Skip to content

The Markets Of Old London

June 20, 2024
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my walking tour this Saturday!

Click here to book your ticket for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS


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 retains just one butcher selling fowl, once the stock-in-trade of all the shops in this former cathedral of poultry.

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 or not.

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

Other stories of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Wendy permalink
    June 20, 2024

    What an interesting collection of slides.
    I share your love of markets and expecially enjoy the setting up time. Walking to work several years ago I was lucky in that my route went via Borough Market and I saw the gradual change from wholesale to retail and the huge delivery lorries for wholesale dissappear to be replaced by tourists and film crew. The delivery lorries were fun to watch very early as sometimes the European drivers would forget to drive on the left when they left the market.
    Later in life I moved from South to East and my journey to work took me via Brick Lane and Spitalfields setting. These days I’m retired but could watch Columbia flower market setting up but, because I now can, I prefer to sleep in.

  2. Cherub permalink
    June 20, 2024

    You can almost hear the hustle and bustle of busy market days coming from these photos. Back in the 80s I worked on Gracechurch Street, opposite the entrance to Leadenhall Market. I used to love wandering through there and fondly remember a greasy spoon we used to sometimes go to for Cornish pasty, chips, peas, gravy and a cup of tea 🙂

  3. Mark permalink
    June 20, 2024

    Impressive and detailed photographs.
    Each crowd scene I would love to wander.

  4. June 20, 2024

    No surprise: I was immediately captivated by the woman waving the white textile out the upper window in Photo 1. OK — what’s the story here? Is she hollaring down to a girlfriend on the opposite side of the street………..”Bessie! — HERE is that yardage I was telling you about! I’m going
    to use it as a dust ruffle on the crib………”. Or is it a drapery panel, shaken out of the window, to freshen it up and perhaps free it of dust motes? Or is it a frothy undergarment being flirtaceously waved in the breeze? (well, it could happen!?) Sadly, none of the men on the sidewalk below seem to be noticing. I love thinking of the woman in the window, her impulse to wave the white
    “flag”; never realizing that this photo would capture the moment and endure.
    Quite white.

  5. Christine permalink
    June 20, 2024

    Wonderful photos, I could sense the smells and hear the bustle of activity x

  6. June 20, 2024

    Loved these photos. I especially liked how some of those photographed stood out to me like characters from a book interacting but with their own individual stories.

  7. Terry Ashton permalink
    June 21, 2024

    Great photos of the markets. My great grandmother had a stall at the Hessel Street Market. I would love to see some photos of that market in the early 20th century, plus some commentary about the market. Her name was Betsy Abrahams/Abramovich.

  8. Peter permalink
    June 24, 2024

    Great slides, thank you. As others, I wondered about the smells and noises at each scene. So many hats too! Look forward to your messages.

Leave a Reply

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

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS