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At The Fruit & Wool Exchange, 1937

January 11, 2020
by the gentle author

Now that the historic Fruit & Wool Exchange in Spitalfields is reconstituted as a facaded corporate headquarters, readers may find it salient to study these excerpts from a brochure to promote the Exchange produced in 1937.

You, as a fruit grower, are interested in three things. Growing your fruit. Shipping your fruit. And marketing your fruit. Of these three essentials, the first is entirely your own responsibility, the second is partially under your guidance, and the third?

You may ask “Why is the London Fruit Exchange the best place to auction your fruit?” We answer the question in two ways. Firstly, we say, “Because the Exchange is the finest example in the world of a specialised fruit distribution centre.” Secondly, we point to the high reputation of the six Brokers who constitute the Exchange  – John & James Adam & Co Ltd, Connolly Shaw Ltd, Goodwin Simons (London) Ltd, J.C. Houghton & Co (London) Ltd, Keeling & White Ltd, and Knill & Grant Ltd. One was flourishing back in 1740 and all have unblemished histories of financial soundness and high integrity. And these qualities, being so old are all the more jealously guarded.

Here you may be sure of a price that is as high as the market will stand. You may be sure that your fruit will be sold quickly while it is worth the most money. So sure may you be of these things, that, though many thousands of miles may separate you from your ships in the London Docks, you can always be certain that not a penny of your money is being thrown away by carelessness or delay.

It is often easier to understand the workings of a business if one knows how and why it was started – and so we will begin our story of the present Fruit Exchange by telling briefly where its roots lie, and how it grew to its present importance.

A century ago, there flourished in London four well-known Auction Fruit Brokers. To the fruit trade they were known as “The City Brokers.” With their headquarters at the City Sale Room, they handled a large proportion of London’s fruit business throughout the great industrial expansion of nineteenth century England. But with the twentieth century came greater and greater consumption of fruit, and in addition, London became a centre of fruit distribution for the Continent as well as the United Kingdom.

By 1929, the four Brokers of the City Sale Rooms made a great decision. They decided that by intelligent co-operation, it was in their power, and in the interests of the fruit trade, to form a central exchange for buyers and sellers. And so, in conjunction with the Central Markets Committee of the Corporation of London, these six firms organised and caused to be built the London Fruit Exchange. The first auction took place here in September 1929.

As an example of a specialised fruit distribution centre, the London Fruit Exchange is the finest in the world – in its one building are complete services for warehousing, sampling, buying and distribution, besides social amenities for the buyers who congregate there. Sales by auction are held here on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Every sale day of the week, an average of 40,000 and 50,000 packages are offered for sale. On some occasions as many as 100,000 have been catalogued for sale on one day.

On the ground floor of the Exchange are spacious showrooms, in which can be exhibited 2,500 sample packages at one time. Here from 8am onwards, the buyers and the auctioneers examine and value the goods before the sales start. The Showrooms are connected with the Sales Rooms by electric indicators, which show at a glance which broker is selling at the moment and in which Sales Room. Immediately adjacent to the Sales Rooms are numerous telephone cabinets connected to a telephone operator. From these, buyers may swiftly communicate with their principals in Great Britain and the Continent to discuss the state of the market.

The sales take place from 10:30am in two inter-communicating auction rooms, providing seating for 1,000 buyers. These are fitted with every modern device for making business quick and easy. In each room, the Auctioneers speak into microphones connected to loudspeakers, which bring them into instant touch with every part of the room in which they are  selling.

The important railways of Great Britain have offices within the Exchange itself, conveniently situated for the immediate use of buyers, and telewriters are installed in the Brokers’ offices which instantly link up with the principal ports of the United Kingdom, giving the latest market information up to the last second before the fruit is sold.

By these facilities, and by comfortable seating and central heating, the work of selling goes on smoothly and quickly. The seller has displayed his goods to his best advantage. The buyer is at his ease, and knows that he is dealing with honest men. Is it any wonder that prices at the London Fruit Exchange are uniformly good?

On the ground floor and basement of the Exchange, is warehouse accommodation capable of holding 200,000 packages. The basement is fed by electrical conveyors, gravity rollers and chutes, from the loading bays at ground floor level. There are fourteen loading bays, each wide enough to take two vehicles per bay. Twenty-eight vehicles can thus be loaded or unloaded simultaneously. Special traffic men are employed to regulate the vehicles, so that immediately a vehicle is loaded or unloaded, it is called out and another takes its place.

To do this work, a permanent warehouse staff is employed. During the busy season, it is necessary to employ additional labour, ranging from thirty to a hundred porters daily. At such times, the warehouse opens at 6am, and the business of loading and unloading, piling and sorting, continues smoothly and quickly until 10pm. At times, over 25,000 packages have been received and 25,000 packages despatched in one day. Taking the average weight of a package at 84lbs, this gives a total tonnage handled, piled and sorted in one day of 2,000 tons. All this work is done in a cool, even temperature, maintained on even the hottest days of summer by batteries of electric fans.

We say to you, the grower, and therefore the prime mover in this great industry, “We believe that you could choose no better way to consistently high prices and fair, reputable dealing, than of consigning more and more of your fruit to the handling of the London Fruit Exchange – the finest fruit auction centre in the world.”


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18 Responses leave one →
  1. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    January 11, 2020

    Fascinating to see how pictures and not many words tell a powerful story, as per.
    A beautiful illustration of fruit.
    Also very interesting to see the word ‘Lesbian’ pop up on the brochure out of its usual context. Wonder what that was referring to? One of Grandma’s friends thought ‘Lesbian’ meant ‘Lady Golfer’. Maybe they had the same connotations back then 🙂

  2. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    January 11, 2020

    Also just spotted ‘Egyptian Reefer’ – blimey!

  3. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    January 11, 2020

    Are they the names of the ships bringing the fruit I wonder?
    How magnificent that there’s a ‘Lesbian’ if so!

  4. January 11, 2020

    Fascinating original write up with photos. I live SW and originally from Bradford but I adore London and love exploring the East End especially Spitalfields which I first discovered in the 1970’s when I started going to concerts in Christ Church and I remember some rabbits in hutches which I think were in some sort of garden and from that moment I was smitten!

  5. Greg Tingey permalink
    January 11, 2020

    I find the “Ex” list at the bottom of the sale-bills fascinating: The names of the ships that brought the goods in.
    Some of which are clearly passenger liners, which were also carrying freight.

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 11, 2020

    This makes me really sad. It was an amazing place of great architectural merit and it is a great loss to London that just the facade remains. I actually took a walk beyond the facade last week and the new inner space was as even more soulless and ghastly than I expected, and could have been a corporate headquarters anywhere (Slough perhaps?)

    I know that a lot of local businesses were housed there after the Fruit Exchange had moved out and should have been allowed to remain in situ – grrrrr!!!

    It also occurred to me that the auction rooms look like they could have become a great theatre – or the perfect space to hold a very popular lecture about architecture and social housing perhaps…?

  7. January 11, 2020

    Very interesting. Thank you.

  8. Linda Granfield permalink
    January 11, 2020

    The words “intelligent co-operation” jumped out.

    The world could certainly use more of that during these troubled times.

    That and some of that luscious fruit in the first illustration!

  9. January 11, 2020

    The top image reminded me that we once bought a full-color, die-cut wallpaper frieze at the Victoria and Albert gift shop. It featured garlands of gorgeous fruit, and fresh-faced children holding a banner that said “Eat More Fruit” or some such. (I don’t know if it was reproduced from the museum’s massive ephemera collection, or whatever — but we had to buy it!) We got it back to the US, and it fit perfectly around the top edges of the breakfast area in our loft. I mean — like it was custom-ordered!? All the colors harmonized so beautifully with all our vintage kitchenware — Fiesta, Riviera, Hall, etc. It was greatly admired by visitors, many who were art directors, and the room ended up being photographed for various décor magazines. No one would ever believe we got the “crowning” touch from the V&A gift shop. Go figure!

  10. January 11, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the fascinating piece about the London Fruit Exchange hailed in 1937 as having “in its one building … complete services for warehousing, sampling, buying and distribution, besides social amenities for the buyers who congregate there.”

    Central heating, fans in summer, and quick telephone communications to boot…

  11. January 11, 2020

    A great loss for the area (as well as the many businesses it used to house) and also sad for London architecture in general that only the facade remains.

  12. January 11, 2020

    Lesbian was a 2,352 GRT cargo ship which was built by Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd, Newcastle upon Tyne in 1923 for Ellerman Lines Ltd.

  13. Robin permalink
    January 11, 2020

    I agree with Jill Wilson’s comment: a walk beyond the façade into the inner space reveals a grimly empty, soulless space. Your post, GA, reminds us of the vibrant and essential place it used to be, and why we should strive to retain such architectural jewels and the lively human interactions they can foster.

  14. Chris Connor permalink
    January 11, 2020

    Wonderful to see the Fruit & Wool Exchange in its true colours. Sadly, it is now an empty soulless facade. The vessels include (most likely) many from Blue Star Line which traded from exotic places like the east coast of South America to London. The cargoes would have been carried in refrigerated holds, rather than containers as they are nowadays. For instance the Avelona Star was a Blue Star Merchant Steam vessel and was sunk in 1940 by a U boat. She was carrying 5,600 tons of frozen meat and 1,000 tons of oranges from Buenos Aires via Freetown to London.

  15. Eric Forward permalink
    January 12, 2020

    What an incredibly impressive & progressive place this must have been. Attention to all details with everything thought of to remove the least friction from the process. It must have been cutting edge for its time. Of course it is sad that is is gone, but by this post it is not forgotten, and time does – fortunately or unfortunately – move on.

  16. January 12, 2020

    Fascinating history

  17. Greg Leigh permalink
    January 12, 2020

    I well remember the London Fruit Exchange in all its glory.

    From the pic of the auction room , middle section, 5th, row up , 4th, and 5th. from the
    right can be seen my father and his uncle , who started his fruit importing/wholesale business in
    Brushfield St. (Spitalfields) circa 1922, which is now a ladies fashion shop. It was located between the L.F.E. and London’s other major fruit auction house – J & J Lyons , Gun St. and operated there until the relocation of Spitalfields Market some sixty years later.

    My father’s uncle , and his eight siblings , all lived two streets behind the L.F.E. in what
    was then – Butler St., This was well before the L.F.E. was built.

    When I join the company aged 16, I was not allowed on the shop floor , too much bad language,
    so I spent one year working for Fruit commission Agents -Butcher & Hopper
    located in the London Fruit Exchange . Their office overlooked Commercial St. and “Itchy” park and from the office window I regularly saw the comings and goings of those unfortunates , depicted in so many pics of Spitalfields.

    At the end of that year I joined my dad in the wholesale warehouse.

    We used to see all the produce being unloaded into the storage area beneath the L.F.E. and viewed the “samples” of fruit and later he would bid and buy at auction time.
    The samples were raised into the auction room by a lift, prior to each “Lot” sale.

    We started work at 4am. and at 10.30 I was sent to take the prices at the auction. Within
    a few minutes , in the warm I regularly fell asleep. So afterwards I nipped into
    B&H to retrieve all the missing details. If my dad had known that I had fallen asleep I’m sure
    he would have given me a ” clip” ’round the ear.

    In those years a vast amount of produce, via the London docks, passed through the L.F.E. with destinations to all parts of the U.K. But with the advent of Ro Ro (roll on roll off – containerisation ), shippers bypassed the London docks leading to the slow decline of the L.F.E.

    During this decline, at one stage, one of the two auction rooms was converted into Squash courts where I used to play after work.

    Re- the pic of the rear of the Fruit Exchange – this was originally Dorset St. , where
    Jack the Ripper murdered his last victim Mary Kelly.

    Blue Star Line – If memory serves me right it was called the “Fed Olsen Blue Star Line”.
    We were tomato and banana importers from the Canary Islands for many years and those cargo ships arrived in London and docked at Canary Wharf . Now “Not a lot of people know that”.

    Shame all the nice old buildings, with so much history, are replaced by concrete and glass

  18. Joceline Bury permalink
    January 21, 2020

    This was a lovely piece (as are they all), with great photos. But the fruit illustration is just glorious: do you think it could be made into a jigsaw puzzle? I’d buy it!!!

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