Shoreditch really does seem to have originally been the shore of a ditch, but no-one seems sure which ditch it was.
It may have been the Deepditch, one of the sources of the Walbrook, whose junction with the Thames was the site of the original Roman settlement of Londinium. It ran down what’s now Curtain Road. According to legend, the area’s name was originally “Shore’s Ditch”, after Jane Shore, a lover of the fifteenth-century Yorkist king Edward IV. Supposedly she died or was buried in a ditch, having been reduced to penury after Edward’s death by his famously wicked brother Richard III. But that account is fictional, and although Richard had Shore imprisoned for a time, she later remarried, lived pretty comfortably, and was buried at Hinxworth in Hertfordshire. In any case, Jane Shore died in 1527-odd, while the name Shoreditch was already in use by around 1148.
On the western edge of Shoreditch, Old Street Roundabout may no longer be a roundabout, but Old Street is genuinely old, probably at least Roman. Shoreditch High Street meanwhile (and Kingsland Road) is most definitely Roman, having been part of Ermine Street, the old Roman road to York. Where all these roads meet stands St Leonard’s Church, whose bells are of course famous for saying, “When I grow rich.” Perhaps there was once a Roman shrine here, and it seems there was also a spring, which fed the Deepditch and the Walbrook. At any rate, there was a church here by Anglo-Saxon times, although the present-day building dates back only to 1740.
If Shoreditch today – at any rate before the pandemic, and we hope after it too – is a major centre for nightlife and entertainment, that’s actually nothing new. In 1575, the City of London banned plays (partly as an anti-plague measure, but largely just from prudery), so theatres moved out beyond the City’s boundaries, and Shoreditch became a big centre for them. London’s two most important playhouses – The Theatre and The Curtain – flanked Hollywell Lane, just off Shoreditch High Street. Shakespeare regularly performed here, Romeo and Juliet premiered here, and St Leonard’s was “the actors’ church”.
In Victorian times, the City Road was well-known for its pubs and music halls. Working-class Londoners would often end up spending their money “Up and down the City Road, in and out the Eagle,” to the extent that they then had to pop (pawn) their weasel (coat) to pay for basic groceries like tuppenny rice and treacle. Meanwhile Hoxton, in Victorian times and even in the 1950s – long before it was famous for its fins – was a very poor neighbourhood, regarded by outsiders (no doubt unfairly) as squalid and not very reputable.
Shoreditch was at one time the end of the East London Line – now part of the London Overground, except that the old Shoreditch station has closed, and been replaced by Shoreditch High Street. And just as Hoxton station is not strictly in Hoxton (it’s on the wrong side of Kingsland Road), so neither the old nor the new Shoreditch stations are actually within the boundaries of the old metropolitan borough of Shoreditch (now part of Hackney), but are across the borough line in Bethnal Green (now part of Tower Hamlets).
Even when it was actually open, Shoreditch station operated only in peak hours, and on Sunday mornings for Brick Lane market. That northern end of Brick Lane also of course has – and serves 24/7 – the world’s best bagels, and any New Yorkers disputing that are simply wrong, although actually “bagel” is an Americanism: Jewish Londoners traditionally call them “beigels”, with a “buy” rather than a “bay”. This end of Brick Lane is also nowadays known for its street art, and there are even (when the pandemic situation allows) guided and online self-guided local street art tours.
Also just across the borough boundary in Tower Hamlets is the Boundary Estate, London’s first ever council estate, built around Arnold Circus. Before that, this was one of London’s most deprived slum areas, known as “the Old Nichol”. Novelist Arthur Morrison depicted it (in fictionalized form) in his 1896 novel A Child of the Jago. By the time the book came out, the Old Nichol had been demolished, but far from being rehoused in the new estate, its former residents were just booted out and replaced with people deemed to be more respectable.