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Walking Tour of Spitalfields
Visit to the Geffrye Museum

Friday 18th September 2015

Despite a delayed start from Stocklund Square, the day proceeded well and we commenced our morning tour at The Seven Stars Public House in Middlesex Street, having collected our guide, Owen, en route.  He explained that street markets have been held in the street for centuries – second hand clothes were being sold here during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Our tour of Spitalfields encompassed medieval foundations under glass (possibly part of St Mary’s Hospital & Monastery); discussion of the Roman graveyards discovered; the sarcophagus of a wealthy woman identified as an immigrant from the Basque region; and then Spitalfields Market, granted a Charter by Charles II.  Owen drew our attention to the cellars under the market which were heated – in order to ripen bananas!

Next on our tour was Christ Church Spitalfields, built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, one of Wren’s students.  This church was simple but grand, in my view, and one could easily see Wren’s influence in its design.  The Richard Bridge organ, installed in 1735, was at that time the largest organ in the world – Handel once played it.

As we continued our stroll, Owen described the important influence of immigration on the area.  Of course the Romans were immigrants, but better known were the Huguenot Christians who fled France in the late 17th Century, to settle as close to the City of London as possible.  As highly successful silk weavers, they became wealthy, which enabled them to buy houses, into which were incorporated both their business and living accommodation.  Fine examples are located still in Fournier Street.  The downside of their success was the inevitable decline in the silk market, leading to poverty and eventually the fine houses became slums.  Over the centuries, Jewish and more recently Bengali/Bangladeshi immigrants have settled here and the area is now in the process of "gentrification".

In the 1800s poor Jews moved into east London, for whom their wealthy compatriots financed the construction of tenement blocks.  Eventually these too were demolished, to be replaced in due course by affordable housing.   Toynbee Hall was the centre of social reform, which attracted such luminaries as Clem Atlee and John Profumo.

Our walk through Pettycoat Lane, then passing Tracey Emin’s studio, led us back to the Seven Stars Pub, where we received a most acceptable lunch.

The afternoon was spent at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, set in elegant 18th Century almshouses founded in 1714, with delightful gardens.  The Geffrye explores the home over the past 300 years through period rooms which have been refurbished, based upon surveys of existing buildings.  Of particular interest was the role of the Parlour as the main living space in the late 17th Century, the introduction of mirrors post-1695 (manufactured in London rather than imported), and the influence of the wealth created by the slave trade, with the subsequent import of, for example, sugar, leading to the creation of tea sets and sugar tongs.  In the 18th Century the dominant style was Classical, demonstrating the Greek and Roman influence – rooms became “neat and not too showy”.  Later in the 1800s, the world of work changed, with men going out to work, and so the women’s domain centred on the home.  Should she be ill-equipped, then practical advice was available in the form of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1859).

Further examples of later typical homes showed us the introduction of wallpaper, matching materials, patterned carpets, fireplaces and over mantel mirrors.  The most modern showrooms were recognisable from our youth – I heard several comments of “we used to have one of those”!

Our guide for the morning, Owen, was particularly capable - clear and knowledgeable with excellent voice projection.  He used to live in the area, which was a great help with his local knowledge.

Although we were caught up in the Friday night traffic on the way home, the outing was most enjoyable and successful.  Thanks to Pat for deputising for Gwen as our leader, ably assisted by Jonathan.

Text by Philip Akroyd

Photos by Jonathan Cross

Related Links (open in new window):

The Huguenots of Spitalfields
The Geffrye Museum of the Home