2c to 4a Commercial Street

1860s shops with offices over, built for T. Venables & Sons, draper and furnisher

Essex Street and Catherine Wheel Alley
Contributed by Survey of London on Dec. 12, 2018

Commercial Street roughly follows the line of Catherine Wheel Alley which ran between Whitechapel High Street and Wentworth Street. Catherine (sometime ‘Katherine’ before the eighteenth century) Wheel Alley took its name from the Catherine Wheel Inn on or near Wentworth Street, and formed a boundary between two landholdings which had probably formed parts of the Trentemars estate from the thirteenth century: the Woodlands estate to the west, held by William Meggs from the 1570s, and a part of the Bernes estate to the east, held by various members of the Cornwalyes or Cornwallis family in the fifteenth century, but fragmented by the sixteenth.[1^] Catherine Wheel Alley was built up in the later sixteenth century. A number of substantial houses were there by the mid seventeenth century, especially on either side of the central portion.

A large part of the east side of the alley, including property in Wentworth Street, was held in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by members of the Garrad family, beginning with Sir Jacob Garrad (c. 1586−1666), the son of Thomas Garrad, saddler and Sheriff of the City of London (d. 1632), and created baronet of Langford in 1662. Sir Jacob, also a City alderman, amassed a fortune as a linen draper and East India Company adventurer, importing calicoes from India in the 1640s and 50s. As well as his Whitechapel property, he left substantial property in London, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and notably Ireland, a result of investments in the repression of the Irish rebellions of 1641−2, which yielded land for loans.2 The Whitechapel properties passed through his son Thomas (who adopted the spelling Garrard), second baronet, and great-granddaughter Sarah Downing to her son Sir Jacob Garrard Downing (c.1717−64), who disposed of them in the 1750s.3

The long plots running east and west from the central portion of the alley were occupied in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries principally by those involved in the silk trades – weavers and, especially, throwers. Some plots included substantial houses, such that of John Fromanteel (c.1586−1665), previously in the Minories, and his son Mordecai (1642-98), and his heirs, held of the Garrads on the east side (the southern half of the site of Toynbee Hall) from 1656 to 1707.4 With eight hearths in the 1660s and 70s it was almost certainly the large, supposedly Elizabethan, house (reputedly a residence of the Earl of Essex) described just before its demolition for the creation of Commercial Street in 1844, as ‘at the rear of the houses forming that street. It is three stories high. The attic windows are latticed, and the rooms on the first and second floors are 14 feet square. There is a part of the spacious staircase remaining, and the joists and girders are in as good preservation as when originally placed in the brickwork’.5 By the time of John Fromanteel’s death in 1665 the site contained this large house, with warehouse and garden, another smaller house adjoining fronting Catherine Wheel Alley, in the occupation of his daughter Mary and her silk-thrower husband, John Lakins, and two smaller houses, probably those to the north evident on Ogilby and Morgan’s map of 1676. At the time that Mordecai Fromanteel’s nephew John leased the house to Roger Smith in 1701, the house boasted twelve rooms including a Great Room ‘wainscoted all over’ with paintings above the chimney piece and doors, a Great Parlour and Drawing Room similarly fitted, a ‘Blew Room’, ‘hung with blew (fabric)’, the ‘staires case lined brest high from the top to the bottome’, a summer house, two warehouses, a counting house, a shop, a back yard with chicken coops and horse pond, and a garden with four stone pedestals, a sundial and a fountain.6

The Fromanteels’ house was unusual both in its size and in surviving till the 1840s. While other large buildings appear on the west side of the 1676 map, hearth tax returns suggest most of these were largely commercial rather than domestic, most likely sheds for silk-throwers who, until mechanisation of the trade, required long spaces for their work. The accompanying houses were less grand than Fromanteel’s, many with only three or four hearths in the 1660s and 1670s.

Mechanisation and the shift to larger throwing enterprises outside London from the early eighteenth century both hit the small throwers in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and reduced the need for large spaces. It thereby led to the development of these sites as alleys and courts of small houses.7 The first to be so developed was Sugar Loaf Alley or Court, on the east side near the High Street, already a long narrow court of fourteen houses by the 1670s. In the early eighteenth century these were held by Richard Arters ‘clothworker and Citizen of London’ (d. 1736). In 1719 and 1730 he was also advertising plots of land on the west side with an 80ft frontage to the alley and more than 100ft deep, each to be let on building leases, ‘whereon are now some old tenements and other buildings’. These were developed as Martin Street, and New Martin Street, connected courts of small houses of two and three rooms, known later all as Martin or Martin’s Court.8

By the mid eighteenth century, there were four courts or alleys on the west side – from south to north: Rose and Crown Court, present by the late seventeenth century and historically an extension of Nag’s Head Yard, Martin’s Court and Moor’s Court. On the east side, from the north, were George’s Buildings, later Griggs Court, Catherine Wheel Court (a small square of fourteen houses entered from the southwest corner), and Sugar Loaf Alley.9

Though it lacked the presence and exposure offered by the High Street, Catherine Wheel Alley, as a much-used cut-through to Spitalfields, developed a character of a secondary shopping street, with the usual small grocers and bakers, and a number of long-standing hostelries, mostly on the west side. One of the earliest was Bland’s Coffee House, documented between 1695 and 1730.10

The Catherine Wheel itself originally seems to have stood near the north end, though by the time of its demolition, when the licensee was Christian Sohnge, furrier, it was at the south end of the west side.11 A few doors to the north, flanking the entrance to the extensive Rose and Crown Court, was the Rose and Crown, present by 1730.12 By the time of its sale for the building of Commercial Street, it was owned by James and Charles Goding of the Lion Brewery in Lambeth.13

The Throwster’s Arms was at the corner of Martin Street, in the middle of the west side by 1787 and remained till demolition for Commercial Street.14 During the tenure of the licensee Edward Dyke (d. 1835) and his widow, Jane, the pub was used regularly for inquests and, appropriately perhaps, in 1833 the Friendly Burial Society was founded there.15

In the second half of the eighteenth century the area around Catherine Wheel Alley grew ever denser, both with housing and industry. Essex Court, north of Moor’s Court was created on the west side, and, adjoining Catherine Wheel Court on its east side, the optimistically titled Land of Promise.16 The name Essex Street began to be used for Catherine Wheel Alley from the 1790s, exclusively so by c.1805, and by 1820 most of its west side was held freehold or on lease granted by James Livermore (d. 1801), a Tottenham Court Road draper, and his heirs, and by John Elger (1757−1821), who had built Elger Square and Elger Place, near the north end of the Street.17

The final developments in Catherine Wheel Alley were Chapel Court and Cobley’s Court, two at the north end of the east side reached by narrow adjoining alleys. Chapel Court possibly records the presence from c.1718 in Catherine Wheel Alley of a meeting house used by General Baptists previously part of a congregation in Dunning’s Alley, Bishopsgate, though it was out of use by 1729.18 Cobley’s Court, eleven mean houses adjoining it to the south, was created in the 1830s by Thomas Cobley, carman, leaseholder of Fromanteel’s house at the time of its demolition, possibly in anticipation of compensation that might be forthcoming from the Commissioners for the new street.19

As more housing was built, the remaining pockets of unbuilt land and some of the most egregious housing were replaced by industry and commerce. The Land of Promise was rebuilt in 1786-7 as a warehouse, wine vaults and yard by William Quarrill (1721-98), a JP and colourman with premises at 37 Whitechapel High Street, who had leased the adjoining plot to the north, south of Fromanteel’s house, in 1776. 20

Along with one or two other properties at the south end of Essex Street, Quarrill’s yard survived the creation of Commercial Street becoming by 1844 the John Bull brewery yard, the brewery, in Quarrill’s wine vaults at the rear of the yard, run until the 1870s by Frederick and George Bye, with bacon stoves elsewhere in the yard.21 The brewery yard was finally demolished c.1899 for the building of Commercial Street schools.

Fromanteel’s house and yard had been taken by Benjamin and John Titford, dealers in hay, chips and sawdust, by 1802, succeeded in a similar line by William Turner (d. 1830), the premises leased after his death by Thomas Cobley, carman, until demolition in 1844.22

Catherine Wheel Alley and its courts became a byword for overcrowding, crime and general squalor during the century before Commercial Street swept it away. To take just three examples, a trial in the winter of 1792, of a lodging-house keeper accused of dragging a critically ill lodger (‘John Dollin, a black man’) into the street where he died, gives a flavour, with the deceased sharing the room with four other men and women, including a ‘girl of the town’.23  In 1829 three houses in Sugarloaf Court were condemned and sold off for their materials.24 In 1832 and 1833 two separate bands of coiners in courts of Essex Street were convicted for making counterfeit sixpences and shillings.25

By the early nineteenth century other markers of poverty were evident. William Waldegrave, MP for Bedford, who had campaigned among the poor of the East End to attend school reported on a visit to one house in a court off Essex Street where he found nine people ‘generally very dirty’ and ‘in a miserable condition’ occupying one small room, and reckoned that around 360 people lived in the court of thirty houses. The reluctance of the parents, a high proportion of whom were Irish, to send children to school he found was due to lack of clothing and that ‘the priests have such an effect upon their minds’ that they were reluctant to send children to Protestant schools.26 There were frequent outbreaks of disease in the crowded conditions, including typhus in 1817.27


  1. ‘Stepney: Manors and Estates’, in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green, ed. T. F. T. Baker, London, 1998, pp. 19-52: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), P/SLC/1/17/8: The National Archives (TNA), PROB 11/30/155 

  2. TNA, PROB 11/162/728; PROB 11/322/210: Ethel Bruce Sainsbury, The Court Minutes, etc, of the East India Company, 1640-43, Oxford 1909, pp. 262, 331, 353: Ethel Bruce Sainsbury, The Court Minutes, etc, of the East India Company, 1644-49, Oxford 1912, pp. 32, 99, 113, 153, 210, 223, 276, 332: Ethel Bruce Sainsbury, The Court Minutes, etc, of the East India Company, 1650-54, Oxford 1913, pp. 49, 83, 84, 111, 177, 182, 241, 251, 328: Ethel Bruce Sainsbury, The Court Minutes, etc, of the East India Company, 1655-59, Oxford 1916 p. 37: Karl S. Bottigheimer, ‘English money and Irish land: the “Adventurers” in the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland’, Journal of British Studies, 7/1 (Nov 1967), pp. 12-27: R.P. Mahaffy, ed., Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Ireland… 1647-1660, London 1903, pp. 449, 453, 461: Robert Brenner, ‘The Civil War politics of London’s merchant community’, Past and Present, 58 (Feb 1973), pp. 53-107 

  3. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), ACC/0311/096 

  4. East Sussex Record Office, FRE/659: Londonroll.org: Ancestry: TNA, PROB 11/448/358 

  5. Evening Mail, 14 Aug 1844, p. 7: Hearth Tax: Middlesex 1666, Whitechapel, Whitechapel hamlet (1 of 3): TNA, E179/143/370, rot.32v 

  6. East Sussex Record Office, FRE/659 

  7. Post Man and the Historical Account, 19 to 22 July 1707: Daily Courant, 29 Jan 1712; 14 Sept 1714: Public Advertiser, 2 June 1761 

  8. Daily Courant, 27 May 27: Daily Journal, 20 March 1730 

  9. Rocque map of London, 1746: Land Tax returns (LT) 

  10. London Gazette, 11 to 14 Nov 1695: Daily Journal, 20 March 1730: John Ashton, Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne, London 1882, p. 262 

  11. Post Ooffice Directories (POD): LT: Twenty Third Report of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Etc, London 1846, p. 64: Census. 

  12. LMA, MR/LV/05/026: LT] 

  13. POD: _Twenty Third Report of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Etc, _London 1846, p. 67 

  14. POD: LT: LMA, CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/343/528007 

  15. Parliamentary Papers (PP) 1837, vol 51, p. 16: TNA, PROB 11/1856/141: John Bull, 28 Feb 1822, p. 8: Globe, 29 Aug 1834, p. 4: Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 10 Dec 1842, p. 5 

  16. LT 

  17. TNA, PROB 11/1357/118; PROB 11/1643/5: LT: Morning Chronicle, 15 Sept, p. 4: Twenty Third Report of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Etc, London 1846, p. 65 

  18. W.T. Whitley, ed., Minutes of the General Assembly of the General Baptist Churches in England, vol. 1: 1654-1728, London 1909, pp. lii, 133, 134, 138, 145 

  19. Twenty Third Report of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Etc, London 1846, p. 65: LT 

  20. LMA Acc/0311/096: LT: POD: Monthly Magazine and British Register, March 1798, p. 236: Ancestry: TNA, PROB 11/1305/234 

  21. Census: Goad insurance plans: Ancestry: Morning Advertiser, 23 April 1844 p. 1: LT 

  22. LT: Twenty Third Report of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Etc, London 1846, p. 65 

  23. London Chronicle, 7-10 Dec 1792 

  24. Morning Advertiser, 14 July 1829, p. 4 

  25. Morning Post, 7 Sept 1833, p. 4 

  26. The Philanthropist, 1816, pp 260-1 

  27. The British Review, 12, 1818, p. 412 

Rear of 2c-4a Commercial Street
Contributed by Shahed Saleem

2C and 4A Commercial Street from the northwest in 2018
Contributed by Derek Kendall

2 to 4A Commercial Street from the west in 2018
Contributed by Derek Kendall