The Battle for London’s Markets
Today I am republishing this piece that I wrote for The Guardian last week, which many readers may not have seen yet.
Billingsgate Market 1809 (click to enlarge)
In recent years, the term “marketplace” has become increasingly used to refer only to economic transactions, yet for the people of London the market has always been something more – an arena of possibility and a place of cultural exchange, bound up with the identity of the city itself since its earliest origins.
When Thomas Rowlandson was commissioned to draw the human figures onto Augustus Pugin’s architectural plates of Covent Garden Market and Billingsgate Market as part of the Microcosm of London in 1809, he delighted in the sharp contrast between the human idiosyncrasies of the traders and the uniform classical architecture of the new buildings that sought to contain the markets. This tension, between the essentially chaotic nature of markets and those who would like to control them, persists to our own day.
Within the last month, we have seen the abolition of the licensed porters of Billingsgate Market by the City of London Corporation acting with the support of the fish traders, who were eager to replace them with cheaper, unregulated labour. Yet the dramatic irony of this action only became apparent a few days later, when the traders themselves were given notice on their leases in the market by the City Corporation.
Now, as the fish porters consider whether to accept employment under poorer conditions, the traders have to ask themselves where their businesses are going to be in two years’ time. Both parties must be nursing bruised emotions and contemplating recent events in the light of the traditional honour code of markets, in which each man is only as good as his word.
The events at Billingsgate follow a pattern established when Covent Garden Market moved from central London to Vauxhall in 1979 – the loss of porters’ rights prior to transition to a new building and then redevelopment of the former premises into a shopping mall or corporate offices. The City of London Corporation has a plan to create a one-stop market for meat and fish at Leyton in east London, alongside the New Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market that relocated there in 1991. And the human costs, such as those suffered by the porters at Billingsgate, are incidental to their grand scheme.
By purely following an economic imperative, the authorities miss the wider cultural function of markets. Aside from the cultural loss to the city, it ignores our need for alternative places to buy fresh produce that might counteract the dominance of the supermarkets – not just a marginal concern as Britain struggles with an obesity crisis. I cannot walk through Covent Garden today without my heart sinking at the sight of all the chain stores. There is an undeniable sense that the authentic life of the city has gone.
While these inner-city markets may no longer be effective as wholesale operations, they would be an asset to London if the buildings could operate as retail food markets, allowing smaller suppliers to offer a greater choice of fresh produce direct to the customer. We need only to look to the European continent to see how large food markets can be retained successfully at the heart of the city. The novelty and appeal of supermarkets is long gone and, if there is a street market nearby, you can readily be assured of better quality produce at a keener price.
In the East End of London, there has always been an understanding that if all else fails, if you cannot get a job, if you cannot afford to rent a shop, you can always sell things in the market – and, even if you have nothing to sell, you can always find things in the street and sell them. In fact, some of the largest chains such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer had their origin in these modest circumstances. And it is here at the boundary of the City, in what has historically been London’s market district, that the battle for the life of London’s markets is being played out at street level.
The battle for London’s markets is not yet lost. Tower Hamlets council unexpectedly refused permission for the demolition of the London Fruit & Wool Exchange in Spitalfields recently, obstructing redevelopment into corporate offices and a shopping mall. And, in another heartening initiative, the independent shopkeepers and small traders of east London are currently banding together to launch a union – the East End Trades Guild – to fight for their survival in the face of avaricious landlords courted by chain stores who would like to create another Covent Garden.
By their very nature markets are contingent, and the history of London records many legendary lost markets that are long gone, from the forum of Londinium, through to Shepherd Market and Haymarket off Piccadilly in the 18th century, Clare Market in the 19th century and Caledonian Market in the 20th century. As manifestations of human resourcefulness, markets will always be with us and I put my faith in the ingenuity of the street traders to elude control and enliven the metropolis with their presence, because markets are the place where commerce becomes culture. They are the soul of our city.
Covent Garden Market 1809
Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute
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