Skip to content

Tony Bock At Watney Market

April 12, 2023
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. As a new initiative to revive Watney Market is launched this spring, 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

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Yvonne Pope permalink
    April 12, 2023

    Great photos, as always Tony.

  2. April 12, 2023

    Funnily enough, walking back to my hotel on Monday evening, I became lost in my thoughts and missed my turning completely. I ended up walking through what is left of Watney Market. Like so many dreadful concrete monstrosities from the 1970s, I had hoped that the open space might still throng with colourful stalls on market days although on a rainy, dark evening, it took some stretch of the imagination.
    I used to frequent the nearby Petticoat Lane market when I lived in East London and would always end up buying something that I hadn’t gone there for and really didn’t need taken in by the trader’s patter. However, for exceptional market experiences, in my mind, Provence is the place to look as a modern, sustainable market model. I suppose the climate probably aids their popularity but locals and tourists alike, scour the timetables and maps to see where the next marche provençal is taking place. I’ve often come back and thought: ” why can’t we do this here?” Cooked food, fresh produce, toiletries, textiles, handicrafts, toys and games, antiques – everything is on sale. The markets are active in the morning only before the traders and shoppers need to escape the heat of the sun. Shopping in a supermarche is seen as going down market and only for essentials, if you want the real deal, the market is the place to shop.
    We don’t seem to have fully grasped the idea that ordering your groceries via Uber Eats and buying from Amazon is destroying the whole sensory experience of buying. Free tasting is part of the experience in a French market. It seems so far removed from how we mostly shop, it feels like being on another planet!
    To conclude on a cheerful note, Worcester, where I now reside, does have a thriving market which seems to be expanding. Shop unit rent is expensive so marker stalls seem to be a viable option. The Bullring in Birmingham, where I work, is still the place to get anything and everything as it has been for centuries. I will take a look at Watney St during the day sometime but in the meantime, thanks GA and Tony. P.s. How do you get thrown out of photography school when you are that good?

  3. Andy permalink
    April 12, 2023

    Anyone remember Alfie selling toys there?

  4. Richard Turkington permalink
    April 12, 2023

    As a local resident (in Sidney Street), I’m not sure what’s meant by the need for ‘a new initiative to revive Watney Market’ when the market is thriving on most days offering a fabulous range of fruit and veg , clothing and kitchen ware all at bargain prices and especially serving the local ethnic populations. There are gaps in the stalls on some days so some encouragement is required but what’s really needed is for the market area to be upgraded, it looks as though it’s been neglected for years – and do something with the dreadful closed down ‘Thomas Neale’ pub!

  5. Andy permalink
    April 12, 2023

    Evocative photos.. My Mum and I used to go there every week when I was little.. I would hurry to keep up with her and her shopping trolley.
    My favourite was Alfie the toy seller, who used to come from Southend.
    If I was good I sometimes got a little toy.. Anybody remember Alfie?

  6. Roel van der List permalink
    April 12, 2023

    Photography at it’s best: as a social timemachine. Fantastic!

  7. Jill Eljadi permalink
    April 12, 2023

    Those markets were where actual LIFE happened
    A great former life long missed but not forgotten in many areas.

    (My mother being a true market shopper –
    I remember midlands markets Leicester, Corby and Stamford where real shopping happened in the 50’s and 60’s ? Thankyou for the great photography, full of memories of real life people)

  8. Linda Granfield permalink
    April 12, 2023

    Hello from Toronto. In 2010 Tony Bock retired as a Toronto Star photographer.

    His 1970s photos of Toronto, compiled in a small book, can be seen via this link. Click on the thumbnail photos and they will enlarge.

  9. Tony Bock permalink
    April 12, 2023

    Christine Swan, thanks for taking the time to write these interesting comments. In 1972 I failed my second year at a prestigious photography school in Toronto. Although I had gained much in my two years there, I was rather annoyed at being told not to come back. However, in hindsight it was probably the best thing that could have happened. If you look at the pictures recently published by Cafe Royal Books you can see what I was doing at the time.

    And Linda Granfield, thanks for posting the link to my recently published book. Cafe Royal Books has over the years published a number of excellent photographers whose work has been featured on Spitalfields Life.

  10. Peter Holford permalink
    April 12, 2023

    Markets like the Provencal ones Christine? Try Bury Market in Greater Manchester – the British equivalent with fresh food – meat, fish, veg, cheeses and of course black puddings. Then there are the clothes, cheap toiletries, etc. I remember the London markets and have been to several French markets and many of ours are dying. But there are some left in the North and Bury is the best – it usually wins the award of best British market.

    I guess this has turned out to be an advert for the Bury Tourist Board!

  11. April 13, 2023

    Thanks Tony, I’m pleased to hear things worked out well and you got what you needed from the course. I work in Education and it is disappointing that we have policies and pass marks without consideration for what happens next – but don’t get me started on that! I’ll take a look at your other work, thank you.

    Peter, Bury market definitely sounds like my kind of place. Definitely worth a visit and cheaper to get to than Provence! Thank you too.

  12. Linda Granfield permalink
    April 13, 2023

    Tony Bock, thanks for your note here. I was looking to see what you’ve been up to.

    My thanks to you for capturing the Toronto I first met when I immigrated to Canada in 1974. You and Boris Spremo are the two photographers I remember from those years.

    Fifty years I’ve been in Canada. I hope some of the GA’s readers will recognize their long-ago East End the same way. First impressions last!

  13. Keith permalink
    April 17, 2023

    I recall riding my rickety old post office bicycle around the East End as a telegram messenger in the 1970s and riding up and around Watney Market, Wapping High Street, the rough end of Stepney, Cable Street, Commercial Street and Commercial Road. Watney Street market, Spitalfields Market and Petticoat Lane Market were in full flow and very busy. All changed now

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS