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Dog days at Club Row Market

April 27, 2010
by the gentle author

“… furry faces peering incongruously from the jackets of hawkers.”

Early in 1953, Kaye Webb and her husband Ronald Searle came to the East End one Sunday to write this account of Club Row Market for their book, “Looking at London and People Worth Meeting” published by the News Chronicle.  A R. J. Cruickshank wrote in the introduction, ” This book rediscovers for us some of the odd places and odd faces of London that most of us have forgotten, if we ever knew them. The warm-hearted humanity of Kaye Webb’s writing and the tender sympathy of Searle’s drawings are beautifully matched.” I am delighted to republish this excerpt from their work for you.

Curious, considering our national reputation, that of all the street markets in London only one should sell dogs. This can be found any Sunday morning by taking a bus to Shoreditch High St and following your ears. a cacophony of whimpers, yaps, yelps and just plain barking will guide you to the spot where Bethnal Green Rd branches off to Sclater St.

There you may find them – the unclaimed pets of a hundred homes : new-born litters of puppies tumbling over each other in children’s cots ( the most popular form of window display) : “mixed bags” of less lively youngsters huddling docilely together in laundry baskets; lively-looking sheepdogs, greyhounds and bulldogs straining at the ends of leashes and furry little faces peering incongruously from the jackets of hawkers, who often look as if they’d be happier in the boxing ring.

The sales technique of their owners is almost as varied as the ware and almost always accompanied by much affectionate handling of the dogs. “It’s good for business and sometimes they mean it,” we were told by an impartial vendor of bird-seed who has been on the same pitch for twenty years. “Hi, mate, buy a dog to keep you warm!” said the man with the Chows to a pair of shivering Lascar seamen. “E’s worth double, lady, but I want ‘im to ‘ave a good ‘ome” or “Here’s a good dog, born between the sheets, got his pedigree in my pocket!” “Who’d care for a German sausage? – stretch him to make up the rations”, the salesman with the dachshund said, demonstrating too painfully for amusement.

R.S.P.C.A. interference is needed less often now. The days are gone when sores were covered with boot polish; when doubtful dogs were dyed with permanganate of potash; when, as tradition has it, you could enter the market at one end leading a dog, lose it half way, and buy it back at the other end. In fact the regular dog hawkers were never the ones to deal in stolen pets. “Stands to reason, this is the first place they’d come, and besides, look at the number of coppers there are about anyway.” But it is still possible to buy pedigree forms “at a shop down the road”, “just a matter of thinking up some good names and being able to write”.

The regular merchants, whose most frequent customers are the pet shops, are mostly old-timers ( some who have been coming for forty years and from as far away as Southend) and since a new law was passed insisting that all animal sellers should have licences, the ‘casuals’ are forbidden. But on the occasion of our visit the law had not yet been made and we passed quite a number of them. Most attractive was a red-cheeked lad with a spaniel puppy – “I call him Gyp; we’ve got his mother, but there’s no room for another, so my uncle said to come here.” Every  time he was asked: “How much do you want, son?” he stumbled over his answer and hugged the dog closer. And when the would-be buyer moved on, his eyes sparkled with relief.

That day the dog section of Club Row was not very busy; it was too cold. But the rest of the market waxed as usual. Unlike its near neighbour, Petticoat Lane, Club Row Market has a strong local flavour. The outsiders who make the long journey to its “specialised streets” are mostly purposeful men looking for that mysterious commodity known as Spare Parts.

In Club Row itself are to be found bicycles, tyres, an occasional motor bike or a superannuated taxi. The police are frequently seen about here looking for “unofficial goods”. Chance St sells furniture and “junk”, Sclater St is a nest of singing birds, rabbits, white mice, guinea pigs and their proper nourishment. In the Street of Wirelesses the air is heavy with crooning, and Cheshire St is clamorous with “Dutch auctions”, or demonstrating remarkable inventions like the World’s Smallest Darning Loom (“Stop your missus hating you … now you can say ‘you might darn this potato, dear, while I have shave’ … and she’ll do it before you’ve wiped the soap off!”).

We found one street devoted to firearms, chiefly historic, and another where secretive, urgent men offered us “a good watch or knife”, implying that it was “hot” and therefore going cheap. But we had learned that this was “duffing” and the watch was most probably exactly the same as those sold on the licenced stalls just up the street.

At ten to one the market reaches a crescendo. One o’clock is closing time and many of the stallholders won’t be back until next Sunday. This is the time when the regulars know where to find bargains, but it needs strong elbows. Our way out, along Wheler St, under the railway bridge and past the faded notice which says ‘Behold the Lamb of God Cometh”, brought us back to the dog market. It was surprisingly quiet. On the other side of the road we spotted a small figure hurrying off with the spaniel puppy. It looked as if Gyp was safe for another week anyway.

Over the weekend, I found my copy of “Looking at London and People Worth Meeting,” when I opened one of my many sealed boxes of books that have sat in the attic since I moved in. It was my great good fortune that, Kaye Webb, the legendary editor of Picture Post, Lilliput and Puffin Books, was the first person to recognise my work and encourage me in my writing. When I used to visit her in her flat overlooking the canal in Little Venice, I remember she had Ronald Searle’s drawings of the bargees from this book, framed on her wall and I often stood to admire them.

I hope you will not consider it vain if I reveal that Kaye gave me this book and inscribed it under the title with my name and the text ” – also a person worth meeting!” Although Kaye died in 1995 and I have not opened the book for years, I am delighted to rediscover it now because it has been in my mind as an inspiration while I have been writing pen portraits myself. I was touched to think of Kaye here in these streets over half a century ago, and imagine Ronald Searle bringing out his sketchbook in Sclater St where I buy my fruit and vegetables every Sunday.

“…the rest of the market waxed as usual” ; a bookseller in action.

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    April 27, 2010

    It is such a pleasure to read all of these portraits. And also to see the photos and follow the progress of your garden.

    This site is a gem.

  2. April 27, 2010

    There is a Ronald Searle exhibition at the Cartoon Gallery in Bloomsbury to celebrate his 90th birthday. His drawing is a revelation to anyone who knows him only as a cartoonist.

  3. Joan permalink
    April 28, 2010

    We have this book – though only via a charity shop, not the author! There are some lovely things in it – including a nice chatty piece about Denys Lasdun. Thanks, Phil Abel, for the information about the Cartoon Museum exhibition. The one they held about Roland Emmet was great so I’ll be taking my kids up to this one.

  4. Adam dant permalink
    May 11, 2010

    Dear Sir, I enjoyed the brilliant drawings and vivid description of Club Row animal Market v much . Many thanks for revealing both . Best wishes, Adam Dant

  5. December 28, 2010

    I wonder if Kaye Webb would have seen the kittens and puppies that used to be sold in the Portobello Road not so very far from Little Venice . . .. . . and not to be considered vain at all.

  6. March 4, 2012

    my family was associated with the markets in club row during the early to mid 1950s.my father managed peters food stores(a pet shop with shops all across london.)it was situated on the corner poimt,not sure what it’s called now.on sundays i would go with my grandfather where the shop had a stall outside.it was certainly an experience,meeting all sorts of people.i used to get 5 shillings for the morning.i stopped going when i left school in 1956.

  7. August 7, 2012

    Brought my first dog here in 1960 when i was 7 she had one blue eye and one brown called Skippy and she lived until 1975 happy memories of going down the lane on a Sunday

  8. Elaine Bruton permalink
    September 11, 2012

    Spent many a happy sunday down at club row … whilst my dad helped my Uncle Albert on his Fruit stall.. i would look at all the puppies in the pens and long for one… my Uncles stall was dead opposite the dogs sellers pens.. never did get to have one! but more than made up for it in later life…now have 6

    Happy Days…. Going home with bags of fresh fruit and Sea Food for Sunday Tea…

  9. Nicola Collins permalink
    February 8, 2013

    I must have been about 5 years old when on a trip to Club Row my mum took pity on a very young poorly border terrier laying quivering under a heat lamp – we brought him home and called him Smokey Joe from Club Row … you never forget your first dog.

  10. October 10, 2013

    Thank you very much for your piece on Club Row Dogs.

    I used to visit the market almost every week as a child, as my father was forever buying a dog for a ‘dollar’ (five shillings) for his shop – sadly, the shop was at Mile End Gate and the dogs was constantly running out into the road and getting killed despite all efforts to keep them inside.

    I have written about my own memories of the market, and other things about the East End, on my website: East End Memories @ http://www.eastend-memories.org.uk

    Please visit and see what you think.

    Cheers.

  11. February 20, 2014

    I used to live in Barking and my highlight of the week was to visit Club Row full of birds I kept birds and used to buy all my seed there good value for money many people kept animals and birds in the early 1970. Great place for a day out miss it very much …

  12. January 31, 2015

    My dad bred and sold pedigree dogs at club row .His stall was licensed and the animals were well cared for .My dad’s family go back a long way down club row .

  13. March 19, 2017

    Realize now looking back at town markets, Benton Harbor MI USA, Phoenix Flea Market AZ USA, Soulard Market St. Louis MO USA how silly merchants seem selling their slaughtered pigs and calves meat, good vegetables, recipes, hoping we find a favorite veggie. Learned the meat was not very safe. Everyone dressed in Saturday wash clothes and Levis. Go home with 5 dollars worth of vegetables. Cheaper than the groceries store. atk

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