The changing face of Old Street

Old Street 1929

Paul Dowling charts the history of Shoreditch’s scene

The area around Old Street is a vibrant hot spot for fresh startups and hip young people. An area which is now brimming with ‘happening’ bars and great restaurants has not always been this way.

Having observed the changes in the last four decades, I would like to explore how all things New are pushing the Old out of Old Street.

A lot of people will be curious to know exactly how much Shoreditch has changed over the last 40 years. By a very strange quirk of fate, I find myself in a great position to comment on some of these remarkable changes.

It all started when I left school at 17. I got myself a job at a firm of shipping agents based at 4/5 Bonhill Street. Now, many of you will recognise this address as Google Campus. 40 years later I am back at the same address through my involvement in the startup world.


The Old Street station of today

Surprisingly, at glance the area still looks very similar to how it looked in 1974. The corners of Bonhill Street and cafes on Paul Street echo back memories of sandwich trips and coffee breaks we spent taking there in the 70’s.

The bookies was just around the corner too, enticing us teens to take a quick gamble. Both are still there. The evening pub drinking sessions soon jog my memory, as I walk past the The Windmill pub which to my great surprise is still going strong.

However, we would rarely venture North East into Hoxton. There was very little to do there back then. All the trendy bars and restaurants sprung up much later.

The whole area was dominated by light industry, warehousing and commercial businesses. We would always head down Moorgate into the city of London for some buzzing social life.

The people have certainly changed a lot. In 1974 the area was not entrepreneurial.

The whole area was quite grey. No hipsters, fixie bikes or startup culture

Most people worked for old-established firms. The company I worked for was called Express Boyd and was as old fashioned as they get. We used surnames to greet each other and remember that the mobile phone and internet had not been invented.

The whole area was quite grey. No hipsters, fixie bikes or startup culture. It was still a drinking culture with lots of rounds at the many pubs in the area.

Business buzz

Early last decade, a few early stage businesses were attracted to the area by low cost office space and good access to public transport. This rapidly developed into a cluster of tech startups. The Government set up Tech City Investment organisation and attracted large organisations like Google.

Tech City News will be launching a print edition this December, celebrating three years of Tech City

Google Campus is the epi-centre of the London startup scene. Almost like a magnet for the early stage scene, it is drawing in the best talent from London and Europe. It is amazing to see this old building being put to such great use. Every day their basement cafe is overflowing with innovative ideas and like-minded people who are just setting out on the startup journey.

I find it very inspiring to see what has happened in TechCity. The startup community has responded well to stimulus provided by the government and there is a real buzz in the area.

We now need to be aware that the area can easily become a victim of its own success.

Property prices are driving out early stage businesses and the startup eco-system is still lightweight in comparison to Silicon Valley, New York and Tel Aviv. We are yet to leverage the proximity of the area to the City of London.

However, we are starting to see some success stories and although we are still looking for the first ‘Google’ or ‘Facebook’ it is only a matter of time.

Paul Dowling is the founder of Dreamstake, the world’s first online accelerator. Dreamstake helps startups grow by providing connections, education and access to funding. image credit: British transport museum