The first markets were upon the streets. In fact it is possible to envisage the central axis of twelfth- or thirteenth-century London as one continuous street-market from the Shambles at Newgate to Poultry by Cornhill. At the Shambles, in 1246, “all the stalls of the butchers are to be numbered and it is to be asked who holds them and by what service and of whom.” Down the street, in the shadow of St. Michael “le Querne,” stood the corn-market. Corn, the staff of life, therefore lies under the aegis of the Church. Just beyond the corn-market were established the markets for fish in Old Fish Street and Friday Street (on Fridays people were to refrain from meat). Bread Street and Milk Street are adjacent, thus setting up a topographical alignment of great significance to the city. The naming of the streets is established upon the food which is purchased there. The city may be defined, then, as that place where people come to buy and sell.
As the citizens of thirteenth-century London walked down West Cheap—now Cheapside—away from the smell of the Shambles and the fish stalls, they passed shops where harnesses and saddles were sold, where cord-wainers plied their trade, and where mercers and the drapers laid out their fabrics upon their stalls. Beyond these lay Poultry, of which the meaning is self-explanatory, and Coneyhope Lane where rabbits were sold. Gracechurch Street was originally “Grass Church” street, named after the herbs which were sold within it.
There are some energetic if idiosyncratic drawings of adjacent street-markets in A Caveatt for the Citty of London (1598). Beside St. Nicholas Shambells, flanks of beef, whole pigs and lambs, hang outside a row of butchers’ shops. In Gracechurch Street, purveyors of apples, fish and vegetables have set up their stalls beneath pillars and awnings which proclaim their origin in Essex, Kent and “Sorre.” Yet not all goods were sold on open stalls, and it has been estimated that there were some four hundred small shops—perhaps like wooden kiosks—along the length of Cheapside. The noise and tumult were intense, and several laws were passed in order to prevent crowds. There were other perils, too, with strict measures against the resale of stolen articles. The clothes-market of Cornhill, for example, was notorious; it was here that the narrator of London Lickpenny recognised the hood which had been lifted from him at Westminster. In light of “many perils and great mischiefs … many brawls and disorders” during the “Evynchepynge” or evening market at “Cornhulle” it was ordained that “after the bell has been rung that hangs upon the Tun at Cornhulle,” no more items were to be taken to the market. One bell rang an hour before sunset, and another thirty minutes later; it is possible to imagine the traders calling out to the slowly diminishing crowds, as the sun begins to decline over the towers and rooftops of the city.
The general confusion of trades was one of the reasons why in 1283 a general “Stocks Market” was established at the eastern end of Poultry, where “fish and flesh” could be sold as well as fruit, roots, flowers and herbs. Its name came not from its “stocks” of provisions but from the stocks set up in that area for the punishment of city offenders. A “privileged market” which remained on the same site for 450 years, before being removed to Farringdon Street in the mid-eighteenth century, it acquired a reputation for having the choicest of all provisions. There is an engraving, limned just before its removal, which shows the statue of Charles II erected in the very heart of the market; two small dogs look up at a stall selling cheeses, while a woman and child sit with their baskets against the steps of the statue. In the background there is an animated scene of trading and bargaining. A pair of lovers meet in the foreground, apparently oblivious to the noise around them, while a Londoner is pointing out directions to a foreign visitor. Here we may remark upon the testimony of a stranger, one of the many hundreds in the three volumes of Xavier Baron’s wonderful London 1066–1914: “Whatever haste a gentleman may be in, when you happen to meet in the streets; as soon as you speak to him, he stops to answer, and often steps out of his way to direct you, or to consign you to the care of someone who seems to be going the same way.” On a balcony above the scene, a young woman is beating out a carpet. In such visions, London may be said to live again.
Billingsgate was perhaps the most ancient of London’s markets with its foundation supposedly some four hundred years before the beginning of the Christian era; it is not impossible that fishermen landed their catches of eel and herring here in remote antiquity, but the official records date only from the beginning of the eleventh century. That it was a place apart, from the rest of London, is not in doubt; here, in an atmosphere of reeking fish, with fish-scales underfoot and a “shallow lake of mud” all round, specific types and traditions had sprung up.
There were the “wives” of Billingsgate—perhaps the descendants of the devotees of the god Belin who was once purported to be worshipped here— who dressed in strong “stuff” gowns and quilted petticoats; their hair, caps and bonnets were flattened into one indistinguishable mass, because of the practice of carrying baskets upon their heads. Called “fish fags,” they smoked small pipes of tobacco, took snuff, drank gin, and were known for their colourful language. Thus came the phrase to shriek like a fishwife. A dictionary of 1736 defined a “Billingsgate” as “a scolding impudent slut.” But gradually throughout the nineteenth century the fish fags were extirpated, to make way for a breed of London porters who wore helmets made of hide with a flap which reached down to their necks so that they could more easily carry their baskets of fish. These fish porters were complemented by the fish salesmen who wore straw hats even in winter. So a definite tradition of dress, and of language, emerges from this small area of London.
The same phenomenon can be witnessed at a variety of sites. Smithfield does not have as long a history as Billingsgate but by the eleventh century the “smothe field” just beyond the City walls was a recognised area for the sale of horses, sheep and cattle, known for drunkenness, rowdiness and such general violence that it had earned the name of “Ruffians’ Hall.” That violence did not stop with the granting of a royal charter to the cattle-market in 1638.
Market days were held on Tuesday and Friday; the horses were kept in stables in the neighbourhood, but the cattle and other livestock were driven in from the outlying areas causing much distress to the animals and inconvenience to the citizens. It is recorded in Smithfield Past and Presentby Forshaw and Bergstrom, that “Great cruelty was practised, the poor animals being goaded on the flanks and struck on the head before they could be marshalled in their proper places.” In the early part of the nineteenth century a million sheep and a quarter of a million cattle were sold annually; the noise, and the stench, were considerable. The danger, too, was significant. On one day, in 1830, “a gentleman was knocked down by a very powerful bull” in High Holborn and “before he could recover himself he was severely trampled on and gored.” In Turnmill Street, another thoroughfare into the market from adjacent fields, a hog “mangled a young child and ’tis judged would have eaten it.” The animals were sometimes goaded into stampedes down the narrow and muddy lanes off Clerkenwell and Aldersgate Street, while the general air of chaos and intemperance was exploited by various louche persons who preyed on the drunkenness and unwariness of others.
Dickens had an intuitive sense of place, and fastened upon Smithfield as a centre of “filth and mire.” In Oliver Twist (1837–9) it is filled with “crowding, pushing, driving, beating” among “unwashed, unshaven, squalid and dirty figures.” The protagonist in Great Expectations (1860–1) becomes aware that “the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me.” Eight years before this was written, the market for live animals had been transferred to Copenhagen Fields in Islington, but the atmosphere of death remained; when the Central Meat Market was instituted on the Smithfield site in 1868, it was described as “a perfect forest of slaughtered calves, pigs and sheep, hanging from cast-iron balustrades.”
Of vegetable markets, there is no end. Borough Market in Southwark can claim to be the first ever recorded, having its origins at some time before the eleventh century, but Covent Garden remains the most illustrious. Once it was truly a garden, filled with herbs and fruit which seem uncannily to anticipate their later profusion on the same spot; then it was the kitchen garden of Westminster Abbey, contiguous with the garden of Bedford House erected at the end of the sixteenth century. But the market itself sprang from the Earl of Bedford’s proposals to build an ornamented and ornamental piazza as part of his grand scheme of Italianate suburban development; the plaza and adjoining houses began to rise in 1630, and very soon afterwards the trade of the populace began to flow towards the area. On the south side of the square, beside the garden wall, sprang up a number of sheds and stalls selling fruit and vegetables; it was a local amenity which had the additional merit of being financially successful, and in 1670 the estate obtained a charter authorising a market “for the buying and selling of all manner of fruits flowers and herbs.” Thirty-five years later, permanent single-storey shops were set up in two rows. Gradually, inexorably, the market spread across the piazza.
It became the most famous market in England and, given its unique trading status in the capital of world trade, its image was endlessly reproduced in drawings and in paintings. It was first limned in an etching by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1647, which work, according to the editors of London in Paint, has the merit of being “the first close-up depiction of one of London’s quarters.” Another work, of the early eighteenth century, shows a group of early morning shoppers making their way between lines of wooden shops and open stalls; fresh fruit and vegetables can be seen in wicker baskets, while a horse and cart are driving away from the main scene. Twenty years later, in 1750, the painted image has entirely changed; instead of ramshackle sheds there are now two-storey buildings, and the market activity stretches over the entire square. Everything is in life and motion, from the young boy struggling with a basket of apples to the middle-aged female trader who portions out some herbs. Here are cabbages from Battersea and onions from Deptford, celery from Chelsea and peas from Charlton, asparagus from Mortlake and turnips from Hammersmith; carts and sedan chairs jostle, while the covered wagons from the country make their way through the crowds. This picture depicts the very essence of a trading city, while another painting of slightly later date betrays the evidence of pickpockets and street musicians among the assembly.
The drawings of George Scharf, dated 1818 and 1828, depict in minute and various detail the life of the market. The shop of J.W. Draper “Orange Merchant” has a sign painted “yellow and green,” according to Scharf’s notes, while there are drawings of the shops of “Potatoe Salesman Whitman” and of “Butler,” seller of herbs and seeds. There are wheelbarrows filled with cabbages and turnips and carrots and cocoa nuts, alongside mobile stalls with apples and pears and strawberries and plums. One young costermonger’s barrow has a red, white and blue flag flying from it, with the sign that four oranges will cost a penny.
In 1830 a permanent market, with avenues and colonnades and conservatories in three parallel ranges, was completed; it gave the market an institutional aspect, as well as confirming its status as an emporium of world trade. “There is more certainty of purchasing a pineapple here, every day in the year,” John Timbs’s Curiosities of London declares, “than in Jamaica and Calcutta, where pines are indigenous.” Steam boats carried articles from Holland, Portugal and the Bermudas.
Order was introduced to the market, also, with vegetables to the south, fruit to the north, and flowers to the north-west. It became customary for Londoners to come and look upon the cut flowers, stealing “a few moments from the busy day to gratify one of the purest tastes.” They gazed at the daffodils, roses, pinks, carnations and wallflowers before once again withdrawing into the usual noise and uproar of the city.
The New Market, as it was called, continued for more than a century until in 1974 it was moved to a site in Battersea. The spirit of Covent Garden has of course changed since that removal, but it is still a centre of noise and bustle; the hucksters and hawkers are still there, but the sounds of the basket-sellers have changed into those of travelling musicians and the agile porters have turned into a different kind of street artist.
The great markets—Smithfield, Billingsgate, Covent Garden, the Stocks— were seen as central to London life, and somehow emblematic of it. Charles Booth, in his Life and Labour of the People in London (1903), revealed that in Petticoat Lane, on Sunday morning, could be found “cotton sheeting, old clothes, worn-out boots, damaged lamps, chipped china shepherdesses, rusty locks,” together with sellers of “Dutch drops” and Sarsaparilla wine, bed knobs, door knobs and basins of boiled peas. Here, in the early twentieth century, Tubby Isaacs set up his stall selling bread and jellied eels: the same small firm remains there at the beginning of the next century. In nearby Wentworth Street there were bakers and fishmongers. In Brick Lane were sold “pigeons, canaries, rabbits, fowls, parrots or guinea pigs.” Hungerford Market was known for its vegetables, Spitalfields for its potatoes, and Farringdon for its watercress. In Goodge Street there was a market for fruit and vegetables, while in Leather Lane tools, appliances and peddlers’ wares were sold together with “old bed knobs, rusty keys or stray lengths of iron piping.” Leadenhall Market, established since the thirteenth century, was first known for its supply of woollen cloths while its main courtyard was used alternately by butchers and tanners. Clare Market, off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, was notorious for its butchers. Bermondsey Market was known for hide and skin, Tattersall’s for horses. Fish-wives held their own market along the Tottenham Court Road “with paper-lanthorns stuck in their baskets on dark nights.” The litany of markets is a litany of London itself—Fleet Market, Newgate Market, Borough Market, Lisson Grove Market, Portman Market, Newport Market, Chapel Market in Islington.
The metaphor of the market has now spread all over London, and across its trading systems, and yet it springs from places such as Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane, Leather Lane, Hoxton Street and Berwick Street. All these, and almost a hundred others, survive still as street-markets, the majority of them on sites where they first flourished centuries before. Here the poor buy at fifth hand what the rich bought at first hand. Some street-markets, however, have vanished. Rag Fair, by Tower Hill, has gone: a woebegone place, where “raggs and old clothes” were sold beside rotten vegetables, stale bread and old meat, it disappeared beneath its own waste.