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David Kira Ltd, Banana Merchants

December 30, 2011
by the gentle author

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.

The banana trade ceased during World War II.

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

You may also like to read about

Jimmy Huddart, Spitalfields Market Porter

Peter Thomas, Fruit & Vegetable Supplier

Ivor Robins, Fruit & Vegetable Purveyor

John Olney, Donovan Brothers Ltd

Jim Heppel, New Spitalfields Market

Blackie, the Last Spitalfields Market Cat

A Farewell to Spitalfields

and take a look at these galleries of pictures

Night at the Spitalfields Market, 1991

Spitalfields Market Portraits, 1991

20 Responses leave one →
  1. December 30, 2011

    Nice story, well told. Loved the pictures of an area I knew well.

  2. December 30, 2011

    Another great piece from this great blog.

    You cannot buy decent bananas in London – the skins are going black in the shops and now we know why – they are put in cold storage. Your avid reader Annette

  3. December 30, 2011

    Very enlightening, I didn’t know anything about the banana trade, and was particularly fascinated by the ripening rooms and techniques. Thank you!

  4. Alison Kira permalink
    January 7, 2012

    A wonderful, wonderful piece telling the story of my family history from my Great Grandfather Sam to my Grandfather David and my own father Stuart. I hope other people get as much pleasure out of reading this as I did. Thank you for preserving the memories of Spitalfields.

  5. Michael Temple permalink
    January 7, 2012

    I acted for david during the years he traded and always found him a delight to work with . I am proud to be a small part of his family history, much of which I was unaware. I wish Stuart and children a happy and healthy future.

  6. Derek Simons permalink
    January 8, 2012

    Lovely nostalgic and enlightening story providing fond memories, especially of David, one of life’s true gentlemen and characters. Also credit to the current occupants for retaining the character of the building.
    Best wishes to Stuart and all the family.
    Off to the supermarket to get my blackened bananas now!

  7. Philip Lackmaker permalink
    January 8, 2012

    Fascinating story. I believe my fathers family were also in the banana trade in Spitalfields market. I have a childhood memory of my grandfather Daniel Lackmaker taking me to the market to visit his cousins. That would have been around 1946 or 7. Does anyone remember The Lackmakers in Spitalfields?

  8. Stuart Kira permalink
    January 8, 2012

    I remember Lackmakers very well both in the old and new Spitalfields Markets. The company was H. Lackmaker whose managing director was Harry Lackmaker . His main salesman was David Ryner and his son-in-law Bob Butler was in charge of the ripening process. Harry was easily recognised by his prominent handlebar moustache. I am still in touch with Bob and Harry ‘s daughter Paula.

  9. Greg Leigh permalink
    January 8, 2012

    Memories of Spitalfields Market come flooding back.
    My great uncle, Morris Mekelburg, started his fruit business in the market, about
    1930 , trading as :- M. Mack ( Spitalfields ) Ltd. at 44-46 Brushfield St. ( two shops away from
    Percy Dalton , ( corner of Crispin St.).
    Followed soon after by his nephew , (my dad ) Joe Leigh, (also known in the trade as Joe Mack).
    I joined him in 1963 (aged 16 ) until 1988 , when the market closed and relocated.
    I remember well the market life and all the characters , including David Kira (and Stuart).
    Would be nice to wind the clock back , just for a few minutes.

  10. Philip Lackmaker permalink
    January 9, 2012

    Thanks Stuart, unfortunately my dad didnt keep in touch with his family so I dont know or have contact with any other Lackmakers at all.. My dads name was Sam and I would be interested to know if Harry’s daughter has any contact with other members of the family if you wouldnt mind passing that on to her.

  11. Jackie Lackmaker permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Hi Philip. My husband David is Harry’s nephew and son of Alfred Lackmaker, who was also in the banana business, which was called J Lackmaker when in Spitalfields. J stood for Jack Lackmaker who started the business in the 30′. Unfortunately he had a falling out with his brother (also Harry). There are four families descended from Jack, and we are in touch with each other at Weddings and Barmitzvahs. David Ryner is also Harry’s nephew via his mother Ann. Ann and her sister Julie survive as does Harry’s widow, Tina. I know that David Ryner and my sister-in-law have done quite a bit on the geneology.

    Please be in touch as we would love to meet you and introduce you to your lost family. (lackmaker@btopenworld.com

    Incidentally the other Philip Lackmaker on the internet is our younger son – small world.

  12. Vanessa Green permalink
    January 23, 2012

    Hi Stuart, wonderful, wonderful memories. Your early memories echo exactly how I used to feel trundling after Dad (Lionel Green of Green Bros – for those who may remember him) when I was a little girl. It was always such a treat to go to market with him and I was always spoilt rotten by all the suppliers and porters, and especially your Dad, Uncle Dave, who always gave me a little treat. The photos are great too. I’ll always remember the colours, sounds and smells ….

  13. Toni Golfetto permalink
    January 24, 2012

    This is a message for Phillip Lackmaker, I am Harry Lackmaker’s grand-daughter and I have spoken to my grandmother and she remebers your father very well. It would be good to get in touch if you would like to talk some more. My e-mail address is fiore_toni@hotmail.com

    I look forward to hearing from you soon

    Toni

  14. Renee Griller permalink
    April 10, 2012

    Reading the stories, brought back nostalgic memories, I remember as a child skating to the Market to visit Dave, one of the kindest persons and like an older brother to me.

  15. malcom harris permalink
    September 1, 2012

    My father David Kellinger who died at the age of 26 in 1941, worked and was a patner with David Kira

  16. Bill Donnelly permalink
    May 12, 2013

    Fascinating reading, thank you.

    I bought a vintage wooden banana container today, it had David Kira’s name and business address on it so I Googled it and found more than I’d imagined I would!

  17. Michele permalink
    August 28, 2015

    I remember a David Ryner from a club in London called Blazes – must have been in early 1970s – i am sure he sold Bananas lol.

  18. Tom lucy permalink
    September 28, 2016

    Is Johny Neil still alive ?

  19. david morgan permalink
    January 26, 2017

    He was our uncle Dave, when we visited him in the mid-sixties he used to take me and my brother, Stephen, to see the bananas ripening. We never quite realized what a tough business it was. He was always so friendly, so positive. Stuart also had a good sense of humour. So long ago yet the facade and the house remain unchanged? Good old East-End Londoners.

  20. Tom lucy permalink
    April 5, 2017

    Is David clanger still alive ?

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