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The Markets of Old London

September 20, 2017
by the gentle author

Clare Market c.1900

I never knew there was a picture of the legendary and long-vanished Clare Market – where Joseph Grimaldi was born – until I came upon this old glass slide among many thousands in the collection of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, housed at the Bishopsgate Institute. Scrutinising this picture, the market does not feel remote at all, as if I could take a stroll over there to Holborn in person as easily as I can browse the details of the photograph. Yet the Clare Market slum, as it became known, was swept away in 1905 to create the grand civic gestures of Kingsway and Aldwych.

Searching through this curious collection of glass slides, left-overs from the days of educational magic lantern shows – comprising many multiple shots of famous landmarks and grim old church interiors – I was able to piece together this set of evocative photographs portraying the markets of old London. Of those included here only Smithfield, London’s oldest wholesale market, continues trading from the same building, though Leather Lane, Hoxton Market and East St Market still operate as street markets, but Clare Market, Whitechapel Hay Market and the Caledonian Rd Market have gone forever. Meanwhile, Billingsgate, Covent Garden and Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market have moved to new premises, and Leadenhall’s last butcher – once the stock-in-trade of all the shops in this former cathedral of poultry – closed last year.

Markets fascinate me as theatres of commercial and cultural endeavour in which a myriad strands of human activity meet. If you are seeking life, there is no better place to look than in a market. Wherever I travelled, I always visited the markets, the black-markets of Moscow in 1991, the junk markets of Beijing in 1999, the Chelsea Market in Manhattan, the central market in Havana, the street markets of Rio, the farmers’ markets of Transylvania and the flea market in Tblisi – where, memorably, I bought a sixteenth century silver Dutch sixpence and then absent-mindedly gave it away to a beggar by mistake ten minutes later. I often wonder if he cast the rare coin away in disgust.

Similarly in London, I cannot resist markets as places where society becomes public performance, each one with its own social code, language, and collective personality – depending upon the nature of the merchandise, the location, the time of day and the amount of money changing hands. Living in Spitalfields, the presence of the markets defines the quickening atmosphere through the week, from the Thursday antiques market to the Brick Lane traders, fly-pitchers and flower market in Bethnal Green every Sunday. I am always seduced by the sense of infinite possibility when I enter a market, which makes it a great delight to live surrounded by markets.

These old glass slides, many of a hundred years ago, capture the mass spectacle of purposeful activity that markets offer and the sense of self-respect of those – especially porters – for whom the market was their life, winning status within an elaborate hierarchy that had evolved over centuries. Nowadays, the term “marketplace” is sometimes reduced to mean mere economic transaction, but these photographs reveal that in London it has always meant so much more.

Billingsgate Market, c.1910

Billingsgate Market, c.1910

Whitechapel Hay Market c.1920  (looking towards Aldgate)

Whitechapel Hay Market, c.1920 (looking east towards Whitechapel)

Porters at Smithfield Market, c.1910

Caledonian Rd Market, c.1910

Book sale at Caledonian Rd Market, c.1910

Caledonian Rd Market, c.1910

Caledonian Rd Market, c.1910

Covent Garden Market, c.1920

Covent Garden Market, c.1910

Covent Garden, c.1910

Covent Garden Market, 1925

Covent Garden Market, Floral Hall, c.1910

Leadenhall Market, Christmas 1935

Leadenhall Market, c.1910

East St Market, c.1910

Leather Lane Market, 1936

Hoxton Market, Shoreditch, 1910

Spitalfields Market, c.1930

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to look at these old photographs of the Spitalfields Market by Mark Jackson & Huw Davies

Night at the Spitalfields Market

Spitalfields Market Portraits

Other stories of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

8 Responses leave one →
  1. steve permalink
    September 20, 2017

    Thank you Gentle Author for such an evocative collection. Seeing the pictures and reading your comments brought back memories of the 1960s in Brick Lane market and a sense that we lose so much by eliminating our markets.
    The black and white photos, the 19th century buildings – in some cases merely slums – create a sense of atmosphere no longer accessible, but for those of us of a certain age we do remember.
    Milling around, bargaining, listening in, being part of a crowd all sharing a common existence, people selling things from those doorways. So much fun. Thank you for the memories.

  2. Ronald McKenzie permalink
    September 20, 2017

    It’s so fascinating to look at pictures full of the activity of life…and know that all of the people scurrying around in them are no more alive. The import of that day is no more. The sale made that day has drifted off and been lost among many others that followed day upon day, like smoke in the wind.

  3. September 20, 2017

    I’m the Whitechapel Hay market photo, are the cranes from building sites or the docks?

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    September 20, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wonderful glimpse into another lost past.

    Well said – “Markets fascinate me as theatres of commercial and cultural endeavour in which a myriad strands of human activity meet. If you are seeking life, there is no better place to look than in a market.”

    Although I am not a “shopper,” I also enjoy the liveliness of a market, particularly seasonal ones…

  5. September 20, 2017

    Oh just look at the shoppers surrounding that outdoor book sale. Some of them, with their noses already in the books that they (inevitably) will purchase, and lug home. Only to make way for MORE books. What a wonderful lifelong obsession!

    Thanks for treating us to another rare discovery.

  6. pauline taylor permalink
    September 20, 2017

    A lovely collection of photographs but I wonder when and why everyone stopped wearing a hat !

  7. Sue Davis permalink
    September 21, 2017

    It’s amazing seeing the photos of the Old Convent Garden Market – my mother, aunt and grandfather all worked there (& transferred to the new market) & I remember going there as a young child in the school holidays when my Mum had to work. It still looked just like that photo of the interior, 50 years after that photo was taken!

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    September 21, 2017

    Wonderful images! I no longer live in easy reach of London, but still have a visit to Columbia Road Flower Market on my Bucket List.

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