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A Farewell to Spitalfields

December 2, 2010
by the gentle author

In 1988, the Bishopsgate Institute staged an exhibition entitled “A Farewell to Spitalfields” curated by John Shaw and Raphael Samuel, the distinguished historian of the East End. The purpose was to assess the history of Spitalfields in the light of the changes that were forthcoming, as a result of the closure of the Truman Brewery and the Fruit & Vegetable Market – and it is my pleasure to publish these excerpts from Raphael Samuel’s introductory essay accompanied by David Bateman’s photographs of the Spitalfields Market, commissioned as part of this exhibition.

Twenty years later, it is sobering to recognise the prescience of Raphael Samuel’s words. He was a historian with strong opinions who, on the basis of this article alone, demonstrated an ability to write about the future as clearly as he wrote the past. The Spitalfields portrayed in these pictures has gone and now – for better or worse – we live in the Spitalfields that Raphael Samuel, who died in 1996, wrote of yet did not live to see.

Spitalfields is the oldest industrial suburb in London. It was already densely peopled and “almost entirely built over,” in 1701 when Lambeth was still a marsh, Fulham a market garden and Tottenham Court Rd a green. It owes its origins to those refugee traditions which, in defiance of the Elizabethan building regulations, and to escape the restrictions of the City Guilds, settled in Bishopsgate Without and the Liberty of Norton Folgate.

Spitalfields is a junction between, on the one hand, a settled, indigenous population, and on the other, wave upon wave of newcomer. Even when it was known as “The Weavers’ Parish,” it was still hospitable to many others – poor artisans, street sellers, labourers among them. In the late nineteenth century Spitalfields was one of the great receiving points for Jewish immigration and the northern end of the parish provided a smilar point of entry for country labourers. There was a whole colony of them at Great Eastern Buildings in the eighteen eighties, working as draymen at the brewery, and another at the Bishopsgate Goods Station. This “mixed” character of the neighbourhood is very much in evidence today.

Spitalfields Market – threatened with imminent destruction by a coalition of property developers, City Fathers, and conservationists – is almost as old as Spitalfields. It was already in existence when the area was still an artillery range. In John Stow’s “Survey of London” (1601) it appears a trading point “for fruit, fowl and root.” A market sign was incorporated in the coat of arms for the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Restoration times, and the market’s Royal Charter dates from 1682. The market, in short, preceded the arrival of the Hugeunots and has some claim to being Spitalfields’ original core. The market continued as a collection of ramshackle sheds and stalls until it was transformed, in the 1870s, by Robert Horner, who bought the lease of the land from the Goldsmid family in 1875. Horner was a crow scarer from Essex who, according to market myth, walked to London, became a porter in the market and eventually got a share in a firm. Ambitiously, he set about both securing monopoly rights for the existing traders, and replacing the impromptu buildings with a purpose built market hall – the “Horner” buildings which today is the oldest part of the market complex.

The older, eastern portion of the market is the direct product of Robert Horner’s vision of his own situation. It is built in the manner of the English Arts and Crafts movement. On its own terms, the old market is a pleasing piece and a worthy addition to the diversity of Spitalfields. Its rusticated archways on the Commercial Street facade and the repeated peaks of the roof with their smallish sash windows lend a clearly Victorian flavour to Commercial Street, which was largely a Victorian venture anyway. Inside the market it is a vintagely Victorian hall of glass and iron of unassuming beauty, even more so when at work, then its true worth as a genuinely functioning piece of Victorian space is revealed. Like St. Pancras in a different way, it has an element of the museum and an aesthetic that overlays the original construction upon utilitarian principles. Most of all the old market appears as a peculiarly English space. An effect that is heightened by the lavish use of ‘Wimbledon’ green. It is that deep traditional green that characterises English municipal space and that, in this case helps to marry the market to the discordant additions of the late 1920’s and to give distinction to the territorial boundaries of the market that have been historically more fluid.

The old market is a celebration of trade, a great piece of Victorian working space, not only of great historical value itself, but contributing to the visual manifestation of the historical development of the whole of Spitalfields. It is a worthy layer in an area that grew by a sort of architectural sedimentation. Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, the Huguenot fronts of Artillery Passage, the Georgian elegance of Elder Street and the smaller houses of Wilkes Street and Princelet Street, the mid-Victorian utility of the Peabody Buildings, the rustic character of the old market, the twentieth century neo-classicism of the Fruit Exchange and several examples of a more unspeakable modernity are some among many accretions which contribute to make Spitalfields what it is. The most perfect example of a palimpsest in which diversity rather than Georgiana or Victoriana represent the true nature of the area.

The character of a district is determined not by its buildings, but by the ensemble of different uses to which they are put, and, above all, by the character of the users. It should be obvious to all but the self-deceived, that to stick an international banking centre in the heart of an old artisan and market quarter, a huge complex with some six thousand executives and subalterns, is, to put it gently, a rupture from tradition. The whole industrial economy of Spitalfields rests on cheap work rooms: rentals in the new office complex are some eight times greater than they are in the purlieus of Brick Lane, and with the dizzy rise in property values which will follow the new development, accommodation of all kinds, whether for working space or home, will be beyond local people.  The market scheme will mean a social revolution, the inversion of what Spitalfields has stood for during four centuries of metropolitan development.

The fate of Spitalfields market illustrates in stark form some of the paradoxes of contemporary metropolitan development: on the one hand, the preservation of “historic” houses; on the other, the wholesale destruction of London’s hereditary occupations and trades and the dispersal of its settled communities. The viewer is thus confronted with two versions of “enterprise” culture: the one that of family business and small scale firms, the other that of international high finance with computer screens linking the City of London to the money markets of the world.

This set of photographs by David Bateman show something of the activity of the market today in what – if the Second Reading of the Market Bill continues its progress through Parliament – are likely to be its closing months.

Raphael Samuel  22nd July 1988

I was fascinated to read these words, because in my own work I have become vividly aware of the rich culture of artisans and small tradesmen – which I have undertaken to record – that still persists in Spitalfields, against all the odds. This year we have seen Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen and Crescent Trading, the last traditional cloth warehouse, challenged respectively with rent increases and the necessity to move to smaller premises. Yet as we approach the end of the year, it is something to be able to report that they are both still here and doing brisk business, thanks to the support of customers who delight in these small businesses that carry the history of the neighbourhood just as much those historic houses which Raphael Samuel refers to.

Photographs copyright © David Bateman

Take a look at Mark Jackson & Huw Davies’ photographs of the Old Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market.

20 Responses leave one →
  1. December 2, 2010

    My heart leapt into my mouth for a moment, as I saw the title in my RSS reader and thought that it signalled the end of your blog, which I’ve been so enjoying. There was relief and joy in the reading…

  2. Gill permalink
    December 2, 2010

    I shared your experience : )

  3. December 2, 2010

    I am with Kavey. I too thought the title heralded a blog suicide. Thank goodness it is/was only a Sun style headline.

  4. Anne permalink
    December 2, 2010

    Moi aussi, j’ai eu un instant de peur en pensant que c’était la fin de votre délicieux blog. Aussi quel soulagement de voir qu’il n’es est rien. Lire vos articles pour moi, c’est mon feuilleton préféré de la journée…

  5. December 2, 2010

    Like Kavey I had a little panic that you were bidding farewell. I ‘ve only been reading your blog for a few weeks and am really enjopying it, too soon to lose it.

  6. December 2, 2010

    Like Kavey I had a little panic that you were bidding farewell. I ‘ve only been reading your blog for a few weeks and am really enjoying it, certainly too soon to lose it.

  7. December 3, 2010

    Ahh, so that’s what it was like. Damage to the small business aside, the developers did not do too much damage to the market’s look.. in my humble opinion.

  8. January 26, 2011

    this is the kind of feel of the london markets that i did manage to see in 1991 when i first visited london; the photos remind me of the kinds of markets that we still have in my town, and the kind of changes that have been demanded from them (and most other institutions), in order to become more modernised so that everything inevitably takes on a more modern (and globalised) look

    yes, it’s a shame that we cant stay the way we are, because it’s pretty and picturesque and very quaint, but the past is a different country, and we’re doing things differently now; this post gives me hope that there is a way out of our current shambles, if only we can accept change as something better than what we had before

  9. Carolyne permalink
    March 4, 2012

    My father was an import/exporter working out of Spitalfields for 40 plus years of his life. Although we have many photographs of him and the market, we never really took any of his signage, so was thrilled to discover one among the photos in this post. It really bought quite a few tears to my eye. Am thankful there’s not a picture of his car illicitly parked on his stand as that would have made me cry even more.
    Thank you!

  10. March 25, 2012

    Like others, I had a momentary reaction, that this blog was passing on. But no. Instead most informative pictorially with the inclusion of a marvellous historical piece. My next visit to London will surely include time in Spitalfields. The education you are providing will deepen exploration.

  11. Theresa permalink
    June 13, 2012

    Oh wow, I didn’t know that this site existed until I stumbled upon it whilst searching for links to the market after reading in a tv mag that bbc2 was showing a programe about Spitalfields Fruit Market in a couple of weeks. Super pics, which also brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, because my dad ‘Bernie’ Hayes worked for the stand shown in the fourth pic ‘Howgego’ (opp the Gun Pub) for years. He unfortunately died a few years ago, but lived for his job and shortly after the market moved to Leyton he was made redundant, just as he was to retire! Thank you for the poignant memories and keep up the great work….

  12. D anny Grew ex - Fruiterer & Greengrocer permalink
    June 14, 2012

    I looked at this, and found myself walking the isles of “The Fields” with the aromas of fresh mint, parsley, cooked beetroot, fresh strawberries and peaches pervading the early morning air. The bustle of the morning trade, the clang and rattle of the hand barrows and the electric carts, the call of the traders, the quip of the porters and the banter of the buyers.
    My morning business concluded, it is 6a.m, and I am standing under the clock at Teddy Isaacs Fish stool, eating my daily portion of jellied eels with dry bread. Then its off to “The Gun” for a pint before stopping at Paul Gardeners to pick up my 10×10 and 8×8, ticket card, and carrier bags.

    Spitalfields is part of my families history, my ancestors were Huguenot weavers and embroiderers, trading is in our blood, they have been Corn Dealers, Fishmongers, Undertakers, Sundriesmes,Furniture manufacturers, Rope makers, Peruke makers, Gentlemens Barbers and Greengrocers. Our name can be found in the registers of Christ Church Spitalfields, three ancestors becamee “Feemen of The City of London”.

  13. September 13, 2013

    I just stumbled upon this site, it brought back so many memories. My Brothers and I were 3rd generation Greengrocers, we had a shop in South Kensington called Buy-rite and like our Late Father and Grand Parents visited ” The Fields ” six days a week for 35 years. We would arrive at about 0430 each morning with our Lorry, originally a J type Bedford then the famous Bedford TK and finally onto a very posh Renault with a curtain side body, this was considered a luxury because it did away with the need to rope and sheet. Not nice when it was pouring with rain and the ropes were frozen ! I remember Wally the Cart minder who used to hold our pitch in Bell Lane each morning, all for about £3 a week ! By about 0600 we had usually finished our buying , so that meant it was time for a Mug of coffee and a Bagel in Benny Bermans Cafe in Cobb Street , in later years we would go to Dinos
    Grill which was run by Peggy and her Son Dino. After this we would go back to the truck to see what firms needed chasing. Everything was ruled by the clock, we had to leave the Market 0700 to beat the traffic.
    I think that if I was still in the Fruit Game I would have dropped dead along time ago ! The stress that was caused by having to have an HGV in London was ridiculous. But in those days that was all that I knew, having left school at at 14 to go straight into the family business. I do miss the Characters , the jokes and the banter, health and safety would go mad if they saw what some of the Porters loaded onto a Barrow and then pulled it half a mile to the waiting customer. I remember when the first Fork Lift came to Spitalfields in 1972 suddenly a lot of Porters were not needed. Where it used to take a team of Porters half a day to unload a 40 footer, one Guy with a Fork lift would do it in 20 minutes ! That what they call progress !
    We sold Buyrite in 1990 and the shop is now a coffee bar . Greengrocers are a rare and dying breed and the world is a sadder place for it. Best wishes to all who traded in the Fields. Ivan Silverstein

  14. Michael Jenkins permalink
    September 13, 2013

    I was and my family several generations of traders in Spitlfields.
    Danny Grew was one of our special customers and I would love to speak to him again. Many times he and I would trade.
    Spitalfields was my life for so many years and although it closed it the old form in 1991 I miss it so much.
    It was part of the London charm that so called progress took away from us. Great shame actually.

  15. Ralph Silverstein permalink
    September 16, 2013

    My brother Ivan told me about this site, which I looked at with interest,nostalgia and a little sadness for although in those were times we worked extremely hard with very long hours, they were also enjoyable,we were young and we were strong. My grandparents were the first of our family in the fruit business running a stall in the lane just in front of Kossofs the bakers. My grandmother ran the stall doing her buying in the fields, during the First World War when our grandfather was in the British army and then through the Second World War despite our grandfather being tragically killed by a land mine that landed on Bank Station in 1941. We opened our shop Buyrite Fruit Stores in South Kensington in August 1955 being in such a high class area we had to supply very fine stock which we brought in the fields six days a week. When the old market closed London lost not only an historic market, but wonderful characters who despite all winds and weather always had a joke, a comment, or just a smile that would make you forget the icy rain running down the back of your neck, And When the old fields closed the fruit business changed and whilst I miss those days I am pleased that I don’t have to fight London’s traffic as well as traffic wardens issuing tickets to hard working people just trying to unload a lorry or van just trying to get a living so although I miss the Fields I am pleased that I have now retired

  16. December 30, 2013

    Heya i am for the primary time here. I found this board and
    I find It truly useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something again and aid others such as you
    aided me.

  17. Melvyn Hyams permalink
    August 11, 2014

    Wow, I’m amazed, just looking round the Internet at the “old East End”, and came upon this site!!
    My family were in Spitalfields Market for many years, I too worked there when I left school in 1960. We were at 36, Brushfield Street, next door to the “Blue Cafe”. My Grandfather was nicknamed Doctor Hyams, because he used to “doctor” the samples to make them look good !!!
    I have many happy memories from those days, fun with all the porters and drivers, the banter etc. I did my growing up there (very quickly!” The hustle and bustle is something I will never forget.
    I seem to recall that there was someone who had a fruit business in Southend (I think) called Vic Chandler, and the Vic Chandler in the TV adverts for the gambling site, looks so much like him, I wondered if it may be his son. Anyone know?

  18. Alan Racheter permalink
    November 23, 2014

    Spital Square was deserted at the weekends. There was a functional stables with blacksmith in Folgate Street well into the late 1950s. Not many homes in the area had their own phones then and the telephone boxes were situated in Spital Square by the side of the Central Foundation School. The surgery of Dr Brian Desmond Lascelles was in Spital Square also.

  19. steve permalink
    October 24, 2015

    I wonder if Michael Jenkins could contact me via this ?

  20. Barry Cheal permalink
    December 26, 2018

    I worked for Harry Nathan for about six months in 1968 and then worked for his accountants Andrews and Collins 1969 to 1979. At Nathan’s I knew Johnnys Hayes and Holt; Joe Pollock; Johnny Templeman and more.
    I knew many people in the Market, Freddie and Michael Jenkins; David Sharpley/Harry Scott; David/Stuart Kira; too many to name. How true what other people have said that it was a unique place full of great characters and had and incredible atmosphere.
    On Friday lunchtime I used to drink in the Golden Heart, initially Bob and Mary were the licensees and the later Dennis and Sandra tookover. The Heart was an incredible pub on a Friday lunchtime.
    Great people and memories I will never forget.

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