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Dan Cruickshank’s Survey Of Spitalfields

June 7, 2020
by Dan Cruickshank

During the lockdown, Dan Cruickshank has been using his daily exercise to make a detailed Survey of Spitalfields in collaboration with Alec Forshaw. Today Dan introduces his survey, aiming to draw attention to all the buildings and architectural features that define the nature of the place, yet which are often overlooked when it comes to listing, making them vulnerable to destruction by developers.

The Princess Alice, Commercial St

A battle is being waged to protect Spitalfields’ characterful, but mostly statutorily unprotected, late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century architecture. It is a strange experience walking the streets during the emptiness of the lockdown and in a light that is almost uncanny in its purity. Even the simplest buildings acquire a luminosity and a strangely monumental quality. The clarity of light has revealed these structures as heroic and often poetic architecture that contributes to the distinctive nature of the place.

Spitalfields Neighbourhood Planning Forum, which was made possible by the Localism Act of 2011, supports a community and conservation-led vision for the area. It has a vision that builds on, rather than obliterates, the qualities that make Spitafields unique, including its mixture of small-scale uses, its diversity and its residential character, as well as its historic architecture. So I am drawing up a list of what – in planners’ language – are called non-designated heritage assets. This means all unlisted but significant buildings, along with street furniture such as the array of nineteenth century bollards, signs, sewer vents, cobbles and granite kerbs – indeed everything that contributes to the character and appearance of Spitalfields.

My photograph of the superb Princess Alice public house – now renamed The Culpeper – which was built in 1883 in fine Gothic Revival style, illustrates the importance of this survey. Despite its panache, the pub is only locally listed – which means it has no statutory protection – whereas the adjoining eighteen-fifties commercial block is – quite rightly – nationally listed by Historic England, revealing that there is no consistency in the protection of Spitafields’ built heritage.

The Princess Alice public house was built by architect, Bruce J. Capell, an experienced pub designer who worked extensively for Truman’s Brewery. His design is erudite, delightful and on a key corner site does much to enliven this portion of Commercial St, confirming its status as one of London’s architecturally most significant Victorian thoroughfares.

While The Princess Alice is not protected, the adjoining eighteen-fifties commercial block is listed by Historic England.

There is a Spitalfields that is almost invisible, the late-Victorian commercial and industrial architecture is taken for granted and unappreciated by most. Few of these buildings are protected and all are at risk. Yet they form the fundamental historic fabric of the place and many are magnificent, heroic expressions of the utilitarian and functional tradition that distinguishes much of Britain’s nineteenth century industrial architecture. Others comprise fascinating essays in nineteenth century fashions for historic styles – Italianate, Flemish Renaissance Revival or Gothic. Commercial Street, cut through Spitalfields by the Metropolitan Board of Works from 1843 to 1857, is a treasure trove of such architecture. Little of it is listed and some of it is threatened with obliteration, as is the case of this splendid late eighteen-forties Italianate terrace, 2-4 Commercial St, at the south end.

This is a characterful group of late-nineteenth century buildings on Wentworth St, between Middlesex St and Bell Lane, opposite Goulston St. Their diverse architecture and eclectic mix of uses make this a fine example of the the type of unlisted buildings that are threatened by the advancing towers of the City of London.

These pale buildings in Wentworth St, with their almost ethereal upper storeys perched over a shuttered underworld of abandonment and imminent decay, appear as emblems of transience and death. They are a reminder of the sudden contrast and strange juxtaposition that distinguishes Spitalfields and defines its character. Perhaps nowhere is this sense of contrast more stark than in Wentworth St. By tradition, a lively market and commercial street, it was once the heartland of the late-nineteenth century Jewish community.

In 1892, Israel Zangwill, observed in Children of the Ghetto, that ‘..Wentworth St and Goulston St were  … in festival times … a pandemonium of caged poultry, clucking and quacking and screaming.’ In 1896, Henry Walker wrote his first impression of Wentworth St thus, ‘an almost impossible scene is before us. We seem to be in a world of dissolving views. We suddenly find ourselves in a foreign land … we might be in Warsaw or Cracow … Wentworth St is the market of the poorer immigrant Jews. It is the East London counterpart of the Continental Ghetto.’

These buildings are part of the architectural theatre of the area’s long-dispersed community of Jewish refugees escaping Tsarist persecution. Now they stand, unprotected and evidently vulnerable. Intensely melancholic, they are a memorial to a lost world.

The Ten Bells, at 84 Commercial St on the corner with Fournier St, is one of the area’s most-popular and best-known pubs. It dates from 1755 but was revamped and stuccoed in the mid-nineteenth century, and the bar was decorated with stylish tiles in the eighteen-nineties. While the pub is listed, the splendid mid-nineteenth century group to the left are not. Number 88, in the centre, is particularly fine with tall pilaster strips that evolve into giant arcading. This stripped-down classicism is typical of the often sublime mid-to-late-nineteenth century commercial and industrial buildings of Spitalfields and Shoreditch.

The centre of Commercial St was laid out between 1849 and 1857 on the site of ancient Red Lion St. This simple and civilised row of shops with living accommodation above was probably constructed in the late-eighteen fifties. They are generally well preserved, although some have lost their cornices, and are good examples of their date and type, but none are listed. In the foreground on the left is the remarkable Stapleton’s stable at 106 Commercial St which includes an interior court with a wide and shallow ramp serving several storeys of stabling. The ornate terracotta plaque states the that the stables were established in 1842, but the façade dates from the eighteen-nineties.

A recent proposal to convert the building into a series of bars and restaurants has been rejected by Tower Hamlets Council following strong local opposition. To many, there seem to be quite enough bars in Spitalfields already and this building stands at the edge of a residential area. Yet the scheme, which includes significant alterations to the interior, has been re–submitted. Meanwhile the Spitalfields Trust and others are pushing for Stapleton’s to be recommended for listing by Historic England. Will HE do the right thing? 

Number 148-150 Commercial St, probably dating from the eighteen-sixties, is an even more visually striking example of stripped-back commercial classicism. Its stucco cladding – which makes the composition even more  abstract – is perhaps later.  The strange austerity of the design is emphasised by its neighbours which are contemporary but more typically ornate and florid examples. To the right is a mid-eighteen sixties group that includes the splendid Commercial Tavern which is already listed. To the left is the former rectory of St. Stephen’s church, built in 1861 in fine Gothic style to the design of Ewan Christian. The church itself, which formerly stood next door is just one of Spitalfields many lost Victorian churches. It was replaced in the mid-thirties by a cinema, now converted into a hulking block of flats.

The contrast between the buildings in this group could not be more dramatic or telling. They offer a compressed history of the architecture and life of ninetieth and early-twentieth century Spitalfields – work, prayer, and entertainment all combined. These buildings are tremendously important, yet since only the Commercial Tavern is listed the rest have uncertain futures.

Many of the buildings in Commercial Street possess a sublime, almost abstract, power. Number 66-68, dating from the eighteen-fifties, is bold and functional in conception. The building is designed like a machine, with large windows illuminating work areas and a loading bay and crane. The only aesthetic concessions are a rugged cornice and serrations on the undersides of the window arches. This was just enough perhaps to raise the building to the poetic realm of architecture. This block demonstrates that austere and gaunt structures can possess an almost romantic beauty. It is a wonderful example of a visually-haunting architecture that so brilliantly captures the spirit of its age, even if the story of this architecture in Spitalfields has yet to be written and certainly yet to be fully appreciated or protected.

Detail from The Bell, a late-Victorian public house in Middlesex Street. The image of the bell doubles as a friendly, smiling, mustachioed and crowned head. Can this be a portrait or a punning rebus? Was the landlord of the pub named Bellamy or King? Such small details delight me and, although this pub is not statutorily protected, it will surely be on my list of non-designated heritage assets.

Photographs copyright © Dan Cruickshank

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You may like to take a look at these other stories by Dan Cruickshank

Dan Cruickshank’s Photographs of Spitalfields

Dan Cruickshank’s Tales of Norton Folgate

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    June 7, 2020

    Your comment on nos 148-150 is interesting.
    The obvious comparison, regarding the v sudden change of style in mid-Victorian times is to be found at the King’s Cross site.
    King’s Cross was opened in 1851-52
    St Pancras was opened in 1868 …..

  2. June 7, 2020

    What a wonderful piece by Dan Cruickshank. His choice of words to describe 19th-century industrial architecture – ‘poetic’, ‘sublime’, ‘ethereal’, ‘abstract’ – inspires me to look more closely at Wentworth and Commercial Streets. And his photographs of Italianate facades struck by sunlight, streets empty but for shadows, put me in mind of Giorgio de Chirico.

  3. Annie S permalink
    June 7, 2020

    Thank you for the very interesting information on the buildings – I am surprised that so many are only locally listed.
    The Stapletons building was open for a market for a little while – the inside area is amazing! I had never realised what was behind the frontage.
    All the buildings are part of what makes Spitalfields a unique area – let’s hope they will be there for years to come.

  4. June 7, 2020

    Long live the Preservationists! I hope YOU are a “protected” species, and continue your
    enthusiastic efforts on behalf of these remarkable structures. I loved these vibrant, descriptive
    photos and Mr. Cruickshank’s affirming comments. (and thanks for the close-up of the Bell — what a wonderfully eccentric image!……worthy of notice and speculation, methinks)

    Stay safe, all.

  5. Amanda permalink
    June 7, 2020

    My favourite of Dan’s photos is Stapleton’s Stable appearing to have his “eyes” safely open in the respite of desertion.
    Annie S writes recently used as a market, how marvellous if that befitting use could one day be resurrected and the interior photographed too.

    The glorious purity of the electric blue of the skies everywhere, for the grace of no aircraft, is a joy in itself.

    We should take advantage of this huge life change and of how extra imposing these buildings truly appear in this light, devoid of human life & traffic and submit a collective appeal for Spitalfields salvation as a whole, rather than one threatened building at a time.

    The GA’s readers can be depended on for writing letters where guided.

  6. Adele permalink
    June 7, 2020

    Thank you Mr Cruickshank and GA for this wonderfully informative article and phots. I passed most of these buildings as a teenager going to and from school and didn’t appreciate their history or beauty at that time. On a recent trip back to the area I was shocked by the loss of so many and the invading intrusion of so much glass and ugliness. These precious buildings must be preserved!

  7. June 7, 2020

    The original Bell was tied to the King’s Arms Brewing in nearby Old Castle Street – perhaps the Crowned Bell represents that union?

  8. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 7, 2020

    I’m pleased that Dan was able to take advantage of the peace and quiet of lockdown to take these stunning photos, and that he is drawing attention to the wonderful examples of Victorian industrial architecture in the Spitalfields area.

    Lets hope more people will come to appreciate these buildings before they are destroyed and replaced by yet more horrendous soulless glass and steel monsters…

  9. June 7, 2020

    These are Amazing Pictures. Thank You So Very Much!!????????

  10. Christopher Woodward permalink
    June 7, 2020

    Congratulations Dan

    A wonderful use for lockdown, and of the beautiful weather and clean air and skies. Good luck with the local listing. I hope you can get the list publicised and sent to Councillors, property owners etc.

  11. June 11, 2020

    “the scheme, which includes significant alterations to the interior, has been re–submitted.”

    This comment from Dan is key. Planners resubmit applications until they get something agreed. What should happen is that if a planner submits something before local approval and it is then rejected, a law should be introduced to state that no resubmission can be made within 20 years. Will this remove development; not if the following then happens. The site will then pass to the Neighbourhood Local Plan representatives. They can then decide what the local community actually needs. The owner of the site still controls it, so can, of course reject any alternative suggestion and leave it empty. The Neighbourhood Plan is not communism; it also should not be able to force through what it wants on land it doesn’t own.

    This has many benefits and 4 of these are:

    1. People may get what they need in the local area.
    2. Neighbourhood Local Plans will start to get the higher priority they deserve and need.
    3. Planning offices will be bombarded with far fewer repeat applications.
    4. As a result of 3, planning offices will have far more time (or need less money) to consider what the local people who pay their salaries actually want and need.

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