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George Gladwell’s Columbia Rd Market

July 2, 2023
by the gentle author

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This is George Gladwell (1929-2020) selling his Busy Lizzies from the back of a van at Columbia Rd 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 began trading at the market in 1949 and it is my delight to publish this selection of his old photographs.

There is an air of informality about the flower 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  – and 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.

“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.”

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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Nicola permalink
    July 2, 2023

    George‘s photos are a real treat, as is his story. Thank you for bringing it to us.

  2. MRS JULIET O'NEILL permalink
    July 2, 2023

    I have often wondered whether the Albert Playle pictured is Albert Victor Playle 1911-1979, son of William J Playle and Grace E ( Nellie) Whitaker ?
    If so, he is my grandfather’s cousin. Does anyone know ?

  3. Bernie permalink
    July 2, 2023

    What surprises me about Columbia Rd market is that although I grew up in Hackney and went to school in Bethnal green I first heard of it here.

  4. Linda Granfield permalink
    July 2, 2023

    Hearty congratulations on receiving the award!

    I look forward to the day when I can accompany you in person through those streets of history, rather than solely through these blog entries.

    More awards should be given for your publishing and civic work as well.
    Please bask in the well-earned glory.

  5. July 2, 2023

    I used to visit the market often with my parents and always enjoyed it.

    Whenever I am in the UK, I make it a point to spend some time there on a Sunday morning.

    Wonderful market.

  6. Cherub permalink
    July 2, 2023

    I can almost smell the lovely perfume of the flowers from Switzerland.

  7. Cherub permalink
    July 2, 2023

    I wish these were in colour to show the real beauty of the flowers.

  8. Kassie permalink
    July 2, 2023

    I so enjoyed my Spitalfields tour with you during my trip to London a few weeks ago! I’ve been going to the Columbia Rd flower market for many years now, and have seen many changes. It had far fewer venders last month, many of which were for houseplants, not flowers. I hope the diminished size of the market is an aberration ! Thank you for all you do.

  9. keithb permalink
    July 2, 2023

    “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.”

    Which is how you do it. Give, take, common understanding. Well done.

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