IMAGES COURTESY OF LONDON TRANSPORT MUSEUM AND TECH CITY NEWS
Shoreditch High Street and its surrounds have undergone constant evolution; from soggy marshland to a village landscape in the middle ages, from a sphere of entertainment to a hub of debauchery in Victorian times, and from a centre of culture to its current status as Tech City today.
Present infrastructure provides a narrative for the past; we take a walk back in time to a history illustrated by the nooks and crannies, alleyways and faded signs, and warehouses and brick facades that still survive to tell the tale - honing in on Shoreditch High Street.
Before the 12th century, Shoreditch High Street was mostly an unoccupied rural and leafy landscape - it is thought the only traces of human civilisation before then would have been an Iron Age trackway at the north end, where Old Street presently resides. Address No.1 on today's Shoreditch High Street was in fact the Augustinian Priory of St. John the Baptist in 1158, which came to be known as Halliwell Priory, and then Holywell Priory, due to its locality to a ‘holy well’ - in actuality a natural spring, revered by pagans and later Christianised with the belief that the saints themselves made the water flow. The priory went on to become the richest nunnery in the country and grew over five centuries to cover eight acres of land, but as a Catholic establishment, it was dissolved in 1539 thanks to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, implemented after he made himself supreme head of the new Church of England. In the last twenty years, remains of the priory, including the church walls, have been found on Shoreditch High Street in archeological digs on behalf of Transport for London.
IMAGES COURTESY OF EXCAVATION REPORT BY HANA LEWIS - FROM PREHISTORIC TO URBAN SHOREDITCH; EXCAVATIONS AT HOLYWELL PRIORY, HOLYWELL LANE, LONDON EC2. DISTRIBUTED BY ARCHAEOLOGY DATA SERVICES.
16th century onwards
In the 16th century, the grounds where Holywell Priory once stood became home to the first Elizabethan playhouses in London, built by James Burbage. ‘The Theatre’ in 1576, and ‘The Curtain Theatre’ in 1577, were also early hosts to Shakespeare and his acting troupe before they made The Globe Theatre their home. The East End had become London’s first ‘Theatreland’, with The Curtain located between what is now Shoreditch High Street and Curtain Road, its archaeological remains discovered in 2011 just behind what is now the Crowne and Shuttle pub. Both the theatre and the road were named Curtain for their proximity to the city wall, known at the time as the ‘Curtain Wall,’ rather than any relation to the traditional theatrical curtain.
In the 17th century, Hackney thrived on its market and nursery gardens, though it was less renowned than neighbouring Hoxton for supplying the city with horticultural produce. It also hosted madhouses and workhouses - one of which was set up specifically for the parish of St Leonard's. Perched at the top of Shoreditch High Street, St. Leonard’s church or ‘Shoreditch Church’ as it’s more commonly known as today, has stood in that very place all the way back to the 12th century, when it dominated the skyline. In the 1700s high winds destroyed parts of the steeple, and a few years later one of the corners of its towers gave way, injuring many during Sunday service, so ultimately it was rebuilt to its existing form in 1740. As the culture of Shoreditch evolved into the arts, regulars in the church would include prosperous families as well as big names such as William Shakespeare’s acting troupe and his close colleague James Burbage, who was eventually buried in the grounds - the picture above is . The church gained its own fame through the Tudor nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ which goes, "When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch". Along with its clerics house next door, the church is the oldest building still standing proudly at the peak of Shoreditch High Street.
IMAGES COURTESY OF LONDON TRANSPORT MUSEUM AND TECH CITY NEWS
Regents Canal opened in 1820; making cheap work of timber transportation, helping to change the Georgian perception of furniture making from a craft to an industry, and establishing South Shoreditch as the centre of trade during the Victorian era. Initially people converted their homes into workshops for domestic and industrial use, till eventually they became warehouses and the area increasingly became commercialised by wholesalers. Niche hardwood-workers such as piano and cabinet makers - along with finishing specialists in French polishing, veneering, carving and guilding - all moved here, transforming the quarter into a marketplace that attracted workmen of other trades, like printers and tailors. This made way for the likes of Jeremiah Rotherham & Co, a retail and wholesale draper at 85-91 Shoreditch High Street which evolved into an early fashion-led department store.
JEREMIAH ROTHERHAM AND COMPANY, 85-91 SHOREDITCH HIGH STREET. 16TH FEB 1894 VIA ENGLISH HERITAGE
“After I had finished my day’s work, I took a hansom and journeyed to High Street, Shoreditch. Proceeding down that. thoroughfare, after passing the railway station, the cabman drew up outside a modest-looking draper’s shop. At first I thought there must be some mistake. Could these be the premises of Messrs. Jeremiah Rotherham and Company, who, I knew, employed on their establishment nearly five hundred persons? On alighting from the cab my doubts were set at rest, for I perceived that the shop was only a small section of the premises, the frontage of which extended down the High Street for about one hundred and eighty feet,” wrote Montagu Williams in his 1892 social documentary called Round London: Down East and Up West.
The middle of the century saw the start of another theatre boom in the East End; The National Standard Theatre established itself at 2/3/4 Shoreditch High Street in 1837, one of the largest playhouses in London where the likes of Sims Reeves, Mrs Marriott and James Anderson appeared - they performed classical opera and Shakespeare as well, alongside greats such as Sir Henry Irving. Later, in 1856, The Shoreditch Empire was opened, and rebuilt in 1894 by Frank Matcham - the same architect of still standing Hackney Empire. A number of playbills and posters from Hackney’s music halls survive, and can be seen in the collections of the Bishopsgate Institute and the V&A.
This incoming of a new era in entertainment coincided with the opening of Bishopsgate Station (initially named Shoreditch by the Eastern Counties Railway) on Shoreditch High Street, pushing families out into the surrounding streets. This has drastic social consequences, such as the resulting overcrowding to the north, which became the notorious crime hotspot, the Old Nichol. The vicar of the church serving the area was quoted by Frederick Engels in 1844 stating that population density was 8.6 people to a small house, and that there were 1,400 houses in an area less than 400 yards square. Less than 20 years later, John Hollingshead, of the Morning Post, wrote that the Old Nichol had grown even more squalid as old houses decayed and traditional trades became masks for thieves and prostitutes. A lack of sanitation and running water only compounded the situation, with the death rate twice that of the rest of Bethnal Green, and four times that of London - one child in four died before his or her first birthday.
Arthur Morrison visited the area and consequently drafted the barely fictionalised, A Child of the Jago; an account of the life of a child in the slum (‘The Jago’) where he wrote “What was too vile for Kate Street, Seven Dials, and Ratcliffe Highway in its worst day, what was too useless, incapable and corrupt - all that teemed on the Old Jago.” The rookery was cleared and in 1890, development of what was arguably the world’s first ever estate began - the Boundary was born.
With the emergence of Liverpool Street Station around the corner, the new terminus only lasted 35 years, from the 1st of July 1840 to November 1875 when it closed to passenger traffic, becoming Bishopsgate Goods Yard in the years to come. It handled huge volumes of goods, for onward transportation to their destinations, but a fire destroyed the station and the site became derelict- bits of it are now Grade II listed, such as the gates to Shoreditch High Street and a 260 metre long Braithwaite Viaduct. Nowadays, small businesses and sports activities are temporarily hosted beneath the historic brick arches, next to Shoreditch High Street overground.
Unlike today, Shoreditch High Street had significantly less traffic - it’s cobbled streets were worn from pitter patter of feet and the soft galloping of horse-drawn carts. The picture below depicts a street book market at a time when literature production was on the incline - in the background can be seen Lynes tailors (now Peruvian restaurant Andina) and Brandons tailors (which eventually became part of London’s biggest gay sauna chain, Chariots).
In 1876, the northern end of Shoreditch High Street was widened, making way for large-scale premises and bringing further commercial opportunities - encouraging a property boom. Not content with the flat-fronted townhouses remaining from the Georgian context (see 227-230 Shoreditch High Street as a surviving example), or more of the same old square designs associated with warehouses typical of the time, ironmongers Edward Wells & Co went for the eclectic in character by erecting the highly stylised 125-130 Shoreditch High Street. It is a stand out structure till this day, though it has swapped the display of brass items (gas stoves and the like) for sassier business pitches, such as fashion consultancy Mandi’s Basement and local drinkery Bar Kick.
20th century and beyond
The 20th century saw a vast amount of change in Shoreditch High Street, from the first signs of modernism in the 1920s with tramlines appeared along with early motor cars. The furniture industry which had shaped the local economy, and therefore the architectural facade of the street, was still booming up until the second world war when the area was heavily bombed by air raids. While some of the furniture businesses maintained their dedication to the high-quality reproductions they had come to be known for, mass production was taken over by larger manufacturers based in the Lea Valley and beyond, so many buildings in Shoreditch became vacant and underused. By 1980, the English furniture industry was in crisis due to cheaper imports, and it was time for Shoreditch’s focal industry to transform once again.
A much needed economic revival came for Shoreditch High Street at the end of the 20th Century. The financial services industry began to spill out from the nearby City of London and glossy office blocks popped up at the very bottom of the high street that extends to Worship Street. At the same time, charming historical buildings and low rents combined attracted artists, galleries, architects and design studios. A cultural industry began to grow, with appreciation for the timeworn authenticity and sense of character of the area. A perfect example of this revival is the Tea Building, which sits at 56 Shoreditch High Street: originally owned by the Lipton family, hence the ‘Tea' Building, it eventually became a bacon factory in the early 20th century, but as time went on, production moved further outside of London and it remained empty a while, until its revival as a cultural hub. Now it is home to Shoreditch House club and hotel, popular restaurant Pizza East, an art gallery and various creative businesses - all hustling and bustling within the brilliantly preserved skeleton of this original piece of 20th century warehouse architecture.
Along with the cultural industries and cash flowing in from the nearby City, a 24-hour economy arose on Shoreditch High Street, with a number of very successful late night bars and restaurants catering to suits and creatives alike. The Crowne and Shuttle 226 Shoreditch High Street is one such establishment: the 19th century pub has lived many lives, having undergone a refurb after it was closed in 2001, when it was better known as a shady daylight strip club. Since its reopening, it has followed the well-trodden route of the modern retro pub, offering customers a range of craft beer and a large garden, with street food van attached.
Growing in popularity as a place of work and play, the area called for better access, answered in 2010 with Shoreditch High Street overground station, built on the former site of the 1840's Eastern Counties Railways terminus. Adding to the cool collateral of the high street, internationally-renowned hip hotel brand, Ace, opened in 2013 and verified the area's reinvention - keeping an open door policy that allows locals to enjoy free public events, a bar, café , restaurant and even a boutique florist. Replacing the dogged Crowne Plaza, Ace Hotel stands on the same spot that was once the Shoreditch Empire, aka The London Music Hall, which is famously where Charlie Chaplin acted in the early days of his career.
Despite its many iterations, Shoreditch High Street has managed to maintain its original features thanks to its architecture, with the surest reminder of its ancient history still standing benevolently tall at the top of the road. With its homely, minimalist interior, St. Leonard’s Church recently made the backdrop for BBC sitcom series ‘Rev’. Many of its most notable features still exist: the stocks used for punishing minor criminals back in the olden days, a churchyard pump utilised in the days before running water was piped into houses, and even marriage registers kept in a large iron safe in the vestry that are in very good condition. The earliest volumes are written on parchment, bound in leather with brass clasp fastenings, and date from the first year of the reign of Elizabeth 1558. Whether in seeking a social history or stories told by brick and mortar, modern day Shoreditch High Street is full of testimonies to the past.