“Every item’s got its own story to tell”


This story, on a man who’s been involved in the hubbub of markets for half a century or more, is dedicated to The Government Inspector. For it’s one of the outrages of our time that the markets of London, which have been the beating heart of the capital for centuries, have no value in the eyes of those who oversee planning in our city.

Just over two years ago, this writer spent several days speaking at and listening to a public enquiry on the future of Greenwich Covered Market. Its owners, Greenwich Hospital Estates, planned to rip up the cobbles of the market, tear out the Edwardian roof, and create an al fresco dining area for a  “boutique” hotel within a new, tarted-up market. The enquiry, presided over by Mr Philip Asquith, a courteous, civilised Government Inspector based in Bristol, resulted in the saving of the floor and roof. But a market is more than architectural items – it is a leaving, breathing entity which, removed from its location for several years, is unlikely to survive. Mr Asquith had sympathy for some Georgian or Edwardian fittings but otherwise was content to see his fellow civil servants from GHE change this space from a vibrant, bustling area, to a polite adjunct to a hotel. To be fair, he was encouraged in this emasculation of Greenwich by the Borough’s MP (who, coincidentally, draws a £80K income from the building industry).  Occasionally, I try to tell myself that we at least saved the space itself, and that the market will survive its redevelopment – which could start towards the end of this year. But Bobby Bell, a well-loved figure in Greenwich, knows markets better than I do.

You’re an old Greenwich hand, but whereabouts did you grow up?
I grew up in Elephant and Castle and then my father bought a house in New Cross. Then when I got married I moved here, Greenwich, in 1964, 65.

And you started going to markets with your dad?
Yes, I’d go to Cutler Street Market in Shoreditch with my dad to buy gold and sovereigns. I can remember sovereigns being two pounds two and sixpence – he used to sell them, he was a dealer, and I used to get the two shillings and sixpence, which was half a crown, 12 and a half pence. He would deal in gold, coins, all that sort of thing.

You were at Brick Lane in the glory days, when it all started before dawn?
Oh yes – I’d started at Bermondsey, then Brick Lane about 35 years ago. It was wonderful. Treasures to be found. I’ve had stalls for the last 35 years. Although I’m retired basically, I still do the markets. It’s in your blood. No, you don’t earn fortunes but you grow to love everything about it, the clientele, the objects, the people. I still remember young Danny and old Danny, this whole family who would do Brick Lane; sometimes I’d be go out at three in the morning and I’d see the convoy of three or four Lutons going over Tower Bridge, they were all following Sue. When I’d get over there they they’d have this whole little stairway, and cul de sac, six pitches, that was all the uncles, the whole family. They were totters really. And when I used to go over to their house in Mitcham they’d have everything sorted, metal, rubbish, all the stuff for Brick Lane.

Tell me about your best Brick Lane find.
I’ve always done architectural items, architectural salvage. And I bought a marble bust and two fireplaces at Brick Lane for a song at three o’clock in the morning. And I sold them to a French guy who specialised in fireplaces in Shepherds Bush, called Gervaise. He used to go down Brick Lane too, but he missed them – I was the early bird. I think I gave £200. And I sold him the two fire surrounds – chimney pieces – for a thousand. But he didn’t realise I had the inserts as well, and that they were part of the deal. Then when he come over he said, How much are those two inserts?  I said, ‘a thousand’. So that was a nice profit. But it’s not just about money, it’s about lots of different things.

Because we buy things that people don’t want. And we sell them to people that do want them. Because one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure. I’ve bought lots of Georgian stuff and people haven’t realised it’s Georgian, or any period, they’re not interested in when it’s from. But there’s the patina, the beauty, the years of wear. Every item’s got a story of its own to tell

We’re lucky to live in London, aren’t we, where these objects have those stories attached?
They’ve all got their own stories. I used to clear this block in Victoria where the caretaker, if anyone passed away, he’d clear out the flats. And I used to get so emotional walking into  the flats that I would turn around and wouldn’t do it. Because I couldn’t throw anything away that’s someone’s history. That’s why I won’t buy photographs. I’ve still got a little leather shoe I found, Victorian. It’s useless to anyone but I can’t throw it out. I found it in a drawer. It’s a story – an absolutely beautiful little girl’s leather shoe, a girl about four, it’s wonderful and I couldn’t part with it.

How do you feel about the future of Greenwich Covered market?
It’s terrible, very, very sad. People used to come to Greenwich from all over. In the same way I would go to Camden, being a trader, I would go over to buy – and over the course of the years you meet a lot of people and it’s lovely. Whether it’s any fair up North or vice versa, we’d all become friends. I’d go to Brighton, and the Brightonentonians, we’d call them, they would have a dining table [at the market] with a candelabra, they’d be sitting around it, 11 or 12 of them, having a four course meal. It’s very sad to lose that – that’s why I’d encourage any new market that starts. There’s one at Lee Green starting, in a nice location, and I would encourage it.

What do you feel about the people who own this site, who wanted to get rid of the roof, the floor, put in a hotel, and move the traders out for two years?
They’ll ruin it. Any length of time a market closes or moves it will suffer. It will kill it  stone dead. Same as Covent Garden, that’s died off ’cause they put permanent stalls there.

It’s terrible that the Hospital people who are the curators of all this, or the Inspectors who make decisions on its future, or our MP, none of them seem to live here, or care about it.
That is it! Lots of boroughs are like that too, you have people in the council in Bexley, say,  and they don’t live in Bexley – if they did, they would take more pride in the area. To lose some of these places is a crime. If you think about Bermondsey, which was a trading centre where foreigners all over the world would come and buy: there were warehouses full of antiquities, collectables. The warehouses were worth more money [as housing] and they sold them. But it was the centre of antiquity in London. So we lost more than anyone gained.

Do markets die forever, or is change part of it all?
To be honest: they will die forever. I would love to turn round and say no . And to think of the people who created this as a market many years ago – it’s our inheritance we’re getting rid of. Which is sad.

Tell me about the item you’re holding.
It’s Italian, a Wheatsheaf chandelier, from the 1950s, they’re very in vogue in London at the moment, and they’re producing them again, But this is one of the old ones. Starburst mirrors, the clocks, all the ’50s stuff, it will all be repeated. Like there are people before me did this, and there will be people after me. But, like I said, Bermondsey was one of the centres of the world, and we’ve lost it – and when these things are gone, they’re gone.


Bobby Bell is at Greenwich Covered Market, Thursdays. You can also find him most days at All Our Yesterdays, 99 Blackheath Road, Greenwich SE10.


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