East London, with its docks and trading, has throughout history attracted a wide diversity of cultures from travellers and immigrants mixing with the local traditions. This has made getting deals in London a large part of the area’s character and for little cost a wander through its streets brings its vibrant history to life.
Although there are turbulent tales of murder, poverty and hardship, there are positive stories from the past and great institutions that have survived centuries.
Nursing the sick poor
Off Whitechapel Road lies the large Victorian church of St Philips surrounded by the Royal London Hospital. In the former crypt, a museum of the hospital preserves and shares its incredible history. Free entry enables visitors to immerse themselves in the past.
Founded in 1740 for the sick poor, the hospital relied on public support until the NHS started in 1948. In 1785 William Blizard and James Maddock founded the first hospital-based medical school in England here, and by 1873 the hospital had opened its School of Nursing, based on Florence Nightingale’s at St Thomas’s, helped by Edith Cavell. In 1896 Sydney Holland, known as the “Prince of Beggars” became Chairman. His tireless campaigning encouraged benefactors to contribute millions enabling rebuilding and expansion of the Hospital.
Other famous connections included Dr Thomas Barnardo, of children’s home fame, a medical student here in 1866 and Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, resident there until he died in 1890. The museum owns his skeleton, though not on display.
Split into 3 parts for 18th, 19th and 20th Century the museum includes displays on all the above as well as collections of medical equipment through the ages, information on social care and how the hospital improved lives in the area.
Petticoats for sale
From the museum take a wander back to Whitechapel road and head west to Middlesex Street to walk down Petticoat Lane. It was around 1605 that secondhand clothes and bric-a-brac started to change hands here. Although the Great Fire of 1665 spelt ruin for the area, the clothes trade was back in the 18th century, driven by master weavers settling in nearby Spitalfields and new clothes were sold to people from the City. From 1882 a wave of Jewish immigrants revitalised the garment trading in the market and it’s still great for browsing stalls and attempting deals with the wise-cracking traders.
Flesh, Fowl and Roots
Continuing north will take you into the district of Spitalfields and the Old Spitalfields Market. There has been a market here since 1638 when Charles 1st gave license for ‘flesh, fowl and roots’ to be traded in the Spittle Fields. The current grade II listed buildings are the Victorian creation of George Sherrin designed for Robert Horner, a former porter and the last private owner. The original market and the surrounding shops and restaurants it are a must for visitors and will take several hours to explore.
Great fun and free to visit, these institutions also illustrate that, despite poverty and crime, generous benefactors and innovators gave East London communities hope and livelihoods, the effects of which still draw thousands to the area today.