Fournier Street, E1
If you walk in a northerly direction up Commercial Street you will come across, halfway along on the right hand side, Fournier Street which links it with Brick Lane. It is one of a number of streets in the Spitalfields area whose names have a particularly Gallic flavour – Nantes Passage, French Place and Princelet Street – unsurprisingly really as this was the heart of the Huguenot community.
Around 25,000 Huguenot refugees settled in Spitalfields between 1685 and 1700, many of whom were weavers, and the area quickly became a centre for the industry, vestiges of which remain in the names of some of the pubs in the area – the Weaver’s Arms and the Crown and Shuttle. They also brought some colour to the area, cultivating gardens and breeding and training singing birds. Many of the birds sold in the metropolis were caught by Huguenot weavers and they were fond of “singing-matches which they determine by the burning of an inch of candle”.
Fournier Street, named after George Fournier, was the last to be built on the Wood-Mitchell estate in the 1720s and contains some of the finest examples of Georgian domestic architecture. It was always intended to offer housing that was a cut above the standard of the immediate area and, as a consequence, the properties were bought by master silk-weavers and silk mercers. The highly glazed lofts betray the fact that the upper floor was used for weaving where the best natural light was to be had and the ground floor was often deployed as a showroom.
Perhaps one of the finest houses is to be found at number 14, Howard’s House, which was built for William Taylor in 1726. It was here that the silk for Queen Victoria’s coronation gown was woven. Number 23 is considered the best example of a classic, single-fronted early Georgian town house and still has its basement, three storeys, wide windows and a weaving loft.
By the end of the 18th century, though, the weaving industry was on the verge of collapse and by the middle of the 19th century Spitalfields was synonymous with poverty and unemployment. Dickens described its “squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches..where sallow, unshaven weavers prowl languidly about, or lean against posts, or sit brooding on doorsteps”. Having gained a reputation for cheap accommodation the area received its next wave of refugees, the Irish and then the Jews. The Huguenot chapel on Fournier Street, built in 1743 – 4 (le nouveau eglise) was converted into a synagogue in 1898 and is now a mosque, showing the ever-changing character of the area. The original sun dial bearing a quotation from Horace, umbra sumus, is still in evidence.
At the Western end of the street is Christ Church, a Grade 1 listed building, reputed to be highest expression of English baroque architecture, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Its foundations were laid in 1714 but it was not consecrated until 1729 – you can’t hurry these things. On the corner with Brick Lane is to be found a stainless teel tower, erected in 2009, with a half crescent moon atop.
There was always a seedy undercurrent to the area and on the opposite corner was to be found the Ten Bells pub, notorious for its connection with Jack the Ripper in the 1880s, two of whose victims were seen close by just before they met their end.
A fascinating area and one which illustrates that London always had a welcome for refugees of all creeds and hues, a legacy we shouldn’t forget in haste.