Hoxton & Shoreditch


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A History of Hoxton & Shoreditch

In the 1740s  Shoreditch a built up area, the result of city overspill. Dalston and Kingsland had both been small settlements at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but by the start of the nineteenth, inns and streets had sprung up that transformed them from hamlets to villages. In particular Kingsland, having the benefit of Kingsland Road which was a major thoroughfare from the city, had spread almost as far as Hackney Brook. The brickfields, quarried since at least Tudor times and now quite extensive, also dominated Kingsland's landscape. Another dominant feature that appeared toward the end of the period was the reservoirs that were built to provide a supply of clean water for the emerging suburbs.

Towards the end of the Georgian period in the early nineteenth century the in-filling of these rural areas began because it was the start of a speculative housing boom and the gentry moved out. Many charitable institutions took over the old houses of the gentry, such as Brooke House, which became an asylum. However its was still fashionable amongst the rich to go for carriage drives through Hackney on summer nights and take in the country air.

The completion of the Regents Canal in 1820 meant building materials could be easily transported to the area, and prompted the developer William Rhodes to lease 150 acres of what had been the Balmes Estate from the elderly Reverend Peter de Beauvoir. It was said to be the largest single development proposed by a speculative builder in London. The De Beauvoir Estate, was planned as residences for the very well-to-do and the original 1820s plans show four tree filled squares with at their centre another large, octagonal, green space. However Rhodes was found to have obtained the lease unfairly and the land reverted to the de Beauvoir family. Once building resumed, after a lengthy delay, its proposed clientele had moved on to the new suburbs of the West End. It was never developed on the grand scale originally intended and was instead occupied in the 1840s by the newly emerging middle class. Instead of five squares, only the south-east square was built, now called De Beauvoir Square.

A famous writer, Daniel Defoe, who lived in Stoke Newington, described Hackney in the 1720s as comprising of "twelve hamlets" and "having so many rich citizens that it contained nearly a hundred coaches". Important residents included the Governor of the Bank of England, who lived in Hackney House, Clapton in 1745 and the chief founder of the East India Company.

But alongside these well heeled and influential denizens, who were attracted to the clean air and green pasture so close to the city, there were many poor labourers residing close to them who worked on the land. Between the twelve hamlets and the estates of the big houses were agricultural fields, market gardens and meadows. That is aside from the area between Kingsland Road and London Fields, which was a vast brickfield; evidence of the burgeoning housing market.

These people would have lived in existing timber-framed cottages, through houses or back to backs. A through house had no corridor; entrance from the street led directly into the living area with the kitchen behind. Stairs in one corner led to the bedrooms upstairs. Families often shared a through house. A back to back actually had no rear. It was really a through house divided into two, so it was only one room deep and joined to the house behind. It was also attached to houses on either side as it was terraced. The back to back was cheaper to build as it had three common or 'party' walls. Sometimes back to backs had a basement or an attic to enable more families to be housed on the same amount of land.

The insides of such homes would have been sparsely furnished and undecorated. People had very few possessions or furniture. Aside from some bedding, perhaps a chair or a stool and a small table, they may have had a trunk or chest which would have been used for safekeeping and transporting as well as being a seat.

These homes also had no running water or proper drainage and to make matters worse for the poor, builders often used shoddy materials and cut corners. Many artisan workers, in the textile industry particularly, worked upstairs in their home in workrooms or loom shops. These sometimes had larger windows for better light and generally the standard of artisan housing was higher. Windows were sashes, often wedged open with wood, and were recessed into the walls to comply with fire regulations. During the Georgian period there was a tax on windows, which is where the phrase 'daylight robbery' originates. Windows were bricked up to avoid the tax, even in affluent homes, although in such cases these were usually servant's rooms. Houses from this period with bricked up windows can still be seen today.

The end of the century saw the beginning of Hackney's fall from favour as the first of the super rich began to move to the new fashionable suburbs that are now the West End, and their grand houses were converted to schools, asylums and hospitals. 

Although light industry had begun to dominate Hoxton, Georgian Hackney was still overwhelmingly agricultural, over two thirds was of the area was farmland. Agricultural products were sold in the city of London as well supplying the local markets; until the Georgian period Hoxton had been the centre of the market gardening in the area. Around the Kingsland Road area watercress was grown. In 1759 a tragic story was reported in the press of a young boy who drowned in the beds whilst his mother worked there.

Brickfields, another source of employment in Hackney, could be found in the Kingsland Road area, although over the course of the Georgian period the encroaching suburbs gradually pushed them northward to Clapton. In 1806 brickfields covered 170 acres of Hackney. In 1821 more than 70 labourers and their families were found to be actually living in the brickfields.

In Shoreditch artisans operated from small workshops where they lived. Tailors, ironworkers, leather workers such as saddlers and cordwainers (shoe and boot makers) were all common. Printing and furniture makers were another two predominant industries in this area, particularly in the later period. The furniture industry boomed in the south Hackney area when the Regents Canal was completed in 1820, as this eased the transport of heavy goods and materials. The furniture trade provided work for many small specialist trades such as french polishing and veneering, likewise with printing there was work for bookbinders and stationers.

By Victorian times, although the industrial revolution had resulted in most industry moving from areas around the City walls to places where land was cheaper and goods could be produced on a large scale, some craftsmen had escaped the threat of mass production. These were people working in the finishing trades and with high value artefacts. Being close to fashionable markets, Shoreditch was ideally placed and traditionally the area had a pool of semi-skilled labour. The furniture trade's centre was Shoreditch and it flourished partly because of the Regents Canal, built in 1820, which was utilised for transporting the heavy hardwoods needed. Piano makers and showrooms abounded too. By 1901 there were over five thousand piano, cabinet and other furniture makers in Hackney and they had spread out from Shoreditch as far as Homerton.

Ermine Street (which became Kingsland Road around 1745) was one of the main thoroughfares into and out of London at the start of the eighteenth century. Like all roads it was maintained by the local parishioners. As well as the traffic of horses, coaches and pedestrians, an increase in goods wagons, which were wagons covered by tarpaulin hoods and pulled by six or more horses, had worsened the state of the road. So in 1713 the parishes affected, including Stoke Newington, Hackney and Shoreditch successfully appealed to parliament for the right to set up a turnpike trust; The Stamford Hill trust was formed in 1713 with turnpikes at Kingsland and the top of Stamford Hill. The tolls charged depended on the number of horses or the number of wheels a vehicle had. Evasion of the tolls was possible either by charging through the gate or by using side roads. Trusts also took on watchmen and the responsibility for lighting but were always plagued by complaints about charges and delays. One of the reasons for watchmen was highway robbery, which was a big problem in the eighteenth century. The infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin was alleged to have hidden out in Hackney marshes.

The Victorian period, 1837-1901, saw the biggest changes to the landscape of Hackney. At the start of the period it was a collection of villages, by the end an inner London suburb. London itself, which spanned 4 miles in the early Georgian period was 18 miles across by 1900.

As the population of London grew, urbanisation continued full throttle. The city and its surrounding areas, such as Shoreditch, became dirty, noisy and overcrowded. The middle class fled the disease and immorality they associated with the poor and the overcrowded city and the result was the birth of the suburbs.

Ironically, in order to reduce the costs of road building although not overcrowded many of the first suburbs were built densely, and had pedestrian access only or were cul-de-sacs, which took advantage of an existing road and forced any further developments to pay for access.

The new railways were the catalyst that enabled city workers to live further afield. Kingsland and Hackney were the first stations to open in the borough, in 1850. The suburban life became available to even more people when trams appeared in the 1870s. Although the railways opened up new housing opportunities for the middle class they also swallowed up great tracts of land, sometimes the land of the old country houses in Hackney, but more often they cut through poorer areas creating slums or demolishing poorer housing altogether. When the North London railway was extended across Kingsland road in the 1860s, six hundred and fifty homes were cleared to make way for it, in an area where housing was already at a shortage.

Life in Victorian Hoxton

A contemporary journalist described as 'motley, struggling, anxious and poverty-stricken' the Sunday crowds which frequented the shops and stalls of Hoxton Street, the long street running south/north in the middle of Shoreditch. It is not likely to have been an exaggeration. Shoreditch, with its mere 640 acres, had grown faster than any other London parish in the first half of the century and by 1851 had nearly 130,000 inhabitants. Although numbers declined thereafter, they did so only slowly. Shoreditch In 1870 was still grossly overcrowded. The vast majority who lived there were London born. Many had by 1870 been forced from their homes in the south of the parish to make way for warehouses and workshops. Nearly 4,000 more had been displaced by demolitions for the building in the 1860s of the rail link between Dalston and Broad Street. No authority existed to compensate or to rehouse them. They crowded into the courts and alleys of the neighbour hood.

The south of the parish was the centre of the important furniture trade, which had taken over Curtain Road and spread widely into the surrounding area. A considerable export trade had developed; making and wholesaling had become Increasingly divorced from each other. The work was broken up into many stages and a single chair might pass through several hands. Much of it was done hand-to-mouth, the worker using the money he had been paid to buy what he needed for next week's work, in which he was frequently helped by his family, in the one, or perhaps two, rooms he could call home. There were always men pressing for work and the harder they worked the easier it was for the employer to keep wages down.

The other main Shoreditch trade was in boots and shoes, where similar working conditions all too frequently applied. Sanitary conditions had begun to improve after the passing of the Metropolitan Management Act of 1855, which gave some rationality to the local government of London. The Shoreditch Vestry had worked with a will. By 1870 they had closed over 3,000 cesspools and installed over 5,000 water closets, and linked them to the drains. They had cleansed, repaired, scraped walls and liberally applied limewash and carbolic acid.

The turning point for London had come in 1864 with the completion of that triumph of engineering, the sewer system for the Metropolis. But much still remained to be done. Sickness was still rife. London's last outbreak of cholera, centred further east, had carried off 170 Shoreditch people in 1866. Apart from the people, there were still 78 Shoreditch slaughterhouses and 45 cowsheds to be inspected. Many inhabitants were living in impossibly crowded and airless conditions, but authority could do little because they had nowhere else to go. The New River Company had not yet provided Shoreditch with a constant water supply. Nor was there a mortuary in the parish, to put an end to the practice of keeping the dead in their homes for days on end. The population was constantly shifting. Further north, in Hackney, Stoke Newington and Clapton, new housing was being developed. Those who could afford to, moved away from Shoreditch. Those who came in to replace them, uprooted by other clearances and railway development, were those who could afford nothing better. In the workhouse marked improvements were in sight. New buildings intended for over a thousand inmates with, for the first time, separate accommodation for the sick, were due to be completed in 1872. Paid nurses, under the Metropolitan Poor Law Act of 1867, were to replace the untrained paupers who had until now done what they could for their fellow inmates.

There was a lighter side, even to Shoreditch. There were, as there had been for decades, public houses galore. The theatre boom of the 1840s was being maintained and drawing audiences from miles around: the Grecian Theatre in City Road, the Standard in Shoreditch High Street, Macdonald's Music Hall in Hoxton Street, which was to lose its licence in 1871 and later become a temperance hall and finally Hoxton Hall. 1870 saw the opening in Pitfield Street of The Varieties. Shoreditch people were proudest of the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton Street, which could seat over 3,000 and which offered dramatic productions. Dickens, in The Uncommercial Traveller described an evening he spent there in January, 1860. It was cheap, he wrote; there was a gallery at threepence and one at fourpence, a pit at sixpence, boxes and pit-stalls at a shilling and a few private boxes at half-a-crown. In the boxes and stalls there were family groups 'of very decent appearance'. As for the rest, the vast majority of the audience: 'Among our dresses there were most kinds of shabby and greasy wear, and much fustian and corduroy that was neither sound nor fragrant. The caps of our young men were mostly of a limp character, and we who wore them slouched, high-shouldered. Into our places with our hands in our pockets, and occasionally twisted our cravats about our necks like eels, and occasionally tied them down our breasts like links of sausages, and occasionally had a screw in our hair over each cheek-bone with a slight Thief-flavour in it. Besides the prowlers and idlers, costermongers, petty tradesmen, small clerks, milliners, stay-makers, shoe-binders, slop-workers, poor workers in a hundred highways and by-ways. Many of us - on the whole, the majority - were not at all clean and not at all choice in our lives or conversation. But we had all come together in a place where our convenience was well consulted and where we were well looked after, to enjoy an evening's entertainment in common. We were not going to lose any part of what we had paid for through anybody's caprice, and as a community we had a character to lose. So, we were closely attentive and kept excellent order; and let the man or boy who did otherwise instantly get out from this place, or we would put him out with the greatest expedition.'


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