It was only a week ago I was raving about Shoreditch as one of the top street art locations in London, but this East London hipster area has so much more to offer. Being part of the East End of London, Shoreditch is soaked in history. And if you know where to look, you’ll find that the history of Shoreditch is literally written in its streets. From the notorious Jack the Ripper murders to Jewish culture, Shoreditch offers some truly original things to do in London. Simply make your way to London Liverpool Station and follow these 10 unique things to see in Shoreditch!
> 10 unique things to see in Shoreditch
1. Look out for the bronze plaques in the ground
Visiting Shoreditch for the first time might be rather overwhelming. With all the amazing street art, unique shops and quirky fashion going ’round, the last thing on your mind would be to look at the ground. Yet, I do highly recommend you to do so!
Because hidden in the pavement across Shoreditch, you’ll find these round bronze plaques in the ground. Local artist Keith Bowler was commissioned to make 22 of these so-called ‘Spitalfields roundels’ in the 1990s. Each of them depicts something that’s characteristic for the history of that site.
This bronze plaque above, hidden within the cobblestones of Brick Lane depicting beer jugs, is a reference to the iconic Truman Brewery. Having stood at this site since the 17th century, Truman Brewery is the heart of Brick Lane. (More about it later on!)
This violin is a reference to London’s first Jewish theatre (1886) that once stood on 6 Princelet Street. However, some think that it’s a viola as a homage to international viola player Lionel Tertis who lived at 8 Princelet Street.
And this bronze plaque with apples and pears on Commercial Street, is located in the Old Spitalfields Market. Nowadays the market is famous for its mouth-watering food stalls and great clothing and antique finds. However, being one of London’s oldest markets – established in 1638 – it used to be a popular fruit and vegetable market just outside of the old London City walls.
2. Mind the multilingual street names in Shoreditch
You can learn so much about the history of a city or area by looking at its street names. The name Brick Lane for instance comes from the brick and tile production that started in the area in the 15th century.
But what is the language of the street names around Brick Lane? This is actually Bengali. You see, Shoreditch is famous for its multicultural history. Throughout history it has been the safe haven for large groups of refugees who came from as far as Russia.
Today, Shoreditch is best known as the home of the large Bengali community. Part of Brick Lane is even officially called Banglatown. Together with Chinatown, Shoreditch is the only place in London that has multilingual street names.
3. Follow Jack the Ripper into The Ten Bells pub
The name of The Ten Bells pub may sound neutral enough – it refers to the number of bells in the Christ Church Spitalfields on its right. But what if I told you two of Jack the Ripper’s victims were last seen alive inside this pub?
Although his true identity remains unknown, the world’s most famous serial killer did actually exist. Jack the Ripper roamed the streets of Shoreditch and Whitechapel between 1888 and 1891, leaving behind a bloody trail of mutilated women in the streets of the East End of London.
Even after over 130 years since the murders took place, one of the most popular things to do in Shoreditch is to go on a Jack the Ripper tour. And because of its close association with the murders, The Ten Bells pub is a prominent site to vist. The pub even featured in the 2001 film From Hell starring Johnny Depp!
4. The old shops signs in Shoreditch have a story to tell
Have you ever heard of the term ghost signs? These are faded ads once painted on buildings. Sometimes they’re restored to their former glory, like the one for Donovan Bros on Crispin Street next to Spitalfields Market. The shop bears the name of the Irish brothers Jeremiah and Dennis O’Donovan. As a result of the devastating Irish 1830s potato famine, they had fled to London.
While Dennis left for America, Jeremiah stayed in East London and started a paper bag business. A rather niche market you might think, but considering the thriving food market right next to his shop, it was nothing short of a clever business move. It’s been so successful, that his great-great-grandson is still running the business from the New Spitalfields Market further northeast in Leyton.
A few doors down from the old Donovan Bros paper shop, you see the ghost sign for Percy Dalton nut importers and roasters. It’s located high at the top of the corner building of Crispin Street and Brushfield Street.
I discovered that Percy and his family were fruit merchants at Spitalfields Market and ran their business here until the 1970s. The roasting part of the trade started in the 1950s. That’s when Percy Dalton had the brilliant idea of roasting peanuts in their shells and started selling small packets at sporting events.
If you are aware of their presence, you’ll be able to find dozens of these old shop signs in Shoreditch. I could fill a whole blog post with photos and stories, but that would be a bit silly as my fellow blogger Katie of Look up London has already done that. So let me just refer you to her article The Old Signs of Spitalfields instead.
5. Marvel at the unique houses built by the French Huguenots
Well before the Jewish and Bengali immigrants arrived in Shoreditch, around 50,000 French Huguenots arrived in London from the 1680s. Fleeing persecution in France, they settled mostly in Soho and Spitalfields in Shoreditch.
The Huguenots in Spitalfields were mainly master silk weavers and most of them lived in the streets opposite Spitalfields Market. These quaint houses on Fournier Street, Princelet Street and Wilkes Street are actually my favourite buildings in East London. Not surprisingly, these streets are now popular photography and filming locations in London.
Characteristic for these houses are their elegant wooden doors and shutters, but especially the high attic windows. These were built for a very practical reason. By placing their spinning-wheel in the attic, weavers could benefit from natural daylight as long as possible.
Apparently, the streets of Spitalfields would be filled with the chatter of canaries. The Huguenots kept them as pets and enjoyed the birdsong whilst working away. I’ve read before that they would hang a bird cage with a canary in their grand porch.
There used to be a giant bird cage by the entrance of a bar in Spitalfields Market as a reference to this old custom. Unfortunately, this was replaced by the clothing shop & Other Stories a few years ago.
6. What to do in Shoreditch: Visit the magical Dennis Severs’ House
Walking around these former Huguenots houses, it’s hard to contain yourself from peeking through the windows. Save yourself the embarrassment and visit Dennis Severs’ House on 18 Folgate Street instead. The house is a recreation of a 17th-century silk weavers home. This unusual museum is one of the most quirky things to do in London and I highly recommend it!
Once you step through its door, you’re immediately transported back to the old East End of London. You can read more about the magical Dennis Severs’ House in my blog post 3 Extravagant Historical London Homes You Must Visit.
7. Go inside the 400-year old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane: once the world’s largest brewery
Silk weaving wasn’t the only prosperous industry in the East End of London. Due to its water wells, Shoreditch was a good spot for beer brewing. Truman Brewery had been a prosperous brewery for over 300 years until it closed in the 1980s. I’ve been told that one point they had even been the largest brewery in the world!
Truman Brewery distributed beer to pretty much all London pubs in the past. That’s why you often see the old Truman beer sign on pubs in London. Take the one at the top of The Golden Heart pub on Commercial Street for instance.
Nowadays the Old Truman Brewery is host to the famous Sunday Market on Brick Lane and alternative activities. If you are looking for cool things to do in London, then head down to the Old Truman Brewery pronto! You’ll find a plethora of independent shops, bars and music venues inside its walls to keep you entertained for hours at end.
The brewery might be inactive at its original site, but Truman continues producing beer to this day. When a group of friends started a new micro-brewery in Hackney a few years ago, they discovered the name Truman was for sale. You can read about my visit to the site and tour of the brewery in my older article Hoptober Special: Truman Brewery, The Rebirth of an East End Icon.
8. Brick Lane mosque: home to three different religions
Remember those Huguenots I told you about earlier in this post? Imagine a community of tens of thousands of Protestant immigrants. They would need their own place of worship, right? Well actually, the Huguenots built several churches and chapels across London.
The most famous Huguenot chapel in London must be the one on Fournier Street. As you can see in the photo below just above the sundial, it was built in 1743. The building is truly enormous, but it’s not its size that makes this building so special. It’s actually the fact that throughout its history, it has housed three world religions that makes it especially noteworthy.
After the French immigrants left the area following the collapse of the weaving industry, the East End of London had become the refuge for about 200,000 Jews around 1880. During that period, the former Protestant chapel became the largest synagogue in the area.
When London’s Jewish community spread further north after World War II, East London became the home of a large Indian and Bengali community. And now the chapel-turned-synagogue is used as a mosque.
9. Discover the mystery of 19 Princelet Street
The building at 19 Princelet Street dates back to 1719 already and has a long and colourful past. In 1869 the first purpose-built synagogue in London was built in its garden. Since then, it’s been known as a place of worship and refuge. Nowadays it’s a museum, but due to its poor condition opening times to the public are limited. I was lucky to visit it during one of their rare open days in June 2015.
Carved in the stone pavement by the door it says: ‘The home of all our hopes’. Scratched in the wood panelling indoors, you’ll be able to make out the names of the Jewish congregants of hundreds of years ago.
However, the true hidden gem of 19 Princelet Street awaits upstairs. Here lie the still unmade mattress and abandoned possessions of David Rodinsky. The unpaid caretaker of the synagogue and autodidact – he spoke 15 languages – just vanished one day in 1969. While his fate is a mystery, his belongings have remained untouched since then.
10. Meet the goat in Spitalfields Market
Walking up from London Liverpool Street station to Old Spitalfields Market, chances are you’ll pass this curious sculpture. I happened to meet the artist Kenny Hunter a few years ago in the city of Corby. Both he and hubby had art installations in the old woodlands of the city as part of the exhibition Beyond Seven Mountains.
Besides a funny and unexpected sight, the artwork I Goat is actually a symbol for the multicultural past of Spitalfields. According to Hunter ‘the goat, as an image of persecution and sacrifice, reflects how each successive group of immigrants have faced their own combination of conflict, oppression and poverty, all eventually finding a new home in London.’
I hope you enjoyed these 10 unique things to see in Shoreditch! I wonder if you discovered something new about this famous hipster area in London from this post. Do let me know your thoughts in a comment below, I’m always keen to hear your feedback.
Thanks! Zarina xx
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