The site at Prescot Street has passed through a series of major phases of changes from the end of the 15th century to today. During this period, the city of London was transformed from a relatively compact Medieval city into the capital of a vast empire and an important European commercial centre. The huge expansion of London during these centuries swallowed up the Prescot Street site, utterly transforming it.

From Abbey to Farm

During the 16th century Reformation, the Abbey of St Clare and it’s lands were taken by the Crown. The farm land belonging to the Abbey became a privately owned farm. John Stow famously recalled visiting the farm in what would have been the second half of the 16th century in order to buy milk:

Near adjoining to this abbey, on the south side thereof, was some time a farm belonging to the said nunnery, at which farm I myself, in my youth, have fetched many a halfpennyworth of milk

He goes on to note that the land passed into private hands:

One Trolop, and afterwards Goodman, were farmers there, and had thirty or forty kine to the pail. Goodman’s son, being heir to his father’s purchase, let out the ground first for the grazing of horses, and then for garden plots, and lived like a gentleman thereby.

By 1678 the first building had commenced here, and Prescot Street [originally called Great Prescott Street] was constructed and named after its builder, one Mr Prescott. While digging the foundations vast quantities of Roman antiquities were recovered, including urns, some containing ashes of bones, and utensils such as knives and combs, and brass and silver coins. One particularly interesting artefact was an unusual copper urn, enamelled in red, blue and yellow colours. Other artefacts found included medieval tiles, probably from the convent building.

Tenter Ground

There are several documentary sources to suggest that quite early on in the post medieval period, perhaps in the 17th century, Goodman’s Fields were at least used in part as a tenter ground – a space used by silk makers to stretch cloth on frames with ‘tenter hooks’. These are open spaces in which cloth would be stretched out after washing, dying or fulling in order to allow it to dry without shrinking. This silk industry was an important and prosperous part of the history of the site, attracting business and plenty of money to the area.

First Development

Prescot Street ran along the southern edge of Goodman’s Fields, while to the north the rest of the site was occupied by Tenter Ground. Prescot Street, Alie Street, Leman Street and Mansell Street were laid out in around 1690. The area was developed for high class housing. The houses fronted onto the main streets and had large gardens at the rear. At the centre of the development was a square garden that was called “The Tenter Ground” although we can be pretty sure that this was not a working tenter ground at this time. In 1720, Strype wrote that Goodman’s Fields was:

no longer fields and gardens, but buildings of many fair streets

The houses would have been for wealthy merchants and a taxation document from the 1690’s demonstrate that no fewer than 6 ‘Captains’ resided in Mansell Street. We can therefore assume a connection with London’s growing merchant classes. In 1703, the New Well theatre opened in Goodman’s Fields, and a later theatre was constructed in 1729, popular with city dwellers. A theatre critic, Grey wrote:

There are a dozen Dukes a night at Goodman’s Fields sometimes

Throughout the eighteenth century, the area became a predominantly Sephardic Jewish area. The site north of Prescot Street became occupied by factories, warehouses, shops and other premises. In 1761 the historian Dodsley wrote that Goodman’s Fields was now

four handsome streets inhabited by merchants and affluent people

One indication of the sheer energy of the area is in the Old Bailey records, where in 1753 one Thomas Pearson, ‘throwster’, employed 800 workers on this site

Victorian Density

In the 19th century, as London expanded, the Prescot Street area was profoundly changed. The construction of the docks meant that large tracts of the East End became much more commercial in character. The rich merchants moved away and their houses were replaced by railways, goods yards and warehouses. Where the Georgian houses of the old Goodman’s Fields had large gardens backing onto a landscaped park, in the 19th century rows of back to back houses were constructed and the remains of the open space were built over with a mix of commercial and residential property. During this period, there is excellent documentary evidence for the residents of the site from census records and Kelly’s Directory, which show a mixed population of immigrants from rural England, Ireland and Ashkenazi Jewish emigrees from Eastern Europe.

Kelly’s directory for 1842 gives a snapshot of the area. Prescot Street was then occupied exclusively by small businesses: several academies, a professor of Hebrew, gunmakers including James Holland & Son, a blacking manufacturer, a cigar merchant, and the Sailors’ Female Orphans Home, a wholesale jeweller, watchmaker, tea-dealer, a surgeon and a Russia merchant.

Kelly’s directory for 1862 shows that the variety of businesses here continued, including clothing makers, embroiderers, metal workers and wholesale druggists. To the north in Tenter Street South were several more gunmakers, including James Holland & Son and Sherwood & Frith, along with the Passover Bread Association, milliners, a music teacher and printers.

These thriving, bustling businesses continued uninterrupted on the site. By the 1930s some more modern-sounding businesses here included a photographic enlarger, the International Bottle Company and the Orange Crush Co [London] Ltd.

The Blitz

The bustling area met with a tragic end. The Prescot Street site was struck by at least 1 bomb during the Blitz in 1941, destroying all but a handful of buildings in the street. Due to a lack of manpower and materials, rebuilding did not take place after the war, and the majority of the remaining bomb-damaged buildings were demolished. Photos from the 1980’s show a few surviving buildings. The remainder of the Prescot Street site was cleared, backfilled and used as a car park. For archaeologists, this was great news as it meant that most of the archaeology was well preserved.