“Have you any distinct idea of Spitalfields, dear reader? A general one, no doubt you have—an impression that there are certain squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches, far below the steeples, somewhere about London,—towards the East, perhaps…” (Dickens, “Spitalfields”)
“I am a stranger here”: An East End Exploration took us where many an urban observer has been before, through the crooked streets, marketplaces, and bustling thoroughfares that so intrigued Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Arthur Morrison, and many more since. Yet unlike many of these narratives, this walking tour sought to capture the diverse complexity of Spitalfields’ history, presenting the multiple perspectives that comprise the myriad identities of the area. Lead through the streets by Alan Gilbey – lifelong East Ender and excellent guide – and an energetic supporting cast of actors, this was part tour, part theatre, part history, that continued to inform, amuse and entertain for the two hours that we walked the streets on a cold and drizzly Sunday afternoon.
Taking the role of “social explorers”, we moved between locations which each revealed a different perspective on the region. Having learnt about the origin of the name Spitalfields – a contraction of “Hospital Fields”, as the area originally lay in empty land behind a hospital – we started with a heavily gated building and the story of the Huguenots, French Protestant refugees who brought the silk industry into the area in the 17th century; the building we stood at was one where imported goods were moved after shipping, away from the docks but just outside the city bounds. This was the first in a long tradition of textile manufacturers, and as we moved into Petticoat Lane we heard about the Jewish community that came to populate the region from the late 17th century, bringing in weaving expertise and establishing the Sunday markets. From there, it was swiftly past the multistory car park that stands on the site where Jack the Ripper murdered his last victim (this was emphatically not a Jack-the-Ripper tour), and on into one of the narrow, crooked streets that characterizes our idea of the nineteenth-century slum; for by the Victorian era, Spitalfields had declined to become one of the nation’s biggest social problems, seemingly beyond all hope and the subject of many social commentaries. One such text, Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, provided vivid illustration of this theme, and several passages from the text were read and performed at various sites throughout the tour, giving a continuous narrative (and temporal) thread to our understanding of the space.
As we reached Brick Lane, the final parts of the region’s history unfolded with stories about the Bangladeshi community developing in the later 20th century, bringing new cultural influences to the area whilst retaining the textile industry. All around us, though, was the contemporary history of an area that has been regenerated in recent years through an influx of artists that gave the region a trendy urban edge which is now becoming increasingly mainstream, causing the artists to move on and out; meanwhile, the city encroaches ever closer as buildings start to be bought up for office space (although happily, just last week the old fruit and wool exchange was saved from conversion into an office block).
The tour came to an end in a church where we encountered stories about the Salvation Army’s attempts to save the poor, and then for the last half hour we had the opportunity to hear more stories of the streets. Alan Gilbey recounted his own experience of growing up in the area, focusing on the 1980s when a group of teenagers were encouraged to write about their life in the East End, eventually forming a published collection which marked a significant shift in the narrative history of Spitalfields; no longer narrated by the urban explorer, the people constructed their own accounts of Spitalfields life. The final part of the tour continued this theme: in the format of speed-networking/dating, we moved between tables where actors inhabited the role of different characters to each tell a 5-minute story about an aspect of Spitalfields life: stories included the matchgirls’ and sailors strikes of the late 19th century, a more complex account of the different groups and communities that have inhabited Spitalfields, a story about the Salvation Army, and the bandstand at the centre of a park. It was an imaginative and effective end to the tour, a chance to explore more of the detail behind the bigger narratives.
The tour was a highly enjoyable experience, excellently well organised and performed. For me, it was a useful opportunity to hear a different set of perspectives on a region that, just a couple of weeks ago, I’d attended a conference about. It’s also very helpful to have finally been on a walking tour and I’ll be thinking more about the experience as I work more on thoughts about literary urban tours.
The tour was part of Spitalfields Music Festival which is still running until 23rd June and has an exciting line-up of events over the next week; the tour has now ended, but Alan Gilbey runs East End history walks which, if this experience was anything to go by, I’d highly recommend checking out.