David Kira Ltd, Banana Merchants
To anyone that knows Spitalfields, David Kira Ltd is a familiar landmark at 1 Fournier St next to The Ten Bells. Here, at the premises of the market’s foremost banana merchant – even though the business left twenty years ago – the name of David Kira still stands upon the fascia to commemorate the family endeavour which operated on this site for over half a century.
By a fluke of history, the shop that trades here now has retained the interior with minimum intervention, which meant that when David’s son Stuart Kira returned recently he found it had not been repainted since he left in 1991 and his former office, where he worked for almost thirty years – and even his old chair – was still there, existing today as part of a showroom for shoes and workwear.
This is a story of bananas and it began with Sam Kira in Southend, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who became naturalized in 1929 and started a company called “El Dorado Bananas.” Ten years later, his son opened up in Fournier St as a wholesaler, taking a lease from Lady Fox but having to leave the business almost at once when the war came, bringing conscription and wiping out the banana trade. Yet after the war, he built up the name of David Kira, creating a reputation that is still remembered fondly in Spitalfields and, since the shop remains, it feels as if the banana merchants only just left.
“When I first came to the market as a child of seven, we lived in Stoke Newington and took the 647 trolley bus to Bishopsgate and walked down Brushfield St. Every opportunity, I came down to enjoy the action and the atmosphere, and the biggest thrill was getting up early in the morning – I always remember being sent round to the Market Cafe to get mugs of tea for all the staff. When I joined my father David in 1962, aged sixteen, my grandfather Sam had died many years earlier. There was me and my father, John Neil (who had been with my father his entire working life), Ted Witt our cashier, two porters, Alf Lee and Billy Alloway (known as Billy the thief) and we had an empty boy. Our customers were High St greengrocers and market fruit traders, and we prided ourselves on only selling the best quality produce. Perhaps this was why we had a lot of customers. It was hard work and long working hours, getting up at half past four every morning to be at the market by five thirty. I used to sleep for a couple of hours in the afternoon when I got home, until about six, then I’d get up and return to bed at eleven until four thirty – I did that six days a week.
We received our shipments direct from Jamaica through the London Docks – bananas in their green state on long stalks – they arrived packed in straw on a lorry and it was very important that they be unloaded as soon as they arrived, whatever time of day or night the ship docked, because the enemy of the banana is the cold. They were passed by hand through a hatch in the floor to the ripening rooms downstairs – it took five days from arrival until they were saleable. Since the bananas came from the tropics, it was not so much the heat you had to recreate as the humidity. We had a single gas flame in the corner of each ripening room, the green bananas hung close together on hooks from the ceiling and, when the flame was turned down, a little ethylene gas was released before the door was sealed. Once they were ripened, they had to be boxed. You stood with a stalk of bananas held between your legs and struck off each bunch with a knife, placing it in a special box, three foot by one foot – a twenty-eight pound banana box.
During the sixties, dates were only sold at Christmas but in the seventies when the Bangladeshi people arrived, we started getting requests for dates during Ramadan. I contacted one of the dates suppliers and I asked him to send me thirty cases, and they were sold to Bengali greengrocers in Brick Lane before they even touched the floor. Subsequently, we sold as many dates as we could get hold of, more even than at Christmas. During this period, we also saw the decline of the High St greengrocers due to the supermarkets, however we found we were able to compensate for the loss of trade by fulfilling the requirements of the Asian community.
Eventually, they started importing pre-boxed bananas in the eighties, so our working practices changed and the banana ripening rooms became obsolete. My late father would be turning in his grave if he knew that bananas are now placed in cold storage, which means they will quickly turn black once they get home.
In 1991, when the market moved, we were offered a place in the new market hall but trading hours became a free-for-all and, although we started opening at three am, we were among the last to open. By then I was married and had children, and without the help of my father and John Neil who had both retired, I found it very difficult to cope. It was detrimental to my health – so, after a year, I sold the company as a going concern. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but by chance I bumped into a colleague who worked in insurance and he introduced me to his manager. I realised in that type of business I could continue to be self-employed, so I trained and qualified and I have done that for the past twenty years. When I think back to the market, I only got two weeks a year holiday and I felt guilty even to put that pressure on my father and John Neil when I was away.”
Proud of his father’s achievement as a banana merchant, Stuart delighted to tell me of Ethel, the rat-catching cat – named after the ethylene gas – who loved to sleep in the warmth of the banana ripening rooms and of Billy Alloway’s tip of sixpence that he nailed to the wall in derision, which stayed there as his memorial even after he died. Stuart cherishes his memory of his time in the market, recognising it as a world with a culture of its own as much as it was a place of commerce. Today, the banana trade has gone from Spitalfields where once it was a way of life, now only the name of David Kira – heroic banana merchant – survives to remind us.
Sam Kira (far right) dealing in bananas in London and Southend.
Sam Kira’s naturalization papers.
David Kira at the Spitalfields Fruit Exchange – he is centre right in the fifth row, wearing glasses and speaking with his colleague.
David Kira as a young banana merchant.
David Kira (left) with his son Stuart and business partner John Neil.
David Kira and staff.
Stuart Kira stands in the doorway of his former office of twenty years, where his father and grandfather traded for over fifty years, now part of a shoe shop.
Stuart Kira returns to the old premises today.
David Kira Ltd, 1991
First and last pictures copyright © Mark Jackson & Huw Davies, 1991
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