It is fair to say that Hoxton is an area of London not normally acclaimed for being rich in history, but after doing a bit of digging into the past of this district, we realised that Hoxton actually has a very interesting background.
Hoxton is first recorded as a place identified as ‘Hogesdon’ in the Domesday Book (1086), meaning an Anglo-Saxon farm or fortified enclosure, surrounded by ‘Hoch’, meaning marshland. Although there was Roman activity around the area in as early as the 1st century!
Moats, manors and murders
By the Tudor times, many moated manor houses had been established just outside the city to provide foreign ambassadors with a bit of that good-old English country air that we all love. Many Catholics also assembled in these houses to secretly carry out the masses strictly forbidden in a Protestant country. Hoxton was well known in Tudor times for its public gardens such as the Pimlico Pleasure Gardens, where city folk could seek refuge from the overcrowded streets, but also for being a hub of entertainment and theatre.
Probably the most notable event to ever take place in Hoxton was the duel between the playwright Ben Johnson and an actor, Gabriel Spencer, on September 22nd, 1598. In this theatrical and dramatic showdown, Johnson killed Spencer. He was quickly arrested and tried at the Old Bailey for murder. However, he cunningly managed to claim the right of the clergy by proving his literacy. Because of this, he was tried at an ecclesiastical court where he recited a bible verse and was spared a hanging, instead having to forfeit all his possessions and have his left thumb branded.
A good, honest working district
Hoxton became the centre for the furniture trade during the 19th century. Railways made travelling around the suburbs easier and industrialisation meant that Hoxton became a heavy working district, with trades such as saddlers and tailors being common. The construction of the Regent’s canal also made transporting heavy goods far easier than before, and the cheap labour made Hoxton a very profitable industrial zone. Some highly skilled craftsmen, however, who were working with high value materials and artefacts, managed to escape mass production and use the fashionable markets nearby. By 1901, there were roughly 5,000 furniture makers, from pianos to cabinets, based around Hoxton.
The 3,000 seat Britannia Theatre was also constructed from the old Pimlico tea gardens. Unfortunately, like other many great buildings, it was destroyed during the Second World War bombings. A commemorative plaque can be found on Hoxton Street. During the 20th century, Hoxton became more and more popular, with entertainment companies such as Gainsborough Studios choosing to move to the area.
Shakespeare and Dickens to Enim and Hirst
We couldn’t talk about Hoxton without devoting a section to the arts. Hoxton and the surrounding areas have a rich theatrical and artistic history. It is commonly claimed that the first two London theatres were built in Shoreditch. The first playhouse, ‘The Theatre’, was built on Curtain road in 1576. Hoxton became a hub of theatre mainly because the Lord Mayor at the time prohibited any plays from being performed from within the central city walls, and because popular playwrights such as William Shakespeare chose to perform many plays in the Shoreditch area. Charles Dickens also used the area for inspiration for some of his works, such as Oliver Twist.
In more recent times, Hoxton acted as the centre for the Young British Artists movement prompted by the great deindustrialisation in London during the 1980s. This movement was led famously by the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Enim. The increase in vast, disused warehouses attracted a wave of artists and fashion designers such as Jamie Reed who worked with the Sex Pistols. This created a cultural buzz that has certainly carried on into the 21st century, making Hoxton the place we know and love as it is today.
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