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Raphael Samuel’s Farewell To Spitalfields

May 25, 2024
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields throughout the summer


In 1988, the Bishopsgate Institute staged an exhibition entitled A Farewell to Spitalfields curated by John Shaw and Raphael Samuel, the distinguished historian of the East End. The purpose was to assess the history of Spitalfields in the light of the changes that were forthcoming, as a result of the closure of the Truman Brewery and the Fruit & Vegetable Market – and it is my pleasure to publish these excerpts from Raphael Samuel’s introductory essay accompanied by David Bateman’s photographs of the Spitalfields Market, commissioned as part of this exhibition.

More than a quarter of a century later, it is sobering to recognise the prescience of Raphael Samuel’s words. He was a historian with strong opinions who, on the basis of this article alone, demonstrated an ability to write about the future as clearly as he wrote the past. The Spitalfields portrayed in these pictures has gone and now – for better or worse – we live in the Spitalfields that Raphael Samuel, who died in 1996, wrote of yet did not live to see.

Spitalfields is the oldest industrial suburb in London. It was already densely peopled and “almost entirely built over,” in 1701 when Lambeth was still a marsh, Fulham a market garden and Tottenham Court Rd a green. It owes its origins to those refugee traditions which, in defiance of the Elizabethan building regulations, and to escape the restrictions of the City Guilds, settled in Bishopsgate Without and the Liberty of Norton Folgate.

Spitalfields is a junction between, on the one hand, a settled, indigenous population, and on the other, wave upon wave of newcomer. Even when it was known as ‘The Weavers’ Parish,’ it was still hospitable to many others – poor artisans, street sellers, labourers among them. In the late nineteenth century Spitalfields was one of the great receiving points for Jewish immigration and the northern end of the parish provided a smilar point of entry for country labourers. There was a whole colony of them at Great Eastern Buildings in the eighteen eighties, working as draymen at the brewery, and another at the Bishopsgate Goods Station. This ‘mixed’ character of the neighbourhood is very much in evidence today.

Spitalfields Market – threatened with imminent destruction by a coalition of property developers, City Fathers, and conservationists – is almost as old as Spitalfields. It was already in existence when the area was still an artillery range. In John Stow’s ‘Survey of London’ (1601) it appears a trading point “for fruit, fowl and root.” A market sign was incorporated in the coat of arms for the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Restoration times, and the market’s Royal Charter dates from 1682. The market, in short, preceded the arrival of the Hugeunots and has some claim to being Spitalfields’ original core. The market continued as a collection of ramshackle sheds and stalls until it was transformed, in the 1870s, by Robert Horner, who bought the lease of the land from the Goldsmid family in 1875. Horner was a crow scarer from Essex who, according to market myth, walked to London, became a porter in the market and eventually got a share in a firm. Ambitiously, he set about both securing monopoly rights for the existing traders, and replacing the impromptu buildings with a purpose built market hall – the “Horner” buildings which today is the oldest part of the market complex.

The older, eastern portion of the market is the direct product of Robert Horner’s vision of his own situation. It is built in the manner of the English Arts & Crafts movement. On its own terms, the old market is a pleasing piece and a worthy addition to the diversity of Spitalfields. Its rusticated archways on the Commercial St facade and the repeated peaks of the roof with their smallish sash windows lend a clearly Victorian flavour to Commercial St, which was largely a Victorian venture anyway. Inside the market it is a vintagely Victorian hall of glass and iron of unassuming beauty, even more so when at work, then its true worth as a genuinely functioning piece of Victorian space is revealed. Like St. Pancras in a different way, it has an element of the museum and an aesthetic that overlays the original construction upon utilitarian principles. Most of all the old market appears as a peculiarly English space. An effect that is heightened by the lavish use of ‘Wimbledon’ green. It is that deep traditional green that characterises English municipal space and that, in this case helps to marry the market to the discordant additions of the late 1920’s and to give distinction to the territorial boundaries of the market that have been historically more fluid.

The old market is a celebration of trade, a great piece of Victorian working space, not only of great historical value itself, but contributing to the visual manifestation of the historical development of the whole of Spitalfields. It is a worthy layer in an area that grew by a sort of architectural sedimentation. Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, the Huguenot fronts of Artillery Passage, the Georgian elegance of Elder St and the smaller houses of Wilkes St and Princelet St, the mid-Victorian utility of the Peabody Buildings, the rustic character of the old market, the twentieth century neo-classicism of the Fruit Exchange and several examples of a more unspeakable modernity are some among many accretions which contribute to make Spitalfields what it is. The most perfect example of a palimpsest in which diversity rather than Georgiana or Victoriana represent the true nature of the area.

The character of a district is determined not by its buildings, but by the ensemble of different uses to which they are put, and, above all, by the character of the users. It should be obvious to all but the self-deceived, that to stick an international banking centre in the heart of an old artisan and market quarter, a huge complex with some six thousand executives and subalterns, is, to put it gently, a rupture from tradition. The whole industrial economy of Spitalfields rests on cheap work rooms: rentals in the new office complex are some eight times greater than they are in the purlieus of Brick Lane, and with the dizzy rise in property values which will follow the new development, accommodation of all kinds, whether for working space or home, will be beyond local people.  The market scheme will mean a social revolution, the inversion of what Spitalfields has stood for during four centuries of metropolitan development.

The fate of Spitalfields market illustrates in stark form some of the paradoxes of contemporary metropolitan development: on the one hand, the preservation of ‘historic’ houses; on the other, the wholesale destruction of London’s hereditary occupations and trades and the dispersal of its settled communities. The viewer is thus confronted with two versions of ‘enterprise’ culture: the one that of family business and small scale firms, the other that of international high finance with computer screens linking the City of London to the money markets of the world.

This set of photographs by David Bateman show something of the activity of the market today in what – if the Second Reading of the Market Bill continues its progress through Parliament – are likely to be its closing months.

Raphael Samuel  22nd July 1988


Photographs copyright © David Bateman

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Gilbert O’Brien permalink
    May 25, 2024

    Apart from anything else Samuel wrote beautiful, lucid prose and his precise evocation of the market, the area and its larger meaning was moving and frighteningly accurate. Heartbreaking.

  2. Sue Hadley permalink
    May 25, 2024

    Interesting piece. Sadly it was far too untidy for the City types and was ‘in need’ of the creeping sanitisation we are still witnessing today.

  3. aubrey permalink
    May 25, 2024

    . . . not forgetting the over tourism. I remember, as a kid , eating some of the discaded fruit left by the traders while the streets were being swept by the street cleaners after the day’s trading had ceased.

  4. May 25, 2024

    I just love Raphael Samuel’s metaphor that Spitalfields is a living, breathing palimpest.

    I will never forget the first time I stumbled into Fournier Steet, following the map to get from Spitalfields market to Brick Lane, some 15 years ago. As I wandered round the surrounding streets, I felt I had, quite literally. walked into the past.

    I had lived in West and South West London in the 1970s but had failed to venture East. I had explored Limehouse in the early 2000s after reading Our Mutual Friend but had no knowledge of Spitalfields, beyond the name, until a friend recommended the market. Walking along Wilkes Street, was indeed like peeling away the layers of time.

    I knew and loved the Georgian terraces of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia but these narrow streets spoke of a different Georgian world, one which was much less gentle, much more real and incredibly atmospheric. I was quite literally stopped in my tracks by wonder.

    When I, eventually – after this unexpected detour – got to Brick Lane, with its mosque, it’s shops and crowds and multi cultural street food sellers, I was deposited firmly back in twenty-first century London.

    I have been back several times but have never experienced quite the same sense of wonder as when London suddenly peeled back its layers to provide a memorable encounter with its past.

  5. May 25, 2024

    I so appreciate the photo of the person bending over (red jacket) and rummaging in the
    uproar of cartons. I imagine I hear them grumbling a bit — “now where the HECK is it?”, etc.
    Shuffling boxes around, searching, tossing, sorting, looking. Yes, markets are messy — like humanity. Part of their great appeal. I love looking at these images, knowing that once the marketplace was closed for the day/night/whichever, the sidewalk would be returned to a blank slate; possibly with random remains of the day scattered about. I am thinking of the many photos you have shared with us — of people overrunning the market, scouring it for their loot, happy with their discoveries, coveting an old book or record album, and communing with other lookers.
    (and the strong community of sellers, too……….)
    Thank you for taking us to these vibrant markets.

  6. Cherub permalink
    May 25, 2024

    I used to love Spitalfields Market (or what there was of it) when I worked at Spital Square about 25 years ago. I bought a watercolour painting of a Thai Buddhist saying from an artist there for my husband’s 40th birthday, it cost me about £35 and now hangs in the bedroom of our apartment in Switzerland. I remember buying books from a second hand bookshop, history books I should have read at college but couldn’t get hold of – I wish I’d known about that shop when I was studying at Mile End!

    I also remember going to a wine bar in the market called Spitz – does that still exist? There was a poster advertising a singer called Dean Friedman and none of my young colleagues knew who he was, they all laughed when I said if you were my age you’d know him, I was heading towards 40 at the time 🙂

  7. stephen watts permalink
    May 26, 2024

    Many thanks for the images & Raphael Samuel’s wonderfully lucid prose. It may be worth adding that Samuel lived on Elder Street for many years until his death in 1996. Stuart Hall has described him as ‘one of the most outstanding, original intellectuals of his generation’ and certainly he was one of the great pioneering historians of recent years. In case of interest, the most recent collection of Samuel’s writings is ‘Workshop Of The World : Essays In People’s History’ (Verso 2024). PS Re. Cherub’s reply : no, ‘Spitz’ no longer exists, everything changes, memory maybe persists …

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