Huguenot refugees. Irish weavers. Jewish immigrants. Bangladeshis. Hipsters. Artists.
All of these groups — disparate as they seem — have at one point or another called the East End of London home.
Today known for the curry houses of Brick Lane and as the birthplace of graffiti artist Banksy, the East End has developed and evolved over the years into a diverse and up-and-coming neighborhood. With the exception of Brick Lane, though, it's not a place many tourists venture to. There's no Big Ben or Buckingham Palace to be found here. In fact, you'll find a lot of old warehouses and factory buildings; even shops built in converted train cars.
Which is exactly why I wanted to spend some time here.
I booked an “East End Uncovered” tour with Urban Adventures in order to learn the history of this interesting part of London.
There was a time when the East End of London was not actually part of London at all. The area was once a separate village outside the Roman walls of the city; a place where the poor and the immigrants went to live when they could not afford to live within London itself, or when overcrowding forced them out.
What happened, though is a typical tale of expansion and absorption — eventually, as London grew, it encompassed what is known today as the “East End” and beyond.
The first group of immigrants to this part of London were Huguenots escaping religious oppression in France. They brought with them looms and weaving, paving the way for Irish weavers and Jewish immigrants in later decades. By the late 1900s, immigrants from Bangladesh were the most numerous. They still make up a large part of the population in the East End, and are partially responsible for curry being England's national dish.
Today, though, yet another group is moving into the neighborhood — hipsters and artists drawn to the area's grittier, creative side.
Walking through the streets of Hackney, Hoxton, and beyond, I learned so much about a part of London that, to be honest, I had never given much thought to before.
Here are some things I learned that you probably don't know about the East End:
The Regent's Canal runs through the East End. It was built as an alternative way to transport goods through London, back in the days when horses and carts would get bogged down in the mud and muck that made up city roads.
The East End was heavily bombed during WWII. In fact, parts of it were almost completely leveled. You'd never know it today, though.
There are Shakespeare ties. Burbage's famous Theater (the first successful theater in London) was located in the East End neighborhood of Shoreditch — as was the first version of Shakespeare's Globe theater. Burbage is buried at St. Leonard's in Shoreditch.
Hitchcock began his filmmaking career here in the East End at Gainsborough Studios.
Jamie Oliver also calls this part of London home; his head offices and Fifteen restaurant are in the East End.
Jack the Ripper preyed here. The East End today can still be a bit seedy, but it used to be way worse. The infamous Jack the Ripper murders all took place here in 1888, with some of the victims drinking in local pubs right before they were murdered.
Oysters and eels used to be poor man's food here in the East End. Because the area was so close to the docks, the cheapest food for many people living here was actually fresh seafood. Not a bad diet, really.
Speaking of food, fish and chips was “invented” here. The chips were adopted from Belgium and the buttered fish from Portugal, but it was a young Jewish boy who began selling them together here in the East End.
It is evolving. Some of the homes and old warehouses in the area have been beautifully restored and repurposed as fancy apartments and town houses. While the East End used to be home to some of London's worst slums, the price to live here is steadily rising.
Today, the East End is becoming very artsy and a haven for hipsters. The art movement arguably began around Hoxton Square, and has spread rapidly. Graffiti artist Banksy started his work here, and now anyone who wants to be anyone in the street art universe comes to the East End.
The East End is so interesting. From the street art to the curry houses to Spitalfields Market, the area has an interesting vibe. Still a bit gritty, but also creative and exciting. It will be interesting to see what it evolves into in the next few decades.
If you want to venture beyond the usual tourist trail in London, I highly recommend a tour of the East End like this one.
If You Go…
- What: East End Uncovered tour
- When: 10 a.m. daily
- Where: Meeting point it at Old Street tube station; tour ends near Brick Lane or Spitalfields Market
- Length: About 4 hours, most of it walking
- Inclusions: Local guide, pie and mash for lunch
- Price: Roughly $40 USD
Have YOU ever been to London's East End?
*Note: I did receive a complimentary tour of the East End with Urban Adventures. As always, though, my opinions are all my own.