Public Space

Stall Stories

London’s street markets have always ebbed and flowed, but a recent oral history-based film project has shown that challenges still continue.

The history of four of London’s oldest street markets was studied by four local primary schools and by interviewing historians, local residents, shoppers and traders – ones whose stalls go back generations, as well as newer stallholders. As the study took place, interesting pictures emerged around themes of immigration and globalisation. Historically, street markets have allowed immigrants and working-class people to find work and set up their own businesses without needing capital, but this is changing as markets are being squeezed by local authorities and landlords.

Each of the four markets studied have their own character and history. West London’s Portobello Road appears to be mostly under threat from landlords hiking up rents to make massive profits from the global chains clamouring to get space in one of the city’s hottest tourist destinations. One such example is one American clothing retailer taking the place of 150 antique stallholders.

Many traders have told us that mass immigration from the 1960s and beyond have boosted street markets over that time. Many migrant communities have ‘trading in their blood’ and gravitate to markets to get work and set up in business, especially as one of their previous opportunities for employment was in clothing manufacture which is now almost exclusively done abroad.

Many migrants also use the market for shopping: the traders talk fondly of the new produce they stock to cater for them. Migrants have settled in London for centuries and the films show how the markets reflect their communities and evidence still exists of settlements long ago. The Jewish and Italian presence around Leather Lane is long gone, but some shops, stalls and places of worship still remain.

Brixton Market in south London began in the 1870s as public transport brought people and the Victorian housing boom to the area. In the post-1945 years, it was one of the first markets to cater for the growing African-Caribbean community as witnessed by a resident of Portobello Road who told us she travelled to Brixton Market to buy her specialist food.

The building of the Grand Union Junction canal in Paddington allowed the easy transport of goods from around the country into the country suburbs of London and Portman Market was built on what is now Church Street. Portman Market at its peak threatened to outsell Covent Garden Market. When it closed in 1907 many traders just took their barrows onto the street and Church Street Market was born.

The project was initiated and run by Arts and Education charity, digital:works with funding from Heritage Lottery Fund. All four films were launched at the Renoir cinema in July 2012 and are available to view online:

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