When you think about the history of London’s East End, you might think of poverty, gangs and Jack the Ripper, but there is actually so much more to the area than its historic crime rate: it is vibrant, eclectic, and bursting with things to do. The team at Insider London are well acquainted with all of the weird and wonderful activities on offer in the East End (in fact, we run an East End Walking Tour to introduce the area and its fascinating history), but in case you aren’t, here are some cultural and historical highlights in the area...
Many of the pubs in the area surrounding Spitalfields Market became the backdrop to murders in the late nineteenth century. In a stretch known as the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, there were several pubs linked with gang murders and iniquity in the 1880s, including the Prince Albert, the Horn of Plenty, and the Britannia. The Ten Bells Pub was known to be frequented by sex workers and gang members, and two of Jack the Ripper’s victims are thought to have visited the tavern shortly before they died. Similarly, the owners of Hoop & Grapes claim that ‘Jack the Ripper was last seen here’, based on a spurious report from a chestnut vendor who claimed to have seen a well-dressed man who already knew about the murder in Dorset Street.
Spitalfields Market is the bustling centre of the East End: the historical site has been a market since the seventeenth century, and it was even a camp after the Great Fire of London. An influx of migrants in the following two centuries meant that a wide range of products were sold, including the world-famous ‘Spitalfields Silk’, made by French Huguenots fleeing persecution. At the eastern end, you can find Horner Square and Horner Buildings, which are Grade II listed. The market is open daily, but busiest at weekends, so we recommend a wander around during the week.
One fascinating quirk of the East End is its architecture. There are many narrow streets and winding alleys leading to all kinds of places, as well as fine examples of Victorian architecture.
Catherine Wheel Alley, which streaks off to the east from Bishopsgate and leads to the Petticoat Lane Market, commemorates the infamous Catherine Wheel Inn, which was destroyed by fire in 1895. In the early nineteenth century, this public house was one of Dick Turpin’s secret haunts. The Catherine Wheel, ironically named after an instrument of torture used as capital punishment on a saint, became a popular tavern name.
Historical sites of interest
A short walk away from Catherine Wheel Alley is Sidney Street, the historical site where a street gang had a gunfight with the police in 1911. This was the bloody culmination of a series of events that began with a jewellery heist in 1910, in which a gang of immigrants murdered three policemen.
In the streets neighbouring Spitalfields Market, you can find the old Spitalfields charnel house, the oldest historic remains in east London. The fourteenth century bone store has been preserved and restored, and the depths of it are visible through glass panels on the ground. There is a stark contrast between the ancient site, a gruesome burial ground, and the smart city buildings around it.
Modern things to do
If you’ve had enough horrible history for the day, there are plenty of contemporary attractions in the East End too. There are a number of fascinating museums, including the Museum of London and the Geffrye Museum, as well as the highly acclaimed Whitechapel Art Gallery. Columbia Road Flower Market is a fragrant delight, and children will love the Museum of Childhood, a short trip away in Bethnal Green.
Want to find out more about the history of London’s East End, including some famous and frightening tales? Try our East End Walking Tour which exposes the area as more than just a street-art daubed district with historical murder sites. You’ll even get to stop for a pint (or a tea or coffee!) in one of the area’s notorious old pubs…