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Tony Bock At Watney Market

February 25, 2013
by the gentle author

Tony Bock took these pictures of Watney Market – published here for the first time today – while working as a photographer on the East London Advertiser between 1973 and 1978. Within living memory, there had been a thriving street market in Watney St, yet by the late seventies it was blighted by redevelopment and Tony recorded the last stalwarts trading amidst the ruins.

In the nineteenth century, Watney Market had been one of London’s largest markets, rivalling Petticoat Lane. By the turn of the century, there were two hundred stalls and one hundred shops, including an early branch of J.Sainsbury. As a new initiative to revive Watney Market is launched this spring, Tony’s poignant photographs offer a timely reminder of the life of the market before the concrete precinct.

Born in Paddington yet brought up in Canada, Tony Bock came back to London after being thrown out of photography school and lived in the East End where his mother’s family originated, before returning to embark on a thirty-year career as a photojournalist at The Toronto Star. Recalling his sojourn in the East End and contemplating his candid portraits of the traders, Tony described the Watney Market he knew.

“I photographed the shopkeepers and market traders in Watney St in the final year, before the last of it was torn down. Joe the Grocer is shown sitting in his shop, which can be seen in a later photograph, being demolished.

In the late seventies, when Lyn – my wife to be – and I, were living in Wapping, Watney Market was our closest street market, just one stop away on the old East London Line. It was already clear that ‘the end was nigh,’ but there were still some stallholders hanging on. My memory is that there were maybe dozen old-timers, but I don’t think I ever counted.

The north end of Watney St had been demolished in the late sixties when a large redevelopment was promised. Yet, not only did it take longer to build than the Olympic Park in Stratford, but a massive tin fence had been erected around the site which cut off access to Commercial Rd. So foot and road traffic was down, as only those living nearby came to the market any more. The neighbourhood had always been closely tied to the river until 1969 when the shutting of the London Docks signalled the change that was coming.

The remaining buildings in Watney St were badly neglected and it was clear they had no future. Most of the flats above the shops were abandoned and there were derelict lots in the terrace which had been there since the blitz. The market stalls were mostly on the north side of what was then a half-abandoned railway viaduct. This was the old London & Blackwall Railway that would be reborn ten years later as the Docklands Light Railway and prompt the redevelopment we see today.

So the traders were trapped. The new shopping precinct had been under construction for years. But where could they go in the meantime? The new precinct would take several more years before it was ready and business on what was left of the street was fading.

Walking through Watney St last year, apart from a few stalls in the precinct, I could see little evidence there was once a great market there. In the seventies, there were a couple of pubs, The Old House At Home and The Lord Nelson, in the midst of the market. Today there are still a few old shops left on the Cable St end of Watney St, but the only remnant I could spot of the market I knew was the sign from The Old House At Home rendered onto the wall of an Asian grocer.

I remember one day Lyn came home, upset about a cat living on the market that had its whiskers cut off. I went straight back to Watney St and found the beautiful tortoiseshell cat hiding under a parked car. When I called her, she came to me without any hesitation and made herself right at home in our flat. Of course, she was pregnant, giving us five lovely kittens and we kept one of them, taking him to Toronto with us.”

Eileen Armstrong, trader in fruit and vegetables

Joe the Grocer

Gladys McGee, poet and member of the Basement Writers’ group, who wrote eloquently of her life in Wapping and Shadwell. Gladys was living around the corner from the market in Cable St at this time.

Joe the Grocer under demolition.

Frames from a contact sheet showing the new shopping precinct.

Photographs copyright © Tony Bock

You may like to see these other photographs by Tony Bock

Tony Bock, Photographer

17 Responses leave one →
  1. Maureen Gardner permalink
    February 25, 2013

    So lovely to see the elderly ladies with their pushchairs, which must have been the inspiration for the shopping trollies.

  2. joan permalink
    February 25, 2013

    Good to see Eileen Armstrong selling spuds while beautifully turned out in tailored coat and head scarf in the fourth photo. I was at school with her daughter and remember her always looking like this.

    The thing I most associate with the old Watney Market is cheese being cut with a cheese string!

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  3. Peter Holford permalink
    February 25, 2013

    I like these. Tony really captured the essence of the East End. The one thing which really dates the pictures for me – beyond the fashions – is the way fags were an appendage to many peoples’ hands. Two pictures especially just stood out – perhaps because I never did smoke.

  4. February 26, 2013

    Wonderful Photographs! I also photographed Gladys McGee a few years after Tony. He’s really captured the essence of an era.

  5. Cherub permalink
    February 27, 2013

    When you see photos like this you realise how much community has been lost over the years, all over the UK. When i was a child in the 60s, the main street in my little Scottish backwater was bustling with old ladies just like these. Everyone went to the grocer, the butcher and the fishmonger; the Co-op for things like shoes and drapery items. Sadly these traders are no more, we have the sterile environment of an ASDA in their place.

  6. isa permalink
    March 9, 2013

    I donnot know why these black and white photographs make me sad.A time passed people capture living their lives.Welcome now to prepacked sterile supermarkets, with their tasteless food.We should all find and support our local markets and small independent shops.

  7. brian permalink
    March 9, 2013

    the women pushing the pram & smoking in the eight picture is my mum Annie . how wonderful to see an old pic of my dear old mum here . she is 81 years old now

    thank you tony very much

  8. rachelle leary permalink
    April 13, 2013

    seeing those photoes almost made me cry, i grew up in the 60s in shadwell gdns and remember going up watney to get shopping for my mum before going to school and remember the old shops it was good to see them again and remember, thanks very much..

  9. Sheri Webb permalink
    August 20, 2013

    The Lady in the Bakers serving, is my Mum Pat Crosher. Mum has sadly passed away, but I remember her working in the shop.

    Sheri

  10. Ules Moreno permalink
    October 16, 2013

    I love the comments section on this article. I’m trying to find out when the ethnic make-up of the streeters and shoppers changed. Can anyone clue me in?

  11. David Delay permalink
    November 1, 2013

    Just found this site after listening to Robert Elms on the radio. Watney Street was part of my childhood, the memories come flooding back, of the days before everything was pre-packed or you had to buy six of anything! I would certainly have to agree with my father, when we got our first fridge that ” nothing will ever taste the same again.”
    Keep up the good work. Fantastic memories!!!

  12. Bernice Fullerton permalink
    January 18, 2014

    Great pictures. I was born in 1970, so I only remember the new precinct as a little girl. Lovely to see what it was like before I remember it. Eileen Armstrong was a trader in fruit and vegetables for many years once the new market was set up and I had my first job in the Sainsbury’s supermarket in 1986. It was a really good market for many years.

  13. Doris Harrison nee Proctor permalink
    January 29, 2014

    I grew up in Watney street from birth in 1945 until 1966 when I married. We lived over the Mason’s Arms pub in Masons flats. The windows over looked the market and the entrance was in Blakesley st. opposite a men’s urinal that stood in the centre of Blakesley street. On the opposite corner was Miss Sharod the Newsagent.
    We were surrounded by bomb sites, to the side the bomb site of Blakesley st. school, to the back the bomb site of Christ church and opposite across Watney street was the bomb site which had been shops and flats.
    Lovely to see all these old photos.

  14. Ernie Leahy permalink
    February 7, 2014

    My mother in law & Father in law, Phil & Tilly Selby used to sell newspapers outside Shadwell station in the 50′ & 60′s .I’m sorry there are no photo’s of them that’s because they were always
    in The Lord Nelson or The Old House at Home.

  15. David Lierens permalink
    March 26, 2014

    the first picture was my dad’s shop. I used to work with him at the weekends. originally my granddads (Alf) aka Dutchie. It became so run down that even the burglars didn’t bother robbing it. After demolition we moved to a bomb site near the new market. Thanks for the memories.

  16. Adele Lester permalink
    April 5, 2014

    Many memories here. My uncle, Sammy, sold tomatoes off a stall on Saturdays through the fifties and early sixties. Before and after the war my grandfather had a fruit stall in the same pitch.

  17. Carol permalink
    November 22, 2014

    It was tatty, dirty, crowded and noisy and I loved it x

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