Spitalfields: The History of a Nation in a Handful of Streets

Written by Dan Cruickshank
Review by Jan Middleton

If streets could talk… Cruickshank focuses like a laser beam upon the buildings of one of London’s best-known neighbourhoods, chronicled in an area that morphed from Roman burial ground to medieval priory; 16th-century theatreland to a haven for entrepreneurial Huguenot silk-weaving refugees; architectural gems to squalid, crime-ridden Victorian slums; appalling disregard for history to crusading conservation of the surviving houses. For history lovers, this is an excellent read! It tells the story of our nation: every wave of religious conflict and every shudder of political contention had influence on Spitalfields, changing its population and their occupations. It’s an area where immigrants have always settled. Huguenots gave way to Jews, who made way for Bangladeshis. No stone is left unturned in Cruickshank’s quest for factual stories. His meticulous research is breathtaking.

This is a book to pull from the bookshelf repeatedly. The maps alone are fascinating, let alone hundreds of pages of absorbing description, narrative, comment and information. Cruikshank’s style is erudite yet accessible and if, occasionally, you need to skip over the minutiae of every document consulted, I don’t think he’ll be offended! There’s plenty more to hold your attention.