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The barrows of Spitalfields

March 25, 2010
by the gentle author

When I saw the wooden carts and barrows in Mark Jackson & Huw Davies’ pictures of the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market, I realised that some of these old-style barrows have been sitting around in Sclater St for the past couple of years, used in the Sunday market and quietly rotting for the rest of the week. My eye was drawn to the wooden wheels, every spoke individually chamfered, an attention to detail that recalls those magnificent gipsy caravans of a century ago. There are still plenty of these barrows in use around London, from Portobello, Berwick St, Seven Dials, Leather Lane, Chapel Market to Roman Rd, though now they are relics of another age.

I asked Paul Gardner whose family have been trading as market sundriesman from the same building in Commercial St since 1870, if he could tell me anything about these carts. He recalled there was a company called Hiller Brothers that manufactured barrows in Bethnal Green and a wheelwright who repaired them in a workshop under the Bishopsgate Arches. And he had some phone numbers, which he called to seek further information but both numbers were discontinued.

You find these barrows and carts in museums and sometimes in gardens with Lobelia and Geraniums trailing out of them but I prefer to see them in use, though without wheelwrights to mend them their days are numbered as the makeshift repairs to the wheels of the Sclater St examples testify. These wheels are a smaller version of cartwheels that were once standard when all street transport was horsedrawn, sustaining the attendant wheelwrights’ and cartwrights’ trades.

That afternoon, I was walking through the empty Leather Lane Market where I came upon a couple of these barrows. Trading had ceased for the day, so I was able to squat down and take a closer look. I discovered incised lettering in an elegant italic hand that ran along all sides of the barrow and in some cases around the wheels too. The name and location of the market “Leather Lane, Holborn” plus the manufacturer and the status “On Hire.” To my surprise I came across the name “Hiller Bros” and an address in Bethnal Green, “64 Squirries St,” just as Paul Gardner told me.

I photographed a fine market porter’s hand cart in the Bethnal Green Rd Market, loaded with fruit and vegetables for sale. Paul Gardner remembered that all the local greengrocers had these to wheel down to the Spitalfields Market and collect their fresh stock daily. Years ago, he traded a trolley from his shop with an old man from the market in exchange for a huge handbarrow with heavy iron wheels that now sits in his back garden. Examining my photo of the hand barrow in Bethnal Green, I saw it was also incised with the name “Hiller Bros” and when I did a google search I even got a phone number though, to my disappointment, it no longer functioned.

So I decided to take a walk up to Squirries St, but first I took a detour to Hoxton where a friend lives in the former Lambert timber warehouse in Hoxton St and here I was able to photograph the cart which has been disassembled but stored safely under a lean-to in the yard. This one is remarkable for remaining in its premises and for its beautiful signwriting – and again I saw the incised italic script that is the standard means of identification for these carts. The script resembles the handwriting of a century ago and I wonder if once someone simply wrote in chalk along the side of each barrow and someone else followed along to carve it out. Returning to Sclater St and squatting down to read the inscriptions on these carts, I learnt one was a stray from London Fields, eternally “On Hire” from Leach Bros.

Arriving at 64 Squirries St, just off the Bethnal Green Rd, I found an unremarkable locked-up building without any signeage beyond its street number. It was padlocked from the outside, so there was no point in knocking and I could not discern any sign of recent activity. Like some frustrated detective, I was deliberating my next move when I noticed there was a small glass panel (no bigger than a postcard) in the tall steel shutter closing off the yard and I peeked through the dirty pane to discover the picture you can see at the end of this feature. I wiped the glass on the outside with my handkerchief and took a hazy photograph, filtered by grime, of broken carts in the abandoned workshop that was once the centre of a thriving trade. Please do not tell anyone about this glass panel in the steel shutter, because no-one wants lines forming on Squirries St to ogle the charnel house of carts and barrows.

Let us not collect all these carts and put them on display. It can be our secret. As long as they are around we can be gratified to see them disregarded on the street, demonstrating stubborn longevity. Injecting a little arcane poetry into any unremarkable cityscape, they are vestiges of when the world was driven by horse power.

Now I have made my discovery, I will take a closer look at each specimen I find and read the inscription to discover who constructed it and for which market – as a mark of respect to those craftsmen who were so skillful in making elegant functional things with their bare hands, still in use today when they are long gone.

26 Responses leave one →
  1. susan Lendroth permalink
    March 25, 2010

    I’ve heard of the mysterious elephants’ graveyard, but one for barrows? But maybe it is instead merely a way station, and those disassembled carts will one day, phoenix-like, rise again.

  2. julie permalink
    March 25, 2010

    The history that lives on, but only now revealed by a keen eye and curious mind.

  3. March 25, 2010

    Again, I do thank you for acquainting me with a topic that I did not previously think about, but now, because of your post, will.

    Form and function. It’s a pleasure to see designs that definitely did serve a function in the past, and still function now.

    As our current history seems to thrive on speed, and sell by dates, I wonder who might be championing what’s new and around now … in say, fifty or one hundred years.

    Cheers!

  4. Fay Cattini permalink
    April 8, 2010

    Growing up in Spitalfields there was a Mr Holt who worked (and lived) in Wheler Street making and mending barrows for the Spitalfields Market. The firm was called E.Howard & Sons (coster barrow manufacturers)and Mr Holt worked there for 30 years or so. The family lived over the workshop and as children we would sometimes play on the flat roof over where he made the barrows. The barrows were beautiful. Very simple but efficient for what was needed.

  5. Frazer Crawley permalink
    February 1, 2011

    This is an inspiring piece of research.
    As a direct decendent of George Hiller, a cabinet maker and my Great, Great Grandfather I can reviel the history of these hand carts. His sons where respectively one a wheelwright and the other a cartwright aprentices. To deliver the cabinets George made (one of which I am looking at right now in my Kitchen) George got his sons to build him a hand cart or two. The market traders of the London Markets were so impressed that they asked if they too could have hand carts of such quality. Well the Hiller Brothers were so shrewed they did not sell the carts but rented them out to the Market traders, and Hiller Bros was bourne. The family arms have lost contact, but I know until the 1990′s Hiller Btros were still in the business of leasing out market stalls to the london markets.

    My Mother is the font of knowledge on this subject, so please ask if your interested and I’ll try to dig the detail out.

  6. March 30, 2011

    thanks for the inquisitive post,
    i’ve been harrassing hiller’s lot to change the wheels on my barrow coz my back hurts, now you’ve got me thinking i’ll struggle along with it just for the sentimental value, you can see mine on my site: abzcomputers . com, scroll down to the bottom, it’s got one of those ancient discs on the bottom that weighs a ton.

  7. May 10, 2011

    Hi There

    Does anybody know if these amazing barrows are availible to hire for the summer. Seems it would fit perfectly on our terrace in Westminster, by the thames
    Please do not hesitate to contact me if so
    Kindest Regards

  8. Vicky permalink
    May 29, 2011

    I remember these carts in Surrey Street Market in Croydon when I was a child in the 50′s & 60s. I loved them, the wheels, the lettering, the colours they were painted and the lights, lots of light bulbs strung up and across the stalls making them and the market a magical place especially in Winter when it got dark early. The stallholders were full of character, and often made me laugh. I will always remember one, holding out a container of carrots and shouting ‘rhubarb, rhubarb, bootiful rhubarb’ . Tickled me when I was 10, tickles me now I am 62.

  9. Vicky permalink
    June 1, 2011

    … and remember the copious amounts of artificial ‘grass’, showing between the boxes of fruit and veg and hanging down the front of the barrow. It all looked so exotic and tempting. Magical memories.

  10. August 11, 2011

    Pleased to see someone taking an interest in these relics …….. and I’m delighted that the two wheeled cart at Lambert’s is still there. I bought that building about 30 years ago from the Coronet Timber Co of Hoxton Street. Included in the purchase were their hand cart and their Bedford lorry both of which we used in our business.

    I sold the hand cart together with the building in 1989.

    We still have a costermonger’s barrow which occasionally goes for an outing round Vauxhall to the consternation of motorised road users.

    Best Wishes
    Adrian Amos
    LASSCO

  11. trevor williams permalink
    December 21, 2011

    great site i thought i was the only annorak with an interest in these, i have restored about 8 of these, six 2 wheelers and 2 fourwheelers usualy its the wheels that have gone rotten , i use ash to replace the chassis, oak and ash for the wheels, most of these barrows have been bodged up with pine just to keep them going on the market ,does the job but its too soft to last you need hard wood to make them last,, i bought 6 fourwheelers from a garden centre near tower bridge about 3 years ago, one of these i built a half size bow top romany wagon, i paint them all romany gypsy style with the carvings, lining , and gold leaf, its great fun doing them up a bit of social history , i live in brighton and there is a street in the north lanes were years ago you could hire a barrow for the day for 5 shillings, people were realy skint no social security so you went out knocking on doors for rags ,scrap, or down the local fruit market for some gear that was on the turn that you could sell quickly and cheap, i have two barrows i am restoring now, i have definately have got the bug

  12. April 27, 2012

    Great site, I am researching the history of the New Cut Market in South London; one family firm that crops up over there is Tappy, Joseph started in 1910 and the firm was still going in the late 80′s. I am interested in any information that anybody might have on the family of the Tappy’s; please get in touch if you have any.

  13. simon permalink
    June 1, 2012

    Thanks for the great report.I was just admiring the Hiller Bros carts in Ridley Road. Great craftsmanship, inscriptions and details. They really have a lot of character and bring a great sense of a link with our history. Glad to see others taking an interest and sharing their knowledge. I find it sad that such an array of crafts,skills and manual trades, that used to produce great things to last, are dying out

  14. Barry J permalink
    October 7, 2012

    Hi Guys.
    Have recently bought one of these amazing hand carts and am curious if anyone has any knowledge of the registration numbers and businesses that are engraved? The cart is in exceptionally good condition and am looking forward to restoring it to its original condition and would like to find out as much as possible. Are records kept of these carts and what would have been the original colours? Any help would be greatly appreciated so we can keep our history alive. Many thanks.

  15. Mary permalink
    October 10, 2012

    I have a wheelbarrow which is I believe is a costermongers barrow. It is in a very sad state of repair and I was wondering if anyone would like it to restore to its former glory?
    I live in Brighton, Sussex.

  16. October 23, 2012

    My Father, David Bysouth now retired, used to repair these barrows and other carts etc. If you are looking for restoration, his apprentice now runs the business in Sussex (see website attached). http://dougandrews.macmate.me/dougs.wheelwrighting/Welcome.html

    However, recently, my father made me a handcart based on a London style and I have been painting it up along with the second hand wheels (on hire from Leach Bros!). It is nice to find these pages!

    Steve Bysouth

  17. October 24, 2012

    these barrows are amazing!
    would anyone be kind enough to lend a barrow or two which would be lovingly looked after for the night of the 6th November 2012. We are holding a Charity event at the Inner Temple for fund raising for CANINE PARTNERS.
    This wonderful Charity helps change the quality of peoples lives who have been disabled though illness, war etc. The dogs are trained from birth specifically for each persons needs that they partner.
    please do look at canine partners.org.uk for further information and contact carolineb@caninepartners.org.uk
    it would be our dream to be able to use a barrow or two for display purposes only.
    We welcome any offers!
    thank you and blessings

  18. October 25, 2012

    Hi I am in the process of setting up a new business of a juice bar, but i wanted something a little quirky to show off all the fruit and veg that will go into the juices, and i would ideally love to get hold of an original wooden fruit/veg cart. Do you know or can you put me in touch with somebody that either restores them or may have one that needs some restoration? or one that is in relatively good condition, it will only need to be for display purposes and to stay in situ.many thanks
    rupen

  19. February 26, 2013

    Lovely site – and very informative. I have 2 carts which were presumably orignally hand barrows but now have shafts added. They are pulled by my donkeys and I take part occasionally in the London Harness Horse Parade with a donkey taking the fish barrow. My dad renovated it, and it has ‘for hire’ and Billingsgate’ carved in the wheels. I now own the worlds’s largest cloolectiobn of plastic fish which I use to fill baskets when out in a parade!!! I have two more, awaitning renovation – one has a metal coveirng and two big ‘clamps’ on the sdies. I was told it came from Smithfields and the metal clamps were to hold the sides of meat on. Sounds pluasible. I would dearly love to have them all in good working order, the take all of them to the Harness Horse Parade – one for fish, one for flowers, one for fuirt nad veg and one for meat! .. one day maybe. If there is anywhere else I can do any research o nthem, please share!

  20. June Crawley permalink
    March 11, 2013

    To follow on from Frazers contribution. I havebeen trying to find out what happened to the business. My cousin Robert Hiller was the last person to own the business but I and the rest of the famiy lost touch with him since his mothers funeral in the eighties. as far as I know it was still going then. It is sad to think that it just faded away. Robert qwould be 76 or 77 now and I have been trying to find him but have no luck so far.Maybe he is dead and I know he had no children. The business was originally in James street where I remember as a child going to the work shop and watching the steel band put in the fire and then round the wheels. They later moved to Squiries St. which had previously been a dairy where they had previously actually kept the cows in stalls which they then used to store the barrows. They never sold any barrows or the subsequent stalls. My uncle Leslie used to collect the rents on Saterday mornings from most of the London Markets and Street Corners they paid 2/6 per week .so he had very heavy bags of silver from which he paid my grandmother her pension, as a result she never trusted paper money and was very reluctant ot change a 10 bob note for me and felt she had given me the money and she never spent the note. We foun d several of them in her dressing table drawer when she died.

  21. Chris Field permalink
    May 19, 2013

    I AM VERY LUCKY TO Have an original barrow.

  22. Ted Nicholl permalink
    November 25, 2013

    Lovely to see someone else looking at the old stalls. My brother Ron & I worked for Bob Hiller whilst still at school. We looked after the London Fields end of his ‘empire’, having previously worked for Johnny Bryant. The stalls were painted, in the Bethnal Green shop, by an old boy called Albert & always in the distinctive Hiller colours. I found it sad when they went over to the tubular iron stalls but am happy that some are still in use in Leather Lane, with my brother’s hand writing on them. It was he who welded/soldered the “Hiller Bros – On Hire”.

  23. warren permalink
    January 23, 2014

    I have a completely original Costermonger Barrow. It says on hire w.j. everett ltd. 165 drury lane, wc2 inscribed all over it. Its in mint condition. Please help as trying badly to locate its manufacturer and owner etc.

  24. Tony permalink
    January 23, 2014

    Looking to buy a market barrow can anyone help me where to find one .

  25. Mandy permalink
    February 13, 2014

    I have an original , wheeler st barrow that I may be interested in selling?

  26. February 14, 2014

    Hello i am interested in buying a barrow 2 wheel or 4 wheel any condition as ling as it is reasonably priced please contact me on 07776020247

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