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'A Stunning and Bewildering Scene'
The history and significance of London's marketplaces
Ever since its foundation, London’s markets have played a key role in the city - distributing goods from producers to consumers, dictating its geography and moulding its communities. Alongside today’s rising demand for fresh organic produce and street food, an increase in vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, and a desire to purchase second-hand and vintage goods, not to mention the striking impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on shopping locally (as we have discussed in a previous article), against all odds the street market continues to thrive across London. As their popularity increases, we thought it would be interesting to readers to discuss their rich history as focal points of commerce and community, as well as their continued importance to those who live and work around them.
There remain over 100 street markets currently operating in London, with some having survived for many hundreds of years. Borough Market in Southwark, for example, is thought to have been around since 1014—but “probably much earlier” so the market itself claims—with its first reference in historical texts dating to 1276. One of the city’s best-known markets and a must-see tourist destination, it began life on London Bridge, before being forced to move to its southern foot outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, causing much irritation for the City and its own traders. Southwark was purchased by the City in 1550 and the market grew to such a size that by 1756 it was forced to move to its current, purpose-built location, which had been purchased by the residents of Southwark after they raised £6,000 (£1m today) to keep the much-loved market running.
One that no longer survives is the Forum of Roman Londinium. Originally constructed in AD70 and extended over the following half-century, the two-hectare space was at the heart of Roman Britain and was believed to be the largest structure north of the Alps. Though it wasn’t a market in the truest sense, the space was home to many stalls and traders, and offered citizens a space to interact and socialise.
Despite its destruction in AD300 as punishment by Rome, a portion of the historical site can still be found in the basement of a hairdressers in the Victorian arcades of Leadenhall Market, itself dating back to the 14th century, with its current ornate glass roof and shops designed in 1881 by Horace Jones, who had previously designed Smithfield and Billingsgate markets, as well as Tower Bridge. The unique structure is regularly used as a film set, most notably for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Some believe Cheapside, whose name means “marketplace” from the Old English ceapan, to be the oldest street market in London. Another example of a former ancient market, it is said to have been established under King Alfred in the 9th century. No longer a market nor “the busiest thoroughfare in the world” thanks to great fires, German bombs and poor architecture, Cheapside is today a hive of retail development that hopes to bring the great crowds from history back to its streets.
Such markets were known as a home for economic exchange, the mingling of all strata of society, and perhaps above all for insalubrious activity. It is hard to image what these spaces and events would have been like, but a passage from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, which depicts the scene at Smithfield Market in the 1800s sheds a little light on what would have been a chaotic and vice-ridden scene: "Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a dense mass: the whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of beasts, the bleating of sheep, and the grunting and squealing of pigs; the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides, the ringing of bells, and the roar of voices that issued from every public house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner […] a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.”
Much modernising and technological advances truly tested historical markets, for example hay markets declined after the Industrial Revolution as fewer traders carried goods by horse, and with better refrigeration the best way to transport meat ceased to be in its live animal form, harming those who relied on the trade of livestock. Legislation such as the Metropolitan Streets Act of 1867 which put limits on obstructions and pitch sizes, and later licensing laws threatened the livelihoods of those who relied on street markets. However, they adapted and continued to thrive, and still do today despite the challenges from councils and developers they regularly face.
London's major markets, such as Smithfield, Spitalfields, and Billingsgate have certainly had a profound impact on the neighbourhoods that surround them. Even for those who are not directly engaged in market trade, the areas around them have developed geographically to support the marketplace, and vice versa, with the addition of pubs, bars, and cafés to the neighbourhood that cater for workers, traders, and consumers on site during late evening and early morning hours. This can make the localities around markets lively and characterful areas to visit and live even outside of market days.
As a result, the presence of a neighbourhood market, either indoor and outdoor, typically corresponds with a high level of street activity and liveliness. The general hustle and bustle of market spaces gives these areas a more "urban" feel, and often includes significant noise in addition to heavy foot and vehicle traffic at street level. But they can certainly be an attractive feature for residents, as they may offer a wide range of goods sold at more competitive prices and at a significantly lower cost to the environment than the 'Big 6 supermarkets'. Moreover, the flexibility of local markets often makes it possible for them to support the needs of a constantly evolving local population.
Research by the Open University found marketplaces to still be sites of significant social interaction for all groups in the community. Most notably this applied to older people, specifically older women, who found the vibrancy and inclusivity of the street market a means of encouraging relationship building through chatting with traders or other shoppers. For those with young children too the marketplace is an opportunity to bump into friends, and for low-income groups who tend to be excluded from other sites of commerce, the affordable products and outdoor, public nature emphasise the social value of a market. Even in places where a community is not as tightly knit, the connection with their own produce means traders take efforts to engage with customers and share their passions and personal stories with them, and simple co-presence can play a significant role in one’s feeling of acceptance and inclusion.
More recently established markets, such as Lower Marsh near Waterloo, have played an important role in rejuvenating otherwise under-visited or historically deprived areas of the city. Street markets, both long-established and temporary, are often home to a rich variety of multicultural vendors, and they function as those sites of cultural exchange that make urban living interesting.
From an economic perspective the presence of a market in a neighbourhood typically represents local activity, often attracting tourism and non-local trade. For traders selling specialist goods, locating in or near a relevant specialist market may offer agglomerative benefits. It can attract increased footfall and non-local trade, particularly from tourism, which is a significant aspect of markets such as Portobello Road. Studies show that a street market boosts footfall in town centres by 25%, and raises trade in neighbouring stores by 55-71%. For example, Queen’s Market in Newham generates £13m a year for the local economy and supports twice as many jobs per square metre than nearby supermarkets.
Speaking of employment opportunities, a market can offer jobs for under skilled workers, the long-term unemployed and those such as disability groups and ex-offenders, for whom finding stable employment can be incredibly difficult.
Market pitches may also be attractive for commercial inhabitants due to their low rents. Renting a market pitch is generally much less expensive than renting a traditional commercial property in the same area, which means that there are lower barriers to entry for smaller traders. Indeed, multinational companies such as Marks and Spencer, Superdry and Monsoon began life on a market stall. The flexibility of market-based businesses also makes it possible to trade at different locations on different days or during different seasons, or to respond more quickly to new property market constraints or opportunities. As a result, a market-based business model offers specialist goods providers the potential for faster growth than traditional, fixed location units.
Street markets can also foster and incubate new, emerging, and innovative businesses, as the high levels of footfall and commerce associated with market can accelerate brand exposure, visibility, and trade. This opportunity for wide exposure can be crucial for traders who are just beginning to establish themselves.
Ultimately the marketplace continues to operate in the same way it has done for millennia, playing an important role in shaping the social, economic, and cultural fabric of London by providing an affordable and inclusive space for gathering for a wide variety of people and economic activities. As such it’s imperative that policy makers encourage the proliferation of street markets in urban centres and further afield and ensure their protected status for generations to come.
We know that markets are some of the most culture-defining and community-building elements of a city’s urban fabric, and our platform seeks to support and reflect everyone who contributes to that space. So, with WaInsight we have mapped the number and type of Markets located near you. That means everything from the iconic wrought iron and decadent cheeses of Borough Market to the industrial (sometimes literal) buzz of the wholesale meat trade at Smithfield Market; the winding cobbles and blaring rock and roll vinyls of Portobello Market; even the small monthly farmer's market in your local park is pinpointed and analysed for our users.