Brick Lane is a vibrant and fascinating street in London's East End. Visit it to discover London's history of welcoming refugees and to enjoy one of the city's 'happening' places.
Over the years, I have been visiting Brick lane frequently for several reasons: it is near the Whitechapel Art Gallery; to eat bagels, biryani, and mishti doi (a Bengali sweetened yoghurt dessert); to buy ‘Indian’ snacks; and to have my hair cut. Even if you do not want to do any of these things, the long street that stretches north from Whitechapel High Street almost to Columbia Road is full of interest.
Before 1485, Brick Lane was called ‘Whitechapel Lane’. As early as 1401, land was leased along it (at a high rent) for tile making (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol11/pp52-63). On a map published in the 1560s, Brick Lane, which started life as a path through fields, is shown with its current name, but without buildings along it (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol27/pp123-126). By the 17th century, it was partly lined with houses and partly with fields (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/london-map-morgan/1682). The thoroughfare derives its name from the places that it passed, where either clay (for tiles) and/or brick earth was dug up. When the architect Christopher Wren (1632-1723) visited the lane in 1670, he had to walk along it because it was unsuitable for coaches. He found it to be very dirty and lined with mean dwellings. Despite many plans to ‘improve’ it, the lane retains its narrowness and lay-out that recall its rustic origins.
This exploration begins at Middlesex Street (called ‘Peticote Lane’ before about 1830), which is close to Liverpool Street station. It is only worth visiting on a Sunday morning, when it is filled with stalls selling mainly clothes. This is the ‘Petticoat Lane’ Market. It runs through the part of Spitalfields that used to be well-known for garment manufacture. In the 17th century, much of this trade including dyeing and weaving was carried out by Huguenot refugees who had fled from France, and then later in the 19th century by Jewish refugees, who had sought refuge from the pogroms in the Russian Empire.
There are numerous stalls along the street. Many of them offer clothes allegedly made by well-known manufacturers, such as Marks and Spencers, Armani, and H&M, at knock-down prices. Quite a throng of people visit this market each week. Where Middlesex Street ends at the western end of Whitechapel High Street, there stands a tall conical sculpture covered with figurative bas-reliefs. This is ‘Spitalfields Column’ sculpted by Richard Perry in 1995.
Almost opposite this across the main road, there is a pub called The Hoop and Grapes. Built in the late 17th century on the site of St Bride’s graveyard, it is a rare surviving example of a type of building that used to be quite common in London (see: https://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1064735).
Moving east along Whitechapel High street, passing Osborn Street (the southern stretch of Brick Lane), we reach Altab Ali Park. This park is built on the site of St Mary’s Church, which was destroyed by bombing in 1940, and its cemetery. It commemorates the murder of the 24-year-old Bengali machinist in May 1978, which was perpetrated by members of the racist National Front (see: “Spitalfields: a battle for land”, by C Forman, publ. 1989). When Bengalis from Bangladesh began arriving in the East End during the 1970s, there was much antagonism to them. This was exploited ruthlessly by the National Front.
The pleasant park contains a few gravestones and, also, a replica of the Shaheed Minar Martyrs’ Monument, which was originally erected in Dhaka (Bangladesh) to remember those killed during the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations of 1952 in what was then East Pakistan. The wrought-iron gateway to the park designed by David Peterson, and installed in 1989, combines elements of traditional Bangladeshi design with English Perpendicular gothic architecture. The former St Mary’s Clergy House survived the Blitz, and currently houses a Japanese restaurant.
St Boniface German Roman Catholic Church, just south of the park, was consecrated in 1960, having been rebuilt on the site of an earlier church that was destroyed (by German bombing) during WW2. The first church was founded in 1809 to cater for the needs of German-speaking immigrants, who had settled in the East End. Many of them were involved in the sugar industry. The church continues to be used by German-speakers. Being so close to London’s docks, Spitalfields, the area through which Brick Lane runs, and neighbouring areas in the East End was the locale where immigrants from many places (including France, Ireland, Germany, and Russia) first settled, the most recent being people from Bangladesh. With the advent of air travel and the Channel Tunnel, later immigrants have made their first homes in Britain in a more diverse set of locations.
Across the road, almost facing the park, one cannot miss the art-nouveau façade of the Whitechapel Art Gallery), which now also occupies its neighbour the former Passmore Edwards Library. It was designed by Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928). The gallery’s foundation was encouraged by the local social reformers Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta (see: “Henrietta Barnett: Social Worker and Community Planner”, by M Watkins, publ. 2011). This couple, who later founded the Hampstead Garden Suburb, strongly believed that bringing art to the poor, who lived in the East End, would uplift them both morally and culturally. Whether they achieved this or not, the gallery remains one of London’s most exciting venues for contemporary art exhibitions.
A plaque on the wall of the gallery records that the short-lived Jewish artist and painter Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) “studied here”. This refers to the Passmore Edwards Library, which opened in 1892 and closed in 2005. Known as the ‘University of the Ghetto’, it was a haven for many generations of studious refugees. “Until the 1970s, when they completed their exodus to the elevated heights of Stamford Hill and Golders Green, working-class Jewish men and women went there to read the books and newspapers that they lacked in their tenement homes” (see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3645535/University-of-the-Ghetto-makes-way-for-ideas-store.html). Later, the Jewish readers were replaced by Somali and Bangladeshi refugees.
A narrow alleyway next to the west side of the gallery leads to an anarchist bookshop, the retail outlet of the Freedom Press, whose history extends back to the earliest days of anarchism (see: https://freedompress.org.uk/freedom-press/). Although the arrangement and display of the books and pamphlets on sale here is anything but anarchic, many of the texts relate to the theory and practice of anarchism.
Khushbu restaurant stands at the corner of Osborn Street and Whitechapel High Street. This unpretentious eatery offers great north Indian food at low prices, and it is considerably better quality than most of the numerous restaurants on the rest of Brick Lane. It prepares an excellent biryani, but only twice a week: lamb on Wednesdays, chicken on Fridays. The Sonali Bank on Osborn Street is a Bangladeshi bank serving the mainly Bangladeshi population around Brick Lane.
A short way up Brick Lane, a somewhat damaged archway with oriental motifs crosses the road. Next to it is the former ‘Ye Frying Pan’ pub. There has been a pub on this site since before 1805. It closed in 1991. The premises now house ‘Shaad’, a Bangladeshi restaurant. Just north of this, there is a row of food shops catering to the local Bangla people. One of these, a confectionery shop, supplies delicious freshly-made mishti doi.
The ‘Pride of Spitalfields’ pub in Heneage Street, which was laid out in the early 19th century, has a remarkably rustic feel about it. Entering this old-fashioned pub is like stepping out of cosmopolitan London and into village England. The pub was founded as ‘The Romford Arms’ in the 19th century next to ‘Best & Co’ brewery, which closed in 1902.
The south side of Fashion Street (originally called ‘Fossan Street’, when it was laid-out in about 1655) is occupied by a building with pseudo-Moorish facades (built 1905). This building, ‘The Fashion Street Arcade’ was the creation of builder Abraham Davis, who ran out of money to pay its rent in 1909, before completing his ambitious plans for it (including shops, baths, and reading rooms).
Christ Church School on Brick Lane is a neo-gothic Victorian building. A plaque on one of its walls records that the present building was built in 1873 to replace an earlier building containing the parochial schools and house, which used to stand in the courtyard of the local church, Christ Church Spitalfields. This church, which stands on the corner of Fournier Street and Commercial Street, is a masterpiece by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1666-1736).
The Brick Lane Mosque or ‘Jumma Masjid’ stands at the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street. It is housed in what was once a Huguenot Church, then a Wesleyan chapel, then a Methodist chapel, and then a synagogue (its congregation, ‘Machzike Hadath’, now has a synagogue in Golders Green). This was built in 1743. It started being used as a mosque in 1976, by which date many Bangladeshi people had begun living in the area. A shiny, decorated stainless-steel columnar minaret, 90 feet high, stands outside the mosque.
Fournier Street, which used to be called ‘Church Street’, is lined with 18th century houses, many of which retain original external features including elaborately decorated front doors. Number 33a, the entrance to a courtyard, is flanked by the doorways to numbers 33 and 35. A sign above 33a reads “S. Schwartz”, a Jewish name. This house like most of the others in the street were originally owned by Huguenots with French surnames. Schwarz’s name and that of CHN. Katz (a dealer of string and paper bags; see: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/secret-history-1096624.html) at 92 Brick Lane are reminders of the important Jewish presence in the district in the 19th and 20th centuries (some years before the Bangladeshis began arriving).
Lovers of historic vernacular architecture should wander down Fournier Street, whose present name has Huguenot origins, and then enter Wilkes Street and Princelet Street. These thoroughfares are richly endowed with 18th century buildings mostly in good repair, displaying many original external fixtures and fittings including fine door-knockers. Many of these fine homes were built by wealthy Huguenots as single-family dwellings, but, as time passed, many of them became subdivided into flats.
The Jewish Miriam Moses (1884-1965) was born in Princelet Street, near where there had once been a small synagogue (at number 19). Daughter of a Jewish immigrant tailor, she was a feminist and social reformer. She became Stepney’s first female Mayor in 1931(see: “The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History”). A house almost opposite bears a faded board with the words ‘Modern Saree Centre’. It closed some time ago.
Returning to Brick Lane, it is impossible to ignore the often-vibrant signs above a cluster of restaurants run by Bangladeshis, offering Indian and Bangladeshi food. Each one of them boasts winning a prize, anything from “Best Curry House on Brick Lane” to “One of the World’s Best Curry Houses”. I have not tried any of them, so cannot comment on whether the accolades are deserved. If I want to eat Indian food in this area, I make a bee-line for Khushbu (see above), which does not display any extravagant claims. Until it closed some years ago, we used to enjoy excellent biryanis (cooked by Punjabis from Lahore) at ‘Sweet and Spicy’ at the corner of Chicksand Street. This has been replaced by an eatery serving ‘sticky wings’.
Hafiz barber shop on Brick Lane used to be run by three Lahori Punjabis. My wife often used to wait for me there while my hair was being cut. The three men would chat animatedly but amicably with her in Hindustani about India, her native land, and Pakistan, their native land. At the same time, a television used to broadcast a Pakistani channel, which I could just see out of the corner of my eye from where I sat having my trim. These three have sold their shop, which used to look slightly unkempt, to new Pakistani-born owners, who have smartened the place. They also do a good cut, and, like their predecessors, are friendly.
Nearby, there is a 20th century building with the word ‘Mayfair’ in large tiled letters at its top. This was a cinema that functioned between 1937 and 1967. For a brief while after that, it showed ‘Bollywood’ films (see: http://www.eastend-memories.org/cinema/cinemas.htm). Even as late as the 1950s, the majority of the Mayfair’s clientele was Jewish (see: Gil Toffel: “Cinema-going from Below: The Jewish film audience in interwar Britain”, in Participations, Vol 8, issue 2, Nov 2011). Currently, the former cinema building is home to two restaurants and an estate agent.
The middle section of Brick Lane is dominated by the premises of the Truman Black Eagle brewery. The following is summarised from an on-line history of it (see: https://www.trumansbeer.co.uk/about-us/the-brewery/). The brewery was founded in 1666, when Brick Lane was still a track through fields. For a brief period during the 18th century, it was the world’s largest brewery. In 1989, the brewery closed. In 2010, James Morgan and Michael-George Hemus revived the Truman’s brewing activities, opening a new brewery in Hackney Wick in 2013.
The enormous Brick Lane premises, which are well-worth exploring, are currently used as a recreation area containing, markets, spaces for artistic events, restaurants, food-stalls, and restaurants. Although beer is no longer brewed here, the old brewery is a hive of activity, and very popular with visitors. Some of the brewery’s buildings were built in 18th and 19th centuries. The ground floor of the building where the beer was brewed is now used as an antique market. Its ceiling is supported by metal pillars, but it is the floor which I found most interesting. It is criss-crossed with a network of rail tracks sunk into it. These were used to guide the barrels around the area. The casks were filled from shoots (no longer visible) that allowed the beer to flow down from the floor above, and when full, these heavy vessels were rolled along the tracks to a loading area.
Across Brick Lane from the brewery building with a clock tower, there is another historic part of the brewery, which was once the home and office of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845). In 1811, Buxton became a partner in the Truman company (which became known as ‘Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co.) In addition to this, he was: a Member of Parliament; an anti-slavery activist; an opponent of capital punishment; a supporter of prison reform; and a founder of the (now ‘Royal’) Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Just beyond the brewery, there is the Brick Lane Bookshop, which is well-supplied with books about London’s East End. The bookshop started life as a ‘community bookshop’ in Watney Market in 1977 (see: http://bricklanebookshop.org/history/Our%20History%20-%20In%20The%20Beginning.html). After moving to Whitechapel Road for a few years, where it was known as ‘Eastside and attracted many local writers and artists, it moved to Brick Lane.
Sclater Street, just north of the railway bridge, has retained its original 18th century street name sign. Dated 1778, this decorative sign is attached to a wall next to two newer signs, one in English, the other in Bengali script. In the 19th century, a bird market was held in Sclater Street on Sundays. Sunday is still a popular market day in the East End (e.g. the Petticoat Lane Market and the Columbia Road flower market).
All of the street name signs along and near to Brick Lane are in both English and Bengali. My wife, who, having been educated in Calcutta, can read the Bengali script, says that the signs in that script are precise transliterations of the English names. One street whose name amuses me, is ‘Bacon Street’. In the 19th century there was a ‘ragged school’ (for educating destitute children) on this street, but I do not know if its name refers to food or a person. It does not seem an appropriate name for a thoroughfare in a district which was once populated mainly by Jews, and now by Moslems. Before 1912, the section of this street to the east of Brick Lane was known as ‘Thomas Street’ (see: http://www.maps.thehunthouse.com/Streets/), but the western section has always been Bacon Street.
On Sundays, the section of Brick Lane between the brewery buildings and Bethnal Green Road becomes a vibrant, bustling street market with plenty of stalls selling food and a wide variety of other goods. On a recent visit, I saw a man with several chess boards in front of him. Out of his love for the game rather than for financial gain, he was willing to challenge any passer-by to a game. He played several games at once and at great speed. Just beyond him, the queue stretching out of the Beigel Bake at number 159 Brick Lane was long.
The Beigel Bake, not to be confused with its inferior neighbour ‘Beigel Shop’ at number 155, is a marvellous establishment. It is open 24 hours a day, and serves the best filled bagels that I have ever eaten. The warm juicy salt-beef, which is made on the premises, is generously stuffed into freshly baked Jewish-style bagels (made in a kitchen visible from the shop) with or without gherkins and mustard. It is difficult to open one’s mouth wide enough to bite into these enormous flavoursome sandwiches. For those who do not like beef, there are other fillings including chopped herring, egg, smoked salmon, and cream cheese. In addition to the bagels, this popular outlet sells breads and cakes.
The Beigel Bake opened in about 1976, and superseded one owned by a Mr Lieberman. According to Rachel Lichtenstein (in her book “On Brick Lane”, publ. 2007), there was a bagel bakery on this site since 1855. The Beigel Bake offers some of the best value quality food in London.
Brick Lane continues north of Bethnal Green Road, but soon peters out both physically and in its liveliness. If you do venture here, take a look down Padbury Court (formerly ‘Princes Court’).
In the 19th century, a William Padbury owned a box-making business in this lane (see: https://www.ancestry.co.uk/boards/thread.aspx?mv=flat&m=3&p=surnames.padbury). One side of the road has modern housing, but the other has a row of two-storey brick-built modest dwellings, probably 19th century. A stone in the gardens opposite Padbury Court commemorates the planting of an oak tree in 1996 by the Boundary Community School, a community centre in nearby Club Row. This was done to raise awareness of our effects on the environment in the minds of young people. If you continue north from here, you will eventually reach Columbia Road, where a Sunday flower and plant market is held (discussed elsewhere). Alternatively, retrace your steps down Brick Lane to Buxton Street.
Buxton Street (once called ‘Spicer Street’) runs east along the northern boundary of the old Truman brewery. First, it skirts an open space, a recreation ground, called Allen Gardens. This land, now owned by Christ Church Spitalfields, was formerly the site of All Saints’ Church, Buxton Street. Built in a ‘Norman’ style to the designs of a pupil of Augustus Pugin, Thomas Larkins Walker (1811-1860), it was consecrated in 1839 (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol27/pp265-288#h3-0004). Although it survived WW2, it was demolished soon after 1951, when its parish merged with that of its neighbour Christ Church.
Allen Fields surrounds a cluster of old brick buildings, a tiny microcosm of Victorian London. They face onto both Buxton Street and the short, narrow, cobbled Shuttle Street. Number 35 Buxton Street, a fine Georgian residence, was formerly the vicarage to All Saints’ Church. Across the small cobbled cul-de-sac, Shuttle Street, stands The Old St Patrick’s School. It was once a Roman Catholic school. It was built between 1831 and 1833 to the designs of a builder, William Bush. In 1848, prior to the construction of the nearby neo-gothic St Anne’s Church (first used in 1855, but only completed in 1894; architect: Gilbert Blount [1819-1876]) , the school was used to hold services on Sundays. Now, the building is no longer a school.
East of The Old St Patrick’s School along Buxton Street, we reach a real treat. But before doing so, spend a moment in Spital Street, where a graffiti-covered doorway marks the entrance to the old Trumans brewery cooperage, the place where barrels were assembled using staves of wood and iron hoops.
The treat is Spitalfields City Farm (see: http://www.spitalfieldscityfarm.org/), one of several such farms that I have visited. Founded in 1978, it is wedged between Buxton Street and a railway line busy with frequent trains travelling to and from Liverpool Street. This oasis of greenery and farmyard is, and has always been, lovingly maintained by volunteers. Close to the railway line and standing amidst various flowering plants including some tall sunflowers, I saw a Mongolian-style yurt, apparently the only yurt in the east of London. It can hold up to twenty people, and is hired out for holding parties. There is also a café and a farm shop, selling plants and vegetables.
The farm has several enclosures containing animals. I saw a couple of large pigs taking a siesta under two large, leafy trees. Two donkeys were being fed by visitors in an area overlooked by the west front of St Anne’s Church. In the neighbouring small field, there were a number of goats with variously coloured furs. In between the animal areas, there were terrains planted with vegetables, fruits, and flowering plants. Signs in both English and Bengali exhort people to wash their hands after touching animals. This compact but lovely farm is in the heart of what was once one of the most economically-deprived areas of London. I enjoyed visiting it, and when I was there I could see that children were loving the experiences that are otherwise difficult for inner-city London children to savour.
Brick Lane is well-worth visiting, not only because of its fascinating reminders of communities that used to live there, but also because of its vibrant Bangladeshi community, and, also, because it has become a magnet for trendy youngsters and tourists.
Many of the ‘trendy’ shops offer clothes and other gear for youngsters, who regard themselves as ‘indie’ – that is to say ‘alternative’, they want to stick out from the crowd. However, in Brick Lane, the crowds of youngsters who all want to be ‘indie’, have a uniformity that seems contrary to the concept of ‘indie’. Although diversely dressed, often in ‘retro’ clothes (i.e. clothes that were the rage in the 1950s to 1980s), these ‘indie’ folk have, actually, succumbed to a new conformity.
This survey of the delights of Brick Lane and around will be followed soon by another piece that will concentrate on the immigrants that arrived in the area before the Bangladeshis: namely the Huguenots and the Jewish people. If you have not yet visited Brick Lane, you should do so soon.