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Lost Spitalfields

September 24, 2021
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. As the years pass, this 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 Fruit & Vegetable Market, the Fruit & Wool Exchange and Norton Folgate. Yet these photographs reveal another Spitalfields that only a few 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

You may also like to read about

The Haggerston Nobody Knows

The Lost Squares of Stepney

13 Responses leave one →
  1. James Harris permalink
    September 24, 2021

    A splendid set of photographs. Give it another 100 years and what is there now will be a thing of the past too.

    I think the photograph marked as ’52 & 9a Artillery Passage, 1680s’ should probably read 1880s.

  2. jennifer galton-fenzi permalink
    September 24, 2021

    I think your first paragraph is brilliant, dear GA. So much my own experience of London. When I go back now I feel more of a stranger than if it were a city I’d never visited before.

  3. September 24, 2021

    Wonderful to see the signage for Alfred Keil on the White’s Row photo. He is the signwriter that painted the original Donovan Bros sign on Crispin Street.

  4. paul loften permalink
    September 24, 2021

    Just look at these photos! A different world yet a part of us all because they speak of an alternative to square blocks of glass towers and corporate entities . Compare them to some other cities in this world where they have taken the trouble to renovate and restore their history rather than destroy it. The creeping realisation is that a crime is being committed. Who would want to take a trip to see glass towers and concrete blocks? A few minutes on google street view is enough.

  5. Dudley Diaper permalink
    September 24, 2021

    Another wonderful collection of pictures. My mother’s family, Saunders, arrived in Buxton Street from Norfolk in the 1850s.

  6. Christy S permalink
    September 24, 2021

    I wonder if earlier residents and visitors felt the same disorientation as I – or whether they sometimes welcomed a change. ‘Progress’, you know. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to follow is more important that people realize.

  7. Bill permalink
    September 25, 2021

    Such handsome lanes and byways, all gone. When I was young, the libraries of Bergen County, N.J. were chock-a block with fine old books with fine old representations of fine old architecture. English and American. Lovely books. Photogravures, even. Marvelous old interiors. Wondrous stuff.

    Well, imagine, if one can: What remains of the physical fabrics themselves? I regret to tell you all these fine old books are- gone. No longer on the selves.

    I can hope only they remain on the shelves of true bibliophiles.

    Hugs and kisses to you all.

  8. David Lawson permalink
    September 25, 2021

    When I asked my father where he was born he always vaguely said “behind Bishopsgate Station”. It was not until long after he died more than 50 years ago I obtained his full birth certificate and discovered he was not joking. His birth was listed as 7 Fort Street, so when I moved to London I went hunting. It proved a puzzle, as this was a small stub off Artillery Lane. I later discovered that even that was a red herring.
    He left London in the Thirties and even before that Fort Street, which you see on the map snaking west and south from the end of Spital Square, had been cleared for the “new” market extension. The modern stub is, in fact, the remains of Steward Street. I have managed to harvest a couple old photos tagged as the Ford Street Jewish ghetto market and one showing the junction with old Steward Street. And that’s it. I can see the type of property into which a Jewish immigrant family would have crammed in 1914, the year he was born, but not the actual buildings.
    The location was transitory because my grandparents were in Hanbury Street in the 1911 census and had moved to Stepney Green by the Twenties but it gave me a feeling of “belonging” and a passion for discovering everything I could about Spitalfields, endlessly walking the streets and wishing he was still around to point out memorable places.
    I’m sure he would have seen a lot he recognized, as these walks took place in the Seventies and Eighties when the area had probably changed little [except for the “new” market extension]. And he would have taken great delight in the outpouring of information from the Gentle Author after I discovered this delightful blog.
    One postscript: when the area was again cleared for the monstrous office blocks fronting Bishopsgate and archaeologists discovered Roman remains under what must have been old Fort Street, I wonder whether they dug straight through remnants left by more recent immigrants. Perhaps among the rubble sent to landfill was a cheap toy my father lost one day while out playing with those children shown in your pictures, although they would have been a few years older by then.

  9. September 25, 2021

    Beautiful captured images. A sad loss to those that knew them, and for all those who never knew them.

  10. Howard permalink
    September 27, 2021

    The opening paragraph is very poignant and reflects my sentiments exactly.

    Fantastic photographs, each one a lament.

  11. michael hardie permalink
    September 27, 2021

    what i remember about the bonsoir bedding factory in Deal street is that a boy got his head got stuck in the railings and the fire brigade had to free him.

  12. November 1, 2021

    So funny to me, here in the states, to think of buildings being torn down. I know the Blitz had a great hand in this, there was that.

    It is just that in the USA, buildings are constantly being torn down, rebuilt and seemingly torn down again to make way for something even newer.

    In my minds eye, I see London as the city that is old and charming, and wonderful. I guess this phenomenon isn’t just in the USA.

  13. Judith Rodrigues permalink
    April 13, 2024

    Well ! Ive just found my ggrandfather was born at 35 Duke Street , Old Artillary Grounds in 1881 , which I believe was renamed Fort Street? at some time? I guess the house or building is long gone now , as it seems are most of the addresses I am finding my ancestors lived in at this time – its sad that so much has gone – and just the street names with often pretty bland buildings of concrete and glass –

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