The streets that comprise Spitafields have been witness to conflict, religious and civil, inward migration, industrial success and failure and severe poverty. Cruickshank has resided in the neighbourhood for many years. In his book he relates the story of the area from Roman times to the present day, explaining who lived there and the nature of their lives.
He tells us about Huguenot weavers who moved in after the Great Fire of London, Jewish immigrants, the slum alleys when Jack the Ripper was committing his crimes, and how the Spitalfields of the 70's changed from a war damaged area of semi-derelict houses to the lively community it is today. In essence, Cruickshank has written a history of England in miniature. He is an architectural historian and tv presenter.
The author has taken ten years to write this account. In the 70's he helped form a Trust to stop the obliteration of the still thriving buildings. This book arose out off the work of that Buildings Trust. He bought an early 18th century house in Spitalfields over forty years ago, repaired it and then lived in it. There are other books about Spitalfields buildings but none that place them in the context of England 's history.
Important events and people have shaped the development and history of Spitalfields. Its location next to a Roman road which helped connect London to the rest of the country, ensured the area played an important part in the nation's history. Ermine Street passed along what is now Bishopsgate to Lincoln and York. Among the major events witnessed by Spitalfields are: the Reformation, the Civil War of the 1640s, and immigration waves from around 1670 that transformed the area. The people who were key players in the development of our culture included; Shakespeare, Bacon and Mary Wollstonecraft. They lived or worked in the area or near to it.
Cruickshank explains how the Huguenots , the Irish, Jews and Bangladeshis who invented the curry house turned the area into a thriving merchant's quarter by the 18th century. Less desirable characters like Jack Sheppard and Jack the Ripper also operated in the area. Defoe, Dickens, Booth and London all observed and wrote about the area. An early form of a trade union also emerged in Spitalfields. Philanthropists began to help those in poverty. These included Quakers. Bodies like the Mechanics' Institute were established to encourage self-improvement.
The book has four Parts. These cover things such as : Roman Times, the Reformation, Tudor Times, Late Stuart and Georgian Spitalfields, the Huguenots, Crime and Riots, Radicals, Poverty up to 1914, the Silk Industry, Soup Kitchens for the poor, Body Snatchers, the Victorian era, Jews, Fever and Cholera, Slums and Slum Clearance, the People of the area, the Great War, the period 1918 to 1945 , and post-war Recovery. There is an epilogue, an appendix about the occupants of houses in Elder Street, notes, pictures and a bibliography.
The author clearly loves Spitalfields. He says that places like it are more than real-estate opportunities. As this book went to print the fate of the area hangs in the balance. It is now viewed as a prime development opportunity. These will transform the area's appearance and its way of life. Its 2000 year history is threatened. This book therefore could turn out to be Spitalfields valediction.
This would be a tragedy for areas like Spitalfields are repositories of our past. Ironically, those like Cruickshank who have worked to reclaim the area have in doing so made it very desirable, particularly given the skyrocketing London land values.
Publisher: Windmill Books (15 Jun. 2017)