Sunday, July 1st 2012
It’s a little hard to explain where we went on today’s jaunt and much easier to show our path on a map. This is the map resulting from the geotagging data from my photos.
Did we have a plan in mind? We had a destination in mind, if that counts as a plan, but the rest just followed somehow from that. The photographic part of the tour (I haven’t bothered with the rest) started at Spitalfields Market where we went for breakfast.
We usually manage to get to Spitalfields Market at the end of the day when the stalls have closed down, leaving only the metal skeletons standing empty under the electric lights. Today we arrived as stallholders were setting up for the day, something which made an interesting change. At this end of the market, there are mainly clothes and dress accessories in sale. It was interesting to see that a number of stalls were now displaying signs forbidding the taking of photos. Perhaps this is because some stallholders design the goods they sell and don’t want people stealing their designs. I am not sure, either, how legally binding such prohibitions are, given that a photographer would be standing on public ground and not on premises owned by the stallholder. I think the only rule that applies is “If you don’t want it photographed, don’t display it in a public place!”
Spitalfields Market was licensed by Charles II to one John Balch in 1682. The name comes from the fact the the land was originally open fields to the east of St Mary’s Spital (hospital). The market, specializing in fruit and vegetables was very successful and the Balch family sold it the the Goldschmidts, who in turn sold it in 1856 to Robert Horner, whose plaque, dated to the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, still remains proudly displayed above the door. “Proudly”, because Robert Horner, a self-made man, had started life as a porter in the market. Finally, the market was taken over by the London Corporation and modernized in the 1920s. Part of it has already been lost to developers and a question mark hangs over the rest. The fruit and vegetables are long gone, and the market now thrives on a more upmarket type of goods.
Its long history has left plenty of traces on the area, such as street names deriving from the Huguenots who turned Spitalfields into a centre for their silk industry, and buildings, some of them bearing dates, others demurely masking their ages. This one declares itself to be “Stapleton’s established 1842” but the only reference to Stapleton’s that I have found so far is that they ran the building as a “repository” or warehouse, but as to what goods they stored within, I have no clue.
Many of my photos of Liverpool Street and Spitalfields have the pointed belfry of Christ Church (Hawksmoor, 1714-29) in the background. For once, here is a closer view, if a slightly unconventional one, intended to convey an impression of the soaring height of the building (over 200 ft) which would have been the dominant feature in the landscape before the likes of the Gherkin and the Heron Tower came along.
We now started walking roughly south along Commercial Street, quite a long road, which runs into Leman Street at Whitechapel High Street.
One of the first things I noticed was this unusual drinking fountain. It turned out to be quite interesting historically. There is an inscription carved into the base stone. It is quite difficult to read now but I managed to decipher it: “ERECTED BY THE METROPOLITAN FREE DRINKING FOUNTAIN ASSOCIATION 1860”.
Why is this interesting? Because the Association was inaugurated only in 1858 and had installed its first drinking fountain, to great publicity, only in the previous year (1859). We now know this benevolent society as the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association but it took this name only in 1867, having recognized the importance of providing water to our four-footed friends as well. This fountain, then, represents a moment early in the Association’s history and is one of the earliest erected by it.
Further along is one of the cattle troughs for which the Association is famous and whose design changed hardly at all throughout its history. This one is inscribed with the full later name of the Association and bears an inscription naming the donor. Again, this is eroded and hard to read but I make it “The gift of S. H. Buxton 1889”. I have no idea who S.H. Buxton was, but the Association was successful in attracting funds from philanthropists and public figures who thus perpetuated their names in stone.
In these days when clean drinking water is taken for granted and every second person passing by in the street is carrying a plastic bottle full of the precious liquid, we find it hard to imagine the situation when these fountains and troughs were installed. That situation is graphically described on the Association’s Web site:
However, when the Association was set up in London in 1859 it was against a background of a filthy river Thames full of untreated sewage, rubbish and effluent from factories, water borne cholera, but most importantly inadequate free drinking water. An article in Punch magazine at the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 said ‘Whoever can produce in London a glass of water fit to drink will contribute the best and most universally useful article in the whole exhibition’. Then in 1858 a paper read to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science on the work being done to improve sanitary arrangements provoked much national interest, and Samuel Gurney M.P rapidly took up its comments. He set up the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association (as it was then called) in 1859. Prince Albert wrote conveying his deep interest in the objects of the Association. Others giving their support included the Archbishop of Canterbury and a number of other prominent people.
Leading off Commercial Street (and connecting it with another famous East End street, Brick Lane) is Fashion Street. I don’t know how it got its name but it is quite possible that this came from the fact that there were clothes markets in this area, including the famous Petticoat Lane, which resides in, and overflows from, the nearby Middlesex Street. (See also Caroline’s comment below.) It’s possible that this area once dealt in more upmarket garments, hence the name. (Note that that is just my speculation.) This end of the street seems to have become a kind of communal art centre. Every time I pass, the paintings and drawings are different.
And just a little further along, we get a glimpse of that famous market. There is no such street as “Petticoat Lane”, attractive as it might be to imagine that there is. The main part of this market is in Middlesex Street but the market tends to branch out and has formed a “limb” here in Wentworth Street. The market’s name came from the garments that it sold.
Arriving at Toynbee Hall, we went into the precinct to take a look and there found this small but pretty clock tower. Toynbee Hall was built in the late 19th century as the centre for an ambitious outreach programme that sought to provide education and support to the poor of the district by bringing in educated and skilled people prepared to give their time to working among the needy. Many important names have been connected with this institution during its 120-odd year history. Today, it is working as vigorously as ever to support and help the community of which it is an integral part. For a more detailed history, see this Spartacus article, and Toynbee Hall’s own Web site, especially its History page. The building is listed (Grade II) and beneath the clock are two plaques recording its repair from bomb damage (1965) and renovation (1995). Let’s hope that Toynbee Hall and its clock continue to function and adding to their already illustrious history.
Just down the road, we find a pair of pretty ceramic murals (the second slightly obscured by street furniture), indicating the presence of the Cannon Barnett Primary School. The name of the school memorializes and celebrates the life and work of Samuel Augustus Barnett (1844–1913) who, with his wife Henrietta Octavia Weston (1851–1936), came to St Jude’s Church in the 1870s and went on the found Toynbee Hall. The school’s History page also reminds us that Cannon Barnett founded the Whitechapel Art Gallery in order to provide access to art for the people of the area.
We crossed Whitechapel High Street into Leman Street where, on the corner on Allie Street, stands the Eastern Dispensary, a charitable foundation set up in 1782 to bring medical care and medicines to the poor who would otherwise have to go without. I have already photographed and written about this admirable institution – see Ice and curry.
My eye was next caught by this plain if elegant late-18th-century house which is listed. I must admit that what attracted my interest was the pillared porch with an architrave upon which there is an escutcheon. The symbols include a tower and a cornucopia and what looks like a double-bladed dagger but otherwise there is no clue as to what person or organization is represented. I hoped that learning who occupies the building might provide a pointer. Currently it is occupied by Global Grains & Ingredients Ltd and previously by the National Dried Fruit Trade Association and I doubt whether the escutcheon applies to either of them. That leaves a mystery to be solved another time.
We passed the old Co-Operative Wholesale Society offices at 99 Leman Street, built 1885-7 and today converted into 42 luxury apartments. The building is called Sugar House in memory of the fact that sugar refining was the industry of this corner of town and archaeologists have discovered sugar-refining equipment in a basement once attached to this building. The building itself is big and impressive with a tall clock tower but the height of the building and the narrowness of the street make it impossible to photograph properly.
At last we saw a blue sign pointing to our destination. This led us down Ensign Street and thence to a narrow, unnamed alley. Could this be the place? At first sight the building seemed to be boarded up.
Yes, it was the right place. We found ourselves standing in front of a façade that looked like a stage set for an Italian opera. This was Wilton’s Music Hall and we had come, hoping to take a look. Unfortunately, it was closed today so, as the title says, we’ll come back when they are open. Not having seen inside, I can only be guided by the history of the place, succinctly set out on the history page of Wilton’s Web site. There you can follow its story from 18th-century alehouse to concert room and music hall; from Methodist Mission Hall to theatre and again to Wilton’s Music Hall. It is a unique survival and, like all such survivals, still vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune unless funding can be obtained to secure it, not merely as an interesting historical remnant but also as a living theatre and music hall thriving and continuing into the future.
Passing through Wellclose Square, we happened upon this rather sad-looking building, solidly locked up. Is it about to be demolished? There are two panels on the side, both bearing inscriptions in rather over-egged Gothic script. The smaller reads “St Paul’s Mission Room” and the larger, perhaps more interestingly, bears the legend “St Paul’s Church for Seamen Infant Nursery”. Here, we are fairly near Wapping, an area which, when the docks were operating, would have been thick with missions, lodgings and churches for the seamen of all nationalities who fetched up here when their cargo ships docked.
It seems that this building stands on the site of a church established in 1696 for Scandinavian and in particular, Danish, seamen, a grant having been made towards its funding by Christian V (1646-99), King of Denmark and Norway. This would have been just one of the Scandinavian churches in the neighbourhood. In 1840 it was closed and the infants’ school built on the site. It now looks as though that building is itself about to disappear.
Heading for Cable Street, where we hoped to catch a bus, we passed through St George’s Gardens, once the churchyard and burial grounds of St George-in-the-East. This church, thus named for no better reason than to distinguish it from other churches called St George, was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and was dedicated in 1729. It was made tall in order to be seen over the other buildings that pressed close about it. At least, that’s the story: personally, I think that Hawksmoor just liked making tall churches. In 1941, an incendiary bomb gutted the interior of the church and the building remained a ruin until 1964 when a church-within-a-church was built inside it, reviving its fortunes.
On the way out to Cable Street to catch our bus, we passed this mural that celebrates what for many people, both at the time and since, was seen as a defining moment in the history of the East End.
On October 4th 1936, Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists, wearing uniforms and accompanied by large numbers of supporters dressed in black shirts, planned a march and the route, which would take them through an area of the East End having a high concentration of Jewish inhabitants, was seen as provocative. When applications to stop the march failed, 250,000 local people turned out to halt the march themselves in what went down in history as the Battle of Cable Street. This coalition of people of many races, creeds and political opinions succeeded in turning back the Fascists in an act that is seen as having significance beyond the events of that one day.
The painting was started in 1976 by Dave Binnington and completed by Paul Butler, Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort in 1983.
It now began to rain and we were glad to end our expedition and catch a bus north. On setting out, I had not know what to expect but, as usual, London had again surprised me at every turn with unexpected discoveries and echoes of a history so complex that no book can ever contain it all.