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Tony Bock At Watney Market

February 25, 2013
by the gentle author

Tony Bock took these pictures of Watney Market – published here for the first time today – while working as a photographer on the East London Advertiser between 1973 and 1978. Within living memory, there had been a thriving street market in Watney St, yet by the late seventies it was blighted by redevelopment and Tony recorded the last stalwarts trading amidst the ruins.

In the nineteenth century, Watney Market had been one of London’s largest markets, rivalling Petticoat Lane. By the turn of the century, there were two hundred stalls and one hundred shops, including an early branch of J.Sainsbury. As a new initiative to revive Watney Market is launched this spring, Tony’s poignant photographs offer a timely reminder of the life of the market before the concrete precinct.

Born in Paddington yet brought up in Canada, Tony Bock came back to London after being thrown out of photography school and lived in the East End where his mother’s family originated, before returning to embark on a thirty-year career as a photojournalist at The Toronto Star. Recalling his sojourn in the East End and contemplating his candid portraits of the traders, Tony described the Watney Market he knew.

“I photographed the shopkeepers and market traders in Watney St in the final year, before the last of it was torn down. Joe the Grocer is shown sitting in his shop, which can be seen in a later photograph, being demolished.

In the late seventies, when Lyn – my wife to be – and I, were living in Wapping, Watney Market was our closest street market, just one stop away on the old East London Line. It was already clear that ‘the end was nigh,’ but there were still some stallholders hanging on. My memory is that there were maybe dozen old-timers, but I don’t think I ever counted.

The north end of Watney St had been demolished in the late sixties when a large redevelopment was promised. Yet, not only did it take longer to build than the Olympic Park in Stratford, but a massive tin fence had been erected around the site which cut off access to Commercial Rd. So foot and road traffic was down, as only those living nearby came to the market any more. The neighbourhood had always been closely tied to the river until 1969 when the shutting of the London Docks signalled the change that was coming.

The remaining buildings in Watney St were badly neglected and it was clear they had no future. Most of the flats above the shops were abandoned and there were derelict lots in the terrace which had been there since the blitz. The market stalls were mostly on the north side of what was then a half-abandoned railway viaduct. This was the old London & Blackwall Railway that would be reborn ten years later as the Docklands Light Railway and prompt the redevelopment we see today.

So the traders were trapped. The new shopping precinct had been under construction for years. But where could they go in the meantime? The new precinct would take several more years before it was ready and business on what was left of the street was fading.

Walking through Watney St last year, apart from a few stalls in the precinct, I could see little evidence there was once a great market there. In the seventies, there were a couple of pubs, The Old House At Home and The Lord Nelson, in the midst of the market. Today there are still a few old shops left on the Cable St end of Watney St, but the only remnant I could spot of the market I knew was the sign from The Old House At Home rendered onto the wall of an Asian grocer.

I remember one day Lyn came home, upset about a cat living on the market that had its whiskers cut off. I went straight back to Watney St and found the beautiful tortoiseshell cat hiding under a parked car. When I called her, she came to me without any hesitation and made herself right at home in our flat. Of course, she was pregnant, giving us five lovely kittens and we kept one of them, taking him to Toronto with us.”

Eileen Armstrong, trader in fruit and vegetables

Joe the Grocer

Gladys McGee, poet and member of the Basement Writers’ group, who wrote eloquently of her life in Wapping and Shadwell. Gladys was living around the corner from the market in Cable St at this time.

Joe the Grocer under demolition.

Frames from a contact sheet showing the new shopping precinct.

Photographs copyright © Tony Bock

You may like to see these other photographs by Tony Bock

Tony Bock, Photographer

27 Responses leave one →
  1. Maureen Gardner permalink
    February 25, 2013

    So lovely to see the elderly ladies with their pushchairs, which must have been the inspiration for the shopping trollies.

  2. joan permalink
    February 25, 2013

    Good to see Eileen Armstrong selling spuds while beautifully turned out in tailored coat and head scarf in the fourth photo. I was at school with her daughter and remember her always looking like this.

    The thing I most associate with the old Watney Market is cheese being cut with a cheese string!

    Best wishes,


  3. Peter Holford permalink
    February 25, 2013

    I like these. Tony really captured the essence of the East End. The one thing which really dates the pictures for me – beyond the fashions – is the way fags were an appendage to many peoples’ hands. Two pictures especially just stood out – perhaps because I never did smoke.

  4. February 26, 2013

    Wonderful Photographs! I also photographed Gladys McGee a few years after Tony. He’s really captured the essence of an era.

  5. Cherub permalink
    February 27, 2013

    When you see photos like this you realise how much community has been lost over the years, all over the UK. When i was a child in the 60s, the main street in my little Scottish backwater was bustling with old ladies just like these. Everyone went to the grocer, the butcher and the fishmonger; the Co-op for things like shoes and drapery items. Sadly these traders are no more, we have the sterile environment of an ASDA in their place.

  6. isa permalink
    March 9, 2013

    I donnot know why these black and white photographs make me sad.A time passed people capture living their lives.Welcome now to prepacked sterile supermarkets, with their tasteless food.We should all find and support our local markets and small independent shops.

  7. brian permalink
    March 9, 2013

    the women pushing the pram & smoking in the eight picture is my mum Annie . how wonderful to see an old pic of my dear old mum here . she is 81 years old now

    thank you tony very much

  8. rachelle leary permalink
    April 13, 2013

    seeing those photoes almost made me cry, i grew up in the 60s in shadwell gdns and remember going up watney to get shopping for my mum before going to school and remember the old shops it was good to see them again and remember, thanks very much..

  9. Sheri Webb permalink
    August 20, 2013

    The Lady in the Bakers serving, is my Mum Pat Crosher. Mum has sadly passed away, but I remember her working in the shop.


  10. Ules Moreno permalink
    October 16, 2013

    I love the comments section on this article. I’m trying to find out when the ethnic make-up of the streeters and shoppers changed. Can anyone clue me in?

  11. David Delay permalink
    November 1, 2013

    Just found this site after listening to Robert Elms on the radio. Watney Street was part of my childhood, the memories come flooding back, of the days before everything was pre-packed or you had to buy six of anything! I would certainly have to agree with my father, when we got our first fridge that ” nothing will ever taste the same again.”
    Keep up the good work. Fantastic memories!!!

  12. Bernice Fullerton permalink
    January 18, 2014

    Great pictures. I was born in 1970, so I only remember the new precinct as a little girl. Lovely to see what it was like before I remember it. Eileen Armstrong was a trader in fruit and vegetables for many years once the new market was set up and I had my first job in the Sainsbury’s supermarket in 1986. It was a really good market for many years.

  13. Doris Harrison nee Proctor permalink
    January 29, 2014

    I grew up in Watney street from birth in 1945 until 1966 when I married. We lived over the Mason’s Arms pub in Masons flats. The windows over looked the market and the entrance was in Blakesley st. opposite a men’s urinal that stood in the centre of Blakesley street. On the opposite corner was Miss Sharod the Newsagent.
    We were surrounded by bomb sites, to the side the bomb site of Blakesley st. school, to the back the bomb site of Christ church and opposite across Watney street was the bomb site which had been shops and flats.
    Lovely to see all these old photos.

  14. Ernie Leahy permalink
    February 7, 2014

    My mother in law & Father in law, Phil & Tilly Selby used to sell newspapers outside Shadwell station in the 50′ & 60’s .I’m sorry there are no photo’s of them that’s because they were always
    in The Lord Nelson or The Old House at Home.

  15. David Lierens permalink
    March 26, 2014

    the first picture was my dad’s shop. I used to work with him at the weekends. originally my granddads (Alf) aka Dutchie. It became so run down that even the burglars didn’t bother robbing it. After demolition we moved to a bomb site near the new market. Thanks for the memories.

  16. Adele Lester permalink
    April 5, 2014

    Many memories here. My uncle, Sammy, sold tomatoes off a stall on Saturdays through the fifties and early sixties. Before and after the war my grandfather had a fruit stall in the same pitch.

  17. Carol permalink
    November 22, 2014

    It was tatty, dirty, crowded and noisy and I loved it x

  18. Janet permalink
    February 3, 2015

    I moved out of Wapping Riverside Mansion in 1953 aged dad was a docker.I remember looking out of my bedroom window at all the ships going past.
    .And especially president Tito sticks in my mind.I lived at 32 my cousin at no 1.My aunt had a cafe that used to serve all the dockers.We all had such wonderful friends & neighbours.Now I live in Hornchurch only have work colleagues.& family neighbours are just there we don’t really socialise.

  19. April 22, 2015

    I loved looking at these photos,of the old market I grew up their and worked in the market as a young girl,jacks shop was under the railway arch, in one of the photos I can see a small glimpse of it , he sold everything from children’s socks to curtains by the yard, he had a daughter Brenda who I worked with she was nice, we got on well I remember the winters were bitter standing out Side on the stall on Saturday legs turning blue with the cold, when the opportunity came to work in the chemist at the end of the market I went for the interview and got the job it was great,the atmosphere of market life was happy.

  20. September 2, 2015

    Well what great memories of Watney Street. I’m the son of ‘Joe the Grocer’ and spent many Saturdays helping in the shop and market stall outside. My mother Norma, Joes wife has celebrated her 93rd birthday this year and we often still spend time reminiscing. I remember Syrett and Press the butchers who had shops either side. Also Andersons the bakers, Caters and Sainsbury’s counter stores. There was also a stall holder that only sold tomatoes. When it came to ‘Hopping Time’ customers would stock up with groceries for their holidays. I do remember that the film To Sir with Love was filmed in the market and one of the episodes of the BBC programme ‘Man Alive’ featured it. Thinking of going back to see what it looks like now.

  21. September 2, 2015

    Further to my earlier posting I’ve since found the BBC ‘Man Alive’ programme that had been uploaded to you tube entitled ‘Alright, we’ll do it ourselves’ from October 1972. It’s about a Stepney Festival and the organisers go down Watney Street asking for donations and includes my father ‘Joe the Grocer’ and Minnie Payne who had the fishmongers stall infront of our shop.
    Copy or paste this link to see ‘Stepney’ in the 1970’s

  22. Mike Tobias permalink
    January 24, 2016

    My dad’s family had the fishmongers shop in Watney Street, Tobias & Sons. My grandfather opened it, but as a kid in the 60’s and 70’s when we used to visit from Brighton, I always remember my Uncles Mickey and Georgie running it…..On the Man Alive video posted above my Uncle Georgie is seen after the Live Eels shot.

  23. Claire Bridger permalink
    June 18, 2016

    My Grandparents ran a Butchers (L Bridger) at 60 Watney Street, I’m just starting to dig into the family history so wondered if anyone had any memories??

  24. Bernard Samuel permalink
    April 9, 2018

    I used to live in Zion House in the Sidney Street Estate and used to visit Watney Street Market with my grandmother [Dora Fedman]. I knew Doodie Dix and his wife Cissy [included in the pictures…the one with tomatoes at 15p a lb] and of course Minnie Payne the fishmonger who was always glamorous.

    My mates and I would pass through the market on our way to Shadwell Park.

    However my east end has long gone….my synagogue is closed and is now flats…good memories but the east end is a living place and the past is just that a lovely memory….history!

  25. John Harvey permalink
    May 12, 2019

    I served my apprenticeship at J F Hunts (engineers) on Martha Street) one job I had was to fetch tee in a “Billy can” from “Fays Café” opposite Shadwell station and under the bridge she was a very friendly Jewish lady who seemed to know everyone.No one has mentioned her yet this was in the late 50s and yes I loved the bustling street market…John Harvey

  26. Colin Young permalink
    February 10, 2020

    53 Watney Street in 1913 was Sanders Bros “The Peoples Corn & Flour Market” was run by my grandfather & grandmother, Ernest & Emily Young. He was 23 then. My father was born here. They eventually moved & managed another Sanders Bros shop at 233 Roman Rd. Will try to post photos of 53.

  27. A. Welsh permalink
    June 30, 2020

    I lived in Gelston Point, when it was brand new in the early 1970s as a child and clearly remember shopping in Watney market. Joe the grocer always chatted with my mum and let her have an apple or an orange for free! Lovely people. Nice to see these photos.

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