Nantes Passage, E1

Courtyard in/near Spitalfields, existed between the 1700s and 2003

MAP YEAR:1750180018301860190019502020Fullscreen map
Courtyard · Spitalfields · E1 ·

Nantes Passage (also Church Passage) was built for Huguenot weavers.

Since the late 15th century many of the houses situated around the area of Spital Fields had been occupied by Flemish protestant weavers. They had built up a reputation for fine quality products and a century later the number of workers in the trade had increased. An order proclaimed by the French authorities in 1598 – the Edict of Nantes – gave religious freedom to French protestants, known as Huguenots. Its revocation in 1688 caused thousands of refugee Huguenot silk weavers to leave France and set up their workshops near to the Spital Fields.

By the early 1700s the number of weavers employed was over 30,000 and it is estimated that there were some 15,000 looms in operation. The weavers adopted as their spokesman and campaigner, a local landowner by the name of George Wheler. Having recently returned from France, he understood the lives of the Huguenots, showed sympathy to their needs and built them a small chapel on the site of this Passage. It was the first of twelve places of worship built over the following years for the sole use of the silk weavers.

As fashions changed and cheap imitations were imported from the Continent the prosperity of Spitalfields went into decline, forcing workers and their families to move to cheaper housing. Further gloom hung over their heads as technical advances lead to automation in the weaving industry, spelling out very clearly the numbered days of the handloom. Steadily the French population decreased. One by one the chapels were sold off or demolished and by the beginning of the 19th century there were over 40,000 silk weavers without any form of work. The last of the chapels, on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane was taken over by the Wesleyan congregation, and in 1899 it was modified as a synagogue to serve the increasing Jewish community.

Alas Nantes Passage is no more in its original form. Spitalfields Market has moved to another site and the area redeveloped.

Citation information: The alleyways and courtyards of London: N – The Undergroun
Further citations and sources




Spitalfields is near to Liverpool Street station and Brick Lane.

The area straddles Commercial Street and is home to several markets, including the historic Old Spitalfields Market, and various Brick Lane Markets on Brick Lane and Cheshire Street. Petticoat Lane Market lies on the area's south-western boundaries.

The name Spitalfields appears in the form Spittellond in 1399; as The spitel Fyeld on the 16th-century Civitas Londinium map associated with Ralph Agas. The land belonged to St Mary Spital, a priory or hospital erected on the east side of the Bishopsgate thoroughfare in 1197, and the name is thought to derive from this. An alternative, and possibly earlier, name for the area was Lolsworth.

After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Spitalfields was inhabited by prosperous French Huguenot silk weavers. In the early 19th century their descendants were reduced to a deplorable condition due to the competition of the Manchester textile factories and the area began to deteriorate into crime-infested slums. The spacious and handsome Huguenot houses were divided up into tiny dwellings which were rented by poor families of labourers, who sought employment in the nearby docks.

The area has recently attracted a IT-literate younger population.
Print-friendly version of this page