Back in April 1999, Brick Lane was the second target in a bomb campaign targeting minorities in London. A week earlier Brixton, with a large Black community had been targeted. A week later, a Soho gay pub, the Admiral Duncan, in Old Compton Street, was to be hit with tragic consequences, dozens were injured and three died.
At first the police and local people thought fascist terrorists were involved, and indeed Combat 18 claimed responsibility. The eventual culprit, David Copeland, certainly had a grudge against minorities, but turned out to have been working alone. But why did he target Brick Lane?
Brick Lane a Roman burial ground
For centuries this area has been the home of immigrants, outsiders and dissidents. Brick Lane was originally the home of the dead. For centuries it was a Roman burial ground, positioned deliberately outside the walls of the City of London. This outsider status starts to seem more significant as the centuries progress.
Bricks and tiles began to be made here in the late 16th century … hence the name. By 1603, a quarter of a century after the trade started, John Stow called its buildings as ‘filthy cottages’. A rector of Christ Church described it as ‘a land of blood and beer’. This has always been a poor area.
In 1675, when 1,300 new buildings squeezed onto the old market gardens, Brick Lane was seen as a centre of non-conformity, as citizens resisted the authority of the established Anglican Church. And in 1612, Britain’s first Baptist chapel was built here.
Silk weavers and Huguenots
There was continual immigration and continual protest. The early eighteenth century saw protests in the Spitalfields streets, the existing residents complaining as the newly built-up area was used to house Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in the modern Holland and Belgium.
The weavers came to settle around Fournier and Elder Streets and soon drove the existing weavers out of business. Protest as they might, the locals couldn’t argue with the quality of the incomers’ work … they had been invited in by the Crown for just that reason. Spitalfields became famous for fine cloths and the area became wealthy, with an affluent middle class.
Irish in Spitalfields
The Irish were the next big wave of immigrants to Spitalfields. Lord George Gordon stoked up Protestant panic about the influence of Rome to stoke up the Gordon Riots in 1780. Many Irish immigrants had moved into the eastern edges of the City, looking for work and escaping persecution back in Ireland, as well as starvation and poverty.
On June 2, 1780, mobs burned Roman Catholic chapels in Spitalfields and Gordon’s motley crew made for Downing Street. Most of them never got that far. They were waylaid at Langdale’s Brewery in Holborn. Many drank so deeply they died in the streets of alcohol poisoning. Gordon was arrested for treason and saw out his years in prison … though he lived there in some comfort.
Brick Lane got an unfortunate notoriety in the 1880s with Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders. A series of killings that have never been solved, and exercise the public imagination all the more for that.
Jewish immigration to Spitalfields
The cultural mix turned again with the massive Jewish immigration of the late 1800s. Escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe, they alighted at Wapping and headed for the cheapest part of London, Brick Lane. This was the community that gave birth to larger than life figures such as Jack Cohen, Lionel Bart, Steven Berkoff, Bernard Delfont Abraham Beame and Lew Grade to name a few.
In the 1930s British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley led his Blackshirts on marches around Brick Lane and Club Row. The challenge culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, on October 5, 1936.
From Jewish Brick Lane to Banglatown
The Jewish community has dispersed once more, leaving a few remnants such as Tubby Isaacs cockle stall and the world-famous Brick Lane Beigel Shop. And by the 1970s, Brick Lane was changing again. The Jewish population was replaced by a new wave of refugees, Bangladeshis – many fleeing the war that led to the secession of the new Bangladesh from Pakistan.
Brick Lane again became a target for fascists, with the National Front and then the BNP marching through the area. But fascist marchers come and go, and elicit little support from outside their own numbers.
On Brick Lane today you will notice that some of the mosques carry a Star Of David above the door: synagogues converted to new use. Some of them were even Protestant churches before that. Brick Lane (or Banglatown) adapts, absorbs and goes on.