Skip to content

Colin O’Brien’s Brick Lane Market

July 25, 2012
by the gentle author

Please join me at the opening of Commonplace, an exhibition of photography by Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien at the crypt of Christ Church Spitalfields tomorrow, Thursday 26th July, from 7-9pm. Throughout this week, I will be publishing stories that I have done in collaboration with Colin, accompanied by his photographs that span an extraordinary career extending from 1948 until the present day.

Shall we take a walk through Cheshire St, Brick Lane, Sclater St and Club Row with Colin O’Brien to experience the life of the market in the nineteen eighties?

“I loved markets as a child, because I grew up during the nineteen forties in Clerkenwell and I used to go to Leather Lane to hear the patter of the stallholders. There is this mystique about markets for me. I love being surrounded by people and I feel safe in a crowd.” Colin told me, his grey eyes shining in excitement, as we made our way through the crowd onto the bare ground between Cheshire St and Grimsby St where traders sold their wares upon the frozen earth, by the light of lamps and candles.

“I’m a bit of a collecting sort of person, myself.” Colin admitted as we scanned the pitiful junk on sale, so carefully arranged in the frost, “I like old things.” It was a bitterly cold morning which led me to ask Colin why we were there. “I tend to go when it’s snowing,” Colin revealed cheerfully as we picked our way through the slush on Brick Lane, “there is a comradeship and drama.”

Examining Colin’s pictures later, just a fraction of the total, I realised that most were taken when the market was clearing up and portrayed individuals rather than the crowd. “Packing up is when everything happens,” he explained to me, “they dump all the unsold stuff in the street and the scavengers come to take it. You look at what’s discarded and it’s the history of the time.”

I noticed that the woman sitting at the centre of Colin’s photograph “Coming and goings at the corner of Brick Lane” was surrounded by five men and yet not one was looking at her. I realised that he had photographed her invisibility, and that the same was true for his other soulful portraits of market-goers, market-traders, homeless people, old people and marginal characters – all portrayed here with human sympathy through the lens of Colin O’Brien, yet gone now for ever.

Coming and goings at the corner of Brick Lane.

At the time of the miners’ strike.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Commonplace, Photographs by Colin O’Brien 1948-2012, runs at the Crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields, 28th July – 26th August. Open Tuesdays, Saturdays & Sundays 1-6pm. Colin O’Brien will be talking about his work on Sunday 29th July 2pm.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. July 25, 2012

    I first went to Brick lane in 1988, freshly arrived in London. When i tell people today what it used to be like, they don’t believe me. These pictures illustrate so well what I try to describe to them: the squalor, the Dickensian poverty, the buildings with facades cracked by bombs. You could see the furniture in the rooms through them. The strong, pungent smell of old, ancient damp in the shops (if you could call them that) in Cheshire Street. The fact that it ran from 1 – 2 in the morning and by midday on sunday, it had vanished. The old ladies rummaging for vegetables and tat discarded by the vendors. The fact that everything was sold on piles on the pavement, I mean stalls? There were no stalls in Brick Lane. I was 19 and I’d never seen such desperate child poverty in my life. I’d never seen white children who looked malnourished, and hungry, dressed in rags and looking at my beigel with desperately hungry, hollow eyes. Not that they were the only children there who looked like they needed many hot meals! Them, and the old ladies foraging for the green leaves from cauliflowers discarded by the fruitmongers. The latter, off Bishopsgate Yard as they’ve always been, are the only ones of this human fauna, who remain from those times. Now I think apout it, they were the rare ones who had actual stalls.

  2. Paul Seed permalink
    July 25, 2012

    I agree with MissUrania, in the 70’s an early morning: a worn out looking man selling ill assorted and rusting or otherwise stained screws, nuts and a few bolts, maybe 7 or 8 of them, from a scrumpled piece of newspaper placed on the pavement, and nearby the odd youth walking fairly ostentatiously with a pit bull type of puppy on a make shift lead. 2 aged dresses and a skirt hanging on a crusty brick wall. Skinny children, yes desperate but their adults too seeming beyond despond. Poor air quality. Buying there felt as though you were contributing to the great need. Not a happy experience at all but unforgettable.

  3. John Campbell permalink
    July 25, 2012

    My first exposure to Spitalfields was when i drifted in from the suburbs back in the early 80’s, will always remember the poor women and kids around the edges of the market filling bags and boxes with the discarded fruit and vegetables, really shocking to me as a teenager. Thought at the time the place was like the old scenes from New York movies, just another world. Fell in love with it though, i guess the area had to improve but it’s a shame as we lost something magnificent.

  4. John Campbell permalink
    July 25, 2012

    I remember hearing Ronnie Lane in an interview mention how he would go down to Club Row on Sunday mornings where his dad would be peddling some old rubbish or hunting for a bargain. He also sings about it in his song ‘Debris’ which is all about Club Row.

  5. Libby Hall permalink
    July 25, 2012

    Photographs of deeply companionable empathy, that, again, have such resonances for me. I always needed to be in a buoyant frame of mind not to let the sometimes-so-pathetic offerings on the pavement overwhelm me. But I never felt I was an observing visitor. I was always a part of what was happening.

    Here another connection of time and place – but earlier. Probably 1967.

    So much looking forward to Commonplace.

  6. July 26, 2012

    For me Club Row was down and out and dirty, but it was also just the place my dad took me every Sunday to look for cheap tools. We took a wander up the road, but the posters above seem to have to descended into the third world. Was it really that bad? How come I didn’t notice?

  7. red mitts permalink
    July 27, 2012

    In the 80’s I was one of the rummagers through the rubbish as I fitted out my squat with discarded furniture that the proprietors of ‘vintage’ shops would kill for now. I remember enthusing about being able to eat for free by picking up fruit and veg after the market and before the dust carts. Was I desperate? No. But it was the 1980s recession and I was on Thatcher’s scrap heap. Maybe the legions of art students that patrolled the market with Leica lenses snapped me- I hope I looked suitably half starved and waif like, as per the heroin chic of the time. If they care to follow me now, they might get a nice pic of an ill-dressed middle aged crone bending to pick up a bruised banana from the gutter. Impoverished or eccentric? Ecologically aware or a chancer? Do I care? I’ll have a free banana!

  8. July 30, 2012

    looks amazing

  9. Val Mutch permalink
    August 3, 2020

    I grew up in Bethnal Green in the 40’s and early 50’s and regularly went ‘down the lane’ on a Sunday morning. I am truly shocked to know that such poverty still existed there in the 80’s. I had long since moved away, not that far, but far enough to be unaware of how people still lived all those years later, and for all I know still do. Thank our for your pictures and enlightening me. Really sad.

  10. Peter Dawson permalink
    November 27, 2023

    These photographs take me right back to when I used to stay at my nan’s place in the Great Eastern Buildings, Quaker Street, during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. At weekends I’d spend my time wandering around Cheshire Street, Brick Lane, and especially Sclater Street to look at all the animals for sale: puppies, kittens, rabbits, tortoises, birds, and tropical fish. As a boy at the time, I didn’t take much notice of the grinding poverty and abject misery all around me. Bearing in mind this was 25 to 30-years after the Second World War, why were people still living in slum dwellings and squalor in a supposedly rich, First-World country? What were the politicians doing to help alleviate the local people’s suffering? My nan, Ellen (Nellie) Crockett, loved a market. On Saturdays, she take me on a bus along the Bethnal Green Road to Roman Road Market, where she’d buy me any toy I wanted, along with any old crap from Hong Kong that caught her eye. Then she’d buy me pie, mash and liquor on the corner. If this wasn’t enough, on the way back to Brick Lane, I’d ask her to stop off at a toy shop opposite the Blade Bone public house to buy me some toy soldiers. I can vividly remember a pile of dead tropical fish that had been dumped on some wasteland after the Sclater Street market had finished. Just think, transported halfway across the world, only to end up thrown away like rubbish. Shifty-looking men would stand around like spivs selling all kinds of jewellery, seemingly with a gold ring on every finger. At the top of Sclater Street, near BrickLane, a stallholder used to sell deep-fried apple fritters – they were delicious. Occasionally I’d wander over to Spitalfields Market and Christ’s Church, where all the ‘methers’ used to congregate. The wonderful photographer Don McCullin has captured those poor unfortunates for posterity. ‘Tormented, Homeless Irishman’ is a masterpiece, a work of art. Most of those ‘tramps’ would have been ex-servicemen and women. Apart from a night in the crypt (if they were lucky) , where was the help for those people? Yesterday’s heroes I suppose. Harry Fishman’s sweetshop/newsagents was the hub of the local community. He was a really lovely man. The kids used to shoplift from him all the time, but he seemed to turn a blind eye to it. I only ever stole one thing: I bit the top off a Fab ice lolly while leaning into his freezer. Sorry Harry. I once ran across Brick Lane straight in front of a dark blue Rover 2000 police car. In all my years as a van/lorry driver, I’ve never seen a car brake like that, especially as it was a cobbled Street! The wheels seemed to grip the cobbles, whilst the car hunched forward of its own volition. I should have been dead as a door nail. Harry saw the entire episode, and threatened to tell my nan. I denied all knowledge. I’ve only just discovered – 2023 – that those Rovers were the first cars to be fitted with disc brakes. I bet the copper had a stiff drink after that close encounter. Does anyone remember my step-cousins Jackie and Jennifer Crockett? Alan Dawson

Leave a Reply

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

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS