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Night On Brick Lane

March 18, 2015
by the gentle author

Contributing Photographer Phil Maxwell sent these recent photographs of Brick Lane at night which inspired me to make a short nocturnal progress from Whitechapel High St to the Bethnal Green Rd by way of this most-celebrated East End thoroughfare and write you an account.

Even on Tuesday evening, I discovered a hubbub of activity down in Whitechapel High St when I reached the tail end of Brick Lane, more properly known as Osborn St at its southern extremity.

This was where I first arrived in 1976, coming round the corner from Aldgate East Station and walking up Brick Lane in search of the London I knew from Daniel Defoe’s ‘Journal of a Plague Year.’ It was Defoe who first recorded the paving-over of Brick Lane three centuries earlier but I do not recall what I expected to find that day. Once I reached the Truman Brewery, there were so many trucks loading and unloading in the street I felt as if I had entered the precincts of the brewery itself and overwhelmed by the intensity of activity in this unfamiliar zone, I ventured no further.

I cannot count the number of times I have walked up Brick Lane since then and now I can travel the journey in my mind almost as clearly as on foot. Yet it is a street that is constantly changing, even if daily familiarity can render these changes imperceptible.

I wonder if Brick Lane was originally the path to and from the White Chapel, which formerly stood where the park is now just across the road from the foot of Osborn St? There is curious line of canteen-like curry houses catering to the corporate City customers in Osborn St before you reach my favourite travel agent which still advertises tickets for Concord, facing the mysteriously-large electricity substation opposite. Until recently in Osborn St, there was also Elfe’s, the monumental masons, serving as a discreet memento mori to those enjoying their dinners on the other side of the road.

Brick Lane proper begins at the junction with Wentworth St where, across the crossroads, The Archers faces the Brooke Bond Tea factory at One Brick Lane which is  now an unlabelled outpost of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. At this point, the mix is established of curry houses, money changers, grocers, gaudy sweet shops, interspersed with newly-arrived estate agents, all casting a multicoloured glow onto the pavement and turning the passers-by to silhouettes against their vivid illuminations.

Just before the junction with Fashion St, Leo Epstein presides over Epra Fabrics, the last Jewish business in this part of Brick Lane. Only he had gone home long ago when I passed last night, even if the lights were still burning within. Here you find a cluster of new arrivals from across the globe, a Japanese barber, an Argentinian grill and a French bistro to add to the cultural mix in the shadow of the minaret.

Walking on, I entered the busiest section of Brick Lane, where I was personally offered seven meals accompanied by free rounds of drinks before I reached the Truman Brewery. Yet if had acquiesced to all these deals, I never should have made it beyond Hanbury St.

The meeting of Hanbury St and Brick Lane is surely the epicentre of the world. In the neon glow, you encounter discount vintage hawkers and curry touts full-on, while becoming an unwitting participant in Street Art tours and occasionally stumbling over the street artists at work in the dark – all while doing your best to avoid the speedy drivers showing off and the cyclists weaving through the crowd.

After Woodseer St, the atmosphere changed. On a week night, the madding crowds packing in to Dray Walk were absent. There was no police van or portable pissoir. Instead, pedestrians walked quietly beneath the walls of the great brewery overhead, dark now the Vibe bar no longer overflowed the courtyard with inebriated revellers. Fifty yards up, the familiar sight of the writers group, meeting after-hours at the Brick Lane Bookshop, indicated a more sedate mid-week atmosphere.

Beyond here the buildings give way to the railway bridges above and below. At weekends, this becomes a seething torrent of humanity crowded between the food stalls but on a quiet Tuesday night, lonely walkers hurried through.

This last section of Brick Lane is devoted to leather, vintage clothing and coffee shops but, once these close for the day, the bars take over – picking up a lively passing trade. And the twenty-four hour Beigel Bakery is the final landmark, before you reach the end of the known world at the Bethnal Green Rd.

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

You may also like to take a look at

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

Publication Day for Phil Maxwell’s ‘Brick Lane’

Robert Wells, The Boy on The Bicycle

Phil Maxwell’s Old Ladies

Click here to buy a copy of Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane for £10

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Clive Murphy permalink
    March 18, 2015

    Lovely to see PM”s night photos of Brick Lane plus his iconic androgynous cyclist. What a talented eye!

  2. March 18, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your walk. I walked along in my mind and was glad to encounter all those familiar sights, and intrigued by the new.

  3. Michael Payne permalink
    March 18, 2015

    These are some fantastic shots. As an outsider, I love the way they capture the vibrancy and diversity — my favourite is oddly, the shot of the guy texting in the back of the open truck/lorry. Mind if I retweet?

  4. Vicki Lovell permalink
    March 18, 2015

    Thanks so much for your latest post about Brick Lane and your stroll on a Tuesday evening. It was great for me in Australia to see the pics, and also the dialogue was so helpful. With my ancestors living in most of the streets you mentioned, it really put the layout into some sort of logic. When you mentioned Osborn Street, my brain “dinged” as that was a street in my records, and yet I didn’t realise it was the end of Brick Lane. Even though I always try to find these streets on Google maps when they appear in my research, I can never really get a clear picture of what I am looking at, and I had no idea so many of the streets you mentioned (where also my ancestors had lived) were so interconnected, even though I try to find links on how far they may have moved. Even when your posts don’t relate especially to my research, I just love the vibrancy and life in every post, I never get sick of reading them. I just don’t know how I will find the time to read back to everything I have missed, let alone keeping up with your prolific posts and enjoyment it seems to me in your living in this place. Wow!!! Vicki in Adelaide Sth Australia

  5. March 18, 2015

    Dear Gentle Author: I am your Gentle Reader/Fan in Ecuador (also a twice/monthly blogger). So, a technical question: I know you have a broken right arm and yet you’ve hardly paused in your daily word production. Do you use a voice recognition software? If not, how do you keep writing?

    Judy B.

  6. the gentle author permalink*
    March 18, 2015

    Dear Judy, I have learnt to type with one finger of my left hand – very slowly! TGA

  7. Pat Ashby permalink
    March 18, 2015

    Thank you. I enjoyed reading “A night on Brick Lane” and looking at all the pictures. My grandmother was living at 233 Brick Lane in 1891 and I would love to know if her former home is still there or if not what has replaced it.
    When I knew her she lived in Norah Street where I spent may happy hours visiting her.

  8. March 18, 2015

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your nocturnal account of a walk down Brick Lane and viewing the accompanying photographs. I have the book and it’s a firm favourite as was your post on the follow up to the boy on the bicycle.

  9. moyra peralta permalink
    March 18, 2015

    Lovely write-up… takes me back to my (comparative) youth, roaming the streets at midnight, after a night-shift.

  10. Louise Felder permalink
    March 20, 2015

    Enjoyed reading your piece on Brick Lane – during your reminiscences, while relating about No.1 Brick Lane , think that the former occupants of 1-7 Brick Lane, Ellis & Goldstein plc
    (closed down end 1988) deserve a big mention – the company gave employment for nearly 50 years (+?) to many people, both local East Enders and others, in the offices and on site factories.

    Hope that your arm is recovering.
    Always enjoy your blog.

  11. Simon permalink
    December 16, 2020

    1-5 Brick Lane was George Glanfields main factory. My Great Grandfather who was known as the man who clothed Kitcheners army. A million sets of uniforms and greatcoats. I know they supplied some WW2 clothing too. I don’t know too much of their history after that, but they had factories elsewhere and seem to have disappeared in the early 60s under different management.

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