|Order and cheerfulness - or congestion and stench? |
Picture courtesy of British Library
Spitalfields Market had its origins
in congestion, stench and foul language. These were the vices that prompted the removal of the market once held within the precincts of St Paul’s Cathedral first, in 1666, to Mansion House and a couple of decades later to the edge of the East End.
It’s a far cry from a place that today prides itself on catering to the tastes of the hip and the well-heeled. But then markets have always been places of tension and contention. Who gets to use them, who gets excluded and what prices are paid have been the stuff of squabbles through the ages.
Sometimes those arguments erupt into violence. One of the most celebrated market riots
took place at Nottingham’s famous Goose Fair in 1766, when - according to the chronicler Thomas Bailey - market-goers became ‘excessively exasperated’ at the exorbitant prices being charged for cheese:
‘The lots of cheese were taken forcible possession of; much was carried away, and much more damaged by being flung about, and rolled down the adjacent streets and passages... The mayor, whilst endeavouring to quell the disturbance, was knocked down by a cheese, hurled at him by one of the mob, and severely stunned.’
Spitalfields’ own riots happened just a few years earlier, in 1763. They were the result of longstanding grievances over the pay and conditions of silk weavers. In a protest that foreshadowed the Luddite disturbances sixty years later, disgruntled weavers destroyed looms and silk. For good measure they paraded an effigy of one of their employers around the streets before hanging and burning it.
Commenting in the journal Past and Present
, the historian E. P. Thompson observed that the ‘riots’ of the eighteenth century were far more than a gut reaction to the price of food or lack of work. Thompson describes them as the consequence of a breach of an unwritten social contract:
‘…a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which, taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action.’
Few use the phrase ‘moral economy’ these days, but that sense of fairness underlies many of today’s tensions around markets and their surroundings. The redevelopment of Spitalfields Market that finished ten years ago was strongly resisted by many local people; the fine line between regeneration and gentrification is often only noticed once it has been irretrievably crossed.
In a city where property speculation has become feverish and local councils are under pressure to sell social housing estates for redevelopment, all the signs are that the social contract is once again under unbearable strain.
Markets have often been the flashpoints where the tensions inherent in urban life explode. From Queen’s Market in Upton Park in the east to Brixton Market in south London and Portobello Road in the west, redevelopment plans and rising rents have prompted protest and opposition.
These tensions matter because they concern not only the historic character of the city’s markets but also the extent to which London can still be said to be a city for everyone. In the nineteenth century social cleansing was justified on grounds of morality: London’s Bartholomew Fair, a byword for licentiousness, was closed by the City of London in 1855. Today the removal of the cheap and unsightly has an economic rationale as markets are turned into ‘destinations’ for wide-walleted visitors.
At Queen’s Market, Upton Park, traders and local residents fought a long battle ten years ago to stop the redevelopment of the market with an Asda store, new shops and a residential tower - ironically, on the same site as the once notorious James Sinclair Point, a hulking slab that loomed over the market until 1993.
Newham Council, in the PR-speak beloved of aspirational local authorities, claimed the plans would ‘enhance Green Street’s status as a visitor destination’. The Friends of Queen’s Market, who gathered more than 12,000 signatures opposing the plans, believed local residents and businesses would be priced out.
The experience of Brixton Village would suggest that those fears were well-founded. Back in 2009 Granville Arcade, six avenues of 1930s stalls and shops in the indoor market, was earmarked for demolition and redevelopment. Those plans were abandoned after vociferous local protests - and Space Makers, a collective of artists and activists, set to work to breathe life into vacant market stalls.
Space Makers were almost too successful for their own good. A year later the market was thriving, with new food stalls and what the New York Times
described as ‘playful pop-up shops’. The market’s owners, London & Associated Properties, saw an opportunity and bills for rent increases started landing on doormats. Some traders received bills backdated to 2007, the date when London & Associated took over, totalling tens of thousands of pounds.
Five years on, Brixton is now the scene of protests against gentrification (symbolised to many by the appearance of gung-ho estate agents Foxtons) but the new demographic of latte-drinkers and cupcake-consumers has become entrenched. For better or worse, Brixton’s character has changed.
Over in West London similar tensions are evident at Portobello Road, home of Britain’s largest antique market. Recent proposals to move some of the market stalls into a new purpose-designed centre by the Westway flyover have prompted opposition from local residents who claim it will replace a much-loved outdoor market with a ‘sanitised shopping experience’.
The irony of Portobello Road is that the plans have been put forward by Westway Trust, a charitable trust set up to protect residents’ interests after the hugely disruptive construction of the A40 flyover in the 1960s. The trust was gifted the land below the flyover - space at the time thought to be of little commercial value - and has since developed much of it with business premises and community facilities. Now the trust itself is being accused of the kind of behaviour usually associated with the capital’s more cut-throat property developers.
These are local difficulties, but they’re also part of a much wider continuing tussle over who gets to use the city and its public spaces, and on what terms. The attributes valued by many - accessibility, value for money, inclusion - are seen by others as the problems of congestion, stench and foul language.
There’s not much stench to be found in Spitalfields Market today. Writing in the New Scientist
in 2014, Sheffield University academic Victoria Henshaw described a ‘smellwalk’ through the market. Whereas in Istanbul she’d found ‘perfumes and body odour, leather, spices, Turkish delight’, in Spitalfields ‘I smell nothing until I reach the far end of the market where I detect some faint ventilation emissions from a restaurant’.
Sanitised, smell-free environments aren’t markets - they’re shopping malls, and there’s little room in them for the ‘moral economy of the poor’. London removes its congestion, stench and foul language at its peril.