The death of Club Row animal market

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Wander down Club Row market any Sunday and you would hear it before you saw it: a cacophony of yowling dogs providing the bass notes to a choir of bird song. Hit the market itself and you would be confronted by hounds of every breed, size, colour and temperament. Up above, row upon row of cages, containing birds from all around the globe.

The Club Row market only finally closed in 1983, as laws came in to prevent the street sale of live animals. Colourful it may have been, but campaigners rightly worried about the welfare of many of the creatures on sale – especially those flown from afar to be sold from tiny cages on an East End street.

The death of Club Row was inevitable but brought to a close centuries of tradition dating back to the Huguenots. These Protestant settlers from France and the Low Countries first settled in Spitalfields in 1685, bringing their skills as silk weavers with them. The fiercely closed shop of the Guild Companies forced them to work outside the historic walls of the City, and so they settled in Spitalfield, building the fine weavers’ houses that still stand today, in Princelet Street, Folgate Street and the rest.

The poorer ones spread into the neighbouring streets, and what would become the rookery of the Old Nichol, one of England’s worst slums. Running into its heart was Club Row. But rich and poor alike, the newcomers had two great loves: flowers and songbirds. These may have seemed unlikely interests in the urban stew of Stuart, Georgian and then Victorian London, but the interest endured. One early Victorian writer, describing the area in the dying days of the East End silk trade, describes his passage past the weavers’ little workrooms, “machinery clattering, the chirp of a songbird from every window”. Songbirds and flowers must have provided a little colour and music in a grim landscape.

So Brick Lane and Club Row grew as markets, and Sunday was when everything came to life. On the one day of rest people would come out to see what exotic delights had been shipped in that week. The cut flowers wouldn’t last long of course, and many of the birds scarcely longer.

The area, meanwhile, was heading downhill fast. In ‘The Pauper, The Thief and the Convict’ in 1865, a typical piece of mid-Victorian social commentary reportage, journalist Thomas Archer heads “Amongst the Poor”. He writes: “Skirting the station of the Great Eastern Railway, in Shoreditch, and traversing Club Row – the Sunday morning resort of pigeon and bird fanciers – the earnest visitor has only to cross the road and turn up Nichols Row, to find himself in as foul a neighbourhood as can be discovered in the civilised world.”

30 years later, the Nichol was at last headed for demolition, with the Boundary Estate rising in its place, but the market was still going strong. One of the finest visual chroniclers of the mass of larks, thrushes, canaries, pigeons and parrots was Scots photographer John Galt, who had arrived in the East End in 1890, as a full-time missionary at the Tent Street Mission in Bethnal Green. Galt had come to London to work for a West End tailor and, being sent down to pick up cloth and finished pieces from the Spitalfieds sweatshops, had been horrified by what he saw. He first picked up his camera to document the appalling poverty of Whitechapel and Spitalfields but soon became fascinated by the endless little cages that stretched the length of Club Row. By now, dogs and cats had joined the caged birds.

Half a century later, Pathe News covered the street market in its very imitable style, as Mr Cholmondley-Warner describes be-capped Londoners handing over their shillings for their new pets. The newsreel footage would have run before the main feature in Britain’s thousands of cinemas and the message was clear – Club Row Market was as much theatre as anything you were likely to see on the stage.

Writer Kaye Webb and her husband, the cartoonist Ronald Searle, headed to Club Row in 1953 to research their book ‘Looking at London and People Worth Meeting’ published by the News Chronicle newspaper. The pair found the oddity of Club Row market, and Webb’s words (alongside Searle’s illustrations) paint the scene beautifully.

“A cacophony of whimpers, yaps, yelps and just plain barking will guide you to the spot where Bethnal Green Rd branches off to Sclater St. There you may find them – the unclaimed pets of a hundred homes: new-born litters of puppies tumbling over each other in children’s cots (the most popular form of window display); “mixed bags” of less lively youngsters huddling docilely together in laundry baskets; lively-looking sheepdogs, greyhounds and bulldogs straining at the ends of leashes and furry little faces peering incongruously from the jackets of hawkers, who often look as if they’d be happier in the boxing ring.”

There were dealers, certainly, but sometimes it was just an ordinary punter with one animal to sell, as Bernard Protheroe, who grew up in Bethnal Green in the 1940s, remembers: “People with their animals just stood there, their dog on a lead, chickens in a cage or cats in a box. Probably their stray at home had had youngsters and they wanted to earn some money by selling them.”

But as local lad David Dew discovered, working on the Club Row stalls as a boy didn’t necessarily make you an ornithological authority. David joined the Met around the turn of the 1960s and found himself back on his childhood beat – Club Row. There it was that one morning he saw two birds, “blue grey, yellow chests, black on their heads” sat on a fence. “I was well acquainted with such pretty foreign birds. There were hundreds of them for sale in cages on Club Row,” remembers David, who raced back to the station to see if a collector had reported them missing. There he found two of “the country boys” in the canteen having breakfast. “I regaled them with my amazing story. Must have escaped from somewhere. They won’t last the day in this weather.”

His fellow officers, more familiar with British wild birds, informed him: “They were blue tits, you pillock, and there are thousands of them all over the place.” A quick trip to Whitechapel Library and a copy of ‘British Birds’ confirmed the story. David never lived it down.

Further reading:
‘Very Doggy – Sunday at Club Row’:
John Galt’s photographs:
Webb and Searle at Club Row:

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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