I thought I was simply going to take a London street art walking tour of Brick Lane in order to see some cool murals. And I did see cool murals. But any exploration of a city as old as London is bound to uncover layers of history and I was surprised by what I found in London’s East End. My walking tour with Context Travel unpeeled the neighborhood for me, revealing successive waves of immigration and industry. My tour was guided by Peter. He’s a black cab driver and knows the streets of London inside out but he also has a degree in social policy. He’s very interested in how social policy shapes the character of a neighborhood which made him a particularly good person to explain the complex history of the East End’s evolving population.
As a result, my London street art walking tour became a history tour and an immigration tour and a cool urban markets tour all layered together.
Where is the East End?
There are two factors related to it’s location which have shaped the history of industry and immigration in the neighborhood. The first is that the East End is directly east of the old Roman and medieval walled City of London (The City). The City is a small square mile in the center of London that was (and still is) the trading and financial hub of Europe. The City generated wealth by trading locally produced goods. But heavy industry such as tanning, brick making and ship building tend to be noisy and smelly. As the prevailing winds blow west-to-east in London, the industrial areas were developed east of The City so that the precious noses of the traders and bankers would remain un-offended by the great unwashed masses. A practical, if elitist, solution.
The second reason for the East End’s evolution as a home for immigrants is also a practical one. The neighborhood is located near busy docks on the Thames. The immigrants landing there didn’t have the means to travel into the further reaches of the city’s interior. Nor could they afford more than the slum housing offered by the East End. And so they stayed.
If you are interested in staying in this area, check out this list of places to stay in London.
Peeling the Layers on a History and Street Art Tour of London’s East End
The Flemish Layer: 16th Century Brickmaking
The first to arrive were the Flemish in the 1500’s. They used the naturally occurring clay in the area to make bricks for both the East End and other neighborhoods of London. Hence the rather literal “Brick Lane” street name.
Huguenot Layer: 17th Century Weavers
The Huguenots were Protestants fleeing persecution from Catholic-dominated France in the 17th century. Many set up shop as silk weavers and textile producers. Much of the architecture of this era is characterized by three story buildings designed for upper floor residences, middle floor manufacturing and lower floor retail space. Business was good during this era and the residents tended to be, if not wealthy, then at least fed and housed. But with the opening up of silk trade from China and textile factories elsewhere in England, the fortunes of the neighborhood began to slide.
Eastern European Jewish Layer: 19th Century Rag Trade
Jewish settlement of the East End was also the result of religious persecution. The cause, in this instance, was Russian pogroms against the Jews. Many of the Jewish immigrants had intended to make their way to America but ended up settling in the East End. They set up whatever businesses they could including tailoring and the “rag trade.” But by this time, the neighborhood had devolved into a slum. The high density of poor residents, backyard livestock, lack of indoor plumbing and absence of humane social policy had conspired to create a slum of the worst sort.
“The myriads that raise the cry of hunger wail in the greatest empire in the world”
In 1902 London lived in and reported on the East End slums. He slept out in the Christchurch Spitalfields church yard and railed against the injustice. The church’s Reverend was also much concerned about the welfare of the neighborhood’s Jewish residents. He was of a mind to convert them, but that was a hard sell.
Bangladeshi Layer: 20th Century Restaurateurs
With the break-up of the British Empire, Bangladeshi immigrants began arriving in London in the 1950’s. They were escaping the chaos and conflict in their home country and hoped that London could offer them a better life. They replaced the Jewish residents who had moved out to other neighborhoods. Over time the character of the neighborhood evolved to reflect Bangladeshi culture with the development of Indian restaurants, mosques and other institutions.
The Creative Class: East End Today
The East End still suffers from underdevelopment. But as with the Los Angeles Arts District, in the 21st century, underdeveloped industrial neighborhoods have become a magnet for the creative class. In the East End, is manifested by a number of robust street markets and a riot of street art. My street art walking tour with Context Travel occurred on a Sunday, which is the best time to visit. There are art, craft and food markets all over the place.
- Spitalfields Market: crafts, clothing, food, books
- Old Truman Brewery: crafts, clothing, food
- Columbia Road: flower market
- Brick Lane: food food food
Check out Play in the Street with Brick Lane Street Art and Markets for some inspiration on how much fun you can have strolling the East End on a Sunday. And the street art in and around Brick Lane is worth a visit, even if you don’t take the full walking tour. It has a different attitude than the street art that I’ve seen in other cities. The layering metaphor that I’ve been using to describe the neighborhood takes on another, more literal meaning when it comes to the street art. The murals are literally layered on top of one another. For example, the artist “Endless” does a branded thing with a Coke can, but then other artists who think that Endless is a sellout, layer other works around and over his. The Brick Lane image at the top of the post includes a little heart that has been layered onto a street sign. And the parking lot below has a ever evolving collage of images decorating each parking spot.
Go back next month and it will all look different. It makes this London street art walking tour less a visit to an open air museum and more a visual exploration of these artist’s relationships to one other and the neighborhood.
The London Street Art Walking Tour with Context Travel
This Context Travel walking tour really exceeded my expectations. I got my dose of street art, sure. But I also got the cultural history of a London neighborhood that is off the usual tourist trail. The tour gave me a much better appreciation for the complex social fabric of London. If you are in London, I highly recommend Context Travel and they also have a raft of other London walking tours covering architecture, museums, food and history.
Want More Street Art?
Check out these other posts on great global street art
- Play in the Street with Brick Lane Street Art and Markets
- Buenos Aires street art walking tour
- San Francisco Mission neighborhood street art
- San Diego’s Chicano Park
- Street art in the Azores
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