The Interesting History of Hackney, East London

@frannyolivia via Twenty20

Hackney, known for its diverse community, places to eat, architecturally iconic buildings, buzzing bars and fashionable retail outlets… and also home to our TwoFresh studio. It has been a cultural hub for theatre, film, art and music, it has homed people of all backgrounds making it rich in cultural history. The huge array of stories documented show how this part of London has seen many social transitions. Our love for Hackney has us thinking… what did this place used to look like and how has it developed to this lively hub that connects so many people and places? In this article, we will be uncovering Hackney’s deep routed history, specifically looking at Mare Street, London Fields, Liverpool Street and Spitalfields Market along with notable events and people who have made a mark on the area.

Mare Street and Early Hackney

Mare street, formally known as Mere Street has existed since the 15th century and has been one of the main connecting roads between London City and the Parish, later distinguished as Hackney. The name Hackney was first recorded in 1198 AD, it’s thought to have been named in reference to a mountain or a raised place in a marsh (which geographically makes sense due to its location). After the Great Plague of London in 1566 and the Great Fire in 1666, Hackney became increasingly popular as there were minimal deaths and damage within the area.

There is a diverse range of people recorded to have lived in Hackney, the first recorded person of African heritage living in the borough was Anthony who is noted in the St John’s Parish in 1630, he lived until the age of 105. Another neighbour from this time would have been Isaac Alvares, a Jewish Jeweller who bought a house in Homerton in 1674.

Until the mid 18th century, Mare street covered only the southern part of the now existing road, the Northern part was known as Church Street. Until the 19th Century, Mare Street was also known for housing the elite with many government figures of the time taking up residency here in grand buildings, until they gradually shifted over to Clapton from the beginning of the 18th Century. In this time Hackney was known for its clean air and fresh spring waters.

The Emergence of the Railway in Hackney

It was in 1862 The Great Eastern Railway was formed, before long a plan to create a station in the heart of the city to connect regions around East London had been drawn up. In 1870 Railway was developed into Hackney, resulting in London Fields, Cambridge Heath, Bethnal Green and Hackney Downs stations opening in 1872. London Fields station impacted on the surrounding area, many of the newer residential buildings had to be knocked down, and as the railway was developed, more and more workshops were established within the railway arches.

In 1875 Liverpool Street station opened in full (named after British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool), it was designed by the engineer Edward Wilson. The design of the platforms created an ‘L’ shape and the structure of the station was built with iron and glass, this is where it got its name as the ‘Dark Cathedral’. The emergence of the railways quickly shifted the landscape of the area, what was known for clean air and spring waters transformed into a more industrial landscape with many of the workshops still existing today. In 1887, Charles Booth, a social researcher, noted in his Poverty Report that there was a huge mixture of wealthy and poor living in Hackney at this time. He also noted how the surrounding areas of London Fields was ‘all boot and shoe factories’ which explains the increase of working-class people compared to the previous residence of wealthy people, looking to live near the courts.

In 1975, plans to demolish Liverpool Street were unveiled with a redevelopment plan to replace it with an underground station. Although there was a lot of opposition, the development started in 1985. Although some of the original features of the station have been restored, the roof has since been completely replaced and has since lost its name as the ‘Dark Cathedral’.

1900’s Politics

Hackney became a London Metropolitan Borough in 1900, it was appointed its first council (The LCC). In 1904 the first Council Housing was opened and after much deliberation over location, London Fields Lido was built in 1932 costing an estimation of £10,870. The Lido stayed open consistently (apart from during the wars) until 1988, the doors of the beloved Lido closed for the last time due to cut-backs under Thatcher’s Government and was to be closed until 2006, when Hackney Council reopened it. In 1934, the existing Town Hall (built in 1866) was replaced by the iconic, and still existing Civic Art Deco building. It was designed by Lanchester & Lodge, who also designed the Parkinson Building for the University of Leeds, another notable Grade II Art Deco style building. Hackney Town Hall is distinguished for its elaborate chandeliers and marble flooring and its open and airy spaces such as the reception area.

Diverse Communities

The First and Second World Wars brought many migrants to Hackney, many these communities remain today and are vital to the diversity that Hackney has to offer. From the 1920’s many Orthodox Jew’s migrated to Stamford Hill in hopes to flee the Jewish Holocaust. The Turkish Cypriot communities living in Hackney have been recorded since the 1930s, in the 1970s/80s Turkish communities from mainland Turkey grew rapidly due to economic and political reasons.

After the second world war, in hopes to fill labour shortages, people were invited to come to the UK to receive citizenship and benefit from the idea of the ‘mother country’, many being from the Caribbean. These individuals are part of the ‘Windrush Generation’, arriving in the UK from 1941 to 1971. A promise of affordable housing and job opportunities quickly became a myth as many were placed in bad living conditions and received a cold welcome by local residence due to negative ideas of migrants being made due to justify exploitation.

Despite the difficulties faced, these communities are still living in the borough today and have given Hackney the spirit that it has.

Listed Buildings

Many buildings around Hackney have been listed, meaning that they are protected against redevelopment. A huge array of these buildings are situated on Mare street including the Empire building. Originally, the Empire was built as a Music Hall in 1901. It was designed by Frank Matcham, who also designed the Hippodrome and Victoria Palace. Recognisable performers such as Charlie Chaplin, Marie Lloyd and Julie Andrews performed at the hall before it was inhabited as a bingo hall from 1984. The building was then listed and was restored to its originality. It has been kept in such condition ever since and is now used as a theatre while also functioning as a charity which hosts many initiatives such as Creative Futures and The Performers Network. Opposite the Empire building sits Barclays, nothing special you might think, well think again as this was once The Hackney Pavilion; one of the hotspots of its time. Opening its doors for the first time in 1914, The Hackney Pavilion was a cinema which had 1500 seats. Sadly, the historic building was demolished following its closure in 1972 and this was when the Barclays building was built. This proves how important it is to protect historic buildings in order to preserve such history.

Spitalfields Market

Truman’s Brewery opened in 1669 and 1682 it was granted that a market could be opened there on Thursday’s and Saturday’s. A need to modernise the market became apparent in 1876 when the market began to decline. In 1893, the new development was opened, all in all it cost around £80,000 to renovate. In 1920 the Market was owned by The City of London, buildings were extended and its reputation grew. Until the 1970’s the market was home to many Jews and was once one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe with over 40 Synagogues. From the 1970s, Bangladeshi communities brought a new cultural dynamic to the area, many Bangladeshi trades and businesses thrived in the area, including on the famous Brick Lane. After growing in popularity and restrictions hindering further development within it’s current area, a plan to relocate to Leyton hatched, this opened in 1991. In 2005, a restoration programme created two new public spaces within Bishops Square and Crispin Place. This is what you will find of Spitalfields Market today, which is full of independent food, fashion and homeware stalls. It’s a great place to find some real treasures and a great way to support local artists, designers and makers!

History of Hackney Carnival

Hackney’s streets are often filled with a breadth of Art and Culture from a huge range of diverse backgrounds. Hackney Carnival (formally known as Hackney Mare de Gras) is an example of this. The streets are filled with music, dancing and spectacular costumes described as masquerade, or mas, known as the ‘theatre of the streets’. This is a year-round activity where ‘communications of stories through movement’ are explored through textiles and costume. Archives of Hackney show that community carnivals have been running through its streets since the 1900 (earlier recorded ones were English-style carnivals).

The first documented carnival in Hackney organised by African and Caribbean communities was in 1973 and was called the Street Carnival Theatre, located in De Beauvoir. Marva Antoine describes her memory of the Hackney Youth Carnival Parade, ‘I used to run the Hackney Youth Carnival every July for four years. It ran from Stoke Newington Church Street to Millfields Park.’ Marva also notes how the carnival stopped in 2008, when efforts were directed ‘towards the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.’ Hackney One Carnival was then set up by 15 carnival groups for 2012 and then by 2017 it was renamed as Hackney Carnival.

It’s safe to say that so much can be unpacked from all corners of Hackney, we have covered just a few in this article, there are so many inspirational stories, people and places to explore. Here at TwoFresh, we think it’s vital in the development of the area to preserve its history and to celebrate it. Check out the resources below to check out some awesome projects in the area that you can get involved in:

·       Volunteer in Hackney Parks

·       Get Involved in this years Hackney Carnival

·       Learn more and get involved with Creative Futures

·       Support Hackney Empire

·       A map of Black History in Hackney and the key for the map

·       Check out London’s Screen Archives with Film London

·       Take Part with Rich Mix

·       Learn about and visit Rio Cinema

·       Visit Spitalfields Market


·       History of London Fields

·       History of Mare Street,History,followed%20by%20a%20Congregational%20chapel

·       History of Hackney Empire

·       History of Hackney Carnival

·       History of Hackney Town Hall

·       History of London Fields Lido

·       History of Hackney Pavilion Cinema

·       Hackney’s Social History

·       History if Liverpool Street

·       History of Spitalfield’s Market