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London Markets in the 1930s

04-July-2012
04-July-2012 0:00
in Photography
by Peter Berthoud

In 1930 the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries published a report on London Markets.

The report described all the principal London markets and exchanges and was illustrated with twenty images and a map.

There are great shots of Covent Garden, Spitalfields, Smithfield and Billingsgate but there are also more unusual images such as one of the Growers' Area at Borough Market and another of the Somers Town Potato Depot. For the first time on the net, all these images are published together.

London Wholesale Markets and Exchanges in 1930
London Wholesale Markets and Exchanges in 1930

The "chief problem connected with markets in the London area" in 1930 was congestion. Covent Garden, Billingsgate and Borough being the worst affected.  Narrow and busy road approaches, lack of space and poor internal roads were increasing costs and causing delays and problems not only for traders and buyers but also for all other traffic.

Covent Garden, the fruit, veg and flower market was the worst offender.

Covent Garden Market: Russell Street Approach (1930)
Covent Garden Market: Russell Street Approach (1930)

Aerial View of Covent Garden Market (1930)
Aerial View of Covent Garden Market (1930)

The owners of Covent Garden had wanted to move the market to a new location entirely but were forced to abandon their plan because of strong opposition from its traders. It took over forty years for the eventual removal to Nine Elms to take place.

To relieve pressure on Covent Garden it was proposed that Borough Market, fruit and veg, should be entirely reconstructed or removed to a new site entirely. It of course survives in an albeit modified, retail, foodie form to this day.

Borough Market: Growers' Section
Borough Market: Growers' Section

It was hoped that extensions at Spitalfields would also help to reduce congestion at Covent Garden. A fruit Exchange was established there and there were plans for a flower market too.

London Fruit Exchange, Spitalfields Market: Sample Show-room (1930)
London Fruit Exchange, Spitalfields Market: Sample Show-room (1930)

Auction Selling of Fruit London Fruit Exchange (1930)
Auction Selling of Fruit London Fruit Exchange (1930)

It was anticipated that in future market stalls, as at the Spitalfields fruit exchange, would be used merely to display samples and that bulk deliveries would take place elsewhere, at railway depots or directly from the docks.

Heavy and bulky vegetables were already being directly traded in this way, at  King's Cross Market and depots such as the Somers Town Potato Depot (which stood on the site now occupied by The British Library).

Somers Town Potato Depot (1930)
Somers Town Potato Depot (1930)

Kings Cross and Somers Town both benefited from space and good transport links. In addition to selling goods directly they also acted as "warehouses" for Covent Garden, Spitalfields and Borough markets.

At Billingsgate Fish Market  congestion was also a pressing issue.

Billingsgate Fish Market: Delivery Vehicles in Lower Thames Street (1930)
Billingsgate Fish Market: Delivery Vehicles in Lower Thames Street (1930)

The Corporation of London, owners of Billingsgate, had planned to extend the market to encompass the Custom House site but ultimately complete removal of the market was the only solution; although the move to the Isle of Dogs didn't take place until 1982.

The London Central Markets at Smithfield were seen as comparatively congestion free and a low priority for change.

London Central Markets, Smithfield (1930)
London Central Markets, Smithfield (1930)

The trade in live animals moved from Smithfield to The Metropolitan Cattle Market and Abattoir in Islington in the 1850s making Smithfield viable once more.

Smithfield's wholesale meat market still operates from buildings completed in the 1860's. City markets that had been closed in the 1860s such as Newgate (meat) and Farringdon (fish, fruit, veg and flowers) were amalgamated into the Smithfield complex which became The London Central Markets. Only the meat trade survives today, the future of some of the disused buildings in the complex has been uncertain for many years.

Some other markets and exchanges referred to in the report:

Leadenhall Market (now best known for expensive retailers, over-priced food and Harry Potter associations) was still an important wholesale market for domestic poultry and eggs. Though imported eggs were mostly traded at the London Egg Exchange.

The London Egg Exchange operated from the old Hop Exchange building in Borough. Hops were never really suited to exchange selling as qualities vary enormously, even from bine to bine, but eggs went down a storm. It was estimated that 95% of all the eggs landed in London, over a billion a year, were sold through the London Egg Exchange.

The London Provision Exchange in Tooley Street was the main market for Ham, Bacon, Cheese and tinned goods. t It handled "practically the whole of the imports into London of these commodities.". I can't find out what became of it.

London Provision Exchange: Main Hall (1930)
London Provision Exchange: Main Hall (1930)

The Wool Exchange was the main marketing point for imported wool. The exchange building in Coleman Street currently faces an uncertain future.

The Baltic Mecantile and Shipping Exchange dealt in imported cereals, oilseeds and oils, tallow and turpentine and other cargoe. It operated at 30 St Mary Axe 30 until the building was severely damaged during an IRA bomb attack in 1992. The same address is now home to "The Gherkin".

Baltic Exchange: Main Hall (1930)
Baltic Exchange: Main Hall (1930)

Several years after the bomb it was decided that the Baltic Exchange could not be rebuilt.  The remains were salvaged and later advertised for sale on the internet as being suitable for “fabulously wealthy jigsaw enthusiast”. Such an enthusiast was found and 49 crates of the original stone, were sent to Talinn in 2007 with the plan being to rebuild the Exchange on the Baltic Coast. I don't think this has happened yet!

All the images come from "Markets and Fairs of England and Wales" Part VI, London by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, HMSO, London, 1930.

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