5 things you never knew about Spitalfields & Banglatown

The Beigel Shop caused a storm when it was threatened with closure.

The Beigel Shop caused a storm when it was threatened with closure.

‘But I already know about Spitalfields and Banglatown,’ I hear you sigh, ‘It’s a road of curry houses and a covered market of pricey shops.’ But underneath the layer of slick gentleman’s shoe shops, touting restauranteurs and stinky public urinals, there are fascinating hallmarks of an area steeped in British, Jewish and Bangladeshi heritage.

1. It has the oldest Beigel shop in London

At the end of the 19th century, thousands of European Jews immigrated to London’s East End, escaping persecution in Russia. The area became one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities, with over 40 synagogues and a thriving cloth trade. A tasty legacy of this community, the Brick Lane Beigel Shop has been open since 1855.

With smoked salmon bagels costing a mere £1.40, it is unsurprising that loyal fans were outraged when the shop the shop was threatened with closure in May. Thankfully for us, ‘the yellow one’ has survived, continuing to fill the hungry bellies of thrifty students and drunkards.

Victorian vaults of knowledge at the Bishopsgate Institute

Vaults of knowledge at the Bishopsgate Institute

2. The Bishopsgate Institute houses London’s radical past

Nestled in between Spitalfields market and Liverpool St, The Bishopsgate Institute is an educational charity that has been offering adult courses and cultural events since 1895. It describes itself as a “home for ideas” – right now you can take courses in jive dancing, photography, spanish, poetry, wine tasting or yoga.

Its oak-panelled Victorian library houses an enormous archive of letters, photographs and pamphlets documenting London’s radical, social, labour, feminist and gay history. Right on.

3. Brick Lane is home to the only chocolate shop you need to know about

Jaded by an endless stream of vintage shops, this shop made me do a rapid double take. At first I thought it was another modern art gallery, but the contents of Dark Sugars are much better. Slabs of jagged dark chocolate pile up in the window, shimmering with exotic powders. A heady aroma of cocoa hits you from the street, luring you in to drool at mountains of dusted truffles, hand-made chocolates and raw sugary delights. Seductive flavours stretch the imagination: Stem ginger and honey, vodka & orange, cardamom, cognac, coffee & walnut to name just a few. If you’re fainting from a sugar overload, pick up a coffee to spur you on.

Altab Ali park is dedicated to a young Bengali who was murdered in a racist attack.

Altab Ali park is dedicated to a young Bengali who was murdered in a racist attack in 1978.

4. Brick Lane Mosque once housed Christian and Jewish faiths

London Jamme Masjid (Brick Lane Mosque) has housed all three main Abrahamic faiths over the last 250 years. It was built in 1743 by French Protestant Huguenot refugees, who had fled persecution by the Catholics. But in the late 19th century, a huge influx of the Jews to the area meant that the building was repurposed again, becoming the Spitalfields Great Synaogue.

Further changes awaited – during the 1970s, Spitalfields and Whitechapel became populated by many Bangladeshis who came to Britain looking for better work. They needed a place of worship, and in 1976 the building became East London’s second mosque. To think that all these warring religions have shared the same altar space! Named Banglatown in 1999, the area is now 41 % Muslim.

5. The tragic story behind Altab Ali Park

Banglatown’s ethnic and cultural changes have not always been peacefully received.  On the 4th May 1978, 25-year-old Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali was fatalled stabbed by three teenage boys on his way home from work. The attack came only weeks after 10-year-old Kennith Singh was beaten and stabbed to death in Plaistow, East London. Widespread public scapegoating and government criminalisation of immigrant communities prompted the creation of anti-racism groups, such as the Asian Youth Movement.

In 1998 Tower Hamlets council renamed the former churchyard of the derelict St Mary Matfelon as Altab Ali Park. An archway leading into the park incorporates a complex Bengali-style pattern, reflecting the merging of different cultures in East London.


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