London is considered a multicultural city, in 2011, 36.7% of its population was foreign-born. It has the second-highest immigrant population in the world, behind New York City. What many people may not realise is London has been shaped by immigration for centuries. The capital has been defined by waves of migrants coming to make their homes on the banks of the Thames. But one neighbourhood, in particular, perhaps defines this more than any other.
A French Brick Lane
Brick Lane, is a street that runs through Whitechapel in the borough of Tower Hamlets, on the eastern outskirts of the ancient City of London. Its proximity to the City and the docks gives it a long history of welcoming new arrivals into London. First came the Huguenots in the 17th Century. These were protestants escaping from political and cultural repression in Catholic France. They were welcomed by an equally Protestant and anti-French Elizabethan England. They set up shop in the neighbourhood, created a textile industry and building large, attractive houses. The French refugees named the streets such as Princelet and Fournier, they also constructed La Neuve Eglise in 1743 to stamp their cultural mark on the area.
A Jewish Neighbourhood
The next major group to inhabit the area was one also fleeing religious persecution. In the late 19th Century, over two million Jewish people escaped pogroms and persecutions in Eastern Europe, 120,000 settlings in England, many around Brick Lane. On Leman Street, the Jew’s Temporary Shelter was set up to provide aid to new arrivals. It also helped others ship out to America. By 1900 the Huguenot chapels of Sandys Row and Artillery had, along with the Neuve Eglise, become Synagogues. This reflected a neighbourhood where 95% of the population was Jewish in certain places, mixing in the estates and tailor shops with poor Irish emigrants and the local white working class.
How Brick Lane Became a Bengali Stronghold
After a century in Whitechapel, many from the Jewish community had made enough money to move out of the area, leaving the businesses and houses free to be inhabited by a wave of Bengali migrants escaping the violence and uncertainty of the Bangladesh Liberation War. They found themselves in East London mainly thanks to the community of Bengali sailors left here by the British Merchant Navy. This group was looked after by associations such as the Indian Seaman’s Welfare League. The community expanded and took over the Brick Lane area, opening curry houses and leatherworks. Whitechapel quickly became the spiritual home for British Bengalis, with the synagogue eventually becoming a mosque in 1976.
A Bridge Between Worlds
However, the railway bridge at the top of Brick Lane marked the limit of this multicultural London, with locals rarely passing north to the National Front heartland of Bethnal Green. The Bangladeshis that moved into the area in the 1970s like the Jews before them kept this unofficial boundary, and after protracted and simmering tensions a young Bangladeshi named Atlab Ali was murdered on his way home from work on the 4th May 1978.
The fallout from that murder led to a great protest, with several thousand marching from Whitechapel to Downing Street and back. As a consequence, a local park was renamed at the entrance to which stands an arch in Bengali style meant to represent the merging of cultures in East London.
There is no shame in the East End’s reputation as a migrant area. The Spitalfields electoral ward was officially renamed ‘Banglatown’ in 2001 and regenerated along those cultural lines. But the area was always defined in by poverty, from its time as a Jewish neighbourhood until the end of the 20th Century. This was because a neighbourhood full of migrants did not receive the same investment as some other parts of London.
Labelling it Banglatown was proof for many in the area that Bangladeshis now officially belonged in Britain, but beyond the new name and recognition, the Tower Hamlets (which is 41% Asian) has the highest level of child poverty in London. Business rates and rent along Brick Lane keep marching up. Of the 60 Bangladeshi and Pakistani-owned restaurants and cafes there in the mid-2000s, only 23 now remain.
Because of its favourable and fashionable location driving prices up, Brick Lane is unlikely to welcome another wave of migrants escaping peril like it once did. The businesses will go, and its character will change once again, maybe this time with more flat-white coffees. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another question, but before it morphs into something new, maybe it’s worth seeing as more than just a place to get cheap curries.
Written by Jonathan Casewell