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?
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 The Committee ‘noted that the Lord’s Day Observance Act had not been repealed’, but protested that they were ‘not empowered to withdraw licences already issued’.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.
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’.
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!’
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.