With the exception of its inhabitants and of those who have business there to attract them, Spitalfields is but little known even to a large number of the population of East London, whose acquaintance with it is often confined only to an occasional journey in a tramcar along Commercial Street, the corridor leading from Whitechapel to Shoreditch. By them the choice of the site of the church, as well as that of the market, may very easily be attributed to the importance of the thoroughfare in which they are both now found; but such is not the case, for until the middle of the last century Commercial Street had not been cut through the district. The principal approach to Spitalfields had previously been from Norton Folgate by Union Street, which, after a widening, was referred to in 1808 as "a very excellent modern improvement." About fifty years ago this street was renamed Brushfield Street, after Mr. Richard Brushfield, a gentleman prominent in the conduct of local affairs.
The neighbourhood has undergone many changes during the last few years owing to rebuilding and to the extension of the market, but the modern aspect of the locality is not, on this occasion, under review, for the references which here follow concern its past, and relate to the manner of its early constitution.
In 1728 the parish of Christ Church, Middlesex (to give the legal appellation), was formed out of a portion of the old parish of Stepney. The vicinity, however, continued to be called by the name established by long usage, and which originally had been bestowed on a small area included in it, that is to say, the fields which once had been at the back of and adjoining the Priory of St. Mary Spital. This priory was founded by William Brune, a citizen of London, and his wife Rosia, in the year 1197 on the highway outside Bishopgate in the parish of St. Botolph. Although its lands had extended northwards to the boundary of the parish of Shoreditch, the site of the Spital was between what is now Spital Square and White Lion Street, where until recently there could be seen built in the first house on the north side a stone jamb marking where once stood an ancient gate.
This religious house, in the course of the years that followed its foundation, received many benefactions from the citizens of London, and at its dissolution in 1534, when its property was surrendered to King Henry VIII, there is evidence that its revenues had been at least partially appropriated to good uses, for, according to the historian John Stow "besides ornaments of the church and pertaining to the hospital, there was found standing one hundred and eighty beds well furnished for the poor, for it was an hospital of great relief." The date when the Priory and Spital - described as strongly built of timber with a turret at one corner - was demolished is not known, but sixty years after its dissolution, in 1594, the site was occupied by "many fair houses, builded for the receipt and lodging of worshipful and honourable men" (Stow)
On the east side of the churchyard of the Hospital (now Spital Square) there was a large field formerly called Lollesworth, and later Spital field, which came into the possession of the Bishop of London in the sixteenth century. It formed no part of the liberty of Norton Folgate, which anciently belonged to St. Paul's Cathedral, and which derived its name from the important Foliot family, one of whom, Gilbert, was Bishop of London from 1163 to 1186.
When the Spital field was broken up in 1576, for clay to make bricks, an interesting discovery was made. Many urns, coins, bones and vestiges of coffins were found, indicating that it had been used as a place of burial by the Romans. During the eighty years that followed the discovery there was very little change in the appearance of this and the adjoining fields, over which the archers and men with the cross-bow practised in Tudor days, and where then and long afterwards the citizens took their walks to Bethnal Green and Mile End amid rural surroundings.
In Cromwellian times here was the place of an occasional fair such as that to which allusion is made in the satirical verse of an anonymous writer who mocked the differences in the prognostications of those astrologers and mountebanks who:
In one poore day to vent their foolerie;
Whereupon resolved to constitute a faire
In Spittlefields, exposing each man's ware
To public view."
A change was soon about to take place. In 1657 an Act was passed which contained a clause enabling "William Wheler Esquire, who is by lease and contract engaged to build certain houses in and upon lands in Spitalfields in the parish of Stepney, at any time before 1 October 1660 to erect, new build, and finish, upon eight acres of the said fields, on part whereof divers houses and edifices are already built and streets and highways set out, several houses, and other appurtenances." This marks the beginning of the transformation of the district, for by 1660 the field was covered with buildings, and the remembrance of the occurrence is perpetuated in the name of Wheler Street.
Spital Square occupies the plot of ground on which there once stood, at the north-east corner, a pulpit cross, first found mentioned in 1398, from whence were preached for many years the celebrated Spital sermons during the Easter holidays. At these,the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Sheriffs always attended, robed in violet gowns on Good Friday and Easter Wednesday, and on the other days in scarlet. Near the south side of the pulpit was a two-storeyed house, built in 1488 at the expense of an Alderman, the first floor being for the accommodation of the Lord Mayor and the second for the bishops who might attend.
On such occasions persons of distinction became the guests of the Lord Mayor for the rest of the day, and were "lovingly and honourably both welcomed and entertained with a most liberal and bountiful dinner."
It is recorded by Hughson, the topographer of London, that in 1559 Queen Elizabeth I came into the City from St. Mary Spital "in state attended by 1000 men in harness with sheets of mail, corslets, and morrice pikes, and ten great pieces (cannon) drawn through the city, to her palace; the cavalcade was attended with drums, flutes and trumpets, two morrice dancers, and two white bears in cart." This was in the mayoralty of Sir William Hewett, and as probably was usual on such occasions, the Queen in the first year of her reign, honoured the Spital sermon with her presence.
The Spital sermons were here preached until the Pulpit Cross was destroyed in the troublous days of Charles I. From the Restoration to the year 1797 they were preached at St. Bride's Church, and since that time at Christ Church, Newgate Street.
Westwards of the Spital field there was an enclosed piece of ground which had belonged to the dissolved Priory, and which was called Tasel Close because teazles, a prickly plant, were grown there for the cloth-workers who used them in dressing their cloth. (A machine now used to carry out this process is still called a teazle.) Henry VIII granted this land to the Fraternity of the Artillery for their exercise ground, and here they shot at the popinjay with the cross-bow. The charter incorporating the Fraternity granted by the King was surrendered for a new one with larger powers given by Queen Elizabeth in 1585 during the Spanish threat of invasion. Here merchants and other citizens trained themselves and others in the management of guns, pikes and halberds, and to take command of the common soldiers. When the City troops mustered at the camp at Tilbury in 1588 the captains were selected from the Artillery Company and called Captains of the Artillery Garden.
"Well, I say, thrive brave Artillery Yard,
.....that has not spar'd
Powder or paper to bring up youth
Of London in the military truth."
-----Ben Jonson, Underwoods, xii.
The danger being past, the assemblies were neglected, and the artillery ground, enclosed by a brick wall, was reserved for the gunners of the Tower of London, who "levelling certain pieces of great artillery against a butt of earth made for that purpose, they discharged them" (Strype). When the members of the Artillery Company renewed their activities, and obtained the permission of King James I, weekly use of the ground was made by "divers worthy citizens, gentlemen and captains using martial discipline...to their commendation in so worthy an exercise."
About 1640 the Artillery Company, having greatly increased in number, removed from Spitalfields to Finsbury, and the two artillery grounds, the "Old" and the "New," were respectively so distinguished.
The use of the old Ground was continued by the London Trained Bands, and it was the place where the Parliamentarians enlisted their first soldiers against the King. Clarendon, referring to the battle of Newbury, wrote that "the London Trained Bands and auxiliary regiments, of whose inexperience of danger, or any kind of service beyond the easy practice of their postures in the Artillery Gardens, held till then too cheap in estimation, behaved themselves to wonder, and were in truth the preservation of the army that day."
Samuel Pepys recorded a visit to Spitalfields:
"20 April 1669. In the afternoon we walked to the Old Artillery Ground near the Spitalfields, where I never was before, but now by Captain Deane's invitation did go to see his new gun tryed, this place being the place where the officers of the Ordnance do try all their great guns."
In consequence of the Old Artillery Ground being subject to the Tower, it became one of its liberties, and, with the adjoining liberty of Norton Folgate, it was included among the Tower Hamlets, and ultimately the former liberty and part of the latter were incorporated in the Borough of Stepney.
by Sydney Maddocks
Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.