At Globe Town Market Square
“It’s West End quality, East End prices!” declared Del Downey, third generation fishmonger, in proud response to my delight at buying a beautiful pair of fresh plaice for a mere seven pounds at Globe Town Market Square in the Roman Rd yesterday.
It was a rare flash of emotion for such a dignified gentleman. Yet when Del heard the cry of a gull overhead and placed a couple of sprats on the roof of his van, and two seagulls came and he confided to me they were called George and his wife – after his father and mother – I realised Del was a fishmonger with the soul of a poet. “I’d like to think, if there is an afterlife, it might be the spirits of my mum and dad, looking after me.” he added with a tender grin, before returning to the business of cleaning fish after this unexpected moment of poetry in the midst of the working day.
I had not come to Globe Town Market Square in search of poetry and, perhaps, this nineteen fifties shopping precinct is not the most picturesque of locations for a market. But – speaking with Del Downey the fishmonger and Leslie Herbert who sells fruit and vegetables from a collection of ancient barrows – I quickly discovered that these two traders, who have operated side by side here as long as anyone can remember, carry between them an inheritance of East End market life stretching back generations. And, if Del’s speculation is true, their forebears are still hovering overhead in the form of a flock of herring gulls.
“My family have been selling fish in the East End for a hundred and thirty years,” revealed Del, who has been in the business himself for thirty-seven years, “My grandfather Cornelius Downey had a shop in Bethnal Green opposite the Repton Boxing Club and my father George started with a stall down the Roman Rd in the nineteen thirties with his brother Harry, from when he was fifteen. I’ve seen whole generations of customers go through, from grandparents, to their children and their babies. It’s quite easy here because I know what my customers want, and how much they like to spend, before they even speak. That’s what a family business is all about.”
And then, as if in confirmation of this, Del intuited that his next customer wanted the middle part of a piece of cod, which prompted her to admit, “I’m sixty and my mum brought me here when I was a baby. I remember your dad, short, fat and handsome. I’ve been coming here all my life.” Del smiled coyly and wrapped up her fish. “See ya’ later!” she called brightly and was on her way. “I’m quite happy with the trade I’ve got,” Del confessed to me, with a private smile of satisfaction as he returned to filleting mackerel, his bare hands glowing pink in the icy cold to match his ruddy features that were as weather-beaten as those of a fisherman. Certainly there was a constant stream of custom, even as we chatted, though Del assured me that this was a quiet week because the supply of fish had not yet fully resumed after the holiday break.
“I just sell English fish, we’re an island surrounded by fish.” he said as he worked, scraping a wooden comb across the fish to remove the scales with its iron spikes and speaking half to himself, without lifting his gaze from his work, “It’s the best fish in the world and people are used to eating the best. They come and ask for the middle bit of the cod and they know they can get it – that’s the privilege of living in this country.”
Del’s neighbour Leslie Herbert’s ancestry in markets is equally noble. “It must be thirty odd years,” he exclaimed, scratching his head in puzzlement as searched back in his mind, “My family has always had fruit and veg stalls in the Roman Rd. My dad Leslie, my grandad Wally, they were all in the game and before that I don’t really know… Wally died when my dad was fourteen and then he carried on until he was eighty four. So when I left school at sixteen, I had a job and I went straight into it. I enjoy my work, I’ve never been a lazy person but as I get older I feel it a bit more. I’m sixty-one.”
“I’ve always tried to sell good stuff at a reasonable price. On Mondays, I buy the apples, oranges and lemons at the Spitalfields Market, but I go back every day to get fresh vegetables. The market opens at midnight so I have to be there by two to get the proper stuff. Then I start setting up here at six thirty and finish at two thirty. The only time I don’t set out is when it snows. The rain and the wind we can deal with it, but when it snows people don’t come out. Sundays and Mondays are my days off. In Summer, Monday is my fishing day.”
Leslie’s son Mark served the customers while he and I chatted, and Leslie showed off his wooden barrows that are more than a hundred years old. “I’ve had this once since I started,” he told me squatting down to show the carved lettering indicating the makers, Hiller Bros. Placing his hand protectively on a handmade wheel, “These can’t be replaced,” he assured me. “In the warm weather, we have to hose the wheels down otherwise the wood shrinks and the iron rims fall off.”
Leslie stood and observed the line of different races all waiting to buy fruit and vegetables at his stall. As former East Enders have moved out to the suburbs and newcomers have taken their place, he has discovered that immigrants bring a culture of home cooking which has benefited his trade, counteracting the loss of business to supermarkets. “We are always especially busy around Ramadan. Dates are a big seller,” he told me, contemplating changing times.
Del Downey sells his fish at the price his regular customers can afford and accepts a low profit margin as a consequence, because their loyalty means he is able to earn sufficient to make a modest living that he knows is reliable. Similarly, Leslie Herbert sells fruit and vegetables that are fresher and cheaper than you will find in a supermarket. So, although Globe Town Market Square once used to be full of stalls and now there are only a few, I hope there are enough people in the East End who recognise the value offered by such a market – enough to sustain these stallholders and keep this culture alive.
Leslie Herbert with his son Mark.
Carol Goggin, another celebrated stalwart of Globe Town Market Square.
Del and George, his pet seagull.
Globe Town Market Square
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman