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Postcards from Petticoat Lane

July 3, 2011
by the gentle author

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

You might also like to read about

Laurie Allen of Petticoat Lane

The Wax Sellers of Wentworth St

Fred the Chestnut Seller

Larry Goldstein, Toyseller & Taxi Driver

Rochelle Cole, Poulterer

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Helen permalink
    July 3, 2011

    I wonder what this place whould have smelt like… not how worse or better than now. Just how.

  2. Gary permalink
    July 3, 2011

    I remember the lane in the 1940′s 50′. There was no smell. fast food was not invented, so no food smells and the people although a lot were scruffy they washed, soap was cheap and they had a sort of pride.. You had to watch your pockets though.
    Gary

  3. AnKa permalink
    July 3, 2011

    Amazing to see the streets packed with people. The postcards bring the atmosphere to life. Thanks for sharing them.

  4. Joan permalink
    July 4, 2011

    In the 1960s and 70s we used to combine going to church with going down ‘the lane’ most weeks (except for in the summer when we were at our Leydsown caravan). We’d emerge from mass at St Mary’s and St Michael’s church on the Commercial Road and hop on a number 15 bus to the lane. Meanwhile our dad, and other men of the parish, would go to Holland’s pub. Sometimes my cousins who I regarded as living almost in the country (they lived in Ilford!) would join us as they knew that if they shopped with us (recognisable regulars) they would get a good deal on Afghan coats, jeans or whatever else was the fashionable thing to buy. The smells I associate with the lane of those days is the aforementioned Afghan coats (particularly when wet!) and hot jam doughnuts – a smell that regular features in our house now courtesy of my sons’ weekly trips to the Brick Lane beigel bake.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  5. Wellwynder permalink
    July 4, 2011

    A wonderful collection. Thanks for showing us these.

  6. Anne Forster permalink
    July 4, 2011

    I remember going to this market in the 70s, it was almost iconic and very trendy.
    Loved the old postcards.

  7. Cherub permalink
    July 5, 2011

    I worked in the City from the early 80s – early 90s, and how I used to love going down “the lane” in my lunch break for a bargain!

  8. LittleCyril permalink
    July 11, 2011

    I love the old place

  9. christine pinks permalink
    July 30, 2011

    My parents had a stall in petticoat lane,before the second world war.i have never been there ,so found the postcards very interesting .thankyou

  10. January 22, 2012

    My great-grandfather, Jacob Katzner had a fruit and vegetable stall in Petticoat Lane at the turn of the last century. He and his family lived in Wentworth Buildings. I thought if I looked closely at the postcards, I might see them. Thank you for sharing them with us.

  11. Sue permalink
    May 8, 2012

    My great grandmother, a dutch jew ,known as AUNTIE MIM[surname SMITH] used to run a secondhand jewellery/pawn shop at Petticoat Lane in the early 1900′s.
    Does anyone know anything more about her.
    Apparently she wore rings on evry finger!

  12. Elsie permalink
    June 19, 2012

    I worked at Wiggins Teape in Mansell Street from 1946-1951, so knew Petticoat Lane and Wentworth Street very well. In those days most shops were Jewish owned; one was a bakers and the delicious smell of fresh baked bread and cakes drew us to it to buy a half pound chunk of warm cake. We also used to buy our nylons from a stall in Wentworth Street at 1/- a pair. They often had the odd ladder! There was a chemist called Sokolov, where we bought Drene shampoo and Nivea cream. I loved the lane.

  13. Stephanie permalink
    June 25, 2013

    One of my aunts went down there and bought what she thought were ‘bargain’ tights. When she got home she found they all had only 1 leg. I loved the man selling plates. He used to throw them around and I don’t think he ever dropped them. I also remember someone trying to sell me a coat. She showed me how nice it was in a mirror while holding in the back of the coat to show a nice fit but these things were expected and added to the fun.

  14. frank hadley permalink
    February 14, 2014

    many thanks for showing old postcards of petticoat lane, i lived there from 1948 until moving away in 1963. many of the buildings were destroyed in the war. so it is nice to see how it looked pre war. the market was the most amazing array of little streets and goods to buy full of all the local characters. never a dull moment. sadly it has lost it’s charm.

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