The Spitalfields Roundels: History Embedded In The Pavement
Across E1 you can spot subtle bronze circles embedded in the pavement. But what’s the story of these Spitalfields Roundels?
The commission from Bethnal Green City Challenge (1995) was for 25 bronze roundels around historic Spitalfields sites. Designed by Keith Bowler who lives in nearby Wilkes Street.
I spend a lot of time in Spitalfields (it’s one of my favourite places to lead guided tours!) But of the 25, I’ve only managed to find 12 dotted around Spitalfields. Bowler confessed that two were mistakenly placed in City of London territory so had to be removed, others have been pilfered or covered by an overzealous Tower Hamlets Council.
Remaining Spitalfields Roundels
At the corner of Brushfield Street and Commercial street are some apples and pears. A nod to the original fruit and vegetable Spitalfields market with a flourish of cockney rhyming slang thrown in.
In Puma Court you’ll find a selection of old fashioned toys, referencing the former children’s play area. You’ll find the plaque outside the surviving 19th century almshouses.
One of the prettiest roundels is the one on Fournier Street, taken from floral fabric designs by Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), the textile designer whose official blue plaque is on 4 Princelet Street.
Spitalfields silk was famous throughout the 17th and 18th century and most of the trade was done by Huguenots, arriving in London after fleeing religious persecution in France. 700,000 French protestants fled in 1650 with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (a law previously allowing religious freedom). 40,000 of them came to London.
Continuing the textile theme, you can also find scissors and buttons on Brick Lane;
As well as a shuttle and bobbin on Elder Street.
Along with the fabric, the history of Spitalfields is defined through immigration and on Brick Lane you can find a map of the world;
And a hand with traditional Mehndi decoration outside the Health Centre on Brick Lane.
Today Brick Lane is known for its Bengali community, but as well as the historic Huguenots, Spitalfields had a huge Jewish population in the 19th century. This stringed instrument on Princelet Street is said by the council to commemorate a Jewish theatre that stood nearby, but other websites suggest it represents Lionel Tertis, a famous Viola player.
One famous Jewish resident was the artist Marc Gertler (1891-1939). His blue plaque is on Elder Street;
His most celebrated painting is Merry-Go-Round (1916) currently in Tate Modern.
Understood today as an expression of the horror of war, some of the figures are recreated in the plaque outside his former house;
The others you can find include one of the match women on Hanbury Street;
One of the first Industrial strike action in the country was organised between the ‘Match Girls’ at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow. Led by a journalist Annie Besant, Annie galvanised the women working there to strike over unfair pay and horrendous working conditions. One of their meeting points was Hanbury Hall.
And celebrating another key figure in the area, these keys and door bells remember the first Peabody housing estate at roughly 145 Commercial Street. George Peabody was a US philanthropist who introduced low cost housing funded by private investments in East and South London.
There’s also beer tankards for the Brewery on Brick Lane;
Finally, possibly the cutest plaques is outside the local primary school on Brick Lane. A boy and girl in a book surrounded by pencils!
Missing In Action
There were 7 I couldn’t find despite repeated attempts (happily looking like a mad lady, scouring the pavements!) These were;
- The Sea (for sailor settlers) at 76 Commercial Street and on Sandy’s Row.
- Curry Spices (for Bengali cuisine) on Osbourne Street.
- Purse and coins (for Petticoat Lane market) on Middlesex Street and Wentworth Street.
- Bread and salt (for the 1902 Jewish Soup Kitchen) on Brune Street.
- Silk design (for the textile trade) on Tenter Ground.
Found any more? Please share your findings in the comments! In 2010 Bowler told The Gentle Author that he had errant roundels that had wound their way back to him stacked up in his hallway, ready to be installed again. So we might see more on Spitalfields’ streets in time.
If you fancy hunting down the plaques yourself, I’ve made a little map to find them here;
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