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Hoxton is considered a “cultural quarter” of London, meaning there are some interesting artists and arts organizations doing things in the area. The surrounding area is also becoming a high tech industry hub. But I just found out that from the mid 1600s to 1902 it was home to the largest collection lunatic asylums, with one of the largest asylum on Hoxton Street, where currently the local community college and a gallery is located. I made the above image of Hoxton street few days ago. Towards the center of the image you can see the Turkish market that has a green sign and striped overhang next to a sign that reads “coral”. We shop at the market almost daily for random veggies. Further down the road to the left end of the image, just to the right of the men working, there’s a Monster Supplies Shop. Full of wonderful monster supplies, behind the shop the “Ministry of Stories”.
The following brief account of history of Hoxton was taken from: http://www.realhoxton.co.uk/history.htm
Hoxton takes its name from Hogeson, first recorded during the Domesday survey of 1086, shortly after the Norman conquest.
Not much is known about very early Hoxton, although during Roman times the nearby Ermine Street (now the A10) was a major thoroughfare through the city, running from Bishopsgate, on to Tottenham, and then out of London to Lincoln and York. Back then, the area was heavily wooded with flood plains surrounding the River Lea.
Right up until 1822, Hoxton was part of Shoreditch Parish, spreading from Bishopsgate into the City, and dominated by the Parish church of St. Leonard, dating from 1160. The church is mentioned in the song “Bells of St Clements” (Oranges and Lemons).
During Tudor times, Hoxton – just outside the northeast city wall – was still countryside, a large expanse of fields and trees. Away from the dirt and squalor of the City, but close enough for leisure pursuits and a short commute to work, it was popular with the gentry, ambassadors and wealthy immigrants looking for a better quality of life. So much so that by 1601 there were over twenty houses along Hoxton Street, even though Queen Elizabeth I had banned new buildings within three miles of the city.
Hoxton Street was at this time known as Pimilco Path, probably taking its name from the local publican Ben Pimlico. Bacchus Walk, just off Hoxton Street, marks the spot of one of the area’s main attractions of the time, the Pimlico Pleasure Gardens, just one of many public gardens in the area at this time. Modern-day Pimlico derives its name from the area, its gardens being reminiscent of those once found off Hoxton Street.
The sprawling Hoxton Fields to the north and west of Hoxton Street were often used for archery practice, still a common form of civil defence. It was here on 22nd September 1598 that the playwright Ben Jonson (Shakespeare’s main creative rival) killed actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel, with Johnson only escaping a hanging by proving he was able to write, and therefore worth sparing! The location where this happened is marked by a plaque on Arden House in nearby Pitfield Street N1.
Being outside the jurisdiction of the City, the area was also home to bawdy inns, bordellos and bull baiting, the rich and the poor often living within close proximity. It also proved popular with actors, including William Shakespeare, who lived nearby.
The two first purpose-built theatres in Great Britain were in nearby Curtain Road, with a young Shakespeare writing for and acting in both. One of these theatres, simply called ‘The Theatre’, was home to at least three Shakespearean premieres, including the first ever performance of Romeo and Juliet in 1597.
The Gunpowder Plot, a Catholic conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5th November 1605 with 36 barrels of gunpowder, was discovered in Hoxton Street. It was here on the 12 October 1605 that Lord Monteagle received the letter unmasking the plot, which led to the capture of the plotters, including Guy Fawkes. The location of Lord Monteagle’s house on Hoxton Street – now modern flats – is marked with a brown plaque. The true story of how involved Monteagle was in the plot himself may never be known.
The lunatic asylums
By the end of the 17th Century the wealthy estates in Hoxton were being broken up, with many of the large houses being used as mad houses and almshouses for the elderly or infirm.
Hoxton House on Hoxton Street was turned into a lunatic asylum in 1695, becoming the biggest in Hoxton before closing in 1902. Owned by the Miles family, it had extensive grounds that stretched between Pitfield Street and Kingsland Road. The only remains of the house are at 34, close to Hackney Community College. Built on the site of the Jews’ burial ground, it may mark the southern limit of the asylum at its greatest extent.
By the early 18th Century, nearly all of London’s private lunatics were accommodated in Hoxton. In 1819, of 1551 certified lunatics in private housing, Hoxton House held 348, and the two other major asylums in Hoxton (Whitmore House and Bethnal Green House) held much of the remainder.
At the northern end of Hoxton Street stands the Shoreditch workhouse, or St. Leonard’s Offices for Relief of the Poor, built in 1863, with two more stories added later.
Wealthier Hoxton residents were driven away to the new ‘suburbs’ during the early Victorian era, leaving Hoxton as a poor area full of dirty, noisy slums. Industrialisation and the completion of the Regents Canal in 1820 meant building materials could be shipped into the area quickly and easily, and between 1831-1851 the population of Shoreditch doubled, making the area around Hoxton one of the most densely populated in Europe.
Now a centre for furniture making and the shoe trade, the area was also still a focal point for actors and entertainment. The famous 4000-capacity Britannia Theatre was located at 115-117 Hoxton Street from 1841-1900, the site being marked by a plaque today. Built on the site of the former Pimlico tea gardens, entry was cheap, food and drink served inside, and 3-4 plays performed a night with variety acts in between. Charles Dickens regularly visited the theatre and even compared it to the Scala in Milan in his novel The Uncommercial Traveler. The theatre was damaged by fire in 1900, became a cinema in 1930, and was finally destroyed during the Blitz.
Another building unfortunately seriously damaged during World War II was Pollock’s Toy Theatre Shop at number 73 Hoxton Street. Founded by John Redington in 1851 and run by Benjamin Pollock and family it sold traditionally printed children’s card theatres, with novelist Robert Louis Stevenson a regular customer. The shop – the last of its kind in London – was the origin of the phrase ‘Penny Plain, Twopence coloured’.
The grade II listed building at 130 Hoxton Street is Hoxton Hall, another famous theatre. Built in 1863 as a MacDonald’s Music hall, it is a fine example of an unrestored saloon-style theatre. It lost its license in 1871 because of “Police complaining”, later being used as a Quaker meeting hall, and now a community theatre and arts space.
Another places well worth a visit on Hoxton Street are the gardens gardens laid out by the Hoxton Trust at the northern end of the street. Centrepeice is a clock tower from the City of London Union Workhouse in Homerton, recently restored – and toilets designed for an oilrig!
After the war, manufacturing developments led to many smaller industries moving out of Hoxton, but by the 1980s a new generation of young artists – looking for cheap workspace – started to move in. Pubs and clubs opened around Hoxton Square to cater for the creative crowd, bringing with it a vibrant arts community, new money and regeneration.
Hoxton Street, however, has the feel of a real, close-knit London community – and one with an amazing past at that.