Whitecross Street is believed to be a mediaeval street which originally ran north from the mediaeval city gate of Cripplegate. (Cripplegate, by the way doesn’t have anything to do with cripples. In Middle English the name was ‘Crepul Gate’ meaning ‘the gate for creeping through’ – a gate known for its low headroom.)
‘White Cross’ is referred to as far back as the 13th century (in the form of ‘La White Crutcher’). There is reference to a stream from Smithfield which had a stone arch built over it at the White Cross. It seems from mediaeval records that a wayside cross had been erected, and that it was either painted white or made from white stone. (This cross has long since been lost to time.) Since the cross was the most memorable feature of the road for travellers it eventually gave Whitecross Street its name.
Whitecross Street doesn’t feature very strongly in the centuries that followed. In the early 15th century King Henry V founded the Brotherhood of St Giles for the relief of the poor in and constructed for it what was described as a ‘fair house in Whitecross Street’. That is one of the very few references to Whitecross Street in that period.
It is known that houses with landscaped gardens at the rear lined Whitecross Street in Shakespeare’s day. And the famous Fortune Theatre was built on Whitecross Street in 1600. A record of the Court of Sessions in 1613 in the reign of James I records the imprisonment of Joseph Skeffington of Whitecross Street for burying ‘a bastard child’ in the yard, and also Mary Pilkington of Whitecross Street for having the bastard child in the first place.
Nothing much is known about Whitecross Street in the 18th century. In 1806 Whitecross Street was described by one writer as ‘noble wide and well built, inhabited by persons of property’ (as estate agents would surely still describe it today). But by the mid-19th-century industrialisation and the general movement of the wealthier people to suburbs of London led to a steep decline of the Whitecross Street area and by 1880 Whitecross Street was classed as a slum.
Whitecross Street Prison was built on the corner of Whitecross Street and Fore Street in 1813. It was a prison for debtors. (The blue plaque recording its existence is to be found on the Whitecross Street face of the corner of a Peabody building close to Waitrose.) The prison was closed in 1870 and replaced by a railway terminus for goods and a booking office in 1876-7 by the Midland Railway company.
By the 1880s, the slums in Whitecross Street were being cleared, and in 1883 George Peabody built two housing estates on either side of Whitecross Street to provide housing for the poor (but not the destitute – the tenants were expected to pay rent).
Whitecross Street once ran all the way from Old Street to Fore Street in the City and was lined by Victorian shop buildings and Peabody blocks. Dramatic changes were made to the Whitecross Street area by German bombing during the Second World War. Most of the buildings on the west side of Whitecross Street were destroyed, including most of the Peabody estate on that side of Whitecross Street. The railway terminus at the southern end of Whitecross Street which had replaced Whitecross Street prison was also destroyed. The part of the old Whitecross Street from Chiswell Street to Fore Street later disappeared forever under the Barbican estate.
After the War, the whole area around Whitecross Street was substantially rebuilt. To the west and south of Whitecross Street, the Golden Lane and Barbican Estates appeared during the 1960s and 1970s. The supermarket precinct with Cooper House on top near the southern end of today’s Whitecross Street was built in the 1970s, as was Coltash Court at the Old Street end of Whitecross Street, and the schools at the Barbican end. Many of the destroyed Peabody blocks on the west side of Whitecross Street were replaced by new ones. The remaining bomb crater to the west of on the west side of Whitecross Street was converted into the Fortune Street Park. Many of the original Victorian houses and shops continue to survive on the west side of Whitecross Street.
The first public house on the site of the present Whitecross Tap was the Spread Eagle which opened in 1789. It must have been damaged during the War because its owners, Watney’s brewing company, rebuilt it in the 1940s. Over the years it has had many names – the Spread Eagle , the Eagle and Stump, Molly Bloom’s, which became the Trader in 1999, and finally the Whitecross Tap in 2018. With all these attempts, you would think someone could come up with something a little more inspired than the Whitecross ‘Tap’.
Islington Council has designated Whitecross Street as a ‘local shopping parade’. This means that Whitecross Street is an area where the council will seek to maintain and promote local retail uses. The council recognises the benefit of keeping groups of local shops in Whitecross Street because it means many services are available to all local residents within reasonable walking distance; that a grouping of shops is more beneficial than a scatter of shops because people can do their shopping in one journey, which is particularly important for older people and parents with young children; and shops derive mutual benefit from being grouped together.
Some of Whitecross Street and surrounding areas fall within the St Luke’s Conservation Area. A conservation area is ‘an area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance’. One of the policies for the conservation area is that Islington Council will protect the local shopping centre in Whitecross Street.
Whitecross Street market has existed in Whitecross Street for over 150 years. Whitecross Street market was originally a market selling household goods to local residents. The selling of food was generally confined to Thursdays and Fridays. Now Whitecross Street market operates on weekdays only and mainly for the lunch period.
Coltash Court is a residential block of flats at 152 Whitecross St. It stands 30 metres high, with 14 floors containing 65 flats. It was built in 1966 as part of the ‘Whitecross Street project’, an improvement initiative of the time.
In 2018, Islington Council commissioned Andrea Tyrimos, an artist, to create a work of art on Whitecross Street. (This was initiated by Curious Duke Gallery, now departed, but once an art gallery on the street.) Tyrimos was given some freedom to choose what to do. She decided to paint the two pillars which frame the entrance door to Coltash Court. Coltash Court had very plain white pillars. Tyrimos painted exotic plants on them, using old style oil paint and brushes. Apparently, these are intended to reference the tropical plants in the Barbican Conservatory in the Barbican estate on the other side of Chiswell Street.
Lockdown for Covid destroyed many businesses in Whitecross Street. Many shops shut forever. Entire sections of Whitecross Street are ‘for let. But the Whitecross Street market traders have slowly begun to come back. There are plenty of opportunities for businesses in Whitecross Street, so close to the City and the Barbican. The Whitecross Street area has suffered during the lockdown but it is surely poised for a rebound.
One unobtrusive neighbour has a particularly long and interesting past in Whitecross Street – A Holt & Sons. They occupy the somewhat anonymous refurbished building at 115 Whitecross Street near the Two Brewers. They have been in Whitecross Street longer than any one else, by a long mile. Their business is trading in cotton textiles. They began 160 years ago with a market stall on Whitecross Street. Then, in 1864, they moved to the building they occupy today. A few years ago they developed the back of the premises to create that fabulous penthouse with an entrance in Shrewsbury Court overlooking the Fortune Street Park.