A History of Old Spitalfields

East London has never been short of historical heritage. From the drastic catastrophic Great Fire of London to times of citywide hardship and beyond, Spitalfields saw it all and still stands proud as one of London’s most historical landmarks. So what happened before the days of our modern vintage fairs and swanky cocktail bars?

Contrary to the bustling atmosphere of today, Old Spitalfields began life (for want of a better word) as a Roman cemetery in 300 AD. Having picked up it’s namesake from the local St Mary’s Spittel hospital and priory, the homeless masses who felt the wrath of the Great Fire of London descended on Spitalfields as a camping ground in 1666. 

That’s how it stayed until the late 1600s, when Old Spitalfields got it’s first taste of life as a market as granted by King Charles II. With flocks of French and Flemish protestants fleeing to Spitalfields to escape religious persecution, bringing new trade skills to the area, including silk-making expertise and the invention of Oxtail soup. 100 years later, the Jewish community not only bring a mechanized clothing trade to enhance the clothes distribution scene (thanks to the invention of the sewing machine), but also introduced the much loved bagel to the area for the first time.

Towards the end of the 1800s the Horner Buildings were constructed under the watchful eye of Robert Horner, and Charles Roberts Ashbee opened his Guild and School of Handicraft on Commercial Street, marking Spitalfields as an established craft scene… though locals weren’t so keen to hang around the area in 1888, when Jack The Ripper terrorised the East of the city by committing five grisly murders over a series of nights.

1900 saw East London peak as a cultural melting pot and establishes the communities still thriving here today, seeing in a new wave of Maltese, Irish, Scottish, West Indian, Somalian and Bangladeshi settlers to the area. The food trade in particular blossomed, and Bangladeshi cuisine found its London home on the famous Brick Lane, just across the way from the market. 

Come wartime, the locals remained close knit and patriotic, with fruit and veg vendors even clubbing together to contribute a Spitfire plane as an aid to the war effort. Naturally, they named it “Fruitation”.

Having survived two wars, Old Spitalfields market simply continued to flourish and capture the heart of Londoners and tourists alike. The monumental Horner Buildings have just been preserved to last at least another generation, and though shrouded in modern glitz the market still encapsulates its colourful past.