6 things we learned on a historical tour of Shoreditch


What do Tony Blair, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare all have in common? In one way or another they have all played their part in establishing and sustaining the theatrical heritage of Shoreditch.

Theatre, however, many not be your first association with the popular district. In recent years Shoreditch has been heralded as the centre of the millennial ‘hipster’ sub-culture. The area has been characterised by speciality coffee shops, eye-popping street art, and social enterprises that have given support for creative industries that have recently shifted from paintbrushes to coding.

But where did this all begin? Well, on Sunday I embarked on a two-hour historic walking tour of the area, led by Sean Gubbins, where I learnt that theatre, creativity, coffee and social reform have been at the heart of the medieval liberty for over two hundred years.

1. Shakespeare went to church here

As the group stood together on the church steps we were told that St Leonard’s was the original actor’s church. In the heart of London’s first theatreland, it is likely to have been the church in which former Shoreditch resident William Shakespeare worshipped.

The original building collapsed in the 18th Century, so what we see today is a 1740 church designed by George Dance the Elder. The parish church even acts itself, most recognisable for its role as St Saviour’s in the Marshes in the BBC comedy Rev.

2. Marlowe didn’t pay his debts

Theatricality of Shoreditch continued to the pavements of Hog Lane where we were told that it was the spot that in 1589 playwright Christopher Marlowe was drawn into an affray over an unpaid debt. Noting also the original Victorian terraced houses that continue to attract local artisans to live in as their expansive windows create an abundance of natural light. Proving that although a transient community there is continuity in the area to cultivate the creative industries of the day.

Hog Lane is now called Blossom Street

3. The first Globe theatre was in Hackney

We visited the original site of the Globe Theatre, built in 1576, which now lies as an empty space between two blocks of modern flats. As we stood before street art façade that now protects the space, one of the other walkers said to me that it was incredible to think that we were walking the streets that Shakespeare did.

4. Hipster coffee shops have been here for nearly a century

We learnt that the many speciality coffee houses in Shoreditch are in fact carrying on a tradition established by Sydney Edward Tothill in 1919, when he opened Syd’s Coffee Stall on the corner of Calvert Avenue and Shoreditch High Street.

The original site of Globe Theatre

5. Poverty and social reform is written into Hackney’s architecture

We were taken to Arnold Circus, opening in 1900 we were told that the group of tenement blocks designed by Owen Fleming was the first council estate to be created in London. The aesthetic circular gardens and pattern of brickwork of the 19 blocks replaced a notorious crime-ridden slum in 1896 and broke the traditional barracked blocked design of east London.

My fellow walkers were a diverse group, but all shared in interest in knowing more about the history of the area. One lady said she had started attending Gubbins tours as her mother had grown up in Hackney and she wished to visit the places that she had spoken about. There was also a couple who had recently moved to London from the United States who wanted to know more about their new home, and a Hackney resident interested in learning new details about the borough he had lived in for over ten years.

6. A barman tried to arrest Tony Blair

Gubbins’ natural manner entwined the medieval history of the area with events in Shoreditch from more recent times. One being when we stopped outside the restaurant Tramshed where we were told that in 2014 a barman unsuccessfully attempted to make a citizen’s arrest on the former Prime Minister Tony Blair for crimes against the peace following the Iraq War.

Gubbins tells me that he has lived in Hackney for more than 20 years, and since beginning to lead the tours around the borough in 2002 has completed a masters in Historical Research at the University of London.

Such is the depth of history of Hackney, the Shoreditch tour is one of many that Gubbins leads, making up a collection of walks that cover every ward in Hackney. Many of my group appear to be returning customers, a reflection of their quality and his popularity.

Gubbins said, “people come to a walk like this for many different reasons, sometimes a trip down memory lane, sometimes because they live in the area or people who like history walks. Hackney has previously had a bad reputation and people felt like they couldn’t walk around here and explore, but I think the more you walk the more you feel ownership of the place. Walking tours keep the heritage of the borough alive.”  

Take the tour yourself

Sean Gubbins is the only service offering a regular schedule of walks all over the borough. To find out more visit his website or email sean@walkhackney.co.uk to book on a tour. Tours run throughout Hackney including Stamford Hill, London Fields and Hackney Central and cost £8.