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So Long, Sclater St Yard Market

March 28, 2015
by the gentle author

Here are my profiles, illustrated with portraits by Jeremy Freedman, of some of the traders in the Sclater St Yard Market (on the car park between Sclater St & Bacon St) who will be displaced when it closes for redevelopment of the site after tomorrow’s Sunday market.

This is Jacqueline & Michael Barnes, who sell stationery together under an awning on the yard in Sclater St. “We’ve been here on this pitch about twenty-five years,” ventured Jacqueline proudly, welcoming me her to her personal kingdom of immaculately organised envelopes and felt pens. “I’m originally from Paddington, and Mike, he’s the same as me, from Paddington.” she explained, shaking her head when I enquired if she was a local, before revealing that the couple have been seduced by the East End, “We moved over to Stratford because we wanted a quiet life, and now we’re living out in the sticks.” Michael ran around serving customers with an eager grin, stretching for items with his long limbs while Jacqueline held court, chatting to me and the near-constant stream of regulars who dropped in to convey their week’s news and pick up some cheap biros and post-it notes. “It’s not been good for months and we just do it to keep ourselves amused.” she whispered discreetly, when there was a lull, “We are pensioners now, and  I look forward to coming down here – all the stallholders, we have a laugh and a joke together.”

These three keen lads from Essex are Sam, Jack & Perry, two brothers and a pal, who between them run a long stall, selling a spectacular selection of cheap tools and bicycle locks, which stretches the entire length of the yard in Sclater St. “It’s my dad’s business,” explained Sam, the eldest brother who is in charge, taking a respite from the intensity of the milling crowd and his ear-splitting banter –“I took over this bit about three years ago.” It makes for a compelling drama, as with eagle eyes, the three of them watch over the thousands of tools piled up, exchanging wary glances and sharp patter, while a ceaseless parade of customers passes along the stall. Sam’s skinny little brother Jack has been here each Sunday for several years, though he is still at school for another two years. “I was brought up around it and I’ll do this when I leave,” he informed me with a blush, his grey eyes glowing in anticipation, “and hopefully we’ll still be here in thirty years time.”

This is Kevin and his dad Tom who sell men’s casual wear at bargain prices in the Sclater St yard.“I started setting up and taking down the stalls for the traders when I was still at school, and then at fifteen I started trading on my own.” Kevin admitted with to me relish, “I left school early because I was earning more than the teachers.” Kevin, a magnanimous gentle giant who overshadows his father, has been trading for twenty years now and since Tom took early retirement, he comes to help Kevin out. “I work six days a week, sixteen hours a day nowadays,” Kevin told me as we sat in the afternoon shade at the back of his van while his father stood out on the empty yard awaiting customers -“It’s a measure of how hard we have to try these days to keep the money up.” Yet Kevin is undaunted by the challenge of market life in the recession.“I don’t like being beaten, so I’ll hang in,” he told me, catching his father’s attention with a grin and a nod. “Who could ask for anything more?” he asserted, turning to me and spreading his arms demonstratively,” I enjoy it, you’re busy out in the open air. And, when you’re making money, it’s happy days.”

Sneizana & Justin both came from Lithuania to Brick Lane. Sneizana has worked as a trader her whole life, but when the markets began to die in her country, she realised she could do better in London and took the brave decision to move here. “This is my holiday!” Sneizana declared to me with a weary smile, since she works the other six days of the week as a cleaner. And “This is my day off,” Justin announced too – not to be outdone – because he works all week on a building site. Yet in spite of this relentless routine of work, both were keen to emphasise how much they enjoy selling old clothes in the market. “It’s relaxing. People like us, and we’ve made lots of friends,” Justin informed me enthusiastically,“There are Italians, French, Portuguese, Polish, Serbians and Croatians – every country is here and this is good!”

This is Sean who sells vacuum cleaners and spare parts on Sclater St Market. “I’ve been involved in markets since I was twelve and then, in my mid-twenties, I decided to do it full time – and twenty-five years later I am still here,” he informed me with a bemused grin. Sean bought the business from the man he worked for who had been here since the early sixties, which makes half a century of trading in vacuum cleaners every Sunday on the same spot.

“I enjoy the lifestyle because I’ve done it all my life,” he declared – a man of extraordinary resilience, as swarthy as a seaman after working six days a week in markets over all these years. “I’ve been selling people vacuum cleaner bags so long, I’ve now got the children of my original customers coming back and reminding me of when they came here with their mum and dad,” he admitted shyly, “It’s a community, completely different from the High St. If people don’t have enough money, I say, ‘Pay me next week.'”

Like many of the stallholders, Sean is ambivalent about the tall buildings under construction that will soon tower over the market. “I think the new flats will regenerate the area, “ he said optimistically, gazing up to the sky, “unless they decide they don’t want the market anymore because it lowers the tone…”

“I am from a land where everyone’s very relaxed,” declared Albert enigmatically from beneath his green felt hat, when I went along to have chat at seven o’clock, after all the other traders had gone and his stall remained alone upon the empty yard, while Ernest Ranglin’s mellow jazz drifted off down Sclater St. Albert was speaking of his distant homeland of Vojvodina, but nowadays he drives to Spitalfields every week from Sheffield in his van full of curiosities. “There is a guy who comes each week to chat, he says, ‘I can’t afford to buy anything but I like your music'” Albert revealed to me, cherishing the delicate compliment.

“I used to do lots of things, I’m a furniture maker and I used to be teacher of geography – I like challenges,” he confided with gentle melancholic irony, whilst presiding upon the square of tables that defines his personal oasis of thoughtfulness. Albert is the philosopher of Sclater St market, who can always be relied upon to turn up intriguing finds, whether old cameras, photographs, tools, records, musical instruments, carpets, hats – or almost anything else you care to imagine – and accompanies them with superlative absurdist patter.

Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

7 Responses leave one →
  1. March 28, 2015

    I have lost count of the number of ‘So Long’ entries this year when I’ve opened up each email with trepidation to learn of yet another business being squeezed by unscrupulous landlords, developers etc. all greedily grabbing at short term gain. The deep sadness I feel towards the amount of profiled contributors who’ve weathered recessions and managed to support families across 3 generations but now these stalwarts of community are being systematically removed from trading in an extremely controlled and disturbing manner. The landscape is begin altered beyond all recognition and not just the physical.

  2. March 28, 2015

    It’s a pity when a long-established institution disappears… I’d be very sad if my favourite flea market would close! Just today it will be on again!

    Love & Peace

  3. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    March 28, 2015

    Well the end is nigh, I speak as a fellow trader in Sclater St all be it unaffected by this phase of change (at the moment ! ! ? ) most of the people featured in this article are friends of mine, one of whom, Sean, I have known for over 30 years, naturally these people as well as serving the community have been trading on this part of the market in order to earn a living in the best way they can, but in all honesty I personally think (in fact I know) that the REAL tragedy going on hear is not so much the loss of part of the market but the destruction of a community, for make no mistake this market is not just a collection of money grabbing people who turn up every Sunday, I know from personal experience that the amount of time and effort these people put in is not even remotely comparable to what they earn, some cynics my question my claim but I know it to be fact, these people are hear week after week come snow rain or sun for one reason only > because they love doing it< they love the camaraderie the friendship their interaction with their customers, many of who are themselves friends, for above all else, the REAL loss hear is not so much the demise of a large part of the market but the beginning of the DESTRUCTION of a COMMUNITY, a destruction that I believe has been long in the planning and I see this phase as being merely one more step towards the ultimate goal of completely eliminating this market and so bringing to an end century's of East End tradition that are now viewed by the money crazed power brokers from above as nothing more than a pointless relic of a bygone era, COMMUNITY = WHAT'S THAT ? CAMARADERIE = RUBBISH, TRADITION = GET REAL, there is MONEY TO BE MADE HERE so get those pointless pest's out of our way and bring in the concrete, I will be there tomorrow with a lump in my throat bidding a heartfelt goodbye to my unfortunate fellow traders in the full knowledge that all to soon it will be ME who will be saying goodbye only when that time comes there will be nobody to bid me a fond farewell, only money crazed developers eager to dance on my GRAVE.

  4. March 28, 2015

    How sad that another community meeting place is being destroyed. The greed of the developers and investors knows no bounds. Valerie

  5. jenn permalink
    March 28, 2015

    This is sad because I worked on Brick lane during the week and loved to see the street art in the car park. I used the car park a few times as well. It sounds like this whole area is becoming gentrified now and it will probably lose its charm and character like so many other places. Of course, the flats they will build there will be too expensive for me (and numerous others like me) to buy, and I earn a decent wage. London’s pricing out everyone except the super rich (and maybe the super poor who have no alternatives?).

  6. March 30, 2015

    Brings me to great sadness.

    Sclater St Yard Market is one of my all-time favourite London markets, a very special market place to me.

    Thank you to all the traders and my best wishes go out to you all.

    I have very much appreciated a wandering weave through on a Sunday, inheriting new bargain treasures, kind hearted sellers plus given a few cheer ups when a Sunday has been blue.

    A very precious piece will be taken away from this part of London, not to mention a bite out of me.

    Sclater St Yard Market has been a precious privilege.



  7. Tina Norrie permalink
    August 15, 2017

    I,m So Sorry To hear about the market,I will miss It So very much.I have Loved walking through the Market and have many friends there who will be sadly missed.I haved purchased many things from the market,meeting all the stallholders,who always have a kind word and a cheery smile and who I class As friends.I will miss you all.You cold always find what you were looking for down sclater street and Brick lane.The Market Will be sorely missed by all

    I have great sadness in my heart for this market.

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