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Maybe it’s because I live so close to it and that it’s not a novelty to me. Or maybe it’s just my bad attitude towards it but apart from a lively Sunday market I can honestly find nothing good to say about the Brick Lane area of the last few decades and the first few years of the 21st. century! Frankly, since the 1970's or so it’s been nothing more than a shit-hole with too many curry houses thrown in. I dare say that if the property prices hadn’t rocketed in the last few years it would have stayed that way or even deteriorated more. Nobody bothered about the dirty, old and derelict slums in the area before it became the "in" place to be but the thought of a few pound notes at the end of it has got everyone rebuilding and decorating. The recent influx of "trendies", artistic types and city workers into the area has made everyone eager to brighten the place up and believe me it’s not before time! I for one welcome them. I think they must be raving mad to want to live there, but if it helps clean it up a bit then good luck to them. As long as they don’t force the prices for eating and drinking up too far! Today, it is a lively place to be every evening with throngs of fashionable people using the trendy shops, bars, and eateries.
The Sunday market still goes on, but even that has declined in standards. There are still a few of the "old school" traders left but there is also a great deal of junk. Counterfeit DVDs and illegal tobacco sellers line the streets now, too many of them! It’s big time crime now and they seem to be allowed to get away with it. The authorities may have a purge now and then but hardly scratch the surface. They laugh at the fines they receive and are back next week. The confiscated items don’t even scratch the surface of these multi million pound businesses. It’s hard to do a piece about Bethnal Green without giving this once great and loved market a mention so I’ll forget my personal opinions for a while and give you some information about the place, along with some snapshots in the Brick Lane gallery
Huguenot refugees, Irish, Jews, Bangladeshi’s and other immigrants have always seemed to flock to this area of East London then fade away to make room for another race or religion (until now). It may be the fact that it was fairly close to the docks while also being close to the City of London. It was necessary for them to be close to the City for commercial reasons, but the City was not so welcoming to them as residents. This of course does not apply today, as the city is spreading eastwards to engulf the area. Today’s migrants also have the bonus of a benefits system.
Brick Lane got it’s name from the fact that around 1550 it was in fact, a lane which was used to transport bricks from the nearby brick works. The surrounding land at the North end was excavated for it’s high quality brick earth. Daniel Defoe described this lane as being ‘deeply rutted by carts, bringing bricks from brick works’. The Romans had also noted the quality of the earth centuries before. Bricks from these works were also used after the great fire of 1666 to start rebuilding the city.
I wonder if the bricks used to build the famous Truman chimney came from there!
For many years the brewery was a major source of employment in the area. I myself spent a few years at the Coverly Fields depot at the bottom of Deal Street in the early 70’s. It was around that time that they built the 24 hour bottling plant on the opposite side of the road to the original Black Eagle Brewery. If I remember rightly, this was to be used for ‘Tuborg’ lager.
The brewing industry in the Lane goes back to around the time of the great fire. Joseph Truman is known to have joined William Bucknall's Brewhouse. He became the manager in 1697, and with the aid of family members expanded the business in the next two centuries. Surely the most famous family member (to my generation anyway) was Sir Benjamin Truman who became the name, if not the face, of Truman’s as the jolly fat man with the peg leg and the motto “There’s more hops in Ben Truman”. Although he joined the firm in 1722 they were still using him on the labels and advertising in the 1970’s.
The Black Eagle Brewery was constructed around 1724 and eventually became London’s largest brewery, and the second largest in Britain. Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co. became a public company in 1888, but production was now predominately from Burton in Staffs. The Brick Lane brewery remained active through a takeover by the Grand Metropolitan Group in 1971 and a merger with Watney Mann in 1972, but it was closed in 1988. The buildings are still there but now house around 200 venues of all descriptions, eateries, design, fashion and all night bars. It was even host to the controversial ‘Body Works’ exhibition of human corpses.
The market evolved in the 1700’s, when traders set up their stalls outside the city limits to avoid surcharges and taxes that would otherwise been imposed on them. It was primarily a livestock market, but as the years went on and the inhabitants changed it became larger and more varied. You can now buy almost anything there - new or second hand. The main market runs from Cheshire Street where it joins Valance Road across Brick Lane into Sclater Street up to Bethnal Green Road and what used to be known as Club Row animal market. In 1982 the council banned the sale of pets from here due to the bad condition most of the animals seemed to be in, and the diseases they carried. I heard stories that a man sold the same pigeons week after week because the buyers didn’t realise that they were homing pigeons! Whether this is actually true or not is anyone’s guess. The railway arches that housed a few traders in this part of the market have all closed up now due to the opening of Shoreditch station, part of the Crossrail link. In 2011 Europe's first pop-up Boxpark opened near the station at the top of Bethnal Green Road. It consists of a shopping mall and eating places made solely from black shipping containers.
At the other end of the Lane, going towards the old brewery and Spitalfields it is always buzzing as the new artistic types have staked a claim there. If you like crowds and the pushing and shoving of a bustling market then Brick Lane on a Sunday is for you. If you get there early enough you could even combine it with a trip to Columbia Road flower market which is only a few minutes walk away.
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