Look Up London started with spotting interesting sights then trying to cram their entire history into one hundred and fifty characters – Not easy. It’s since grown into an award-winning blog and Katie it’s founder, runs her own walking tours around the city. All with a key emphasis on raising your gaze.
One of the first places I knew I wanted to develop a tour around was Spitalfields, beyond the cliché of it being a melting point and the poster for gentrification, I love any area of London where there are such stark contrasts between the old and the new.
A pretty unavoidable theme of tours is immigration. So to celebrate the Immigrants of Spitalfields Festival on 19th-21st June, and generally a London hot topic and even more so in the run-up to the EU Referendum, I wanted to share my favourite markers deeply rooted in the history of Spitalfield’s immigration.
What I like to think of as a helpful timeline of the people who have made E1 their home, is now the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid.
First established as a protestant church in 1743 for the French Huguenot Community, In 1809 it became Weslyn Chapel, owned by the peculiar sect; the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. Shortly after, in 1819, it was taken over by Methodists. Then in late 19th C it became a Synagogue – a bit of a kick in the teeth for our London Society friends. Eventually in 1976, with the influx of the Bengali community, it opened as its current function; a mosque. All in all then, it really does sum up the changing face of Brick Lane.
As well as the gleaming silver minaret, look out for the Latin inscription, Umbra Summus, above a sundial on Fournier Street which means ‘we are shadows’. Not only is it a reference to the practical workings of the sundial which shows the time by shadow, but it’s also a reminder that life on Earth is fleeting, with an added significance here because of the constant changes within communities.
If we were being technical about immigration, and us tour guides do tend to like starting at the very beginning, we should probably mention the Spitalfields Lady.
A stone’s throw from the Roman City of Londinium, Spitalfields was their grandest cemetery. So during excavations around Bishopsgate in 1999, a huge discovery was made; a stone sarcophagus surrounding a lead coffin. The markings on the stone lid signified someone of high status, with the burial items supporting this hypothesis.
The Museum of London where you can still see the tomb today, found that it was the remains of a young women, probably around 20 years old, who was a Roman citizens but who – for whatever reason – had travelled to live in London. Sadly, no visible evidence is left in Spitalfields, but you can find the burial plaque outside the Gherkin.
Swooping a good century or so forwards in time, the first real wave of immigrants to arrive in Spitalfields were the Huguenots, Protestants escaping 17th Century religious persecution in France. Luckily many of the original weaver’s houses have survived, it’s a privilege to wander through Fournier, Wilkes and Princelet Street on a quiet morning. One particular house I want to mention though is Townhouse, at number 5 Fournier Street. It’s now an antique shop and gallery space with a cracking coffeeshop downstairs, but it holds a modern artwork which helps us appreciate the scale of the Huguenot community in Spitalfields.
Created in collaboration with Fiona and Adam Dant, The Huguenot Map was constructed as an outreach project where Huguenot ancestors were asked to come to Townhouse and write their family name on a white circle, pinning it to their home in Spitalfields.
A most ‘instagrammable’ of sights, the A. Gold’s delicatessen, reminds us of a specific person in amongst a new wave of Spitalfields immigrants; the Jews. The A stands for Amelia, a Hungarian Jewish woman that came here in the 1880’s, along with many of her countrymen after civil unrest in what’s now Russia around 1860. She owned this shop and practiced French Millinery – otherwise known as hat-making, which is also written on the front of the shop. Another reference to the Jewish community can be seen around the corner, the Jewish Soup Kitchen built in 1902 which used to provide around 5,000 people a week with hot meals.
One of the darker – but no less important – memories of the area, can be found just off Whitechapel Road. Altar Ali Park was renamed after a 25 year old Bangladeshi man who worked in a nearby textile factory on Hanbury Street. On 4 May 1978 Altab Ali was attacked by a group of three teenagers aged 16 and 17 and stabbed to death. As tragic as his death was, he did not die in vain. It galvanised the Bangaldeshi community to stand up to the long-running campaign of racism by local right-wing party, the National Front and on May 14 1978, 7,000 people marched from here to Trafalgar Square. They held banners and posters of Altab Ali’s face, demanding police protect the community and protesting against the National Front. In 1988 the park got its new name Altab Alias well as a new entrance gate to incorporate traditional Bangladeshi designs, reflecting the various communities co-existing.
So I encourage you to take a wander around E1, or even join my Spirit of Spitalfields walk.
There are plenty more hidden gems of history to unearth.
Written by Katie Wignall