Old Shoreditch: sacred springs, Shakespeare and strip clubs

Shoreditch can seem little more than a jangle of schlocky bars, hipster barbers and bánh mì joints, but look past these more modern additions and there’s a wealth of fascinating history here.

Some things never change though: London, it seems, has always made Shoreditch its playground.

Roman remains

Take a trip to Village Underground on Holywell Lane, and you are standing on sacred soil – literally a holy well. The spring where the River Walbroke rose to run along what is now Curtain Road is thought to have been the site of a Roman shrine, and was later the location of a medieval Augustinian priory.

Playtime

As the years went by, this patch of land took on a distinctly less spiritual aspect. In 1572 the Lord Mayor outlawed the performance of plays within the City, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the plague, but also because theatre was seen as seditious. In the district of Holywell, playhouses sprang up among the brothels, slaughterhouses, bear-baiting pits and tanneries along the open sewer that the Walbroke had become.

Drama queens

The Curtain Theatre, built in 1577, was where Shakespeare’s Henry V and Romeo and Juliet were first performed. Alongside was The Theatre, a slightly earlier building whose timbers were used to create the original Globe; both sites were discovered and excavated in 2008. The street art for which Shoreditch is famous is nothing new: the theatres would have been abundantly scratched with drawings and slogans.

Entertainment alley 

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras the area was crammed with theatres and music halls – the National Standard Theatre, where Village Underground now stands, could hold 3400 punters and a horse ring. The theatre became a cinema in the 1920s, which was rebuilt and then flattened in the Blitz; in the latter half of the twentieth century many other theatres were adapted to house London’s densest concentration of strip clubs.