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Survey of London launches ‘Histories of Whitechapel’ interactive website

The Survey of London has recently launched an innovative new website entitled ‘Histories of Whitechapel’ and is inviting anyone with an interest in or experiences of Whitechapel's long and rich history to contribute. Visitors can explore an interactive map and click on any building to discover more about its rich history, or sign up and share their own material. The findings will be published as volume 54 in the Survey’s series of detailed studies of London. If you’d like to help the Survey of London bring together the diverse and personal histories of the buildings, streets and neighbourhoods of Whitechapel, Peter Guillery, Senior Research Associate, Historian and Editor, at the Survey of London, tells you how to go about it, shares more about the project and highlights some of the sources held at LMA.

The Survey of London in Whitechapel

East London is the Survey of London’s spiritual home. C. R. Ashbee launched the project in 1894–6 for a monograph about Trinity Hospital on the Mile End Road, followed up with the first Survey of London parish volume, devoted to Bromley by Bow and published in 1900. Since then eastern dalliances have been at best occasional. It is sixty years since the Survey covered Spitalfields (volume 27, 1957), and thirty since we last embarked on the study of an East End district – that was Poplar, Blackwall and the Isle of Dogs, where work began in 1986 (volumes 43 and 44, 1994). In recent years the Survey has turned to south London, previously long neglected, to investigate Woolwich and Battersea (volumes 48 to 50, 2012 and 2013), and to the West End for what we are calling South-East Marylebone (volumes 51 and 52, forthcoming 2017), and Oxford Street (volume 53, forthcoming 2019). So it seems timely and appropriate that the Survey has now begun work on the parish of Whitechapel, an East End place of great historical interest in the throes of major change.

This will lead in due course and in the traditional way to a book in the parish series (volume 54). However, we are keen to make it known that the Survey is following a new path to that end. Now that we are housed within a university, in the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London since 2013, the Survey is eligible to receive research-council funding. This is important because the kinds of innovations that we have long wanted to introduce to the Survey’s methods have not been possible heretofore for want of money. We are delighted and fortunate that the Arts and Humanities Research Council has approved a grant proposal for a three-year experimental project to try out in Whitechapel a reshaping of the way the Survey conducts its research.

Participative website

In collaboration with the Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis we have been able to create a website - Survey of London, Histories of Whitechapel , launched in September 2016. This functions as a research base as we accumulate information about Whitechapel. Crucially, the map-based website will be participative up to the end of 2018, enabling any and all with an interest in or experiences of Whitechapel’s places and buildings (that very much includes you, dear reader) to contribute knowledge, ranging from research findings to reminiscences to photographs or drawings. We are keen not only to engage our existing readership, but also to extend it, both locally and globally, and to widen our sources in a way that we feel would have pleased Ashbee, for whom the recording of London’s built fabric was what would now be called a public-engagement mission. The grant has also made possible the cataloguing of Whitechapel archives (mainly deeds) held by Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, material that will soon be accessible through their online catalogue, the commissioning of new photographs and drawings, and the hosting of events, such as workshops, walks and exhibitions (please see the website).

Whitechapel

Whitechapel has a rich and complicated history in which immigration has a central place. As Elizabethan London expanded, many came from the English countryside and John Stow famously found Whitechapel ‘pestered with Cottages and Allies’. There followed Irish, Huguenot and German arrivals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sugar baking, based on Caribbean imports into the Port of London, was a significant local industry, largely handled by German immigrants who possessed the secrets of the trade - Whitechapel retains Lutheran and Catholic German churches. It is better known that large-scale Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe followed pogroms in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Then in the post-war period there was another major shift in the area’s population as Bengali immigrants, largely Muslim, settled in Whitechapel. The majority of the district’s population now is of Bangladeshi origin, many at one or two generations remove, and there are numerous other smaller groups of recent immigrants. There is also much new purpose-built student housing, and gentrification has taken hold in the area’s remaining pre-Victorian houses and in a slew of tower blocks across the parts of the parish nearest the City. This area is bisected by Whitechapel High Street on which stands the Whitechapel Gallery, though ‘placemakers’ are spinning vigorously to re-designate it Aldgate - Whitechapel evidently has undesirable connotations. On Commercial Street, directly opposite Toynbee Hall, new apartment blocks place-make absurdly - Kensington Apartments, Ladbroke House and Sloane Apartments; they evidently do not expect prospective purchasers to be local. Whatever it is called, this inner district has been transformed in the last few years by cliffs of glass.

Further east on Whitechapel Road the former churchyard of St Mary Matfelon, the parish church that replaced the eponymous medieval ‘white chapel’, is now Altab Ali Park, renamed in memory of a young man murdered in a racist attack in 1978. The park has a Shaheed Minar (martyrs’ monument) of 1999, a secular memorial copied from a larger monument in Dhaka that commemorates those who died fighting for Bangladeshi independence. Beyond is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, with front buildings from when it moved from the densely built-up inner part of the parish to its present site in the 1740s. Until now an extraordinary survival of manufacturing given its central location, the foundry has sadly announced that it will be closing in 2017. Further along is the East London Mosque, London’s most used mosque and a major local presence. It moved here from the Commercial Road in the 1970s and into its present main building in the early 1980s. The mosque has expanded gradually since onto a larger site that now comprehends the former Great Synagogue on Fieldgate Street, the last of many dozens of synagogues in the parish, now redundant and possibly destined for use as a heritage centre to encourage links between faiths. The east end of Whitechapel Road is what all would agree is Whitechapel. Here the tube station (stations are the latter-day anchors for place names more than high streets or parish churches) has mutating entrances while it is reconstructed for Crossrail, a change that will have a further transformative effect. Across the road is another landmark, the Royal London Hospital. Since 2012 the hospital has occupied new buildings, set back from the road. The former roadside hospital, which traces its origins to the 1750s, is to be converted to be a civic centre for Tower Hamlets Council. That seems an enlightened and hearteningly appropriate reuse of an historic public building.

The parish of Whitechapel also extends south to take in places not normally associated with the place-name. Alie Street, Leman Street, Mansell Street and Prescot Street form a near-square on the map that was laid out around 1700 with good houses, a handful of which survive. Also here are notable reminders of the scale of the co-operative movement in Co-operative Wholesale Society’s buildings, now largely converted to residential use. Finally, there is Wellclose Square, laid out by Nicholas Barbon at the end of the seventeenth century. A charming Victorian school at its centre replaced a Danish church. Early houses were all cleared in the 1960s, but close by Wilton’s Music Hall has been preserved.

How to contribute and LMA sources

The Survey of London has long since moved on from cherry-picking major sites, so perhaps mentioning these highlights is misleading as to the nature of our work. There is a great deal else to be investigated, mostly of a more quotidian character. Our interest is in everything on the ground and, within reason governed by pragmatism, what has gone. Our interactive map is made up of 1,395 vectorised polygons, each representing a building, behind which there are historic maps for help in reconstructing vanished topographies. Clicking on any site opens the possibility of reading content already present (in many cases there is as yet no more than an address and a rough identifying snapshot), and of contributing stories, facts, images - anything historical about Whitechapel’s buildings (though not too much please by way of Jack the Ripper-ology, amply housed elsewhere on the internet).

The Survey of London has long made ample use of sources housed at the LMA - both institutions trace their origins to the London County Council. There are parish records (P93/MRY1), those of Stepney Manor (M/93) and rate books generated by the Tower Hamlets Commission of Sewers (THCS), especially valuable given the loss of other rate books. We have compiled a database from District Surveyors’ Returns (MBO/DS, MBW-30-1 and LCC/AR/BA/04), and Derek Morris has kindly given us access to his database from  eighteenth century Land Tax returns (MR/PLT). There is also the Middlesex Deeds Registry (MDR), a vital staple for the Survey, not to mention Building Act case files (GLC/AR/BR) and the records of the Federation of Synagogues (ACC/2893). Those are just a few highlights. There is, of course, a great deal more. There is, of course, a great deal more, including the archives of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry which have been deposited following its closure

Please do contribute. We are eagerly looking forward to compiling this Survey of London volume together with you.

Published:
30 March 2017
Last Modified:
29 September 2017

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