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At Spitalfields Fruit & Veg Market

July 14, 2016
by the gentle author

Twenty-five years ago this summer, the wholesale fruit & vegetable market left Spitalfields, where it had been established in 1638 by charter of Charles I, and transferred to a site on the Hackney Marshes where it continues to operate today.

Mark Jackson & Huw Davies’ Spitalfields market photographs of 1990 seem now to be images from the eternal night of history – with fleeting figures endlessly running, fetching and carrying, pushing barrows from the flaring lights out into the velvet blackness, where a bonfire burns beneath the great tower of Christ Church looming overhead.

Mark & Huw were poets with cameras, aware that they were in an epic world with its own codes and customs, and they recognised the imperative to record it before it disappeared. No one asked them and no one paid them – as recent graduates, they shared a tiny flat and worked, as a courier and in a restaurant respectively, to buy film and subsidise their project. Each evening they took the last tube to Liverpool St Station and spent the night at the market, taking pictures and befriending the traders, before going straight back to work again in the morning, often without any sleep.

Like many of the most inspiring cultural projects, this remarkable body of photography was the result of individuals pursuing their own passion – Mark & Huw were committed to record what no one else was interested to look at. Neither became photographers, their greater project to record all the London markets was reluctantly abandoned when they went off to pursue other careers, but their Spitalfields Market photographs remain as an unrivalled achievement in the photography of markets.

Mark & Huw had only the resources to print a tiny fraction of their photographs, which means that this is the first time anyone has seen many of these pictures. Although there is a vivid realism in these photographs, there is an ethereal quality too, especially as many figures exist as mere shadows against the glimmering lights of the market. After the recent architectural interventions, there is an emptiness in the  Spitalfields Market now it has been cleaned up, a tangible absence of everything that is here in these pictures. The chaotic beauty of market life has gone and these shadows haunt the market today.

Photographs copyright © Mark Jackson & Huw Davies

You can see the original selection of

Mark Jackson & Huw Davies’ Photographs of the Spitalfields Market

and read about

The Return of Mark Jackson

You may also like to read

Ivor Robins, Fruit & Vegetable Purveyor

Blackie, the Last Spitalfields Market Cat

A Farewell to Spitalfields

14 Responses leave one →
  1. July 14, 2016

    Wonderful photos, very atmospheric! Valerie

  2. Richard Ironside permalink
    July 14, 2016

    As a greengrocer in London for many years I remember the “Old” wholesale fruit and vegetable markets,the atmosphere and community created by the characters that worked in and used these markets is a memory that is so captured in these black & white photos.
    Thank you for these recorded memories,sadly missed but never forgotten.

  3. July 14, 2016

    Had much more atmosphere in those days…..I used to have a Antique/ Vintage stall shortly after thr Fruit and Veg market closed………….it was a fun time for me with lots of locals selling all sorts of things……….it was free to sta;; out Monday to Saturday but on Sundays the fee was 20 pound.

    Didn;t make much money but the other stall holders were so friendly as were the visitors.

    Gilbert and George lived nearby and were always passing through the market….I served one of them one day not knowing at that time who they were.

    Loved the house they bought nearby where the husband and wife would cook breakfast and dinner.It was to be sold but they bought it so thay could continue to have their cooked food.

    I went to visit about 4 years ago and the whole place had changed………called progress think it’s called…….the friendly faces and chirpy talk had gone.

    Love your articles …thank you for the memories


  4. James Harris permalink
    July 14, 2016

    I can smell that wonderful market aroma that I have not experienced for many years perusing these photographs. My night as an 11 year old lad wandering around with my Dad undertaking his duties as one of the market security guards is one of my favourite memories.
    Walking through the corridors of the Fruit and Wool Exchange in pitch darkness was an eerie experience checking that all was well.
    I really need to rebuild the pile of parts in my shed that will one day be a costermongers barrow again. Fort Street lives on too ; )

  5. July 14, 2016

    Up early in the morning that’s what market people do they work so hard, to get their produce ready for dispatch before dawn. The buyers arrive and buy for the shops, this is a fast moving scene for perishables, freshness for veg is key here, we demand this; don’t we. Good quality pics by M & H and a good GA write up , notice most scenes were photographed before the dawn is up at Spitalfields Market. The handcarts shown are real gems I wonder if they are still used, if not one should be in a London Museum. A good link here is Blackie the ‘Last Spitalfields Market Cat’ by GA also see a response by ‘angelladee’ quite descriptive about working farm cats. John B

  6. Deborah permalink
    July 14, 2016

    Great photos of an era gone by. Where are the photographers now? Did they continue to build on their body of work recording life in London and finally manage to give up their “day jobs”.

  7. July 14, 2016

    I always feel that I am wealthier in mind and spirit after I have visited this wonderful daily blog.
    This series of photographs has taken me to an unknown place and time — and now I feel that I have a strong sense of the place itself and the community/purpose of the people. The final shot with flecks of snow — somehow it captured the whole concept of people laboring while the rest of us sleep, still snug in our beds. So grateful for these photos, and the feeling they provide.
    Many thanks.

  8. pauline taylor permalink
    July 14, 2016

    There is a wonderful atmosphere in these photographs which reminds me of how it felt to be in a train station in the early hours of the morning, almost like another world with a strange sense of unreality that I had totally forgotten until I saw these.

    We had a costermonger’s barrow at my home which had belonged to my grandfather who grew up in the East End, I remember it well and still have photos of me and my friend playing beside it in the garden. In retrospect I think I learnt a lot about the East End from this grandfather, he always called me mate and taught me a lot of cockney rhyming slang which I still use to this day. He was a lovely man and so much here reminds me of him, so thank you yet again GA.

  9. Malcolm permalink
    July 14, 2016

    Wonderful photographs that capture the atmosphere of the old market so beautifully. These are immensely important documents as well as works of art. I find it difficult to reconcile the Spitalfields that once existed – and now only exists in photographs – with the weird tourist attraction that has developed in its place. I often walk around the streets that I once photographed as they were, in a state of dereliction and decay, and I feel as if I am on a film set or a kind of Disney park. Strange days.

  10. Sherry Bryan permalink
    July 15, 2016

    Can vividly remember scurrying through rotting fruit and veg, in my bottle green beret on my way to school in Spital Square. Great photos, can smell that special odour, and hear the evocative sounds of the market as if it was yesterday!

  11. Philip Marriage permalink
    July 26, 2016

    These are really special . . . well done!

  12. Susan permalink
    August 14, 2016

    I am trying to find long distance family Isaac Fruiterers who were cousins to Tubby Isaac my Great Grandmother Martha Anna Isaac was the daughter of Isaac Fruiterers London Bishops Gate Norton Forgate London because she married a non Jewish man she was disowned by her parents who were Fruit importers would like to talk to families please call Susan Vousden 01255 813511 OR EMAIL ME WE HAVE GOT A FAMILY TREE

  13. August 24, 2016

    It’s so wonderful to see these photographs. They show how much the area has changed and it’s lovely to see how it was as a working fruit and veg market.

  14. December 25, 2017

    I went to Spitalfield High School (I believe since torn down?) near Spitalfield Market and loved visiting the Market. None of your photos show the men walking gracefully with round baskets of fruit or vegetables balanced on their heads, no hands. When my father grew older, he would go there after they closed, and pick up abandoned fruit or vegetables. When war broke out, Spitalfield High School was evacuated (some girls stayed in London throughout the war not me) to Ely, a Cathedral town that I hated. I longed for the cheery East London where my father and mother ran Alf’s Hairdressers on Vallance Road, later on Columbia Road-where the Sunday flower market was held. I came back to Spitalfields High School after the war, but soon finished Higher School Certificate and won a scholarship to London School of Economics. I now live in the U.S. but miss the old London that I believe radically changed. Google Gilda Haber, maiden name was Moss, short for Moscovitch.

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