Thursday, July 29, 2010

Whitecross Street Part 3 - the Market

“The sight of one of these crowded places, the theatre of a vociferous and furious traffic, is generally revolting in the extreme.”

Charles Manby Smith: “Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis” (1850)

One of the most notable and long-lasting features of Whitecross Street is the market. Opening every Thursday and Friday from 11am until 5pm it features a wide variety of different cuisines from around the world. The friendliness of the stall-holders, and the delicious food available all adds up a wonderful atmosphere. It is a pleasure to wander around, and the smell of the various spices that the various chefs use creates an inviting and faintly exotic atmosphere that seems to lighten up what can seem like at times like slightly grey area.

The origins of the market lie in medieval times and it began as a response to the guild laws. The guild laws were essentially a series of laws governing trade within the city, but their reach extended only as far as the boundaries of the City of London. As a result, a lot of trade took place just outside the city walls. Whitecross Street in medieval times would have been dotted with small stalls selling unregulated items, run by travelling pedlars, tinkers and quack doctors. The quality of the produce in this market would have varied massively. Without the strict quality regulations of the guilds, you may get rotten meat, poisonous ale, or bread made heavier with sawdust. Conversely, the market would have been much cheaper than those within the City, but the consumer would have had to take his chances with the produce.

When the city expanded and swallowed up Whitecross Street, the old regulations governing trade within the City walls gradually ceased to be so strictly enforced. The market became one of London’s numerous street markets, catering to the nearby slum-tenements, known as ‘rookeries’. It was not a market with a good reputation. The market in these times of poverty is vividly described by Charles Manby Smith in his wonderfully evocative report of 1850 “Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis”,

"“..We are standing at the junction of the Barbican with Chiswell-street, at the point where this line of thoroughfare is intersected by Whitecross-street, up which we have to proceed as far as Old Street-road, about a quarter of a mile, the whole extent of which is the arena of one of the most extensive markets in the metropolis.

The shopkeepers have at length completed their arrangements, and now, standing at their open doors, and arrayed in aprons and shirt-sleeves, they begin with pretty general accord to bellow for custom. "Buy, buy, buy!" explodes a brawny butcher; and the note is taken up by his neighbour, and repeated by others in every direction a hundred times a minute, rapid and deafening as a running fire of musketry. It would appear as though this simultaneous appeal to the pockets of the public were a signal well known to the neighbourhood, for all the tributaries of Whitecross-street now pour forth their streams of hungry, meagre, and unwashed denizens, to swell the inharmonious concert. The shrill shriek of infant hawkers pierces through the roaring din, and the diminutive grimy urchins are discerned manfully pushing their difficult way among the throng, bent upon the sale of certain trifling articles, upon the produce of which, in all probability, their chance of a supply of food for the day is dependent. "Who'll buy my Congreves, three boxes a penny? "Blacking here! Here's your real Day and Martin, a ha'penny a skin!" "Grid-grid-gridirons! Who wants a gridiron for three-halfpence?" "Hingans - hingans here! Here's your hingans, a ha'penny the lot!" These cries, and a dozen others, from a band of young urchins scattered among the multitude, form the squeaking treble of the discordant chorus that is raging on all sides."

Charles Manby Smith: “Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis” (1850)

A far cry from the pinstriped office workers who buy their lunch at the present market. This situation could never continue indefinitely. The unbelievable filth that these people were forced to live in, and the plagues of rats that infested the area became a worry to the well-to-do members of London society. The rookeries had to go. So, from the late 1880s on, the street began to be gentrified. The decaying houses were knocked down, and as a consequence, the character of the market gradually improved.

Throughout the 20th Century, the area around the market began to change from residential to commercial. This meant that the traditional market goods of perishable food were less needed, although the Whitecross Street Peabody Estate on the street provided life support for a time. Post-war, the market seemed to be inexorably shrinking and growing more shabby. Supermarkets began dominance of the fresh food industry, and this strangled many of the smaller London food markets, who were unable to compete with the price and convenience. It became a distant echo of its tumultuous past, and one could be forgiven for presuming that these were the last days of Whitecross Street Market. Indeed, due to substandard power hubs and the condition of the street surface, the market had dwindled to only 5 or 6 traders in the mid 90s. The market then, with traders complaining of unhygienic streets and poor electricity access closed.

But, thankfully, this was not the end. Islington Council then invested more than £2 million carrying out repaving and lighting works over the last decade, improving the market infrastructure and creating various new public spaces along Whitecross Street. Grants were offered to property owners for restoring their buildings and improving their shopfronts. Whitecross Street Market is now recognised as a fine example of urban regeneration.

It is a far cry from the dirt and squalor of the historical market, and the new style is not without criticism. ‘The Independent Working Class Association’ points out with items on sale including “wood pigeon and roast plum pie at £5.10 a slice, Norwegian winter rosemary bread at £3 a loaf, Morecambe Bay potted shrimps at £2 an ounce and cheeses costing almost £16 a pound” it is hardly catering for the people who actually live in Whitecross Street. However, the project is undeniably a success and the market flourishes from the business of the office workers lunching nearby. Long may Whitecross Street market continue to trade, regardless of the economic conditions of the area.

Continued in Part 4

1 comment:

  1. It's really great to see someone looking into this site. I've been researching Whitecross Street for a section of my PhD looking at literary representations of the street market.

    I was particularly intrigued to read about the market's origins - that it emerged from outside the purview of the guilds. This would tally perfectly with its reputation in the 19th century as a centre of 'unauthorized' and 'disenfranchised' trade.

    I have seen references to Whitecross Street's medieval origins elsewhere on the net, including on Islington Council's website. I've looked around in various archives and books, but unfortunately I can find the source for this information and so I'm unable to use it. I wondered if you could help me out and tell me where you'd found this?

    And also I look forward to reading your next instalment of your blog. Incidentally, I taught Jack Sheppard this year.... It seems our interests converge on a variety of fronts!

    All best,

    Peter Jones.