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The Markets Of Old London

September 28, 2012
by the gentle author

Clare Market c.1900

I never knew there was a picture of the legendary and long-vanished Clare Market – where Joseph Grimaldi was born – until I came upon this old glass slide among many thousands in the collection of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, housed at the Bishopsgate Institute. Scrutinising this picture, the market does not feel remote at all, as if I could take a stroll over there to Holborn in person as easily as I can browse the details of the photograph. Yet the Clare Market slum, as it became known, was swept away in 1905 to create the grand civic gestures of Kingsway and Aldwych.

Searching through this curious collection of glass slides, left-overs from the days of educational magic lantern shows – comprising many multiple shots of famous landmarks and grim old church interiors – I was able to piece together this set of evocative photographs portraying the markets of old London. Of those included here only Smithfield, London’s oldest wholesale market, continues trading from the same building, though Leather Lane, Hoxton Market and East St Market still operate as street markets, but Clare Market, Whitechapel Hay Market and the Caledonian Rd Market have gone forever. Meanwhile, Billingsgate, Covent Garden and Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market have moved to new premises, and Leadenhall retains just one butcher selling fowl, once the stock-in-trade of all the shops in this former cathedral of poultry.

Markets fascinate me as theatres of commercial and cultural endeavour in which a myriad strands of human activity meet. If you are seeking life, there is no better place to look than in a market. Wherever I travelled, I always visited the markets, the black-markets of Moscow in 1991, the junk markets of Beijing in 1999, the Chelsea Market in Manhattan, the central market in Havana, the street markets of Rio, the farmers’ markets of Transylvania and the flea market in Tblisi – where, memorably, I bought a sixteenth century silver Dutch sixpence and then absent-mindedly gave it away to a beggar by mistake ten minutes later. I often wonder if he cast the rare coin away in disgust or not.

Similarly in London, I cannot resist markets as places where society becomes public performance, each one with its own social code, language, and collective personality – depending upon the nature of the merchandise, the location, the time of day and the amount of money changing hands. Living in Spitalfields, the presence of the markets defines the quickening atmosphere through the week, from the Thursday antiques market to the Brick Lane traders, fly-pitchers and flower market in Bethnal Green every Sunday. I am always seduced by the sense of infinite possibility when I enter a market, which makes it a great delight to live surrounded by markets.

These old glass slides, many of a hundred years ago, capture the mass spectacle of purposeful activity that markets offer and the sense of self-respect of those – especially porters – for whom the market was their life, winning status within an elaborate hierarchy that had evolved over centuries. Nowadays, the term “marketplace” is sometimes reduced to mean mere economic transaction, but these photographs reveal that in London it has always meant so much more.

Billingsgate Market, c.1910

Billingsgate Market, c.1910

Whitechapel Hay Market c.1920  (looking towards Aldgate)

Whitechapel Hay Market, c.1920 (looking east towards Whitechapel)

Porters at Smithfield Market, c.1910

Caledonian Rd Market, c.1910

Book sale at Caledonian Rd Market, c.1910

Caledonian Rd Market, c.1910

Caledonian Rd Market, c.1910

Covent Garden Market, c.1920

Covent Garden Market, c.1910

Covent Garden, c.1910

Covent Garden Market, 1925

Covent Garden Market, Floral Hall, c.1910

Leadenhall Market, Christmas 1935

Leadenhall Market, c.1910

East St Market, c.1910

Leather Lane Market, 1936

Hoxton Market, Shoreditch, 1910

Spitalfields Market, c.1930

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to look at these old photographs of the Spitalfields Market by Mark Jackson & Huw Davies

Night at the Spitalfields Market

Spitalfields Market Portraits

Other stories of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

24 Responses leave one →
  1. Ana permalink
    September 28, 2012

    This is why I love this blog. It’s always filled with evocative images and accompanying text that take the reader to a bygone era. Wonderful stuff.

  2. Penelope Beaumont permalink
    September 28, 2012

    I discovered your blog earlier this year, via Wartime Housewife I think. It is a joy to read each morning. My mother grew up in College Cross in Islington. I remember spending part of my Summer holidays with my Nan in the 1950′s, we would get a trolly bus to The Angel to do the daily shop in Chapel Street market; an amazing place to a” country mouse” child. Iwonder if it is still there. I saw my first live eels wriggling around in a deep metal tray, and I also seem to remember a lady on one of the veg stalls cooking beetroot in a small dustbin; also the men selling china they somehow stacked a tea service together and be holding it while delivering their sales pitch, they would throw the whole lot into the air and catch it again still in one piece. Happy memories, thank you for that.

  3. Libby Hall permalink
    September 28, 2012

    Photographs to fall into. Most wonderful. And accompanied by exotic tales of markets to marvel at. Such places that Gentle Author has been! (I don’t like to think what it must have felt like to realise the precious-find sixpence had just been accidentally given away.)

    The second photograph of Billingsgate Market c 1910, and Leadenhall Market at Christmas in 1935 – I love the lights in those. Early morning artificial light, and early winter evening man-made light, used to have such a wonderful atmosphere: a feeling of continuity with Work in cities long past. That light seems to have vanished. You catch a glimpse of it sometimes on market stalls on winter afternoons, but otherwise I rarely find it now. That light was also in John Claridge‘s photograph of the station entrance to Upton Park in 1963. Where has that light gone? Perhaps the Giant Corporations have stolen it and replaced it with something far less human.

  4. September 28, 2012

    Women with their children, semi-queuing for the meat at James Preston Butcher. Those at the front and sides totally obilivous to the cameraman at the back taking their photo. The woman at the back glaring at the cameraman – one hand protectively gripping her baby’s pushchair. The grand perambulator containing the baby who most certainly knows that the cameraman is there. And its mother, who is so totally absorbed in buying her meat, she doesn’t see that her daily business is being captured for posterity.

    Wonderful evocative photos of London’s rich social history. Thank you GentleAuthor!

  5. andrea permalink
    September 28, 2012

    These are wonderful. So many details to notice, like the two boys sitting on the fence chatting, beside the two donkeys.

  6. September 28, 2012

    Wonderful pictures, thank you for sharing.

  7. September 28, 2012

    Fascinating…really interesting to see what’s happened to these places

  8. MNK permalink
    September 28, 2012

    Wonderful post as always. You may already know of this book, originally published in 1936,
    and reprinted in 1972: The Street Markets of London, text by Mary Benedetta, with photos by
    L. Moholy-Nagy. A fascinating and informative study of the existing markets in London at that time–many of which you have referenced in past posts. And the photos by Moholy-Nagy are a rare example of realistic work by the experimental photographer.

    Thank you again for all your lovely work that is the Spitalfield’s Life blog — always a pleasure to read every morning.

  9. Ian permalink
    September 28, 2012

    As ever your discovery of these gems elicits both joy and sorrow in me: joy that they are images preserved forever for people like us to experience and joy and, something I always feel when viewing images of the past be it photographs, paintings, whatever, a sorrow that I can’t personally walk down those streets as they were then, can’t talk to those people, hear the sounds, smell the smells. Until someone invents time travel my emotions are going to go on having that conflict

    And it’s a good job I LOVE that conflict!

  10. Ruth Hope permalink
    September 29, 2012

    Clare Market, c1900 – The shaking of the sheet gives this image an immediacy.

  11. Ruth Hope permalink
    September 29, 2012

    Caledonian Rd Market, c1910 – He’s running to get across the road before the horse runs him over?

  12. Jon Marx permalink
    September 29, 2012

    Terrific photos including a very atmospheric one of Spitalfields Market – it looks like early morning just after the sun’s up. However, the Spitalfield photo is shown the wrong way around (have a look at the lettering on the lorry in the foreground)

  13. Marsha Horwath permalink
    September 29, 2012

    Thanks again, for the wonderful old photos of a time gone by, history in action.

  14. Tyler - Jame Butler permalink
    October 1, 2012

    These photographs are amazing. I grew up n the east end of london so have seen the modern billingsgate. There is so much detail in these images.

  15. October 2, 2012

    Love those pictures of the Caledonian Market. The distinctive railings are still there – along the side of the astroturf football pitch

  16. Lorena permalink
    October 4, 2012

    A musician friend turned me onto this particular page on your blog…luckily. Now I get to look at all your finds. Thanks for posting these.

  17. Susan Calo Medina permalink
    November 14, 2012

    What happened to London’s Borough Market? It’s my favorite London destination. And why are they modernizing it?

  18. Miriam Delorie permalink
    November 23, 2012

    I have just joined this sub and think that these old pics are absolutely fantastic. I am researching my Jewish family at the moment and my father would have been 5 in 1910 – the approx. date on many of the photos. I hope there will be more photos forthcoming – they are absolutely stunning! THANK YOU! Regards, Miriam

  19. Elisabeth permalink
    January 2, 2013

    I found this blog while searching the net for Sheppard’s Market. It is absolutely wonderful, and I am going to spend hours here.

    Does anyone know where Sheppards Market was? My great great great grandfather was listed as a musician, residence Sheppards Market on his marriage certificate of 1846. I cannot find mention of it on the web except for census entries.

    OK, back to looking at the Tom and jerry pictures! Such fun! Thank you!
    Elisabeth

  20. Edith Morley permalink
    January 17, 2013

    Wonderful, wonderful pictures. Born in the City in 1935, I grew up in Hoxton. I shall become adicted to this site!! Thank you so much for sharing these beautiful pictures.
    Edith

  21. February 22, 2013

    I love the photography, where did you find the picture? There is so much depth to them.

  22. August 15, 2013

    Fascinating thank you
    Fao: Elizabeth – Sheppards Market (or should it be Shepherd’s Market) was the old name for Mayfair.

  23. linda milton permalink
    November 20, 2013

    my father is in one of your photos,and my sister joan in one too on your blog called at the pub with tony hall.also one of the pics looks like reggy cray.have you any pics of the traders in Cheshire street wardrobe market

  24. January 21, 2014

    I am trying to get some old photos of camden and kentish towns , where I grew up in the 1940/50s can you guide me

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