Wynegarde perspective of Holywell Priory
Wynegarde perspective of Holywell Priory

In 1601 most Shoreditch people lived on or near Holywell Street - the modern Shoreditch High Street, which led north to the medieval church of St Leonard at the north west end. Here the High Street met the Old Street and to the north ran Kingsland Road, both having their origins in Roman times. There were grand houses, like the 15th century Copt Hall, on the east side of Kingsland Road, but the clay soil in the field between Kingsland Road and Hackney Road were being used to make bricks in 1602 and a mere twelve years later, Shoreditch saw its first brick terrace - Ratcliffe or Rotten Row - built nearby.

Ralph Agas’ map of London of about 1570 gives a glimpse of Elizabethan Shoreditch. Cottages and two storey timber framed buildings line Holywell Street, with gardens and fields beyond, with the spire of St Leonard’s Church rising at the top of the street. To the east, Hog Lane (later Worship Street) runs past fields and market gardens to Finsbury.

St Leonards Church had lost its medieval images of the saints and the Virgin Mary at the Reformation and the chantry chapel founded by the Elrington family in 1482 no longer echoed to the sounds of prayers for the founders salvation, but the morning sun still shone through the Elrington coat-of-arms in glass and the figure of St George in the church’s east window. The growing population had also seen new wooden galleries added to seat more parishioners, merchants, rich and poor - and acting folk.

Shoreditch's other great church had all but vanished by 1601. Holywell Priory, founded between 1133 and 1150, stood north of the present Holywell Lane. It was dissolved in October 1539, and the church survived just long enough to be sketched by Wyngaerd in the following year, but then the buildings were swiftly cleared away.

Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage

But the precinct survived and in 1576 part of the former priory, including the Great Barn which was leased to ambitious head of the Earl of Leicester’s acting company, Richard Burbage, who was then living in a house on Holywell Street. On a site near the junction of the present Curtain Road and New Inn Yard, and conveniently outside the control of the City of London (who had just banned all play acting), Burbage built the Theatre. This wooden octagonal building was to see 22 years service and it was only in 1597, when the landlord refused to renew the lease, that Burbage’s son Cuthbert was forced to decamp. But he took the materials from the Theatre with him, and the wood was re-used to build the Globe on Bankside.

The Theatre had a local rival. The Curtain - the name probably comes from the old priory walls - was built in 1578 on a site near the modern Hewett Street. It was smaller than the Theatre and may have been less successful, for in 1585 Richard Burbage took on the running of it in addition to the Theatre.

A variety of companies played at the Theatre from 1590, among whom were the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who included Richard Burbage, William Kemp and a player with some talent for writing as well as acting in plays - William Shakespeare. In the 1590s, Shakespeare lived in a house in nearby Bishopsgate and some of his plays were first performed in Shoreditch, including Romeo and Juliet. Richard Burbage was buried in St Leonard’s Church, the last home to many a thespian, including Henry VIII’s jester Will Somers (d.1569), and it was to become the actors’ church.

Hoxton - Medieaval Village

St John's House
St John's House

North of Old Street lay Hoxton. The medieval village settlement had been at the north end of the road, but in the 16th century there was building further south, as courtiers and foreign ambassadors vied with each other to build houses to catch the country airs conveniently close to London and Westminster. In 1568, the Portuguese ambassador had a house on Hoxton Street and opened up his private chapel so that English Catholics could join in the Mass - forbidden in local parish churches. The breach in the law brought out the parish constables, but the ambassador and his guests drew their swords on the representatives of the law, who beat a hasty retreat, pursued by taunts of “vilains, dogges and such like”.

Worried by the growth of London, Elizabeth I had issued a proclamation against the building of new houses within three miles of the City of London, but no one took any notice and by 1601 there were over twenty houses along Hoxton Street. Some were known by their hanging signs - the Golden Bull and the Red Lyon - and not all of these would have been taverns! Some of those who had done well at court came to live in Hoxton. Jerome Bassano’s father, said to be descended from a family of Italian Jews, had come from Venice to be a musician at the court of Henry VIII. Jerome both played and composed and used his accumulated wealth to buy a house in Hoxton street around 1589. In 1598 this house, on the west side of the street- where the notorious slum Wilmer Gardens was later built- was broken into by thieves and 100 in gold jewellery and money stolen - some indication of the wealth of Hoxtons 16th century elite! One of Jerome’s female relatives has been put forward as a candidate for Shakespeare’s Dark Lady - perhaps first glimpsed by the dramatist on the way to the Hoxton house.

Other large houses included a moated manor house on the site of St Ann’s Church, which burned down in 1652. When rebuilt, it had thirteen hearths and a separate banqueting house in the garden. A later owner, Charles Pitfield may have given his name to Pitfield Street. A smaller house, on a site near the present Hoxton House, was sold in 1618. The lucky purchaser had four rooms on the ground floor, entered through an old porch and “ fower chambers and a garrett and three studyes or closetes in the said roomes” above. The 18' x 9' front yard had its own water pump, and at the back was a 156' long garden with its own summer house.

One of Hoxton’s fashionable houses was soon to be the scene of national drama. The house owned by the Haryong family (on the site of modern Myrtle Walk) was home to Sir Thomas Tresham in the 1580s. Tresham, a Catholic, was imprisoned in the Fleet Prison in 1581 for harbouring the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion. On release he was kept under house arrest at another Hoxton house, complaining that he was “badly lodged ... his chamber being alloted over a noisesome kitchen, rudely and disjoinnedly boarded and not a whit ceiled”. Tresham’s own house passed to his son-in-law, Lord Monteagle, and it was here on 26 October 1605 that Monteagle received the anonymous letter giving him advanced warning of a conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament - the Gunpowder Plot.

Archers shown on part of Agas' Map
Archers shown on part of Agas' Map

North and west of Hoxton lay open or common fields, which like Finsbury Fields just outside the City walls, was used for archery practice - still thought vital as a form of civil defence. Hoxton Fields were also used to settle quarrels. The dramatist Ben Jonson went there on 22 September 1598 to fight a duel with Gabriel Spencer, whom he killed and in the ensuing trial was only able to escape hanging by pleading benefit of clergy - proving that he was able to write.

After exercise - and sometimes fighting - there was always the tavern. One of the most famous was extolled in a poem printed in 1609. Pimlyco, or Runne Redcap, ‘tis a mad world at Hogsdon celebrates Pimlico Gardens, which lay on the west side of the present Pitfield Street, more or less due east of the present St John’s Church. The name probably comes from a kind of ale.

Shoreditch’s combination of countryside close to the City of London was to make it popular with benefactors wishing to make provision for the care of the poor and as the 17th century progressed, a number of wealthy City merchants left money in their will to establish almshouses. The first of these arose from a bequest made by John Fuller, a judge and sometime Treasurer of the Inner Temple, in his will of 1592. Fuller set aside funds to build an almshouse for 12 women in Shoreditch and his widow acquired land on the south side of Old Street. The almshouses were completed in 1605. Fullers Hospital moved to Wood Green in 1867 and the site is now part of Shoreditch Town Hall.


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This site, developed with funding from the New Opportunities Fund as one of the projects within Sense of Place, London, forms part of the National Archive's Education site. It was developed as a partnership between Hackney Archives Department, Immediate Theatre and the National Archive's Education Team