Skip to content

At the New Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market

September 6, 2010
by the gentle author

Last week, twenty years after he photographed the final months of the old fruit & vegetable market, Mark Jackson returned to Spitalfields for the first time. Shortly after completing his year’s photographic project in collaboration with Huw Davies in 1991, Mark took a job in Scotland where he has spent the intervening decades, but at the invitation of Janet Hutchinson of the New Spitalfields Market Tenants’ Association, he was persuaded to return for one night to photograph the fruit & vegetable market as it is now.

Mark came down from Aberdeen on the train and we met for a late drink at The Golden Heart in Commercial St, before taking a night bus to Hackney Wick and walking East until we came to the New Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market, blazing with light through the darkness and rain. Although the market has been operating in Leyton successfully for nearly twenty years now, it still describes itself as “new.” And for Mark, it was a paradoxical experience, simultaneously familiar and unknown.

“The first aspect to strike me was the size of the new market, even the car park is vast – a stark contrast to the old lorry park at the top of Brushfield Street in E1 – it resembles a giant rave for white vans! Another difference is that the market is closed to the public now, late night revellers used to pour through the old market on their way home in 1990. Today there is a sense of being removed from the centre of London geographically, although not in spirit because the new market retains the same hum of business, the same frantic pace of sell, load and banter.

Over the years my memory has become monochrome. Huw and I worked in black and white and began to think in terms of contrast, shadows and grain, whereas the modern market is dominated by colour. Piles of fruit create an entire spectrum now the market is lighter, powerfully illuminated, and the produce is stacked much higher. Remarkably, some of the wooden carts I photographed still survive, but they are scattered thinly, replaced by a superhighway of forklifts swinging past like muscular daleks with tight turning circles.

The new building reflects the structure of the original with wide avenues and a roof constructed of girders, and a long thin line of overhead lamps. Yet in spite of the modern environment, some of the traders still have the same old desks and the clock on the main avenue was familiar, but I noted that very few of the salesmen wore the long overall that was almost a trademark uniform years ago. Although the languages and accents are more varied today, I recognised quite a few faces from before the move and a couple even remembered me too. Some I recalled working with their fathers when I was last here.

Twenty years ago, I returned frequently to photograph and absorb the spirit of Spitalfields – I revelled in it. By comparison, this was a flying visit and it was harder to soak up the essence in a much shorter time, so I’d welcome the chance to return and take more pictures. But it was very exciting to be ‘back’ and the reception was a really positive.”

When we met at The Golden Heart, Mark had already travelled overnight by train from Scotland and then completed a day of meetings in London, so I wondered how he would find the energy for a night awake at the market. Yet I need not have feared, because once we arrived he set to work tenaciously, excited by the environment, talking with one after another of the many hundreds who work there. If any were too busy, Mark arranged to return later in the night, revealing an enviable ability to strike up a conversation with anyone and everyone, speaking always as equals.

As we walked together, dodging the myriad forklifts flying past at death-defying speeds, I became aware of emotive conversations breaking out between the traders and customers, often in languages I did not understand. Many customers are wholesalers who need to pay the lowest price or risk making no profit at all, while equally the traders also have to make a profit selling the stock they have bought from producers, without losing customers to competition from other traders. This constantly volatile negotiation between the trader and the wholesaler is the point of maximum tension in the supply chain. It can be the cause for jubilation or disappointment, and Mark’s acute pictures of the traders totalling up their figures capture the exact moment of discovering which it will be.

I left Mark to pursue his personal exploration alone and wandered off along the long cathedral-like aisles lined with stacks of brightly coloured fruit under the halogen lights, gawping at the produce and savouring the fragrances of garlic, coriander and all the diverse varieties fresh greens gleaming with raindrops. Cobnuts and chanterelles were reminders of the season on this chilly night at the tail end of Summer. At the end of each aisle, I emerged through the hangar doors into the chaotic dark car parks where boxes were loaded all through the night in the incessant rain.

When dawn broke, we enjoyed a cooked breakfast with Jan Hutchinson at Dino’s Cafe to warm us after our night awake. Just six months into her job as Chief Executive, Jan is a passionate advocate for the market and, appreciative of the vibrant history and culture she inherits, she was eager to welcome the return of Mark Jackson. After so many hours awake, Mark could barely believe that the pictures he took half a lifetime ago had led him there. With the original portfolio of pictures by Mark Jackson & Huw Davies now acquired by the Bishopsgate Institute, I am delighted that their photographic endeavour of twenty years ago to record the life of the market is finally winning the recognition it deserves.

At Spitalfields Market 2010

At Spitalfields Market 1990

Photographs copyright © Mark Jackson

You may like the read my portrait of Jim Heppel, New Spitalfields Market

2 Responses leave one →
  1. February 22, 2014

    This is how I remember the market! When I started work one of my first jobs was phoning an enormous list of customers in all of the London Markets including Spitalfields, trying to sell Essex early potatoes and Egyptian potatoes. I occasionally went up overnight with the lorries to make the deliveries. My Father has great stories to tell of his time supplying potatoes to the markets going back to the early 60’s. We also worked closely with Bennetts based in the London Fruit Exchange.

  2. James Harris permalink
    November 4, 2020

    In 1978 at the age of 11 I spent the night at work with my dad who was one of the market guards. It remains a vivid memory of smells, noises and people of a fantastical world I had never seen before or since. These photographs catch the atmosphere of the market perfectly. Wandering around the fruit & wool exchange in the pitch black was a scary experience. I don’t know how dad could see where he was going.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS