Petticoat Lane Market 1
Almost as much of a familiar landmark in Spitalfields as the church or the market, Fred has been standing in his flat cap and selling chestnuts from can of hot coals on a barrow every Sunday at the corner of Bell Lane and Wentworth St for over half a century.
I heard a rumour that chestnut sellers were secret millionaires who put their feet up all Summer, but he was eager to disenchant me of this notion. “The idea that you get rich quick is not true!” Fred swore to me in his singsong voice, glowing with animation, whilst expertly turning over the hot chestnuts with his blackened fingers, “For the past six weeks, I didn’t cover my expenses. I get up at half five, leave the house at a quarter to six, then I am here from eight until four, and by the time I get home it’s eight o’clock. So if I didn’t love this job, I wouldn’t be here now.”
When Fred began in the heyday of Petticoat Lane, Wentworth St was a parade of Jewish Delis, and it was this cultural identity which permitted the existence of the market when laws restricted other Sunday trading in London. “This used to be the best market in London, you couldn’t walk through it,” recalled Fred with absolute authority, his eyes focused in concentration as he stepped over to stir the peanuts that he was caramelising in a pan to one side. Remarkably, while the market has changed beyond all recognition around him, Fred has simply continued roasting chestnuts.
“I was fourteen and a half when I started. My dad sold chestnuts and I used to go and help him up the West End - Greek St and then down in Leicester Sq – until I got a licence here about fifty years ago. I used to have a casual licence, it was so busy then you couldn’t get a pitch unless someone else didn’t turn up. I was on this corner at fifteen before I got married – my wife is English and now I’ve been married fifty years.
The selling business is in the blood, my dad’s family were all chestnut sellers in Malta and my grandfather came from Sicily. King George gave the Maltese people a medal for bravery in the war. We fought the Turks. Everybody wanted a piece of Malta.
My father came over here in the forties from Malta. I was born there and came to London in 1957, helping my dad. He came here to try a different life. Plumber’s Row in Whitechapel, that’s where we lived at first. It was all prostitutes in those houses in them days. I asked my dad who these ladies were. He said, ‘They’re all film stars.’ Then we moved down to live in Christian St, it was all Maltese down there. The East End was nice place to be. We used to buy our chestnuts in the Spitalfields Market, nowadays I have to go further afield.
I’ve always loved selling chestnuts. I’ve been like this since I was a kid. I’ve never been to school, I just wanted to do this. This is about making your customers feel good. With this game, you’ve got to know how to go with people, otherwise don’t come in the market.
My dad designed the can, after two or three years, you have to make a new one. It only takes me half an hour to get the coals hot, with some bits of wood and a spot of paraffin. I work from October until March or April, only three to four months, and as soon as I have finished my year’s stock of chestnuts, it’s over. I’ll ease up now, and I won’t come up if the weather’s bad one Sunday.
I’m going to Malta next week to visit my mum and dad. He went back thirty years ago – if it wasn’t for my grandchildren and my kids, I’d move back to Malta too. But I reckon I’ll be here a few more years.
They should give me a medal for service to the English people.”
As Fred spoke, a continuous stream of eager customers carried off bags of chestnuts. Many were regulars on first name terms and others were tourists that Fred seduced with repartee, inveigling his way into their holiday snaps. As well as chestnuts, Fred sells monkey nuts, freshly caramelised and roasted peanuts, plus water and soft drinks, while his son-in-law Lee fries hamburgers and hot dogs on the other side of the pitch, and Fred’s little grandson runs around excitedly in a flat cap drumming up business. Quite a drama for a street corner.
I asked Fred if he likes chestnuts and he smiled. “I eat them all the time, if I start I can’t stop.” he admitted, picking up a stray chestnut and putting it in his mouth absent-mindedly. “They’re good for your cholesterol – any doctor will tell you.” he declared, chewing and nodding his head in emphatic confirmation.
It is a delicious thing to buy a bag of hot chestnuts on a cold day and peel them in the street – a timeless seasonal ritual. So, as much as I long for the Spring to come, I shall miss Fred on the corner of Bell Lane when he disappears in a few weeks’ time. Then I shall be waiting for his return in October, with his buoyant humour, and bringing the whiff of the new season’s chestnuts from Italy roasted on hot coals, as a time-honoured harbinger of the changing year in the East End – the legendary chestnut seller of Petticoat Lane.
Fred’s son-in-law, Lee, a locksmith by trade, helps out with the hotdogs and burgers.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman