Shoreditch is known today for its trendy bars, arty coffee shops and retro clothing stores, but it was once more famous for being the beating heart of England’s furniture trade. Wholesale warehouses lined Curtain Road, from Old Street to Great Eastern Street, while workshops and factories were sandwiched between tenement blocks, timber yards and public buildings in quieter side streets. Don’t expect to find traces of large-scale manufacturing operations in Shoreditch; it has been claimed that “the real assembly line ran through the streets” which countless small business all working together.
Different workshops and factories contributed different stages, with the streets and pavements often used for temporary storage of finished and part finished items. The Woodworker described how in 1929 the trade dominated Shoreditch and the wider East End: “At any time during the week from the purlieus of Hoxton, from Old Ford, Bethnal Green, and the byways of Shoreditch could be seen vans and weird piles of furniture in unpolished or skeleton forms, … frames piled to a dizzy height on one barrow, two or three telescope dining-tables on another.”
Prior to the mid-19th century furniture making was largely centred on the West End and the City, offering bespoke designs to those that individuals that could afford to pay for the very best craftsmanship. But as the ready-made market grew, there was a movement to the East End, as manufacturers took advantage of cheaper rents and access to railway lines. The heyday for furniture trade in the area was from 1860 to 1945, when manufactured pieces were transported across Britain and were exported to imperial colonies as far afield as Australia and South Africa.
There was a variety of different pieces produced in the East End – from cabinets and dining tables to floor coverings and light shades. Rather than just being making cheap, mass produced items, qualities varied as well. The emergence of West End furniture emporia like Maples in the 19th century were important outlets for stock originating from Shoreditch. In reality, as the Cabinet and Upholstery Advertiser pointed out in 1877, the trade offered something for everyone: “What is the real character of East End furniture? Is it good, bad or indifferent? Now, we can make no more conclusive reply to this inquiry than to say, that East End furniture is anything to order.”
Many examples of tall, imposing Victorian show-room warehouses with plain brick frontages remain in Shoreditch, but rather than being occupied by furniture dealers they are now bars, cafes, shops, offices and design studies, Most of these surviving buildings date from 1870 to 1910 and can mainly be found in Curtain Road. Basements were typically used for the storage and packing of finished goods into crates. The upper three or so floors were then used as showrooms, where items were closely packed together and usually organised by type. Some feature mocked-up rooms so that “retailers could bring their friends to see such furnishings complete, even down to the books on the table.”
Most workshops, where different stages of the furniture production process took place, typically employed fewer than eight workers (only three or four such businesses employed more than 50 people in Shoreditch). These premises were typically found in side streets and weren’t as towering as the furniture show-room warehouses. And they weren’t always purpose-built; sometimes domestic houses were converted into commercial uses, with a hoist being added to help with the movement of furniture to the different floors. While many other clues of the furniture trade have disappeared over the years, these mechanisms remain, providing a fitting reminder of the past once the buildings have now found new uses.
Over time the Shoreditch furniture industry suffered a long slow decline before finally collapsing in the 1980s. In the first half of the 20th century new manufacturing districts, with state-of-the-art assembly lines, became established on the outskirts of London. World War Two was also particularly devastating with for Shoreditch with many buildings suffering bomb damage and in the aftermath it was largely the high-quality, lower-scale dealers than remained. Kirkham et al described the scene in 1987: “What is left of furniture making in the East End is only a shadow of what was once one of London’s most thriving and important manufacturing industries.”
The furniture trade may have long gone, but the surviving Victorian and Edwardian commercial buildings help preserve a sense of character and provide a fitting link with the past. As the City spills further eastwards and new buildings, often clad with excessive amounts of glass, this is so important.