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The Barrows Of Spitalfields

March 25, 2010
by the gentle author

When I saw the wooden carts and barrows in Mark Jackson & Huw Davies’ pictures of the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market, I realised that some of these old-style barrows have been sitting around in Sclater St for the past couple of years, used in the Sunday market and quietly rotting for the rest of the week. My eye was drawn to the wooden wheels, every spoke individually chamfered, an attention to detail that recalls those magnificent gipsy caravans of a century ago. There are still plenty of these barrows in use around London, from Portobello, Berwick St, Seven Dials, Leather Lane, Chapel Market to Roman Rd, though now they are relics of another age.

I asked Paul Gardner whose family have been trading as market sundriesman from the same building in Commercial St since 1870, if he could tell me anything about these carts. He recalled there was a company called Hiller Brothers that manufactured barrows in Bethnal Green and a wheelwright who repaired them in a workshop under the Bishopsgate Arches. And he had some phone numbers, which he called to seek further information but both numbers were discontinued.

You find these barrows and carts in museums and sometimes in gardens with Lobelia and Geraniums trailing out of them but I prefer to see them in use, though without wheelwrights to mend them their days are numbered as the makeshift repairs to the wheels of the Sclater St examples testify. These wheels are a smaller version of cartwheels that were once standard when all street transport was horsedrawn, sustaining the attendant wheelwrights’ and cartwrights’ trades.

That afternoon, I was walking through the empty Leather Lane Market where I came upon a couple of these barrows. Trading had ceased for the day, so I was able to squat down and take a closer look. I discovered incised lettering in an elegant italic hand that ran along all sides of the barrow and in some cases around the wheels too. The name and location of the market “Leather Lane, Holborn” plus the manufacturer and the status “On Hire.” To my surprise I came across the name “Hiller Bros” and an address in Bethnal Green, “64 Squirries St,” just as Paul Gardner told me.

I photographed a fine market porter’s hand cart in the Bethnal Green Rd Market, loaded with fruit and vegetables for sale. Paul Gardner remembered that all the local greengrocers had these to wheel down to the Spitalfields Market and collect their fresh stock daily. Years ago, he traded a trolley from his shop with an old man from the market in exchange for a huge handbarrow with heavy iron wheels that now sits in his back garden. Examining my photo of the hand barrow in Bethnal Green, I saw it was also incised with the name “Hiller Bros” and when I did a google search I even got a phone number though, to my disappointment, it no longer functioned.

So I decided to take a walk up to Squirries St, but first I took a detour to Hoxton where a friend lives in the former Lambert timber warehouse in Hoxton St and here I was able to photograph the cart which has been disassembled but stored safely under a lean-to in the yard. This one is remarkable for remaining in its premises and for its beautiful signwriting – and again I saw the incised italic script that is the standard means of identification for these carts. The script resembles the handwriting of a century ago and I wonder if once someone simply wrote in chalk along the side of each barrow and someone else followed along to carve it out. Returning to Sclater St and squatting down to read the inscriptions on these carts, I learnt one was a stray from London Fields, eternally “On Hire” from Leach Bros.

Arriving at 64 Squirries St, just off the Bethnal Green Rd, I found an unremarkable locked-up building without any signeage beyond its street number. It was padlocked from the outside, so there was no point in knocking and I could not discern any sign of recent activity. Like some frustrated detective, I was deliberating my next move when I noticed there was a small glass panel (no bigger than a postcard) in the tall steel shutter closing off the yard and I peeked through the dirty pane to discover the picture you can see at the end of this feature. I wiped the glass on the outside with my handkerchief and took a hazy photograph, filtered by grime, of broken carts in the abandoned workshop that was once the centre of a thriving trade. Please do not tell anyone about this glass panel in the steel shutter, because no-one wants lines forming on Squirries St to ogle the charnel house of carts and barrows.

Let us not collect all these carts and put them on display. It can be our secret. As long as they are around we can be gratified to see them disregarded on the street, demonstrating stubborn longevity. Injecting a little arcane poetry into any unremarkable cityscape, they are vestiges of when the world was driven by horse power.

Now I have made my discovery, I will take a closer look at each specimen I find and read the inscription to discover who constructed it and for which market – as a mark of respect to those craftsmen who were so skillful in making elegant functional things with their bare hands, still in use today when they are long gone.

54 Responses leave one →
  1. susan Lendroth permalink
    March 25, 2010

    I’ve heard of the mysterious elephants’ graveyard, but one for barrows? But maybe it is instead merely a way station, and those disassembled carts will one day, phoenix-like, rise again.

  2. julie permalink
    March 25, 2010

    The history that lives on, but only now revealed by a keen eye and curious mind.

  3. March 25, 2010

    Again, I do thank you for acquainting me with a topic that I did not previously think about, but now, because of your post, will.

    Form and function. It’s a pleasure to see designs that definitely did serve a function in the past, and still function now.

    As our current history seems to thrive on speed, and sell by dates, I wonder who might be championing what’s new and around now … in say, fifty or one hundred years.


  4. Fay Cattini permalink
    April 8, 2010

    Growing up in Spitalfields there was a Mr Holt who worked (and lived) in Wheler Street making and mending barrows for the Spitalfields Market. The firm was called E.Howard & Sons (coster barrow manufacturers)and Mr Holt worked there for 30 years or so. The family lived over the workshop and as children we would sometimes play on the flat roof over where he made the barrows. The barrows were beautiful. Very simple but efficient for what was needed.

  5. Frazer Crawley permalink
    February 1, 2011

    This is an inspiring piece of research.
    As a direct decendent of George Hiller, a cabinet maker and my Great, Great Grandfather I can reviel the history of these hand carts. His sons where respectively one a wheelwright and the other a cartwright aprentices. To deliver the cabinets George made (one of which I am looking at right now in my Kitchen) George got his sons to build him a hand cart or two. The market traders of the London Markets were so impressed that they asked if they too could have hand carts of such quality. Well the Hiller Brothers were so shrewed they did not sell the carts but rented them out to the Market traders, and Hiller Bros was bourne. The family arms have lost contact, but I know until the 1990’s Hiller Btros were still in the business of leasing out market stalls to the london markets.

    My Mother is the font of knowledge on this subject, so please ask if your interested and I’ll try to dig the detail out.

  6. March 30, 2011

    thanks for the inquisitive post,
    i’ve been harrassing hiller’s lot to change the wheels on my barrow coz my back hurts, now you’ve got me thinking i’ll struggle along with it just for the sentimental value, you can see mine on my site: abzcomputers . com, scroll down to the bottom, it’s got one of those ancient discs on the bottom that weighs a ton.

  7. May 10, 2011

    Hi There

    Does anybody know if these amazing barrows are availible to hire for the summer. Seems it would fit perfectly on our terrace in Westminster, by the thames
    Please do not hesitate to contact me if so
    Kindest Regards

  8. Vicky permalink
    May 29, 2011

    I remember these carts in Surrey Street Market in Croydon when I was a child in the 50’s & 60s. I loved them, the wheels, the lettering, the colours they were painted and the lights, lots of light bulbs strung up and across the stalls making them and the market a magical place especially in Winter when it got dark early. The stallholders were full of character, and often made me laugh. I will always remember one, holding out a container of carrots and shouting ‘rhubarb, rhubarb, bootiful rhubarb’ . Tickled me when I was 10, tickles me now I am 62.

  9. Vicky permalink
    June 1, 2011

    … and remember the copious amounts of artificial ‘grass’, showing between the boxes of fruit and veg and hanging down the front of the barrow. It all looked so exotic and tempting. Magical memories.

  10. August 11, 2011

    Pleased to see someone taking an interest in these relics …….. and I’m delighted that the two wheeled cart at Lambert’s is still there. I bought that building about 30 years ago from the Coronet Timber Co of Hoxton Street. Included in the purchase were their hand cart and their Bedford lorry both of which we used in our business.

    I sold the hand cart together with the building in 1989.

    We still have a costermonger’s barrow which occasionally goes for an outing round Vauxhall to the consternation of motorised road users.

    Best Wishes
    Adrian Amos

  11. trevor williams permalink
    December 21, 2011

    great site i thought i was the only annorak with an interest in these, i have restored about 8 of these, six 2 wheelers and 2 fourwheelers usualy its the wheels that have gone rotten , i use ash to replace the chassis, oak and ash for the wheels, most of these barrows have been bodged up with pine just to keep them going on the market ,does the job but its too soft to last you need hard wood to make them last,, i bought 6 fourwheelers from a garden centre near tower bridge about 3 years ago, one of these i built a half size bow top romany wagon, i paint them all romany gypsy style with the carvings, lining , and gold leaf, its great fun doing them up a bit of social history , i live in brighton and there is a street in the north lanes were years ago you could hire a barrow for the day for 5 shillings, people were realy skint no social security so you went out knocking on doors for rags ,scrap, or down the local fruit market for some gear that was on the turn that you could sell quickly and cheap, i have two barrows i am restoring now, i have definately have got the bug

  12. April 27, 2012

    Great site, I am researching the history of the New Cut Market in South London; one family firm that crops up over there is Tappy, Joseph started in 1910 and the firm was still going in the late 80’s. I am interested in any information that anybody might have on the family of the Tappy’s; please get in touch if you have any.

  13. simon permalink
    June 1, 2012

    Thanks for the great report.I was just admiring the Hiller Bros carts in Ridley Road. Great craftsmanship, inscriptions and details. They really have a lot of character and bring a great sense of a link with our history. Glad to see others taking an interest and sharing their knowledge. I find it sad that such an array of crafts,skills and manual trades, that used to produce great things to last, are dying out

  14. Barry J permalink
    October 7, 2012

    Hi Guys.
    Have recently bought one of these amazing hand carts and am curious if anyone has any knowledge of the registration numbers and businesses that are engraved? The cart is in exceptionally good condition and am looking forward to restoring it to its original condition and would like to find out as much as possible. Are records kept of these carts and what would have been the original colours? Any help would be greatly appreciated so we can keep our history alive. Many thanks.

  15. Mary permalink
    October 10, 2012

    I have a wheelbarrow which is I believe is a costermongers barrow. It is in a very sad state of repair and I was wondering if anyone would like it to restore to its former glory?
    I live in Brighton, Sussex.

  16. October 23, 2012

    My Father, David Bysouth now retired, used to repair these barrows and other carts etc. If you are looking for restoration, his apprentice now runs the business in Sussex (see website attached).

    However, recently, my father made me a handcart based on a London style and I have been painting it up along with the second hand wheels (on hire from Leach Bros!). It is nice to find these pages!

    Steve Bysouth

  17. October 24, 2012

    these barrows are amazing!
    would anyone be kind enough to lend a barrow or two which would be lovingly looked after for the night of the 6th November 2012. We are holding a Charity event at the Inner Temple for fund raising for CANINE PARTNERS.
    This wonderful Charity helps change the quality of peoples lives who have been disabled though illness, war etc. The dogs are trained from birth specifically for each persons needs that they partner.
    please do look at canine for further information and contact
    it would be our dream to be able to use a barrow or two for display purposes only.
    We welcome any offers!
    thank you and blessings

  18. October 25, 2012

    Hi I am in the process of setting up a new business of a juice bar, but i wanted something a little quirky to show off all the fruit and veg that will go into the juices, and i would ideally love to get hold of an original wooden fruit/veg cart. Do you know or can you put me in touch with somebody that either restores them or may have one that needs some restoration? or one that is in relatively good condition, it will only need to be for display purposes and to stay in situ.many thanks

  19. February 26, 2013

    Lovely site – and very informative. I have 2 carts which were presumably orignally hand barrows but now have shafts added. They are pulled by my donkeys and I take part occasionally in the London Harness Horse Parade with a donkey taking the fish barrow. My dad renovated it, and it has ‘for hire’ and Billingsgate’ carved in the wheels. I now own the worlds’s largest cloolectiobn of plastic fish which I use to fill baskets when out in a parade!!! I have two more, awaitning renovation – one has a metal coveirng and two big ‘clamps’ on the sdies. I was told it came from Smithfields and the metal clamps were to hold the sides of meat on. Sounds pluasible. I would dearly love to have them all in good working order, the take all of them to the Harness Horse Parade – one for fish, one for flowers, one for fuirt nad veg and one for meat! .. one day maybe. If there is anywhere else I can do any research o nthem, please share!

  20. June Crawley permalink
    March 11, 2013

    To follow on from Frazers contribution. I havebeen trying to find out what happened to the business. My cousin Robert Hiller was the last person to own the business but I and the rest of the famiy lost touch with him since his mothers funeral in the eighties. as far as I know it was still going then. It is sad to think that it just faded away. Robert qwould be 76 or 77 now and I have been trying to find him but have no luck so far.Maybe he is dead and I know he had no children. The business was originally in James street where I remember as a child going to the work shop and watching the steel band put in the fire and then round the wheels. They later moved to Squiries St. which had previously been a dairy where they had previously actually kept the cows in stalls which they then used to store the barrows. They never sold any barrows or the subsequent stalls. My uncle Leslie used to collect the rents on Saterday mornings from most of the London Markets and Street Corners they paid 2/6 per week .so he had very heavy bags of silver from which he paid my grandmother her pension, as a result she never trusted paper money and was very reluctant ot change a 10 bob note for me and felt she had given me the money and she never spent the note. We foun d several of them in her dressing table drawer when she died.

  21. Chris Field permalink
    May 19, 2013

    I AM VERY LUCKY TO Have an original barrow.

  22. Ted Nicholl permalink
    November 25, 2013

    Lovely to see someone else looking at the old stalls. My brother Ron & I worked for Bob Hiller whilst still at school. We looked after the London Fields end of his ’empire’, having previously worked for Johnny Bryant. The stalls were painted, in the Bethnal Green shop, by an old boy called Albert & always in the distinctive Hiller colours. I found it sad when they went over to the tubular iron stalls but am happy that some are still in use in Leather Lane, with my brother’s hand writing on them. It was he who welded/soldered the “Hiller Bros – On Hire”.

  23. warren permalink
    January 23, 2014

    I have a completely original Costermonger Barrow. It says on hire w.j. everett ltd. 165 drury lane, wc2 inscribed all over it. Its in mint condition. Please help as trying badly to locate its manufacturer and owner etc.

  24. Tony permalink
    January 23, 2014

    Looking to buy a market barrow can anyone help me where to find one .

  25. Mandy permalink
    February 13, 2014

    I have an original , wheeler st barrow that I may be interested in selling?

  26. February 14, 2014

    Hello i am interested in buying a barrow 2 wheel or 4 wheel any condition as ling as it is reasonably priced please contact me on 07776020247

  27. Tony permalink
    May 20, 2014

    Hi if anybody has a London market barrow /trolley for sale please call or text tony on 07775 677 670 thank you

  28. David j Gabriel permalink
    June 17, 2014

    Four wheeled barrows were market stalls ,
    Two wheeled barrows were market porters barrows used to deliver produce from spitalfields shop or stand to the back of someone’s lorry / van .
    You used too load your barrow in a way as to counterbalance so you can pick it up without tipping it up if you managed to tip it up it was called a shoot and you would damage the produce on the floor / you could get around 50 boxes of oranges on a barrow if you loaded it right you just called for a hand if you struggled to get up a hill, there was always a helping hand.

  29. Alan permalink
    July 2, 2014

    There are two on eBay right now..

  30. Lee permalink
    October 14, 2014

    Hi my dads father used to manufacture the everetts barrows in drury lane I see a post from a warren if you could contact us it would be great really trying to get one for my father as someone stole our last one in the family thanks 07787269123

  31. Gaynor Keen permalink
    April 6, 2015

    Hi, I’m so pleased we found this site. These barrows are fab and have so much history. We have an original 2 wheel barrow but due to a house move, we need sell it on. The name on the wheels are C.G.C. Ltd No 2. It needs some TLC, but its in decent condition. Some wood needs replacing or repair, but its a lovely barrow.

    If you know anyone who would like to buy it, please let me know. Unfortunately we don’t have the room in our new garden for it which is a shame. We used it as a flower display. Number is 07711669827.

  32. April 30, 2015

    Hi Gaynor,
    I might be interested in buying your cart.
    Do you still have it?
    Kind regards

  33. June 4, 2015

    Hi, this is mainly aimed at Trevor Williams who posted back in December 2011, but if anyone else can help please get in touch!

    I’m the CEO of Brixton Market Traders’ Federation CIC and we are looking to restore our last remaining traditional wooden market barrows and flat (feed) barrows back to their former glory. We have 8 market barrows and 6 flat barrows in use….when I started trading in Brixton street market there were 60 or more!

    As some contributors have stated before, this is skilled work so we need an experienced wheelwright and carpenter to carry it out. You can reach me on 07960 942060

  34. darren colburn permalink
    August 21, 2015

    I used to work as a barrow boy down balham market all the stalls were on hire from TAPPY who was from SE1 . years later I worked down new covent garden for a supply company & one day I was sent over the old govent gdn to O;Brians to hire a two wheel barrow for a photo display

  35. Sheila Poole permalink
    October 4, 2015

    I am looking for an old barrow/cart, sheila at

  36. Ellen Hiller permalink
    October 16, 2015

    I found this site whilst trying to find pictures of the carts to show my father. He has altzheimers yet still talks fondly of the old family buisness.
    I am amazed that so many people also have fond memories of them!
    Thank you so much for posting these pictures he enjoyed them very much and the memories brought a tear to his eyes.

  37. Barrie Powell I have a hand barrow with I believe was used in Covent Garden It is in good condition Wheels and Rims Good Springs also Good has beei kept dry and warm for the last 40-50 years Would sell to good home#d Springss permalink
    November 2, 2015

    Last used to my knowledge to collect sections of honey back in the 50s

  38. Amelia permalink
    November 5, 2015

    Hi i am looking for a costermonger barrow 2 wheel or 4 wheel tel 07818886552

  39. November 24, 2015

    I belong to TfLISHG (formerly the London Transport Industrial Archaeology Group) and one of our members some time ago wondered at the history of these venerable carts. What a fascinating subject – great website! I’ll have a closer look at those in our Surrey Street market in Croydon, which date back to the dim and distant.

  40. Charlie Butler permalink
    February 3, 2016

    Hello. I am looking to buy a couple of old barrows/carts. Would you know of anyone who can help/or can you direct me ..Many thanks

  41. mick thomas permalink
    March 28, 2016

    My sons partner has a genuine costermongers barrow for sale which shows “Caledonian Road N7 on side. It is in reasonable condition and has all original leaf springing. I have pictures which I can e-mail if anyone has a genuine interest. Price would be around £900-00 – £1,000. approx. My telephone number is 07745 989298. Only serious offers, please.

  42. Tony permalink
    April 1, 2016

    Hi I am looking to buy a market barrow if anyone has one please contact me on 07775 677 670 . Kind regards Tony

  43. mick thomas permalink
    April 2, 2016

    The “Caledonian Road barrow” above is no longer for sale, PLEASE DO NOT RING NUMBER SHOWN. Thank you.

  44. Michelle G permalink
    October 12, 2016

    What a delight this page is.

    I was idly looking to see if Hiller bros still existed as I have a blue 4 wheeled barrow (which I read here now where market stalls).

    On one side in beautiful cream writing is written

    On hire 27 Hiller bros 64 Squirries st E2

    On the other side,.

    27, Hiller bros Bethnal Green. On hire

    It has writing on all four wheels too.

    I have really enjoyed reading about the people that that made, painted, inscribed and used them by their families on here it has really brought the barrow to life.

    My mother a Londoner who loved the east end markets bought it in the 80’s when she moved out of London. It is as bought but could do with a good clean up but it is in good condition including the wheels for it having been left outdoors (and worked so hard in its hey day) but under cover for the last decade or so.

    I might have been inspired by this page to clean it up or possibly sell it. I have pictures of it if anyone is interested in looking at it.

    Thank you everyone for taking the time to tell us the history of these beautiful examples of craftsmanship.

  45. Darren Mcmanus permalink
    January 30, 2017

    Hi I am looking for the mobile number of one of the hiller brothers, I used to rent a stall off them selling oysters & champagne at the Tower of London, I am back in London setting up stalls again and i cannot find them anymore as the building is empty, CAN ANYONE HELPM PLEASE

  46. graham permalink
    February 22, 2017

    i have barrow e howard spittafields forsale 07938565487

  47. Marc Herbert permalink
    August 24, 2017

    Hello their I’m a greengrocer and still hire my stalls from hiller bros my dad started up in 1974 and we’ve used him all the way we hire 4 stalls from him I am on globe town market on the roman road selling fruit and Darren McManus I think I have 1 of your old stalls now Joe told me it used too sell champagne and oysters have had it for about 15 years

  48. Michael Leach permalink
    January 25, 2018

    My Grandad owned Leach Bros and used to make and maintain the stalls and supply to lots of the London markets, (his stalls were used in the film Oliver). I am trying to find one for my Dad and would appreciate it if anybody knows where I can find one, even if still in use.
    My Grandads yard was vandalised and burnt down back in the early 80’s, not insured and no prospect to get back up and running he died 6 months later.

    Thanks, appreciate any info.


  49. Louis permalink
    March 31, 2018

    Would anyone who knows a wheelright or restorers of these barrows please contact me on 07825 480951 or

    Warmest regards

    Louis McCullough

    NB. Should anyone reading this wish to buy a barrow then simply email me to express your genuine interest and I will get back to you with the prices and pictures.

  50. Lucy Dunsford permalink
    January 13, 2019

    I currently have one of these barrows for sale, almost identical to the one in these photos.
    I’m in East Sussex. Please feel free to email me if it’s of any interest lucy_dunsford16@hotmail.cim

  51. October 25, 2019

    I am a wheelwright and came across your post whilst researching the design of costermonger barrows for a project I am making. thank you for your work it was extremely helpful and very interesting. Tom Green

  52. Gary permalink
    May 25, 2021

    Hi I have 2 Vintage London market fruit and veg barrows from the golbourne road market near portobello

  53. Louis permalink
    October 31, 2021

    I have a large selection of barrow wheels for sale.

    I can be contacted on 07825 480 851.

    Louis McCullough

  54. Susan Green permalink
    March 24, 2022

    I am working on a dictionary of different animal drawn vehicles and came across this term TOTTER’S CART or DRAY – This is the name of a vehicle of British origin with the following description: “This is a flat, dray-type vehicle, similar to the HAWKER’S CART, but with a shorter wheelbase and a driving seat raised on curved or straight irons above the front wheels. Although the front wheels were formerly much smaller than those at the back, the majority are now equirotal and fitted with pneumatic tyres. The underbody of the vehicle is mounted on elliptical or semi-elliptical leaf springs, while the shafts are usually curved. Previously used by the costermongers and street traders of London, they are now mainly concerned with the collection of scrap metal and second-hand goods. Those found in other areas, especially in the Midlands and industrial North of England, are often without a driving seat…” Donald John Smith. Discovering Horse Drawn Commercial Vehicles. Aylesbury, Bucks, England : Shire Publications, 1977, page 59. Other Reference: Donald John Smith. A Dictionary Of Horse-drawn Vehicles. London : J. A. Allen, 1988, page 162. I haven’t found any other references to Totter’s cart. The dictionary definition that would fit this spells it with one T. I did find some old pictures on ebay that seem to fit this description, they are pulled by a single horse. Has anyone heard of the term Totter’s Cart?

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