Changing London

How London’s markets thrived then – and why they remain popular today

Central London is awash with pop-up markets these days. Come the weekend, they are the place to head if you want to get your hands on some of the finest produce around.

People of course buy the majority of their food in supermarkets and other (permanent) shops, but it always enthuses me to see crowds gathering around the stalls at farmers’ markets. You can, quite literally, talk to the very people who have baked, reared or otherwise made your purchases very special.

Once outdoor markets and fairs were the only places you can go to get your food supplies and household goods for the week ahead. And on this note it’s interesting to see how Londoners of bygone years used to shop.

Journalist Blanchard Jerrold said in a fascinating book (London: A pilgrimage) published in 1872 that were some 40 street markets, adding that “from these markets the main body of Cockneys are fed, and provided with household goods.”

Some were aimed at individuals wanting to buy small quantities, while others sold in bulk. Wholesale markets (or fairs) were typically held on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings – “when the workman has his week’s wages in his pocket”. Buyers would purchase a range of items which they could hopefully sell for profit over the course of the following week. Not that this always happened, as Jerrold noted: “They can understand no bartering that is not done in the rain and snow; and they have not the least knowledge of the actual value of a single article they purchase.”

They were, it seems notorious places, which Jerrold believed attracted the lowest of all Londoners.

While for many of these historic street markets, little trace remains. It’s a different story for permanent structures of ‘indoor’ markets – as a trip to Billingsgate, Borough or Covent Garden.

Fish and seafood

On the north bank of the Thames at Billingsgate, traders stopped selling fish and seafood in the fine 1876 listed building that remains standing on Lower Thames Street (and now used for a variety of events) when the market re-located further east, to Poplar in 1982.

Jerrold would actually have seen an earlier purpose-built market structure (dating from 1850) on the Billingsgate site, which was demolished in 1873 – a year after his book was first published. Prior to the initial building, fish and seafood were simply sold from stalls and shacks around the dock in Billingsgate.

For Jerrold, Billingsgate Market was a joy to visit and “well worth the chilly journey through the silent streets, to see.” It was “one of those picturesque tumults which delight the artist’s eye,” he said:

“The grey chilly morning; the river background with masts packed close as arrows in a quiver; the lapping of a tide; the thuds of paddles of hardy perceptible steamers; the tiers of fishing boats rich in outline and in accidental shades and tints; and then the varieties of shouting; whistling, singing and swearing men…..”

Jerrold also talks of the fish auctions and all the “superb confusion” they bring and the “glistening of the mounds which the porters are casting into the market from the boats!”

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Old Billingsgate Market today

Fruit and vegetables

After Billingsgate, Jerrold recommended (“for sharpness and impressiveness of contrast”) heading across London Bridge to Borough, home of a sizeable fruit and vegetable market. The area was “choked with market carts and costers’ barrows, and crowded with unclassable poor, who seem to linger about in the hope that something out of the mighty may fall into their share.”

Borough is the oldest fruit and vegetable market in London, dating back (in various guises) to medieval times. It’s particularly lively early on weekday mornings, but many visitors nowadays will head there on a Saturday for what is essentially a giant farmers’ market. Stalls selling everything from cheese fondue to home-baked pies are set up under the vast covered area. You can hardly move for all the crowds, yet I still enjoy visiting every once in a while.

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But of all the markets, Covent Garden was classed by Jerrold as “the most famous place of barter in England”:

“A stroll through it, and around it, when the market is opening on a summer morning, between four and five, affords the visitor a score of points of interest, and some matter for reflection. As at Billingsgate and in the Borough, the surrounding streets are choked with waggons and barrows. The street vendors are of all kinds – all of the poorest of each kind – if the coffee stall keepers be excepted. The porters amble in all directions under loads of prodigious bulk. Lifted upon stalwart shoulders, towers of baskets travel about.”

Covent Garden became a so-called “Charter Market” and the covered structure was erected in 1829/30, with trading areas eventually stretching to some 30 acres. It began trading on new site at Nine Elms in Vauxhall in 1974, meaning the original market buildings could be re-developed.

Today, it is a mecca for upmarket clothes shops, pricey food stalls and street entertainers. But back then, Jerrold noted that the market sold fruit “to the north,” while in the south the smell was of “redolent stale vegetables” (he spotted “mountainous loads of cabbages”). Surrounding the main selling areas, there were a few social clubs, while other traders and “poor women and children in troops” lingered.

In an age when supermarkets take the lion’s share of shoppers’ grocery spending, it is great to see so many outdoor markets bustling with activity today. And equally, despite some age-old piazzas having become over commercialised, I enjoy the fact that structures like those at Borough and Covent Garden to be busy and in use.

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Covent Garden

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