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The Battle for London’s Markets

June 13, 2012
by the gentle author

Today I am republishing this piece that I wrote for The Guardian last week, which many readers may not have seen yet.

Billingsgate Market 1809 (click to enlarge)

In recent years, the term “marketplace” has become increasingly used to refer only to economic transactions, yet for the people of London the market has always been something more – an arena of possibility and a place of cultural exchange, bound up with the identity of the city itself since its earliest origins.

When Thomas Rowlandson was commissioned to draw the human figures onto Augustus Pugin’s architectural plates of Covent Garden Market and Billingsgate Market as part of the Microcosm of London in 1809, he delighted in the sharp contrast between the human idiosyncrasies of the traders and the uniform classical architecture of the new buildings that sought to contain the markets. This tension, between the essentially chaotic nature of markets and those who would like to control them, persists to our own day.

Within the last month, we have seen the abolition of the licensed porters of Billingsgate Market by the City of London Corporation acting with the support of the fish traders, who were eager to replace them with cheaper, unregulated labour. Yet the dramatic irony of this action only became apparent a few days later, when the traders themselves were given notice on their leases in the market by the City Corporation.

Now, as the fish porters consider whether to accept employment under poorer conditions, the traders have to ask themselves where their businesses are going to be in two years’ time. Both parties must be nursing bruised emotions and contemplating recent events in the light of the traditional honour code of markets, in which each man is only as good as his word.

The events at Billingsgate follow a pattern established when Covent Garden Market moved from central London to Vauxhall in 1979 – the loss of porters’ rights prior to transition to a new building and then redevelopment of the former premises into a shopping mall or corporate offices. The City of London Corporation has a plan to create a one-stop market for meat and fish at Leyton in east London, alongside the New Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market that relocated there in 1991. And the human costs, such as those suffered by the porters at Billingsgate, are incidental to their grand scheme.

By purely following an economic imperative, the authorities miss the wider cultural function of markets. Aside from the cultural loss to the city, it ignores our need for alternative places to buy fresh produce that might counteract the dominance of the supermarkets – not just a marginal concern as Britain struggles with an obesity crisis. I cannot walk through Covent Garden today without my heart sinking at the sight of all the chain stores. There is an undeniable sense that the authentic life of the city has gone.

While these inner-city markets may no longer be effective as wholesale operations, they would be an asset to London if the buildings could operate as retail food markets, allowing smaller suppliers to offer a greater choice of fresh produce direct to the customer. We need only to look to the European continent to see how large food markets can be retained successfully at the heart of the city. The novelty and appeal of supermarkets is long gone and, if there is a street market nearby, you can readily be assured of better quality produce at a keener price.

In the East End of London, there has always been an understanding that if all else fails, if you cannot get a job, if you cannot afford to rent a shop, you can always sell things in the market – and, even if you have nothing to sell, you can always find things in the street and sell them. In fact, some of the largest chains such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer had their origin in these modest circumstances. And it is here at the boundary of the City, in what has historically been London’s market district, that the battle for the life of London’s markets is being played out at street level.

The battle for London’s markets is not yet lost. Tower Hamlets council unexpectedly refused permission for the demolition of the London Fruit & Wool Exchange in Spitalfields recently, obstructing redevelopment into corporate offices and a shopping mall. And, in another heartening initiative, the independent shopkeepers and small traders of east London are currently banding together to launch a union – the East End Trades Guild – to fight for their survival in the face of avaricious landlords courted by chain stores who would like to create another Covent Garden.

By their very nature markets are contingent, and the history of London records many legendary lost markets that are long gone, from the forum of Londinium, through to Shepherd Market and Haymarket off Piccadilly in the 18th century, Clare Market in the 19th century and Caledonian Market in the 20th century. As manifestations of human resourcefulness, markets will always be with us and I put my faith in the ingenuity of the street traders to elude control and enliven the metropolis with their presence, because markets are the place where commerce becomes culture. They are the soul of our city.

Covent Garden Market 1809

Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Click here to see the article on The Guardian website along with a film and comments.

You may also like to read

The Last Porters of Billingsgate Fish Market

At The London Fruit & Wool Exchange

The East End Trades Guild Needs You!

The Microcosm of London

Farewell to Spitalfields

7 Responses leave one →
  1. June 13, 2012

    Another great post. I love learning more about these parts of London.

  2. Rowena Macdonald permalink
    June 13, 2012

    Really good article. Interesting to see the comments on the one in the Guardian. As always, you can divide the world into those who have soul and those who don’t. And those who don’t, don’t care about markets. Thank god there are people around who do. Unfortunately the people with no soul seem to always have more power.

  3. Tanya permalink
    June 13, 2012

    Good post Rowena!
    I live in Canada but visit London at least twice a year. Markets are a huge draw for me – Broadway on a Saturday, Spitalfields, Borough – every time I come.

  4. antonia Dosik permalink
    June 13, 2012

    When we visit London from the USA, we NEVER go to Covent Garden. Too “cute” and predictable. The shops are like those that you can see anywhere in the world.

    Borough, Spitalfields, etc. are places we ALWAYS visit. They are interesting, unique, historical, and useful. All the things that make for a great destination.

  5. Frank Winstan permalink
    June 15, 2012

    Very fine piece. Passionate and enlightening.

  6. jeannette permalink
    June 19, 2012

    give to them, ga!

  7. stew bradley permalink
    March 21, 2013

    Do i live in London …No …Have i ever lived in London …No, however i have spent much of my younger and adult life in and around the wholesale fruit and veg markets at first as a young lad, who instead of going to school was on a lorry that travelled nightly from south Lincolnshire to London with a load of fruit and veg along with considerable amounts of boxes of flowers to be delivered to the various markets. we would start out at western international ( the new brentford market) then into old covent garden untill it was replaced with New covent garden then into the Bourough, then into Spitalfields finally finishing with the last drop in Stratford market. I was privelleged to meet a lot of old school porters proper Londoners and most were the real deal East enders. Though not at school where i should have been i still learned so much a lot of which wasnt taught in any secondary school. The lesson of life, respect, order of things and most of all respect.

    I then after some years found myself regularly delivering to these markets myself as lorry driver, delivering to the same stands and still spending time with the same Porters that i used to admire so much as child. More recently i visited the old Spitalfields Market at the time of Her Majesty The Queen Mother being moved to Westminster Hall after her sad passing. I Parked my car in Spital Square opposite what was Collingrides stand. I have to say the place was just about gone, even the area around the cage had been dug up with a massive development under way .. it was heartbreaking to see, i told friends that had travelled with me how things used to be and how it was like a micro-community all in itself etc. We travelled through London and i explained as we passed the Borough mkt about the times spent in there then i drove by New covent Garden and explained about the nights i spent in there delievering. Last summer i delievered to the gardens and i was horrified at how quiet it was.

    Now my point is this, The supermarkets are the culprit for the demise of not only the markets but also the whole country, the sad demise of the London markets is mirrored every where throughout the country. I know this to be true because untill last April i was delivering to most if not all of the markets around mainland UK . The people responsible for planning etc do not worry about the history, the culture or the livelihoods that are being needlessly wasted by their actions.. Then all of a sudden David Cameron says we need to re-vitalise the high street ! doesnt he realise to do this he needs something to pull the people to the high streets etc, Character, a rich history a sense of community a place where real people can buy goods at a price that is fair and get the quality as well. So his he prepared to curve the Supermarkets raping of our culture etc.. not at all because we must remember that when we vote in the General Election we not only vote for a particular Political Party but we are also voting for their sponsors , the big contributors to the party coffers, those being the very people that have robbed us of fantastic people, working in fantastic places that are full of history, culture and life. These huge contributors of the Political Partys being the Supermarkets ! sorry to have gone off on one but even though i never lived in london i was virtually brought up by those that did, those that worked through the night in all weathers in a community that i am so proud to have been allowed to be a part of !

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