Visiting tourists looking for the East End’s most famous market could be forgiven for being confused.
In fact, you will sometimes see them outside Aldgate East station, or at the foot of Middlesex Street, scratching their heads as they pore over their A to Zs.
Because, of course, there is no such street as Petticoat Lane – and nor has their been for around 170 years.
Back in medieval times, Middlesex Street, the hub of the modern-day Lane, was a pleasant, tree-lined country road called Hog’s Lane – probably because it was used as a path to drive pigs from the nearby fields to market.
As early as 1590, its rural nature was changing, and Hog’s Lane meandered through a residential suburb of tidy country cottages, nestling outside the City walls.
And only a few years later, in 1608, it had changed again, to a commercial district. A map of the time shows the Lane
was now being referred to as ‘Peticote Lane’, named after the used garment vendors who plied their trade there.
It was still considered a fashionable address in the country, and during the reign of James I, the Spaniards who came to the English court settled here.
But like so much of London, Petticoat Lane was altered forever by the Great Plague of 1665. The rich fled the dangers of London, and property prices plummeted. As so often in Spitalfields, a new wave of immigrants replaced the old. This time it was Huguenot and Jewish weavers, carrying on the tradition of garment workers in the area.
It’s astonishing to think that this thread of tradition is unbroken – though the faces, clothes, names and nationalities of immigrants have changed – more than 300 years later.
By the 1750s, Petticoat Lane was not only a centre of manufacturing clothes, it had become a garment market, too. The well-to-do would trip out of the City on a Sunday to purchase the wares at the Lane.
It was 1830 when Petticoat Lane was dignified with the new name of Middlesex Street. Amazing, too, that though the name was taken off official maps so long ago, it is still how everyone knows the market.
By now, the Lane was not only the place to buy new and second-hand clothes, it was a centre for all kinds of secondhand goods, and the nearby markets of Brick Lane and Club Row made Spitalfields the marketplace of all London.
Middlesex Street was widened following demolitions in 1900, giving the traders even more room to set up their stalls. But the moralities of the time frowned on Sunday trading, and there were numerous attempts to halt the famous Petticoat Lane Sunday market.
Some of these were none too subtle – with buses and fire engines being driven through the crowds in an attempt to break things up.
In 1936, the authorities bowed to the inevitable, and the Lane became protected by an Act of Parliament.
Brick Lane may have become increasingly gentrified these days, and Club Row can no longer sell the caged birds that made it famous from the Huguenot times right through to the 1980s. But Petticoat Lane remains essentially unchanged, with an exuberance and life that comes from several hundred years of the rag trade plying its business on East End streets. To tourists it may turn out to be ‘Middlesex Street’, but to East Enders it will always just be The Lane.