The Battle for Brick Lane: A History of Resistance

Talia Woodin shares how a grassroots campaign to save London’s multicultural epicentre from gentrification led her to discover her own family’s unlikely beginnings in the UK.

WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY Talia Woodin

As a teenager, growing up not too far from London, Brick Lane served as the ideal destination for a day out with friends. At a time when we were grown up enough to venture into the capitol without parental supervision, but still at the age in which our measly part-time job allowance could only afford us a scrunchy from one of the area’s renowned – but expensive – vintage shops, the term ‘gentrification’ meant nothing to me. The only vague cultural knowledge I had of the area was that my great-something-grandad had once owned a printing shop on Brick Lane. This remained the only association I had with the Spitalfields area until relatively recently, when coming across a grassroots campaign to save the infamous Truman Brewery from development led me to delve into my family history. And with this, I began to learn more about the great significance that Brick Lane holds for mine, and countless others, heritage – as well as for the cultural fabric of London. 

Rewind back to the late 19th Century, and the Borough of Tower Hamlets could be viewed as the ultimate refuge for peoples persecuted and displaced”. One of these said people was my passionately outspoken Polish Socialist Great-Great-Grandfather, who, after escaping from a Soviet Prison in Siberia, had emigrated to the UK with his wife, the divorced daughter of a Hasidic Rabbi, and her young family. Apart from this scandalous elopement, not much is known about their journey, arrival, and early years in the UK. But from the later writings of my Great-Grandfather – a young child in the early 20th Century – we know that the family had found residence and set up a small business on Brick Lane by the time of the First World War.

Over the next 70 years, through 3 generations and 2 wars, my family lived and worked on Brick Lane, amongst the ‘eb and flow’ of one of the most culturally diverse areas in London.

In a later book written by my Great-Grandfather –  which was self-published and printed in the original Gutenberg manner – he recalls his Brick Lane childhood. He speaks of the camaraderie” shown by the vast range of people that, like his own Jewish family, had sought refuge in the area and whom “never failed to impress with the manner and speed in which [they] adapted to their new surroundings no matter their original environment”. When exploring Brick Lane and the surrounding area, even now, it’s impossible to miss the impact of this time period and the resulting cultural significance for not only London, but the whole country.

Niaz, the manager of City of Spice restaurant, which now occupies the building where my family once lived and worked on Brick Lane, poses for a photo inside the restaurant. When I took his photo he told me that his family had also lived and worked on Brick Lane for decades, most likely overlapping with my own family.

When exploring Brick Lane and the surrounding area, even now, it’s impossible to miss the impact of this time period and the resulting cultural significance for not only London, but the whole country.

It was my own background in grassroots campaigning (one could say it has always run in the family) that led me to stumble across the campaign to save the Truman Brewery from development – and ultimately my extensive personal connection to the area. Having spent the past 2 years working full-time within various different social and environmental justice campaigns, resisting the exploitative pursuits of development projects of every scale, this cause moved me almost immediately. Within a few minutes of reading about the proposal to transform the historic building – which had sheltered my own family members and their community from air raids during both the first and second World Wars – into a shopping mall and corporate office space, I had sent an email to the relevant council planning committee expressing my opposition to the development. I also reached out to Nijjormanush, a collective of Bengalis and Bangladeshis in the UK, who were spearheading the campaign.

Through Nijjormanush, I connected with Hajera Begum, a founding member of the group, who was born and raised in the area surrounding Brick Lane. Recalling the beginnings of Nijjormanush – which started from a group of friends realising the gap in activist, educational, and organising groups within Bangladeshi and Bengali diasporic communities in the UK, especially given how active the previous generation had been – she told me of the overwhelming response they’d received even in the early days of their ‘Save Brick Lane’ campaign. With over 7000 people writing in to Tower Hamlets Council to express their objection to the development, including people from outside of the area, the importance of Brick Lane for so many was made abundantly clear.

Hajera Begum from Nijjormanush poses on Brick Lane outside the Truman Brewery.

The Spitalfields area is not new to the grips of gentrification, and development in the area has already caused many changes over the years. According to Hajera: The divide, once you go past Truman Brewery, is very different. You’ve still got all the restaurants, but before there was a lot more variety – Saree shops, VHS shops with Bollywood films and cassettes”. Now, what was once the multicultural epicentre of East London, cultivated over generations by the migration of peoples from numerous regions internationally – “families coming over here and building roots”, according to Begum – the area is slowly giving over to the more “high end” and profit-driven establishments.

It’s the city growing in, based on what will bring in money, rather than what the community needs. 

Hajera Begum, Nijjormanush

Reading my Great-Grandfather’s writings, it’s clear that the urban, cultural menagerie of Brick Lane was something before its time. Take the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, for example – a building erected by the Huguenots in the 18th Century, which was then used as a religious centre for Jewish refugees, including my own ancestors, when there was an influx of them from Russia in the late 19th Century. Now it is used by the local Muslim community. Having served its purpose for multiple groups over the centuries, the building’s own “development” has occurred naturally to fit with the needs of those using it – without the need for corporate investment or gentrification. Despite the ever-increasing exploits of said institutions, Brick Lane has maintained a strong spirit of resistance, with the tagline ‘Save Brick Lane’ having been used in various cases previous to the campaign against the Truman Brewery development.

During a more recent visit to the area – now with more of an understanding of its significant and complex history and presence – I was able to truly acknowledge the importance of fighting for communities such as this. In our current post-Covid, hyper-capitalist world, it’s these local economies, democracies, and communities that will sustain us. Even without my own family’s contribution to the building of these in the Spitalfields area through the years, I can see the necessity of it for us all.

Despite the ever-increasing exploits of said institutions, Brick Lane has maintained a strong spirit of resistance, with the tagline ‘Save Brick Lane’ having been used in various cases previous to the campaign against the Truman Brewery development.

With juice bars neighbouring family businesses, and nestled between corporate office spaces – the latest of which being the Truman Brewery development – one might worry that Brick Lane, as it has so long been known, is coming to an end. But its spirit still remains intact, carried forth by individuals like Hajera and groups such as Nijjormanush. Just as the family-owned beigel shop, where my Great-Grandfather bought salt beef sandwiches over one hundred years ago, has survived all this time, it seems that so will this community’s resistance. Even in the face of the local council recently approving the Truman development.

Jade and her co-workers at Brick Lane’s infamous beigel shop, the same one that served my family over 100 years ago, pose for a photo in the shop. Jade told me that the current owner of the shop is the descendant of the family that set it up in the 19th Century, so most likely the people that served beigels to my own family members.

Just because this has gone through, doesn’t mean the fight is over.

Hajera Begum, Nijjormanush

Brick Lane is in no way the only place facing the threat of gentrification, and development projects such as this are not a new feature in any context. With local communities and independent businesses up and down the country disappearing to make way for capitalism, camaraderie has become a survival tool for them. Uniting these struggles is the next focus, and connections between the Save Brick Lane Campaign and Save Latin Village have already been established. As well as this, Nijjormanush are seeking further legal support for their advocacy from London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. As Hajera put it so succinctly: “Just because this has gone through, doesn’t mean the fight is over.”

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