Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
East Street Market dates back to 1880 and developed from the costermongers’ stalls that had lined Walworth Road since at least the 17th century. As London grew in the 19th century, traffic along Walworth Road, including the laying of tramlines for horse-drawn trams, had increased considerably and the market was moved into to the side streets of East Street and Westmoreland Road.
The market was not regulated by the Borough Council until 1927 when licenses were introduced and before then came solely under the jurisdiction of the police. There was no charge to stall-holders yet the Council had to clean up the rubbish created by the market that included taking away quantities of unsold fruit that had been dumped. In 1925, the Browning Settlement Adult Education scheme published ‘The Book of Walworth 1925’ which includes the following description of the market at that time.
"The most widely known feature of Walworth’s Sunday is the street market held in East Street and the adjoining turnings, which draws crowds, not only from the immediate neighbourhood, but from far afield so that buses and trams from Camberwell, Peckham, Blackfriars and other parts of Southwark bring a continuous stream of men and women who alight in the Walworth Road at the corner of East Street and proceed to make a morning of it. From time immemorial the market has been a place where fruit, plants, flowers and birds can be bought in their season, and to the selling of these have been added all those innumerable activities that become associated with the crowd …
"The market opens at 8.30 am, up till then no stalls or barrows are to be seen in the street, though an examination of the side turnings shows a number of men and boys waiting with barrows and boards in readiness. As soon as the policeman on duty gives the “tip” there is a grand rush for positions, some of which will be used by those who have claimed them while others will be handed over a pitch for a few shillings to those who have made the necessary arrangements beforehand. The shopkeepers in the market area have no special right over immigrants from the other side of London, and if they manage to put up a stall outside their shops, it is merely because they have the advantage of being on the spot.
"The variety of the business done is amazing, and so too is what may be called its steadiness, for if one wishes to buy say new-laid eggs or umbrellas, there is always a definite spot where they may be obtained. There are provision stalls where bacon is sold in large quantities, and butchers’ stalls. A big business is done in live birds, both poultry and cage birds. Quantities of cheap sweets are on sale, such articles as chocolate by well known makers selling below the usual price on account of their being somewhat under the approved standard, though to the ordinary purchaser the deficiency is inappreciable.
"The clothing trade has extended rapidly in recent years and suits for men, dresses for women, underclothes, boots and silk stockings are sold in ever increasing quantities. The extra shops opening on Sunday morning in increasing numbers are mainly for the sale of clothing are owned by Jews.
"Besides the food sold for consumption at home there is a certain amount of eating and drinking on the spot. By 10 o’clock customers are regaling themselves with stewed eels and whelks and similar delicacies and there are lemonade stalls and gaily painted vans at the corner of King and Queen Street where sarsaparilla is sold by the glassful. The quack doctor is there also, treating corns and extracting teeth on occasion though often he is merely selling medicine and ointment and giving advice.
"Some of the side streets specialise in particular articles of sale. Thus Blackwood Street goes in mainly for flowers and wood for home carpentering, and one notices a new and pleasing feature here in the number of bunches of cut flowers for sale, not only for buttonholes as in former days but the decoration of the homes. In Blewitt Street and Kingston Street one buys second hand tools and cycles.
"As the morning advances and the crowd thickens, the vendors put forth their finest efforts, for while some of the crowd have come knowing definitely what they want and where they can get it and for how much, others are on the look for bargains or may have come merely to enjoy the crowd and the pushing and general hubbub and have no real intention of buying. It is to these latter sections that the trader appeals, and he does so in a most eloquent and persuasive fashion; indeed he is often a real elocutionist and quite worth listening to. And here it may be noticed that the one time parades of ugly language has gone, one of those almost unnoticed indications of the gradual advance in manners that is taking place. The Dutch auction method is frequently used, and genuine bargains are certainly to be had in the main market; but on the skirts of the crowd and in the side streets there are a good many who rely on the smallness of their prices and the efficiency of their salesmanship to dispose of articles at 1d each that cost only a shilling or two a gross.
"With buying and selling come the amusements pure and simple. A conjuror giving a really clever show may be able to find room in East Street itself but other forms of entertainment must use the neighbouring streets. Here may be found a “troupe” of four or five people with a piano organ and a board giving a music and dancing entertainment. In another place songs are for sale, and by way of attraction one man sings the songs, while his friend accompanies him with a piano organ. Then there is the contortionist who chooses a wide street so as to he plenty of room for both himself and the crowd.
"Lastly, there is the more undesirable element, the tipsters, whose number is increasing, and the “crown and anchor’ men who know just the spot in the side street where a crowd can collect unseen by police. Betting and gambling, however, are held justifiable by their patrons and losses are sustained in a sportsman like way. It is often otherwise, however, with those who are fleeced by the gentleman who has a supply of gold watches worth £50 each which he will sell at £1 each. Money rolls in in an unbelievable fashion from those who are persuaded that a straightforward deal is taking place. The salesman, with disarming eloquence and reassurance, hands over a packet of disappointing value to this customer and pockets the cash. But it is not all his; he will share it later with at least six confederates in the crowd, who have led the guileless on and guarded him possibly from their wrathful disappointment.
"At 1 o’clock trading ceases at the order of the police, and tardy dealers are reminded of the hour by the motor van that comes swilling water down the street preparatory to the sweeping up. In the side streets however the barrows are pushed about and trading goes on right through the afternoon.
"It is sometimes asked whether the East Street market is a gain to the neighbourhood or not. In a provincial town it would be a source of revenue because of the rent paid for these stalls. Here no rent is paid nor taxes, and yet considerable sums must be spent in scavenging and general clearing up. Then for some of the people, particularly in one of the streets, there is the “ shoot”, an unofficial institution, where unsaleable fruit is dumped on Sunday afternoon and evening, from whence it must be cleared by the local authority on a Monday. As in the other streets of Walworth, the roadway in this street is used as a playground by children of all ages.
"In Walworth, however, the Borough Council has no effective control over the market at all. It is regulated solely by the police, and though theoretically the Council, through its street inspector, may advise the police, and in some circumstances does prosecute offenders for the leaving of rubbish about, it can in reality do very little indeed. At one time the stalls ended by the Baptist Chapel, now they extend far beyond. Local tenants and ground landlords have a certain amount of control in preventing the extension and in some cases seem to have done so but generally speaking the assiduous of the traders is such as to wear down all but the most determined opposition. The question of the future of the market and the advisability of doing away with it is a highly controversial subject, for it provides a number of local people with quite a good living. One thing seems certain, and that is, in the not too far distant future, the question of rating will have to be seriously tackled to provide for the ever growing cost of scavenging. In some of the proposals for rebuilding the “condemned area”** provision has been made for a proper market place, but in reality, nothing serious is in view at all, and unless public opinion is very much altered and strengthened, the market, as it exists today, has a long life in front of it yet."
** This was an area bordered by Walworth Road, Browning Street, Brandon Street and East Street
The Walworth Society have produced a leaflet about the history of East Street.