Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Layers of Time and Dirty Dick's



Our daughter Vanessa called to see if we wanted to accompany her on a walk to research Spitalfields, in London.  The area is roughly around Liverpool St. mainline station and here is the view as you walk out of the station - a real mixture of old and new.

Vanessa is SO interesting to walk around with. She always spots the most unusual and interesting things. We'd had a stroll around this area about five years ago and were astounded to find it had changed a lot.

Although, well, some things haven't changed - Dirty Dick's pub for instance.  The pub is perfectly clean but Dirty Dick Bentley's story lives on. Two hundred years ago he was a rich young man, heir to a successful wine business, quite a dandy and engaged to be married.   He invited his friends over to meet his intended bride and laid on a splendid dinner, but she did not arrive, and instead, a messenger came with news of her sudden death.  Like Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham, Dirty Dick shut up the dining room, vowing to leave the food for the rats and mice. After this, he became reclusive and miserly.

The shop became ruinous and the upper parts were demolished in 1870, when the present pub was built.  Some of Dirty Dick's cobweb festooned vaults still remain beneath it though. And, if you are interested, the London Fortean Society  meet in the vaults each month to discuss strange happenings and ghostly phenomena. Does Dirty Dick haunt their meetings? Who knows .... but he is certainly immortalised in that old Irish song, "King of the Cannibal Islands" where the King's house was "like Dirty Dick's."


In fact, taking a longer perspective - half a century or so - Spitalfields does keep changing. Sometimes it's posh, sometimes it's slummy, and sometimes it's where everyone wants to be.  It just depends on fashion.  We have a slight family connection with it ourselves. A relative died not too long ago, at the age of nearly 104. She had been born and raised in Spitalfields during one of its slummy periods and she hated it so much she refused to talk about it for the rest of her life.  She was quite pleased to learn that the immigrants flocking there today are metropolitan trendies from all corners of the globe.   

And so we came to this property below.  In its heyday, the early 18th century, it was the home of Anna Maria Garthwaite, one of the pre-eminent textile designers of her period, who arrived in then-smart Spitalfields from Lincolnshire.  A hundred years later, her house was probably still fairly respectable, but a hundred years after that, a whole family might have lived in just one room of it in the most wretched conditions.  



Now, Spitalfields is so super-cool that this house has been preserved lovingly in its original state for use in films, media events and videos.

Another house nearby, 19 Princelet Street, belongs to a community trust. Also an ex-slum, it is just too fragile to open regularly to the public. It's quite like New York's brilliant Tenement Museum but is much less organised, and it also has had a Jewish synagogue in its basement, built over what was once the house's garden.    I attended one of 19 Princelet Street's rare open days a few years ago and found it particularly atmospheric, just because it hasn't yet been made completely safe for everyday visitor opening (although the trust is fund raising, and individuals can walk around safely).  When the immigrants arrived, and  tramped up the stairs carrying their bundles, they probably did worry that they'd fall through the floor.....

Well, our relative certainly did.

I could write a book about our walk around this area, but I'll just give you a few of the highlights. Below is the charnel house of St. Mary Magdalene, excavated very recently when Bishops Square was built above it.   The strange figure shown is NOT real, and human remains have been removed. This bone house was attached to the 13th century priory and hospital of St. Mary, and now you can view it through a glass floor near where city workers sit and eat their lunchtime sandwiches.


Before Spitalfields became cool, it was very drab, and frankly a bit scary, with lots of the huge old buildings converted into dingy, old fashioned offices and really squalid little flats and shops, and parts were almost deserted at night.  I remember once driving through in the car and noticing that it had so many beautiful old buildings and would be a great opportunity if we were into colonising neglected bits of London.   But apart from the fact we weren't, it would have made me very depressed to move there at that time.  It really was awful. 

However, its narrow, crumbling streets had for centuries offered a place of safety, friendly faces and familiar language for immigrants fleeing from persecution or famine.  In those days, most immigrants were from the Bangladeshi-Sylheti communities, and for a while, Brick Lane, the centre of the area, became the place to go for top class Indian food.   Down a side alley we found the remains of a beautiful wooden mural, now damaged and covered in graffiti. If you look carefully you can see the cultures of Britain and the Indian subcontinent mixed together.  


This is the red bus you can just see at the far end of the mural in the picture above. 


Here's one of the remnants of Banglatown, as it was called - a big, and definitely not beautiful, cash and carry store. 


Just to the left, you can see some street art on the wall. A better view is below. Street art is big in the area now, and I could have spent half the day photographing it.  You can't call it graffiti - a lot of time and work has gone into these strange images. 






Even the local pub has got in on the act, with a man made of beer bottle tops on the wall.



The area's dominated by Christ Church Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.  I'm not the only person to get a bit spooked by Hawksmoor's churches. There is always something a bit strange about the exteriors to me, off balance and weird (this facade is VERY narrow). And Peter Ackroyd wrote a very good and disturbing novel set in the area around this very church. 

On a sunny summer day it didn't look too creepy, though.. 



And inside, it is graceful and attractive. I noticed it had many memorial plaques to missionaries to the local Jews, who were one of the groups of immigrants who settled here.  I didn't approve, although I know times were different then  and they thought they were doing the right thing.  And I certainly didn't realise you could be a missionary without leaving your own home.


In one of the streest we found a metal street map showing "Historic Spitalfields." The background to the street map was created from mirrors.  It made the point that we, people on the streets,  are part of the ever changing scene of this bit of London.  



And then we went back to Dirty Dick's and caught a bus home. I've never seen a gay double decker bus before, so that was yet another new thing about Spitalfields, I guess!



48 comments:

  1. What a fascinating tour! It's difficult to choose favorites, but I like the street art - especially the beer bottle tops. I especially like the tale of Dirty Dick. I'd love to visit those vaults (with the prospect of a ghostly encounter).

    I have no doubt that gays can ride with pride on the double decker bus - - but what about straights?

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  2. It's a lot to take in. the fellow with double mouth and eyes made my eyes quiver.

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  3. The street art is amazing, I especially like the man all made out of beer caps. Very clever. It looks like an interesting place to visit but possibly not live there. What a cute gay bus, I've never seen one before either!

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  4. Charming post! Thank you
    You've been missed. Every time I read your travel narratives, I feel like I've been there.

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  5. An interesting part of London I might otherwise have missed. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Thanks for an interesting tour of a part of London one does not hear about too often.

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  7. Jenny, you always take us on the best journeys! I remember a bit of the Dirty Dick story and Spitalfields sounds familiar to me from something else -- I'm trying to remember what. The Ripper comes to mind but I know that was Whitechapel. Maybe a Maisie Dobbs or something. Who knows. Anyway, loving the photos, the color, that fabulously restored room, street art, lovely work, the whole bit!

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  8. What a wonderful walk through this part of London! I probably would go crazy taking pictures of everything...

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  9. At one time i fancied buying a house in one of the Georgian squares off the docks...ship captain country...but the rest of the area was so depressing that i didn't...and it still hasn't taken off!
    Very enjoyable tour...many thanks.

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  10. Silly Dick...he and Miss Havisham should've met up and havish 'em a grand old time together!

    Another extremely interesting and post, Jenny, with some wonderful photos accompanying it. Such fascinating areas...I, too, thank you for sharing it with us. :)

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  11. A fascinating and fun place! If i ever do get over there again, i want to see the area.

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  12. Wonderful post today.
    I especially like the first photo.
    Fabulous !

    cheers, parsnip

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  13. Your daughter must have learned from you - you pick up a lot of detail about a place, too, otherwise you could not be the writer you are, could you!
    Nothing creepy about the church, but as you say, it's probably different on a less sunny day.
    A sad story about Dirty Dick's wedding never have come to place... but I still don't get it, what's the "Dirty" in his name for? Because of the rotting food...?

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  14. Isn't it wonderful what you can find when you go looking! Everywhere has a story, if we only search for it. What a great day you had.

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  15. That's a great tour. Most of it was new to me, including the fascinating, sad, tale of Dirty Dick, despite working in and around London for most of the 80s and 90s.

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  16. Great accounts! I am glad you had a good time with your daughter.

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  17. At first I thought Dick Bentley was the same DB that acted alongside Jimmy Edwards! A long time ago but nowhere near 200 years! Your day out was certainly interesting, and educational.

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    1. Certainly, not 200 years, Valerie! :D :D

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  18. I've recently come back from London tour, Jenny. I should read your post and go to see this area as well. I liked the old pub and old house of Anna Maria Garthwaite. I've seen this 'Pride bus' and it was a surprise to me too.

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  19. You take us to places where most of us would never travel. Great post!

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  20. I always feel like I get such a cool history lesson when I read one of your posts! It's a much more interesting read than I'd get from a textbook or from a class lecture.

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  21. Absolutely fascinating!! I love your tours. :)

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  22. What a fascinating post, I've always associated Spitalfields with the Huguenots and silk weaving and the medieval hospital that gave it it's name. I love exploring London, every bit of it is awash with history.

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  23. I have a video somewhere of them clearing out the basement at Spitalfields. The coffins going back centuries were disgusting! Piled high and somewhat rotten, a terrible sight. The church looked after dossers in the days they were 'dossers,' not 'homeless' folk. They got kicked out to clean up the place in keeping with the incoming trendies.
    A very historic area and I am glad some of the old rooms are kept as they were. Many of the folks here had families from there long ago.

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  24. I usually find your posts fascinating, interesting and educational or some combination of those three. This was all three. It's taken a while to get to this point because I followed all the links. I got a bit carried away/lost with the Ackroyd novel though. The point you made that made me think the most though was about the missionaries to the local Jews. I have problems with the concept of missionaries and proselytising at the best of times.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. It's nice to know that people follow the links. I am sorry I didn't make the connection clear with the Ackroyd novel. It's awfully creepy and I have always thought it absolutely suits the way it used to be around there. And the indefinable air of oddness and madness that seems to afflict some of Hawksmoor's exteriors. Something about the proportions are very uncomfortable. It was a bit queasy-making (is that a word?) for me too, seeing all those tablets to missionaries among the Jews. I have been reading a book about a man who was missionary to gypsies in England and it was very clear that he loved and respected them and was motivated by the feeling that he was helping them by bringing them into everyday English society. I hope that this was the motivation with the Jews and think it might have been even though the very idea goes against everything we have learned since.

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    2. I think, Jenny, that many individual missionaries are genuine, well-meaning people but my philosophy has always been one of acceptance of the faith other people have and a belief that they are as likely to be correct as I am about redemption and salvation and such things. The fact that I no longer have a faith nor a belief in a deity does not stop me respecting the views of others or wanting them to allow me to live with mine. I had Jewish friends when I was a young man and they accepted me into their family and we had a comfortable recognition of the others view of the Truth. I do wish that tolerance was a bit more fashionable.

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  25. So much interesting information, Jenny. And I don't even know where Spitalfields is! The very old, preserved rooms are fascinating. We have been to the Tenement Museum in New York and I do remember the feeling of going back into the past. I am sure the same aura can be found in spitalfields too. I always enjoy your posts so much, Thank you.

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    1. Thank you Patricia, I appreciate your comments. I loved the tenement museum in NYC which thoroughly brought home to me how rotten and uncomfortable and tough life must have been for those immigrants.

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  26. I'm not sure why Dirty Dick was smiling on his inn sign!

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    1. Perhaps he was welcoming the young ladies in. Although he became somewhat reclusive he apparently always had a kind word for the ladies. !

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  27. Thanks for that very interesting tour, as the last time I was in Spitalfields was many years ago, when a lot of it was very scruffy and unappealing. Anna Maria Garthwaite's house very much reminds me of the Tenement Museum. The same very dingy, spartan rooms that were once so typical. The street art is wonderful. And I loved the rather sad story of Dirty Dick.

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    1. Thanks Nick, I am glad you liked the post.

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  28. Really enjoyed this post...have been through the area, but always going somewhere else, and never to really explore. fascinating!

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  29. Thank you for the extremely interesting post.....but then ALL your posts are extremely interesting.

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  30. Poor Dirty Dick! That's a tragic tale.

    I love the street art.

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  31. I feel as though I was on the walk with you. I’ve read ‘Hawksmoor’ but I’ve never been to Spitalfields. I follow a blog called Spitalfields Life which is full of interesting facts and photos.

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  32. Very informative post. Isn't it interesting how neighborhoods come and go in popularity? Places you wouldn't walk alone in last year become this years up and coming spot to be. Thanks for taking us through the history of this one.

    Darla

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  33. I will probably come across as an old codger but I don't like the new Spitafields. I remember going there when I first came to London and finding a very - unexpected - vibrant area. I still have a couple of CDs I bought at one of the stalls. I loved the accent which was still dominated by the Cockney geezers peddling their fruit'n'veg on the street. Since then the area has been gentrified to its eyeballs. I don't like the boutiques and they are way too overpriced for ever-dwindling pocket. I know that the area is not marketed to the likes of me, but I feel the area has lost character, something that has been echoed by people born and bred there. I know a few of them who have upped sticks and gone to Essex, Hertfordshire and Kent. Every time they come back to the East End they have the same comment: it's all about the money, money, money, not about the local community.

    I recognise that pub in your post.

    Thanks. Sorry for the moan. I love (loved) Spitalfields Market and the surrounding and really cared for it. Only Brick Lane does it for me these days.

    Have a great weekend.

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  34. No, I don't think you're an old codger at all. I feel the same about other parts of London which have been ruined by gentrification or trendyism. Latterly Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. Actually I remember Covent Garden as a teenager, and it was still truly Dickensian, and quite magical, with quaint old theatrical and dance and magic and curiosity shops alongside the fruit and veg wholesalers. Marylebone High St. used to be a quirky, forgotten area.Now look at them, full of the same old pretentious, dull and expensive stuff. The only reason I don't feel the same about Spitalfields is that I only remember it as just SO depressing! Perhaps I didn't explore it enough to appreciate whatever was there before.

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  35. How very interesting. And I have one pink flower on my last post! :-)

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  36. That place is a gold mine for photography!

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  37. Your daughter has an eye for the interesting and the unique! She gets it from her mamma!

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  38. See this is why I love to walk - especially in city. So much to see and so many interesting things if you know where to find it. Some cool street art along the way...some history. Definitely fascinating.

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  39. Wow, what a truly fascinating post Jenny! I loved reading about the history of Dirty Dicks and that photo from inside Hawksmoor is just exquisite.

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  40. Thank you so much for this fabulous interesting walk around. I LOVE the photo of the pickle in the the middle of very old buildings, Such a great walk! London is like that, isn't it! An adventure every day!

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  41. thoroughly enjoyable travelogue, many thanks! I enjoyed Spitalfields when last I was in London, 2010. Greatly appreciated is your first photo as it shows me, approximately where I was when I came from the Tube. For some reason, I was completely confused and turned around. Anyway, I visited because I wanted to see the Flea Market...bought one of my prized possessions there...a hand sewn tea cozy made in a tartan.
    Thanks again, your blog is now on my side bar so I won't miss anything.

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  42. As usual, a fascinating post, Jenny! I still want to got to Dennis Sever's house in Spitalfields - it sounds like it would be a magical experience.

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