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Tony Bock At Watney Market

April 15, 2019
by the gentle author

Tony Bock took these pictures of Watney Market 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. 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

7 Responses leave one →
  1. April 15, 2019

    Magnificent photos of the old market.I fear that it will not be resurrected but you never know. people have become so fed up with the lifeless and characterless thoroughfares.
    Pork sausages at 34p a pound! You would not get that at the late reduced shelf in Tesco now

  2. April 15, 2019

    This brings back lots of memories. I often went shopping here with my great Aunt, and was sometimes embarrassed because she always haggled over the prices and picked each potato and carrot out individually to get the best ones! Valerie

  3. April 15, 2019

    Great pictures. So alive.

  4. Joan permalink
    April 15, 2019

    So nice to see Eileen Armstrong exactly as I remember her. Her daughter was in my class at Bishop Challoner school (and St Mary’s and St Michael’s before that). So many memories.

  5. Pauline Taylor permalink
    April 15, 2019

    Thank you GA, I see these photos as showing the grim reality of how people lived then, and, although I am a great believer in markets I would not want to return to scenes like these.

  6. Adele permalink
    April 15, 2019

    This market holds so many memories for my family. My grandfather had a fruit stall there from the early 1930’s, my aunts and uncle helped out (mum was too young) and my uncle eventually took over, selling only tomatoes until he retired in the late sixties. He took a taxi from Aldgate East cab stand to the old Covent Garden market about 3 am on Saturday mornings, loaded up, came back home for a quick cup of tea, then trudged through the streets with his loaded wheelbarrow in time to set up when the Saturday market opened. I remember him coming back in the winter with icicles hanging from the tip of his obligatory flat cap. I then got my 6d spending money, my grandfather (and later my mother) has a bowl of steaming soup waiting for him, he’d unpack and go to bed, Childhood memories. And a very hard life.

  7. April 16, 2019

    Great photo’s from Tony. Good to see a photo of the late Gladys McGee who I photographed in 1990.

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