The rapid development of Spitalfields into a populous district was the result of a large number of French Protestants settling there towards the end of the seventeenth century. For the present only those circumstances that led to this settlement will be briefly told, but on a future occasion some further particulars concerning these people and their art of weaving will be given, for this community is closely associated with the neighbourhood and is an important factor in understanding much that relates to it.
It will be sufficient, perhaps, to say that these French Protestants - known as Huguenots - had made their escape from their native land when Louis XIV issued in 1685 the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which for over eighty years at least had afforded to them some measure of protection from extreme persecution on account of their religion. This treatment of the Huguenots in the long run impoverished France by the loss of a skilled, diligent, and thrifty population that became scattered in Switzerland, Holland, and England. They brought with them the knowledge of many arts and industries which was beneficial to the people that gave them an asylum. Settlements were made in various parts of England, and in them all kinds of handicrafts were established.
Of the number of Huguenots that came to the Metropolis, a large proportion were silk weavers, and among the remainder there were many who were engaged in the ordinary everyday trades vital for a community who spoke a foreign language unintelligible to the native shopkeepers. This coming of the Huguenots did not originate the silk weaving industry in the district: it was already existent in the neighbourhood when they came and doubtless it was because of this that the locality of their settlement was more or less determined.
During the course of the preceding hundred years or so a number of such refugees from Holland and France had reached our shores, and not a few of them, including weavers, resorted in the immediate eastern suburbs, for, on account of their foreign birth, they were ineligible to participate in the privileges of the City of London, though exceptions were made in certain cases to give to them this freedom to manufacture and to trade. Strype, the historian, who belonged to a family of weavers, and was of Dutch descent (though he was born off Petticoat Lane, in a court which was afterwards included in Spitalfields), informs us that many of these early refugees "planted themselves here (Hog Lane, otherwise Petticoat Lane) in that part of the lane nearest Spitalfields, to follow their trade, being generally broad weavers of silk, so that the lane soon became a contiguous row of buildings." This shows the direction taken by the inflowing population. The district lying outside the City boundary offered particular advantages for those engaged in silk manufacture as it was close to the most important place of sale, and because it was favourably situated to meet the demands of the ever-changing fashions.
In 1682 Spitalfields had grown to some size and in that year Charles II granted a Charter to hold a market. Its site - the nucleus of the great market of to-day - indicates the area which then had become populated, and which was afterwards called the "Old Town." A few years later the immigrants began to arrive in considerable numbers - how many cannot be stated - and the building of houses for their accommodation was carried on with amazing rapidity. The appearance of the locality was thereupon completely changed, and what had been open fields was covered by a network of streets, intersected by courts, alleys and yards. Nightingale writes (London and Middlesex, Vol. 3, ed. 1815): "During the reign of William and Mary (1689-1702) nearly the whole of what is now Spital Fields was erected, included Artillery Lane, Fort Street, Red and White Lion Streets, Church Street, all the way up to the back of Shoreditch Church, and from thence eastwards towards Bethnal Green and Whitechapel Road containing about 320 acres, pretty closely built and numerously inhabited."
The building as well, over an area of four and a half acres, bounded on the north by Church Street, and on the south by Slater Street, caused Brick Lane, which extends from Whitechapel to Shoreditch, to become an important entrance to Spitalfields from the east. This lane and Park Lane in West London have the distinction of being the two longest lanes in the Metropolis. It is first described as being a deep, dirty road for the passage of carts fetching bricks from the kilns in those fields whence it had its name, but before 1738 it had become, to the satisfaction of the inhabitants, a well paved street.
When Spitalfields came to be constituted a parish, this neighbourhood on its east side was called the "New Town," although in it was included Black Eagle Street, where as early as 1669 Truman's brewery was established.
According to Mr. John Walker, the Parish Clerk in 1746, the number of houses in Spitalfields at that time was 2,190. In this number there are not included those which were built on the old Artillery Ground or any in Norton Folgate or in Spital Square, and which were reckoned as extra parochial. The large houses in Spital Square and in various main thoroughfares were occupied by silk merchants and master weavers, while in the courts and alleys were congregated the artisans and journeymen. These courts and alleys, however much they were tolerable in those days had become, by the begining of the nineteenth century, breeding places for disease and for crime. During the last eighty years many improvements have been effected, more especially in recent times, and the neighbourhood has undergone a great change.
However, there can be seen to-day streets of old houses of the better class which are still standing, that recall by their unfamiliar aspect the old silk-weaving industry with which they are associated. These houses possess the remarkable feature of having broad lattice windows (or evidence of their being once there) extending along the entire width of the fronts. These windows were weavers' lights, and they are seen in many houses both large and small.
Apart from this characteristic, many of the houses are interesting and attractive on account of their being fine specimens of architecture and examples of the taste of their day. Such a one is Howard House, No. 14 Fournier Street, a generously proportioned house, erected in 1726 by some master weaver. It has three floors and a large superimposed attic which once contained the loom but which is now used as a costumiers workshop. It is stated by the present occupier that the silk for Queen Victorias Coronation gown was woven here. The handsome staircase is carved in hardwood. Fluted columns with Ionic capitals are placed on every turn, and the balusters are each varied in a slight degree from one another, the different lengths, too, giving variety. There are a hundred stairs and each one is deeply carved at the end with a triangular design of hops, barley, and wild roses. The spacious hall is panelled and from it there is a vista of where once a garden smiled but where now all is forlorn. When the day is done and these business premises are left in solitude, the old hall and the stairs could very well become quaint Fancys playground, where
... if you lie in hiding
And hardly breathe at all
You will see the grey-clad weaverfolk
Like shadows on the wall,
Dim shadows on the moonbeams
Of people of old France
Come trooping from the attics -
Salute, chassť, advance.
In the absence of definite figures regarding the population at this period, perhaps there is no better way of indicating the number of residents of French extraction than by referring to their places of worship in the neighbourhood. Between 1687 and 1703 eight French Protestant Churches were erected and subsequently two more were built, the last of them being in 1742. This was probably the largest of them all, as it seated 1,500 persons.
It is not to be supposed that at any time Spitalfields was entirely occupied by refugees, but in the early part of the eighteenth century they must have formed the major portion of its inhabitants. With the gradual intermingling of the foreign with the native population, and by the influx of new inhabitants and the removal of the old, the French element became lessened. This was shown by the dwindling that went on in the congregations of the French places of worship which was deplored by their ministers.
Upon a wall on the south side of the once Huguenot Church (now a Synagogue) in Fournier Street there is still to be seen the large sundial with the inscription "Umbra sumus" (We are shadows) which, with its universal application, so appropriately refers to the strangers who came and passed this way and who have faded almost from remembrance.
by Sydney Maddocks
Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.