This series of posts was first published as an article in the Travel and Indulgence section of The Australian (newspaper) in October, 2008
Saris and salwars blend with hip urban wear. An urgent techno beat underscores the plaintive sound of Bollywood. Loud graffitti spills across a scarred brick wall. Skeletal stalls straggle along a stretch of footpath, their feet in the debris of the day’s market. A chic boutique, its window dressed in yesterday’s glamour, shoulders a convenience store. Scaffolding shrouds a Georgian terrace. Curry houses crowd around it. There’s a tang of tumeric in the fumy city air. Sylheti voices, as mysterious as the Brahmaputra mingle with English, as fast and unfathomable as the Thames. This is Brick Lane, in the Borough of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End, the curry capital of the UK and the hub of cutting edge London fashion, art, retail and nightlife. It is a place of sharp contrasts, with a vibrant, dynamic present and a long, endlessly shifting past.
Brick Lane’s story turns on bricks, brewing and migration.
The Romans built 8th century Londinium with clay from the area . In the 15th century, the first brickworks was established on rustic Whitechapel Lane, which linked the hamlets of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Soon Whitechapel Lane became Brick Lane and it has remained so ever since.
In the 17th century the first brewery was built; the fighters of the Great London Fire slaked their thirst with Brick Lane beer. After the fire, the city was rebuilt with Brick Lane bricks. In 1724 Benjamin Truman founded the Black Eagle Brewery and it was the lifeblood of the lane until 1988.
For centuries the dispossessed and the hopeful poured across the London docks and settled in this enclave between the sea and the old city walls. The first great migrant wave, in the 17th century, brought Huguenot silk weavers, “refugiés” from religious persecution in France. By the end of the 18th century, the area was a thriving centre of weaving and textiles and the lane was lined with brick townhouses with wide windowed upper-storey workrooms. But in the 19th century mechanized looms and printed fabrics gave the kiss of death to the old craft. Brick Lane slumped.
Into the Huguenots’ abandoned houses and workrooms poured thousands of Ashkenazy Jews, fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Most were craftsmen, tailors, and leather workers. Of cruel conditions and punishing hours, London’s rag trade was born.
In the 1920s the first Bangladeshi, mostly single men from Sylhet in the north, arrived. Packed into tiny Brick Lane bedsits and rented rooms, they laboured on the docks, in sweatshops and in clothing factories. The first curry houses opened and the great tradition of Anglo-Southern Indian cuisine began. Within fifty years, Brick Lane was little Bangladesh. The Jewish community slowly sold up and moved away.
In the 1980s a new migration began. These were not dispossessed refugees but pioneers of a new inner urban lifestyle. Innovators and artists set up studios in former factories and warehouses. Developers, entrepreneurs and cashed-up trendsetters followed. A new Brick Lane was born (to be continued)