artillery ground. Constructing the Eastern Counties Railway in the eighteen-thirties destroyed hundreds of homes and those residents who were displaced moved into Shoreditch, creating the overcrowded neighbourhood which became known as the Old Nichol. And it was a process that was repeated when the line was extended down to Liverpool St. Meanwhile, Commercial St was cut through Spitalfields from Aldgate to Shoreditch to transport traffic more swiftly from the docks, wreaking destruction through densely inhabited streets in the mid-nineteenth century.

So look back at these elegiac photos of what was lost in Spitalfields before your time, reconcile yourself to the loss of the past and brace yourself for the future that is arriving.

Spital Sq, only St Botolph’s Hall on the right survives today

Spital Sq photographed in 1909

Church Passage, Spital Sq, 1733, photographed in 1909 – only the market buildings survive.

17 Spital Sq, 1725

25 Spital Sq, 1733

23 Spital Sq, 1733

20 Spital Sq, 1723

20 Spital Sq, 1723

20 Spital Sq, 1732

32 Spital Sq, 1739

32 Spital Sq, 1739

5 Whites Row, 1714

6/7 Spring Walk, 1819

Buxton St, 1850

Buxton St, 1850

Former King Edward Institution, 1864, Deal St

36 Crispin St, 1713

7 Wilkes St, 1722

10 & 11 Norton Folgate, 1810 – photographed in 1909

Norton Folgate Court House, Folgate St,  photographed in 1909

52 & 9a Artillery Passage, 1680s

Bishopsgate Goods Station, 1881

Shepherd’s Place arch, 1820, leading to Tenter St – photographed 1909

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The Haggerston Nobody Knows

The Lost Squares of Stepney

27 Responses leave one →
  1. Cherub permalink
    July 6, 2013

    Such elegant streets, how sad much of it is lost.

  2. Val Butts permalink
    July 6, 2013

    Fabulous look back on times gone by. Many thanks!

  3. July 6, 2013

    A beautifully written introduction to a set of wonderful photos. Look at the first one of Spital Square, with the three dark-suited bystanders standing a few yards apart in the road. It’s faintly surreal, like a painting by Magritte.

  4. Gary permalink
    July 6, 2013

    A “To Let” board without a telephone number, they must have sent an urchin round with a message if they wished to view. Quite streets without the roar of traffic, just the clip clop of horses.

  5. Elaine Lucas permalink
    July 6, 2013

    I live in New Zealand. My family came here years ago with all the immigrants. My ancestor was known as guy fawks. My older son and I feel a strong bond with England and wonder why our ancesters immigrated here in the first place. I love to visit English web sights, and always feel a yearning as though something is missing.

  6. July 6, 2013

    Have you got a photograph of the Old Blue Last, before the modern hoarding covered up it’s sign for London Porter? It’s on the gable end, just visible if you squint behind the hoarding on Great Eastern Street. A great pity that it’s now covered up.

  7. Chrissie Beesley permalink
    July 6, 2013

    Brought a tear to my eye. ‘My’ London died half a lifetime ago, still makes me feel slightly rootless to see pictures like this, but glad to know there is a record.

  8. John McVey permalink
    July 6, 2013

    Fascinating crane contraption in front of 36 Crispin St! Was that common?

  9. Classof65 permalink
    July 6, 2013

    I’m currently reading “London Labour and the London Poor,” a four-volume set written by Henry Mayhew and originally published in 1861-1862. The set I have is in paperback, an unabridged republication of the work, complete with illustrations. I have just begun reading the second volume. The set is a wonderful compilation of the workers, working conditions, money made and spent, and interviews with laborers — including costermongers and other street sellers.

    I have visited London only once and may never have the opportunity to visit there again, so your photographs are a godsend. I am sorry that the area has been “renovated,” however, I’m sure that many of the buildings would have cost a fortune to restore to continue to be fit for habitation.

    In Mayhew’s day there were thousands of street sellers of all types of goods. Are there still street sellers today? If not, do you know when street selling ceased? Was it when motorcars were introduced? So many families were dependent upon the small earning they made, with the entire family selling on the streets to contribute to paying the rent and purchasing food enough for them all — did they all have to go to the workhouses or fall back to depend upon the parish for their subsistence?

    Thank you for this wonderful site — you bring the times back to life for me, especially since I am reading just now about Petticoat Lane and the Old Clothes Exchange on the East Side of London.

  10. July 7, 2013

    Re: the photo’ of Church Passage, Spital Square – I’m fascinated by the bollard arrangement. It looks very contemporary – and why where so many bollards required? What were they hoping to contain…?
    Great piece!

  11. tony permalink
    July 9, 2013

    Hi great article really interesting does anybody know where Chapel Street Spitalfields was (was it renamed ?) my Great grandfather ‘s birth certificate gives this address for his parents residence in 1873.
    I have seen a picture sold as a poster titled house to rent Chapel Street Spital Square suggesting it’s location was Spital Square but I have been unable to find it on any maps of that period. I would appreciate any information you may have.

  12. Barbara Hague permalink
    July 9, 2013

    Re Mile End Old Town being demolished. My grandparents lived in Lear Street (previously Cordelia Street I think, and eventually my by then widowed grandmother was moved for demolition of her home. My first memories were of them living in the upstairs half, and then at some stage moving downstairs when somebody left, or possibly died.
    During the war there was a communal shelter that took up the whole street. I don’t know if we were staying with them or just visiting, but I remember being put to bed on some sort of bunks and covered with adults’ overcoats to keep us warm. When the warning went everybody started singing, and eventually the all clear was sounded and an air raid warden would come in and give an update on what “got it”. I was only five when the war ended, but obviously it made a deep impression for me to remember so clearly.
    I was told there was a factory at the end of the road – a cul de sac – but have never been able to confirm this.
    At the end of the street (cul de sac) there was a brick wall, and I was told there was a factory behind it, but have never been able to confirm this.

  13. July 13, 2013

    Thank you for posting these photos. And I couldn’t agree more that “London can be a grief-inducing city”. I mourn for the London of the 1970s and 80s – not least because it was less crowded and you could walk straight into the museums without queuing.

    I miss Liverpool Street station of 1980s. It might have been grimy, full of pigeons and with only a pub and a knickers and nighties shop to pass the time, but I still miss it! Why?

    That is why I take photos: to try to preserve what is around now, because it won’t stay for long. I will take your advice and try to brace myself for the future that is arriving.

  14. Geraldine Moyle permalink
    August 8, 2013

    London can be a grief-inducing city. Everyone loves the London they first knew, whether as the place they grew up or the city they arrived in, and everyone loses it. As the years pass, the city bound up with your formative experience changes, bearing less and less resemblance to the place you discovered. Your London is taken from you. Your sense of loss grows until eventually your memory of the London you remember becomes more vivid than the London you see before you and you become a stranger in the place that you know best. This is what London can do to you.

    Dear Gentle Author ~

    Your words have wrapped around my heart, prompting this response a delayed month later. As an expat of 40 years ~ having left my hometown when I was 23, I’d only been back to visit my parents, & that was last in 1984 ~ I can attest that yes, the London I remember is long gone & it’s the prospect of being a stranger in a precious city were I to return today that keeps me away.

    I acknowledge the inevitability of my London being changed & thus being taken from me, but that doesn’t altogether compensate for the powerful sense of loss. I think the only consolation is that the awareness I had as a kid growing up in London of history being somehow three-dimensional means my own history has been absorbed, too. So my London has not so much disappeared as found its rightful place in the long story since the Romans.

    Meanwhile, thank you for the website, but most especially for this eulogy on the past’s lingering shadows,

  15. August 11, 2013

    what wonderfull pics and story about londons past I notised that you wanted information about londons past try the leyton wapper at leyton he tells me that he finds lots of pics from house clearances o7951 546278mark his name

  16. Barbara Hague permalink
    August 15, 2013

    My family had veg stalls in Spitalfields Market. One of them was down as “potato merchant” in one directory I found in Portsmouth library some time ago.
    They were around in 1840 and 1880-ish and probably either side as well.
    Name was Harper. Charles and William.

  17. Matt Johnson permalink
    October 20, 2013

    Only just come across this page. Lovely article and what beautiful, haunting photographs.

    As an 18 year old my second job was at 36 Spital Square (now a dental practice I believe) and I’d often wondered if it had been a proper square at some stage as the name didn’t make much sense to me then. It now resonates poignantly.

    In terms of bracing oneself for the future that is arriving? I witnessed the unveiling of the plans for the old Bishopsgate Goodsyard site last week. It will be as inappropriate and destructive as anything Shoreditch has ever witnessed in its history.

  18. October 22, 2013

    i lived in the spitalfields area from 1948-1963. went to school in gun st. then onto school in cheshire st. off brick lane. i also worked in bishopsgate goods yard, which was a village underground ?. believe it or not the surrounding area liverpool st. was like a ghost town after 7pm and the station was allways quite at night in the 19 50s. not like the mad house it is now ? it seems like a dream when i see those pictures of times gone by.

  19. Martin Goodson permalink
    March 27, 2014

    My father was born in number 2 church passage , also known Nantes Place, they family lived in and run the Salmon and Ball at 32 Lamb Street for about 25 years, until it was pulled down to make way for expansion of the Market in 1926. They also had the Oxford Arms in Brushfield Street until that was demolished .
    The photo is the nearest we have seen to where the family came from.

  20. Carrie Reid permalink
    October 5, 2014

    Love this. My ancestors lived at 10 Norton Folgate in the 1700’s. William Coppendale, his son William, then his son John up to abou 1792. They were Oilmen, Salters, Sold Dye and eventually groceries before John and his step father James Buckley had business problems. They rented warehouses in the streets there. John was baptised in St Mary, Spital Square in 1762. His family were buried at St Boltoph’s.

  21. April 27, 2015

    Whereabouts was Shepard’s Place/Tenter Street – The only tenter street I can think of are the quadrangle of streets behind the police offices on Leman St…

  22. Kelvin permalink
    September 13, 2015

    Great photos, my father was a police officer at commercial street we lived in the police station till 1964, I remember late 50s early 60s walking to school in the mornings through spitlefields market,and on many occasion. Let’s say ladies of the night would give me 6d and tell me to make sure to tell my dad there name, of course I never knew being about 8 at the time what there profession was, but needless to say my dad did and he wasn’t impressed but he never told my why, it did make my mum smile though , great times never to be seen again

  23. Bronwyn permalink
    November 24, 2015

    What a wonderful collection of photos many thanks for sharing. Couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the photo of NO.17 Spital Square where my gt gt gt grandparents lived in 1819 before leaving to sail to Australia. That’s the door they would have shut behind them as they walked down the street for the last time. James DEDE and Elizabeth SMART. They were silk weavers and James was a Scientific writer and Bookseller as well. Just love these photos.

  24. February 13, 2016

    Note the photo of Shepherd’s Place arch taken in 1909. There’s a boy, right of center, who’s not looking at the camera. He seems preoccupied with something off to the side. Following his gaze, you will see the girl. As if playfully hiding, she seems to be looking at the boy. Young lovers, captured in a hundred year old photo? On this Valentine’s Day, I’d like to think so.

  25. Carolyn Dominish permalink
    February 5, 2017

    For Bronwyn who posted November 2015.
    It would be great to think that we may be related through the SMART line. That line goes back to 1590 when John SMART was born and later married a young woman called Sara VERCOLGE. The Vercolge family had been forced to flee Brugge due to the Reformation. Sara’s father was a silk merchant and set up a factory in Spitalfields. John and Sara SMART had a son and I can trace my direct descendants back to the union. Please contact me for more information. I, too, live in Australia.

  26. Louise Nolan (Hall) permalink
    January 28, 2022

    My grandfather and his family were living in Lamb St, Spitalfields in 1909…. Just incredible to be able to see these photos, to see the streets and buildings exactly as they were when the family members walked down them. Literally a glimpse down memory lane….

  27. Jessica Trethowan permalink
    October 6, 2023

    Hi, I’ve just discovered that my great grandfather Robert Eley had a chandler shop at 4 Tenter Street. I wondered if you might have knowledge or photos of Tenter Street before it was demolished for the market? Thanks!

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