History of Tenter Ground, Spitalfields

If you’ve ever joined me on a Spitalfields walking tour, or simply strolled around the area, you might’ve seen this curious street name: Tenter Ground.

History of Tenter Ground, Spitalfields | Look Up London

History of Tenter Ground

Tenters were wooden frames on which fabric could be held in place. The aim was to make sure the material dried evenly and it didn’t shrink too much. The tension in that taut fabric, held in place with hooks is what gives us the idiom ‘hanging on tenterhooks’ for being in suspense.

Spitalfields was a huge hub of textile production from the late 17th century right through into the  20th. The “Tenter Fields” can be seen on the 1676 Maitland map.

Image: www.layeroflondon.org

As late as 1799 it was the last remaining empty space prior surrounded by development and this is seen on the Horwood map below.

Image: www.layeroflondon.org

In 1810 time was up and the owner was John Butler and over the next 12 years he developed the street layout including the new Tenter Street (highlighted in blue) which can be seen on the 1828 C. and J. Greenwood map from 1828.

Image: www.layeroflondon.org

Only parts of Tenter Ground and Brune Street survived the demolition plans for the LCC’s Holland estate 1927–1936.

One of the most evocative images – totally lost in the Blitz – is the monumental Shepherd’s Place archway which once marked the entrance into Tenter Street (now Tenter Ground).

The archway was built in 1810 and this photo was taken in 1909.

Here’s the far less exciting view from White’s Row today.

Image: Google Street View May 2023

The archway was destroyed in the Blitz and the Tenter Ground area became a focus for better quality housing.

Between 1927 and 1936 the London County Council demolished large parts of the former street plan to create the Holland estate.

Happily, one chunk of Tenter Ground survived and you can see a photograph from 1986 here

Artist Home and Studio

In 2008 Tracey Emin bought 1 Tenter Ground with the aim of revitalising an artistic tradition in the area. Instead of it becoming a hotel or restaurant Emin wanted to sensitively restore the workshop and property sited within the historic conservation area. She reportedly spent over £4million doing just that.

History of Tenter Ground, Spitalfields | Look Up London

On the whole I think we can see this as a total success and it’s amongst the most charming facades in the area.

A nice visual clue to her personal link is in her initials, T. K. E. surmounting the gables.

In 2016 however, Emin drew criticism for her attempt to demolished 66-68 Bell Lane, adjacent to 1 Tenter Ground and built in 1927. 

Her plan – designed by David Chipperfield Architects – was to create a five-storey modern studio and you can see the plans here. The plans were rejected by Tower Hamlets and their minutes recorded Paul Johnston from the Spitalfields Community Group saying “there was no justification for the wholesale demolition of the building”.

The decision prompted Emin to leave London, telling the Guardian “Why would you want to be somewhere you’re not wanted?” 

This is the view of the saved 66-68 Bell Lane today. You can see the entwined letters “SBC” which stand for Stepney Borough Council.

History of Tenter Ground, Spitalfields | Look Up London

By 2020 Tenter Ground was on sale. The Daily Mail’s headline shouted the figure £12m but the very last line of the same article says a spokesperson on behalf of Emin called that figure ‘incorrect’.

Whatever the final price, since 2022 the space has been transformed into an exhibition space and is currently home to AI gallery with three private flats above.

History of Tenter Ground, Spitalfields | Look Up London
View of the back of Tenter Ground, showing the private flats on the top floors

When exhibitions are on this gives you the exciting opportunity to explore inside which is just what I did when walking past last week.

Of course the interior has the somewhat clinical feel of a white box gallery space, but there are lovely surviving features on the first floor hinting at its industrial past.

History of Tenter Ground, Spitalfields | Look Up London

There’s also a surprise in the basement, the former swimming pool installed by Emin.

History of Tenter Ground, Spitalfields | Look Up London

You can even see the former tiled showers and steam room. An odd but totally delightful bonus!

History of Tenter Ground, Spitalfields | Look Up London

You can see the latest events from AI Gallery on their website here. You can find out more about my Spitalfields walking tour here.


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