Postcards from Petticoat Lane
Today I am sending you postcards from Petticoat Lane. Here are the eager crowds of a century ago, surging down Middlesex St and through Wentworth St, everyone hopeful for a bargain and hungry for wonders, dressed in their Sunday best and out to see the sights. Yet this parade of humanity is itself the spectacle, making its way from Spitalfields through Petticoat Lane Market and up to Aldgate, before disappearing into the hazy distance. There is an epic quality to these teeming processions which, a hundred years later, appear emblematic of the immigrants’ passage through this once densely populated neighbourhood, where so many came in search of a better life.
At a casual glance, these old postcards are so similar as to be indistinguishable – but it is the differences that are interesting. On closer examination, the landmarks and geography of the streets become apparent and then, as you scrutinise the details of these crowded compositions, individual faces and figures stand out from the multitude. Some are preoccupied with their Sunday morning, while others raise their gaze in vain curiosity – like those gentlemen above, comfortable at being snapped for perpetuity whilst all togged up in their finery.
When the rest of London was in church, these people congregated to assuage their Sunday yearning in a market instead, where all temporal requirements might be sought and a necessary sense of collective human presence appreciated within the excited throng. At the time these pictures were taken, there was almost nowhere else in London where Sunday trading was permitted and, since people got paid in cash on Friday, if you wanted to buy things cheap at the weekend, Petticoat Lane was the only place to go. It was a dramatic arena of infinite possibility where you could get anything you needed, and see life too.
Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute
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