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The Markets Of Old London

July 5, 2021
by the gentle author

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The Markets of Old London is featured in The Gentle Author’s London Album which is included in the sale.

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

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Lorraine Naidoo permalink
    July 5, 2021

    I’m delighted to see these photos. I grew up in central London and I always chuckle to myself when I remember how these places looked then, and how posh they are now! I have family connections with the markets. My grandmother was born in Clare Market. My father and uncles worked as Covent Garden market porters in the 50’s. I remember going shopping at weekends with my mother and grandmother in Exmouth Market, near Mount Pleasant, Chapel Market in Islington, and Leather Lane. Some years ago, I saw a print of Exmouth Market in an art shop in Upper Street and I regret that I didn’t buy it then. Does anyone know whether prints of any of the markets are available? I’d be grateful for info.

  2. Peter Hart permalink
    July 5, 2021

    Amazing photos. Thank you GA

  3. July 5, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what an interesting collection of pictures featuring the marketplaces of the past.

    When go to London, I stay at the Strand Palace (across from the pricey Savoy). So I often stroll up to Kingsway and Aldwych. I often wondered how these streets were developed. I assumed it was after the extensive bombing of WWII. Now I know – the area was “Clare Market slum…swept away to create the grand civic gestures of Kingsway and Aldwych” at the turn of the 20th century.

    Missing London today…

  4. July 5, 2021

    thankyou again, for sharing these great Market photos. Particularly love the two Covent Garden ones, which remind me of Edward Bawden’s linocut of the market, (similar viewpoint), only packed with people!

  5. sara midda permalink
    July 5, 2021


  6. July 6, 2021

    Every one of these images excited me! I also love markets, and one year travelling across Thailand, went to markets that traded before dawn, or others that started around midnight. The colour, sounds, and smells were a joy to the senses. The last time I went to Borough Market, it felt almost genteel! Although long gone now, the Sumerays (Monty & Enid) who were family friends, owned the turkey Christmas business at Smithfield. I have a wonderful picture of them from October 1968, when Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother visited them at Smithfield. Actually Mr Sumeray ran it with his brother-in-law, so the business was called Sumeray & Rodgers. Coincidentally, I was in touch with the Sumeray’s niece just 2 days ago, who I’ve known since we were children in the 1950s. She appropriately lives in Covent Garden another famous market site from our growing up years.

  7. cristiano permalink
    April 29, 2022

    Abraços do Brasil.

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