Spitalfields takes its name from the hospital and priory, St. Mary's Spittel that was founded in 1197. Lying in the heart of the East End, it is an area known for its spirit and strong sense of community. It was in a field next to the priory where the now famous market first started in the thirteenth century.
As an international city, London is celebrated for its diversity in population. The East End has always been recognised for the wealth of cultures represented. Spitalfields served as a microcosm of this polyglot society, the ‘melting pot’ fusion of east and west. Historically, it has played host to a transient community – primarily for new immigrants.
Spitalfields had been relatively rural until the Great Fire of London. By 1666, traders had begun operating beyond the city gates – on the site where today’s market stands. The landmark Truman’s Brewery opened in 1669 and in 1682 King Charles II granted John Balch a Royal Charter giving him the right to hold a market on Thursdays and Saturdays in or near Spital Square.
The success of the market encouraged people to settle in the area and following the edict of Nantes in 1685, Huguenots fleeing France brought their silk weaving skills to Spitalfields. Their grand houses can still be seen around what is now the conservation area of Fournier Street. Today these houses are home to many artists including Gilbert and George.
The Huguenots were soon followed by Irish labourers in the mid-1700s escaping the potato famine, many of whom would work on the construction of the nearby London docks. As the area grew in popularity, Spitalfields became a parish in its own right in 1729 when Hawkesmoor's Christ Church was consecrated
The Irish were followed by East European Jews escaping the Polish pogroms and harsh conditions in Russia; as well as entrepreneurial Jews from the Netherlands. From the 1880s to 1970s Spitalfields was overwhelmingly Jewish and probably one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe with over 40 Synagogues.
By the middle of the 20th century the Jewish community had mostly moved on. Since 1970s a thriving Bangladeshi community has flourished in the area. Bringing new cultures, trades and business to the area including the famous Brick Lane restaurant district.
Evidence of the people and communities that have given the area it’s unique character can still be seen - a Huguenot church, a Methodist chapel, a Jewish synagogue, and Muslim mosque stand among traditional and new shops, restaurants, markets and homes.
The Victorian Market
From its small beginnings in the 17th Century, Spitalfields Market blossomed. Traders working from a collection of sheds and stalls did their best to meet the needs of London's rapidly growing population and their appetite for fresh fruit and vegetables. Their success made Spitalfields Market a major centre for the sale of fresh produce, trading six days a week.
Spitalfields fell into decline after the 1820's and gained a reputation as cheap area in which to live, proving a magnet to numerous waves of immigrants.
By 1876 the market had fallen into decline. Recognising the need to update the market, a former market porter called Robert Horner bought a short lease on the market and started work on a new market building which was completed in 1893 at a cost of £80,000.
In 1920 the City of London acquired direct control of the market, extending the original buildings eight years later. For the next 60 years, Spitalfields' nationwide reputation grew, as did the traffic congestion in the narrow streets around it. With no room for the expansion it so badly needed, the market was forced to move and in May 1991 it opened its doors at its new location in Leyton, east London.
At the end of 2005, after 18 years of sensitive preparation, the Spitalfields regeneration programme was completed. This regeneration has resulted in the creation of two new public spaces, Bishops Square and Crispin Place, a public art programme, an events programme, the restoration of several historic streets in E1 and a selection of carefully selected independent retailers and restaurants. A visitor to the market today will find designers / makers and artists selling fashions, homewares and accessories or a treasure trove of vintage and antique clothing, furniture and other wondrous oddments!
Spitalfields is no longer considered just a Sunday destination it has evolved into one of London's favourite and most vibrant areas.