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Category: Markets of the East End of London

Photos of Roman Road, Bow and Bethnal Green

Spend enough time in Roman Road and you’ll see one of the Photo Friends, camera in hand and looking for another glimpse of Bow to immortalise in film … or nowadays on memory card. Don Archer, Ken Claisse, John Curtis, Jim Hardiman, Mireya Saavedra,

Emily Shepherd and Pam Tesner are the Friends. Veterans of the East End (the youngest member 50, the oldest in the mid-eighties) and most of them have lived and worked in Bethnal Green or Bow all their lives. And this month Oxford House in Bethnal Green offers the rest of us a chance to see the work they’ve been doing – a visual journal of a vanishing East End that they’ve been patiently compiling over the years.


Roman Road, Bow in the 1960s

Roman Road, Bow in the 1960s

Though it’s all come together rather well, the starting point of the collection was the sort of happy accident that often sparks off creative work. Photography tutor to the group, Sarah Ainslie, takes up the story. “When we began, one of the members had black and white photos they’d taken in the 1960s, so we used these as a basis for a project, focusing on the shops and square of Roman Road.” First the members photographed exteriors of all the shops down to Grove Road, a lively, gaudy mix of grocers, fast food emporia, estate agents and the rest … all the elements of a living high street. But shops are as much about the people who own and work in them as the products they sell. So the group interviewed the shop owners, and dug in to their family history. Visitors to the exhibition will see the exterior shots of the shops, placed together to form long collages of the street.

The run of images tell a story of a street sometimes in decline, but in a process of constant change, and with small business owners at its core, battling to keep one of the East End’s oldest and best loved ‘market streets’ in business.

The second focus of the exhibition follows in the footsteps of almost-forgotten East End painter Noel GibsonGibson, a self-taught Scottish artist, lived in the area during the 1960s and documented a slice of London that was changing so quickly that “sometimes I’d go back to capture a detail and find the street had disappeared!”. Even in some of the 1960s photographs, one sees the odd boarded-up shop. A neat run of Victorian terracing is suddenly interrupted by a block of 1970s concrete – the work of the Friends in documenting the Roman then and now perfectly reflects the constant and sometimes violent change in the architectural fabric of the Roman. Many of the buildings needed to go, many more were casually discarded by the developers.

A cache of Noel’s paintings were bought by Tower Hamlets Council a few decades bac, the plan being to hang them inmunicipal buildings. And this year, the Friends were invited by Tower Hamlets Local History and Archives to find the locations that Noel had painted in the 1960s and photograph them for their collection. You’ll see the new photos alongside copies of the paintings.

Noel Gibson painting of Hessel Street, Stepney

Noel Gibson painting of Hessel Street, Stepney

The street wasn’t always called Roman Road of course. Older members of the group could remember when it was still called Green Street. Before that it had been called Drift Street. But in the 1950s, the local council, enthusiastically grabbed hold of evidence that the old Roman Road from Colchester to London had passed nearby, and rebranded the thoroughfare. Now, just as Petticoat Lane became ‘the Lane’, Roman Road became simply ‘the Roman’ to all East Enders; it also became the place to go for clothes and shoes for those who didn’t fancy shelling out at West End prices.

The history, if questionable on some of the detail, is broadly sound. The Romans did come this way (or very nearby). The modern A12 trunk road, named in 1922, is laid along the route of the original Roman road from Camulodunum to Londinium: even if logic and tradition didn’t suggest the route, archeological digs (and roadworks) down the decades have uncovered evidence of the old Roman stonework of the road, sometimes in remarkably good order for a thoroughfare 2000 years old. The A12 takes a very un-Roman 90-degree turn as it hits the east side of Victoria Park, before heading south to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach.

For most of its history it would have continued south-west, across the Old Ford (where extensive evidence of Roman occupation was found in recent years) and along the route of ‘Green Street’ into the City. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of a late Roman settlement at Old Ford dating from the fourth and fifth centuries CE. And excavations in 2002–3 discovered a substantial ‘ribbon’ development along the line of the road, surrounded by fields. Near the river there was evidence for a cluster of wooden buildings dominated by a large open-ended barn. Large amounts of cattle bone were also discovered, suggesting butchery to supply the London market.

But it’s the Roman’s more recent history that’s charted here, and in many ways it has been a sad decline over the past half century. Street markets all over London struggle and the Roman is no exception. Market days are fewer, and stalls are sparser. Shops are occupied though, and owners seem determined to keep the Roman in business. After 2000 years it’s not ready to disappear quite yet.

* Roman Road, Today and Yesterday is at Oxford House, Derbyshire St, E2 6HG, 1 December until 2 January, with a private view on 6 December. Opening times are Monday to Friday, 9am to 10pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10.30am to 1.30pm. Thanks go Tower Hamlets and Gateway Housing’s Betty May Gray Charity for their funding of the project, and to Four Corners for funding and giving the group the space and support to work.

* There is an excellent gallery of Noel Gibson’s paintings online at the BBC website.

View Roman Road photos in a larger map

Billingsgate Fish Market

The history of the East End is inextricably tied up with its markets. Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane, Roman Road – sometimes it seems as much trading is done in the streets themselves as in the shops.
But ironically, one of the most venerable markets in Tower Hamlets, with a 900-year history, has only had its home in the borough for the last 18 years. When the Billingsgate Market bell rang to announce the commencement of trading on January 19, 1982, it marked just the latest stop in the market’s long and troubled history.
Falling foul
In the Middle Ages, London had two big fish markets. Queenhithe stood in Upper Thames Street, just west of the Tower of London, and Billingsgate on the river in Lower Thames Street.
Both were infamous for their foul language as well as the foul smell – hence the
raucous reputation of the fishwives. At first, Queenhithe was more important, but gradually Billingsgate, with its proximity to the water and ability to deal with the bigger fishing vessels, took over.
The first toll regulations for Billingsgate were drawn up in 1016 and, by the 13th century, corn, malt and salt were being landed, as well as fish.
By the reign of Elizabeth I, ‘victuals and fruit’ were on sale. And when an Act of Parliament was passed in 1698 to break the monopoly of the small group of fishmongers who ran the market, Billingsgate became
‘a free and open market for all sorts of fish’.

A mess…
Space had always been a problem in the cramped Lower Thames Street site, but even the opening of Hungerford Market in competition in 1749 couldn’t break Billingsgate’s dominance. The site was, in truth, a mess. Until 1850 it consisted of a huddle of scruffy sheds on the open space of
the dock.
An observer at the time described the market as ‘dotted with low booths and sheds, with a range of wooden houses with a piazza in front on the west, which served the salesmen and fishmongers as
shelters, and for the purpose of carrying on their trade’.
The porters would scurry to and fro wearing their ‘bobbing hats’, leather helmets which they used to convey the fish from wholesaler to retailer, and said to have been
modelled on the helmets worn by Henry V’s bowmen at Agincourt. A ‘bob’ or shilling was the price of the carriage.
In a bid to increase the
market’s capacity, JB Bunning rebuilt Billingsgate, but it was quickly deemed inadequate and, in 1874, Corporation of London architect Sir Horace Jones designed the mock French edifice seen in Lower Thames Street to this day.
Even then, the market failed to live up to demands and in 1883 it was written that the ‘deficiencies of Billingsgate and its surrounds are a great scandal to London’. Running a bustling market in the increasingly crowded financial centre of the City of London was becoming ever more difficult.
Derelict island
It took another 90 years for the Corporation of London to do something about it though, when the freemen decided to relocate to the increasingly derelict Isle of Dogs. As the docks closed down there was space to spare, and the island was far more accessible to
container ships and the huge trucks which converge on Billingsgate from around the UK and Europe.
A new beginning
The old site closed on January 16, 1982. The bobbing hats were history, being replaced with less picturesque forklift trucks. About the only thing that was taken to the island was the bell – which rang three days later to commence a new era of dealing.
At last, after 900 years, on a 13.5 acre site built around a renovated warehouse on the West India Docks, Billingsgate had the room it needed.