The Black Eagle Brewery
Joseph Truman retired in 1730, leaving the business to his son, Benjamin and when Truman’s beer was handed out to the public during celebrations for the birth of the Duchess of Brunswick in 1737, it met with such approval that from then on Truman’s prospered. Benjamin was knighted by George III in 1760 and the brewery began to expand its premises, becoming the third largest in London. Thomas Buxton joined the company in 1808, as did Sampson Hanbury 27 years later and soon Truman, Hanbury and Buxton was the biggest brewing company in the world, even being name-dropped by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield. It is ironic that only Messrs Hanbury and Buxton had local streets named after them, though Ben Truman was appropriately commemorated with a beer bearing his name (Ben Truman’s, straightforward enough as a pint goes but not always kind to the palate or the guts).
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Black Eagle Brewery continued to expand with new extensions being added as late as 1977, but its end came very suddenly and this once mighty business ceased trading in 1988.
However, whereas other large East End breweries were largely demolished and are now home to modern superstores, the Black Eagle, after a brief period of disuse, was kept intact and swiftly became the home of artist’s studios and gallery spaces. There was a time when much of the area surrounding the brewery was quiet, but today it is a bustling, cosmopolitan area, swarming with trendy media types who frequent places like the Vibe Bar and 93 Feet East, venues that have been created within the structure of the old brewery buildings. Entering the Vibe is a little voyage of discovery, as you climb rickety steps and walk through a creaking passageway flanked with even creakier staircases.
The redevelopment of the Old Black Eagle Brewery has opened up the once concealed streets that were formerly part of the infrastructure of this busy place. Barbecues, bars and shops line what looks to all intents and purposes like a service road running from Brick Lane, though believe it or not, this is actually Black Eagle Street, closed off for over half a century by large gates, but responsible for giving the brewery its name in the first place.
It is Covent Garden’s scruffy, idiot cousin. On the ad-hoc boulevard that was once Black Eagle Street, al fresco is the thing. A chilly Saturday afternoon, but the lure of Spitalfields anew still pulls them in. The air that was once laced with the fumes of brewing is now pungent with the odour of frying meat, oppressively sloppy salads, BYO lager and cigarettes. The tables are strewn with yellow polystyrene cartons loaded with chaotic, overfilled burgers, munched on slowly by people trying to line their stomachs with something quick but ‘real’ and talk animatedly at the same time. The soundtrack is predictably anonymous; funky loose urban beatswhich wash over the crowds without damaging street-credibility.
Are those four guys a rock band? Probably not, but for a moment they stand out as highly groomed, skinny fashion mannequins, a definite unit. Their individuality is short lived, for looking around the massf twenty-somethings, it is apparent that lots of men look like that. A uniform of stripy jumpers, skinny black jeans and pointy footwear, with hair sculpted, scraped and twisted into intentionally original, yet ultimately analogous styles where seeing past one’s fringe is secondary to being au courant. In fact, in Brick Lane’s trendy quarter, the men seem to make more of an effort over their appearance than the women, the latter often inconspicuous for their casualness. Studioline adverts spring to mind (firm hold! – sculpt your look! – 0% grease, 100% extreme structure!), such is the overwhelming evidence of cosmetic styling tools. There must be so many different chemicals adorning these modern punky manes that with one stray spark from a Marlboro light, the whole Black Eagle Brewery could go off like a millennium firework display, simultaneously halving the residential population of Shoreditch. (2007)
You might get the impression that I am not impressed by this rebirth and to be a bit curmudgeonly, I'm not really. For all its pretentions as the now place in London to live, create, dine and socialise, a lot of the desirable areas of Spitalfields and Shoreditch are pretty much still dumps. If you see local property advertised, they rarely show you the outside of it. Visit Grimsby Street to see what I mean. It all smacks of being a bit too knowing somehow, but I'm sure I'm just being an old grump. At least it's stopped the Black Eagle becoming another Sainsbury's.