London’s Spitalfields: 18th-century elegance meets hipster

The area is the trendy frontier of the city’s East End, yet its regeneration and house price rises are tied in with its past
Fournier Street, east London © Richard Bryant/Getty Images

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At 6.30am on Commercial Street, Paul Gardner, a fourth-generation paper-bag seller, is opening up shop at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen, Spitalfields’ oldest family business. A clutch of partygoers drift past, sashaying towards Shoreditch High Street railway station. To the west, the City is anticipating the morning’s first crush of commuters. Beyond the moss-green and wine-dark Georgian shutters of Wilkes and Folgate streets rise the towers and cranes of new and forthcoming developments.

“What makes the area alive are these contrasts and the space to try things out, but there’s also a tension,” says The Gentle Author, a resident who has blogged faithfully — and anonymously — about Spitalfields every day for the past seven years.

In and around Old Spitalfields Market, international fashion houses keep shop next to stalls selling handmade jewellery and leather belts “fitted-while-u-wait”. Contemporary outfits such as Ben Sherman retain their storefronts’ bygone signage as a badge of honour. The relationship between past and present, independent retailer and global brand, is symbiotic and part of the area’s appeal; within 50 yards you can buy a Chanel bag or a paper bag from Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen. Yet there is an increasing asymmetry to the coexistence of the old and the new, reflected in the area’s housing prices. According to data from the Land Registry, the average sale price in Spitalfields in the 12 months to June 2016 grew by 28 per cent; over a five-year period this rises to 91 per cent.

Old Spitalfields Market © Getty
Paul Gardner © The Gentle Author

“A lot of new stock has gone up, which may skew the figures slightly,” says Alex Antzoulatos, sales head of Knight Frank in Aldgate. “Developments like One Commercial Street — all of that was sold far in excess of what the underlying stock in the area was priced at.” Antzoulatos points out that new developments “start at £1,000 per sq ft and can go up to £1,400 per sq ft”, whereas Spitalfields’ older residential Georgian and Victorian housing tend to hover at — or below — £1,000 per sq ft. Savills, for example, is selling a 2,497 sq ft four-bedroom Georgian townhouse on Fournier Street with a garden and external studio for £2.5m. On Brushfield Street, Hamptons is selling a 1,392 sq ft two-bedroom Victorian maisonette with windows looking on to Spitalfields market for £1.325m.

The relationship between new developments and the area’s longstanding inhabitants is charged. The Gentle Author refers to contested sites such as the London Fruit & Wool Exchange building, which the wrecking ball reduced to rubble last year, sparing only the façade. Advocates for the development, such as former London Mayor Boris Johnson, cite the 2,300 jobs it will create.

Changes to the area have also attracted newcomers. “There’s a lot of media types coming down from Shoreditch,” says Antzoulatos. “And of course many students . . . a lot of whom have over £600 a week to spend on rent.” There are a number of good schools and universities nearby, including Queen Mary as well as Cass and Hult business schools. Just off Brick Lane, in the heart of Spitalfields, there is also the British School of Fashion — on Fashion Street — where The Modern House is marketing a three-bedroom converted Victorian townhouse for £2.95m. “We’re also dealing with people who work in creative technology and financial services, as well as lots from the bank of mum and dad,” says Nicole Efthymiou, head of Savills, Shoreditch.

According to The Gentle Author, since the early 1980s, when the area was unloved, Spitalfields has experienced a “youth-quake”. In the summer, Allen Gardens — the last field in Spitalfields — is brimming with young people — “they come from all over Europe to go clubbing. Those who can afford to check in to the high-end hotels. Those who can’t sleep in the park.”

Three-bedroom terrace, Fashion Street, £2.95m
Trams in Commercial Street, 1907 © Getty Images/Heritage Images

The light-filled sash windows of the neighbourhood’s Georgian terraced houses — five minutes’ walk from the fringes of the city — originally attracted the master weavers who controlled the silk industry. Since the 1960s they have been inhabited by a handful of artists. Gilbert & George have lived on Fournier Street for nearly 50 years. Jeanette Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, bought a Georgian building in 1996, which had previously been the offices of an oranges importer. Tracey Emin has her studio in a Victorian building on Tenter Ground, named after the 17th-century weavers who, after their cloth was dyed, would stretch their fabric across a “tent” frame.

Gilbert & George © Rick Pushinsky/Eyevine

Despite the high-end developments and gentrification, Spitalfields has retained its community. Last year, when residents opposed plans to tear down buildings in the conservation area of Norton Folgate, 500 locals came out in protest to join hands around the proposed demolition site.

Today, on Brick Lane, a group of mothers in brightly coloured hijabs are laying out trays of fairy cakes for a bake sale in the courtyard of Christ Church Primary School. This was, after all, an area founded by French Huguenot refugees in the 17th century; and settled by Jewish refugees in the 19th century and Bangladeshi immigrants in the 20th. Street signs here are inscribed in both English and Bengali. Progress may be out with the old and in with the new, but the charm of Spitalfields is that its present is nothing without its past.

Buying guide

● The borough of Tower Hamlets has one of the lowest council tax rates in London at £2,393.70 for homes valued at more than £320,000

● There were 397 crimes reported in Spitalfields and Banglatown in August 2016, compared with 284 in neighbouring Whitechapel

● The nearest stations are Liverpool Street and Shoreditch High Street Overground

What you can buy for . . . 

£500,000 A one-bedroom apartment in a Victorian mansion block close to Liverpool Street Station

£1m A two-bedroom apartment in a new development on Commercial Street with a 24-hour concierge

£2.5m A four-bedroom Georgian terraced house with a garden and separate artist’s studio

More listings at propertylistings.ft.com

Music and festivities in Spitalfields

“Every single Christmas, I spend the night here,” says David Milne, curator at Dennis Severs’ House. “It’s important to keep that sense of home.”

The house on Folgate Street dates from 1724, when it was home to a group of Huguenot silk weavers, writes Melissa Lawford. In 1979, Severs, an American artist, moved in and transformed the building into what he called a “still-life drama”, opening his home to visitors and arranging each room as if a family of weavers had just left it. Severs died in 1999 but this November Milne will be filling the house with candles and mince pies for the Christmas installation.

Old Spitalfields Market © Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

As the nights draw in, the annual Spitalfields Music Winter Festival approaches. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the community arts programme began with a concert to save the then-derelict Christ Church Spitalfields from demolition in 1976. This year it runs from December 4-11 and will bring 16 musical performances into local churches, a Masonic temple and the Tower of London.

“The festival is about trying to make sure that the community based here for generations can still have a voice,” says chief executive Eleanor Gussman. Producer Kate Wyatt adds: “We have a set of people who have moved to an area because of its vibrancy — it’s about how to bring people together.”

Photographs: Richard Bryant/Getty Images; Getty; The Gentle Author; Getty Images/Heritage Images; Rick Pushinsky/Eyevine; Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

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