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Brick Lane

What's in a Name?

Street names provide important clues to an area's past. This is certainly true of Brick Lane, a place that wears its history on its sleeve. Names of roads in the district not only give an insight into former trades and religions, but the stories, myths and personalities associated with this part of the East End.

Petticoat Lane
London Barrow girls In Petticoat Lane, in the 1950s
In the 12th century, the Spitalfields area became the site of the Priory of St Mary's Spital. (Spital was a medieval abbreviation of hospital). The hospital, founded in 1197, was the largest in London. Set among fields on the edge of the City, it provided shelter to travellers, hence "Spital fields".

Brick Lane's name came from early use of the land – it was dug for brick earth. Daniel Defoe writes of a track, deeply rutted by carts, bringing bricks from brickworks at the north end of the lane, to rebuild the city after the Great Fire of 1666. The quality of the brick earth here had been recognised by the Romans, who dug extensively.

Making an impression

The East End has always been known for its diversity. With its closeness to the Thames, the district has attracted numerous immigrant groups. This history of struggle and change is imprinted on the area – French street names; weavers' houses and chapels left by the Huguenots who fled to England in the early 18th century to escape persecution in France; old synagogues; a soup kitchen and an exotic indoor market building built by Jews from Russia, Poland and the Netherlands, and mosques, textile businesses and restaurants run by the current Bangladeshi Community.

The Huguenots

Fournier Street, running beside Christ Church, Spitalfields, is a permanent reminder of the Huguenots. The street is named after George Fournier, of Huguenot extraction, who in 1834 left money for the benefit of the poor of Spitalfields. The silk weaving skills of the French Huguenot community brought prosperity to the East End, and Fournier Street is lined with the Huguenot's tall, 18th century houses. These have elaborate porches and distinctive shutters and the broad attic windows were designed to give maximum light to the silk-weavers.

Tenter Ground is named after the tenter frames used to dry and stretch woven cloth, hence “being on tenter hooks”. It is likely that Weaver Street was named after the trade.

Other influences

Quaker Street and Calvin Street are named after other religions that have a history in the area.

Petticoat Lane and Fashion Street pay homage to the area's textile industry – Petticoat Lane market was established by Huguenot lace-makers and then taken up by Jewish immigrants. There is no longer any Petticoat Lane, because the name was changed by the stuffy Victorians to Middlesex Street! 

"Frying Pan Alley" is at the opposite end of Middlesex Street, close to Liverpool Street. It got its name from the ironmongers who used frying pans to identify their premises.

Some of the more unusually named streets running off Brick Lane have chilling legends attached to them. Chicksand Street is said to have been where Bram Stoker stayed on his return to Transylvania, while the notorious Flower and Dean Street (now only a part of which survives as Lolesworth Close) was at some stage the address of most of Jack the Ripper’s victims.