Exploring the Liberty of Norton Folgate

A walking tour of the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Spitalfields, East London.

Located on the border between the City of London and the Borough of Tower Hamlets, this ancient area has a rich history dating back to Roman times.

What better reason for a walk than a title of a Madness album. This walk was suggested by one of the brilliant people over at Mad Chat, and filmed in July 2021. A liberty was a medieval unit of administration where the king had no rights and they were passed to the local lord. Located just beyond the walls of the Roman City, Norton Folgate sits beside the ancient Ermine Street. It’s said to originate land occupied by ‘the inner precinct of the Priory and Hospital of St Mary Spital’.

“Here are the worst paid jobs in the most overcrowded homes in London. Half a mile away from Brick Lane is the ancient boundary of the city of London, heart of Europe’s financial institutions. For 400 years the two have faced each other, first across the real walls of the city, and now across an imaginary line on a map which is no less formidable. The silk weavers avoided the restrictions of the City Guilds by living outside its gates – Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Folgate are still the boundaries today. Spitalfields has been described as London’s first industrial suburb. But now the city is moving outwards. It wants the land of the outcasts for itself.”  Spitalfields a battle for land by Charlie Foreman (1989).

Spitalfields in East London

Our walk begins at Liverpool Street Station, where we cross Bishopsgate and take a look at the Bishopsgate Institute, a cultural hub known for its lectures, exhibitions, and library. From here, we head down Brushfield Street to Spitalfields Market, established in 1682. Next, we admire the grand Christ Church Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and completed in 1729. This impressive building is a testament to the creativity and skill of Hawksmoor. We head to the Ten Bells pub with its associations with Jack the Ripper and continue on to Fournier Street, Wilkes Street, and Princelet Street, where we see some of the most beautiful and historic houses in the Liberty of Norton Folgate. These streets are technically outside the Liberty but can’t be excluded from a stroll around the area. Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) wrote that in his childhood (1660s) the ‘lanes were deep, dirty and unfrequented, the part now called Spitalfields Market was a field of grass with cows feeding on it’. Brick Lane was a deep dirty road carry brick carts from the Whitechapel brick fields.

Norton Folgate, Spitalfields in East London
Georgian house in Spitalfields East London

Recrossing Commercial Street we go into Folgate Street. Ed Gilnert says these are the best preserved Georgian houses in Spitalfields, Dennis Sever’s House is at no.18. Elder Street was centre of the 1970s campaign to save Georgian Spitalfields from plans to demolish the historic houses in the area as incredible as that sounds today. Our walking tour recrosses Norton Folgate visiting Worship Street and ending in Clifton Street.