Oranges and lemons: when I grow rich-say the bells of Shoreditch

Early Origins & Development

The name Shoreditch derives from the Saxon word ‘Soersditch’ as it was known, interpreted as ‘Sewer Ditch’, and thought to be a reference to the boggy watercourse of the river Walbrook which rose in the general direction of Curtain Road. Shoreditch originated at the junction of two important Roman roads that preceded the courses of Old Street and Kingsland Road.

Medieval Shoreditch was a paradox then as it is now – priories, convents and religious communities were founded here amongst it green open spaces and alongside traditional industries of that time such as brick making, tanning, ironmongery, saddling and tailoring.

By the 12th Century, the parish of St Leonard’s Shoreditch became established following the construction of the Church of St Leonard on the site of a previous church.

The historic narrative of Shoreditch runs through the market gardens that supplied medieval London and served the burgeoning population of Shoreditch and the City to London to the South. Shoreditch’s proximity to the City led to it becoming an early form of ‘suburb’ into which the overcrowded City spread.

Walbrook River Map

St Leonard’s Church

16th to 18th Century Development

Hoxton has been an area of entertainment and refreshment for centuries, located as it was on one of the main eastern thoroughfares into The City of London. During this period two of the first London theatres were built in Shoreditch, including Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre built in 1576. It is said that Shakespeare’s first ever play was performed in Shoreditch.

In the late sixteenth century there were “enclosures for gardens, wherein are built many fair summer houses, some of them like midsummer pageants, with towers, turrets and chimney tops, not so much for use or profit, as for show and pleasure”.

Towards the end of the 17th Century and the beginning of the 18th Century a more residential and formal approach to town planning came into vogue. It was at this time that Hoxton Square was laid out in as an arrangement of terraced properties around a centralised garden space. Incidentally Hoxton comes from the Saxon word Hochestone, meaning a farm or fortified enclosure belonging to Hoch or Hocg.

Since 1140 there has been a church sat on the site of St Leonard’s at the northern end of Shoreditch High Street. The reconstruction of this church in 1736-40 encouraged the beginning of rapid growth and development in Shoreditch. The previous church had four aisles and a tower seventy feet high, with five bells. Those five bells are famous for the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons: when I grow rich/say the bells of Shoreditch”. The Church was the first in London and probably in the country to be lit by gas in 1817.

From the 1770s, large areas of open land were beginning to be filled with a mixture of fragmented roads and formal developments. Many roads were lined with terrace houses, producing a street pattern that remains today.

The Original Site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Hoxton Square

St Leonard’s Church ‘Oranges and Lemons’ Sign

A mother and her daughters looking over the terraced housing in Shoreditch

19th to 20th Century Development

An unusual engraving of 1845 shows Shoreditch High Street with Georgian shopfronts inhabited by shops and trades of all descriptions. Early Victorian pubs and warehouses were beginning to be built. Trades included drapers, tailors, clothiers, mercers, boot and shoe makers, chemists, butchers, ironmongers, jewellers, oil and colour warehouses, etc. Shoreditch had become an important manufacturing area in the East End.

The quarter became industrialised in the 19th century with manufacturing centered around furniture making. It was during the late industrial period that Great Eastern Street was built, a main thoroughfare and a direct route from Old Street to Bishopsgate Goods Yard. With the decline of manufacturing in the 20th century the quarter became run down and semi-derelict however, furniture-making, clothing and printing were three trades that survived well into the early 21st century.

By the early 20th Century, Shoreditch was not a pleasant place to live, it was overcrowded and had the reputation of being unsafe. By the mid 20th Century the effects of two world wars resulted in a substantial loss of buildings: the population diminished and many trades moved north and east.

Book Market along Shoreditch High Street, 1930

Industrial Furniture Workshop in Shoreditch, 1959

Overcrowding, 1929


Through the industrial and manufacturing eras of the 18th and 19th centuries, we arrive in the 21st century when Shoreditch is acknowledged to be London’s creative hub.

The first part of the 21st century has witnessed the advent of a successful design and conservation policy implemented by LB Hackney’s Planning Department. The Shoreditch Triangle is an area defined by Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch High Street and Old Street which now boasts some of the finest contemporary buildings that respond to the heritage and character of their neighbours.

These days the establishments that give Shoreditch a significant cultural status include the London College of Fashion, The Geffrye Museum, The Ace Hotel, Arnold Circus, Lena’s Store and The Strongroom to mention just a few – there are many others and more being conceived every day.

Shoreditch today represents one of the most successful inner-city regeneration/transition zones in Europe.  The design and digital industries within the City Fringe have created a significant Tech Hub and this coupled with the conversion of former warehouse and industrial buildings into social and artist live/work spaces has transformed the area into a must-see London destination.

Shoreditch Triangle bound by Old Street, Great Eastern Street and Shoreditch High Street

Image from London College of Fashion

Cafe in Shoreditch, Modern Society

Shoreditch Graffiti