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Colin O’Brien’s Brick Lane Market

June 19, 2011
by the gentle author

Let us take a walk through Cheshire St, Brick Lane, Sclater St and Club Row in the company of photographer Colin O’Brien to experience the life of the Sunday market in the nineteen eighties.

“I loved markets as a child, because I grew up during the nineteen forties in Clerkenwell and I used to go to Leather Lane to hear the patter of the stallholders. There is this mystique about markets for me. I love being surrounded by people and I feel safe in a crowd.” Colin told me, his grey eyes shining in excitement, as we made our way through the crowd onto the bare ground between Cheshire St and Grimsby St where traders sold their wares upon the frozen earth, by the light of lamps and candles.

“I’m a bit of a collecting sort of person, myself.” Colin admitted as we scanned the pitiful junk on sale, so carefully arranged in the frost, “I like old things.” It was a bitterly cold morning which led me to ask Colin why we were there. “I tend to go when it’s snowing,” Colin revealed cheerfully as we picked our way through the slush on Brick Lane, “there is a comradeship and drama.”

Examining Colin’s pictures later, just a fraction of the total, I realised that most were taken when the market was clearing up and portrayed individuals rather than the crowd. “Packing up is when everything happens,” he explained to me, “they dump all the unsold stuff in the street and the scavengers come to take it. You look at what’s discarded and it’s the history of the time.”

I noticed that the woman sitting at the centre of Colin’s photograph “Coming & goings at the corner of Brick Lane” was surrounded by five men and yet not one was looking at her. I realised that he had photographed her invisibility, and that the same was true for his other soulful portraits of market-goers, market-traders, homeless people, old people and marginal characters – all portrayed here with human sympathy through the lens of Colin O’Brien, yet  gone now for ever.

On Brick Lane.

At Club Row.

Comings and goings at the corner of Brick Lane.

At the time of the miners’ strike.

Boy with a typewriter on Cheshire St

Taking down the stalls on Brick Lane.

On Sclater St

In Cheshire St.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

More photographs by Colin O’Brien

Colin O’Brien, Photographer

Travellers’ Children in London Fields

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    June 19, 2011

    Clothes and perms aside, these could have been images from much earlier than the 1980s. I can remember being driven into London through the East End (from Essex) in the 1970s and still seeing pockets of post-war bomb damage, which was quite shocking for a child living in a modern house in middle class comfort.

    Thanks for these moving images. Black and white says so much more than colour.

  2. June 19, 2011

    Incredible and very moving pictures – I lived near there for some years, but was always more familiar the 19th century than with recent history. These are wonderful and insightful.

  3. June 20, 2011

    The second to last photo is very moving, such a hopeless scene.

  4. June 20, 2011

    Thanks for these pictures. I moved into the area just as it started to get gentrified but I’d never seen it in such light before.

  5. Richard permalink
    June 20, 2011

    These photos bring the song ” Streets of London” by Ralph McTell to mind and remind me of the nights when I used to help with a soup kitchen that stopped on the corner of Brick lane. We met many people who were homeless and seemed to have lost hope but there was an old lady, with her bags of clothes, who used to come by to chat. She did not always take any food from us but loved to chat with us. She was called Ethel and was one of a few that made you realise that giving up is not an option. Wonderful photos that bring back strong memories.

  6. bat020 permalink
    June 23, 2011

    Thanks for these wonderful photos. I’ve lived in the area for the past 15 years and they vividly capture what’s been lost in the recent “regeneration” of the area. One very minor point: the first set of photos seems to be from the 1990s rather than the 1980s – note the presence of an 0956 mobile phone number!

  7. Freddie N permalink
    September 26, 2011

    Great for sharing these wonderful pictures. I worked as a market trader through the whole of the Eighties on Sclater St and also Cheshire St with my late Dad (during my school years). I often look for photos of the area during that time and these are exactly how i remember. Few words can describe that time and place but your photos do the job very well.

    All the best,

    Freddie N

  8. November 16, 2011

    I can just say a big WOW!!! AMAZING takes me back to the olden days! Compared to my sophisticated life in my luxury palace, a BIG difference, what a life!

  9. November 25, 2011

    Colin – these pictures are extraordinary. I had a shop on Cheshire St for a couple of years (the robot shop) and watched with dismay as the old and unfortunate were displaced by the feckless scions of the middle classes.

    Blackman’s shoes is the only honest shop left, and the old man died recently.

    I’m in India writing a book ‘A Year Among the Robots’ right now, which talks about much of the stuff you have eloquently captured in photographs. If you haven’t already seen them, take a look at Berkoff’s photos of the East End taken thirty years ago: http://www.paulsmith.co.uk/paul-smith-world/exhibitions/berkoffs-east-end/

  10. D BAKER permalink
    December 9, 2011

    Heard about this amazing website from antiques trade gazette and find C O B’s pics quite nostalgic,
    and bringing back memories from about 1963 to the early 70′s when I worked a stall in Brick Lane on the corner of Sclater ST on Sundays and on Saturdays I was in the Roman Road outside the Needle Gun pub. I also remember the animals being sold in the 50′s and early 60′s in fact Club Row was known more for these sales and was more for locals than visitors who frequented Mddx St just a few hundred yards away. I went back several weeks ago for the first time in 40 years and a lot of the buildings remain and of course the 24 hour bagel shop, it all seemed very familiar with the exception of the more up to date clothing worn. Brick Lane further down has changed and the brewery site is no more. Again thanks for these wonderful pics. DGANDJB

  11. Robert Green permalink
    August 30, 2013

    I feel very sad when I look at these picture’s, I see so many face’s hear that are no longer with us, people that I remember even as a boy, To this day, I have worked on Sclater st every Sunday for over 42 year’s, (I’v only missed a few week’s in 1976 when I broke my leg ! ! ) I love this market, My whole life has revolved around it, But it is changing so much now, and so fast, I fear for it’s future, So few of the old face’s are left, And most of the new generation of people who frequent the area now have no real interest in engaging with the tradition’s of this historic East London street market, I have an uneasy feeling that the diminishing band of stalwart’s like myself who are fighting a desperate bid to preserve this famous East End tradition, are doing so in vain, For in reality, I think we are now fighting a cause that is already lost, in all but name.

  12. July 11, 2014

    I was born and grew up in Bethnal green ,a great place to be a kid in the 1960-1970s all those dumps debris and bombed houses ,and brick lane on a Sunday was out of this world …..great days great memory’s ….

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