MOLA archaeological excavation of post-medieval Spitalfields market

The umbrella man of Spitalfields

MOLA team

Buried in a pit in the heart of the Spitalfields, central London, some unassuming pieces of green metal were discovered, along with the other remains of a family’s life. These green lumps of corroded copper-alloy represent a family’s history and the growth of a suburb in one of the busiest cities in the world. 

Our work at 5 Spital Square in the centre of London was just part of one of the largest excavations ever to take place in the city. Over the lifetime of the project, our archaeologists uncovered dozens of homes from the 16th to 18th centuries, along with a Roman cemetery, a medieval priory and a 17th century star-shaped fort.

The privy pits of the Post-medieval properties were filled with archaeological material, including the lumps of corroded metal. They were, in fact, the remnants of a umbrella manufacturing operation from the 18th-century. Charles Van Millingen, the patriarch of 5 Spital Square, was a London-born Jew of Dutch Ashkenazi descent. He moved to Spitalfields at a time of mass immigration from Europe and is listed in the 1851 census as an umbrella-maker.

The umbrella parts, like many of the small finds from the area, came from the Van Millingen’s backyard privy. When combined with detailed documentary research they show how the smallest finds can prove to be the most useful sources bringing the story of individual families to life.

The pit was likely filled sometime in the late 1850s, upon the departure of the family. All manner of household rubbish was dumped in the pit. Along with the umbrella parts, there were also candle holders and lighting equipment, glassware, and children’s toys and crockery. China made for the family’s children was included in the refuse. Some were decorated with rhymes which taught respect for the family and household pets. Although we only get a fragment of what their life was like, these artefacts help us to build a picture of an industrious Victorian family that held on to the values of the day.

The story of the Van Millingen family is one of a constantly growing Spitalfields. Our approach to understanding their story stands at the intersection between archaeology and history, material culture and documentary research. You can read more about the Van Millingens, and others post-medieval families, in The Spitalfields suburb 1539-c1880: Excavations at Spitalfields Market, London E1, 1991-2007.

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