Watney Market

Watney Market was once one of the East End’s biggest and most popular street markets. But over the past century the authorities have done their best to kill it off.

The 1902 Post Office Directory lists a thriving market, with more than 100 shops including such departed gems as drapers, bootmakers, butchers, a cheesemonger and milliner, with hundreds more street pitches. By 1979, the same directory was listing just 18 stores – what happened?

Watney Market, Poplar

Old Watney Market

So popular was the market that when licence applications came up for renewal in 1927, 227 traders applied for 200 pitches. Among them was J Sainsbury Ltd, already in Watney Street Market some 40 years. These days it may be one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets, but back then the operation was a little more modest – Sainsbury’s applied for a second stall to sell condensed milk, eggs and margarine in packets. Ironically, Sainsbury’s would play its part in the decline of the market nearly 70 years later.

The church didn’t approve. In 1928, the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Markets Committee noted a petition from Watney Street Congregational Church, Christ Church, Watney Street, the Wesleyan Church, Cable Street and the Congregational Church, Watney Street, encouraging the Borough to force the market to close on Sundays. The Committee ‘noted that the Lord’s Day Observance Act had not been repealed’, but protested that they were ‘not empowered to withdraw licences already issued’. To the relief of the traders and customers, they turned a blind eye to the lawbreakers.

Watney Market today

Watney Market today

By the mid-sixties Watney Market had been in slow decline for years. People were moving out of the East End to the new towns of Harlow and Stevenage. Something had to be done … and that’s where problems really started. The sixties was the era of bold development. Gap sites still empty from World War II bombing were filled, and the developers razed many more perfectly sound buildings. But the demolition was more effective than the redevelopment. In 1965, plans were approved for high-rise housing and a new marketplace. And in 1968 demolition workers moved in, flattening Watney and Blakesley Street. Traders waited eagerly for their new market.

In February 1970 an exasperated John Branagan, GLC member for Tower Hamlets, asked what was happening in Watney Street. Not a lot, was the reply from Horace Cutler, chair of the GLC Housing Committee. Work on Watney Street had ‘slowed down seriously since June 1969 and since September 1969, very little progress has been made’.

Watney Market in the 1960s

Watney Market in the 1960s

But it wasn’t the GLC’s fault. The cladding for the tower blocks involved a ‘highly advanced and technical’ fabrication process, imported from the US. The Luton factory had installed a special press but had met ‘teething troubles, since panels of this type and size in this material have not before been pressed in this country, whereas American know how is highly developed’. Work would restart ‘next week’.

The naivety and ineptitude would have been comical had it not been tragic. By summer 1970 a flourishing market was dying because of the delays in new housing (and new customers). The 12-month plan became 18 months, then two years. A new completion date was set for Spring 1971. Watney Street market continued to open six days a week but was drowned in a din of pneumatic drills and whining engines. The Wapping end of Watney Street remained much the same as always. But at the other end, a huge corrugated iron fence blocked the entrance into Commercial Road, closing the main access to the market. Customers drifted away, stallholders left. Of the original market, once more famous than Petticoat Lane, only 20 stalls remained.

Now the GLC admitted the market would not be complete until the end of 1974. At public meetings, local residents and traders furiously attacked the council’s ‘lame excuses’. Spectacularly missing the point, GLC housing officer Gordon Webb protested: ‘We cannot force traders to remain if they do not wish to.’

In a fit of bravado, a GLC planning officer said that when the new development was finished, it would be one of the most attractive shopping areas in London. ‘I think you will find that people will come flocking back to this district again,’ he said. But when would it be finished? In September 1977 graffiti appeared on a boarded-up shop. ‘This market has been murdered!’

Watney Market in the 21st century

Watney Market in the 21st century

In August 1991 an ambitious scheme was slated to stop Watney Market dying. Two tower blocks, riddled with asbestos, were to be pulled down and replaced by low-rise homes with gardens, and a canopy to cover the shopping precinct with a canopy over. In December 1991, a report identified Watney as a crucial shopping centre, with ‘shops, the area’s only supermarket, a library, a job centre and a pub and an ever increasing number of stalls’. But by August 1995, shopkeepers were threatening to shut up shop for good. Trade had fallen dramatically since Sainsbury’s move to its new store in Whitechapel.

Iceland stepped into the breach left by Sainsbury’s. And slowly improvements and rebuilding happened. Much of the damage of the sixties couldn’t be undone, but at least it was replaced. Watney Market survived the worst the developers could throw at it – the market they couldn’t kill.

With thanks to Jane Smith at Connecting Communities for her research.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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10 Responses to Watney Market

  1. Adele Goldman Lester says:

    My uncle, and his father, my grandfather, before him held a “pitch” for years in Watney Street Market. Alec Goldman then Sam Goldman. I live in the USA but have very early memories of going to visit uncle Sam at his stall (he sold tomatoes). I believe his father before him (Alec) sold various fruits. How can I get a copy of their license?
    Any help will be appreciated.

    Adele Goldman Lester, NY
    (formerly Parfett St, London E1)

  2. jack galinsky says:

    Dear Adele

    I am 62 years old and l remember your uncle Sam very well. He sold by far the best tomatoes l have ever tasted. My mother wouldn’t buy from anyone else. His stall was halfway down on the right hand side and l am more than sure l have a photo somewhere of his stall because my brother had a toy stall 2 stalls away. i will ask my neice who still lives in london to see if she knows where it is.

    Regards Jack Galinsky

  3. Sue says:

    My mum and dad had a stall on Watney market for years, they sold childrens underwear and clothes

    I remember a man called doody (thats what we called him, and he sold (I think) fruit and veg .. always had a snuff box with him

    I was only small … there was also another greengrocer on the end outside the chemist

  4. David says:

    Has the racial make up of the market changed? If so, what would the timeline be in relation to this brief historical blurb. I’m noticing the comments don’t include names like Ahmed, Mohammad, etc. I mean, Doody is non ethnic specific name but obviously nowadays it’s largely a Muslim market. When did this transition take place? Can anyone fill me in? I just moved across the street from here. Thanks for this btw. Very insightful!!!

  5. Christine says:

    I grew up near watney street, used to live in the flats that were down in Tarling street. Moved away in the 1960s. I remember the butchers on the corner on Martha street where my mum used to buy her meat. There was a pub on the other corner. Across the road from the butchers used to be a tobacconist. Think there was a clothes shop next door. Pie and mash shop was at the end of watney street under the arch on the opposite side to where the train station was, there was also a fish and chip shop there. Towards commercial road in Watney street there used to be a man selling live eels off a stall and fruit and veggies used to be sold along there. Loved growing up around there. Went back a few years ago after 33 years absence and didn’t realise that I was standing in Watney street. How things have changed.

  6. Sham says:

    I was born and bred on Tarling estate, my family (Bengali ethnicity) moved to Sheridan house in the mid 70’s and I still remember how the market looked back then.
    There was a sort of bridge that lead onto the market from just off Tarling street. We would run up and down the bridge as kids.
    There were only a pocket of Bengali families back then, majority white working class.
    I remember two men called Ginger and Harry who held two separate stalls, I remember as both sold toys as well as cooking pots and house hold goods. We’d also borrow books from the Watney library as children. There was such a close knit community back then, children could be outdoors fir hours until dark. It was an incredibly poor area, but great community spirit. Such great memories.
    It’s completely unrecognisable now, felt so open back then.

  7. andy says:

    Hello .This is a message for Jack Galinsky .
    I was at the Cheder at Philpot Street and wonder if it was you . If it is it would be great to meet up . Someone told me you became a Policeman .
    I remember Alfie the toystall best for my Mum would get her bits and bobs and then sometimes treat me there .I hope you wrote back Jack. I got some fimnt stories to tell .Andy Strowman

  8. sd says:

    Another travesty of council planning and redevelopment. I was there yesterday helping to move someone from rental accommodation. I hope I will never have to visit again, it’s such a hideous and alien area. I was wondering what Watney Market must have been like originally. Clearly not just WWII bombing is to blame. What a shame.

  9. GeorgeHolding says:

    Hi everyone,

    My grandfather owned a shoe shop under the railway bridge on watney street, ‘Normans Heel Bar’ it was called, during the 70’s
    can anyone remember it? trying to find photos
    if you have any photos of the shop please let me know
    i would really appreciate it 🙂
    my email is: movieman1994@outlook.com

  10. Simon wise says:

    My family the Wise’s and Sullivan’s lived in pell street that doesn’t exist anymore, it was behind shadwell station. My great nan nell Sullivan was good friends with the hollands who were publicans of the boozer hollands on the other side of commercial road. I know my dads cousin terry wise owned a pub does anyone know what it was called. I think it was the something and star or stars. The Second World War displaced a lot of them especially my part of the family they ended up on London fields due to my grandad losing his leg during the war and getting given a prefab.

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