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Spitalfields is an area in the borough of Tower Hamletsmarker, in the East Endmarker of Londonmarker, near to Liverpool Street stationmarker and Brick Lanemarker. The area straddles Commercial Streetmarker and is home to many markets, including the historic Old Spitalfields Marketmarker, founded in the 17th century, Sunday UpMarket, and the various other Brick Lane Marketsmarker on Brick Lane and Cheshire Streetmarker.



The name Spitalfields is a contraction of 'hospital fields', in reference to "The New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopgate" founded here in 1197.


Spitalfields was the location of one of Roman Londonmarker's large extramural cemeteries, situated to the east of the Bishopsgatemarker thoroughfare, which roughly follows the line of Ermine Streetmarker: the main highway to the north from Londinium. The presence of a Roman cemetery here was noticed by the antiquarian John Stow as far back as 1576 and became the focus of a major archaeological excavation in the 1990s, following the redevelopment of Spitalfields Market. Perhaps the most spectacular find was the discovery in 1999 of a sarcophagus containing the remains of a high status, silk clad, Roman lady, complete with jet accessories and a unique glass phial.

In 1197 the former Roman cemetery became the site of a priory called "The New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopgate", latterly known as St Mary Spital, founded by Walter Brunus and his wife Roisia. This religious foundation was one of the biggest hospitals in medieval England and was the focus of a large medieval cemetery which included a stone charnel house and mortuary chapel. This latter has recently been uncovered by archaeologists and preserved for public viewing. The Priory and Hospital were dissolved in 1539 under Henry VIII. Although the chapel and monastic buildings were mostly demolished the area of the inner precinct of the priory maintained an autonomous administrative status as the liberty of Norton Folgatemarker. The adjacent outer precincts of the priory, to the south, were re-used as an Artillery Ground and placed under the special jurisdiction of the Tower of Londonmarker as one of the Tower liberties.


Spitalfields' historic association with the silk industry was established by French Protestant (Huguenot) refugees who settled in this area after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). By settling here, outside the bounds of the City of Londonmarker, they hoped to avoid the restrictive legislation of the City Guilds. The Huguenots brought with them little, apart from their skills, and an Order in Council of 16 April 1687 raised £200,000 for the relief of their poverty. In December 1687, the first report of the committee set up to administer the funds reported that 13,050 French refugees were settled in London, primarily around Spitalfields, but also in the nearby settlements of Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, and Mile End New Town.

The late 17th and 18th century saw an estate of well appointed terraced houses, built to accommodate the master weavers controlling the silk industry, and grand urban mansions built around the newly created Spital Square. Christ Church, Spitalfieldsmarker on Fournier Streetmarker, designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, was built during the reign of Queen Anne to demonstrate the power of the established church to the dissenting Huguenots. More humble weavers dwellings were congregated in the Tenterground.

There has been a market on the site since 1638 when Charles I of England gave a licence for flesh, fowl and roots to be sold in what was then known as Spittle Fields. The Market currently receives around 25,000 visitors every week.

From the 1730s Irish weavers came here, after a decline in the Irish linen industry to take up work in the silk trade. The 18th century saw periodic crises in the silk industry, bought on by imports of French silk – in a lull between the wars between the two rivals; and imports of printed calicos. The depression in the trade, and thence the prices paid to weavers, led to protests. In 1769, the Spitalfield Riots occurred, where attempts were made to break up meetings of weavers, called to discuss the threat to wages, caused by another downturn in the market for silk. This ended with an Irish and a Huguenot weaver being hanged in front of the Salmon and Ball public house at Bethnal Greenmarker.

Victorian era

By the Victorian era, the silk industry had entered a long decline and the old merchant dwellings had degenerated into multi-occupied slums. Spitalfields became a by-word for urban deprivation, and by 1832, concern of a London cholera epidemic, led The Poor Man's Guardian (18 February 1832) to write of Spitalfields:
The low houses are all huddled together in close and dark lanes and alleys, presenting at first sight an appearance of non-habitation, so dilapidated are the doors and windows:- in every room of the houses, whole families, parents, children and aged grandfathers swarm together.

In 1860, a treaty was established with France, allowing the import of cheaper French silks. This left the many weavers in Spitalfields, and neighbouring Bethnal Greenmarker and Shoreditchmarker indigent. New trades such as furniture and boot making came to the area; and the large windowed Huguenot houses were found suitable for tailoring, attracting a new population of Jewish refugees drawn to live and work in the textile industry.

By the later 19th century inner Spitalfields had eclipsed rival claimants to the dubious distinction of being the worst criminal rookery of London with common lodging-houses in the Flower and Dean Streetmarker area being a focus for the activities of robbers and prostitutes. The latter street was dubbed in 1881 as being "perhaps the foulest and most dangerous street in the metropolis". Another claimant to the distinction of being "the worst street in London" was nearby Dorset Streetmarker, which was highlighted by the brutal killing and mutilation of a young woman named Mary Kelly in her lodgings here by the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888. This was the climax of a whole series of slayings of local prostitutes known as the Whitechapel Murders. The sanguinary activities of "Jack" was one of the factors which prompted the demolition of some of the worst streets in the area 1891-94. Deprivation, however, continued and was brought to notice by social commentators such as Jack London in his The People of the Abyss (1903). He highlighted 'Itchy Park', next to Christ Church, Spitalfields, as a notorious rendezvous for homeless vagrants.

Modern Spitalfields

In the later 20th century the Jewish presence diminished, to be replaced by an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants, who also worked in the local textile industry and made Brick Lane the curry capital of London.

Another development, from the 1960s onwards, has been a campaign to save the housing stock of old merchant terraces to the west of Brick Lane from demolition. Many have been conserved by exponents of a 'New Georgian' ethos, such as the architectural historian and TV pundit Dan Cruickshank. Such gentrification has, however, caused massive inflation in house prices and the removal of the last of the vagrants from this area.

Current 'urban regeneration' has also seen the erection of large modern office blocks, between Bishopsgate and Spitalfields Market. These represent, in effect, an expansion of the City of London, northwards, beyond its traditional bounds, into this area. However, a rear-guard action by conservationists has resulted in the preservation of Old Spitalfields Market and the provision of shopping, leisure amenities and a new plaza behind the city blocks.

The area within Tower Hamlets now forms part of the council ward of Spitalfields and Banglatown. Its name represents the modern association of the Bangladeshi community with this area and neighbouring Brick Lane.

Art scene

The area is well known for its arts scene. Whitechapel Art Gallerymarker is located at the bottom of Brick Lane, and amongst the many well known artists living in Spitalfields are Gilbert and George, Tracey Emin, and Stuart Brisley.

TV presenter, architecture expert and Georgian fanatic Dan Cruickshank was both an active campaigner for Spitalfields, and continues to live in the area. Dennis Seversmarker forswore modern comforts at 18 Folgate Street, living a unique life. The house, a time capsule of the 18th century, is now open to the public.

Writer Jeanette Winterson turned a derelict Georgian house into an organic food shop, Verde's, as part of the Slow Food movement.

In literature

Spitalfields figures in many classic and contemporary works of literature, which reflect its sense of mystery and its fascinating multicultural heritage, including:

In film

19th century Spitalfields was recreated as the setting for the film From Hell about Jack the Ripper. This included a reconstruction (in Praguemarker) of the notorious Ten Bellsmarker pub (still extant on Commercial Streetmarker): alleged to have been a rendezvous of some of the Ripper's prostitute victims, before they were murdered. In the film Johnny Depp (as Inspector Abberline) is seen drinking there with Ripper victim Mary Jane Kelly.

Notable people associated with Spitalfields

  • Wolf Mankowitz (1924 - 1998), writer, playwright and screenwriter, of Russian Jewish descent, was born in Fashion Street in Spitalfields.
  • Jeanette Winterson (1959 - ), writer, lives on Brushfield Street where she also runs a delicatessen.
  • Tracey Emin (1963 - ), artist, resides in Fournier Streetmarker.
  • Gilbert & George (1943 - ;1942 - ), artists, reside in Fournier Street.
  • Basil Henriques (1890–1961), for whom Henriques Streetmarker (formerly Berner Street) is named.
  • Dennis Seversmarker (1944 – 1999), lived at 18 Folgate Street 1979 - 1999.
  • Dan Cruickshank (1949 - ), lives in Spitalfields.
  • Samantha Morton, actor, lives on the corner of Fournier and Wilkes.
  • Keith Mansfield, writer and publisher, lives in the area
  • Joe Wright (1972 - ), film director, recent addition to Wilkes Street.
  • Sandra Esquilant (1948 - ), landlady of The Golden Heart, listed among the 100 most influential people in art.
  • Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), philosopher, was born here.
  • Jack Sheppard (1702 – 1724), highwayman and multiple absconder, born in White's Row, Spitalfields.
  • Sir Benjamin Truman (1699/1700 – 1780), brewer.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797), was born in Spitalfields, possibly at 21 Hanbury Street.
  • Obadiah Shuttleworth (d.1734), musician
  • Jack the Ripper: all of his victims or presumed victims lived in Spitalfields and two (Chapman and Kelly) were murdered there (the others being murdered in nearby Whitechapelmarker):
    • Annie Chapman (c. 1841 - 1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, resided at a common lodging house at 35 Dorset Street, Spitalfields. Her body was found at 29 Hanbury Streetmarker, Spitalfields
    • Mary Jane Kelly (c. 1863 – 1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, lived, and murdered, at 13 Millers Court, just off Dorset Streetmarker
    • Martha Tabram (1849 - 1888), possible victim of Jack the Ripper, resided at a common lodging house at 19 George Street, Spitalfields.
    • Mary Ann Nichols (1845 - 1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, resided at a common lodging house at 18 Thrawl Street, Spitalfields.
    • Elizabeth Stride (1843 - 1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, resided at a common lodging house at 32 Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields.
    • Catherine Eddowes (1842 - 1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, resided with her partner John Kelly at Cooney's common lodging house at 55 Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields.

See also



The nearest London Underground station is Liverpool Streetmarker. London Liverpool Streetmarker is also a National Rail station.

Opening in June 2010, the nearest London Overground station is Shoreditch High Streetmarker

External links

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