Spitalfields Revisited. Photo: Paul Barkshire, text David Secombe.

Spitalfields Market, 1983. Photo © Paul Barkshire.

Further to yesterday’s post on the vanishing East End, here is Paul Barkshire’s noble ’80s study of this now-transformed landscape. Despite the changes wrought since, Spitalfields remains one of the few areas left where one can get a sense of the London of popular imagination. Dickens knew these streets. London’s horror of its past (and Dickens would probably have been in favour of razing Spitalfields altogether) has been replaced by gentrification, which in the case of this quarter, marks the eventual success of the property speculators who built fine houses for prosperous silk weavers in the early 18th century.

We will be offering more of Paul Barkshire’s London shortly … D.S. 


Spitalfields Market. Photo & text: David Secombe.

Photo © David Secombe 1990.

The opening of Chapter One of People of the Abyss by Jack London, 1902:

“But you can’t do it, you know,” friends said, to whom I applied for assistance in the matter of sinking myself down into the East End of London. […]  “Why, it is said there are places where a man’s life isn’t worth tu’pence.” “The very places I wish to see,” I broke in.”But you can’t, you know,” was the unfailing rejoinder.

“Then I shall go to Cook’s,” I announced. “Oh yes,” they said, with relief.  “Cook’s will be sure to know.”

“You can’t do it, you know,” said the human emporium of routes and fares at Cook’s Cheapside branch.  “It is so – hem – so unusual. […] We are not accustomed to taking travellers to the East End; we receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing whatsoever about the place at all.” “Never mind that,” I interposed, to save myself from being swept out of the office by his flood of negations.  “Here’s something you can do for me.  I wish you to understand in advance what I intend doing, so that in case of trouble you may be able to identify me.” “Ah, I see! should you be murdered, we would be in position to identify the corpse.” He said it so cheerfully and cold-bloodedly that on the instant I saw my stark and mutilated cadaver stretched upon a slab where cool waters trickle ceaselessly, and him I saw bending over and sadly and patiently identifying it as the body of the insane American who would see the East End.

The photo above was taken twenty-one years ago, and shows homeless people lingering around a bonfire of pallets near the old Spitalfields vegetable market. Hawksmoor’s majestic Christ Church is seen in the distance. Spitalfields used to be cited by ‘psychogeographers’ as one of those London locales where the sad history of the city was engraved upon its streets and buildings:  a place that was permanently wrong. The district’s association with poverty, with Jack the Ripper, the waves of the dispossessed that have settled over the centuries – this stuff was meat and drink to the likes of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. For his part, Jack London’s attempt to discover the Edwardian East End bore fruit in a book which documented in depressing detail the squalor of Spitalfields, and included photos of down and outs sleeping against the walls of Christ Church. In the 1960s there were moves to demolish the entire area – including Hawksmoor’s church – and the time-locked deprivation of the Georgian district was eloquently pictured by the makers of the film based on Geoffrey Fletcher’s London gazetteer The London Nobody Knows, and by photographers Don McCullin, Paul Trevor and (later) Marketa Luscacova. 

My picture dates from a moment just before the wealth and bombast of commercial London annexed the neglected East End. Spitalfields’ desirability as a property market perked up considerably around this time; long-term residents like Gilbert and George, Dan Cruikshank (who had been one of the original squatters who had helped save the area from destruction in the 1970s) and the American artist Dennis Severs, whose house is now a museum, acted as beacons of gentility amidst the inner-city gloom. And, as the 1990s rolled on, the East End went from being the Dark Heart of Old London to Shiny Retail Zone with bewildering speed. I remember laughing at my first sighting of Japanese tourists apparently lost in Shoreditch circa 1997 – but it was, I think, the same year that a Holiday Inn opened on Old Street. A visit to Spitalfields Market today is a trip to Covent Garden East: visitors are safe to purchase their branded goods and speciality coffees in a shopping environment free of disquiet. London Gothic has been displaced by Consumer Bland. It gives the lie to the theories of Ackroyd and Sinclair: with enough commercial pressure, any area, no matter how dark its history, can be transformed into a playground for contented shoppers. Cultural amnesia driven by money. However, given the recent unemployment figures, there may well be opportunities for a resurgence of old-fashioned Victorian deprivation in the East End, although this time it will be hustled to the margins of Whitechapel, Mile End, Barking, etc. D.S. 


London Monumental. Photos & text: David Secombe (2/5)

Raine Monument, churchyard of St. George in the East, Wapping. Photo © David Secombe, 1988.

From The Hole in the Wall, Arthur Morrison, 1888:

The Blue Gate is gone now – it went with many places of a history only less black when Ratcliff Highway was put to rout. As you left High Street, Shadwell, for the Highway – they made one thoroughfare – the Blue Gate was on your right, almost opposite an evil lane that led downhill to the New Dock. Blue Gate Fields, it was more fully called, though there was as little of a field or a gate, blue or other, about the place, which was a street, narrow, foul and forbidding, leading up to Back Lane. It was a bad and a dangerous place, the worst in all that neighbourhood. The sailor once brought to anchor in Blue Gate was lucky to get out with clothes to cover him – lucky if he saved no more than his life. Yet sailors were there in plenty, hilarious, shouting, drunk and drugged. Horrible draggled women pawed them over for whatever their pockets might yield, and murderous ruffians were ready at hand whenever a knock on the head could solve a difficulty.

Bluegate Fields, a.k.a. Blue Gate Fields, was a Victorian slum north of the Wapping docks. Two streets were once named Bluegate Fields, the ones now known as Dellow Street and Cable Street, streets which border St. George’s in the East churchyard on the east and northern sides respectively (St. George in the East is one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s six great London churches). Bluegate Fields is name-checked in The Picture of Dorian Gray as the den of vice where Dorian goes to corrupt his soul. Unlike Arthur Morrison, however, Oscar Wilde never visited Bluegate Fields. The area features in Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor which fictionalises the real Hawksmoor (in the novel he is called Dyer, whilst a 1980s detective is called Hawksmoor) as a shamanic figure and draws on the dark  history of the East End, presenting the wilder side of the city as a place that is permanently wrong.

I took the above photograph in 1988, during a rather aimless wander across the East End with a newly-acquired Hasselblad. Last year I revisited the churchyard for the first time in twenty years and was dismayed by the state of the Raine monument. They have at least put iron railings around it now, but persistent vandalism and successively desperate attempts at cleaning have rendered it as white and featureless as a corpse pulled from the river. As I lamented the damage, youths who might well be the sons of the vandals responsible for the decoration seen above cheerfully urinated against the church wall. Peter Ackroyd’s theories of Psychogeography are much mocked, but I confess that on this visit I wondered whether he might be on to something. The persistence of sadness, decay and deprivation in this bleak spot are hard to ignore: the spirit of Bluegate Fields lingers on, albeit in a different register.

© David Secombe 2011.



London Monumental. Photos & text David Secombe (1/5)

Caryatids, St. Pancras New Church, Euston. Photo © David Secombe, 2010.

From Georgian London, John Summerson, 1945/69:

St. Pancras is the queen of early nineteenth century churches; its architecture earns it the title, as much as its size and cost. Inwood’s flair for recapturing that nervous intensity of Greek architecture of the fifth century is very remarkable, and he seems to have had no difficulty in applying it to the commonplace objects of English practice.

The church stands on the corner of the Euston Road and Upper Woburn Place . It was consecrated in 1822, and was the most expensive church of its time – it was, in fact, the most expensive church in London since St. Paul’s. The father and son team of William and Henry Inwood won the competition to design the building and produced  a church in the Greek revival manner, complete with a pair of pavilions modelled on the Acropolis’ Temple of the Erectheum. (Henry Inwood had travelled much in Greece and is generally considered to have been the dominant force in the design of the building.) The terracotta caryatids that guard the crypt are a clear echo of their ancient Greek forbears – one of which resides at the British Museum, part of that long-contested group known collectively as the Elgin Marbles. On July 7 2005, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb on board a number 30 bus which had just passed the church, proceeding down Upper Woburn Place before its destruction in Tavistock Square. The steps of St. Pancras were one of the sites for floral memorials to mark the tragedy.

© David Secombe 2011.