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History of Petticoat Lane

In Tudor times, Middlesex Street was known as Hogs Lane, a pleasant lane lined by hedgerows and elms.  It is thought city bakers were allowed to keep pigs in the lane, outside the city wall or possibly that it was an ancient droving trail.  The lane's rural nature changed, and by 1590, country cottages stood by the city walls.  By 1608, it had become a commercial district where second-hand clothes and bric-a-brac were sold and exchanged, known as 'Peticote Lane.'  This was also where the Spanish Ambassador has his house, and the area attracted many Spaniards from the reign of James I.  Peticote Lane was devastated in the Great Plague of 1665, the rich fled, and London lost a fifth of its population.

Hugeonots fleeing persecution arrived in numbers in the late 17th century, many settled in the area, and the master weavers settled in the town of Spitalfields. The area already had an association with clothing, with dyeing taking place and the cloth being pegged out on hooks in the surrounding fields.  These were known as tentergrounds.

From the mid-18th century, Petticoat Lane became a center for manufacturing clothes, and the market served the well-to-do in the City, selling new garments.  About 1830, Peticote Lane's name changed again to Middlesex Street.  This was to record the boundary between Portsoken Ward, in the City of London, and Whitechapel, which coincided with the Lane.  However, the name continues to be associated with the area.

A further wave of immigrants, this time Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, settled in the area from 1882. The chapels that had previously served the Hugueonot community now became synagogues; and due to the grinding proverty in the area, many Jewish relief societies were founded.  Jewish immigrants entered the local garment industry and maintained the traditions of the market.  The severe damage experienced throughout the East End during World War II, served to disperse the Jewish communities to new areas, and the area around Middlesex Street suffered a decline.  The market, however, continued to prosper, and a new wave of Asian immigration beginning in the 1970s restored the area's vitality - centered on nearly Brick Lane.

The market was always unpopular with the authorities, being largely unregulated and in some senses, illegal. As recently as the 1930s, police cars and fire engines were driven down The Lane, with alarms bells ringing, to disrupt the market.  The rights of the market were only finally protected by Act of Parliament in 1936.

As late as the 1990s, if Christmas fell on a Sunday, many of the local Jewish traders would assert their right to open on a Sunday.  The market remains busy and vibrant, reflecting both its immigrant history and its continuing popularity with locals and tourists.

'The Lane' was always renowned for the 'patter' (Cockney rhyming slang) and showmanship of the market traders.  Some, selling crockery, would pile an entire setting onto a large plate, and then sent the lot high into the air, catching the construction on its way down.  This was to demonstrate the skill of the vendor, and the robustness of the porcelain.

You can find a lot more information on Cockney Rhyming Slang on the web.

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