Brick Lane Market 1
As the first of these Brick Lane posts, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Dennis and Arthur, two stalwarts who incarnate the spirit of the market. You will find them occupying Hare Marsh each Sunday – the cul-de-sac down towards the railway line at the end of Cheshire St, formerly Hare St.
Wiry and agile and full of vitality, Dennis Major has been dealing in toiletries, cut-price chocolate and general hardware in the market for more than thirty-five years. “When I first started, I was down the other end of Cheshire St.” he explained to me casting his beady eyes around at the fabled market that once was here,“They used to sell dogs and cats then, and sometimes I took sickly kittens home that were abandoned in the gutter but they always died. There was a stall that who sold chickens, they would wring their necks and pluck them for you before your eyes. We were next to the bird man, he would go crazy because everybody would be all over the bird cages, and the birds would make such a racket. We did have some laughs.”
For many years Dennis ran a hardware shop in Norbury but, even retired now, he cannot break the habit of Sunday in Brick Lane because the same customers keep coming back to greet him after all these years. While we were talking, Arthur Whitmore, a senior market gardener from Cambridgeshire with hardy features and straggly white hair, who has been travelling down on the bus each Sunday for more than fifteen years in search of “something fresh to see,” popped by to have his weekly chat with Dennis. “There’s no end of villages where I come from,” he informed me, hinting at the workaday nature of his rural life.
When Arthur departed, in a brief lull, Dennis pointed across Cheshire St and confided to me quietly , “One Sunday, I came down when Ginger Marks was killed outside the Carpenter’s Arms. The was a bullet hole in the wall and they’d roped it off where he’d been shot but they never found the body. If you lost a bike in South London you could always find it here next Sunday. This was a good market. People off the boats in the docks would come here and you could sell them all sorts of things. There was a fellow who sold train sets. Most of them have died, there’s not so many like me down here any more.”
“I’ve been coming here since I first visited with my father to buy canaries for our shop in Woking, that was sixty-two years ago,” revealed Arthur with the relaxed genial air of one entirely at home in the market, for whom doing deals and taking money off a string of customers is second nature. “I’ve always been at this end of the street, since I started as a very young lad fly-pitching with a pram full of bits and pieces.” he recalled enthusiastically, “And I have been on this spot as a licenced trader for at least twenty-five years. I took over from Frank Fisher who’d been here many moons before me, he was a Smithfield meat porter. This little area was packed then, it was a job to get a pitch – they used to fight over them. Ever since I could drive, it’s been a weekly ritual coming into London on Sunday.”
Such is Arthur’s trustworthy reputation that local people will confidently buy used electrical gadgets from him, “I always offer a refund on anything electrical,” he assured me as an African lady delightedly carried off a food processor in her bag for twenty pounds, “I remember what I buy and sell and I know the price of everything. Sometimes I keep things in the interests of future prosperity, and I’ve got a nice rug as a future heirloom. Once I bought a lion with with its foot on the globe for fourteen shillings, then sold it for fifty shillings to a lady named Sylvia. It turned out to be early eighteenth century Capo de Monte and went for £2000 at auction – but when she died ten years ago, she left me £1000 in her will.”
Arthur buys at house clearances and jumble sales, hoping to clear a quarter of the stock that he keeps in his van and top it up again each week. “My father bred canaries and showed them at Crystal Palace. He used to buy the birds up here in the market because he had the experience to know what he was buying. I remember the first thing I ever sold, a BSA bantam motorcycle in Club Row when I was seventeen, and I still can’t keep away from it today.” Arthur confessed to me with an amiable modest grin, hooked by the endless cycle of market life – appreciating it as a place of commerce, and equally as an important location of social life and collective memory.
Market trader portraits copyright © Jeremy Freedman