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Some of the old houses in Spitalfields.


By Richard Jones

Start: Aldgate Underground Station. Duration: 2 Hours
Best of Times: Daytime. Worst of Times: Evenings.

This walk is a journey for your imagination where the urban landscape bears little resemblance to the eastern quarter of the city that Dickens wrote of.

But the section that passes through Spitalfields, with its 18th-century weaver’s houses and memories of the varied groups of immigrants that have settled here, is genuinely enthralling.

The area was once renowned for its dire poverty, where children grew up surrounded by squalor and vice.

Dickens was all too familiar with the dreadful conditions that prevailed in the crowded slums and warned his readers that they ignored the dangers posed by this sordid underbelly at their peril. "Turn that dog’s descendants loose," he wrote, "and in a very few years they will so degenerate that they will lose… their bark – but not their bite."

His prophesy appeared to have been realized when, 18 years after his death, this area became Jack the Ripper's murderous hunting ground.



Exit Aldgate Underground Station and go right along Aldgate High Street, passing on the right the church of:-

Although a church has stood on this site for over a thousand years, this building (designed by George Dance the elder) dates from 1740. The attractive internal ceiling is adorned with figures created by J.F. Bentley (1839-1902), the architect who designed the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral.

On the wall of the right aisle is a charming 18th-century wood carving of King David playing his harp. Note the realistic miniature musical instruments on either side of him.

This is the ‘easterly parish church of Houndsditch’ where in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities ‘Cruncher… on the youthful occasion of his renouncing by proxy the works of darkness… had received the added appellation of Jerry.’ In other words, he was christened here!


Keep ahead over the two sets of traffic lights and continue over Mitre Street. At the next lights, go left over Leadenhall Street and pause at the weathered Aldgate Pump.

The present stone pump with its dog-head spout, dates from only 1870, when it replaced the one that Dickens had written about (which actually stood a few feet to the west) in Dombey and Son, Nicholas Nickleby and The Uncommercial Traveller. Today it sits rather incongruously alongside its modern neighbours, a little piece of old London that many who pass hardly notice.


Backtrack, turning left along Mitre Street, then right into Mitre Square.

Here the flower-bed covers the site where the body of Jack the Ripper’s fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes, was discovered on 30th September 1888.

The building behind the gates is The Sir John Cass Foundation School, which was founded in 1669 to educate both boys and girls. In 1710, Alderman Sir JOhn Cass (1661-1718) agreed to make a financial grant to support the school, but while drawing up a second will to provide an additional endowmentm he sufferred a fatal hemorrhage, the blood from which stained the quill pen he was holding. This tragedy is still commemorated each year on founders day (early February), when the pupils are given quill pens, stanied red, that they wear in their coat lapel buttonholes.


Go diagonally left over the cobbled square, passing through Mitre Passage. Veer right along Creechurch Lane, and left along Duke’s Place. A little way along it becomes Bevis marks and on the left after the covered walkway are the gates to the:-

Bevis Marks Synagogue. Founded in 1701, this is England's oldest synagogue. It has been in continueous use, and its interior has changed little over the years. You can visit it on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 11.30am to 1pm.


Backtrack along Dukes Place and cross it via the crossing. Carry on ahead onto Stoney Lane, right into White Kennett Street, and pass through the modern posts onto the cobbled through way.

Having ascended the ramp in the far-left corner, bear left onto St Botolph’s Street. On arrival at the second bus stop, swing left down the steps and go right into Aldgate Avenue.

Here stood the Bull Inn until 1868. It was from here that Mr Pickwick set out for Ipswich: ‘away went the coach up Whitechapel, to the admiration of the whole population of that pretty densely populated quarter.’


Turn left into Middlesex Street, known as Petticoat Lane until the 1830s owing to the second-hand clothes market that stood here.

In the 1820s Ikey Solomon, "the Prince of Fences", operated from Gravel Lane, the now featureless thoroughfare passed on the left. He is often identified (wrongly as it happens) as being Fagin’s real-life original.


Turn left along Middlesex Street and cross to its right side. Keep walking until you arrive at:

Frying Pan Alley. The frying pan was the emblem once used by braziers and ironmongers. It was the custom for ironmongers to hang a frying pan outside their premises as a means of advertising their business. The number of such businesses in this alley led to its being named Frying Pan Alley.


Continue ahead into Sandy's Row and go right along the wonderfully atmospheric Artillery Passage.

In the 16th century this area was comprised of open fields outside the city walls and was used primarily for recreational purposes. In 1537, Henry V111 granted a Royal Warrant to the Honorable Artillery Company and later permitted it to practice in these fields. Several of the streets hereabouts bear the name Artillery, derived from the Artillery narracks that once stod here.

Artillery Passage is a delightfully narrow throughway lined with 19th and early 20th century buildings and it truly has the ambience of the Victorian era.


Continue through Artillery Passage to reach Artillery Lane. Two doors along on the right pause outside:-

56 Artillery Lane. This building dates from 1756 and is widely regarded as the finest Georgian shopfront in London.

The large building opposite was formerly the Providence Row Night Refuge and Convent, built in 1868 and run by the order of the Sisters of Mercy. During the late 19th century the order provided lodging to the "destitute from all parts, without distinction of creed, colour and country." At the moment the building is in the process of being converted to upmarket flats.


Keep ahead to cross over Bell lane and enter White's Row. Go first right along Tenter Ground.

Until the 1820's this was a wide-open space used for drying fabric. The cloth was attached to large hooks and then stretched over wooden frames. It is from this that we get the saying 'to be on tenterhooks.'


At the end of Tenter Ground. go left along Brune Street and a little way along pause outside:-

The Jewish Soup Kitchen. OPned in 1902 (actually the year 5662 in the Jewish calendar, as you can see on the buildings facade) this kitchen provided meals to the Jewish poor of the area. It was at its busiest during the Great Depression when it provided meals for more than 5,000 people each week. Although now converted to flats the buildings impressive frontage can still be admired.


Continue to the end of Brune Street and go left along Toynbee Street. At its end go over the crossing off which bear left and continue ahead.

On the left you will pass Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, Christ Church Spitalfields, which dates from 1720. On the corner of Fournier Street is the Ten Bells pub, built in the mid-19th Century. Inside, a fine tiled panel from that era, depicts the area’s more rural past.


Turn right along Fournier Street, which along its latter length is lined with many splendidly restored 18th-century houses.

Go left along Wilkes Street and first right into Princelet Street.

The buildings that you have passed and those that now stretch before you, have a genuine timelessness about them. Built in the 18th Century for the Huguenot silk merchants and master weavers, they had by the mid 19th Century become common lodging houses, offering miserable living conditions to the poverty-stricken and partly criminal populace.

Number 4, on the right, which has a distinctly down-at-heel look about it, does in fact preserve much of its 18th- and 19th-century paintwork and fixtures and fittings. Indeed, so unchanged is its character that recent television adaptations of Great Expectations; Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist, as well as several biographical films on Dickens’s life, have been filmed here. However, it is a family home and not a film set so please respect their privacy.


Stroll along Princelet Street.

Number 19, on the left, dates from 1719. It became a synagogue in 1870 and remained so until 1980. Much of the interior still survives, from the candelabra suspended from the ceiling, to the panels of the ladies galleries inscribed with the names of congregation members who contributed to its upkeep. The building has the distinction of being the oldest purpose built "minor synagogue" in the East End, and is the third-oldest synagogue in England. Although it is rarely open to the public plans are afoot to turn the building into a museum of immigrant life.


Continue along Princelet Street. On arrival at the junction with Brick Lane, pause to look over at:-

No 106 which was the childhood home of Lionel Bart (1930–99), whose stage musical Oliver!, and its subsequent film, provided a melodious, foot-stomping score to one of Dickens’s best-known and best-loved stories.


Turn left along the bustling and vibrant Brick Lane. Cross to the right side, keeping ahead over Buxton Street. A little further along on the right is:-

No 160, which featured in Dickens's Pickwick Papers as the Mission Hall, where the Brick Lane Branch of the ‘United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association’ held their monthly meetings. Here the members ‘sat upon forms, and drank tea, till such time as they considered it expedient to leave off… ’


Backtrack along Brick Lane and keep going past Princelet Street. Pause at the junction with Fournier Street on the right, where the large building on the corner has a history that is reflective of the neighbourhood’s changing demographics.

Built in 1743 as a Huguenot School and chapel, the building was acquired in 1809 by the London Society – a group of evangelical Christians dedicated to converting Jews to Christianity. The society was one of several such bodies that offered £50 to any proselyte who would resettle in a Christian district. These societies became a joke amongst the ÈmigrÈ community, as it was well known that certain perpetual converts, were simply going from one society to another proclaiming their changes of faith and collecting their rewards on Earth rather than in Heaven! When the London Society disbanded in 1892, they reported having spent thousands of pounds on conversions, but could only claim sixteen bona fide successes. They were certain of these because they had sent them to China as Christian Missionaries. However, the Society had long before given up their tenure here, for in 1819 the building became a Methodist Chapel, remaining so until 1897, when it became the Spitalfields Great Synagogue. In 1975, it was converted into a Mosque.


Continue along Brick Lane, passing on the right:-

Fashion Street, which was the childhood home of writer and Hollywood scriptwriter Wolf Mankowitz (1924–98), who wrote the book of the Broadway musical Pickwick.


Keep going ahead along Osborne Street, and go left along Whitechapel Road.

The garden on the right was formerly the site of St Mary’s Church. It was from the lime-washed exterior of this church, known as the White Chapel that this area derived its name.

In the early 19th Century, Whitechapel Road, one of the poorest parts of London, was noted for its array of oyster stalls. In Dickens's Pickwick Papers, as Mr Pickwick and the loquacious Sam Weller make their way along here, en route to Ipswich, the latter comments how ‘It’s a wery remarkable circumstance… that poverty and oysters always seem to go together… Blessed if I don’t think that ven a man’s wery poor he rushes out of his lodgings, and eats oysters in reg’lar despration… ’


On arrival at the crossing, go over Whitechapel Road, veer left and pause outside the:-

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which has been casting bells on this site since 1783 and is where Westminster’s Big Ben was cast in 1858.


Go right into Fieldgate Street and follow it as it sweeps left to pass the huge building, known locally as:-

The "Monster Doss House". Its looming bulk with its round turrets and soaring, dark brick walls, punctured by numerous tiny windows dominates this stretch of the walk. It opened in the late 19th Century as a hostel for the homeless, and now stands derelict, its future uncertain.


Keep walking ahead, passing several streets that retain the atmosphere of the Victorian East End. Go left into New Road and continue to its junction with Whitechapel Road, noting Mount Terrace on the right, which also has a 19th-century look.

Cross over Whitechapel Road at the traffic lights, and keep going straight along the continuation of New Road.

Nothing now remains of either the Whitechapel Workhouse, or Thomas Street in which it stood. It used to be further along on the right and it was here that, one cold night in 1855, Dickens chanced upon a forlorn group of women, ‘five bundles of rags’, who had been refused entrance to the workhouse. He didn’t believe one of them when she told him that she hadn’t eaten for a day. ‘Why look at me!’ she cried, then ‘bared her neck, and I covered it up again’. Dickens gave her a shilling for supper and lodgings elsewhere. ‘She never thanked me,’ he later recalled, ‘never looked at me – melted away into the miserable night, in the strangest manner I ever saw.’


Go first right into Durward Street.

The large building that dominates the far end was a 19th-century school that has now been converted into flats. It was a little beyond the left side of this building that the first Jack the Ripper murder, that of Mary Nichols, occurred in the early hours of 31st August, 1888.


Pass to the right of the building, turn right over the railway bridge and go through the passageway that brings you out onto Whitechapel Road.

Turn right and on arriving at the crossing, pause outside:_

No 259. It was in the shop that occupied this building in November 1884 that Joseph Merrick (1862–92), the so-called ‘Elephant Man’ was displayed in a freak show. A placard announced him as the ‘Deadly Fruit of Original Sin’. Dr Frederick Treves (1853–1923), a surgeon at the London Hospital, which stands opposite, was so appalled by the cruelty shown Merrick, that he befriended him and, in 1886, had him moved into the hospital, where he lived in isolated rooms for four years until his death. His skeleton is now preserved in the hospital’s museum, although this is not open to the public.


Backtrack along Whitechapel Road.

The street market held here on most days began in the 1850s when the road was widened. In those days the traders were mostly the Irish who had fled the 1845–48 potato famine. By the end of the 19th-century the majority of stall holders were Jewish. Today, they are mostly Asian.

The London Hospital on the opposite side of the road was founded in 1740. In 1866 Thomas John Barnado (1845–1905) arrived here to study medicine with the intention of becoming a medical missionary. However, he was appalled by the number of homeless children on the streets of Stepney, and began teaching part-time in one of the local ‘ragged schools’, where he learnt a great deal about the plight of these youngsters. In 1868, he founded his East End Juvenile Mission and two years later established a hostel. The notice above the hostel’s door read: ‘No destitute boy or girl ever refused admission’. Thus began the ‘Dr Barnado’s Homes’, which still provide both residential and non-residential care for thousands of children in several parts of the world.


Continue over Cambridge Heath Road at the traffic lights, and keep going ahead into Mile End Road, noting the bust of:-

William Booth (1829–1912) the founder of the Salvation Army, who commenced his work hereabouts in July 1865.


Keep going along Mile End Road, and a little further along on the left, are the:-

Trinity Almshouses. Built in 1695 for ‘28 decay’d Masters and Commanders of Ships or ye Widows of such’, these are thought to be the Titbull’s Almshouses ‘in the east of London… in a poor, busy and thronged neighbourhood… ’ into which, according to Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller, you ‘drop… by three stone steps… ’


Retrace your footsteps along Whitechapel Road to Whitechapel Underground Station and the end of this stroll through London’s East End.