It was a dreary November day and I stood in the middle of an urban wasteland, recalls Chiz Harward. Behind me lay Bishopsgate and the City of London, in front of me was Spitalfields Market. It was 1998, I had just turned 25, and it was my first project as a supervisor for MOLA. As I stood with colleagues in the drizzle, waiting for the digger to be delivered, the scale of the project was immediately apparent.
London’s Spitalfield Market excavations were, in many ways, without parallel. Within this massive ten-acre site, vast swathes of lost London were revealed. Some of the results are well known, having featured in the pages of this magazine and on television. The earliest evidence consisted of an extensive Roman cemetery, within which we found the now-famous stone sarcophagus with its decorated lead coffin containing the remains of a woman (CA 162). From the late 12th century, Spitalfields became home to the medieval Augustinian priory hospital of St Mary Spital and its precincts (from which the area takes it name). Within its grounds, we excavated the remains of almost 11,000 people – achieving what is believed to be the largest archaeological excavation of a cemetery in the world (CA 270).
However, it is the post-medieval period (1539-1880), the subject of our latest volume, that is perhaps the least known of the ‘three periods’ so far published – despite being the most immediate and information-rich. For the first time we can draw not only on the excavated stratigraphy and artefacts, but also on a wide range of historical documents, including contemporary maps (see box on p.36), land-leases, and water-colours. Binding together this extensive range of evidence offers new insights into the past, and sometimes even tantalising glimpses of the very individuals who once lived on the site. In this way, we have revealed not only the physical development of Spitalfields from the Dissolution onwards, but also an intimate social history of the site.
Uncovering a lost urban landscape
From the outset we knew we were dealing with a very rich and complex site. Spitalfields had long been recognised as archaeologically important: back in the 1920s, Frank Cottrill of the Society of Antiquaries had recorded elements of the church and cloister of St Mary Spital during construction work, and parts of the site were designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument. During the 1980s, several MOLA excavations took place in advance of redevelopment alongside Bishopsgate and Norton Folgate, revealing further parts of the priory church and northern hospital wing. But then, in 1991, Spitalfields Market moved to Leyton.
Spitalfields Development Group put forward plans to redevelop the old market site. Aware of the area’s rich history, they incorporated archaeological involvement from the start, and MOLA carried out excavations throughout the 1990s as plots were redeveloped across the periphery of the main site. In total there were 24 separate works, ranging in size from major excavations to narrow trenches dug to divert power cables. We worked in the open air, underneath standing buildings, and in shored trenches. The work was varied, and every site added more detail: sometimes the smallest trench resolved the biggest questions. The largest excavation took place between 1998 and 1999, with a team of up to 110 archaeologists, alongside a community- engagement programme that included a visitor centre which attracted more than 27,000 visitors over the summer of 1999.
On a project of this size, we were working on a true landscape scale. It could take ten minutes to walk from one end of the site to the other, along the cobbles of lost streets and past long-buried buildings. Urban sites are often relatively small developments, and it can be hard to get a real sense of location within the town or city, particularly since we often work in basements or deep within shored trenches. At Spitalfields, the streets and houses were literally laid out in front of us, stretching off into the distance. This gave a real sense of perspective and immersion within the past landscape, while evidence such as the artefacts discarded into cesspits provided a wealth of information about the reality of daily life. From this central London site, we gained new insights into how a whole community lived and worked, from the turbulence of the Dissolution onwards.
Dissolution and change
The Dissolution wrought profound changes on the area, and marks the start of the post-medieval era. Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries was, of course, not a single event, but took place over a period of years from 1536 to 1541, meaning that there would have been time to anticipate the actions of the Crown. St Mary Spital was the largest hospital in London, and though it was hoped it might survive the Dissolution (as did St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s hospitals), the last prior clearly saw trouble ahead. In the final years before the suppression of St Mary Spital in 1539, documents tell how repairs to the church were cut back, and most of its landholdings were dispersed in a flurry of new, long-term leases aimed at maximising immediate income.
One of the largest leases was for the southern part of the Outer Precinct, known as the Teasel Ground. In January 1538, it was leased for three 99-year terms, to use for gunnery practice. The lease records the area as surrounded by a ‘new brick wall’. This survived up to 2m high on site, and we also excavated the clamp kiln that produced the bricks. However, the archaeological evidence (including the fact that the Teasel Ground had been cleared in 1536 and the walls built in 1537) reveals that this ‘last-minute’ lease was probably planned in 1536, if not earlier – right at the start of the Dissolution.
The Dissolution of the priory and hospital saw radical changes to the area, both in land ownership and in the standing buildings, and this shaped later development. In the 16th and 17th centuries the former monastic core, which continued to be known as St Mary Spital or ‘the spital’, was characterised by a proliferation of private mansions and tenements, set within walled gardens and yards. Many leaseholders were courtiers and officials, and the area retained a quiet and semi-rural atmosphere, even though it lay a stone’s throw from the bustling City.
Some residences were crafted out of the monastic ranges, while others were new-built, often in brick, within the former gardens. Many are named and known from documentary records: Vaughan’s Mansion, The Principal Tenement, Huddlestone’s House, Spittle House, The Candle House, Keyme’s House, and several confusingly named ‘brick house’. Some of these properties survived for over 300 years, being gradually altered and extended. As a consequence, the monastic core retained a more organic, piecemeal appearance long after the more regimented development of the surrounding area.
We fully excavated the floor plan and layout of a great many of these buildings, reconstructing the elevations, and gaining a fuller understanding of their architecture. One such building started life as two medieval timber-framed tenements south of the priory chancel. These tenements passed into the ownership of Sir Edmund Huddlestone before 1580, prior to being incorporated into a new mansion – Spittle House – in the early 17th century. This imposing building was four storeys high and seven bays wide, but would already have had a rather rambling appearance as it retained several earlier phases. Enlarged once more in the 17th century with a Jacobean frontage, it was rebuilt around the year 1700 as the residence of Paulet St John, the third and final Earl of Bolingbroke, again retaining much of the previous fabric. But prior to this final rebuilding its two cesspits were infilled with domestic rubbish; this was one of the characteristic ‘clearance deposits’ from which so much of the household life and economy could be reconstructed. While the buildings themselves are an important corpus of vernacular architecture, the associated artefacts, especially from cesspits, allow a real understanding of the lives and household economies of their inhabitants.
Beyond the former monastic core, large areas initially remained open, with only gradual and partial development. In 1538, the Teasel Ground became the home of both the Honourable Artillery Company and the Gunners of the Tower, who made and tested artillery and firearms within the walled precinct, now known as the Artillery Ground. Our excavations duly uncovered an artillery range with a timber firing-platform, with musket balls, lead shot, and a possible cannon ball found from across the area.
Excavated and documentary evidence combined to show how buildings had been constructed for making fireworks, as stables, stores and an armoury, a powder house, and a proof house. The largest excavated building was the house of the Master Gunner of the Gunners of the Tower. This was built in brick, probably in 1581, and repaired frequently over the next 100 years, including in 1669 following an explosion at the firework-maker’s house. When the Master Gunner’s house was demolished, in around 1682, a large group of wine bottles was left in the cellar, including two bottles with their corks and contents still intact. The contents were analysed by wine experts and proved to be a dry Madeira wine.
In the 1630s, the Artillery Company built a large angular ‘Star Fort’ within their grounds to practice manoeuvres and drills. But adjacent to the 2m-deep fort ditch we found two shallow graves aligned north–south, which each held the remains of an adult male. Perhaps these were trainees killed in an accident, or even dissenters such as Baptists or Quakers.
Rise of a suburb
Development of the open spaces of ‘Spital fields’ escalated rapidly during the London-wide post-Great Fire building boom. The late 17th century saw plots leased to developer-builders by landowners and entrepreneurs, and they were rapidly infilled with new streets of terraced brick houses. One of the first major developments came in 1682, when the Artillery Ground was built over. This was one of several such developments, and coincided with the arrival of thousands of French Huguenot refugees, many of them silk weavers. They moved into the rapidly expanding suburb, and were followed by successive immigrant communities over the next 200 years. By the mid 18th century, the entire area had been redeveloped. Spitalfields Market was built in 1682, initially for meat and vegetables, with its cruciform plan lying at the heart of the new streets. Burnt down in 1720, it was rebuilt in timber around a square; the present hall was constructed in 1887, and extended in 1928.
On many urban sites, basements were later dug into the earlier archaeological deposits, which led to the destruction of significant archaeological remains. But although the new terraces at Spitalfields were designed with basement or half-basement levels, rather than digging down to create them, the existing buildings were partially levelled, and the new ones constructed from this fresh working surface. The back yards and roads were then infilled, raising the external ground surface. The result: previous landscapes were sealed beneath the new terraced streets, ensuring fantastic archaeological survival across most of the area – from which we retrieved London’s largest ever collection of post-medieval artefacts.
The sheer size and scale of the excavations and the assemblage provided MOLA archaeologists with a new and unique opportunity to interpret and analyse artefacts at the neighbourhood-, and indeed household-scale. It is impossible to cover everything here, so we will focus on the archaeology of the households, and how we approached this topic.
Reading the past
One of the characteristics of the post-medieval phase was the survival of the backyards, cesspits, drains, wells, soakaways, and ice houses that once served its various properties. When occupants moved on, as they frequently did, they simply dumped their excess household waste in the cesspits. The excavations provided over 70 rich and diverse ‘time-capsule’ assemblages of artefactual, environmental, and animal-bone data that (in most cases) could be linked to documented Spitalfields properties. Each assemblage captured different aspects of the routines and rituals of everyday life here between 1539 and the 1880s.
While employing a barrage of municipal and cartographic records to map basements and backyard features accurately to the various streets and numbered properties in Spitalfields (itself a methodical, time-consuming process, see box on p.36), we were faced with a further challenge: how best to present and narrate these vast assemblages. Our inspiration came from the work of the Anthropological Studies Center at Sonoma State University, California, whose excellent work on the later 19th–century households of West Oakland had just been published. Following their approach, we dissolved the division commonly used in archaeology, in which artefactual data is simply presented (and/or catalogued) according to its predominant constituent material, and divorced from any environmental or animal-bone data. Instead, we took a holistic view, considering how the glass bottles would have provided wines and spirits that filled the glass cups and goblets discarded alongside them; what waste seeds and animal bones might reveal about the meals eaten off associated creamware dinner plates; how miniature toy china tea sets might have fitted into evolving notions of childhood at the time; and whether the cess and coprolite material could be linked to the quantities of chamber pots discarded.
Of all the assemblages, it was the cesspits of Spital Square (the most prestigious address in the suburb) and Fort Street – filled from the 1820s to 1840s – that produced the most diverse groups of objects. But who lived in these properties? During this period Spitalfields was synonymous with silk weaving and manufacturing, a tradition brought into the area by the aforementioned French Huguenot settlers fleeing from religious persecution in their homeland.
Our research showed that in the 19th century, many of these houses were headed by silk manufacturers (both male and female) and their families. Some kept lodgers and a servant or two. Most of the ground floor of their premises would be given over to shop and warehouse space, to both showcase and store their finished garments. Thus, these were not private houses as such, but functioned as busy spaces where domestic and working life was mixed. Archaeological evidence for their work includes dress accessories, such as buttons, and sewing equipment like pins – plus clear indicators of their wealth, including fragments of fine Worcester porcelain that were found among the discarded belongings of the Graham family of 24 Fort Street.
During this period, renting was common in London and elsewhere, and people often moved. London historians and social geographers have shown that these moves tended to be local, prompted by the need to up- or down-size as fortunes flourished or waned. We found that one family, the Gilberts, moved over four times on Fort Street alone during a 20-year period. Rents were usually paid every six months, but shorter lets could be agreed, enabling people to move frequently and with little notice. An important theme to emerge from our research was the impact this transience had on the common objects, such as ceramics and glassware, found discarded in the cesspits of Spitalfields. This led us to question the evidence in new ways: for example, why did we keep finding discarded pots that were whole and useable? Were such pots routinely provided by the landlords, and then simply dumped by departing tenants, or was there something else at work here?
Post-medieval archaeology can reveal minute details when all the evidence is combined, both historical and archaeological. Social historical facts, such as renting and the transient nature of urban life, forced us to think differently about the artefacts and the archaeological sequence. For the first time, thanks to the enormous amount of data coupled with our fresh analytical approach, we have gleaned far deeper insights into the complex lives, fortunes and indeed misfortunes of the people of Spitalfields.
Change and renewal
The opportunity to work on such a site is, of course, extremely rare. At ‘Spitalfields Market’, we were part of a major redevelopment, and since our work the area has been transformed. Aspects of the old Spitalfields were integrated into the new design, including the in situ preservation of some of the archaeological remains, which can now be visited by all.
Spitalfields has seen redevelopment many times over the centuries, as new populations have moved in and made the area their home, with new buildings erected in new styles. The most recent Spitalfields Market development provided us with the unique opportunity to excavate a whole tract of a London suburb, chart its development through nearly 2,000 years, and tell the forgotten story of Spitalfields.
Historical mapping of Spitalfields
Spitalfields is shown on several early maps of London, and these were all used to help reconstruct the topography of the developing suburb. The Copperplate map of c.1555 is the earliest surviving map of London to use a ‘bird’s-flight view’, an illustrative plan view with foreshortening of individual features. The map shows Spitalfields priory soon after its dissolution; the priory buildings have already been converted into tenements with walled gardens and orchards stretching back to the open fields beyond. Some excavated buildings and features can be identified, but what it lacks in cartographic accuracy it makes up in wonderful details, such as the depiction of two members of the militia carrying out musket practice in the Artillery Ground.
Where the Copperplate gives an impression of the area, Ogilby and Morgan’s map of 1676 (pictured below) gives us the layout of almost every building and yard. The first truly accurate map of London, it was surveyed to an exceptional level of accuracy, and excavated buildings could be easily identified.
The next accurate map was Horwood’s map of 1799, followed by the 19th-century 1st Edition Ordnance Survey. By best-fitting digitised versions of the mapping onto the phased excavation plans, we could fill in the gaps, reconstruct partial building plans, and plot the development of individual properties over time.
ALL IMAGES: MOLA, unless otherwise stated.
C Harward, N Holder and N Jeffries (2015) The Spitalfields Suburb, 1539-c.1880: excavations at Spitalfields Market, London E1, 1991-2007, MOLA Monograph 61, £35. Available from www.mola.org.uk/publications
Source Chiz Harward was employed by MOLA for ten years, working on sites including Spitalfields, the post-Boudiccan Roman Fort at Plantation Place, and the Upper Walbrook Roman cemetery. He currently works as a freelance archaeologist and illustrator. http://urban-archaeology.blogspot.co.uk/ Nigel Jeffries is a medieval and later ceramic and glass specialist at MOLA who led analysis and cataloguing of Spitalfields’ post-medieval artefacts. He is widely published on the archaeology of early modern, Georgian, and Victorian London. www.mola.org.uk Feature editor: Dr Nadia Durrani
The main excavation, post-excavation research, and publication were funded by the Spitalfields Development Group. The site was project managed by MOLA’s Director of Heritage Consultancy, Chris Thomas. The project was completed thanks to the skill and commitment of hundreds of archaeologists, contractors, and support staff who worked on the project from the early 1990s through to this publication.