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Postcards From Petticoat Lane

January 31, 2021
by the gentle author

Today I am sending you postcards from Petticoat Lane. Here are the eager crowds of a century ago, surging down Middlesex St and through Wentworth St, everyone hopeful for a bargain and hungry for wonders, dressed in their Sunday best and out to see the sights. Yet this parade of humanity is itself the spectacle, making its way from Spitalfields through Petticoat Lane Market and up to Aldgate, before disappearing into the hazy distance. There is an epic quality to these teeming processions which, a hundred years later, appear emblematic of the immigrants’ passage through this once densely populated neighbourhood, where so many came in search of a better life.

At a casual glance, these old postcards are so similar as to be indistinguishable – but it is the differences that are interesting. On closer examination, the landmarks and geography of the streets become apparent and then, as you scrutinise the details of these crowded compositions, individual faces and figures stand out from the multitude. Some are preoccupied with their Sunday morning, while others raise their gaze in vain curiosity – like those gentlemen above, comfortable at being snapped for perpetuity whilst all togged up in their finery.

When the rest of London was in church, these people congregated to assuage their Sunday yearning in a market instead, where all temporal requirements might be sought and a necessary sense of collective human presence appreciated within the excited throng. At the time these pictures were taken, there was nowhere else in London where Sunday trading was permitted and, since people got paid in cash on Friday, if you wanted to buy things cheap at the weekend, Petticoat Lane was the only place to go. It was a dramatic arena of infinite possibility where you could get anything you needed, and see life too.


Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You might also like to read about

Laurie Allen of Petticoat Lane

The Wax Sellers of Wentworth St

Fred the Chestnut Seller

Larry Goldstein, Toyseller & Taxi Driver

Rochelle Cole, Poulterer

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Janet Clark permalink
    January 31, 2021

    Lovely to see these images. My Dad used to takes me down ‘The Lane’ in the 1950’s also to Club Row to see the animals. I always wanted a puppy but was never allowed to have one.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 31, 2021

    Thanks for the trip “dahn the Lane”…

    And wouldn’t it be loverly to be able to be in a crowd anywhere right now?

  3. January 31, 2021

    And it was still a ‘dramatic arena of infinite possibility where you could get anything you needed’ when I went there with my dad most Sunday mornings in the 1950’s ….and for many years afterwards. Happy days indeed.
    Thank you for this trip down Petticoat (memory) Lane.

  4. Wendy permalink
    January 31, 2021

    Spent many a Sunday and lunch hour down the Lane buying sewing fabrics from the many fabric warehouses and also buying clothes from The Last Resort and others.

  5. Mary permalink
    January 31, 2021

    I remember it being as crowded as this in the 1970s as, by then, there were many tourists as well as locals. As students working at The London Hospital we used to go there to buy our tights, ten packs for £1, but many of the packs were rejects and some had only one leg or even three!
    A patient told me that you could lose your purse at one end of the Lane and buy it back at the other, minus its contents.
    Happy days and very fond memories – and yes Jill is right, it would be loverly to be in a crowd now.

  6. paul loften permalink
    January 31, 2021

    Thank you for the wonderful reminders of the perfect London Sunday morning . What a pleasure it must have been for people then to have got out of bed and take a trip down the lane. There must have been the characters there selling their wares, so well known to the passers by, but now , sadly long forgotten. I would go there in the 50’s and 60’s with my father and sister and can recall the great Prince Monolulu, standing in the midst of the crowd, holding his tips in the air, shouting at tghe top of his voice “I gotta horse”. As a little boy I passed him several times following my sister in front of me “and he shouted out to me “You two again ? Why don’t you marry her ! “

  7. Linda Granfield permalink
    January 31, 2021

    Incredible crowds! So many more men than women (home with children?)

    And the signage! I couldn’t resist the “Ben Hur” at the Paragon sign and thought it must have been the 1925 silent film. But it wasn’t. It was a circa 1900 stage production–3.5 hours long!
    Real horses on stage for the chariot scene. In London (Mile End Rd./Paragon) with horses coming out at the audience! Thrilling!

    For how they did this scene, read the ‘Spectacle’ section here:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben-Hur_(play)

    Lockdown has us looking at empty streets this Sunday morning. One of these days…

  8. January 31, 2021

    Ah ! The good old days. We wouldn’t be crowding together now though. Thanks for sharing your wonderful postcard collection.

  9. January 31, 2021

    Wonderful postcards. Two of them (London: Petticoat Lane Sunday Morning and Looking up Petticoat Lane Aldgate End) show three large elegant lamps which look to be outside one store. Anyone know whose store it was/ what was sold there?

  10. David Green permalink
    January 31, 2021

    I remember, aged 11, going down Petticoat Lane in 1969 on my first trip to England, to see my grandmothers. My aunt and uncle lived in London (their house would be worth a million or two now, easily…I remember their downstairs tenant was paying £8 a week rent). Anyhow, we went down the Lane one Saturday or Sunday, and Dad gave me 2 bob to buy something, so off I went and ended up at some stall that sold scissors and the like. I saw a small pair of nail clippers with a picture of the Tower on them and asked the stall-keeper how much they were. Quick as a flash, he came back with “How much do you have?” “Two shillings.” said naive 11 year old me. “That’s how much the are.” he said, ripping me off for nail clippers that shouldn’t have cost more than 6d!

    I remember too that one clothes seller was selling WW2 German Wehrmacht great coats with swastika buttons, and each still had the name of the owner written on the label inside. I really wanted to get one, but my parents, both veterans, wouldn’t hear of it! Not that it would have fit me of course, but I expect they could envision a rebellious older teenage arse of a son going about in a Nazi greatcoat thinking he was cool.

  11. January 31, 2021

    Did someone say “dahn the lane”? – Heck, over HERE that would qualify as a Pittsburgh
    accent. And I would know.

    I love these photos. We tried visiting Petticoat Lane on one of our earliest trips to London
    and quickly switched from “shopping” to “people watching”. You couldn’t top the characters.
    One young punk with ultra-spiked hair had a black leather “tribute jacket” as a salute to
    early rocker Gene Vincent. A singular work of art, painted and embellished with nail heads, etc. I was enamored. I walked right up him, as my husband sputtered…….”wait, um, honey, you might want to wait on that……”. The young punk and I had a rousing conversation, and ended up crooning and finger popping together on “Be Boppa Lula, She’s My Baby”. All on Petticoat Lane.

    Many thanks from the snowy Hudson River Valley.
    Stay safe, all.

  12. saba permalink
    January 31, 2021

    So many men on Petticoat Lane! Did men buy household necessities and clothing for their entire families?

  13. January 31, 2021

    Amazing images of ‘real life’. Thank you. One of my favourite places was Brick Lane, which also has a fascinating history.

  14. Amanda permalink
    January 31, 2021

    Dressed to the ‘nines’ they surely were. No bare heads.
    And yes, more footloose males in flat caps and bowlers than the females in their perky straw titfers.

    l noticed those beautiful street lamps too and wondered if the building was a restaurant or hotel? Hope someone knows.

    l spotted a constable having a chat and the enterprising tarpaulin visible from every building window of
    ‘HARRY WOOLF – the Dartboard King.’

    My grandparents would have been 45 in this era and the nearby townhouse my granny was born in would now be worth £8 or £9 million.

    l hazzard a guess my Gt Uncle John just rented rooms or part of it.

    And as soon as l passed my driving test l began shopping here in the 70s for my fabrics when l could just roll up and park my Triumph Herald.
    Such freedom and independence.

    l am bound to have gone home with those bargain three legged tights too 🙈 revealing the location of my secret Sunday adventure.

    Where did you get those? 🤣

  15. Susan Levinson permalink
    January 31, 2021

    These photos would make (part of) a wonderful book….

  16. Pamela Traves permalink
    February 1, 2021

    What Wonderful Picures!! I would Love to walk there see all the people and the great things to look at.😊🥰😘💖🌼🌷🌻👏

  17. Pauline Taylor permalink
    February 1, 2021

    My first visit to Petticoat Lane was in the 1950s when I went to stay with family friends in Hendon on my first solo trip to London as a schoolgirl. Ernie took me everywhere and showed me all ‘the sights’. One of the most vivid memories is Petticoat Lane and the crowds, I was told about pickpockets and to hold on tight to my purse !! I wonder if anyone else remembers the man who juggled with the china he was selling, even the dinner plates flew up into the air but, never to be forgotten, was the man selling fish who blew his nose on a huge hanky and then proceeded to ‘clean’ the knife he was using to cut up a conger eel with it !! I think that helped to put me off fish for life. But it was an incredible experience for a girl who lived in a small country village but the way people spoke was very familiar as my grandfather was born in Whitecross Street where dahn was down and rhyming slang was something I had grown up with, plenty of whistles and flutes and dicky dirts to be bought in Petticoat Lane. More happy memories.

  18. Rogmi permalink
    February 3, 2021

    @Amanda
    Re the ‘hotel’.

    I’ve done some digging around on some NLS maps.

    I have found that the pub address was 1 Middlesex St. and called the Blue Anchor in the late 1880s (Pubology). I don’t know if it retained the name until closure.

    The hotel is marked as PH (Public House) on the 1951 map, but doesn’t give the name. I’ve not been able to find the name anywhere. It was quite likely that the pub did have rooms for rent, a common thing for larger pubs.

    It was located on the west side of Middlesex St on the corner of Aldgate High St and Middlesex St. I don’t know if the pub’s postal address was Middlesex St or Aldgate High St.

    Photo 12 shows 146 Whitechapel Rd on the right – Gorton & Sons Chemist:
    http://www.theworkhome.com/precedents/146-whitechapel-rd/

    Photos 9 and 15 show the ‘Hollington Bros’ sign which appears to be part set back in an alleyway on the right. This is Boar’s Head Yard shown on the 1884 map. The whole area had been cleared by the 1951 map.

    Nothing remains of either Gorton & Sons (now a path with a few trees) ot the pub (approximately where the NB St Botolph St is now). Indeed, all of the west side of Middlesex St has been rebuilt, although the east side has retained most of the original buldings although, as Google Street View shows, in a much posher condition!

  19. Susan Lendroth permalink
    February 9, 2021

    I noticed one man in a shiny top hat in the very fist picture standing above the crowd. Was he a merchant putting on a show for the punters or was a customer who stepped up and out of that mass of humanity? What a din it must have been. Just the idea of shopping for ANYTHING in person rather than via a computer screen sounds fascinating now.

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