Known locally as ‘The Lane’, East Street Market was the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin; it featured in the opening credits of ‘Only Fools and Horses’; and has housed an unofficial market since the 16th century. Stalls lined the entire Walworth Road during the Industrial Revolution.
The drovers’, farmers driving their cattle into London, would rest at the nearby Walworth Common before proceeding into the city. Local people would buy direct from the traders, subsequently birthing the market.
The original location of the traders, on Walworth Road, was sacrificed for modernisation. The electric tram providing people with increased connectivity to the city. It fragmented into the side streets, fought for by the costermongers. It remained this way for decades, until the development of local housing estates threatened the markets.
This left only East Street.
The image of Del Boy, parading his stolen fancies from his oversized suitcase before being chastised by a policeman, are fresh in mind. In the mid 20th century the market was without a legitimate licensing system. There were no organised pitches, instead, traders faced a daily scrummage to secure the best site.
Today, the market is open from Tuesday to Sunday. Vendors sell everything from fresh produce to scratched DVDs, oven cleaner to old shoes. Unlike many places in London, East Street remains affordable and offers local people bulk-buy bargains.
Like much of the ‘old‘ London, there have been hard times and declines. The market was once described as ‘drab’ and a ‘dead thing, infinitely remote from cockney tradition’. It’s a space that reflects the diversity of Southwark, with a plethora of people buying fruits, vegetables and homeware from the many stalls. At the weekend, the street bustles with chatter and shouts from the stall vendors. Traders mutter with customers, bartering on the price of an oversized cooking pot. There is little room for nicety as shoppers dive into stalls, wheeled shopping trolleys jolt as they run over the foot of a person standing too close. A young boy has been tasked with helping his father on a stall: he passes the time by watching a football match on his phone, perched on a nearby suitcase.
Local markets and high streets continue to dwindle across the country, but thankfully East Street carries on.