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So Long, George Gladwell

April 28, 2020
by the gentle author

Known as the grandfather of Columbia Rd Flower Market after trading there for over seventy years, George Gladwell has died of the coronavirus aged ninety-one.

Portrait by Jeremy Freedman

This is George Gladwell selling his busy lizzies from the back of a van in Columbia Rd Market in the early seventies, drawing the attention of bystanders to the quality of his plants and captivating his audience with a bold dramatic gesture of presentation worthy of Hamlet holding up a skull.

George traded continuously at the market from 1949 until this spring. He died on Sunday 19th April at 6:05pm, the time he would traditionally have been pulling his van out of the market. Below you can read George’s own account as he recounted it to me, telling the story of more than seventy years in the flower market, accompanied by a selection of his photographs.

“I arrived in this lonely little street in the East End with only boarded-up shops in it at seven o’clock one Sunday morning in February 1949. And I went into Sadie’s Cafe where you could get a whopping great mug of cocoa, coffee or tea, and a thick slice of bread and dripping – real comfort food. Then I went out onto the street again at nine o’ clock, and a guy turned up with a horse and cart loaded with flowers, followed by a flatback lorry also loaded with plants.

At the time, I had a 1933 ambulance and I drove that around  to join them, and we were the only three traders until someone else turned up with a costermonger’s barrow of cut flowers. There were a couple more horse and carts that joined us and, around eleven thirty, a few guys came along with baskets on their arms with a couple of dozen bunches of carnations to sell, which was their day’s work.

More traders began turning over up over the next few months until the market was full. There were no trolleys then, everything was on the floor. Years ago, it wasn’t what you call “instant gardening,” it was all old gardeners coming to buy plants to grow on to maturity. It was easy selling flowers then, though if you went out of season it was disappointing, but I never got discouraged – you just have to wait.

Mother’s Day was the beginning of the season and Derby Day was the finish, and it still applies today. The serious trading is between those two dates and the rest of the year is just ticking over. In June, it went dead until it picked up in September, then it got quite busy until Bonfire Night. And from the first week of December, you had Christmas Trees, holly and mistletoe, and the pot plant trade.

I had a nursery and I lived in Billericay, and I was already working in Romford, Chelmsford, Epping, Rochester, Maidstone and Watford Markets. A friend of mine – John –  he didn’t have driving licence, so he asked me to drive him up on a Sunday, and each week I came up to Columbia Rd with him and I brought some of my own plants along too, because there was a space next to his pitch.

My first licenced pitch was across from the Royal Oak. I moved there in 1958, because John died and I inherited his pitches, but I let the other four go. In 1959, the shops began to unboard and people took them on here and there. That was around the time public interest picked up because formerly it was a secret little market. It became known through visitors to Petticoat Lane, they’d walk around and hear about it. It was never known as “Columbia Rd Flower Market” until I advertised it by that name.

It picked up even more in the nineteen sixties when the council introduced the rule that we had to come every four weeks or lose our licences, because then we had to trade continuously. In those days, we were all professional growers who relied upon the seasons at Columbia Rd. Although we used to buy from the Dutch, you had to have a licence and you were only allowed a certain amount, so that was marginal. It used to come by train – pot plants, shrubs and herbaceous plants. During the war, agriculture became food production, and fruit trees planted before the war had matured nicely. They sold masses of these at the Maidstone plant auctions and I could pick them up for next to nothing and sell them at Columbia Rd for two thousand per cent profit. Those were happy times!

In the depression at the end of the nineteen fifties, a lot of nurserymen sold their plots for building land because they couldn’t make it pay and it made the supply of plants quite scarce. So those of us who could grow our own did quite well but, although I did a mail order trade from my nursery, it wasn’t sufficient to make ends meet. Hobby traders joined the market then and they interfered with our trade because we were growers and kept our stock from week to week, but they would sell off all their stock cheap each week to get their money back. I took a job driving heavy haulage and got back for Saturday and Sunday. I had to do it because I had quite a big family, four children.

In the seventies, I was the first to use the metal trolleys that everyone uses now. My associates said I would never make it pay because I hocked myself up to do it. At the same time, plants were getting plastic containers, whereas before we used to sell bare roots which made for dirty pitches, so that was progress. All the time we were getting developments in different kinds of plants coming from abroad. You could trade in these and forget growing your own plants, but I never did.

Then in the nineties we had problems with rowdy traders and customers coming at four in the morning, which upset the residents and we were threatened with closure by the council. We had a committee and I was voted Chairman of the Association. We negotiated with the neighbours and agreed trading hours and parking for the market, so all were happy in the end.

It’s been quite happy and fulfilling, what I’ve finished up with is quite a nice property – something I always wanted. I like hard work, whether physical or mental. I used to sell plants at the side of the road when I was seven, and I used to work on farms helping with the milking at five in the morning before I went to school. I studied architecture and yet, as a job, I was never satisfied with it, I preferred the outdoor life and the physical part of it. Having a pitch is always interesting – it’s freedom as well.”

There is an air of informality about the market as it is portrayed in George’s pictures. The metal trolleys that all the traders use today are barely in evidence, instead plants are sold from trestle tables or directly off the ground – pitched as auctions – while seedlings come straight from the greenhouse in wooden trays, and customers carry away their bare-rooted plants wrapped in newspaper. Consequently, the atmosphere is of a smaller local market than we know today, with less stalls and just a crowd of people from the neighbourhood.

You can see the boarded-up furniture factories, that once defined Bethnal Green, and Ravenscroft Buildings, subsequently demolished to create Ravenscroft Park, both still in evidence in the background. I hope sharp-eyed readers may also recognise a few traders who continue working in Columbia Rd Market today.

Over the years, many thousands of images have been taken of Columbia Rd Flower Market, but George Gladwell’s relaxed photographs are special because they capture the drama of the market seen through the eyes of an insider.

Albert Harnett

Colin Roberts

Albert Playle

Bert Shilling

Ernie Mokes

The magnificently named Carol Eden

Fred Harnett, Senior

Herbie Burridge

George Burridge, Junior

Jim Burridge, Senior

Kenny Cramer

Lou Burridge

Robert Roper

Ray Frost

Robert Roper

George Burridge

George Gladwell (1928-2020)

Colour portraits © Jeremy Freedman

George Gladwell’s family wish to thank the Macmillan Nurses and and those at Basildon Hospital who gave end-of-life care.

George’s funeral is at 2.30pm, May 18th 2020. Donations to Farrer Funeral Directors, 33 High St, Billericay, CM12 9BA

Messages, photos and donations to Macmillan can be submitted to the George Gladwell Tribute Fund

23 Responses leave one →
  1. April 28, 2020

    SO very ,very sad to live such a long life only to have it snuffed out by this hellish virus. The numbers are mind numbing, and behind every number is a name with a life and a history worth remembering. God rest you Mr.Gladwell.

  2. Susan Levinson permalink
    April 28, 2020

    It makes me sad to look at George’s kind-hearted smile in the last two photos and it’s very sad that he succumbed to this horrible virus, but meanwhile he was also very fortunate to live such a long life. George sounds like one of the people who truly enriched people’s lives.

  3. Carolyn Hooper permalink
    April 28, 2020

    How very sad…… I’ll bet this wonderful man never even suspected that this wretched world-wide virus would end his days.

    Beautiful story, gentle author…..which leaves me remembering that when I was 7 or 8, I grew a little patch of carnations beside my father’s flower beds.

    RIP George

  4. Su C. permalink
    April 28, 2020

    God bless him. What a wondrous site to see the hub-bub around all those lovely plants! I imagine and can hear the discourse around what is what and how it grows. I love these images.

  5. Jean Clements permalink
    April 28, 2020

    Absolutely fascinating account of the flower market. Thank you.

  6. April 28, 2020

    I am moved by your tribute to George and the social history contained in your portrait of him. My thoughts are with his family.

  7. Mike Shingleton permalink
    April 28, 2020

    Such sad news. He sounds a wonderful character. My condolences to his family.

  8. Denis Sullivan permalink
    April 28, 2020

    What a tragic end to such a full life lead. R I P George.

  9. April 28, 2020

    RIP George Gladwell.

  10. April 28, 2020

    Rest In Peace George.
    Sending my sympathy to all your family at such a sad time.

    These photographs have taken me right back to the late 1950’s/early 1960’s when my dad took me to ‘Columbia Road’ most Sunday mornings during the ‘season’. Such colourful characters selling the plants, a great atmosphere and a place much loved down the years by Eastenders.
    I revisited about a year ago …..but prefer the place and my memories that George has captured in these photos.

  11. Lucy permalink
    April 28, 2020

    It is so very sad to lose George. I used to suggest he wore a scarf, on the coldest days, but no, he said he was too hardy for that.

    Fred Harnett Senior was at the market for years and years after these photos were taken, on the corner outside what is now Brawn.

  12. lucy permalink
    April 28, 2020

    What a lovely portrait by Jeremy Freedman. Exactly his expression.

  13. April 28, 2020

    He was the “King” of Flowers!! God Bles Him!!!?????????

  14. Mary Connolly permalink
    April 28, 2020

    So sad to hear that George has died from this awful virus. He sounded a lovely character. My condolences to his family. Rest in peace George.

  15. April 28, 2020

    Mr George Gladwell — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  16. April 28, 2020

    RIP George – thoughts with your family at this sad time.
    I’m missing Columba Road Market and can’t wait for it to open again.
    The pictures remind me of when mum and dad took us down there on Sunday mornings in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Dad alway bought from Fred Harnett senior.

  17. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 28, 2020

    Yes – RIP George. I’m sure his flowers have brought joy to many, many people over the years.

    I hope it isn’t too long before the flower market is up and running again. I have only been there once and it was the very opposite of a social distancing environment.

  18. Barbara Rose permalink
    April 28, 2020

    RIP George – one of the many characters that makes Columbia Road Flower Market what it is.

    How I miss going there – especially hearing a stall holder telling everyone to “mind yer bums and bits” when he is trying to get his trolley of plants to his stall!


  19. Susan permalink
    April 29, 2020

    He looks like a very healthy older man, who would have lived for years, were it not for this terrible virus. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

  20. April 29, 2020

    George was my older half brother. He was such a handsome young man when I was a little girl. He always did things his way and followed his heart. He loved the flower market and all the other markets he traded in.
    Columbia Road Market was his favourite. He was great at getting the best deal for th
    e traders by representing them at Council meetings. He also used TV and radio to get more people aware of the market.
    He was liked and loved many. He certainly lived his life his way and was happy for it. He will be missed.

  21. April 30, 2020

    What a life to have lived…….RIP George.

  22. Sue Wade permalink
    May 10, 2020

    I am George’s daughter no 3. Thank you for all of these lovely tributes and comments. Dad lived for this market and loved everything and everybody associated with it right up until he was taken into hospital. We are amazed at how many people knew him, respected and loved him and we are very proud of him. Thank you all, Sue xx

  23. Mal permalink
    July 12, 2020

    Such sad news.

    He was such a nice man, always made time to have a chat with everybody, you felt like you were important to him and he always greeted everyone with that lovely smile.

    RIP George.

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