Episode 50: History of Shoreditch

Today we are going to be talking about the history of Shoreditch, an area in the East End of London that forms the southern part of the London Borough of Hackney.

Nowadays it’s a creative hub with colourful street art, hip pubs and cafes, edgy galleries and popular nightclubs. But it hasn’t always been a haven for street artists, the man bun and smashed avocado junkies.

So, let’s start at the very beginning how Shoreditch got its name….

Recommended Reading:


History of Shoreditch

Show Notes:

Your Host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain (Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7).


Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History Podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 


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Get that cup of tea, put your feet up and enjoy. 


Today’s episode, we are reaching the big 50. I can’t quite believe how we got here, but thank you so much for all of your support.

And that includes all your lovely comments on YouTube, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, wherever you are, we are.  And that includes Adam and Polly from Moscow who reached out to, to say, Hey and for sharing a little bit of the love of how words and history and all the rest of it flow together.

And today we’re going to be talking about the area of Shoreditch in the East end of London. And that forms part of the London borough of Hackney. Nowadays it’s a creative hub with colourful street art, hip pubs and cafes, edgy galleries and popular nightclubs. And to be fair, I feel a little bit too old when I do go there, but it hasn’t always been a Haven for street artists, the man bun and smashed avocado junkies.

So let’s start at the very beginning. How did Shoreditch get its name? So this, we don’t have an absolute answer for, however, it is believed that Shoreditch got its name from the water that ran across the area’s marshland. And it was originally known as sewers as ditch or sewers ditch. And that may come as a bit of a surprise to many young professionals who are gobbling up these  new high-rises in the area.  Maybe it wouldn’t sound so fabulous if they called it Sewer’s Ditch

I have heard from some people on my Shoreditch Street Art Tour that they believe the area was named after Jane Shore, who was mistress of Edward IV and it’s alleged that she was buried in a ditch in the area. But I can’t find any evidence of that, especially given that Hackney council suggests that the first mention of sewers ditch came in 1148 i.e. pre Jane Shore’s time.


Roman Shoreditch

During Roman times Shoreditch was known for being the source of the river Walbrook. And we cover this in Episode 24, The Walbrook in Roman London, and also it was famous for its well, a Holy well, Hollywell, and I’ve also seen writings of Hallywood.

Even though the Walbrook river has now been covered over, you can still walk its source from Shoreditch all the way to the Thames by Cannon Street station. 


Medieval Shoreditch

Medieval Shoreditch was still mostly rural. The doomsday book shows that ‘shore ditch’ had been part of the parish of Stepney before becoming its own parish.

After the building of the first version of St. Leonard’s church in the 13th century. And for many years, it was the main focal point of Shoreditch. Indeed. Many of you may be not aware that St. Leonard’s church is actually featured in the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons. 

Oranges and lemons

Say the bells of Saint Clements. 

You owe me five farthings 

Say the bells of St. Martin’s 

When will you pay me? 

Say the bells of Old Bailey 

When I grow rich 

Say the bells at Shoreditch.

1158 Holywell nunnery was founded just West of Shoreditch High Street. By the time of its demise in 1539 (due to the dissolution of the monasteries) it had become the ninth wealthiest nunnery in the country.


Holywell Nunnery Shoreditch
The boundary of Holywell Priory Shoreditch


In total, the area was about eight acres with the church. As I said, founded in 1158, just South of where New Inn Yard is today and the museum of London’s archaeological department, MOLA have done excavations there. You’re able to buy the report for £22 pounds and there they found a number of stone finds; one being an ancient stone cross to the North of Shoreditch High Street, and then also a wall on Curtain Road, which would have been the Western, the boundary of the precinct. So curtain road on the West Shoreditch high street is  going all the way down to  Holywell Lane which still exists on the southern side and then, at the very top Bateman’s Row is basically where the border would have been. So we’re talking about eight acres. 

Corrody was very, very common in medieval England. Corrody is basically a lifetime allowance of food and clothing, and very often shelter and care as well granted by the Abess or whichever religious house there. 

Sir Thomas Lovell (1485 – 1524) was one of the most influential men in Henry VII’s court. And he was even given the appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

And after his retirement, he lived within Holywell nunnery, Shoreditch. And when he dies, of course, no surprise he leaves a will. So not having any children, he hands his estate over to his sister who conveniently had recently got married and in the, will, he leaves some money for the nuns as well.

And this is what he says in the, this is what it says in the will…

” Immediately after my death, I desire and will my executors to cause my body to be brought and conveyed to the chapel in the nunnery aforesaid in honest manner and not pompously, there to be buried.” 

And that’s the chapel that would have been just South of what is now New Inn Yard, no longer there, of course, but he continues…

“It will be desired by my executors of the Prioress of nuns at Halywell that they all together, if disease and sickness let not, that the year after my burying, once in the day, every day in the full said year come onto my tomb where within that place I shall be buried and together say Deprofundis (psalm 13) for myself.

And they be agreed I will my executors gave onto them immediately ten pounds.”

He also dedicates an amount of money for prayers to be sad to Henry the seventh as well. And you know, this is absolutely common for medieval times, but it’s nice to have the mention of Holywell or Hollywell in this mix.

There is a bronze relief medallion of Sir Thomas Lovell in the Westminster Abbey collection and also in the National Portrait Gallery there is a plaster cast of relief and it’s a 20th century version, but it’s believed to be based on a work of about 1518, and it’s really quite exquisite. And it has so many beautiful Tudor roses and of course, Henry VII is the first of the Tudors and iconography was really important for him. 


Sir Thomas Lovell is a minor in the play. He’s present at the Duke of Buckingham’s trial and execution, and also at the festivities at Wolsey’s residence. Later on in the play, Lovell is accosted by Bishop Gardner while he’s on his way to inform the King that queen Anne is in labour, but may not survive the birthing process. Gardner, in return, claims that he wishes the child well, but hopes Anne Boleyn perishes.

He also condemns two of the King’s primary advisors, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. In reality, Lovell, as you know, died in 1524, that’s nine years before Anne Boleyn gives birth to princess Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth I. And most certainly before either Cromwell or Cranmer come to anything, close to a place of power. Why Shakespeare chooses to use a dead man for this situation? I don’t know.  

There was a performance of Henry VIII on 29th June 1613. At the end of Act I to mark the entrance of King Henry for a mask scene at Cardinal Woolsey’s residence. Barely anyone in the crowd notices a piece of flaming material that is from one of the cannons. It landed in the Globe theatre’s thatched roof and within minutes, the fire had run around the inside of the roof and  it sets people on fire. There’s a story of how a man  had his clothes set on fire and had to throw a bottle of ale all over himself. And for the most famous theatre in England, that was it, the end. 


The beginning of the Globe doesn’t start in Southwark. It starts in Shoreditch. 

Now you may remember in episode 46, Beer, the Bard and historic buildings of Bankside with tour guide Stephen King, he mentions William Shakespeare and his theatrical company of men who moved that theatre across the Thames to Southwark, close to where the Globe theatre is now.

Well, London’s first two theatres were built in Shoreditch. The first theatre was built in 1576 and was called The Theatre, not only London’s first ever permanent Playhouse. And it was also Britain’s the benefit of shortage, much like Southern was that it was just outside the walls of the city of London.

Even though plays were highly censored. The mayor of London had banned players from being performed within the City walls, but he couldn’t ban them out of it. Before specific theatre buildings were built, traveling troupes of artists were performing inside the square courtyards of taverns and Inns across the country.

The Theatre was a polygonal building, open to the elements, just like the Globe theatre. And was demolished in 1598 under the terms of its lease. The second theatre in Shoreditch, which was called the Curtain theatre, which is on the site of where Hewitt Street is now. And of course we also have curtain road.

The curtain theatre was only opened a year after The Theatre. And it was only my 180 meters South, about 200 yards of the first theatre, The Theatre, which had opened a year previously. And why was it called the Curtain theatre? Because it was located near a plot of land called curtain close. And that got its name from its proximity to the walls of Holywell Priory, a curtain wall being a section of wall between two bastions. The difference with the curtain theatre compared to the theatre was that it was rectangular, not round. And it had about a 14 meter stage. That’s about 46 feet. And this was all found in an excavation that happened there  by the museum of London again, so the molar  from 2012 to 2016.

There have been a few finds including  a ceramic money box, which would have been there for collecting entry fees, a ceramic bird whistle, was this a prop? Also some beads, so I’m thinking were used to decorate stage costumes and also a small statue of Bacchus, who is the God of wine making.


But Shoreditch’s Shakespearean connections continue. I present to you Richard Tarleton. Richard Tarleton was the most famous clown of the Elizabethan age. He had a gift of pleasing the Groundlings of the curtain theatre Shoreditch and royalty alike. He was queen Elizabeth, the first favourite clown and became her court jester and groom of the Queens chamber.

In this role, he told the queen more of her faults, the most of her chaplains and cured her melancholy better than all of her physicians were not quite sure when he was bald, but he died on the 3rd of September, 1588. He wrote his will. Died and was buried on the same day, which has led some people to think that he was a victim of plague coasts.

Hamlet. Credit_Vasiliki Getty Images Signature

If we don’t know how, when he was born, then we don’t know how old he was, but we do know he was married  had at least one son and we survived by his mother. And this is all in the records of you guessed it. Holy well, nunnery. Tarleton was so famous that it has been suggested that Hamlet’s alas poor Yorick speech was written in memory of him and Hamlet was go out.

It could have been performed as early as 1600, which is 12 years after Tahltans death. And could have been also one of the plays used to open the company’s brand new globe theatre. Looking at the time, I am kind of thinking that maybe we’ll have to do a part two of this because I haven’t talked about the history of shore ditch for the recent 400 years.

However, if you want to be bang up to date with Shoreditch, then why not come on one of my street art in Shoreditch tools. So we have a virtual tour on Monday, the 26th of April at 7:00 PM. It’s an hour long virtual tool where I have gone out and I have filmed these streets of Shoreditch where some of the fantastic street art that he has to offer.

And then I do a live commentary on what we are seeing, looking about the art and also the artists, and also get to see Ben iron in action is all good stuff. And that is all in London time. If you’re unable to attend live, maybe, or listening to this a little bit later after that date, we record the event and then we edited a little bit  to present it to you so you can watch it in the comfort of your own home at a time you choose.

But if you’re in London and you want to see the streets for real, come along to one of my Street Art in Shoreditch Walking Tour. I do London guided walks where you can buy a ticket and join a group, or you can book me for a private tour and have me all to yourself.

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