Sitting pretty above the market fashionistas and the pub revellers around Spitalfields and Brick Lane, you’ll notice some beautiful architectural details that tell you you’re in East London’s old French Quarter. It’s well worth taking a moment to look up and gaze at the stunning 17thcentury houses and to ponder on the fascinating historical stories they hold.
In 1685, Louis XIV decided to revoke the Edict of Nantes, which, since its introduction in the late 16thcentury, had given protection to Protestants worshipping in France. A new wave of intolerance spread across the country and French protestant Huguenots fled to find religious refuge in places as far and wide as Germany, the Netherlands, America and South Africa. Many of them wound up in the relatively tolerant East End of London, particularly in the area known as Spitalfields. Thousands of French Huguenots settled here in the late 17thcentury, bringing with them a brand new trade: silk weaving.
They fled France quickly and arrived with very little but they soon managed to trade thanks to their silk weaving skills. Situated just outside London’s city wall, they were close to the rich City workers and began making money from their high-quality silk. Within a few decades, many of the most successful weavers were able to build the beautiful town houses which now surround Spitalfields. Just take a look around Elder Street, Fournier Street and Princelet Street to see the architecture that characterises this small part of the East End that seemingly overnight became very wealthy and sophisticated.
These tall, imposing working houses (with workshops for looms on the top floors) were built with several impressive features, including grand entrances and charming shuttered windows. The most beguiling feature of these houses, however, is a little bit harder to spot: tiny 2.5-cm-tall heads used as to keep the shutters in place when they were open. They were installed in these houses from the 1720s onwards and all seem to have their own stories and personalities, from a man in a turban to a few genteel ladies in bonnets. When you see them, you can’t help but smile. And if you can’t spot them, you’ll have to come on one of my tours for me to point them out!
These faces have witnessed a lot in this area over the centuries. New technologies and trade agreements made the Huguenots’ East End silk business less profitable from the mid-19thcentury, forcing them to move elsewhere. They were replaced by new immigrants from various parts of Europe, most notably those fleeing the potato famine in Ireland and those fleeing religious persecution in Poland and Russia. Homes that once housed one family and some workers now housed several Jewish families at once – sometimes one family per room, rather than one family per house. It was a dangerous place at this time – perhaps these heads even caught a glimpse of Jack The Ripper. After 1945, this area became a largely Bangladeshi area as Brick Lane became the restaurant hub we know today. Now, of course it’s all about a wealthy new generation of artists and coffee lovers in these parts, as these roads fill up with trendy cafés and vibrant street art. The heads on the buildings of the East End’s French quarter are sitting pretty, silently watching the area as it continues to change. Next time you cross their paths, be sure to look over and give them a nod.