Like much of East London, Brick Lane has traditionally been a refuge for the plucky underdogs of London, an area outside the protection of the original city walls, where numerous waves of immigrants arrived to set up shop, using their trades to establish a better life for themselves, often whilst fleeing persecution from their native countries. (Longest sentence world record attempt – not yet Guinness approved)
In it’s simplest form, (so far as we can work out), the foundations of Brick Lane are built on Flemish bricks, Huguenot silk, Jewish Tailoring and Bengali curries, with a decent amount of brewing and some excellent bagels thrown in for good measure.
Since the 15th century generations of immigrants have made Brick Lane their home, enriching the area with trades, religions, languages and cultures. Settlers with money moved into the city, but the rest had to make do outside the city walls. The streets of Whitechapel, and notably Brick Lane, became metaphorically and literally routes for foreigners into London.
The first to arrive and settle were the Flemish, who added brick-making and brewing with hops to the local area’s skill set (time to build some pubs). The name, as you might have guessed by now, comes from the brick kilns used by early Flemish settlers and made from the brick earth found here. It was originally named Whitechapel Lane.
A little later, in the 17th century, Protestant Huguenot refugees came here from France escaping one of the human race’s favourite pastimes – religious intolerance. They brought with them knowledge and skills that would make Spitalfields the centre of London silk weaving. By this time Brick Lane had become a popular location for breweries, with the Flemish brewing techniques flowering into established industries.
The famous brewing family, the Trumans, started their business here and you can still see their Black Eagle Brewery on the street.
The Irish were the next big wave of immigrants to Spitalfields. Many Irish immigrants had moved into the eastern edges of the City, looking for work and (you guessed it) escaping persecution back in Ireland, as well as starvation and poverty.
The next wave of immigration happened after a slightly different example of people not getting on – the assassination of the Tsar of Russia in 1881 (during his reign he emancipated serfs, abolished capital punishment and promoted universities. He also sent anyone who disagreed with him to freeze to death in Siberia so it’s not all good news). This single event provoked the greatest migration of people ever seen and a new wave of Yiddish-speaking Jews settled in East London, many tens of thousands settling in the “shtetl” of Whitechapel. The Sunday market, like the ones on Petticoat Lane and nearby Columbia Road, date from a dispensation given by the government to the Jewish community in the 19th century. At the time, there were no Sunday markets open because of the Christian observance of Sabbath.
By 1888, when the Ripper murders turned the eyes of the world on Whitechapel, the street gazette for Brick Lane was filled with Jewish names. (Read more about how prostitutes, poverty and Jack the Ripper led to Whitechapel becoming the birthplace of modern philanthropy).
When did Brick Lane become so spicy?
As the various groups of settlers became more prosperous they left, moving to slightly more upmarket patches of London. A move hastened by the Blitz in World War One. The war also gave Brick Lane a new immigrant population – Bengalis from the Sylhet district of what is now Bangladesh, who came to London after serving in the merchant navy during the war. Some ended up on Brick Lane, where they found work in Jewish tailoring shops, which in time they took over, or started curry houses or other businesses.
Belgian street artist Roa’s bird on Hanbury Street is a Crane, sacred to the Bengali people and is a reference to Tower Hamlets’ rich history of welcoming different immigrant populations. Read more about Street Art in East London. The community living in and around Brick Lane today is predominantly Bangladeshi. They brought with them new customs and food as well as giving Brick Lane a new nickname, Banglatown.
Today, Brick Lane and its surrounding streets are protected by Conservation Area status, ensuring that the cultural heritage of the area will remain for years to come. It contains some of the most architecturally and historically significant buildings in the Borough, including the exceptional group of 18th century houses around Fournier Street.
59 Brick Lane is a perfect reflection of the changing population of the area. It occupies one of east London’s oldest buildings which was originally established in 1743 as a Protestant chapel by London’s French Huguenot community. The building survived for more than six decades until 1809 when it became a Wesleyan chapel, bought by the “London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews”. From 1819, the building became a Methodist Chapel, then in the late 19th century, the building was adopted by yet another community. It became the “Machzike Adass” or “Spitalfields Great Synagogue”. The Jewish population gradually decreased over the years, with many moving to areas of North London. The synagogue, losing its worshipers, was eventually closed. During the 1970s, the growing Bangladeshi community required a place of worship, and the building at 59 Brick Lane was bought and refurbished. In 1976, it reopened as a mosque. (Read the full conservation story here)
Jeremy Gavron (author of ‘An Acre of Barren Ground’ – a historical novel about Brick Lane) believes that the Bangladeshis may be the last wave of immigrants to Brick Lane as the spread of the City and gentrification are making it difficult to find cheap rooms or work space. The same may be true of artists. Crisis homeless charity worker Yolanda de los Buies says about 15 years ago Spitalfields used to have the highest density of artists anywhere in Europe but that has all changed now. “Art and culture and community is being flattened by money making machines,” she says. “London is becoming a luxury business and commuter city without soul.”
Times are certainly changing, as they always have. Brick Lane comes from humble beginnings and has seen its fair share of history, people and changes over the centuries. Perhaps there is hope that this little street will continue to be a refuge for the persecuted and the artistic and for those looking to build a better life for themselves. Recent news that the borough of Tower Hamlets has created the highest number of affordable homes in the country since 2010 may be a step in the right direction.
If you’re thinking of moving into the area, take a look at our map of properties.
Cyclists in Brick Lane. Photo: Garry Knight via Flickr
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