Petticoat Lane Market 2
Benny Banks is a redoubtable operator who has worked in Petticoat Lane for over sixty years, putting out the stalls for the traders. “I’ve lived my life in this market,” he declared to me, leaning upon the bonnet of his red Jaguar in the midst of the lane and displaying his perfect gleaming teeth in a magnificent smile of satisfaction at the narrow territory around Middlesex St that is his beloved manor.
“When I was a kid in Wentworth St, we were always out in the streets. Except we had to stay in the yard on Sundays because we couldn’t afford posh clothes and everyone else was in their Sunday best. My mother used to pawn my dad’s suit and get it back by Sunday. Yet we never went hungry, even though there were four of us boys in one room and six girls in the boxroom. The house was spotless, everything stank of carbolic and bleach. We were proud people and I learnt to keep my bits of sticks clean, it’s rubbed off on me. It’s been a hard life but I am a proud man.
My mother was a flowerseller and wreathmaker with a licence to sell on Petticoat Lane and on the Cut outside the Old Vic – that’s where I started at threepence a bunch when I was seven or eight. My father was a fruitseller who bought his goods from Covent Garden, Spitalfields and Borough Market. He was a pikey and she was a gipsy. There was ten of us in the family and we all worked for our parents each day from four in the morning until ten o’clock at night.
Before they licenced Petticoat Lane, the only way you could get a stall was to get on a pitch and stay there all night. We used to light a fire and sit on the pitch, even in Winter. If anyone tried to push us off, there was a street fight. My father was a streetfighter and he fought Queensberry rules. They fought in Spitalfields. He would set about them and they would leave us alone, so we always had our pitch The lane finished at six and anything we had left we sold door to door, all night, me and my brothers and sisters. People always bought from us because we were so poor and our clothes were in rags. They bought out of pity and they would give us a cup of tea and a piece of cake.
I didn’t go to school, and I had to get along as best I could because I had no education and no-one would employ me except as a labourer. I was offered a job in the docks, checking goods off a list, but I can’t read or write. I did odd jobs for the Asians. I built the first restaurant for the Asian community and I started the first minicab company for them – doing airport runs in a van and they put their suitcases in at one pound a head. They still know me as ‘Mr Benny’ among the Asians.
My goal was to buy all the barrows in Petticoat Lane. It was like a village, everybody in Petticoat Lane was Jewish and they had them for generations and there’s no way they would sell them. But I got a lucky break when I bought ten barrows in Bakers Yard. All of a sudden, the people in the market, one after another, came to me wanting to sell their barrows but I had nowhere to keep them at first – it was a nightmare. There were only two left I didn’t buy, one was Dave King and the other was Joe Feinstein.
I was always told that one man could not own Petticoat Lane’s nine hundred barrows. It was something that could not be done and they said the logistics were impossible because you have to push them all around and set them out. But I owned the whole of Petticoat Lane by 1979 – my goal was fulfilled.
The secret of it was I used to get the down and outs from the hostels to help me set up the stalls at night. As long as the vagrants could lift the stalls, they were employed – because I couldn’t get any straight person to work in the market . They were social misfits. I gave them fifty pence and a bottle of methylated spirits each. They’d go to Spitalfields Market afterwards and sleep among the boxes, and sometimes trucks ran over them or they fell in the fire. And that’s how I used to run the market.
I still come to the market seven days a week. I can’t keep out of Petticoat Lane. I always have to be doing something. I’ve never stopped. All my ex-wives are good friends, they never really divorced, only in name. They worry about me. If I was ill they’ll be there, or sending food. I lost them over work. My children never had birthdays, just as I was brought up. I bought secondhand for my children and if they wanted anything, I said, “You earn half, I’ll give you half.” I didn’t have the time for them unless they were interested in work. I don’t know anything else. I’m awake at six and I work until six.”
Today there are only sixty stalls left out of the nine hundred that once comprised the glorious realm Benny presided over. In his own estimation the lane is “completely gone,” yet it remains endlessly fascinating to him as the arena of conflict and intrigue where he forged his identity through guts and graft. He won his single-minded quest to acquire ownership of his personal universe, Benny Banks will always be the man who bought Petticoat Lane Market.
Benny Banks among the stalls in 1983
Portraits copyright © Jeremy Freedman
Click here to watch a film of Petticoat Lane Market in 1926
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