Where is it?
Whitechapel Road is in the borough of Tower Hamlets and runs east from Aldgate, once the eastern gate out of the City of London, eventually becoming Mile End Road. The area is generally referred to as the East End.
What’s the Story?
The area of Whitechapel, and the road included on the Monopoly board gets its name from an ancient church which once stood just south of the Whitechapel Road, but was badly damaged during WWII, later demolished and is now the site occupied by Altab Ali Park.
Historically, east London has been a poorer cousin to west London which coupled with its proximity to the docks lead to it becoming a migrant area; French Huguenots in the 17th century and Jewish immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century. More recently it became a Bangladeshi area. Whitechapel however, will be forever associated with the Jack The ripper murders which took place in and around the area in 1888.
In recent times, Brick Lane, which runs north, on a site occupied by the Truman Brewery, has been gentrified, and on Sundays when the markets are in full swing, it’s a hot spot for hipsters. It is also festooned with street art.
How do I get there?
Whitechapel Road and Whitechapel High Street are dotted with tube stations including Aldgate, Aldgate east and Whitechapel. Just north in trendy Shoreditch there’s an Overground station as well as an Underground and mainline station at Liverpool Street.
What’s it like now?
Like a lot of London, there’s a great deal of development going on and the rough edges often associated with Whitechapel are, for better or worse being gradually filed down. It sits within one of the two poorest areas of London, but within the same borough is Canary Wharf, the second big financial hub, so again, as with much of the city, an interesting dichotomy of people living together. Whitechapel is incredibly diverse with a large Muslim population and Bangladeshi community, which you’ll certainly get a feel for around the markets on Whitechapel Road and the familiar waft from the numerous curry houses.
Where should I stay?
Like Old Kent Road, it’s unlikely you’d want to stay on Whitechapel Road itself (although not beyond the realms of possibility), but more likely in one of the numerous hotels popping up in and around Hoxton and Shoreditch (just north) or near to the Tower of London to the south.
What’s of interest?
Whitechapel Road itself might not be a No.1 priority for visitors to London, but has far more going for it than the previous Old Kent Road and a host of things to see and do within a stone’s throw.
For culture vultures, just at the south end of Brick Lane on Whitechapel High Street you’ll find the Whitechapel Gallery, a contemporary art gallery which has been premiering world class international artists for well over 100 years and is a key part of London’s cultural landscape.
A short walk further east you’ll pass the monumental east London Mosque which I visited a number of years ago and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which ceased trading in 2017 but had been making bells in Whitechapel since 1570. They not only cast the famous ‘Big Ben’ but amongst many others, the Liberty Bell. An American investment firm bought the premises but their application to turn it in to a boutique hotel is currently under review by the government. If you’re feeling peckish then Tayyabs, a family run Punjabi restaurant since 1972 is the go to curry house in the area for Londoners, despite a plethora of them on Brick Lane.
For those with an interest in medical history, you should definitely check out the Royal London Hospital Museum. It's a fascinating and eclectic mix which among many other things includes a model of John Merrick's (the elephant man) skeleton who lived and died at the hospital in the late 19th century.
Just south west of Whitechapel Road you’ll find the mighty Tower of London, a must visit London attraction which after 1000 years of history, needs no introduction. Whist there, make sure you pop in to the often over looked church of All Hallows by-the-Tower, which quite remarkably pre-dates the Tower by 400 years, has an intriguing museum (including some Roman floor) and a couple of historical titbits that Americans might find interesting.
On the opposite side of the Tower you’ll find the serene St Katherine Docks, central London's only marina, where you’ll often find the Queen’s Royal Barge parked up, and then a bit further on, Wilton’s Music Hall; one of only two surviving Victorian music halls in London, which has shows on regularly. It’s a real delight.
Brick Lane, running north from Whitechapel Road is just over half a mile long and on Sundays gets transformed so that every nook and cranny of the Old Truman Brewery which dominates the central portion gets turned in to a market of some form or another, whether it be street food, vintage clothes or people just selling stuff off the back of a lorry. It’s a vibrant and culturally diverse area and its rich migrant history is perhaps best encapsulated in the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid Mosque, which opened in 1743 as a Huguenot chapel, has been used as a Methodist chapel, a Synagogue and a Mosque. As such, it's an anomaly and stands on the corner of Fournier Street, lined with beautiful early 18th century houses and well worth a look.
The abundance of curry houses has waned slightly in recent years due to the extortionate business rates, but they’re not the only food people flock to Brick Lane for. At the Bethnal Green Road end are two famous 24-hour bagel shops which no-one ever seems to know the names of, but can tell you the colour of the facade of their favourite.
Old Spitalfields market which had been a fruit and veg market from 1637 until 1991 (when it moved further east) got cut in half by uber-architect Norman Foster and gentrified beyond belief. Still worth checking out the stalls of vintage wear and it’s lined with generic epidemic restaurants. Just outside is the famous Ten Bells pub, synonymous with Jack The Ripper as it was where he picked up his final victim, Mary Kelly.
If you're looking for a quirky, historical, under the radar museum, then look no further than Dennis Severs House at 18 Folgate Street; a time capsule of an 18th century weaving house.
Shoreditch and Hoxton
Just north of Spitalfields and otherwise known as Hoxtditch, is the epicentre of hipsterdom. It’s where the cool kids go to get drunk, eat kebabs and throw up. Lots of bars, coffee shops and clubs. If you get a chance, do seek out Arnold Circus, a quiet enclave and the UK’s first council estate.If you're in the area on a Sunday, then a stop off at an east end institution, Columbia Road Flower Market will give you a real flavour of London life. You’ll find, in all these areas I’ve mentioned, LOADS of street art and it often feels like wandering around an open air art gallery. You can still see an original Banksy in the beer garden of gig venue Cargo on Rivington Street, amongst many others artists like Eine, Roa, Bambi, Thierry Noir and one of my favourites; the chewing gum artist, Ben Wilson.
I do regular Sunday morning ‘pay what you want’ tours around these areas most weeks, so please do get in touch if you’d like to join.
Also in the series:
#00 - An Introduction
#01 - Old Kent Road
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.