Shoreditch’s not just about the latest pop-ups, bars and street art you know. Existing just outside the City of London meant it was a historical haven for those up to no good and creatives, like budding thespians. It was also famed for its furniture-making, particularly during the nineteenth century, which drove hundreds of eager workers into the area. Fantastic news for dodgy landlords, not so great for those living in the squalid slums. It does seem appropriate though that Shoreditch was first recorded as 'Soerdich' in 1148 (literally, 'sewer ditch') after a Roman freshwater spring in the area eventually went from boggy marshland to open sewer.
Here are some more historical things to spot when you’re next in the area.
1. Theatre Plaque, Curtain Road
Did you know the first West End was actually in the East? The Curtain Theatre (named after the road) was built as a rival to James Burbage’s The Theatre in 1577. This was William Shakespeare’s first stomping ground before moving over to Southwark, as it was in the theatres of Shoreditch that some of his early works, including ‘Romeo and Juliet’, were first performed.
2. Courthouse Hotel, Old Street
Built between 1903 and 1905, the former Old Street Magistrates Court once held the Kray twins here on a charge of ‘demanding money with menaces’. Derelict from 2007 until recently, it’s now gained a new lease of life as a five-star hotel. The Grade-II listed building retains most of its period features and its history hasn’t been lost on the new owners, whose ‘Jailhouse Bar’ comes with a cocktail dictionary of East End criminal slang.
3. Commercial Ironworks, Shoreditch High St
4. Arnold Circus Bandstand
This bandstand lies in the middle of The Boundary Estate, the world’s oldest council estate, which was built by London County Council in 1890. It was erected on the site of the Old Nichol, an East End slum for 6,000 people with no proper drainage and boasting a death rate twice as high as other East End neighbourhoods. When Henry Mayhew, the Victorian social reformer, visited, he vividly described the melting animal fat, slaughter houses and ‘lakes of putrefying night soil’. During its destruction the rubble from Old Nichol was collected and piled into the centre, creating the mound of Arnold Circus we see today.
5. St Leonard’s Church Pump
Known as the ‘actors’ church’ long before St Paul’s in Covent Garden stole their thunder, St Leonard’s contains memorials to the great and the good of the Elizabethan Theatre scene. However, it’s also worth noting this easy-to-miss water pump, which dates from 1832. It sits on the spring that may have given Shoreditch its name. This fresh water supply led to the Romans settling in this area and using Spitalfields as a vast cemetery. Today however, the basin is full of flowers rather than water, a redundant relic to remind us of the past.
Photography: Look Up London