Spitalfields (originally the ‘Hospital Fields’ after the nearby priory hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate) was built over in the late 17th/early 18th centuries. It became a major settlement of French Huguenot (Reformed Protestant) refugees, who arrived in England in large numbers after 1685, the year Louis XIV passed an edict proscribing Protestantism.
Close to the City of London but outside the jurisdiction of the Guilds with their restrictive trading and employment practices, Spitalfields was particularly attractive to silk weavers. Many of the elegant town houses of the master silk weavers, with their distinctive attic windows, survive and have been restored.
The silkweaving industry was regarded as being of great importance, and Spitalfields was the centre of the trade. However, it was particularly susceptible to the changing fortunes of international politics and trade, for the silk had to be imported. New technology and imported fabrics threatened the industry. The cessation of hostilities with France in 1763 saw an influx of French silks, often smuggled into the country. Demands by the poorer journeymen weavers (many part of a new wave of immigrants from Ireland) for higher wages from the masters who employed them led to rioting. Many poorer weavers found themselves without employment. One Sunday in 1765 Wesley organised a collection which raised £40 for unemployed weavers
As well as their houses, wherever the Huguenots settled they built churches: by 1700 there were no less than 23 French-speaking congregations in London. Several of these chapels eventually ended up in Methodist hands. One was the West Street Chapel in Seven Dials, which became the base for Wesley’s work in the West End. A chapel in Spitalfields, the ‘Old French Church’ in Grey Eagle Street, similarly became the base for Wesleyan expansion in the East End. It was in this chapel that the first Methodist Covenant Service was celebrated in 1755.
Wesley describes this occasion in his Journal:
“At six in the evening we met for that purpose. After I had recited the tenor of the covenant proposed, all those who desired to give testimony of their entrance into this covenant stood up, to the number of about 1,800 persons. Such a night I scarce ever saw before. Surely the fruit of it shall remain forever.”
The fruit remains, though not the building itself. In 1819 the Methodists moved to the New French Chapel (Neuve Eglise) in nearby Brick Lane and the Grey Eagle Street site was absorbed into the expanding Trumans Black Eagle Brewery. It is however clearly marked on Rocque’s 1746 map of London, so it is possible to work out where the chapel once stood.
The Neuve Eglise has become a famous symbol of the successive immigrant communities that have found a home in Spitalfields. Built by Huguenots in 1743, it has been in turn a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and is today the London Jamme Masjid mosque. It is at the heart of the Bengali-Sylheti community centred around Brick Lane, or ‘Banglatown’ as it is often called, with its numerous Indian restaurants.
High on the wall of the former chapel a sundial bears the inscription Umbra Sumus (‘We are shadows’) – a fitting testimony to the fleetingness of human existence and the different communities that have lived in Spitalfields and moved on.
But Spitalfields also has another, earlier connection with Methodism. Although the area between Bishopsgate and Spitalfields Market has seen much redevelopment, a small surviving group of older properties remains, now surrounded by modern buildings. One of these, in Spital Yard, bears a plaque attesting that it was the birthplace of John and Charles’ mother Susanna Wesley, nee Annesley. Her father Dr Samuel Annesleywas a prominent Puritan during the Commonwealth. Ejected from the living of St Giles Cripplegate in 1662, he became the minister of a dissenting congregation. The family lived in this house and it was here on 20th January 1669 that Susanna, the youngest of 24 (!) children, was born. Previously owned by the Women’s Fellowship of the Methodist Church, the house is now used as offices.