In my last post I reviewed the Staging Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, a dive into the gallery’s rich history as one of London’s first publicly-funded galleries, bringing world class culture to one of London’s most historically diverse and deprived districts. But a trip to Whitechapel shouldn’t end with the gallery. This post highlights key places to learn about the area’s rich history, and see, eat and drink great things along the way. Hopefully I can convince you to at least make an afternoon of it, or even a day!
WHITECHAPEL BELL FOUNDRY
To understand the East London city-scape it’s helpful to look back to the 16th century where London’s great class divide emerged. Industry was a vital part of the city but the factories, abattoirs and breweries were thought to be too ugly, smelly and dangerous for inside the city walls – so they sprang up in the East End.
You can visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry – the best-known business from this period and the manufacturer of Big Ben. It is also in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest manufacturing business in Great Britain.
THE JACK THE RIPPER TOUR
In the 1880’s, the police reported that Whitechapel had over 60 brothels and 1,200 low-class prostitutes. It was known to be a dangerous area and in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens described the area as unpleasant, supposedly basing the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist on a well-known Whitechapel criminal – Ikey Solomon. During the Victorian times it was also home to Joseph Merrick, known as ‘The Elephant Man’ who was displayed as a curiosity in a Whitechapel shop window.
This sets the scene for 1888, when Jack the Ripper terrorised the streets of East London, brutally murdering prostitutes who walked the streets at night. Whether you’re a history nerd or a serial killer obsessive, the Jack the Ripper walking tour should definitely be on your bucket list. Why not head to The Ten Bells after to enjoy a pint at the favourite watering hole of Mary Jane Kelly, the ripper’s final victim.
The Whitechapel Gallery opened in 1901. It has long-focused on the local people with education and outreach projects, making it an important part of the Whitechapel community and history. Over the years it has housed exhibitions from Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko and Gilbert and George, as well as Picasso’s Guernica.
It’s where you’ll find some of London’s most beguiling contemporary art. Right now, I’d recommend visiting Sophia Al-Maria’s short film, you can find it in the dark room at the top of the stairs. It is described as a “cosmogenic fantasy” that throws binaries such as good and evil, female and male, light and dark into question. Also, Is This Tomorrow? is a ticketed exhibition running until May 12th and Queer Spaces starts next week, I’ll be sure to review these here soon.
The gallery shop
This may seem like a cop-out, but this is one of my all-time favourite gallery shops so i thought it deserved its own paragraph. If you’re into art, art theory, philosophy or cultural theory then this shop is dangerous – I always leave with a long wish list. It’s a great shop to just wander round, even if you aren’t visiting the gallery, there’s a lot of unique books that I’ve never seen elsewhere. Be sure to check out the Whitechapel Gallery’s acclaimed series of anthologies dedicated to the major themes and ideas in contemporary art (pictured below). There’s also an eye-catching array of postcards.
Petticoat lane market
Another historic part of Whitechapel, this is possibly the oldest surviving market in Britain. In its long history stretching back to the the 1600’s, the area has been populated by Spaniards, Huguenots and Jewish immigrants. In the 70’s a new wave of immigration from India and east Asia added to the area’s historic diversity and vibrance. At the weekends you can find anything and everything here, but on weekdays it’s a great place to go for a street food lunch.
discount suit company
From the name it doesn’t sound likely, but this place has one of the most enticing cocktail menus I’ve ever seen. It sits on Wentworth Street overlooking the Petticoat Lane market stalls. The ground floor is actually a suit shop, which makes it pretty confusing to find your way to the bar – just look for the staircase leading downstairs from the road, it leads down to what was originally a suit company store room. This place makes the most of the area’s history, creating a laid back, stylish place to kick back with a cocktail and listen to Soul at the end of a long day.
I hope my ramblings were at least slightly informative, it’s worth mentioning that you’re also a very short walk from Brick Lane, Spitalfields and Spitalfields City farm if there isn’t enough to keep you busy on this list!