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The Shoreditch Area

Located just north of Moorfields and outside of the City Wall, Shoreditch was a suburban neighbourhood that grew considerably during a boom in Londonʼs population in the late sixteenth century. Few primary sources deal directly with the area of Shoreditch itself in this period. John Stow’s Survey of London focuses on the more central areas and gives more attention even to Southwark across the Thames than to Shoreditch. But we can make some informed guesses about Shoreditch based on generalized contemporary accounts and secondary sources. Early maps can also provide some insights.

What’s in a Name?

Even the origins of the name Shoreditch are disputed. A favoured local myth is that it was named for Jane Shore, one time mistress of Edward IV, found dead in a ditch there. However, the name precedes Shore’s death by some four hundred years. There has been dispute over whether it stems from the local gentry family of de Soerdich, a view that Walter Thornbury actively supports in Old and New London (Thornbury 2: 194). Sir James Bird, however, points out that de indicates an already established placename (Bird 1–5). Bird also disputes another common belief that the name derives from Norman seouer (sewer) plus the Saxon dich (ditch), since the words are synonymous, and the neighbouring Hoxton and Haggerston, both traditionally part of Shoreditch parish, have fully Saxon names (Bird 1–5). The location of fens nearby (Finsbury), however, does lend some credence to this theory. Bird traces the public record of the name Shoreditch as a regional parish (Soerdig) to 1138, before records become hopelessly murky (Bird 1–5).

Population Boom

In the late sixteenth century, London experienced a massive expansion in population. Though statistics can only be estimated, it seems that from 1550 to 1600, London’s population nearly tripled, increasing from around seventy thousand to approximately 200,000 (Boulton 316). As spare land inside the City Wall was scarce, development pushed outside the walls, and Shoreditch and its surroundings were prime targets. In 1580, at the behest of Londonʼs Lord Mayor and Aldermen, who feared over-crowding and sickness, Elizabeth I issued a royal proclamation commanding all Persons Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (CH)[…] to desist and forbear from any new Buildings within three Miles from any of the Gates of the City: And to forbear from letting or setting, or suffering any more Families than one only, to be placed in any House (Strype 4: 34).
Stow notes the continual Building of small and base Tenements, for the most Part lately erected, lining the way from the former St. Mary Spital towards Shoreditch, as well as many small cottages below (Stow 2:73). Further up from Holywell, Stow indicates yet more tenements lining the high street all the way to Shoreditch. Stow also notes the building of great houses for nobles and foreign gentlemen in the grounds of the former priory, as well as a great many summer houses in the neighbouring suburb of Moorfields (Stow 2:77). In addition, numerous almshouses were founded by the various guilds and livery companies for their aging members.
Evidently the Queen’s decree was largely ignored, as it was reissued in 1603. Another index of London’s suburban growth was the increasing concern with tradespeople and shops outside of the city walls and thus outside the city and its trade companies’ jurisdiction. The charge was levelled that these tradespeople were insufficiently trained and produced bad commodities and false and insufficient wares (Strype 3: 32), though this is a common complaint in times of mass migration. Strype notes, however, that many of these claims were well founded.

Daily Life

The above accounts depict a district beginning to teem with activity in a city that was becoming, in the words of Ben Jonson, stranger, and newer, and chang’d every hour (Jonson 1.1.102). Elegant properties nestled cheek by jowl with smaller houses and tenements and emerging businesses. The building of the Theatre in 1576, followed by the Curtain the next year, established Shoreditch as the premier entertainment district of London at that time. Neighbouring Finsbury Field, as Adams notes, had a long history of respectable leisure pursuits (it is doubtful that this respectability persisted, however, given the frequent outcry against the playhouses and the suburbs) (Adams 29-30). Though later eclipsed by Southwark, Shoreditch’s reputation as the premier entertainment district seems reinforced by Stow’s mention in his 1598 edition of both the Theatre and the Curtain, compared with his failure to remark on any of the Southwark playhouses, despite the Rose’s existence there since 1587, the Swan’s existence there since 1595, and the Theatre’s reincarnation as the Globe in 1599.
Prostitution (historically associated with the theatre) became notorious in Shoreditch, having spread out to other suburbs following Henry VIII’s outlawing in 1546 of its previously licensed practice in Southwark (Archer 211–213; Ditmore 255–258). Shoreditch was one of the preferred suburbs for brothels. Swiss traveller Thomas Platter notes great swarms of these women Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (CH)[…] in the taverns and playhouses there (Platter 175). It is thus highly likely that Shoreditch was one of the suburbs Thomas Nashe was referring to when he asked, London, what are thy suburbs but licenced stews? (Nashe 80).
Drinking was also a particularly popular pursuit in early modern London. Platter remarks that he had never seen more taverns and alehouses Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (CH)[…] than in London (Platter 189). Shoreditch was no exception, boasting plenty of taverns and alehouses, which greatly proliferated during this period (Clark 41). Evidently players themselves were known to be a regular feature of the drinking and social culture; Thomas Platter’s nearby hostel was visited by players almost daily (Platter 170). Of the great many inns, taverns, and beer-gardens, Platter remarks that much amusement may be had with drinking, fiddling and the rest (Platter 170). Platter also notes, to his surprise, that women commonly frequented these establishments, as well as the playhouses. These accounts depict a diverse, boisterous and vibrant social environment, of which Shoreditch was very much a part.
As one would expect with a strong drinking culture, there was a somewhat rowdy atmosphere. One particularly noteworthy event was the duel between Gabriel Spenser and Ben Jonson, in which Spenser was killed, in Hoxton fields in 1597. The event, though noteworthy, was hardly irregular and highlights the quarrelsome disposition of the time (Stopes 72). Only the year previously, Spenser had slain one James Feake in the house of a Shoreditch barber (Stopes 71–73).
An environment such as Shoreditch evidently drew its share of criticism and disapproval. Official complaints against the drinking culture and the general rowdiness of Shoreditch were frequent and lamented not only the great number of dissolute, loose, and insolent people harboured in such and the like noisome and disorderly houses, as namely poor cottages, and habitations of beggars and people without trade but al’sso the stables, inns, alehouses, taverns, garden-houses converted to dwellings, ordinaries, dicing houses, bowling alleys, and brothel houses (Schoenbaum 126).

Sites and Sights

Besides the Curtain and the Theatre, one of the notable sites of Shoreditch was St. Leonardʼs Church. It occupied more or less the same spot as the current building, at the intersection of two Roman roads, Old Street and what is now Kingsland Road/Shoreditch Highstreet. The earliest traceable reference to the original church is some time in the twelfth century, though it may have predated this (Bird 1–5). Due to structural instability, the church was rebuilt in the eighteenth century. The old church was notable primarily for housing the remains of many prominent members of the early modern theatre scene, including the Burbages (James, Richard, and Cuthbert), William Sly, Richard Tarlton, Gabriel Spenser, and Richard Cowley. The modern St. Leonard’s contains a stone plaque celebrating this connection and is often referred to as the Actors’ Church as a result (Egan). The stone records that, even though the theatre scene became concentrated more in Bankside around the turn of the seventeenth century, Shoreditch retained strong ties to the community after the playhouses had moved. There are plans to excavate the old church site, which is believed to be in a slight depression to the side of the current church (Nicholl; Stummer).
Though outside the borders of Shoreditch, the nearby hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in neighbouring Bishopsgate Ward was another important landmark of early modern London. Popularly known as Bedlam, this was the first hospital in Britain dedicated to the care and treatment of mental illness (From Bethlehem to Bedlam). Bedlam remained on the site until the middle of the seventeenth century

Since the 17th Century

Urbanization of the Shoreditch area increased throughout the seventeenth century becasue of the many Huguenots fleeing the wars on the continent and settling in nearby Spitalfields. The area became synonymous with the textile industry that many of these immigrants brought with them. In the Victorian era, Shoreditch was still known as a rough suburb, largely populated by the working class and poor. It gained a macabre notoriety for the Ripper murders that occurred in the area. In more recent times, the suburb has been increasingly gentrified after being popular with the artists of the YBA scene, particularly Damien Hirst. It is now home to many tech start-up companies and has gained the nickname Silicon Roundabout. The neighbourhood still boasts a vibrant nightlife with a great many popular bars and clubs, as well as a burgeoning café and dining scene.
Shoreditchʼs early theatrical history has not been forgotten. While there is currently no local theatre scene, there were popular playhouses up until the early twentieth century, and for a time the area rivalled the West End. There are plaques from the local council to display the former locations of both the Theatre and the Curtain, as well as one in Hoxton square to commemorate the duel between Spenser and Jonson. The Museum of London Archeology has carried out excavations at the sites of both former playhouses, and the Tower Hamlets Theatre Company has plans to build a theatre on the site of the Theatre, incorporating the features that the archaeologists have uncovered (Publications).


Cite this page

MLA citation

DeSouza Correa, Dominic. Shoreditch. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022, mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/SHOR1.htm.

Chicago citation

DeSouza Correa, Dominic. Shoreditch. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022. mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/SHOR1.htm.

APA citation

DeSouza Correa, D. 2022. Shoreditch. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/editions/7.0/SHOR1.htm.

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

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ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Shoreditch
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
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DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/SHOR1.htm
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/xml/standalone/SHOR1.xml
ER  - 

TEI citation

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