Guest post by the Museum of London

Visiting the Past: London’s Original Chinatown

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This weekend, the largest Chinese New Year celebrations outside of Asia take place in and around London’s Chinatown in Soho. But did you know that London’s original Chinatown was in East London?

Limehouse was the site of a short-lived porcelain factory founded by George Wilson in 1746. It was one of many attempts to make a British version of the beautiful, white ceramic that was flooding into London from the Far East. Limehouse porcelain  looked Chinese but was made in East London. You can see examples of this porcelain at the Museum of London.

One hundred years later, a small community of Chinese sailors settled at Limehouse Causeway. This was one of two small, East End Chinese communities. The other was in Pennyfields in Poplar, where Chinese sailors from Shanghai had settled. Virtually all were single men, some of whom married British women.

By 1914, there were around 30 businesses and 300 people living in these small East End communities. Limehouse and Pennyfields became known as Chinatown, and many of its inhabitants made a living by running laundries.

During the Second World War, the Docklands area, including Chinatown, was badly damaged and many Chinese people moved out. In the 1950s, the market for Chinese food grew and restaurants and stalls began to spring up in Gerrard Street and Lisle Street. This was the start of the Chinatown we know today in Soho.

Find out more about Chinatown’s history or discover today’s Chinatown in Soho

Museum of London

Guest post by the Museum of London as part of our brand new Visiting the Past blog series. More fascinating facts about London’s history from the Museum of London next week!


  1. Freddy says:

    The History Of London is facinating stuff. Very interesting.

  2. Goodwheel says:

    One could learn one new thing about London every day of one’s life and never quite be done.

    The porcelain ‘china cup’ depicted in the picture above got me thinking, why do we call chinaware ‘china’ is it in fact connected to the country ‘China’ as the context somewhat suggests.

    Indeed there is a connection as per ‘Yahoo answers’ explains:

    “The Chinese invented porcelain during the song dynasty (9th century), and when examples of Porcelain were brought to Europe by Marco Polo, it was considered so valuable and precious that it was worth its weight in Gold. No one had ever seen something so thin, translucent and delicate. All that was known at the time was stoneware and earthenware (a heavy brown body type of ware).
    The porcelain continued to be imported and was presented as “ware from China” or “China Ware”-since then the name stuck.”

    “For centuries the potters of Europe tried in vain to create “Chinaware”, the best they could do was create their earthenware and apply a tinted tin based glaze to conceal the brown and make it look similar to the white porcelain.
    The secret to the Chinese porcelain happened to be ‘Kaolin’, a white clay derived from granite. This was (and is) the key ingredient in “True porcelain” (also known as hard paste porcelain).”

    Thought this was an interesting piece of general knowledge.