Skip to content

Brick Lane Market 7

April 17, 2011
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to publish this lively account by James Greenwood of the legendary market in birds and animals which once extended from Club Row along Sclater St and filled Cheshire St (formerly known as Hare St) –  illustrated by Alfred Concanen, it is one of several closely observed descriptions of East End life and culture that Greenwood wrote at this time, collected together in “The Wilds of London ” in 1874.

At the rear of Shoreditch Church and extending a distance of at least half a mile, is a long narrow thoroughfare, part of which is Hare St, and in that insalubrious locality the reader’s dutiful servant found himself when the bells were ringing on a Sunday morning. One of the churches from which the inviting sound proceeded was in the middle of Hare St and, chiming in with the shouting from the leathern throats of, “Who’ll buy a cock?” – “Who sees three pieball mice for a tanner?” – “Who’ll give three hog (shillings) for a ‘pegging finch?” – the effect was produced was somewhat peculiar.

The pavement being much too narrow to accommodate the pressing throng, the muddy road was crowded as well. It would be more difficult to specify what you might not buy in the way of live stock that morning in Hare St, than to enumerate what was offered for sale.

If you wanted chickens, there they were in baskets, in bags, and held up by the legs, and swinging in feathered bunches from the dirty fists of the vendors. If you wanted Cochin China fowl, there was a prime chance for you, for ploughing through the mire came a gaunt bird of that species struggling with all the pluck of his breed against a boy who had him by the tail, and came splashing after him. Did you want a goat? There were three, “agoin’ for the piece of dawg’s meat,” as the person charged with their disposal declared. Were you desirous of possessing a donkey? There was one, together with a commodious barrow and four “tater sieves” – the lot for two pun’ fifteen! Ferrets, dormice, white mice, black mice, rats for the pits, fancy rats, white with red eyes and ginger-coloured rats, with tremendous teeth and whiskers, hedgehogs for the destuction of black beetles, guinea pigs and tortoises – Is your heart set upon any of these? If so, rejoice that you are in Hare St on a Sunday morning.

But, before all, Hare St is strongest in singing birds. Not so much for sale seemingly, as brought out for an airing. There they were, not here and there one, but by dozens and hundreds – goldfinches and chaffinches chiefly. The cages that contained them were tied in handkerchiefs, silk and cotton, and carried swinging in the hand, and jostling against the rude mob, as though they were of no more account than parcels of the most ordinary merchandise. But the most amazing part of the business was, that not only did the imprisoned and much-hustled finches continue to exist under such circumstances, but they retained their perches and their equanimity in the most perfect manner, and sang as they were carried. To what amount and to what sort of training these poor little birds had been subjected to it is hard to guess. There they were, however, all in the dark, with no purer air to breathe than the ordinary Hare St air, further poisoned by the presence of the foul mob, hung dangling at arm’s length, and jostled, and shook, and spun about, yet raising their tiny pipes as though nothing at all was the matter, and they were as much at ease as their grimy-faced, short-pipe puffing gentry that carried them.

I walked the length of the fair through and through, but as it was now one o’clock and the public house doors were opened, I joined the thirsty throng waiting for admittance at the Tinker’s Arms. It was a hazardous experiment, as the beer of Brick Lane, though strong is peculiar as to its flavour and for anyone not accustomed to it, a little goes a long way. It was not so however with my brother bibers. There were a good many performers before the bar and the conversation was strictly birdy. One was bragging of his “slamming” goldfinch, while another individual button-holed a friend and told him all about his “greypates,” and a third was learned on the subject of linnets, reciting that able bird’s sixty-four distinct notes. But as the man had a very gruff voice and gave the recitation with a strong nasal twang, my idea of the linnet’s song was not exalted by the lesson, and since by now my measure of Brick Lane beer was considerably reduced, I was almost as much in the dark as ever…

The famed Club Row bird market lasted until very recently, but nowadays the only individuals crying out on behalf of animals in this location on Sundays are the anti-fur protesters in Cheshire St, yet anyone desirous of seeing live animals in Spitalfields today need only take a short stroll over the Pedley St railway bridge to the Spitalfields City Farm and they will not be disappointed.

The Sunday morning bird fair at Club Row, Shoreditch, in the nineteenth century. (This building which still stands at the corner of Sclater St and Brick Lane was the original pie and mash shop opened by Robert Cooke in 1862, the great-grandfather of the current Robert Cooke whose family establishment opened in Broadway Marker in 1900. In recent years this building was renovated by Jim Howett.)

From Brick Lane, looking East down Hare St, (now called Cheshire St).

From Brick Lane, looking West down Sclater St.

In Club Row.

Selling puppies in the nineteen twenties at Club Row market.

Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to read

Dog Days at Club Row Market by Ronald Searle and Kaye Webb

Alf who Sold a Lion Cub at Club Row

The Pigeon Fliers of Bethnal Green.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Alan permalink
    April 17, 2011

    STOLEN PETS SOLD HERE begasn to be daubed on the walls around Club Row from the mid 1970’s and it was probably true. Old men and crombie clad teen used to hide puppies inside their coats like war time spivs, whisking them for a little whimper as people walked by. The same teens who sold suspiciously second hand bycycles also did a range of dogs on strings that didn’t seem to know them very well.

  2. Alan permalink
    April 17, 2011

    God, I need to proof read!

  3. April 17, 2011

    In the early ’80’s when I lived off Bethnal Green Road there was a pub on Club Row where on a Sunday people sold canaries and other live birds in cages. It was an extraordinary sight, this marvelous old pub full of stacked up cages of exotic screetching birds. The pub is now called Le Trois Garcons and the wildlife is taxidermy

  4. Dawn permalink
    April 14, 2012

    I am researching my family and have been told that my great grandfather worked at Spitalfields and was known as The Mutton King-his name was John Daniel Michael Foley. Does anyone know whether there are any books or researchers that might know about the people at Spitalfields?
    He would have been there between 1880 and 1920 I think.

  5. April 3, 2016

    I cannot believe that I have only just found this but a belated thank you GA for this piece by James Greenwood, my great grandfather’s cousin. I am always so interested to see anything that he wrote, and although there is quite a bit online now, I haven’t seen this before. James wrote as the Amateur Casual throughout his long life but he is mostly known now for his account of a night which he spent in the casual ward of Lambeth Workhouse; this was written for his brother, Frederick Francis Greenwood, who was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, and published there in, I think, three parts. Frederick Francis Greenwood wrote in his letters to his daughter, Kate, about the cage birds which they always seem to have kept so I guess that this abhorrent practice occurred throughout all levels of Victorian society, something we find very hard to understand now.

Leave a Reply

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

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS