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Postcards From Petticoat Lane

June 9, 2024
by the gentle author

Next tickets for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS are available for Saturday 22nd June


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

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Cherub permalink
    June 9, 2024

    I used to love going “down the Lane” in my lunch hour back in the 80s. I remember trudging all over the West End looking for shoes and a bag for my registry office wedding and being totally deflated when I couldn’t find anything I liked. The following week I found the perfect items on Petticoat Lane and I was elated!

  2. Christine permalink
    June 9, 2024

    What superb photos of a once fabulous market! Covering such a diverse selection of people and fashion. When we started going in the ‘70’s it was full of characters selling their wares with cheeky chatter to get your attention. It was so much better than an afternoon at the theatre. Sadly as everything does it doesn’t have the atmosphere any more x

  3. Mark permalink
    June 9, 2024

    Went as a kid a couple of times in the seventies.
    The crowds were overwhelming like outside Wembley
    Stadium. The strongest memories for me were the unfortunate caged animals (dogs)? And some poor bloke with an hideous facial growth.
    Dad warned us to beware of pickpockets.
    It was fun.

  4. June 9, 2024

    We came, we saw, we shopped. Later in life, I “think” we became more savvy travelers — but in our early touring days, we succumbed to purchases we bought with our hearts, not our heads. When we saw an impressive array of tavern mirrors with handsome vintage graphics at the Petticoat Lane flea market, all we could think of was how great one would look in the billiard room of our first house. So, we bought it, lugged it around, worried every SECOND that it would shatter (duh………) and somehow got it safely back home to the US. The travel gods were with us on so many occasions, I could write a book about our escapades with bringing home unyieldy and unlikely goods from overseas. (plus the airlines took such “carry on” items in stride — a different era!) What a wonderful bunch of loot, complete with fun stories about the “who/what/when/where/how”.

    GA, thank you for the marvelous postcards/photos. I so enjoyed peering at the faces, clothing,
    goods, signage. Quite the temptation these folks faced: Church or the Market? Dare I say, I know what my choice would be.

  5. Douglas Brett permalink
    June 13, 2024

    Am I the only one to have noticed Lord Lucan? Almost front centre and the only one not wearing a hat. 14th image following the text.

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