The Independent London Newspaper

EXMOUTH MARKET SPECIAL - Changing fortunes of Spa Fields

Exmouth Market in the 1970s

Published: 14th January, 2011
by TERRY MESSENGER

A REVIVAL in fortunes which recently won Exmouth Market the title “Best street in Britain” is a case of history repeating itself – after a fashion.

This corner of Clerkenwell was rundown and shabby in the 1980s but steadily improved over the next two decades, with the arrival of chic boutiques and its renowned food market.

As sad and forlorn it may have been 30 years ago, in the 18th century, the area had a far worse reputation.

Known then as Spa Fields, it was a haunt for people “who came hither to witness the rude sports that were in vogue, such as duck-hunting, prize-fighting, bull-baiting, and others of an equally demoralising character,” according to Old and New London: Volume 2, a history of the area written in 1878.

The area “seems to have been much infected by sneaking footpads, who knocked down pedestrians passing to and from London, and despoiled them of hats, wigs, silver buckles, and money,” the historical volume reports.

To make matters worse, the Pantheon Theatre was opened at the top of Exmouth Market and frequented by “small tradesmen, apprentices, dressmakers, servant-girls, and disreputable women.”

But the religiously zealous Countess of Huntingdon purchased the Pantheon and converted it into the Spa Fields Chapel in 1777. The area became more sedate after its 18th-century heyday.

The site remains a place of worship, now housing the High Anglican Church of the Holy Redeemer, built in 1887. 

That same decade, a street market sprang up which lasted a century, before closing down in the 1980s as the area hit its modern day nadir.

But with regeneration efforts from central and local government, new businesses were attracted to the street and in 2006 the Exmouth Market Traders Association decided to revive street stalls selling food at the top end.

The market now enjoys a friendly, stylish but unpretentious atmosphere which many hope won’t be ruined by its new found celebrity.

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