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A Walk Through Time in Spitalfields Market

March 13, 2013
by the gentle author

Once upon a time, the Romans laid out a graveyard along the eastern side of the road leading north from the City of London, in the manner of the cemetery lining the Appian Way. When the Spitalfields Market was demolished and rebuilt in the nineteen-nineties, stone coffins and funerary urns with copper coins were discovered beneath the market buildings – a sobering reminder of the innumerable people who came to this place and made it their own over the last two thousand years. Outside the City, there is perhaps no other part of London where the land bears the footprint of so many over such a long expanse of time as Spitalfields.

In his work, Adam Tuck plays upon this sense of reverberation in time by overlaying his own photographs upon earlier pictures to create subtly modulated palimpsests, which permit the viewer to see the past in terms of the present and the present in terms of the past, simultaneously. He uses photography to show us something that is beyond the capability of ordinary human vision, you might call it God’s eye view.

Working with the pictures taken by Mark Jackson & Huw Davies in 1991, recording the last year of the nocturnal wholesale Fruit & Vegetable Market before it transferred to Leyton after more than three centuries in Spitalfields, Adam revisited the same locations to photograph them today. The pictures from 1991 celebrate the characters and rituals of life within a market community established over generations, depicted in black and white photographs that, at first glance, could have been taken almost any time during the twentieth century.

In Adam Tuck’s composites, the people in the present inhabit the same space as those of the past, making occasional surreal visual connections as if they sense each others presence or as if the monochrome images were memories fading from sight. For the most part – according to the logic of these images – the market workers are too absorbed in their work to be concerned with time travellers from the future, while many of the shoppers and office workers cast their eyes around aimlessly, unaware of the spectres from the past that surround them. Yet most telling are comparisons in demeanour, which speak of self-possession and purpose – and, in this comparison, those in the past are seen to inhabit the place while those in the present are merely passing through.

Although barely more than twenty years have passed since the market moved out, the chain stores and corporate workers which have supplanted it belong to another era entirely. There is a schism in time, since the change was not evolutionary but achieved through the substitution of one world for another. Thus Adam’s work induces a similar schizophrenic effect to that experienced by those who knew the market before the changes when they walk through it today, raising uneasy comparisons between the endeavours of those in the past and the present, and their relative merits and qualities.

Brushfield St, north side.

Lamb St, south side.

Brushfield St, looking east.

In Brushfield St.

In Gun St.

Brushfield St, looking south-east.

Looking out from Gun St across Brushfield St.

In Brushfield St.

Market interior.

Northern corner of the market.

In Lamb St.

Lamb St looking towards The Golden Heart.

Photographs copyright © Mark Jackson & Huw Davies & Adam Tuck

Mark Jackson & Huw Davies photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to look at more of Adam Tuck’s work

A Walk Through Time in Spitalfields

and Mark Jackson & Huw Davies pictures of the Spitalfields Market

Spitalfields Market Portraits, 1991

Night at the Spitalfields Market, 1991

Mark Jackson & Huw Davies’ Photographs of the Spitalfields Market

26 Responses leave one →
  1. March 13, 2013

    This brings back memories of when I was a Market Constable(Beadle) for a short while two decades ago !! Now driving around London in my cab how time flies and things change …
    I got my badge that year 25th July 1991 happy days …

  2. RaspberryPip permalink
    March 13, 2013

    Remarkable, my spine was tingling.

  3. Nick Appleton permalink
    March 13, 2013

    Utterly brilliant. It makes me want to see a film done in the same way. The ghosts of Spitalfields. Another fabulous post, thank you.

  4. March 13, 2013

    How interesting. Extraordinary how the 1990s photos seem to belong to a long-existing traditional way of life, which only a few years later has beeen superceded.

  5. March 13, 2013

    Superb pictures!

  6. Terry Jones permalink
    March 13, 2013

    Love the juxtaposition ! I remember the ‘old’ and visit the ‘new’.

  7. Hardy permalink
    March 13, 2013

    Makes you want to reach back to those workers and say … sorry, thank you … and then you wonder about the future and what part we play in it. Yes, spine tingling.

  8. Simon F permalink
    March 13, 2013

    What amazing photos. Love the man from 1991 checking out the BMW of 2013.

  9. March 13, 2013

    I can’t tell you how much I love these superimposed images. The old adage of “a picture is worth a thousand words” certainly holds true with these pictures. History at a glance.

  10. Peter Holford permalink
    March 13, 2013

    Great! More please.

  11. Bolongaro Trevor permalink
    March 13, 2013

    Wow this is really cool. We take inspiration from local history and the history of east London going back to the 1800’s we draw inspiration from old London which can be seen in our designs, we just got a old east London map scarf in which is from 1838. A lot of the pieces in our collections are named after London street names and it’s culture of different times. This reminds us of us ! Vintage, macabre, some Victoriana and London subcultures that make us what we are today! Fantastic work we are Fascinated here at Bolongaro Trevor

  12. March 13, 2013

    Brilliant images to tell the history

  13. Cherub permalink
    March 13, 2013

    Over 10 years ago I worked at the SPAB’s offices and used to love wandering round to Spitalfields Market on my own. There was a very good second hand book shop there that I’d browse in. A few of us from the office used to sometimes go to Spitz wine bar (is that still there?) I also bought a painting from an artist in the market for my husband’s 40th birthday; the artist was a lady who imported fabrics from Thailand. It is a buddhist symbol for “health, wealth and happiness” on hand made paper in a simple wooden frame – it now hangs at the foot of our bed in Scotland.

    I’m visiting London soon for the first time in 9 years and I very much hope to revisit Spitalfields. I loved it dearly for the 2 years I worked there and have happy memories of that time.

  14. Erica W. permalink
    March 13, 2013

    These are fantastic!

  15. Dorota permalink
    March 14, 2013

    Thank you! Brings back memories of times when Spitalfields Market was full different vibrations, and more mysterious… I remember end of 80’s beginning of 90’s when before Christmas my girls had their faces painted, artists had their workshops… Good memories!

  16. Isis permalink
    March 14, 2013

    I especially love these photos as they capture how I see my own city. They perfectly portray the experience I have when I walk streets that used to contain a beloved bakery, a grand department store, a much-visited movie theatre, even an 18th century tavern. My children have had to learn the landmarks of our city that used to exist but have since been swept away, as in Spitalfields.

  17. March 14, 2013

    Just brilliant! And the writing complements the pictures perfectly.

  18. Vivian permalink
    March 15, 2013

    How lovely to see these photo’s it reminds me of when I walked through the market every day to go to school from my pub in Bishopsgate.

  19. March 15, 2013

    These were great. I had a similar experience when I was doing research in my part of Sacramento for a novel set in 1919. I know where buildings used to be that are vanished now, and the effect is a sort of “double vision” when I take my walks.

  20. Keith Edwards permalink
    March 15, 2013

    I was the porter on verdes 1972-73

  21. Peter permalink
    March 17, 2013


  22. Anne Forster permalink
    March 17, 2013

    These images are amazing, so ethereal and other worldly.

  23. September 11, 2013

    Another wonderful post….a magic world

  24. marie Bow Bells permalink
    May 30, 2014

    As .a child I recall the many mornings my father would leave the house in Stepney at 3am to make his way to Spitafields, returning home at 3pm his sack bag filled with veggies for our daily fare. The war took him into the Navy, but in 45 he was back with his sack The transfer to Leyton left him with a shorter journey, as we had moved to Hackney..At 15 I was on the bus passing Spitafields every day to go to work in the City, its reformation had yet begun…How small the world has become when I can sit here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and get transported back to my childhood, I loved the visual images of past and present, hoping to make the garden tour in 2015 for my 80th BIDay.

  25. July 6, 2014

    This took me back decades to my first job in the 60’s in Spitalfields for a company called J.J. Lyons. They held an ‘auction’ of fruit a couple of times a week, and old man Lyons was an OGRE! He looked like Shrek! Very happy memories though of being wheeled back to Liverpool Street station on a wild rainy December night, on a fruit barrow, with plastic bags bulging with oranges and seasonal fruits given to me by barrow boys with flat caps and winking eyes ! Lovely, lovely pictures. Thank you. Jx

  26. Melvyn Hyams permalink
    August 11, 2014

    Wow, I’m amazed, just looking round the Internet at the “old East End”, and came upon this site!!
    My family were in Spitalfields Market for many years, I too worked there when I left school in 1960. We were at 36, Brushfield Street, next door to the “Blue Cafe”. My Grandfather was nicknamed Doctor Hyams, because he used to “doctor” the samples to make them look good !!!
    I have many happy memories from those days, fun with all the porters and drivers, the banter etc. I did my growing up there (very quickly!” The hustle and bustle is something I will never forget.
    I seem to recall that there was someone who had a fruit business in Southend (I think) called Vic Chandler, and the Vic Chandler in the TV adverts for the gambling site, looks so much like him, I wondered if it may be his son. Anyone know?

    By the way, I knew JJ Lyons as well (as above), and the old Joe Lyons WAS an Ogre, I used to be friends with John his son (always drove a Mercedes even in the sixties !!)

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