“It’s the thrill of finding something in an old bag… then someone trying it on and it looks amazing.”
Old school Greenwich Market people remember Heather, and her big hair, very well indeed. But it turns out her story goes even further back – to Brixton, to Fournier Street, and back to Brixton again – for markets are in her blood. And as you pick through the items on her stall, or her tiny shop near Peckham Rye, you might find yourself thinking, As long as traders continue to care as much, our street markets can never die.
Explain the name of your stall, and now your shop, Chichirara…
When I was in Texas buying vintage clothes with my brother Ian in the ’80s I used have very big hair – and my nickname used to be Big Hair. When I was in Texas lots of women used to have big hair, then I read in a magazine article they used to be called Chichirara and it’s a name I just kept.
What fascinates you about old clothes?
That’s really hard. What is it? It’s history, colours, design, finding something and bringing it back to life. I’ve always been interested in fashion, I worked at a fashion magazine so the whole thing about design and style, the process about how it keeps evolving.
There’s a big crossover between art students and smallholder. Is running a stall a continuation of student life?
It could well be. I think if you’re an art student or a student, by necessity you’re looking for more creative things, because out of adversity you have to find it cheaply – and you feed off each other.
We were discussing how it’s somehow heroic to run a stall, to get up every morning and start over. But it might help to be also eccentric or insane. Fair?
I would say so. Not necessarily fitting into standard work-practice material, although you probably work a lot harder – you’re doing it for yourself and you don’t have days off sick. My first stall was at Brixton in the ’80s, that was an amazing place to work, people had been there a long time, fascinating people, and maybe some of them slightly criminal, they did really look out for you, and really help you out, I really enjoyed that, it was a great place to work. And Greenwich was the same, when we went to Greenwich from Brixton we thought it would be different but it wasn’t, everybody was really helpful, although they were highly competitive as well.
What do you look for when you’re sourcing clothing?
Anything that is beautiful or wearable from any period, and/or extraordinary. Or has the historic value, not in terms of money, historic value.
Tell me about some of your finest discoveries.
There was a fabulous Vivienne Westwood Witches Collaboration T shirt with Keith Haring. It was in a binbag full of old clothes. I recognised it straight away. I do think it’s extraordinary that I managed to save it, it is a piece of fashion history from the last collection she did with Malcolm Mclaren, a really important piece – and sometimes these things are destined for landfill. So it was amazing to find. It went in a fashion auction. Yes, the price wasn’t bad. But that’s not typical, that’s not necessarily the main criterion. [There's] the thrill of finding something in an old bag and then somebody coming along and trying it on and it looks amazing. The other day I was driving down Gallery Road… somebody had bought a dress the week before, she’s a well known makeup designer, Alex Box, and I saw her walking down the road with her sleeves flapping - ‘cos this dress had these amazing sleeves. Something she’s bought from me the week before, to see people wearing it in the street and obviously loving it, that’s just great.
Markets are in your blood, I hear…
I discovered that, when I did my mum’s family research, because she was fostered. I didn’t grow up in South London but I’d moved here – and my great-great-grandfather Thomas Moorehouse had a market stall in Brixton, selling hot potatoes in the winter and ice cream in the summer. And he was living in practically the same place, cause I lived on the Barrier Block, and his street was right by where I first started my market stall at Brixton. So there was this overlaying, generations of us trading in the same places. Some of them were born in Stockwell Street in Greenwich, over the Spreadeagle, and that’s where our market stall was – they weren’t posh, they were living in rooms. That was my great aunt. And my grandfather, whose father was the ice-cream salesman, lived in Fournier Street in what was a young boys’ home.
Is that part of the fascination of markets? This resonance of the people who’ve been working in them, for centuries back through our history?
Definitely, I couldn’t have been more thrilled when I found those things out about my family, because we didn’t know. And I hope the markets will go on like that, and continue. But it’s a difficult thing.
Heather John is at the Dulwich Collectors Fair, last Sunday of most months; her shop, Chichirara, is at 18a Upland Road, Peckham Rye.
“I’ve always got a vinyl system at home. Two thousand watts.”
Shepherds Bush remains one of London’s great markets – the stalls shoved close together, regular repartee between the stallholders, multicoloured fabrics, multicoloured food, multicoloured cheap plastic toys. The market has changed, along with London, but in the far corner of the covered section, one vital part of the atmosphere remains unchanged: Webster’s Record Shack. Now run by Lloydie King, it’s a motherlode of reggae – pick an artist like, say, keyboard whizz Jackie Mittoo, who most of us know via a single Soul Jazz compilation, and Lloydie can talk you through all of his early studio albums, each of which he has as a Jamaican import. He recommended Jackie in London. Lloydie, like the album, shows why London is reggae’s second home.
How did you came to run the stall?
I started as a Saturday boy when I was 16. In 1969. I just advanced from there, ’cause I knew the music so much – so they thought, give him a shop, so then I was the manager. And they opened another shop in Brixton, and I used to stock the shops, I knew what was selling, and what could be sold.
And now you own this stall, Websters Record Shack, when did you take over?
Just last year.
You started young, went right through ska, rocksteady and then reggae… so what was the first record you remember buying?
Dancing Mood by Delroy Wilson. I play a bit of that still, all the different versions.
You’ve had a lot of the greats visit here – but one of the people you mentioned was Bob Marley, and how you saw his legendary show at the Rainbow. Tell me about that.
It was one of the mystical nights, you don’t forget it. It’s just printed in your mind - one of the great moments. It was at the Rainbow. really hot and sweaty. I can remember drinking Cherry Bs and what not. I’ve seen other Marley concerts but that was just… he come in.. and gave his best. An absolutely mystical night.
For someone from Kingston, Bob was a part of London’s history, too, wasn’t he?
More or less, ’cause he was here most of the time, between here and Camden. He didn’t come into the stall but we met socialising. Which is amazing, what can you say about that? I’ve been lucky to meet these people…
When Bob passed away, how did that affect you?
Sadness. Right through the family. My kids.. they knew me and Bob was.. you know. They just felt it for me. Even now I have pictures of him all around my house. We have Marley sheets, curtains, bedspreads, all over the place.
You’ve still got a lot of old school reggae, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, lots of Coxsone Dodd… what age are your customers, are they getting on a bit?
No, not really, they’re all generations. ‘Cause even the new generation, they’re buying like old stuff ’cause they want to know more. Folks like us are still buying but there’s new kids as well.
Is Bob Marley still popular with the younger kids?
They’re more into Steve Marley, Damian Marley, which is more or less that same sort of stuff.
And you do gospel as well, is that because you like it, or for your customers?
No [not for me], certain customers come for gospel and nothing else so I try to have as much as possible. Some of it’s modern, some of it is old stuff – American, Caribbean, Jamaican. All of them, even English gospel as well. The Jamaican gospel is pretty similar to American… but it’s more heart-ical. You feel it more.
Tell me about the pictures I can see up on the ceiling – ladies wearing bikinis. And the ladies are all facing you, the counter, not the customers?
No, no, they’re facing me. So I can see them. I deal with them.
So when it’s a quiet day…
I gaze at them.
You are a really important part of this market – we can hear your music all round this corner, it gives the place its vibe.
Well… all West London, more or less. We get customers from all over the world that come here.
What are your hot sellers at the moment?
I sell vinyl as well, but it’s mostly CDs. DJs and specialists buy a lot of vinyl. But what’s really selling now are the Strictly [The Best] compilations, they’re up to 45 now, various artists, they’re more like the Tighten Up! Trojan releases from the 60s, people tend to buy them more ’cause they have different artists on them.
Are reggae CDs selling as much as they used to?
No. ‘Cause people download them for nothing. They should stop that. The artist doesn’t get paid, the producer doesn’t get paid, it messes up the business. But what can we do about it?
What about at home, do you have a vinyl system at home?
Oh yeah. I’ve always got a vinyl system at home. Two thousand Watts.
Really? What do the neighbours think of it?
Yes… the neighbours? They enjoy it!
Websters is at Stall 61, Shepherds Bush Market, Monday-Saturday.
“I think my current favourites are big monkeys”
In some parts of London, escapism is compulsory. Camden Passage is such a place; spend too long contemplating the once-wonderful Tramshed, a home for some of London’s best stalls until they were thrown out for a branch of Jack Wills, or other sites now devoted to chain stores, and you’ll start feeling blue. In which case, there’s a surefire cure at the other end of Camden Passage by Islington Green. Brenda’s stall, with a shop behind, is crammed with cute, cuddlesome items, vintage teddy bears and other stuffed toys, with rather more refined, lavishly-attired French dolls at the back. Some of Brenda’s customers are cash-rich collectors, for whom these objects are investments, like gold or stocks. But spend five minutes chatting to her, and you realise this business is about love, not money.
How did you start dealing in teddy bears?
It started with the dolls, actually. How I got into it, I suppose, was when my mother gave me my old dolls when she was clearing out the attic. I had another career at the time, my husband was an antique dealer and I started looking at things in a new light, looking at the dolls, fixing them up and creating them, then they’d sell the moment I brought them into the shop. Then I started doing them up, because I did a doll and bear hospital, I was getting bears and dolls into repair, and it all grew from there.
How has the market for dolls changed since you started?
Of course, they are fairly expensive now and it really fluctuates according to which country is buying them at the time – at the moment the Japanese are buying them, for both China and Japan. It constantly evolves.
Dolls are both toys, and a kind of social record, as well as depicting the history of fabrics, aren’t they?
They do tie in to absolutely everything. And then with bears… for a lot of people, the bear is someone’s first toy that they can remember. Then they look at it later, as an adult and wish they hadn’t wrecked it, so they bring it in to be restored and cleaned.
What are some of your favourite dolls at the moment
Well, I suppose the French Jumeau – they’re lovely, these ones date from about 1900 to 1910. Depending on the quality the prices range from £800 to £2,000. And I also love dolls’ houses, although I don’t have enough space to keep them on display here, they’re in my studio.
Tell me about the teddies – do you get too attached to them?
If I’m getting too attached to anything I take it home for my collection. I’ve got a big room full of dolls and bears and miniatures. At the moment I think my current favourites are big animals, big monkeys, I’ve got several giant monkeys in my collection, I’ve rented them out to Vogue magazine sometimes, for fashion photoshoots, they date from the 1920s or 1930s.
What about the whole notion of Victorian dolls being a bit spooky?
Why would they be spooky? They’re among the first things that you cherish when you’re a little girl, or with a little boy it’s a bear – so why would it be spooky?
We’re seeing prices of items like Steiff bears increase steadily, will that continue?
Steiff actually started the teddy bear, in 1902. Teddy Roosevelt was taken on a shooting expedition and wouldn’t shoot the bear cubs, the story went all over the world, Steiff was a toy company and loved the story so it produced bear cubs and they took off – like mad! And their collectibility has continued to increase, the most expensive one I saw at Christie’s went for £125,000, I believe. Because they’ve become like a currency, it’s more secure than putting it in a bank, it’s secure, it’s not like buying shares and seeing the company disappear. You’ve got this rare, wonderful object!
What’s the priciest bear here?
I’ve got one over there for two and a half thousand, he’s from 1915. And it’s condition as well, they’ve got to be in good condition.
My son has a Steiff which he’s cuddled since he was a kid. The mohair has worn off his nose. Is that bad – do you disapprove?
Well, you can’t grow more mohair. But I don’t disapprove. This is a love object… they cry in their sleep and they’ve got this object they can hug.
You have a rather large bear outside – what’s her story?
She is famous in Islington, she was the Mothercare Representative about 40 years ago so she’s quite old. She’s made by Merrythought, our good company in England, they’re like the Steiff of England, and she’s much loved by local children, and has raised a lot of money for charity.
And the bear you’re holding – I believe he’s met Madonna?
Indeed. I rent teddies and dolls out for films and shoots. And for Edward And Mrs Simpson, the film Madonna directed, he’s in the film. They wanted a bear, I don’t know if it was a starring role, I haven’t seen it yet, and they had him for quite a while. He’s a 1920s bear.
Do you have a teddy you can cuddle, when times are hard?
My valuable bears are sort of locked away, in a secure room, which is alarmed. But I do have some big monkeys that protect me sometimes.
Brenda Gerwat-Clark is at Unit 3, The Annexe, Camden Passage, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
“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.
“Some days, you can’t see three inches from your nose. It can be spooky.”
Borough Market has been a centre of foodie culture for a dozen years now – but they’ve been years of turmoil, building work, the disappearance of many traders. Today, the offering is diverse, from glorified fast food merchants mainly reliant on tourists, to some of the most committed food producers in the country. Darren Brown has to count as one of the most crucial traders in the latter group. When you see him chatting to customers on a Saturday afternoon, or pulling lobsters out a large tank to show inquisitive kids, it’s hard to credit that he’s often been up at dawn that morning to dive for scallops, before the long drive in from Dorset. Catching scallops this way is sustainable, unlike the dredging methods many rivals use, which can cause damage to the seabed which takes years to recover. We often mention here how market traders work harder than most of their peers – Darren has to count as one of the most extreme examples, but once you’ve tasted his scallops, you’ll agree it’s all worth it.
I’ve spoken to you some Saturdays and you’d been out diving at 5am – when does your typical day start?
I don’t have a typical day! It depends on the tides and the weather, and also the light. Certain times of years it’s not light enough for diving till 8 o’clock, sometimes it’s dark at 5 o’clock, so you’ve just got to work around that. There’s so many factors – you can’t just go out there, dive and come back.
Is it a physically gruelling job?
You’re carrying 8 stone of tanks on your back, 32 pounds of lead round your waist, so it’s not for the average person.
How did you start diving?
I basically was a survival instructor and did survival equipment, and I tried to change to become a Royal Navy Diver. I passed through all the process – then I was told at the last interview that I was too old. So that was me out. So I decided to go; now the Royal Navy’s got to resettle you into a civilian job and I got them to pay for my Commercial Diving Ticket. So in the end I became a diver and they lost a diver. Then I lived at Lulworth cove in Dorset, and started doing diving back in 1983 as a hobby. And we’ve been at Borough Market now for 13 years.
In the past few years, you’ve diversified?
I stalk, I manage an estate down in Dorset where we control the deer numbers, and that’s another hobby that I’ve turned into a livelihood, so part of the business is game now as well as fish.
How do you feel, when you’re underwater most days, diving? Is it strictly a job, or is it something you enjoy?
Well, put it this away – I wouldn’t go away on a diving holiday! It’s a busman’s holiday doing three or four hundred dives a year, it gets a bit tedious. Like going to the office. At the moment we’re fishing in Dartmouth, then we come back and work from June onwards back in Lulworth Cove. Some days it can be fantastic, then some days, you can see less than three inches from the end of your nose. It can be spooky. No disrespect to the average Scooby Doo, but they wouldn’t tolerate it.
You embody a certain ethic at Borough – whereas some people simply buy food in and sell it on, you’re bringing in something unique.
There’s only a handful, two or four of us, who are producer and providers. We go out and get it. And a lot of people don’t believe that, I have to show them pictures to prove it.
Does the Market appreciate that you’re offering something unique?
I’m concerned about it. Sometimes I think they’re pricing us out of the market. I don’t like passing on the large expenses – it makes us feel and it makes us look like a very expensive market. There has to be fair trading. How can I compete with someone in the middle of the market, and all they’re doing is buying and selling? So no, I don’t think those people are bringing anything to the table. You get people who come in and take advantage of the fact that you can get a cheaper pitch, come and take the good times over Christmas, and then run off. So there is a lot of unfair trading, I don’t think there’s a loyalty to the long-term people who are committed to Borough Market, and bring something unique and individual to it.
But with all this, the getting up early, the physical effort, the lack of independence, the weather, when you get home at day’s end – is it satisfying?
It is. Especially when you get people who really appreciate it. I’m dealing with some of the top restaurants who appreciate it, Jamie Oliver, Mark Hix, who I go back with a long way. But it is hard work. When you go home sometimes and you’ve lost money at the market that day you think, Why am I doing this? But staff comes first, and the rent’s gotta be paid.
Does it beat the Navy?
I am actually missing the Navy really – only because of the lads and the camaraderie and you can always rely on somebody. If you were in the shit you could turn around and there’d be somebody there for you. It doesn’t happen in civvie street I’m afraid.
Now, the crucial question: how do you eat your scallops?
I like them simple, maybe pan fried with garlic. Or simpler still, is to eat them raw on the boat, straight away, when I come up from a dive. You can’t get better than that.
Darren’s stall, Shellseekers, is at Borough Middle Market, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
“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.
“You can’t beat Portobello. It’s the most famous market, isn’t it?”
Change is the lifeblood of markets, like it or not. Whether you’ve been going to London’s market for two years, or 20, each of us will have our own memories of the perfect stall that disappeared one day, gone without trace. That unpredictability is, of course, part of the attraction. But how wonderful to have one stall that’s been there for us, year in, year out: and this is Portobello on Parade, run by Paul Allen, and his friend John, for a number of years that, for reasons of state security, must apparently remain top secret.
How did you come to sell military gear, and when did you start?
Well, we’ve been here for a few years now and it’s military stuff all straight from the MOD. We just happened to be in the right place in the right time, as you can discover from this little lot here.
But how long have you been here? Now, I seem to think you were here in my first visits to Portobello, 20 years ago?
We’ve been going a few years now. We’ve mixed it up a bit, haha.
I’m sure you’ve been here that long, though, maybe it was 25 years?
We have, yes…
Are you being purposely vague?
Well, we’d be giving our age away now, wouldn’t we? But we’re very well-established, as you can see!
What was the attraction of military gear and uniforms for you?
Just the quality. How nice, how well-made it all us, and how stylish. And it’s always in fashion, everyone loves it. All the standup collars are in fashion again now, and the girls love the hats.
You have Soviet military equipment, too – how does the quality compare?
We’ve got a lot. We’ve got a Russian comes over every 3 or 4 weeks, and he brings us hats, badges, coats, all from their military and navy. The quality is not as good, not at all. You can see why they gave up in the end. The badges are not all that good, and the peaks on the caps – on our ones you can lift them up by the peak all the time, with the Russians, they’re flimsier and they start to break.
It’s interesting that, even though we’ve lost so many good quality boot makers in Northampton, that the quality of military footwear is still great.
Yes. And that’s because, even though the factories have shut down they’ve still got a huge lot of storage – they’re bringing in things that are brand new, but it’s really from the ’70s or the ’60s.
Oh, so once those supplies are gone, the new boots will fall apart, like my old Clarke’s?
Now, you’re lucky to get leather-soled shoes. Only the officers’ shoes are leather soled now. The soldiers always had them – but now they’ve got rubber. And, honestly, the new stuff, people don’t want it, they want the proper ones. So it’s changing, they’re making the ranks wear rubber soles and they’ll have to work with that. But the officers, they’ll be all right!
You have a wonderful variety of items – not just uniforms, there are old medals, memorabilia, postcards, quirky little items. Where do they all come from?
Yes, we cater for everything, we get lots of stuff come up, like all those walking sticks over there, they were from an officer’s mess and they were all put in to a big brass shell casing. It’s surprising what we get. It’s not so much auctions – when I get to the MOD I can sort through the stuff. We like to pick out the good bits. Like, look at the flight trousers on the mannequin here. Now that lacing on the front was covered, and I took the fronts off so you could see the lacing. Now they’re wearing them up the clubs, the girls are! And we hire things out as well. People do lot of photo shoots and all that, so we help ‘em out, and video shoots.
All this gilt, all this braid, it embodies so much history, you still get the feel of the Victorian era, the time of Empire…
True. The tourists absolutely love it. It’s a bit of English history and it states it everywhere you look – on the buttons, on the jacket, so they do like it.
You have an absolutely beautiful uniform up there, is that a Beefeater’s?
It is indeed, it came from a character who was a Beefeater. And in his cottage when it was cleared, there it was. And it’s come our way. It’s astonishing, a fella from Christie’s came by, he’s putting on a show for the Olympics, and he asked if I could put that in the display for him. And at the end of the display it will be auctioned off.
How much has Portobello changed in the time you’ve been here?
A lot. We used to have all the antiques coming in, the lorries, shipping. Now it’s all stopped, and there’s a lot of people complaining. But we just happen to be in the right place, a nice position, well-established and fingers crossed for the rest of them. But it is picking up. You can’t beat Portobello road. It’s the most famous market, isn’t it?
And you, as one of the oldest stalls, still get the younger kids in.
We’ve got ‘em coming through here all the time. As you can see, it’s a complete mixture, all the way through youngish kids to the old boys getting their bits of old paperwork – the old boys love that, and the badges and the medals. Then we have the braided jackets, the guard ones – they’re very popular with the singers and the stars. Like Pete Doherty, when he was going out with Kate Moss, they both bought one, and they’ve had a number of things off of me. And Paul Weller was standing here chatting the other day about our American cape. We get a lot of people here, it’s amazing. But we often don’t know who we’re talking to – until other stallholders say, Do you know who that was? It’s good.
Portobello On Parade is at the bottom of Portobello, near the Westway, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. They also hire items out for photo shoots. Contact:email@example.com
“I was once chased off a property by a guy with a rattlesnake.”
Old items have stories behind them. And few of the stories are as gripping as those of some of the items on David White’s stall . It’s jam-packed with blue-collar treasures, beautifully-worn US workboots, or deadstock jackets that have languished in some forgotten store out West for decades. Other items, like the jacket he’s holding, boast almost unbelievable pedigrees, evoking stories of tough guys who didn’t always make it home.
Why vintage clothing?
I’ve always been very passionate about vintage clothing, it’s always been my thing – I was always a big fan of Levi’s and vintage leathers. And about eight years ago I was dissatisfied with what I was doing. I was a set designer, building and designing sets for TV shows, and I decided to follow my passion. I think you’ve got to do what’s most important in life.
I’d spent a bit of time in the states on holidays, my wife was working over there at the time so I kind of knew about the vintage scene in America. Back then it was possible to find the odd treasure in a thrift store. I didn’t have any contacts. I just bought myself a ticket to Los Angeles, and off I went.
What’s the most resonant piece you’ve owned?
I was honoured to briefly own a 1920s pair of Levi’s 501s, that’s probably about as good as it gets. But I’ve also had some wonderful pieces with not so high price – I like a lot of no-brand generic denim. I had an original A2 [flying jacket], that was nice, had a wonderful 30s US Navy denim work-coat that was nice, and I like a lot of the old knitwear, there was was a company called Utah Knitting mils, they made some of the most amazing sweaters I’ve ever seen in terms of style, durability and all round quality.
Tell me about the diamonds in the rough, the items that you’ve come across where you didn’t expect them.
At one point I found a pair of ’50s 501s in with the offset belt loop in a thrift store. And digging though the bottom of a rag pile once, I saw a 1940s woolen CPO (Chief Petty Officer) shirt that had a nice embroidered anchor on the breast pocket.
Is it getting harder to find original items?
Absolutely. By the month, I’d say.
Tell me about the jacket you’re holding.
It’s a USN N-1 deck jacket that belonged to a crew member of the USS Swordfish. If you google the submarine USS Swordfish you come up with a whole bunch of information, they were a pretty ruthless bunch and they sunk a lot of ships. It’s £150 more than a standard jacket. It’s a jacket that’s been there.
Have you had any close shaves on your buying trips?
I was once chased off a property by a guy with a rattlesnake on the end of a stick. I do a lot of cold calling, we go out into the west and drive around, and if we see a likely looking ranch and it looks like they haven’t thrown anything away in 80 years we call in… and this guy was not taking any chances. And I’ve met some lovely people. People who still live out in the west, with no running water, who generate their own power, live and die out in the ranch.
David White’s Ragtop Vintage is at Spitalfields, Thursdays; he has recently opened a shop in the basement, 1a Turville St E2. You can find his blog here.
“I don’t like anything mass-produced. One of everything is enough.”
Like any market, Portobello has changed over the years; chainstores, like All Saints “of Spitalfields” have moved in, while the antique and junk offerings get thinner on the ground. But at the bottom, underneath the Westway, everything gets more diverse. Julia Chettati’s corner, on the near side, is one of the most intriguing. Her own stall is filled with jewel-like, vibrant concoctions, crafted from vintage fabrics or brightly-coloured feathers. Julia is old school: like many of us, she’s seen her own area change, pressured by development and commercialisation. But again, like many of us, she’s still in love with the buzz of the market, drawn ever back like a moth to a flame.
How did you start your stall?
I was doing vintage shoes and dresses and saw a hole in the market – this was in Portobello. How long have I been doing this? I can’t remember – years!
How would you describe what you sell?
I’m just doing my own thing, right now I’m making all my headpieces. It’s bits of design I do myself, and I do up things. How would I describe it? Unique, I’ve always been different.
What are your style influences?
I just do it off the top of my head, really. I think parts of history influence me, different periods of time: the twenties, that period, the head pieces, that’s the kind of themes I’m working on now. I just like beautiful, nice things. I don’t get influenced by high street – I don’t go to the high street, I don’t shop in those shops, I’ve never owned a pair of trainers, I don’t wear jeans, I don’t like anything that’s mass produced. One of everything is enough.
You seem to have a thing for feathers?
I do like feathers. They’re a slice of freedom. I’m working with feathers right now, making up stuff, I’ve made a beautiful little hat with butterflies, the base is leaves, then it’s all butterflies, I’m pleased how it’s turned out, I do it from my head, there’s no pattern. Then I found some beautiful old Victorian trim, that would be nice thrown round the head like a garland. That’s what’s nice, making things… I don’t make loads of money, my stuff should sell for more, it’s very time consuming. But I’m grateful I can do that.
And how would you describe your customers?
A bit quirky, artistic, unusual, you have to get it.
Have they changed over the years?
The market changed years ago. It was when the Euro first started, really. You used to see exciting people, people from European companies, designers, make-up artists, models, intriguing people, really nicely-dressed people, bands, stylists. All characters. I don’t think you see people like that any more.
What was the cause? More chain stores?
The stores aren’t as nice, I suppose they have to let the bigger stores in, the coffee shops, it’s not what Portobello is about. Greedy corporate companies push all the good little interesting people out and that’s what kills it, because they are what makes it what it is. MacDonalds did try a few years ago, at least we got rid of them!
There’s still a real camaraderie in this corner though, isn’t there – do you look out for each other?
Yes, we do OK. It’s like a family, really – like it or lump it, we’re all used to each other! Don’t forget, it’s a business-place too, it’s stressful at times, and everyone’s all chasing the same pound. But the whole area has always had its characters, always been on the edge. That’s how it will always be. Everywhere has to change and move on… on the whole, we’re alright, there’s a lot of decent, hardworking people and fabulous stuff. I love it. I’ve always been a vintage person – you never know what you’re going to find, you never know how much you’re going to take, either. And that’s how life is, isn’t it?
Do you need a particular attitude to run a stall, as opposed to a shop?
Shops are very expensive, a big commitment, it’s cost, cost, cost. A stall’s less expensive, it’s like a little office anyway, people know you’re there. In a shop you wait for people to come to you, in a stall there’s a flow of people who will pass you anyway. When it’s cold, like now, you move around and it’s alright! It’s all cosy and cushy in a shop with no preparation – but I’ve always liked to graft. I make my stall like a little picture, every time I set it up I enjoy it. I’m a free spirit. I couldn’t bear sitting in a shop all day, how depressing, Oh God, no!
Julia Chettati is at the north end of Portobello Road, under the Westway, on Fridays; on Saturdays and Sundays you’ll find her at the Ladbroke Grove end, or on the far side of the canopy.
“When the rain’s coming in horizontally and you’re clinging on to your stall… it bonds people!”
Whether market traders count as heroic or deluded, Alex counts as the most heroic or deluded of all of them. He’s run a book stall at the Greenwich Clock Tower market for over three decades – and when the weather’s grim, he’s the one you can count on to turn up. Many times I’ve seen him, with just two or three other intrepid souls, standing behind the stall while the rain buckets down, and visitors are nowhere to be seen. In the past few years, after the adjacent Stockwell Street market closed and fewer visitors come to check out the markets in Greenwich, I suspect trade has got quieter – but as long as Alex is here, like the ravens in the Tower, our market is surely safe.
Book traders are often a lugubrious bunch who, should you ask if they want to buy any of your surplus volumes, sigh and launch into a tirade against the internet, charity shops, and other banes of their life. Not Alex. Rain or shine, feast or famine, he grits his teeth and carries on. We salute him.
You are the man who has been here the longest, is at this market winter or summer, rain or shine. So.. what explains your incredible and irrational commitment?
Desperation and madness really. No… I run the market on Saturdays so that’s why I’m always here. I don’t seem to earn much money, these days off the stall – but what else would I do? I’ve been here since 1978 on and off, and it’s evolved into me running the market for Jane, who’s the manager now. And that’s why I’m here all the time.
How did you start?
I was on the dole, living in a squat in Deptford, running around Greenwich, I would take a bag full of stuff down there and sell it, that’s what started it. I was desperate then, I’m desperate now!
So you started before this area had the hotel and cinema?
Yes – before it was developed it was a lot bigger, five or six times the size of this. That was before boot sales had really taken off so most people who were going to sell stuff would come to Greenwich, it was a much bigger draw. The same as everywhere, Greenwich has been tarted up and the market has been confined. There’s no room for expansion any more. The people who would have come here years ago go to boot sales. But that’s the way of the world, isn’t it?
What are some of your great discoveries?
The best ever sale.. was a first edition of Treasure Island which I bought for 50p, from a junky charity shop in Bermondsey. And I almost didn’t buy it because it was tatty, I thought it can’t possibly be a 1st edition. But it was. And I sold that for, I think, twelve hundred pounds. I think that’s the best ever sale. And 50s and 60s textiles, I’ve done really well with them over the years. And a few good books in between two, three four hundred pounds. But generally, I’ve never made that leap into the higher end, I’m content to tip my stuff out and see what happens!
What’s the attraction of a stall? There must be a magic that draws you back?
It’s so good. There are good people on the market, it’s always fun. Well, most of the time. Rain or shine it’s good. There’s always a chance you’re going to take some money. And it’s not nine to five.
How do you feel about the future in Greenwich, particularly with what’s happening in the covered market?
I think the covered market is going to vanish, to be honest. Once that’s redeveloped there won’t be much of a market there. This one is safe, but the council might discover it in the end and put an office block in. And that would be the end.
It would also be the end of Greenwich as a place with a particular vibe.
I think so. And there’s not a lot of that vibe left these days. Since the [Stockwell Street] market shut a lot of people have said it’s not worth going to Greenwich just for this market, it’s too small. When the other one was there you could have a good root through, and a lot of people have gone and won’t come back. We’ll see. But at the moment it’s alright. It’s full up. And the sun is shining.
Now, this Sunday, the one with all the snow. Where were you all?
Ha, sorry, Jane the manager called up and told me it was cancelled because it was too awkward for people to get there. You’ll have to change my copy now!
One week out of 52… I think you still keep your title. It’s hard work with a stall, you’ve got to be a self-starter, a hard worker, maybe a bit heroic, and maybe a bit irrational – or deluded?
You’re right. Probably, yes. Especially in the really bad weather, when it’s really windy and rainy and you get trapped and you just can’t go. And the rain’s coming in horizontally and you’re hanging on to your stall to stop it from blowing over. That feels heroic. It sounds crazy. but it bonds people in a way. A day like that, you’ve done it, and you’ve got through it, it’s terrible for business but you have a good laugh and everyone seems to enjoy it, even if you and your stock are soaking wet. You couldn’t get that in a shop!
Alex is at Greenwich Clock Street market, by the cinema, Saturdays and Sundays, whatever the weather.