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A Brief History of The Bishopsgate Goodsyard

March 7, 2020
by the gentle author

As RECLAIM OUR GOODSYARD put forward a community proposal for public housing to challenge the corporate development upon the Bishopsgate Goodsyard, I trace the story of this controversial site. 

Mesolithic tranchet adze discovered at Bishopsgate Goodsyard

Bishopsgate Goodsyard c.1910

There are many continuities that run through time in Spitalfields, yet most disturbing is the history of brutal change which has been wreaked upon our neighbourhood over centuries.

The Hospital of the Priory of St Mary – from which the name Spitalfields is derived – was established in the eleventh century as a refuge for the homeless, conveniently one mile north from the City of London which sought to expel vagabonds and beggars. Then Henry VIII destroyed this Priory in the sixteenth century and seized the ‘Spital fields which he turned over to usage as his Artillery Ground.

In the eighteen-thirties, the Eastern Counties Railway, cut across the north of Spitalfields to construct Bishopsgate Station on Shoreditch High St, pushing families from their homes to seek new accommodation in the surrounding streets. The overcrowded area to the north became known as the Nichol, notorious for criminality. While to the south, in the courtyards beyond Quaker St, old houses built when the silk industry thrived in Spitalfields were rented out at one family per room. Clusters of black streets on Charles Booth’s Descriptive Map of London Poverty vividly illustrate the social consequences of this drastic redevelopment.

The situation was exacerbated in Spitalfields when the City of London objected to traffic from the London Docks congesting their streets and hundreds more homes were demolished when Commercial St was cut through to carry goods directly to the terminus in Shoreditch High St. Finally, in the eighteen-seventies when the railway was extended south to Liverpool St, an entire residential neighbourhood area to the west of Spitalfields was also obliterated.

It was only at the very end of the nineteenth century, when the Boundary Estate was constructed as Britain’s first social housing, that any attempt was made to ameliorate the human damage of this unbridled series of large-scale developments. Upon the cusp of the next imminent wave of violent change, in which a monster development threatens to put the Boundary Estate into permanent shadow, it is sobering to contemplate the earlier history of the area that is now known as the Bishopsgate Goodsyard.

The paradox of redevelopment is that it confronts us with our past, when excavations for new buildings uncover evidence of history – such as the Bishop’s Sq development that resurrected thousands of plague victims in Spitalfields. In Shoreditch, exploratory work for a forty storey tower uncovered the Shakespearian theatre where Henry V was first performed and, at the Bishopsgate Goodsyard, preparatory demolition drew attention to John Braithwaite’s elegant viaduct constructed in the eighteen-thirties. In both cases, the outcome is an unholy yoking of conservation and shopping, with Shakespeare’s theatre due to become a heritage feature in a mall and the Braithwaite’s arches set to provide retail units for brands, and both serving as undercrofts to gargantuan towers.

Recent excavations by Museum of London Archaeology Service discovered more than seventy pieces of Mesolithic struck flint, mostly to the west of the Bishopsgate Goodsyard site, suggesting early human occupation towards the banks of the River Walbrook. Ermine St, the Roman road north from the City of London followed the line of Bishopsgate and Shoreditch High St, and burials of this era have been uncovered upon either side of the roadway, just as along the Appian Way in Rome. While a medieval settlement grew up along Shoreditch High St and around Holywell Priory, the land further to the east lay open until the mid-seventeenth century. Yet prior to this, the brick quarries that gave the name to Brick Lane existed there as early as the fourteenth century.

Between 1652 and 1682, the Bishopsgate Goodsyard site was quickly built over a with a mixture of dwellings and small trades as the city expanded. The brick quarries that created the materials for development were eventually filled in with debris from the Fire of London, as streets were laid out and prosperous middle class suburban dwellings were constructed – coinciding with the rise of the lucrative silk industry locally. Discovery of delft tiles, marbles, wine bottles and clay pipes testify to the domestic life of the residents of this newly-built neighbourhood, while analysis of cesspits tells us they ate duck, chicken, mutton, herring, plaice, flounder and cod. Evidence of small-scale industry reveals the presence of sugar processing, glass and iron working, pottery, distillation and the textile trade.

Thus a whole world grew up with streets and yards, taverns, shops, warehouses and workshops – one that was wiped away nearly two centuries later. Today, it is too easy to look at the empty site of the former Bishopsgate Goodsyard and assume that there was never anything before the railway came through. Yet, as we contemplate the next wave of redevelopment, we should do well to contemplate the society that once flourished in this place and how the previous development erased it, that we may draw lessons from the long-term destructive outcomes of these great impositions upon Spitalfields.

Saxon antler and bone comb discovered at Holywell

Excavation of a brick quarry at the Bishopsgate Goods Yard, close to Brick Lane

On Faithorne & Newcourt’s map of 1658, the site of the Bishopsgate Goodsyard is open fields

By Morgan’s map of 1682, suburban development has filled the site

Pipe bowl depicting Admiral Vernon, who introduced the daily ration of grog to the navy

Pipe bowl depicting Don Blas de Leso, Portuguese governor of Panama kneeling in surrender to Admiral Vernon

Eighteenth century marbles from the Goodsyard


Eighteenth century tin-glazed tile made in London

Mid-seventeenth century Dutch tin-glazed tiles from Bishopsgate Goodsyard, showing a mounted military figure and a man with a cockerel

Eighteenth century tin-glazed tile made in London

Eighteenth century Dutch tile of crucifixion scene

Witch box – animal bones in a wooden box concealed in an eighteenth-century fireplace upon the Bishopsgate Goodsyard site

Unusual post-medieval bone crucifix with sun above, discovered at Bishopsgate Goodsyard, possibly the work of a Napoleonic prisoner of war

Copper plate inscribed ‘Thos Juchau Shoreditch’ – Juchau was a celebrated bare-knuckle boxer born in 1739, said to have been the ‘hero of a hundred fights,’ who became British champion until defeated by William ‘the dyer’ Darts of Spitalfields in the first ever outdoor heavyweight boxing match in 1777. He died in Bateman’s Row in 1806.

Bishopsgate Station, photograph courtesy of National Rail Museum

Charles Booth’s Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889 courtesy of LSE Library

“The Arches – a long street under a railway which carried the mainline to Liverpool St Station and ran from Commercial St to Club Row … there the pros would practise to mouth-organ acompaniment, night after night, until they had copied the Yanks most intricate steps.” Bud Flanagan, My Crazy Life 1961

Archaeological photographs copyright © MOLA

‘Tracks Through Time, Archaeology and History from the London Overground East London Line’ is available from Museum of London Shop

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Sixteenth Century finds from Shoreditch

At Shakespeare’s First Theatre

11 Responses leave one →
  1. March 7, 2020

    Looking once again at the proposed development on the Reclaim Our Goodsyard website, it is indeed ‘brutal development’.
    Corporate greed and the sheer indifference to the need for more affordable homes for local people is a very sad state of affairs.
    Change is inevitable as the years pass and today’s post reminds us of that, but this latest proposal is nothing short of a savage assault on the whole area. Unbelievable….a ‘monster’ indeed.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 7, 2020

    Fascinating stuff about a really interesting site – thank you.

    Let’s hope that the next stage is less destructive, and that it actually prioritises the needs of local residents and businesses over the greed of developers…

  3. Harold permalink
    March 7, 2020

    The kneeling ‘Portuguese admiral’ depicted on the pipe bowl is an interesting one. The incident in fact never occurred, with the British fleet under Admiral Vernon suffering an ignominious and protracted, disease wracked disaster when trying to take Cartagena de los Indias in modern Colombia. Despite this medals were struck (and pipes cast) depicting a famous British victory. The incident, like many military disasters in this country’s history, is almost completely forgotten but I believe it is still widely commemorated in Colombia.

  4. March 7, 2020

    Great article. Thanks.

  5. David Cary permalink
    March 7, 2020

    Thank you from Texas.

  6. paul loften permalink
    March 7, 2020

    Thank you for the photos and this wonderfully rich description of Bishopsgate! Already the planners, so eagerly with their foot on the pedal, revving the motors of destruction, just waiting for the go-ahead. How can we make our voices heard?

  7. March 8, 2020

    Underneath the arches
    We dream our dreams away (Bow-bow-bo-ba-de-be-do)
    Underneath the arches (Bow-bow-bo-ba-de-ba-do)
    On cobblestones we lay (Bow-bow-da-da-ba-bo)
    Back to back we’re sleeping (Bow-de-bow-ba-bow-ba-bow-de-do)
    Tired out and worn (Bow-ba-dow-ba-do-be-do)
    Sorry when the daylight comes creeping heralding the dawn

    Sleeping when it’s raining
    And sleeping when it’s fine
    Trains rattling by above (A-bow-den-da-bee-da-bee-bow)
    Pavement is our pillow
    Without a sheet we’ll lay
    Underneath the arches
    We dream our dreams away

  8. March 8, 2020

    What Wonderful Things that were found!!!??????

  9. Peter Holford permalink
    March 8, 2020

    Thank you for a bit of historical perspective, GA. It is certainly needed as the plans for a very brutal development are under consideration. But will the decision reflect the culture and history of this area or go for the money? (Rhetorical question)

  10. March 8, 2020

    The thought of the Boundary Estate in permanent shadow does not sit well.

  11. September 10, 2021

    Thank you – interesting article.

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