What is your traditional market? What do you see? What can you smell? What do you hear?
What many people don’t realise is that markets are the root of many communities. Not only supplying produce and providing income for hundreds of traders, traditional markets are an institute for local people. Unfortunately, they may not exist in the near future.
Markets are a feast for the senses. They have the capability to serve anyone at any income. Usually, council owned and selling anything from fruit, veg, fish, meat, clothes and furniture at budget prices.
Don’t get confused with the new wave of private street food and farmers markets popping up across the capital though. Street food markets predominately only sell hot, ready-made food from vans. They mainly attract tourists or local people who can afford the high-priced meals. While farmers markets tend to sell one-off luxury produce.
For centuries London has been home to the country’s most vibrant traditional food markets and their equally interesting stall owners and customers. They have and still do today, represent the local community and continue to play a key part in bringing local people together.
They are in trouble. London’s traditional markets have been caught in some kind of modern day purgatory. They are unable to progress, with the councils not listening they can’t even officially announce they are in decline.
London is gripped by inequality and gentrification; food markets have started to become exclusive and standard, affordable food, like fruit and vegetables has now become either expensive or replaced by ‘artisan’ goods.
The interactive map below shows you the markets in the boroughs of City of London, Westminster, Lambeth, Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Camden and Southwark. There are obviously fewer markets in the now, non-residential, financial district of the City, but a significantly larger number of markets next to each other in the more traditionally and historically low income areas of Hackney and Tower Hamlets – the latter having the highest child poverty rate in the capital.
The map also shows the new, privately owned markets, with the highest quantity in the borough of Lambeth. Brixton Market last month was sold to an unnamed private seller for £37m.
Food that serves a small proportion of affluent residents in boroughs are creating new tensions between social groups.
What will happen to the traditional market, the produce, the trader, the customer? Where will they go? Will the disappearance of the traditional market signify the end of real culture in the capital?
Past to present
Many of London’s markets have been established for centuries, with some structures dating back to Roman times.
Markets have been a significant part of the rhythms of everyday life not only in the capital but across the country. In the medieval times, they were extremely important to the religious calendar. They were centres of commerce and brought traders together from all across Europe.
Smithfield Meat Market is now the only wholesale market to exist since medieval times.
Smithfield is a perfect example of how London’s markets have changed over the years, but visiting it can still give you an insight as to what markets were once like.
Peter describes the market of hundreds of years ago, but also how it retains its importance today.
The city’s centre at one point was dominated by markets, but as the times changed so did the markets. As a consequence, some of the capital’s largest ceased to exist.
While the traditional markets themselves have changed drastically in their size, location and produce, tensions between the authority and the market have not.
Many of the problems contemporary traders and customers now face are similar to those faced by market traders of the past.
Dr Peter Jones is a lecturer at the Institute of Historical Research at School of Advanced Study, University of London. He focuses on urban history after the 19th century.
Jones has recently published an award-winning in The London Journal about the growth of working-class street markets.
“I’ve got a little definition from a London country council report I think around the 19th century, I believe 1898:
‘A market is an authorised public area for buyers and sellers of commodities meeting at a place more or less strictly limited or defined and at a specific time’
“Look at how it says ‘authorised public area’, it means it has to be authorised by authorities such as councils. So, when thinking about markets, think about the definition. The tension between the authority and the traders with the local community.
They usually run alongside each other very well, but there’s often periods of conflict where the interests of the local people aren’t the local authorities.”
The great fire of 1666 is not only a key part of London’s history, but also argued by Peter, as a pivotal point in the traditional market’s history.
One way if you wanted to look at the effects of the post-fire ‘clearance’ on London’s markets is just by walking around the capital’s centre and looking at the street names – you can see where markets once stood. Places like Cheapside, which takes its name from ‘chepe’, a Saxon word for a market. Side streets of Cheapside also have names that indicated their early uses: fishmongers traded on Friday Street, while Honey Lane, Milk Street and Wood Street are more obvious.
As markets were pushed out from the centre they began to represent local, less affluent communities. Many markets took place next to notorious slums.
For decades’ markets have been given a bad name, reflecting the council’s attitudes towards these spaces and people they represent.
Jones continues: “Lots of commentaries from the late 19th-century talk of markets as a black spot on the city, but then they go onto saying actually the food is a lot fresher and they are really valuable spaces. If they got rid of these markets people would end up in the workhouse.
There’s always been a need to change the face of the market, to prettify the market, to market the market. That’s all great but you need to work with the traders and the community.”
This has been happening for hundreds of years and is something that still goes on today. Traditional markets have been a conflict for the new London’s image, gentrification of places like Brixton Market and Broadway Market are an example of this.
“It performs a vital function in joining the dots of a real community”
Robin Smith is the owner of Soho Dairy, a stall selling milk and cheese at Berwick Street Market. He is also the founder of the Berwick Street Traders Society.
In 2016 Robin found himself as the spearhead fighting against the privatisation of the market. The movement started to attract media coverage when local celebrities, such as Joanna Lumley, voiced their support for the market. The market won its independence, but what will change?
Two years later Berwick Street Market remains open but standing on its last legs. With demolition and construction of the surrounding buildings, as Robin described as the ’Berwick Street Blitz’, the street is now empty. There are five stalls left on it. Robin tells me “in terms of a market its never been through this before, not even during WW2. That’s been said by people that have lived here – I’m not making it up.”
Berwick Street Market is one of London’s oldest. Living through two world wars, England’s first tomatoes and grapefruits were sold at Berwick Street and the land originally was used by Henry V11 to hunt hare. Looking at the half-empty street now, it’s hard to believe it used to have stalls in two long rows, bursting with people, spread across the entire street and even going all the way down Oxford Street to Piccadilly Circus.
It seems the key to surviving at Berwick Street is to follow in the footsteps of the people before you: “I’ve mimicked what I’ve seen from Roy, at the end of Berwick Street Market, who’s been standing on that spot for 60 years. He’s doing something right. You see a lot of hot food stalls that come to the market and they may not survive 6 weeks. You have to take your hat off to people who have stood on the same spot for 60 years and learn from them.”
Community at Berwick Street Market is what keeps it alive. Even though there is less than a handful of stalls left they still feel full of life. I can hear the friendly banter coming from the fruit and veg stall, the distinctive cockney accents ringing across the street.
Robin argues that you can’t get this sense of belonging at the private gentrified street food markets: “People try and build this concept of community around street food, but you really have to think what community is, or what the market’s role is.
“Street food can be a social community, lots of people go and eat there, but they won’t necessarily be there again. That’s not really community, that’s a social club. A modern concept – get together, have a group hug and piss off”.
Sadiq Khan last year set up London Market’s board. They had their first meeting in February. The board aims to help protect and grow the capital’s street markets.
I ask Robin if he is aware of the new Markets Board, it turns out Robin had an interview for a place: “I haven’t been on the inside, but I did go for an interview.”
“I think that voices need to be raised for the markets people cannot see. I imagine there are a couple of holes in that board. Growth curbs aren’t always right, you have lots of booms and busts. Street food is amazing, it’s great, but it’s not everything. It’s just not, it is an entertainment trade.”
“If it was to go it would just be an end of an era”
Hoxton Square was founded in 1687, older than the United States of America. Its’ market was founded a couple decades later. For years Hoxton Market has been a central point for it’s East End community. Sadly, it looks like its’ days are numbered.
It’s a cold February morning for the stall owners as they set up. The sun tries to filter through the thick grey clouds. Every now and again it cuts through with a flash of sunlight. All the traders are friendly, chatting to myself and other customers, who are mostly local.
The street is large, where stall owners have left there are gaping holes between the remaining stands. Even traders who have been there for generations are now gone. There is almost a mournful atmosphere, where the empty spaces have not been re-filled and most likely never will; a gravestone for the businesses the market has lost. Pessimism is not lacking between the remaining traders, who have watched their friends one by one pack up and move away from Hoxton. Who will be next?
The day before my visit to Hoxton, Susan rang me. She recently started the Save Hoxton Market Facebook page. From my visit today I’m not surprised as to why she is worried.
Susan grew up in Hoxton, one of the reasons why she started the page; “Its never been as it was. As I remember it as a child. There has been a steady decline for years, but it’s become noticeably more rapid. Its just half a market now.”
Hackney Council own Hoxton Market, Susan tells me she created the page to get the council’s attention: “I started it (the page) to try and make the council reduce the rent price, it’s £27 a pitch. There are markets elsewhere on a Saturday where they charge £10.”
“I don’t want it to turn into Broadway Market. I remember Broadway Market 25 years ago being such a ghost town, all the shops were boarded up. Now it’s just yuppified – that’s what I call it, it’s a very middle-class place which it never was.”
Broadway Market is also in the Borough of Hackney. Hackney has significant problems with poverty and inequality. With the poverty rate of 36%, it is well above London’s average of 27%. What will happen to the community that uses Hoxton Market if it ceases to exist or turns into Broadway?
Susan continues: “Don’t get me wrong, places like Broadway Market have lots of lovely stuff down there, but it’s not your traditional market. A lot of people around Hoxton are working class. They don’t have that kind of money. I don’t know what would happen to them if the market disappeared or became privatised. They’d have to go to a different market, but it’s happening all over the place, there will be nowhere left for them to go.”
Susan talks about the Hoxton Market she remembers, the one she wants to bring back; “It was great down there, you could buy anything. There were always these bargain stalls. I remember in the early 70’s getting a gold halterneck top for about 50p, I thought it was wonderful, I was about 6 and remember it being the height of fashion; it was really lovely.”
“You still can get a bargain there though. It’s still such a good market. Everyone knows everyone, all the traders are friendly. It’s just such a shame it is really declining.”
It’s obvious that Susan and the traders have lost faith in the council, and believe it isn’t doing enough to make sure the Hoxton Market doesn’t disappear; “The council aren’t advertising the market spaces enough. What they do say though is that they will give the new stall owners a pitch for half price for the first 8 weeks, but it’s not enough. They need to cut the rent down. Even for at least a year so the market can build itself up again. We email them and you don’t even get a reply.”
As we finish our phone call Susan says sadly: “If it was to go it would just be the end of an era. Something needs to be done.”
Hoxton Market is not just a place to buy food and clothes like a high street shop. It represents community and communication. Maybe this is something in the future London will lose altogether. With Amazon opening it’s first supermarket with no checkout operators or self-service tills in Seattle, will technology replace all our human interactions?
Antonia Colletti has lived in a small two bedroom flat off Camden high street her whole life.
Camden is not a traditional market and is in no way declining, but it is the spearhead in what markets will be like in the capital.
The New Markets
In the borough of Lewisham, South East London, sits Brockley Market in Lewisham College’s carpark. It has won multiple awards and is regarded as the first in the wave of new farmers and street food markets across the capital.
Toby Allen is the founder: “I set up Brockley market six and a half years ago and we were probably the first of the new chain of making a market work with hot food and produce.”
Lewisham is one of the capital’s most diverse areas with 46% of the population from black or other ethnic backgrounds. What it lacks in transport links, the borough is yet to have the underground or even Boris bikes, it makes up in vibrancy.
“I set up Brockley Market because there is no decent produce in the area and there was no produce market with hot food.”
Surprising how in such a vibrant area there was no decent produce available, especially with Deptford and Lewisham market down the road which have been established for decades.
It turns out Toby could have been a part in Berwick Street Market’s future if Robin hadn’t been successful on fighting privatisation: “The council contacted me about whether I’d be interested in taking it over. Around 25 years ago I used to work in Soho, that was when the market on Berwick Street was a really good market. I don’t think the quality of the produce there is really that anymore. I think there are regulars that they can’t chuck out.”
What would have happened to the regulars like Rena if Berwick Street was privatised? Thankfully she wasn’t faced with the prospect of being ‘chucked’ out of the market she had been returning to since before Toby had been born.
One street food business who is aware of its criticisms of symbolising gentrification though, surprisingly, is Kerb.
When asked to comment about the issues Antonia spoke about Ian Dodds, Kerb’s marketing and communications director, jumped at the opportunity to meet me to talk about it.
Camden Market has for a number of years gained a reputation for being disgustingly busy, a tourist trap and somewhere that most Londoners are keen to avoid. Kerb want this to change, bringing back the old Camden.
Dodds takes me to a fashionable café on the edge of Camden Market. He buys me a breakfast tea and himself a coffee, costing over £4 in total. Camden is the third worst borough for income inequality, below that of Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster. This café’s pricings are no exception. With Camden’s food bank giving out 3,183 three-day emergency food supplies in the last year, it raises questions as to what options a considerable part of the borough’s residents on low incomes have when it comes to buying affordable food from markets.
Dodds jumps right in: “If you want us to talk about gentrification, a visible gentrification is quite clear, the distinction. How best can you keep traditional markets like Whitecross Street and Leather Lane functioning, brilliant and interesting in that context when so many new and fresh street food traders are right next door. We want to tackle these tensions.
I’m now sitting on London’s first ever market board. Sadiq Kahn has created this board for London to push forward the interests of markets.”
Pausing to sip from his coffee Dodds continues: “I’ll sit with the deputy mayor of London and talk about how we can push the council markets forward. They are in decline, everyone can see it, it is visible.”
Ignoring the irony over private markets making the decisions for the council owned markets, when traders like Robin would have been perfectly able to talk for themselves, we change the subject.
How can Kerb claim it gives back to society while serving such a small quarter of it? Dodds tells me about a new project between themselves and Pentenville prison: “We train inmates to make food in prison, such as meatballs, then coming to Kerb and selling them. We work with ex-offenders and put them on our stalls.”
Kerb’s main locations are in some of the capital’s most affluent areas. It seems the reason it is so successful, turning over £11million a year, is due to being based in these areas.
Dodds plays no games in admitting street food businesses are not the dreamy, made for all image that many companies religiously try to portray: “There’s a pragmatic reality that the way London functions as a city is that people who want lunch and can afford that £6 or £7 price, is probably working in zone 1, built up, paid 30k a year. So, Kings Cross, The Gherkin, Canary Wharf, Paddington are those places that the things that are great about street food a financial reality for the businesses.”
There is still a sense of relief for traditional markets and their customers though. Although Kerb is part of the problem, it also doesn’t stick its head in the sand ignoring this. Trying to address the issues of gentrification, expensive food prices and adding to inequality, and working to solve it. For London’s future to be a capital full of life, cultural variety and vibrancy, traditional markets need to survive, I think Kerb realises this.
Sadiq Khan’s office for environment issued this statement about London’s Market Board. Jules Pipe, Deputy Mayor, Planning, Regeneration and Skills, said: “London’s wholesale, street and covered markets are a vital part of London life and play a crucial role in our communities and economy.
“The Mayor’s new London Markets Board met for the first time this month. This group of experts will advise on action to support a diverse mix of markets, catering to all budgets and tastes. In particular, the Board will review the laws which govern markets, to ensure that London’s markets can flourish.”
Unfortunately, it appears Sue’s, Robin’s and many other pleas and complaints to the council have been swept under the carpet: “Our research shows that the number of markets has shot up by 70 percent since 2010, and while new hot food and farmers’ markets are a big part of that rise, traditional markets have not declined.”
Traditional markets may not have declined in their amount but they are also, obviously not progressing. See in the chart above, street markets in London are earning considerably less than the hot-food or one-day a week markets. The markets and people I have spoken about in my piece are crying for help and sadly it hasn’t been listened too.
There is hope though, traders and customers of traditional markets will always fight against their closure as they have done for hundreds of years. They have evolved with London and will continue to do so. If these street food markets are only fads they will disappear and the traditional markets will remain. As Robin said: “It is possible to save your market, but it takes a lot of time and energy. Food is just not about eating and staying alive, its about social situations and things we do together. I think there is a great future.”