“I get a lot of flak. It doesn’t bother me. I love it. I was used to that in the army.”

 

“George Gladwell is Columbia Road” is a phrase I’ve heard from more than one trader on the street. Others have mentioned, “if George packs in, so will I.” For decades, now, as chairman or traders’ representative, he’s looked after the interests of Columbia Road, the most ebullient, confident, and as he points out, happy market in London. Normally, on Market People, we try and follow convention and keep our interviews to 800 words or so – but how can you be so measly with a hero of horticulture, like George, who can give us the whole history of the market? He’s calm, fatherly, focused, and fun. Every market could do with a hero like him, and all of us Londoners owe him. His bulbs are excellent, too.

How did you come to run a flower stall?
I was going to go into farming when I came out of the army.  I served my time,  conscription, and rather than go back to a job I thought I’d go into farming. In those days I couldn’t get a farm as credit facilities weren’t available. So I went into the nursery business. Now there, the turnaround for getting cash was six months so to speed things up I just went directly into local markets. It was one of those things that just worked out. This was in Wickford, a little run-down market in Essex, at the end of 1949, 1950. And I progressed from that. I learned a few things from the public…

Which was what?
How to sell! When I started, we used to sell plants out of wooden boxes. I sold individual plants at a penny, tuppence each. Then I saw other traders selling whole boxes, half boxes, plants by the dozen I went into that. It was ffaster, and it just went on from there.

So I went on through the years, started in Wickford, then added Romford two days a week, then Epping one day a week and finally Rochester and Maidstone. So I covered every day. But it was all dead in Jan, Feb, July, August and late December, and top of that the winters were bad at that time. So out of season I got a job driving. When I finally found Columbia Road it was by accident – a friend of mine from Romford asked if I’d drive some plants up to Columbia Road.

It was quite an event because when I got there, there was nothing there, it was dark, and we sat in a cafe until about 10 o’clock, then we put plants out, there was four of us in the street. And we sat here hoping to get the money to come home with. By the time March or  April came round the market would fill up with traders – where they were from was mysterious – then they’d all disappear again in June, then you’d see them again in September… So it would repeat. And this went on through the 50s. But I went basically every week. If I was doing journey work I could get home in time to fulfil the Sunday market and double what I was earning.

Then the sixties came and there were changes – they pulled down the old buildings. At that time the shops were all boarded up anyways, all the cabinet makers in them moved out of town, into the home counties.The council brought out an order, if you have a trading licence you must appear once in four week, and consequently those guys who disappeared through that season had to appear – you had to have enough stock to do that even if it’s out of season. So by the end of the 1960s all licensed traders were out every Sunday.

At the same time, the trade had changed. At one time everything was grown in clay pots and then put into wooden boxes which were very heavy. It was a really heavy job – if you’d got 400 boxes of plants on a van you had to take them off by hand. Each hand we called a lift. If you have 400 or 500 lifts to unload, at the end you hoped you had no lifts to put back on. Consequently at the end of the day everything was sold off cheap, so you have an empty vehicle going home. Which is different to today.

In the ’70s the hydraulics came in, the tail-lift, that was followed with the Danish trolleys being invented. They’re the trolleys we use with four wheels, anything up to 10 shelves: that is loaded at home, goes on the tailboard and straight on the vehicle when you’ve finished, so you don’t have to rush and get rid of everything. By that time nurseries had advanced so it gradually came together. As it happens, by that time it came to the point where you could get credit for a farm. But by this time I was established.

Columbia Road progressed gradually… new faces came, old faces went, some died, some couldn’t make it pay. At the end of the ’80s we suddenly had more Dutch availability, where they could deliver without us having to put an order in weeks beforehand. Then I started advertising the market, then the media took notice, then film companies, then with the world wide web I was getting emails from different countries – which I still do. So it was all coming together. We had a problem  in the late ’80s or ’90s, the residents took offence at the noise, so a  committee was formed. We came to agreement with the residents, and now it’s gone into non-existence -  I’m the only committee!

I’ve heard so many impressive stories of how you’ve dealt with the council. Including an unbelievable scheme, if I got it right, to turn Columbia Road into a general market?
There was a fear of it. In that particular incident they put public notices in the paper to extend the market, stated the streets it was going to affect, including Ezra Street – but couldn’t give any definition of what it was going to do. But the Public Notice in that case was unlawful. So I challenged it – on behalf of the residents and the traders. Successfully. We had suspicions they were going to use it for another commodity market. We’re already not too happy to have shops here, we didn’t want a market with other goods – we are a specialised market, that’s why it’s successful and people come from all over the country.

Some traders complain there are now too many tourists, who take photos but don’t buy anything?
There are more people come who are tourists. The thing is, that can either be a disadvantage – or an advantage. The way I look at it, if they’re staying with people they often take something to their hosts as a present. And if they come to take photographs, they fill the market up – and there’s nothing worse than seeing an empty market, whether buying or not. You’ve got to look from a positive view. It’s easy finding things to blame.

You taken on a lot of extra work – do people appreciate it?
I think so. I take a lot of flak, I get moaned at, why can’t we park, why all the tourists… It doesn’t bother me. I love it. I was used to that in the  army.

Do Tower Hamlets appreciate the value of the market?
They have to. It’s there, and it’s obvious and it is valuable to them – it brings a lot of tourists into the country. But they won’t admit it’s valuable.

What’s your own favourite flower?
At the moment: bulbs.  Simply because I can go home with them, you don’t have to sell out, you can bring  them back and keep them on the vehicle all week. I’m getting a bit old, 82, with back trouble. It’s tough sometimes.

Do you have a garden?
I’m a nursery man – and I’m like a brickie who’s got no brick wall, I’ve got no garden. I have four acres, most of it orchard… We’re out in the sticks and I love it. And I love stinging nettles, wild plants, and I don’t cut any of them down until I have to.

After all these years – do you still love Columbia Road? Are you optimistic about it?
It will always be there. It will have its difficulties – but Columbia Road is a happy market. Not a miserable market.  If I go into any other market I think, ‘what a miserable lot!’  That’s what it’s like for the customers – they come there because it’s a happy market. And people come away happy, even if they go away skint!

George Gladwell’s bulb stall is around six stalls down from the West End of Columbia Road. Every Sunday.


“It’s great to grow something out of nothing. Except, sometimes, it doesn’t grow out of nothing!”

 

The West end of Columbia Road is the loud one. Back towards Ezra Street, it’s refined, sedate (these things are relative). At Matthew Harnett’s end it’s boisterous, with countless polystyrene trays of plants being handed out, a constant blur of riotous colour. But it’s not all showbiz. Even at the other end, they tell me, the Harnetts’ is one of the key stalls on the street, with one of the highest turnovers, of the best quality local flowers. Matthew has mostly taken over day to day handling of the stall from his dad, FJ; together, they’re a cornerstone of Columbia Road, a market which has more camaraderie and unity, than most. Most markets, of course, exist in a state of friendly enmity with their local council. Columbia Road is a jewel in London’s crown, but that doesn’t give it exemption from bureaucracy, interference, or pressure from issues like parking, both for traders and their customers. In contrast to other markets, though, at Columbia Road they stick together; long may they see off their threats and long, we hope, will Matthew be getting up early in the morning, and falling asleep in his chair at night, and in between, waxing lyrical about autumn plants.

FJ Harnett are always said to be one of the longest-established traders on Columbia Road – for how long you been selling flowers?
When we started it was actually, not my grand-dad, it was my great grand-dad.They started around around the Walthamstow and Leytonstone area. My grand-dad, Frederick Harnett, died about five years ago and he was 91. And he told me he used to work on that stall when he was eight. Although I’ve got nothing to prove it, that would make it nearly 90 years!

And what about you?
I used to go up there when I was a kid, eight or nine. Then I got into booze and girls,so I stopped going from 14 to 20. And then I started again. And I’m 31 now.

How different was it, 20 or so years ago, when you were first here?
It was better, to be honest. ‘Cos anyone who went there, went to buy plants, it was a well known place, that was cheap – and good. Now we get too many tourists who are just there to look.

Looking at your working day… it sounds like a hard life?
It is a hard life, to be honest. Because it’s very tie-ing. If you are dealing with fashion or something like that, and you fancy a week away, you can lock up the van and go. But we can’t do that, ‘cos the plants take a lot of care, and all the stuff is grown by us, in our own nursery.

What’s the good side of it?
It’s great to grow something from nothing. Except sometimes, it doesn’t grow out of nothing! But it can be a really nice job to have, there’s no doubting that. In fact, it’s not a job – it’s a life.

Columbia Road, more than anywhere, reflect the seasons?
My favourite season is the autumn, I don’t like the spring and summer, it’s too much stress,  it’s a lot of hard work. Whereas the autumn is a bit more laid back – and I prefer the plants. I like the cyclamen and the winter flowering pansies, they all complement each so well and because there’s not so many varieties it’s easier. But in the spring there’s so many different varities, it’s a lot more hectic.

Your stall is loud and busy – there’s a kind of show-business aspect to it, wouldn’t you say?
There is in the spring. I don’t enjoy that aspect of it to be honest, that’s the time I find too stressful, it’s a lot of hard work to get those plants to the market before you even start. I don’t get any days off in the spring, either, but in the autumn I might.

So when you get home, Sunday night, what do you do to relax?
We either go out for a meal,  or if it’s in the spring, then I walk in the front door, straight out the backdoor and cut the grass. Then I have dinner, get in a couple cans of Strongbow, relax – and usually fall asleep.

How do you feel about the future of Columbia Road?
We’re fine, as long as we have George Gladwell here, and he puts our thoughts across to the council. George is the backbone of our market, he makes sure it runs smoothly.

So do the council appreciate the market?
I wouldn’t like to answer that, to be honest. I don’t get involved. I work, do my business and come home.

It sounds like a hard life. But, if push comes to shove to you, would you swap it?
I do enjoy it, yeah. The satisfaction is when you walk in the greenhouse, and every thing looks tip top. And I can think to myself: I’ve done a job here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all me, there’s plenty of others work at it, too. But when I look at that greenhouse, I’m happy, yes.

FJ Harnett is at the West end of Columbia Road, on the corner of Ravenscroft Street, every Sunday. Get there early.