The History Of London Markets

London markets have enjoyed a rich and vibrant history through the ages. From feeding the first settlers in the area to becoming major centres of commerce as London grew; to their present role as not only shopping hubs but tourist attractions in their own right. Here is a brief history of the development of markets in London right up to the present day.

In the beginning...

The first known market in London can be traced back to Roman times, with olive oil and other wares being sold at a site close to the Forum, nearby to where Leadenhall Market presently stands. The next big development took place when Alfred the Great started to develop London as a major port, with waterside markets, like Billingsgate springing up to deal in the ready trade of fish, coal and grain that was being transported into the city. The establishment of City of London guilds further embedded the market scene, with each supplier being given a specific area to trade in, within the city walls (if you walk around The City you can see in the street names where these markets were originally found, like Bread Street and Poultry). The first real market was found in the Cheapside area in the 12th Century, where you could buy everything a Middle-Ages shopper could possibly want.

DID YOU KNOW? - "Ceap" was the Saxon word for market

The area, where Borough Market now stands, also became a hub for trade and commerce on the south side of the Thames at around the same time. But it was in the 16th. 17th and 18th century's were where established markets really took off, with the likes of Covent Garden and Spitalfields, becoming official markets.

The Victorian view

During the C19th reporting on market life and social commentary became increasingly popular. From descriptions of market life, including colourful descriptions of the people buying and selling goods there, to a wider commentary on London life; the words resonate down the years and give us a real flavour of the hustle and bustle (and occasional tussles!) of market life more than 150 years ago.

Covent Garden 18th Century
Covent Garden 18th Century

Market's have cleaned up their act recently

Probably the most famous chronicler at the time of London life, author Charles Dickens, brings to life Smithfield Market in his iconic novel, Oliver Twist (1838): here is an extract.

"It was market morning. The ground was covered nearly ankle deep with filth and mire; and a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney tops, hung heavily above ... Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys , thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a dense mass: the whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of beasts, the bleating of sheep, and the grunting and squealing of pigs; the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, amd quarrelling on all sides, the ringing of bells, and the roar of voices that issued from every public house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng, rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene which quite confused the senses."

Town v Country

In Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith (1849), the writing reveals that the modern-day disconnection with the countryside and where our produce comes from is in fact no new thing. Here he describes the positive effect of Covent Garden market on the urban masses.

"Here Nature empties forth her teeming lap, filled with the choicest produce of her happiest generation. The loveliness of the land is there and the fatness thereof. At one glance we pass in review the prime and bloom of vegetation, and communicate directly with the riches of the earth. It is the metropolitan congress of the vegetable kingdom, where every department of the "growing" and "blowing" world has its representatives - the useful and the ornamental, the needful and the superfluous, the esculent and the medicinal. Here the Londoner fraternizes with the rustic, and acknowledges that he is not all bricks and mortar - that Nature has still some parental claims upon him which he cannot entirely away with."

It's now pounds not pennies

In a Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881, the author tells us "A penny will buy a good many things in Leather Lane". Everything from mackerel to sherbert to eels and eggs can be purchased (slightly different to today's market which specialises in clothes and streetfood. And while markets may now be seen as a more genteel way of whiling away the hours, in Victorian times it was anything but. Some of the less salubrious elements hanging around the "long and narrow", Leather Lane, are so described: "roughs loaf about; stray soldiers spangle the squalid throng with their bright uniforms; some indignant mother is always doing battle by fist or tongue, with man or woman on behalf of her howling offspring."

Petticoat Lane Market  - present day (c) Tower Hamlets
Petticoat Lane Market - present day (c) Tower Hamlets

Beware impulse buys!

However one thing is common throughout the ages when it comes to shopping; most of us will pop into a market for something specific and end up buying a lot more than we ought too. So spare a thought for this unfortunate soul who got a lot more than he bargained for after taking a route through what was once Petticoat Lane market, according to Watts Phillips in his book, The Wild Tribes of London, 1855.

"A weak-minded man should never attempt the passage of Petticoat-lane excepting under good and sufficient guidance. The dangers of the North-west Passage are but trifles to those which encompass you here. A friend of ours - a man of easy nature and much excellence of heart - once lost himself in the intricacies of the Lane, when attempting a short cut from Spitalfields to Whitechapel. He emerged at last, however, the fortunate possessor of a four-post bedstead without a top, a pigeon-house without a bottom, several second-hand boots (odd ones), a filter without a tap, a basket of carpenter's tools) a stuffed parrot, and three flat-irons."

To find out more about markets and other capital curiosities, visit the Victorian London Dictionary where all these extracts are curated.

Modern markets in London...

London markets are now undergoing something of a renaissance, with new pop-up markets arriving on the scene on a monthly basis, as well as more established markets having money spent on them to restore them to their former glory. The need to keep these thriving, and often independent businesses going, has been at the forefront of many Londoner's thinking - as this article from The Guardian in 2012 points out. This idea that markets are not only somewhere to buy and sell, but are essential for the cultural well-being and tourist aspirations of the capital is not something new.Borough Market has now become a foodie tourist attraction its own right to rival the likes of La Boqueria in Barcelona and the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. In fact a report commissioned by the Greater London Authority in 2008 discovered there were around 180 retail markets operating across the London Boroughs, with almost a third (mainly farmer's markets) being established within the last 10 years - showing that markets in London not only have a rich past but an exciting future.

Discover more

Check out the timeline below to see the establishment of markets in London through the ages. And to discover more about the history of London's vibrant and thriving market scene, visit the English Heritage website which has a wealth of information including a special feature on markets.

And finally...

To read our other special market features, including our "Guide to London Markets" - click on the links below. [list type="check"]