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The Departure Of Ken Long

March 30, 2018
by the gentle author

Tomorrow will be Ken Long‘s last day in Chrisp St Market where four generations of his family have traded in fruit and vegetables, so I hope as many readers as possible will take this last opportunity to pay him a visit, pick up supplies for the Easter weekend, and shake the hand of a legendary East End greengrocer.

Photographer Andrew Baker introduced me to his pal Kenny Long at Chrisp St Market in Poplar. Ken is an heroic greengrocer who always sets up his stall earlier than anyone else each day and whose family have been trading in this location through four generations, since before the current market was even built.

For the past thirty years, Ken has been setting up in the dawn, after he has been to the wholesale market to buy fresh produce, wheeling out the old wooden barrows and arranging his stall in the traditional manner with the vegetables to the right and the fruit to left. On his stall sit black and white photographs of those who preceded him, as a reminder of this long-standing family endeavour, which Ken has maintained through his daily ritual out of loving devotion to those who are dead and gone.

While we chatted, Ken popped across the square to place a few bets on the horses, just as he did every day, and our conversation was interrupted by long-standing customers coming to buy. Although Ken made a good living and his work kept him fit and wiry at sixty-one years old, I learnt from him that being a greengrocer is a way of life and a way of understanding the world, as much as it is a business – as much culture as it is commerce.

In Chrisp St Market, Ken Long was the overseer of time passing and the custodian of history.

“It all stems back to before the Second World War when my great-grandmother, Ellen Walton – old granny Walton they used to call her – she had a greengrocer’s shop in Violet Rd in the thirties. My great-grandfather was a merchant seaman and in those days you could bring anything home, and he brought my mum a monkey and they used to have the monkey swinging about in the shop.

When the shop got bombed during the War, they moved onto a stall in Chrisp St Market. Old granny Walton passed the business on to my grandmother, Nell Walton – her name is on my barrow – and from her it went to her son, Freddie Walton and his sister, my mum Joanie Long, worked on the stall fifty years.

In 1951, they moved into the Lansbury Market ( as it was then) on the newly-built Lansbury Estate and we’ve been here ever since. When Uncle Freddie passed away two weeks after his sixty-fifth birthday, my mum took over. By then, I was already working on the fruit stall. My dad, William Long, was a docker and he died when I was eight in 1965. He got killed in the docks. As a child I was up here all the time, I used to come up to my nan on a Saturday and I used to run around the market. I would stay with my nan on a Saturday night and my dad would come and pick me up on a Sunday morning and take me home.

Eventually, I took the stall over from my mum and the licence changed from my uncle into my name but  - as far as I was concerned – as long as my mother worked here, she was in charge because I had to do what I was told. At first, I got involved with the vegetable end of the stall, which my aunt used to run with my uncle until she had to have her leg off and couldn’t do it no more. My uncle was going to rent it out but I overheard my mum talking about it and I said, ‘Don’t rent it out to no stranger, keep it in the family. I’ll try it for a couple of years and see how I go’ - and the rest is history. I was thirty-one when I started and this year it will be thirty years that I have been here.

When I started, my uncle let me have the vegetable end of the stall and work it for myself, and I gave him the rent to pay to the council. After about two years, he dropped down dead indoors so we shut the stall up for a week and I had to decide what I was going to do, and I decided to take it on. I had been up to the Spitalfields Market with uncle and seen what he bought and what he didn’t buy. There were four of us working here then – me, my mum, my daughter and a girl. You needed at least three then, but now trade is not what it used to be, so I get by on my own.

For a while now, my stall has been the longest-established here in the market. We’ve been here everyday, every week for as long as this market has existed. Traditionally, people bought their bread, their meat, and their fruit and veg for the weekend on a Friday. Everybody used to cook a roast dinner on a Sunday but there’s not a lot of people that do that anymore. We had customers queueing up from half past six – seven o’clock in the morning and we’d have a queue at either end of the stall. They’d buy their vegetables at one end and pay for them, and then go up to the other end and queue up to buy their fruit. My mum would be serving here, I’d have a girl serving there and I’d be serving in the middle. It was like that all the time, from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon. People who knew me would say, ‘Ken, you know what I have.’ Ten pounds of potatoes, a cabbage, a cauliflower, carrots, onions and parsnips – the whole lot for their roast dinner. Now you get customers who come on a Saturday and ask for two pounds of potatoes, a carrot and a parsnip just to get them by.

Working like I do is a dying trade, serving customers individually and weighing out fruit and veg. On the other stalls in this market and you’ll see ‘pound a bowl’ and ‘pound a bag’ - everything is pre-packed. I am a traditional greengrocer and, although I can get everything all year round now, I know when the seasons are and I know when to buy, and there’s times when I won’t buy certain things because it ain’t proper.

I known greengrocers who have worked in Roman Rd, Watney Market, Bethnal Green and Rathbone Market, packing up and nobody ever replaces them, whereas once upon a time it was family and people came in to the business, taking over from their mum or dad. That’s not happening now.

You don’t have to serve an apprenticeship, you just have to go the wholesale market with whoever you are going to take over from and you have to have some experience to know what you are selling. There’s ten different oranges I can buy, but I know to buy seedless Spanish navels because they are best oranges. Elsewhere in this market, you can buy cheaper oranges and people think it’s better value, but only because they do not understand what they are buying. The soft fruit I sell will ripen nicely, whereas much of the fruit you buy in a supermarket will not ripen until it rots because they select varieties to have a long shelf life.

You don’t always buy with your eyes. Most of my regular customers know me and they say, ‘They look lovely, what are they like?’ and I’ll say, ‘Don’t have them, have these.’ I’ve been doing this long enough to know which people will trust me. I look after my loyal customers.

I enjoy it. I’ve earned a good living. It’s been good to me and it’s been good to all the family over the years. Fifteen years ago, I said ‘When I’m fifty-five, I want to be out.’ That would have been after twenty-five years in the market. But I got to fifty-five and it was still a good living, but by then all my family who worked the stall were dead and gone, and I couldn’t walk away from it. I wouldn’t walk away from a floating ship and it was still is a living to me, but the main reason I carried on was because my conscience told me I could not walk away from it. I could not pack it in because of all the people who came before me. If they saw me walk away for no reason at all, I could see my mum giving me dirty looks, I could see Freddie turning in his grave and I could see my nan. So I thought, ‘No, I’ve got to stick it out.’

In the last couple of years, they have been refurbishing the market and everything is coming down for redevelopment, so I am going now. I’ve got two sheds round the corner which I put these stalls in every night, they’re coming down first before the work starts and that puts me out of a job. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m being pushed out but it suits me, I’m sixty-one this year. I have been trying to find reasons to go. They’ve offered me alternative accommodation but it won’t be in the vicinity. It only takes me fifteen minutes to pull all these stalls round every morning at present.

We’ve had these old barrows hired off Hiller Brothers since 1951 when we came into the market. I have always paid thirty-seven pounds sixty per month, it never goes up and they maintain them for me at no extra charge.

I’m doing my own thing here. Since my mum’s been gone, and my daughter’s been gone and the girl’s been gone, I did what I liked! As much as I was running the stall, doing the buying and sorting the money out, when they was here I was still ‘the boy.’ It was still - ‘Ken, make us a cup of tea!’ -’Ken do this!’-  ’Ken do that!’ – ‘Ken, go round the shed and get some orders’ There was three women telling me what to do. It was lovely and I did it because I thought I was supposed to, so I didn’t mind.

I have been serving people I have served for thirty years but I have had new customers come along too. I like the variety. I like being outside. I prefer the winter to the summer, because I don’t want to be here in the summer I want to be somewhere else nice. The hot weather doesn’t help all this stuff, you have to careful what you buy and how much you buy – it makes the job a little but harder. In the winter, you can buy a little bit more because it will keep an extra day or two, and in the winter you sell an even amount of fruit and veg, whereas in the summer you don’t sell a lot of veg because people don’t eat so many hot dinners.

I enjoy the job but – if I am honest – nowadays if I had a shop, I’d be shut at one o’clock because that’s when I start packing up, by two o’clock I am closing down and by three o’clock I am gone. I like getting away in the afternoon. I like getting up in the morning. I like going to the New Spitalfields Market. I like the buzz up the market, buying and running around. Things change all the time with the seasons, so you are always looking around for something different.”

Ken arrives before anyone else to pull his old wooden barrows into the market

Ken sets up his stall in the dawn while the market is empty

Ken’s grandmother Nell Walton is remembered on the side of a barrow made in Wheler St, Spitalfields

Ken’s mother, Joanie Long

Nell Walton & Uncle Freddie

Ellen Walton, known as ‘Old Granny Walton’

Each day Ken enjoys a flutter on the horses

Ken welcomes a long-standing customer

Photographs copyright © Andrew Baker

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The Departure of Richard Lee

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    March 30, 2018

    Thank you so much for this – there are some wonderful quotes in here. I especially like the bit where he said “I know when the seasons are and I know when to buy, and there’s times when I won’t buy certain things because it ain’t proper.” I get the “proper” reference – it always horrifies me to see corn on the cob for sale in January, for example.

  2. March 30, 2018

    Sad to see such a long established business closing down. Good luck to Ken! Valerie

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    March 30, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a great story about Ken Long and his lengthy career, upholding family tradition, in Crisp Street Market. He explained the “ins ‘n outs” of the business very well.

    Particularly –“I am a traditional greengrocer and, although I can get everything all year round now, I know when the seasons are and I know when to buy, and there’s times when I won’t buy certain things because it ain’t proper.” As we know, that is no longer the case with larger markets. (Just noticed that Susan also referenced this quote.)

    Glad to know that Ken has prospered at the family trade and I wish him a long and “fruitful” retirement…

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 30, 2018

    A wonderful lifetime story, and I love the barrows! Sorry to see ‘redevelopment’ has finally pushed Ken into retirement, but may he enjoy many years of good health and fun ahead of him. Well deserved, after a lifetime of service to the community.

  5. John permalink
    June 10, 2018

    Great history and it is a shame that the stalls are closing. Sadly though, having come from a family myself who managed fish stalls in Walthamstow and in Hackney from after WW2 until the 1990s, this business is simply not going to sustain youngsters looking for a career. In the 1970s, my Dad used to work 3 days a week and was regularly earning almost double the average man’s weekly wage. Today, that is not achievable by some way. My dad always put the reasons for market life dying off as being: (1) rise and influence of supermarket shopping; (2) women needing to work 5 days a week to service higher mortgage/rent costs for every family; (3) the impact of refrigeration/freezers in homes form the 1980s onwards; (4) and car parking (and people’s obsession with needing the car to get their weekly shop).

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