History Tour of Shoreditch

ShoreditchA Look at One of the Most Changed Districts in London

Today, Shoreditch is one of the most fashionable districts of London. But there are plenty of clues to its roots if you know where to look.

Mention Shoreditch, and most people immediately think of the cafés, street art and pop up shops that have made the area a haven for hipsters and the young, upwardly mobile go getters of the 21st century.

Yet the area has a rich and varied history, and residents of the preceding decades and centuries would scarcely have believed the transformation that was in store for their little corner of London.

The name first appeared in the 12th century and can be loosely translated as “sewer ditch” – perhaps appropriate, when we consider the squalid slums that sprang up in the 19th century to accommodate the thousands who flocked to the area in search of employment. But over the course of the 20th century, London drainage rendered the place more habitable and by the turn of the 21st, gentrification and investment turned it into the desirable location we see today.

While embracing contemporary culture and values, Shoreditch has not forgotten its past. Here are three things you should look out for next time you decide to grow your beard and venture out to north east London for a gingerbread latte.

Elizabethan Theatre District

Shoreditch was not all slums and cheap labour. In 1576, James Burbage built England’s first playhouse on the site of the old Priory, between modern day Shoreditch High Street and Curtain Road. A year later, it was followed by The Curtain Theatre, just up the road. The two theatres competed to meet the entertainment needs of Londoners, and hosted the biggest names of the day.

A certain William Shakespeare plied his wares here long before anyone had heard of him in Southwark, and it was here that Romeo and Juliet was performed for the very first time.

Both theatres are long gone, but are commemorated by plaques on Curtain Road. Perhaps they are still competing for which receives the most visits and photos.


As you amble along Shoreditch High Street, take a look up as you pass numbers 128-130 and you will see the vestiges of Edward Wells and Co, commercial ironmongers. The building went up in 1877, and although Wells & Co were there for less than 20 years, the gothic architecture, beautiful tilework and ornate signwriting survives to this day.

St Leonard’s church and pump

Often known simply as Shoreditch Church, St Leonard’s stands on the junction of Shoreditch High Street and Hackney Road.

As well as getting a mention in the famous nursery rhyme (“When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch”), it is known as “the actor’s church” by virtue of the numerous memorials to Elizabethan actors who were famous for their many appearances in the local theatres of the time.

As you are leaving the church, look out for the disused water pump that stands as a central feature in a small flower bed just outside.  Dating from 1832, it originally supplied water from the spring that gave Shoreditch its name all those centuries earlier. It was this ready supply of fresh drinking water that facilitated the first Roman settlement in the area, long before the words Shoreditch, Shakespeare or hipster meant anything to anybody.