infobox UK place
country = England
map_type = Greater London
region= London
official_name= Spitalfields
latitude= 51.5166
longitude= -0.0750
os_grid_reference= TQ335815
post_town= LONDON
london_borough= Tower Hamlets
dial_code= 020

Spitalfields is an area in the borough of Tower Hamlets, in the East End of London, near to Liverpool Street station and Brick Lane. The area straddles Commercial Street and is home to two markets, the historic Old Spitalfields Market, founded in the 17th century, and the Brick Lane Market on Brick Lane and Cheshire Street.



The name Spitalfields is a contraction of 'hospital fields', in reference to "The New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopgate" founded here in 1197. [Thomas, Sloane and Phillpotts (1997) "Excavations at the Priory and Hospital of St Mary Spital, London". Museum of London: London: 19-20] .


Spitalfields was the location of one of Roman London's large extramural cemeteries, situated to the east of the Bishopsgate thoroughfare, which roughly follows the line of Ermine Street: 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. [cite book
last= Thomas
first= Christopher
title= Life and death in London's East End: 2000 years at Spitalfields
origyear= 2004
publisher= Museum of London Archaeology Service
isbn= 1-901992-49-7
pages= pp. 7-29
] [ [http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/learning/features_facts/digging/people/s1.html Discovering people at Spitalfields market] ]

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. [Thomas, Sloane and Phillpotts (1997) "Excavations at the Priory and Hospital of St Mary Spital, London". Museum of London: London: 19-20] . 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 Folgate. 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 London as one of the Tower liberties. [Thomas: pp. 30-75]


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 London, they hoped to avoid the restrictive legislation of the City Guilds. 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, Spitalfields on Fournier Street, 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 [Thomas: pp. 76-95]

Old Spitalfields Market, which receives 20,000 visitors every Sunday, was founded on 29 July 1682 on an undeveloped part of the fields - but near a former informal market. Construction began in 1684. The market was originally for both meat and vegetables, though by the 19th century the meat market had disappeared and fruit and vegetables became the staple product sold. In 1991 the wholesale fruit and vegetable market moved to New Spitalfields Market in Leyton. The originally open site was converted into a covered market 1875-93 by Robert Horner and further redeveloped by the Corporation of London 1920-1935. [Thomas: pp. 96-97]

From the 1730s Irish weavers came here, after a decline in the Irish linen industry to take up work in the silk trade. 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 a 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 Green.

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 Green and Shoreditch 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. [ [http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=22161 "Industries: Silk-weaving", A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2: General; Ashford, East Bedfont with Hatton, Feltham, Hampton with Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton (1911), pp. 132-137] accessed: 12 September 2008]

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 Street 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". [cite book
last= White
first= Jerry
title= London in the Nineteenth Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God
date= 2007-01-04
publisher= Jonathan Cape
isbn= 978-0224062725
pages= p. 323
] Another claimant to the distinction of being "the worst street in London" was nearby Dorset Street, which was highlighted by brutal killing and mutilation of a young women named Mary Kelly in her lodgings here by the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888. ["The Worst Street in London" Fiona Rule (Ian Allan Ltd, 2008) ISBN 978-0711033450] 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. [White: p. 331] 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 architect 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.cite book
last= Taylor
first= William
title= This Bright Field: A Travel Book in One Place
date= 2001-05-24
publisher= Methuen Publishing
isbn= 978-0413746900

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. Representing the modern association of the Bangladeshi community to this area, and neighbouring Brick Lane.

Art scene

The area is well known for its arts scene. Whitechapel Art Gallery 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 Severs 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:
* "A New Wonder, a Woman Never Vexed" (performed 1610-14; printed 1632) by William Rowley - this is a dramatisation of the foundation of St Mary Spital by Walter Brunus
* "Children of the Ghetto" (1893) by Israel Zangwill
* "The People of the Abyss" (1903), the journalistic memoir by Jack London
* "Hawksmoor" (1985) by Peter Ackroyd
* "The Satanic Verses" (1988) by Salman Rushdie
* "City of the Mind" (1991) by Penelope Lively
* "Downriver" (1991) by Iain Sinclair
* "Rodinsky's Room" (1999) by Iain Sinclair and Rachel Lichtenstein
* "The PowerBook" (2000) by Jeanette Winterson
* "Brick Lane" (2003) by Monica Ali

In film

19th century Spitalfields was recreated as the setting for the film "From Hell" about Jack the Ripper. This included a reconstruction (in Prague) of the notorious Ten Bells pub (still extant on Commercial Street): 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.
*Tracey Emin (1963 - ), artist, resides in Fournier Street.
*Gilbert & George (1943 - ;1942 - ), artists, reside in Fournier Street.
*Basil Henriques (1890–1961), for whom Henriques Street (formerly Berner Street) is named.
*Dennis Severs (1944 – 1999), lived at 18 Folgate Street 1979 - 1999.
*Dan Cruickshank (1949 - ), lives in Spitalfields.
*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 Whitechapel):
**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 Street, Spitalfieldscite book
last= (ed.) Sheppard
first= F. H. W.
title= 'The Wood-Michell estate: Hanbury Street west of Brick Lane' Survey of London: volume 27 - Spitalfields and Mile End New Town
origyear= 1957
url= http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=50169
accessdate= 2008-06-02
pages= pp. 189-193
**Mary Jane Kelly (c. 1863 – 1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, lived, and murdered, at 13 Millers Court, just off Dorset Street
**Martha Tabram (1849 - 1888), possible victim of Jack the Ripper, resided at a common lodging house at 19 George Street, Spitalfields. [Stewart Evans and Donald Rumbelow (2006) "Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates": 51-55]
**Mary Ann Nichols (1845 - 1888), victim of Jack the Ripper, resided at a common lodging house at 18 Thrawl Street, Spitalfields. [Stewart Evans and Donald Rumbelow (2006) "Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates": 56-62] [Paul Begg (2006) "Jack the Ripper: The Facts": 42]
**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. [Stewart Evans and Donald Rumbelow (2006) "Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates": 114-40]

ee also

*Bethlem Royal Hospital
*Spitalfield Riots
*Old Truman Brewery - The "Black Eagle Brewery" on Brick Lane, and into surrounding streets.
*Spitalfields Festival
*List of schools in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets
* Stepney Historical Trust



External links

* [http://www.vads.ahds.ac.uk/collections/EEP.html London Metropolitan University East End Archive: The Paul Trevor Collection] - photographs of the Spitalfields area from the 1970s to the 1990s.
* [http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=50149 The Priory of St Mary Spital]
* [http://www.spitalfields.org.uk/ spitalfields.org] TH Council website
* [http://www.spitalfieldscityfarm.org/ Spitalfields City Farm]
* [http://www.19princeletstreet.org.uk/ 19 Princelet Street] Unrestored Huguenot Master weaver's house, with synagogue. Rarely open to the public at present, but eventually to become a museum of immigration & diversity.
* [http://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/ Dennis Severs' House] 18th century time capsule
* [http://www.jacktheripper.de/schauplaetze/nachtaufnahmen Nighttime photos of Spitalfields, Whitechapel, etc.] ; a German language website, but mostly photos
* [http://www.kinetica-museum.org/ Kinetica Museum]

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Spitalfields — a district of east London, England, east of the City. It used to be famous for its large fruit and vegetable market, which was moved to north east London in 1991. Spitalfields still has Brick Lane, one of London’s largest flea markets (= markets… …   Universalium

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