How an ancient culture formed London’s trendiest district

With its modern cafe bars, roof terraces and converted warehouses, today’s Shoreditch is the epitome of trendy London living.  For this reason, many are surprised to learn that the roots of this vibrant area go back several decades – and almost five thousand miles – the now infamous Brick Lane.  

Oranges, lemons and the spice of life

Situated in the East end of London and wedged between the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, Shoreditch is one of the latest areas of the capital to have benefited from extensive regeneration. Once a thriving hub for the textile and furniture industries, the area was so prominent that it even features in the famous nursery rhyme, ‘Oranges and lemons’, in the line “When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch” – a line which eludes to St Leonards Church which has stood in Shoreditch since 1740.  As the industry within Shoreditch declined, so did its reputation which led to the area being known for poverty and crime.

During the 1960s, the area began to thrive once more – with many people attributing this to the reign of the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reg.  This new prosperous era for the East End signalled the arrival of large numbers of Indian immigrants looking to start a new life in the UK.  As these immigrants began to settle and form a strong and close community, many started businesses in Brick Lane selling spices and printed textiles which had been brought all the way to London’s docks from India.  Just a stone’s throw from The Blind Beggar pub where, in 1966, Ronnie Kray shot fellow criminal George Cornell dead with a 9MM Mauser, Brick Lane’s vibrant stalls and colourful characters are said to have inspired the transformation of today’s Shoreditch.

Bringing colour to the East End

In the 1960s, the East End of London was very much a working class district  and, although the fashions of the day could be seen at weekends in pubs and music halls, workaday wear was generally drab and functional.  The arrival, therefore, of the new occupants of Brick Lane with their eye popping sarees and extravagant jewellery was something to behold for the long-term residents of the area.  More accustomed to pie and mash and jellied eels, these residents gave the herbs and spices of Brick Lane a wide berth but, began a fascination with the spicy textiles sold there in sumptuous fabrics and jewel colours.  It has even been suggested that the flamboyant styles and printed fabrics of the 1970s were directly linked to the textiles being sold on Brick Lane during the swinging sixties.

textiles at Shoreditch
Photo by Artificial Photography on Unsplash

It’s hip to be square

Although you’ll still find unique and beautiful fabrics on Brick Lane, these days, the street is known more for its exotic restaurants and bagel bakeries, including the famous Beigel Bake established in 1974.  Down the road in Shoreditch, the streets are barely recognisable. Traditional pubs and tea shops have been replaced with super-cool bars and artisan cafes and old style housing has been replaced with expensive apartments converted from warehouses and shipping containers.  As well as these trendy new businesses, Shoreditch is known for its residents – a generation of ‘hipsters’ intent on expressing themselves through their clothing and personal grooming. These days, Shoreditch is all about individual style and, as a result, the area is a treasure trove of independent boutiques filled with unique and vintage items of clothing.  Boutiques such as Hunky Dory Vintage which sells authentic pieces from the 60s and 70s can be found on almost every corner and Indian stores like Mahir are a clear sign of the area’s heritage.

Photo by Collins Lesulie on Unsplash

As the residents of Shoreditch continue to strive towards unique clothing, many are embracing the spirit of the area by getting busy making their own.  In an area where the resurrection of old school hobbies and pastimes such as the WI and crafting has been incredibly popular, Shoreditch has seen a new wave of fabric stores and haberdasheries popping up in the area, selling printed fabrics and trimmings. As well as these funky new stores, many Shoreditch residents are going online to buy unique fabrics from purveyors such as Cottonbee who are able to offer more variety and options than those small independent stores, along with handy tutorials for those who need a little helping hand.

East meets West

With mentions in popular books such as Brick Lane and White Teeth and, films such as The Krays and Eastern Promises, it’s clear to see how the influence of Brick Lane has helped to shape the East London that we see today.  As the city becomes ever more multi-cultural, Brick Lane and its rich history is evident in the newly vibrant streets of Shoreditch and Hackney and, today, thousands of tourists flock to Brick Lane every year to sample the unique cuisine and atmosphere.  Although Brick Lane has come a long way since the days when it’s spices and textiles would make the arduous journey by boat, the area still retains its traditions and sense of community – a legacy which has been passed onto today’s inhabitants of Shoreditch.

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