Changing London

In Spitalfields: When gentrifiers were to be applauded for saving neighbourhoods

Gentrification has for several decades followed a familiar pattern. It starts when “artists move into an area with cheap housing and studio space, then developers follow – and longstanding communities are forced out,” the Guardian reported.

“Little thought is given to the people who have lived there for decades, raised children, put down roots, and found the streets and geography ingrained in their personal history and psychology,” the article added.

Some people may like artisan coffee shops and pop-up boutiques arriving in their neighbourhoods, but gentrification as a concept and the fact that some profit while others don’t is seen by many in a negative light.


But there was a time when – even before the term was officially born – when gentrifiers were to be applauded. The easy option for middle-class couples (typically young and married) would have been to head to the suburbs where they could live in modern houses and have all the latest amenities they needed close by.

“They chose to widen their life experience among working-class neighbours rather than live among the sort of people they had met at school,” wrote Jerry White in his book, London in the Twentieth Century. “They took a risk rather than playing it safe. Through gentrification they rejected consumerism and the mass product of suburb or luxury flat or New Town house. Their energies went into reviving with individual flair, the beauty of neglected old buildings.”

After the Blitz the middle classes generally looked down on inner London’s rows of Victorian terraced houses – and authorities wanted to demolish the properties and replace them with social housing. But these somewhat bohemian souls saw something special in these old homes and the areas where they were located.

And in 1962 the term ‘gentrification’ was coined by Marxist sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the phenomenon sweeping across the capital – people were helping to save London’s historic buildings by choosing to live in them. “Long neglected, often slum-ridden, these deeply unfashionable suburbs were, she noted, now beginning to attract middle-class buyers, enchanted by their Georgian and nineteenth-century faded elegance and excited by the prospect of living, not in the ‘respectable’ outer suburbs, but in the ‘bohemian’ ones,” wrote Nick Barratt in Greater London: The Story of the Suburbs.

Certain specific factors helped the process of gentrification: from the late 1950s onwards it became easier for aspiring homeowners to secure a mortgage (and the homes were cheap anyway), while the 1957 Rent Act made it more straightforward to evict long-term tenants.

But what had made this phenomena possible in the first place soon (by the end of the 1960s at the least) brought out its dark side. Tenants that weren’t forced out by the new legislation, were often given substantial premiums to leave. Over the course of time, neighbourhoods were completely changed, so in many cases they weren’t the diversified places they once were. And that reality is something that has stuck with us to this day.

Gentrification in north London in the 1960s, transforming places like Camden Town, which I’ve written about on this blog in detail before. And the following decades it had an effect on south London, helping with the re-development of Camberwell and other neighbourhoods. But gentrification also had a big impact on the inner city area of Spitalfields, just a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street station.

Saving Spitalfields

You would be extremely disappointed if today you were to head to Spitalfields in search of an affordable home. The charming Georgian terraced houses, which are popular with wealthy City workers given their proximity to the financial district, can change hands for millions of pounds.

But things weren’t always this way for Spitalfields. Back in the 1970s, campaigners fought tough battles to stop the rows of former weavers’ homes from being demolished. For some properties it was too late and they were lost. However, as you will see from a visit to the area today, many were saved.

As I’ve noted in previous posts in this series, Spitalfields thrived from the start of the 18th century thanks to the silk weaving trade, which was heavily influenced by persecuted Huguenots emigrating from continental Europe. You can see the attics with large windows on the top floors of houses in the likes of Folgate Street and Elder Street where some artisans worked away at their looms.

But the Spitalfields silk weaving industry and the parish in general went into decline from the late 18th century on account of northern and overseas competition. And the once-smart Georgian townhouses descended into slums. By the 1960s the area was very run-down, providing impetus to the idea that whole streets could be demolished.

The neighbourhood was in fact so unloved that in 1961 the City Corporation permitted Spitalfields market to be extended even though it meant destruction of beautiful Georgian homes in Spital Square. The last surviving “merchant palaces” of the 1720s and 1730s were demolished without any thought of their historical importance.

“In an atmosphere of demoralisation and carelessness the City had its way and the terraces – a vital physical memorial of Spitalfields’ noble past – were destroyed,” wrote long-term Spitalfields campaigner and resident Dan Cruickshank in his excellent book about the area. “They went for nothing more than a large and desolate parking place for market lorries.”

Even Christ Church, which was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor following the Fifty New Churches Act of 1711, was threatened with demolition. “I remember being struck by the extraordinary contrast between the church’s immaculate-looking ceiling and its abandoned and derelict and nave and aisles which were being used to store old newspapers, mattresses and other rubbish that parish authorities presumably thought to be of some value,” wrote Dan Cruickshank. It had few remaining parishioners when it ceased to be used for regular services, but the strong public outcry was thankfully enough to stop it being knocked down.

Preservation of historic properties in general was greatly helped by the new Labour government of 1974 which preferred to renovate older housing than build brand new homes. But it still offered no quick solution to saving historic areas such Spitalfields and mass demonstrations broke out.

Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust was formed in 1976 to fight developers moving into the neighbourhood. Members of the Spitalfields Trust squatted in houses to stop them being demolished; two such properties were Elder Street which they bought and subsequently restored.

One of the most fascinating surviving 18th century Spitalfields homes has to be 18 Folgate Street. The house, which dates from 1724, was bought in 1979 from the Spitalfields Trust by Dennis Severs who set out to tell the story of the neighbourhood through a series of room displays from different time periods. Its curator died long ago, but candlelight guided tours charting history from the 18th century to the death of Queen Victoria are still offered at the ‘installation’.

Saved for who?

By the 1990s wealthy buyers were attracted to Spitalfields as a result of its prime location and so the character of the neighbourhood began to change. Today it’s a fashionable area and has greatly benefitted from the re-development of the market. Numerous popular restaurants have sprung up and the arts and crafts market continues to attract the crowds.

The original gentrifiers bought up the old buildings because they wanted to save heritage and live in ‘alternative’ neighbourhoods. Yet once it was clear that there were profits to be made, the moneymen arrived in force and the rising house prices that are so familiar today were set in train. The old communities were forgotten.

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