Changing London

‘We are shadows’ – the changing face of Spitalfields (part three)

Ask a Londoner where the spiritual home of the curry is in the capital and, more likely than not, they’ll tell you to head to Brick Lane, just east of Liverpool Street station. And while you could argue as to whether the restaurants on this stretch serve the best Asian food in London (some argue that it’s become a tourist trap), you can’t dispute that there are many to choose from – at last count there were over 30 such eating establishments.

Restaurant names like Bengal Village are a clue that many of their owners have Bangladeshi origins. It’s why Tower Hamlets branded the area Banglatown in an attempt to enjoy a similar tourist appeal to that of Chinatown, near Leicester Square.

Today, around one third of inhabitants of Tower Hamlets are Bangladeshi and some 90% can trace their origins back to the Sylhet region of east Bangladesh. Many came to London after having fleed the civil war that plagued East Pakistan in 1960s and came to work in factories of the textile trade.

Just as Bangladeshis brought their food tastes to London, they also brought their faith. Today, the East End has numerous mosques and there is a lot of investment in new buildings as well.

And one mosque, the Jamme Masjid on Brick Lane, is particularly important for the series of blogs I’m writing on Spitalfields. It was founded in the 18th century as Christian chapel and school by Protestant Huguenots who had fled persecution by Catholics in continental Europe. Later it was taken over by a number of other Christian groups, including the Methodists and in 1976 it was converted into a mosque.


Today, the mosque can hold up to a maximum of 3,000 people and sermons are delivered in Sylheti, the dialect spoken by a large number of the Bangladeshis that have settled in the area.

The wave of immigrants that arrived in the second half of the 20th century, has given the East End a distinctly Asian feel, beyond just the food and religious houses. You see it in a range of businesses – like travel agents offering cut price travel to Pakistan, financial establishments that have their main branches in the likes of Lahore and stalls selling saris.

But life for immigrants arriving in the East End hasn’t always been easy. Altab Ali Park, slightly set back from Whitechapel High Street, is dedicated to a local Bangladeshi who was murdered in 1978 by right wing extremists who blame new immigrants for deep-seated social problems for the area.

Nowadays, the Bangladeshi community is by many accounts well established in the East End. You can see this in the make-up of businesses, clothes worn and food sold.

But Spitalfields and the wider area has seen supposedly well-rooted groups dwindle before – you only need to look at the story of the Jews, the subject of my last blogs in this series. They built schools, synagogues and set up a range of social associations. In comparison to the strong evidence of Bengali heritage today, the signs for this group is merely traces.

You could say that the next wave of immigration is actually already happening. But while previous settlers have come from overseas, this current swarm is spilling over for the nearby City.

Wealthy bankers working only a few streets away to the west have prompted the construction of numerous new apartment blocks. The streets in and around the main Spitalfields piazza are lined with plush restaurants, wine bars and shops selling fancy crafts. It’s all in stark contrast to the down trodden feel of parts of Whitechapel High Street and Brick Lane, which are mere minutes’ walk away.

As we’ve seen there have been peaks in the waves of immigration in the East End (Hugenots from the 17th century and Jews in the late 19th century), but there has also been crossover. In other words different groups weren’t just pushed out overnight.

That’s what we’re seeing now. The Bangladeshi community is being pushed east as more streets are gentrified. Who knows how far they will have been pushed in 20 years time? That of course depends on how quickly the economy recovers and how strong the consequential demand for new homes is.

And what of the Jamme Masjid Mosque in Brick Lane? Having previously been a place of worship for Christians and Jews, could it face yet another in use in the years to come? If the Asian community is pushed further east as the trend for gentrification continues in the streets closest to Liverpool Street, will Muslims really want to pray amongst the flats and wine bars of City bankers.

This is pure speculation, of course. But if its use was to change, I wonder what it would become. Perhaps, with the way things are going in society in Britain today I wonder if it would have a secular function – churches have in the past been converted into gyms and even bars.

‘Umbra sumus’ (‘We are shadows),’ the poignant inscription says on the front of the mosque. When the Huguenots wrote that they clearly knew that their imprint on Spitalfields would be temporary. That also applied to the impact of Jews on the area. We can only speculate as to what will happen next in the fascinating Spitalfields story.

If you missed part one of the series here you can read it here. And you can read part two here.

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