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Spi­tal­fields: The His­tory of a Na­tion in a Hand­ful of Streets Dan Cruick­shank (Ran­dom House Books, £25)

Ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian dan Cruick­shank first moved to east lon­don’s spi­tal­fields in 1977, into 15, el­der street, the orig­i­nal oc­cu­pant of which was al­most cer­tainly one of the Huguenot weavers whose skill with silk en­sured the area flour­ished dur­ing the 18th cen­tury. since those early days, when mr Cruick­shank re­paired the four-storey Ge­or­gian house and kept him­self warm by burn­ing dis­carded pal­lets from the nearby (and now closed) fruit-and-veg­etable mar­ket, he has ex­plored the neigh­bour­hood in depth, on foot and through the ar­chives.

Over the past four decades, he has also cam­paigned to save its build­ings and streets from un­sym­pa­thetic de­vel­op­ment. now, he has writ­ten a his­tory—10 years in the mak­ing—that does jus­tice to spi­tal­fields’ story, but also warns of the dis­trict’s per­ilous fu­ture.

spi­tal­fields stretches ap­prox­i­mately from the east­ern edge of the City of lon­don to Brick lane. mr Cruick­shank traces the ori­gin of its name across a num­ber of 16th-cen­tury maps, first as ‘The spi­tel’, then ‘The spi­tel Fyeld’ and fi­nally ‘The spi­tel Fields’ or the hos­pi­tal in the fields, re­fer­ring to the me­dieval Au­gus­tinian Pri­ory of st mary, just out­side the City wall. Here, the sick and the des­ti­tute were cared for and the tower was a land­mark for trav­ellers to lon­don.

spi­tal­fields, mr Cruick­shank writes, was ‘border ter­ri­tory’, where out­casts and out­siders could seek refuge. From ro­man times to to­day, he charts the dif­fer­ent waves—per­se­cuted French Huguenots, ir­ish Catholics, Jews from east­ern europe and, later, the Bangladeshi com­mu­nity—who all made it their home.

Through­out the book, mr Cruick­shank cov­ers the rais­ing of spi­tal­fields’ ma­jor build­ings—the area’s iconic Christ Church by ni­cholas Hawksmoor, for in­stance—but it’s the more mod­est ar­chi­tec­ture that in­ter­ests him the most: the ‘hum­ble and unglam­orous—so in con­se­quence un­ap­pre­ci­ated, un­der­val­ued and un­pro­tected’. These in­clude small Ge­or­gian work­shops and a 1797 soup kitchen on Brick lane that to­day is a Bangladeshi su­per­mar­ket (the au­thor vis­its it and feels among its aisles ‘the pres­ence—even if very faint—of out­cast spi­tal­fields, the shade of des­per­ate peo­ple who gath­ered in this space for nearly one hun­dred years’).

He also fills the pages with the peo­ple who lived in spi­tal­fields over the cen­turies: el­iz­a­bethan ac­tors and play­wrights, 18th­cen­tury weavers with their flow­er­pots and singing birds and the Vic­to­rian poor who drew the at­ten­tion of phi­lan­thropists, social re­form­ers, and jour­nal­ists. ri­ots and vi­o­lence of­ten erupted on the streets and mr Cruick­shank places these in­ci­dents within the con­text of the wider na­tional and global social changes of the day.

in 1719, 4,000 weavers marched through spi­tal­fields protest­ing at the im­port of cheap cot­ton from in­dia; 50 years later came the hor­ri­fy­ing story of a weaver caught in the mid­dle of a wage war be­ing hunted through the streets by a mob and killed.

Change has al­ways been a char­ac­ter­is­tic of spi­tal­fields and yet, at the end of the book, there’s a sense that the qual­i­ties that make the area so spe­cial and which have sur­vived for so long are now un­der threat. mr Cruick­shank writes per­cep­tively and hon­estly of the dou­ble-edged sword that is gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and of how the suc­cess­ful ef­forts by him and oth­ers in the 1970s and 1980s to res­cue and re­pair the his­toric build­ings have con­trib­uted to ris­ing prices and rents.

now, po­ten­tial de­vel­op­ment schemes risk rob­bing spi­tal­fields of its rich mix of low-rise his­toric houses and street pat­terns, re­plac­ing them with mono­lithic, high­rise com­mer­cial build­ings. This book then, as well as be­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of a unique area of lon­don, is a timely warn­ing that helps us to ap­pre­ci­ate what the city and coun­try risk los­ing.

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