Ladies & gents, grafters & hipsters
In the 15th century, the area that would go on to bring us London’s first theatres, the Young British Artists movement, and cutting edge digital technology was still a collection of marshy fields outside the city walls. How did this grassland come to be the origin of so much art and industry? Here are a few of the key events that bring us up to date…
We’re not entirely sure who Hocq (or Hoch) was, but their name remains to this day. The Domesday book makes the first record of the area as an Anglo-Saxon farm or “fortified enclosure” belonging to Hocq, causing the area to become known as “Hogesdon” or “Hochestone”.
In 1415 the Mayor of London ordered the City wall to be broken towards Moorfields and built a gate called Moorgate. This was “for the ease of the citizens to walk that way upon causeways towards Islington and Hoxton”, at the time still marshy fields. The area became a popular place for city dwellers to get some fresh air and to partake in leisure activities and the fields were frequently used by archers honing their technique.
The ‘Copperplate’ Map of 1558 showed archery in Spitalfields and Finsbury Fields. Image – The Worshipful Company of Bowyers
Public pleasure gardens and homes for the well-to-do
By Tudor times (roughly 1450-1500) it really had become a hub of entertainment, with a number of public pleasure gardens established in the area, such as Pimlico Pleasure Gardens near what is now Hoxton Street as well as much theatrical activity (Shakespeare was known to hang around these parts). Some large manor houses had also sprung up by this time to provide ambassadors and courtiers country air near the city.
Duels and drama
On September 22, 1598, the playwright Ben Jonson fought a duel with a fellow actor named Gabriel Spencer in Hogsden (Hoxton) Fields in Shoreditch. He was arrested and tried at the Old Bailey for murder. He pleaded guilty and would have been executed if he had not claimed the right of clergy – a legal ploy by which he could be sentenced by an ecclesiastical court, where he recited a bible verse (the neck-verse) and was spared execution. He had to forfeit all of his possessions, and his left thumb was branded.
His first real success was his play Every Man In His Humor which he had performed for the first time only days before the duel in Shoreditch. The play was performed at the Curtain theatre in Shoreditch by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. William Shakespeare played a part in the show.
Hoxton Square is one of London’s earliest garden squares, details of which can be traced back to 1709. It was originally created as a central garden space to accompany a new housing development on what had previously been fields. The story of Hoxton Square’s history can be linked to the Austen family, Sir Samuel Beckett (Sheriff of the City of London in 1697) and Robert Hackshaw (a London ship owner and merchant). It is thought that Hoxton Square was originally inspired by Bloomsbury Square which had been completed in 1664. Originally designed to be a fashionable residential square, Hoxton Square’s genteel status was short lived, and by the 1800s it had become the heart of the Shoreditch furniture trade, with front gardens being converted into workshops. Its layout has remained relatively unchanged since with recent refurbishments mindful of its historic roots.
See more on the council’s page for Hoxton square
Craftsmen and modernisation
The area became a densely populated working district during the 19th century, particularly following the opening of the Regent’s Canal. Tailors, ironworkers, saddlers and cordwainers were all common in the area and the furniture industry took off when the canal’s completion eased the transport of heavy goods. By the industrial revolution in Victorian times, much of the industry had moved further out of the city to cheaper land. However, the cheap labour in the east of London made this still a profitable industrial area. Some skilled craftsmen, such as those working with working with high value artifacts, escaped the threat of mass production and were conveniently close to fashionable markets to thrive. Piano makers and showrooms abounded too. By 1901 there were over five thousand piano, cabinet and other furniture makers in Hackney and they had spread out from Shoreditch as far as Homerton.
Shoreditch’s population grew faster than any other London parish in the first half of the nineteenth century. The population had almost doubled between 1800 and 1830 and did so again between 1830 and 1860. By 1850 Hoxton New Town was built and Hoxton was part of London. Shoreditch Station was opened in 1840 and became Bishopsgate Goods Station in 1874 when the railway was extended to Liverpool Street.
Hoxton and Shoreditch have long been associated with the arts. In fact, it is claimed that the first two London theatres were built in Shoreditch. The first playhouse, called simply “The Theatre” of 1576 was on Curtain Road at the junction with New Inn Yard, the first permanent playhouse in Britain. James Burbage, the head of the Earl of Leicester’s Company of players, needed a permanent home for players to perform in, as the Lord Mayor had prohibited plays from being performed within the City walls. William Shakespeare came to Shoreditch as an actor and lived in Bishopsgate and possibly in Holywell Street. The first of his plays were performed in Shoreditch.
Artist Cyril Walter’s imagining of James Babbage’s The Theatre: the first purpose-built public playhouse in 1576
Charles Dickens knew the area and visited it sometimes when he walked the streets for inspiration for his works. Mr Micawber lived at Windsor Terrace, City Road (now demolished) and Oliver Twist lived in South Shoreditch.
In modern times, Hoxton saw the origin of the Young British Artists movement. Catalysed in part by the widespread deindustrialisation of London during the 1980s.
The availability of large, disused warehouses and workshops attracted artists, fashion designers and other creative specialists into the area, who set to work, putting the space to use in their creative endeavors. With graphic designers such as Jamie Reed (who worked with the Sex Pistols) and musicians such as John Foxx (founder of the group Ultravox) living and working in the area, Hoxton began to establish a reputation for new non-mainstream forms of cultural life. A little later, the property crash of the 1990s inspired landlords to semi-legally rent out property earmarked for commercial redevelopment. One of these locations became the area’s first permanent gallery, Factual Nonsense. It was set up by Joshua Compston, who moved into a former timber yard and Frenchpolishers on Charlotte Road in October 1992. The gallery is closely associated with the emergence of the Young British Artists, whose leading artists include Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
Damien Hirst’s artwork showing at Mason’s Yard | Hoxton Square in 2010
Even more recently, the creative industries in the area went digital and East London Tech City (known as Silicon roundabout) was formed. It is the third-largest technology startup cluster in the world after San Francisco and New York City
Tech republic’s Steve Ranger explains how it’s blossoming began – After the artists moved in, media and creative agencies followed. And then the tech startups saw the same benefits, of cheap rent and close proximity to the City, plus the developing artistic community, and moved in too. After the artists came the hipsters, and then the hackers and geeks.
So there we have it. A quick journey from marshy fields to the height of technology in just over 600 hundred years. For an area that’s been integral in the emergence of culture and industry over the centuries it’s fitting to see that new technologies and creative industries are helping ensure Shoreditch and Hoxton remain catalysts in London’s future.
Looking to sell your property?
Discover how much your property is worth if you sell it through Peach Properties
Want to rent out your property?
Find out how much rent you could receive if you let your property through Peach Properties