Columbia Road

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Columbia Road Flower Market has become, for a great deal of Londoners, a staple feature of a Sunday afternoon. The masses flock to this cobbled stretch of East London to haggle with market vendors for the best possible deals on plants and flowers.

The earliest hints of the market begin to manifest around the outskirts of Shoreditch, where passers-by can be spotted clutching a bunch of sunflowers wrapped in manila paper, blue plastic bags with monstera leaves protruding through handles; the often witnessed surreal scene of a huge plant with arms and legs drawing nearer, until you realise a human is camouflaged somewhere behind it.

Entering the self-proclaimed ‘oasis of foliage and flowers’, you hear the strong cockney accents of the stallholders pitch patter floating above the crowds. Potential customers are alerted to newly developing deals. The vendors begin setting up as early as 4am and a few hours later, they are ready to open for the public. As the evening draws closer, the crowds ease (slightly) and bargains begin to spring up as traders clamour to rid themselves of the last of their stock. The majority of these stalls are family run businesses, passed down through the generations and it is very common to see father/son and mother/daughter teams. The oldest stall holder is George, a veteran trader still at the helm of a pitch established back in 1949. These vendors were archaically named ‘barrow boys’ as produce was originally peddled from large wheelbarrows rather than stalls. Even in the harshest of downpours the barrow boys battle through conditions to keep the market thriving year round.

The now highly sought-after location in Hoxton, where the market takes place, was at one point a slum. The eventual rejuvenation of the area transpired as one of the many philanthropic ventures of Angela Burdett-Coutts, a millionaire heiress whose father was a founder of Coutts & Co. banking house. In her lifetime, Coutts would donate an incredible amount of her wealth and time to supporting a vast number of causes domestically and internationally. This included opening a number of ‘ragged schools’ which provided free education to working class children and co-founding the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (which later became the NSPCC). She established the first Columbia Market in 1869 as a way of providing affordable food to East London’s poorer communities. This neo-Gothic market took place inside an enormous hall designed to look like a cathedral and hosted around 400 food stalls. Unfortunately the market never reached a level of popularity that could compete with the competition posed by other London markets. Columbia Market would struggle to remain open and was eventually forced to cease trade entirely by 1886.

The original incarnation of the Columbia Road Flower Market was established during the 20th Century, originally being held every Saturday. This would change after it was brought to the organisers attention that this raised issues with Jewish traders, whose religion meant they were prohibited from working on the Sabbath. An Act of Parliament was passed which pushed the market back a day to accommodate for the Jewish sellers. The change was welcomed by non-Jewish traders also, as it was realised this switch consequently meant any leftover produce from the various other Saturday markets could be repurposed for sale the following day.

The market would face adverse times in the 1970’s as the area began to decline and the threat of demolition loomed. Fortunately, through ardent protestation from locals, the market would be saved and saw a boom in custom within the next decade. Just as the market survived through this difficult epoch, market operators persevered through the recent Coronavirus lockdown with trading resuming a few weeks ago, albeit with restrictions on crowds and social distancing measures in place. Whilst the rest of London undergoes seismic changes and developments, Columbia Road remains an idyllic microcosm of traditional London, preserved in time since the market’s formation.

Words and photography by Jared Phanco