“The rozzers,” shouted one of the lads acting as a look out. And with that ‘Billy the bet’ abruptly ended a monologue about his illegal trade and vanished into the back streets of Walworth.
Billy’s talk – on a street corner not far from the Old Kent Road in southeast London – was a fascinating account of how he operated as a bookie and avoided being captured by the police. As he was doing a deal, he often sought the help of local residents by asking them to keep a front door open, allowing him to escape through their homes and flee through their back gardens if required.
Convincing as Billy was, I hadn’t actually come to listen to a real street bookie, but instead a ‘voice from the past’ as part of an event put on by the Walworth Society. The animated East Street tour – run as part of Southwark council’s High Street Challenge – used a team of actors to bring to life character’s from the area’s past.
As well as Billy, we met the likes of priests, market traders, publicans and even someone who helped get the ball rolling for old age pensions in Britain. And there were walk on parts for people who are playing key roles in the development of Walworth today – like the architect behind plans to transform East Street Market and the chair of the market traders association who has run a stall for his entire working life.
John, our host with his trusty loud speaker on wheels and microphone, was there to guide us from one stop to the next. He introduced to the wide array of personalities that have made Walworth such a vibrant place over the years.
East Street Market – which today boasts stalls selling everything from vegetables and meat to clothing and household goods – has existed in its current guise since 1880, but street trading in the area stretches back some 500 years. Silent film legend Charlie Chaplin was born above a shop here in 1889. When I visited for the Saturday morning tour it was a hive of activity and moving through the market became a slow process.
Back in the 16th century, farmers rested their livestock on Walworth Common before carrying on to the City where they sold their wares. But locals also bought produce directly from the drovers in this part of southeast London and so the tradition of Walworth markets was born.
But when Walworth Common was developed in the 1860s, traders were forced to move on to Walworth Road. And the market was expanded to trade more than just vegetables.
Walworth Road had been built in an attempt to take the pressure off the busy Kent Road, but it to soon became too hectic for a market (the arrival of the tram in 1875 brought it to an end). However, by now there was no single space for the market so the traders were split up and moved – to Westmoreland Road, Draper Street and East Lane.
While over time the first two locations were lost to the Aylesbury Estate and the Elephant and Castle development, East Lane survives today as East Street Market. According to legal documents, this public road was created following a sale in 1780 of land previously occupied by a flower nursery between Walworth Road and Kent Road. And it appears on a 1787 map as ‘East Lane’.
Today, market traders have fixed pitches, but prior to rule changes in 1927 it was a bit of a free for all once a policeman blew a whistle at 8am signifying that it had opened. Stallholders rushed to claim the best spots, yet it was the shop owners that were the main beneficiaries as they could quickly bag space directly outside their outlets.
The market declined in the aftermath of the Second World War and it was described as “a drab, dead thing, infinitely remote from the cockney tradition”. Although it has managed to solder on, in recent years, traders have reported that they’ve seen sales fall as a result of the considerable re-development work taking place in the local area. Both the Heygate Estate – at Elephant & Castle – and the Aylesbury Estate are being extensively re-developed and, as a result, many residents have been moved out.
During the recent EU referendum campaign one long-term Walworth resident complained to the Daily Express that immigration had changed the shape of East Street and she fears for her family’s future. In particular, she said that the butchers here only now sell Halal meat. Perhaps, the anger from some explains why the then Labour leader Ed Miliband was pelted by eggs when he made a campaign visit to East Street in 2013.
One of the key themes of the tour was poverty and the struggles that residents have faced in the past. In the 1920s and 1930s, a quarter of all housing in Walworth was labelled as unfit for human habitation (hence the decision to demolish many homes after the Second World War and re-build new estates in their place). On the tour, we heard some monologues from bygone market traders and in one of the scenes we heard how poor some people were, and individuals begged the stallholders for help. One promised to talk to the others and see what he could do to help them out.
At what is today East Street Baptist Church we heard how East Street Mission was established by John Dunn in 1859 in a loft over a cowshed for four ragged urchins. New premises were established for the mission in 1875 by which time it served 650 (less than two decades later, in 1892, it had more than one thousand youngsters on its books and 76 teachers). And the current building was erected in 1896 to serve the expanded number of users.
And in a quiet open air space we were told how the idea of state-provided old age pension was born in Walworth when 400 people turned up at a public meeting at the (now lost) Browning Hall and demanded action. Before its introduction, the elderly without income would find themselves living in miserable conditions in the workhouse. And so Francis Herbert Stead – who lived from 1857 to 1928 and initially served as a Minster in Leicester – invited a representative from the New Zealand Government in 1898 to talk about an innovative scheme they had launched. After considerable work – pioneered by the Browning Settlement – the 1908 Old Age Pension Act was introduced.
Looking to the future
But change is in the air at East End Market, with work expected to start soon on transforming the trading space. One of the architects behind the scheme handed round an extract from a newly published booklet (‘What Walworth Wants’) recording the results of a public consultation. It included illustrations of how the market will look once the work is completed – meaning that the number of stalls can be expanded from 150 to 200.
“Improving the East Street Market stalls and creating a unique brand for the Market would attract more footfall and thus support the local economy,” the publication notes. “Changes to the Market layout should be tested and implemented to improve the visibility of the shops to support their trade. Additional training such as business support and visual merchandising could support and build resilience among local businesses in the area.”
On the tour, we also went inside the Huntsman and Hounds pub in Elsted Street which, following renovation work, will soon open to the public again. Another echo of the past, an affable Cockney landlady, told us in character how it was once the heart of the community, with seven darts teams and stories of how it used to organise trips to the seaside. It was built between 1850 and 1876, but in more recent times there was a threat that it would be re-developed. The local community clubbed together to save it.
With plans to transform the Old Kent Road and the arrival of the Bakerloo Line here in the coming years, the pace of change is expected to increase dramatically. It is fascinating therefore to be able to walk down somewhere like East Street – which today features architecture ranging from historic terraces to 20th century council housing blocks – and see that the traditional stallholders still have a home. And thanks to the Walworth Society, the echoes of the past have been brought to life.
More guided walks are scheduled to take place later this summer, so keep an eye on the Walworth Society’s website for full details.