20th May 2012 1:33pm | By Editor
Amid a sea of hipsters clad in their strict uniform of preppy shirts, super-skinny jeans and brogues without socks, I immediately spot my Unseen Tours guide.
Liz. Petite, with flawless skin, a delicate bone structure and wide, almond-shaped eyes, her sartorial choices are made with practicality in mind. Her slim frame is hidden underneath layers of baggy clothes and there’s not a hint of makeup on her pale face. As Liz, a guide with Unseen Tours, has spent a large part of her life living on the streets, I expect if anyone can teach me about the secrets of east London, it’s her.
With an ethos to help homeless people, the Unseen Tours initiative aims to “show London’s historical and cultural quirks in an unusual and entertaining way“. The tours are not of the homeless, but with them.
Our group meets in Hoxton Square for a one-and-a-half-hour tour through Hoxton, Shoreditch and Brick Lane, finishing at Spitalfields Market. As we wander, Liz demonstrates a comprehensive knowledge of the area, interspersing historical facts with anecdotes about life on the street. We pass the Boundary Estate, one of the first social housing developments in Europe set up in 1900, and she points out a building next to a church where she used to squat before the vicar rather uncharitably insisted she and her companions relocate.
Although she is remarkably open about everyday life on the street, Liz is reluctant to go into detail about the specific turns of events that led to her homelessness. But she does reveal that, “making the most detrimental life choices” alienated her from her support networks and consequently left her with nowhere to turn. The daughter of a teacher and a lay rabbi, she says: “I come from a nice background. Sometimes I feel like I’m just undercover here.”
She’s not, though; she’s living proof that a comfortable upbringing is no guarantee of security later in life and that homelessness really can happen to anyone.
A history lesson
As we get to The Ten Bells pub on the corner of Commercial and Fournier streets, which was patronised in the 1880s by victims of Jack The Ripper, Liz, 30, explains it’s possible he targeted this area because the female boarding house nearby, filled with poorer, more vulnerable women, made for easy prey.
She also tells us that although Spitalfields today is bursting with trendy bars and shops, in years gone by it played a key role in some of the most significant political movements in Britain. On Hanbury Street, she stops outside Christ Church Hall, where Charles Dickens used to give public readings of his works in at a time when most of Britain was illiterate, inspiring reading groups, opening up the possibility of literacy and education to the masses for the first time.
The building saw the birth of the Suffragette movement, and was used by the Matchstick Girls to hold strike meetings, which led to the establishment of the trade unions.
Then, when we reach St Leonard’s Church, Liz bursts into an impromptu version of the children’s nursery rhyme Oranges And Lemons, depicting a conversation between the bells of several City churches. In the song, the Old Bailey’s demands to know, “When will you pay me?” to which the bells of Shoreditch reply, “When I grow rich”. People on the tour are very excited to discover this is one of the churches to feature in the song they spent many a breaktime chanting along to in the playground.