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At the Fruit & Wool Exchange

February 15, 2012
by the gentle author

Opening in 1929, when the volume of imported produce coming through the docks more than doubled in the ten years after the First World War, the mighty Fruit & Wool Exchange in Spitalfields was created to maintain London’s pre-eminence as a global distribution centre. The classical stone facade, closely resembling the design of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church nearby, established it as a temple dedicated to fresh produce as fruits that were once unfamiliar, and fruits that were out of season, became available for the first time to the British people.

After sixty years as a teeming warren of brokers and distributors, the building languished when the Fruit & Vegetable Market moved out from Spitalfields in 1991 and there were no wholesalers left to cross Brushfield St and supplement their supplies of British produce from the auctions at the Exchange. Since then, around sixty small businesses operated peaceably from the building which through its shabby grandeur reminded every visitor that it had once seen better days.

Yet it was only a matter of time before the notion of redevelopment arose, and when ambitious plans were revealed over a year ago for a huge new building to replace both the Exchange and the multi-story car park behind it – filling two entire blocks – a sense of disquiet was generated in Spitalfields, especially among those who remembered the uneasy compromises entailed in the rebuilding of the Market.

Few were convinced by the homogeneous box that was proposed to stand in place of the Exchange and many were disappointed when the creators of such mediocrity dismissed the current structure as of negligible architectural worth. In fact, the Commercial St end of the Exchange building closely matches the window structure and red brick of the eighteenth century houses in Fournier St, while the facade mirrors Christ Church itself. Since then, a revised proposal has been forthcoming which retains the Brushfield St frontage facing the Spitalfields Market but is far from being a design worthy to face Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece of English Baroque upon the opposite side of Commercial St.

Before the decision on the redevelopment is made by Tower Hamlets Council on March 6th and the resident businesses find they may have as little as six months to move, I went over for a look to savour the past glories of the City of London Fruit & Wool Exchange for myself.

Ascending from the grand entrance, a double staircase worthy of a ballroom in a liner or fancy hotel leads you up to the auction rooms. Built as the largest in the country, seating nearly nine hundred people, these magnificent panelled chambers were each the height of two storeys within the building. Fitted with microphones, which were an extraordinary innovation in 1929, possessing elaborate glass roofs that promised to simulate daylight – even on dark and foggy days – to best illuminate the fruit, they were served by high-speed hydraulic lifts to whisk samples of each consignment from the basement in the blink of an eye. Too bad that a recent fire, occurring since the redevelopment was announced, means they can never be visited again. Now the entrances to the most significant spaces which define this edifice are sealed with tape and off-limits for ever, while charred parquet flooring evidences the flames that crept out under the door.

Instead, I had to satisfy myself with a stroll around the empty top floor through centrally-heated corridors maintained at a comfortable temperature ever since the offices were all vacated two years ago. Everywhere I could see evidence of the quality of this building, from the parquet floors which extend through each storey, to the well-detailed brass fixtures and high-quality Crittall window frames that were still in good order. Within the building, hidden light-wells permit glass-ceilings to be illuminated by daylight upon each storey. Peering into these spaces reveals the paradoxical nature of this edifice which presents ne0-classicism to the street but adopts a vigorous industrial-modernism within, employing vast geometric shaped concrete girders to support the roof spans of the auction rooms below and arranging rows of narrow metal windows in close grids that evoke Bauhaus design.

From the top, I descended through floors of long windowless corridors lined with doors, where an institutional atmosphere prevailed, hushing the speech of those stepping outside their offices as they enter these strange intermediary spaces that belong to no-one any more. My special curiosity was to explore the basement which served as a refuge for the residents of Spitalfields during the Blitz. It was here that Mickey Davies, an East End optician known as “Mickey the Midget,” became a popular hero through his work in improving the quality of this shelter. It had gained the reputation as the worst in London, but later acquired the name “Mickey’s Shelter” in acknowledgment of his good work. As a shelter marshall, Mickey witnessed the overcrowding and insalubrious conditions when ten thousand people turned up at this basement which had a maximum capacity of five thousand. He organised medical care and recruited volunteers to undertake cleaning rotas. And, thanks to his initiative, beds and toilets were installed, and even musical entertainment arranged.

The vast subterranean network of chambers has been empty for twenty years now – gloomy, neglected and scattered with piles of broken furniture. Although partitions have been fitted to create storage rooms – where, mysteriously, Rupert Murdoch recently installed his archive – the Commercial St end of the building remains open and forlorn, with concrete pillars adorned by graffiti. Fruit packers marked off batches of produce in pencil on the wall here, and amused themselves by writing their names and making clumsy doodles. In this lost basement, it is still possible to imagine the world of Mickey Davies, where thousands once slept upon the floor while the city burned outside.

From Brushfields St, the City of London Fruit & Wool Exchange appears implacable – yet I discovered it contains a significant part of the hidden history of Spitalfields that will shortly be erased, to leave just an empty facade.

The central staircase, worthy of a ballroom in a liner or grand hotel.

One of several light wells, lined with Crittall windows and permitting daylight to reach lower storeys.

Looking out towards Crispin St from the rear of The Gun.

Washing room in the basement.

As many as ten thousand people slept here every night while taking shelter from the London Blitz.

Nineteen forties graffiti portrait from the basement.

The telephone exchange.

State of art auction room in 1929, lit by a glass ceiling offering “artificial daylight” on foggy days.

Fruit & vegetable auction

An entrance to the Auction Hall, now sealed permanently after a recent fire.

The broken pediment at the top of this frontage mirrors Nicholas Hawksmoor’s design of Christ Church.

The Exchange in 1929. It is proposed that only this frontage be retained in the redevelopment.

View of Christ Church from the top floor.

Learn more about the proposals for the City of London Fruit & Wool Exchange site here

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

Spitalfields Market Portraits, 1991

Night at the Spitalfields Market, 1991

Fruit & Vegetable auction photograph courtesy of Stuart Kira

Other archive images courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Annie permalink
    February 15, 2012

    A beautiful building – surely it can be “re-developed” as it stands? Much as I love London, its determination to completely re-build every 30 years or so can render streets unrecognisable. Make do and mend is not a bad concept, developers.

  2. February 15, 2012

    Cheers for this peek inside – even though you were partly thwarted by the impact of those mysterious fires. There’s been a long history of well time arson attacks aiding property speculation in the East End, but I’m sure that couldn’t be the case here…

    In the days of Smut (Spitalfields Market Under Threat) there was still a groundswell of local people still willing to fight for a mixed community in this area, but today the attidude seems to be ‘change happens’ so accept it. The newer arrivals in the area view such City encroachments as simply good for business so I doubt we’ll see much fight.

  3. February 15, 2012

    Thank you for this post. Wonderful to get a sneak peek at the closed off areas, particularly the graffiti from the 1940s.

    I used to go to pilates classes there and am v surprised to hear it’s likely to be redeveloped as the building seemed to be fine. It’s great to see life breathed into the East of the city, but I’d love to see a more sympathetic or at least creative mix of architecture, not that I know much at all about urban planning! And just as with the local authority flats that have been knocked down up in Haggerston (the soon to be “City Mills”!) I think there’s a serious question to be asked of landlords / councils that allow buildings to reach a state where they should be knocked down to be replaced by prefab boxes and sold for prices locals can’t afford to buy back into.

  4. Mark permalink
    February 15, 2012

    Nice to leave the front facade at least, it would be nice if they could incorporate the beautiful stairwells as well. Some things can’t be saved, but they can be remembered and incorporated..

  5. Gerhard permalink
    February 15, 2012

    Bethnal Green Town Hall is a good example for a great development of a historic building.
    Can’t they do something similar here?

  6. Isis permalink
    February 15, 2012

    The Fruit and Wool Exchange is a marvelous building that has felt like a barrier against the glass boxes oozing from the west. It will be very sad to see it hollowed out and its gracious interior destroyed. Thirty years ago, Washington, DC allowed a similar type of destruction of many 19th century houses and commercial buildings. Two of the most egregious examples are on adjacent blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue, NW: Red Lion Row and the Mexican Embassy, but there are many more.

    Despite what the Design and Access Statement Addendum tries to persuade, the large glass plate windows to be installed along Brushfield Street most definitely do not “echo” the existing windows. Tower Hamlets Council is clearly not up to the job of protecting the architectural heritage of the East End.

  7. February 16, 2012

    Heartbreaking to think that staircase will still be lost. Would it not be suitable for conversion into flats with the staircase retained? Even that would be a better option.
    I’m guessing that the really really lovely 1930s-eque upstairs dining room of The Gun pub would be lost as well. Such a shame.

  8. February 21, 2012

    The London Fruit and Wool Exchange is a great and grand building, internally as well as externally. The suites of old offices are of very high specification and all could be retained and adapted. The fire damage to the Auction Hall is only one part of a large building and the owners and developers should not use this as an excuse to demolish. This is what happened at Mother Levy’s on Underwood Road where ‘accidental’ demolition works on the original 1911 Jewish Maternity Home precipitated total demolition and the end of a campaign to save it – as the Gentle Author has faithfully reported. The role of the Exchange as a shelter in WWII is one mentioned by Sir Arnold Wesker (a Mother Levy’s ‘baby’ and campaign supporter) who lived on Fashion Street as a child. His memories of Spitalfields and of the Blitz are in this BBC film:
    Spitalfields Community Group have started an online petition. We must all sign it to try and save the London Fruit and Wool Exchange – all of it – and the Gun public house and Barclays Bank – and also stop Dorset Street from being built over. The London Fruit and Wool Exchange building has played an important part in Spitalfields history. It must not be destroyed, especially when it could also be converted to residential use, with retail on the ground floor. Wouldn’t a prestigious restoration and redevelopment here bring enormous credit to the Corporation of London and this historic area of Spitalfields next to the Corporation’s Old Spitalfields Market?

  9. Adam Kynnersley permalink
    February 27, 2012

    Is this a joke? A much as I enjoy visiting the Gun Pub, the F&W Exchange itself is a fine bulding to walk past and browse inside. It has so much character and history, and I for one would not welcome any modern, trashy new build type develpoment. We are lucky that we have such a blend of old and new architecutre in the area as City meets Spitalfields but there is no further need for change. I am 100% against any redevelopment.

  10. February 28, 2012

    It is imperative that these old sites are preserved. If we lose our history everything else worth fighting for is lost. In our small town we lost a heritage site through devious efforts on someones part. it is stll missed as it is part of our unique history. These people should be thoroughly ashmaed of themselves, money isnt everything in the end. Good luck with the campaign

  11. J. Mann permalink
    February 28, 2012

    Its a pity we only hear about these wonderful buildings only when they are under threat. Buildings fall into disuse for one reason and another and without a purpose they are at risk of decay, mysterious fires and eventual redevelopment. These well designed, curious old buildings with a past are why visitors flock to Spitalfields and the East End. I do not want to see our landscape / cityscape over developed and neither do visitors to the area. The Fruit and Wool Exchange is an elegant building and along with The Gun and bank no doubt evoke many stories and memories. These buildings can have a new life but need preserving to maintain character and retain Spitalfields historic past.

    Lets hope community pressure works this time.

  12. Matt Rosemier permalink
    February 28, 2012

    One of the main reasons why so many people, including myself, find the East End so wonderfully attractive is because of the rich heritage here. The history of the centuries past lends flavor and color (I’m a Yankee ex-pat) to this area, and that history is represented in the buildings that have survived the blitz and the wrecking ball of the 1960s and 70s’.

    In the past two years, the street behind my flat (Underwood Road) has lost 5 historical building, including Mother Levy’s Jewish Maternity Hospital, they’re going to replace the old Shoreditch Station with a 7-storey block of flats, and now this.

    If LBTH has their way, the east End will be all but indistinguishable from any other modern neighborhood.

    I wish I had known about the plans to demolish he Fruit and Wool Exchange a little sooner. I could have rallied a lot of resistance on and off line.

    With fingers crossed…

  13. Frances Brotzel permalink
    February 29, 2012

    I cannot believe that anyone would want to demolish such a magnificent building for the sake of another glass ediface to modern commerce.
    They do not make buildings like this nowadays and a magnificent facade and interior such as this should be preserved, used, and still be a proud reminder of a wonderful era and area.

  14. S AYLWARD permalink
    March 1, 2012

    I have just heard about the possible demolishment of yet another piece of East End history the Fruit and Wool Exchange. And very poignant to me as my Great Grandfather had fruit and veg stalls in the once thriving Watney Street Market, this is possibly where he and his goods started their day. Why is it developers of today want to wipe out these grand and beautiful buildings of the past, in favour of yet another horrible glass and steel contraption. To me and I am sure many others they are a blot on the landscape, infact they just block out the area and do not sit sympathetically with their surroundings.
    I am sure the glass boxes will not be standing in a hundred years time and people will not be speaking with affection about them.
    I know we have to move on and develop, but why can’t this splendid building just be adapted to met todays needs.
    The Heritage of Spitalfields still needs protecting from the big business developers.

  15. March 20, 2012

    To S. Aylward,
    Perhaps you are even more connected to the London Fruit and Wool Exchange…in July 1948, a letter was written to The Times by the then Mayor of Stepney. It is signed “T. AYLWARD, Mayor of Stepney. Mayor’s Parlour, The London Fruit Exchange, Duval Street, E.1.”

    It is interesting to find a Mayor’s Parlour in the Exchange – and for S. Aylward, maybe you are related to T. Aylward, Mayor of Stepney, based in Spitalfields’ Market Fruit Exchange. That would be a wonderful connection and let’s hope the Exchange is saved and adapted, as you say, and then all this East End history will not be lost.

  16. jeannette permalink
    June 28, 2012

    ah, i see you are acquainted with mickey the midget and his works.

  17. Paul William Gibson permalink
    September 22, 2021

    I have come across the Central Markets Committee’s invitation made out to my father to the opening of the London Fruit exchange to take place on the 30th October 1929.

  18. MARK B permalink
    July 2, 2022

    It was home to Alcoholics Anonymous’s first telephone helpline back in 1948.

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