A quick visit to the Ten Bells, Spitalfields

12 January 2012

The Ten Bells is right next to Christ Church in Spitalfields and directly opposite the entrance to the now trendy and bustling Spitalfields Market. There has been a pub on the corner of Fornier Street and Commercial Street since 1752, but the Ten Bells as we know it now has only been in existence since Victorian times, when it served the locals of Spitalfields and the porters and clientele of the market over the road.

The pub has an unsavoury reputation thanks to its connections to the Jack the Ripper case as two of the victims, Annie Chapman and Mary Jane Kelly are known to have drunk there, although obviously it is not known if Jack the Ripper himself was a customer.

The Ten Bells was briefly known as The Jack the Ripper between 1976 and 1988, but the brewery eventually forced into changing the name back to the original again after women’s groups, quite rightly, argued that a notorious murderer of women should not be commemorated by having pubs named after him.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the Ten Bells over the years. I still remember the very first time I went there: it was 2002 and I was going out with someone who lived in Wapping. It didn’t take me long to persuade him to walk with me up to Whitechapel at night so that I could poke around the murder sites and see Spitalfields for myself. He spent the entire evening worrying about being mugged or worse, but I was in love with the area from the first moment that I set foot in it. I knew that I would feel at home anyway, of course as my family came from there and I had always felt a deep link to the East End of London but I wasn’t prepared for quite how much I would love it.

I like to imagine my ancestors drinking there and the Truman’s sign never fails to make me smile as my great grandfather was a manager at their Brick Lane brewery in the last century. While HIS grandfather was a H Division police sergeant living in the Whitechapel police station during the Ripper investigation in 1888.

The first time we went to the Ten Bells, by now a thriving, dimly lit and hipster cool bar filled with a curious mix of cool young things and awkward looking tourists in anoraks, I found it unbearable though – the music, chatter and laughter were all too loud and I found myself needing to leave almost immediately, disappointed that it wasn’t at all how I expected it to be. To make matters worse, while we were standing by the door, I became convinced that I could feel someone put their hands on my waist, only to look around and realise that there was no one standing anywhere near me. Spooky!

And then to make matters even worse, my boyfriend then went a bit mad when we got back to his flat and claimed that voices in his head were telling him to hurt me. We didn’t last very long, as you can imagine. Actually, that’s not true as actually I almost ended up married to him, until merciful, blessed fate intervened.

After this, I made occasional forays into the Ten Bells but was always quickly forced out by the noise and hubbub and, I don’t know, a feeling of pervasive, intense gloom. I persevere though and on the last visit miraculously got a table at which to drink our gin. Even more miraculously, it was beside the window so we had an amazing view up and out at Christ Church looming over us. My companion told me that I looked somewhat wonderful with the flickering candlelight and gloomy looks up at the ominous white church, but I expect I just looked slightly crazed. It has that effect, you see. Or maybe it’s just the GIN.

I’ve noticed that the new owner has given it a face lift, which is probably much needed but I do miss the essential seediness. There’s a cool pop up restaurant in the top floor function room at the moment, the outside is freshly painted and, crikey, is that an awning as well? I have my own plans involving the Ten Bells, but I don’t want to jinx them by talking about them here…

The Ten Bells, 84 Commercial Street, Whitechapel, E1 6LY. One of the finest and most iconic pubs in London.