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The Fly-Pitchers Of Spitalfields

July 26, 2012
by the gentle author

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

When I first came to Spitalfields, at dawn one Sunday morning in Winter long ago, I was amazed to find Brick Lane full of fly-pitchers – people selling a few items directly off the pavement. Yet as the years have gone by, these pavement traders have been pushed further and further out until they find themselves at the very edge of the territory, crowded together upon a narrow strip of pavement along the Bethnal Green Rd. Literally at the margins, these people suffer at the heavy hands of market inspectors harassing and threatening them, causing them to pick up their things and flee – only to return later and do a little more trading before the next purge happens, in a tragic ongoing game of cat and mouse.

Commencing in the early hours and sometimes gone by first light, the existence of these traders is unknown to many visitors who come to Brick Lane on Sunday. So, last winter,  Colin O’Brien spent a month down among the fly-pitchers and the result was this remarkable set of pictures that acknowledge the dignity of these people who are subject to such unnecessary humiliation for sake of wanting to sell a little bric-a-brac.

“My name is Jason John, I’m writing you a damn good song” – these were the first words I heard when I came round the corner of the Bethnal Green Rd into Norton Folgate to meet Colin, one Sunday morning, just as a street musician with curly dark locks appeared with theatrical aplomb from behind a telephone box, wielding his guitar and offering a tuneful accompaniment  to the lively scene of pavement trading, sheltered by the vast railway bridge arching over us. It can be a pitiful spectacle to witness the modest possessions that people sell in the Bethnal Green Rd, asking prices as little as 10p, and yet this market is also remarkable for its vibrant life and sense of camaraderie which, ironically, became strengthened by the threat to destroy it.

Over the month that Colin took his pictures, a stack of black sea-containers were put in place and the hoarding behind the fly-pitchers came down to reveal a pop-up shopping mall which opened soon afterwards. For a couple of weeks, a fence with the logos of the international brands that would be selling their wares there in future served as a backdrop to the fly-pitchers and the contrast between the two could not be have been more extreme. The developers who own the site created the temporary shopping mall to capitalise upon their investment until they raised the finance to construct a tower block for corporate clients and – for the sake of this – a few pensioners, the handicapped, those struggling on benefits and the dispossessed were being criminalised for trying to sell a few of their belongings to raise a little extra cash on a Sunday morning.

I spoke to a Jewish gentleman in his seventies as he arrived to place six worn shirts on the pavement for sale, casting glances nervously to either side. I bought one of his shirts for 50p in order to strike up a conversation with him, yet within minutes he was harshly moved on and my 50p proved to be his sole income for his effort that morning.“They’re trying to get rid of the poor people!” exclaimed one woman in grief, too scared to consent to being photographed by Colin.

The argument is commonly used that the fly-pitchers are unlicensed and they block the pavement. Yet the truth is that some have been coming to Brick Lane to trade for their entire lives, participating in the culture of unregulated pavement trading which has been in continuous existence in this corner of the East End on Sundays for centuries. And, if they are blocking the pavement today, it is because they have been herded into this narrow space away from Brick Lane against their will.

Gina of Gina’s Restaurant in the Bethnal Green Rd, who started her first cafe in Brick Lane with her husband Philip Christou in 1961, opens each Sunday to serve the same people who have been coming all these years. When they are ‘purged’ by the inspectors, they take refuge in her establishment and if the old people fail to make enough money to pay for a Sunday lunch – which was their sole intent in getting up before dawn and coming down here – then Gina simply gives them a meal. It was a sombre experience to sit in Gina’s Restaurant among those who had taken flight and recognise that these spirited characters were the people who had been in the market longer than anyone.

When the shopping mall opened, the demographic of the passersby on the pavement changed at once, as if decades had passed overnight, with affluent shoppers replacing the market people. Yet, six months later, the new shops are struggling find customers. Meanwhile, demonstrating stubborn resilience, the fly-pitchers continue to trade on the Bethnal Green Rd upon an even smaller strip of pavement opposite the stack of sea containers and they are still under threat of harassment. I was told that, on average, these traders can expect to make no more than £12 on a Sunday morning,

Colin O’Brien’s pictures witness a shameful episode which remains unresolved. The soul of this place resides with the fly-pitchers, whose moral rights should be respected  – through the provision of a space where they can trade peacefully – rather than constantly subjecting them to this inhuman treatment which degrades us all.

Jason John, Street Musician

Mr Gil, Street Preacher

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.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina B permalink
    July 26, 2012

    Beautiful and tragic.

  2. Libby Hall permalink
    July 26, 2012

    Most beautifully and heart-breakingly described. I had no idea things had got so bad for the fly-pitchers.

    Oh ugly corporate all-devouring ‘progress’. And oh, sometimes, what longing for the past.

  3. JerryW permalink
    July 26, 2012

    This really makes my blood boil, because it is all so unnecessary. If only the Borough authorities could be persuaded to recognise and accept these peoples’ rights, as so many other, often less important rights are valued these days.
    They make the market. Make the authorities listen!

  4. Linda permalink
    July 26, 2012

    How many of our politicians went into it to serve the community and then got sidetracked? How many could think like Gina? Do we think like Gina? The politics of economics sometimes doesn’t connect with the politics of moral responsibility. Happy, supported, cared for people = good economy.

    Thanks for drawing attention to this.

  5. the gentle author permalink*
    July 26, 2012

    In al others countries in Europe it is the right of every citizen to sell in the street, but here in the UK street traders are automatically criminalised unless they have licence.

  6. aubrey permalink
    July 26, 2012

    I’m pleased to note that the container trader’s shops are struggling. I suppose it’s too much to hope that they will disappear and that the bric- a-brac sellers will return from the margins. Whenever I have passed by these container ’boutiques’ there doesn’t appear to be any customers in them. There seems to be more people on the stage than in the audience!

  7. July 26, 2012

    Can we start some sort of petition/demonstration?

  8. the gentle author permalink*
    July 26, 2012

    If someone with the requisite legal knowledge could to be there as an observer when the inspectors come to intimidate the fly-pitchers that would be a good start.

  9. July 26, 2012

    We have the same problem here in the US along 125 street, for over a century the main shopping street in Harlem. Since the 80’s people much like your fly-pitchers have spread out their blankets to sell books, CD’s eseential oils, clothing, etc.
    Along came gentrification and the young affluent white people, Harlem became “fashionable” and increasingly unaffordable. An out came the police to roust the street sellers.
    And they wonder why there were occupy Wall Street protests!?

  10. July 26, 2012

    I am so touched by this article and set of images. I can only hope that some one with the legal knowledge does step forward. I feel from my own experience of growing up in London that this sort of pushing poorer people about started in the 1980’s, perhaps it has always been so.

  11. July 27, 2012

    This story of shopping centres replacing traditional markets, then failing, seems to be horribly common throughout the UK. But the special situation of the fly-pitchers is something I didn’t know about till you drew attention to it in this moving post. Gina seems a special star in this story.

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