Sunday, 11 November 2012

From East Street to Easy Street : The History of a South London Market.

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Charlie's London!

Today I am going to walk you through the fantastic area that is East Street Market.

East Street Market, also known locally as ‘The Lane’ (or ‘East Lane’) is a busy street market in Walworth, South London. It's open every day - except Monday. Sunday is the busiest day as the market consists of over 250 stalls, including the weekly plant market. It's large and vibrant, and great for African and Caribbean fruit and vegetables and household goods. The market also sells clothing, jewellery, cosmetics, confectionary, CDs and DVDs.

East Street Market now
There has been street trading in the Walworth area since the 16th Century, when farmers rested their livestock on Walworth Common before continuing to the city. During the Industrial Revolution, stalls lined the whole of the Walworth Road. However, the Market itself has only been officially running since 1880. The Market runs down East Street from the junction with Walworth Road to Dawes Street. The main entrance to the market is from Walworth Road. A bus stop on Walworth road serves the market, with a large number of buses arriving from Elephant and Castle or Camberwell Green. In the earlier days, Charlie Chaplin was a regular visitor to East Street Market during his youth in South London

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited the market and is familiar with Chaplin films, that his 1917 classic Easy Street is very much based upon the market. In fact, David Robinson's introduction in the most recent edition of My Autobiography clearly highlights that to call it East Lane as Charlie did was a very South London thing to do! Only the locals referred to it in such a way, often to the frustration of an outsider who tried to find its location.

A large number of visitors to London find their way to Borough Market and consume the tasty fare until it’s time to be rolled home. But East Street Market is a different experience. Hidden away behind Elephant and Castle, this is the place for bargain hunters and anyone desperate to get away from the oh-so-trendy vibe of Borough and the like.

Easy Street

So how did the market come to be here in the first place? The first official mention of the area comes in the 10th Century, when Anglo-Saxon King Edmund Ironside granted the manor of Walcorde, which was later to become Walworth, to his court jester, who in turn signed it over to the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury. To this day certain parts of Walworth are still owned by the church.

In those days Walworth was a marshy area, dissected by tidal creeks. It was given over to commons and rough grazing and little regarded by record keepers, officials or taxmen. The few dwellings that were to be found there were mainly built on higher ground and relied on the tidal streams for waste disposal.

Walworth retained the character of a scattered village right up to the earlier part of the 18th Century, when the common still extended from the Camberwell border nearly all the way to where the New Kent Road now runs. But with the advent of the industrial revolution London needed to expand in all directions.  

A typical South London Street now.

The construction of new bridges over the Thames eased access to the centre of London from south of the river and around the 1770s squatters began to encroach on the Walworth common, living in poor improvised hovels and supplying labour to rapidly expanding industries and docks. There also appeared a new class of commuter: professionals who traveled from the suburban terraces around the Walworth Road and beyond to work in central London.

From these early days, market trading was an integral part of life for the area. Costermongers, so called after the large 'costard apples' many sold out of wheelbarrows, spread out across the whole district. Not just East Street, but Walworth Road and Newington Butts were all lined with market traders. Unlike Borough Market, which was established under a royal charter, the market in Walworth evolved naturally as demand from the new arrivals to the area was met with supply from the multitude of market gardens and small traders in the area.

Over the next 100 years, Walworth changed from a village-like small community to one of the most built up areas in London. In 1801 there had been 14,800 people in Walworth, by 1901 that figure had jumped to 122,200. The market evolved to meet the demands of the community.

The Market during the time when Charlie was a small boy!

From 1871, when the first tramlines were laid down the Walworth Road and the first signs of modern traffic began, the St Mary Newington Vestry began to try to restrict the market traders to side roads because they caused too much congestion. The Walworth area was now a shopping district to rival the West End, with many shops and department stores lining the Walworth Road, the Elephant and Castle, and what is now the New Kent Road. By 1902 the advent of the electric trams forced stallholders to the back streets for good and the market began to take shape in the form it is known today.

At first traders in East Street had no regular pitches. In the mornings, no trader could take his or her place in the market until a policeman blew a whistle, and then there would be an almighty rush to get the best spots. Those unable to get a place in time would simply have to pitch as best they could on the periphery and hope that no passing policeman or market inspector would tell them to shut up shop.

Even from its earliest days East Street attracted its fair share of characters. A sketch in the South London Chronicle, dated August 10th 1889, tells of Lord Poofum, an early black immigrant to the area. Lord Poofum wandered the streets of the market selling boxes of 'African Herb Snuff' allegedly endowed with miraculous properties. No matter what your ailment - laziness and sleepiness, rheumatism, neuralgia or even simply fecklessness - Lord Poofum's African Herb Snuff was the cure-all. 

In these days, the market was the lifeline of the local community. It was the only place to buy fresh produce, and for many the principal source of livelihood. As such, the market itself opened every day of the year - even Christmas day - and was always well attended. There were stalls selling day old chicks and laying hens, from when local residents lived in small houses, instead of flats, and kept chickens in their back gardens. The street echoed to the cries of numerous 'quacks', like Lord Poofum, whose concoctions were guaranteed to cure whatever ailments you might suffer from.

East Street, WalworthDuring the war many of the original buildings in the area were destroyed or badly damaged by German bombers. After 1945 the government started a massive regeneration project in the area, clearing the old slums and building many of the estates that still stand today. This regeneration had a serious impact on the local community, with thousands rehoused in to council run social housing.

The other significant change after the war was the influx of migrants to the Southwark area that began with troops drafted from across the Empire to fight the Germans and continues to this day. The impact has been a dramatic change of personnel in the market, where a large number of traders are now drawn from ethnic minorities.

In 1980, East Street Market celebrated its centenary with a massive street party. The term centenary was rather misleading - as the market had never been officially inaugurated and the date was simply plucked out of the air. 

Thank you everyone for reading! Hope to see you all soon x


  1. Thanks for the need to come see it now:) Just kidding great job with it, I wonder if most people realize or acknowledge that greatness you walk those streets..Anne

  2. Great post. I'm a huge Chaplin fan and despite being born just a few miles away I've never been to East Street. I'm heading there this weekend to check out Charlie's birthplace and feel like I know the area already. Cheers!

  3. Hello, my Granmother (now nearly 90) grew up on East Street. Her Mother and Father owned the butcher's shop near the bottom near the school. During the second world war a bomb hit the house opposite which was where they lived. Luckily, my Grandmother and her Mother had gone to stay in Bedford to escape the Blitz. Her Father and Uncle were both still in London but were in the butcher's shop when the blast hit across the road and were saved by cowering under the marble counter top!

  4. I also grew up "on the lane", miss it terribly, having moved to Norfolk. Loved the buzz, being in the crowd. Miss all the different traders, especially Jon's. Toy stall and Lol's fruit n veg stall circ the eighties.

  5. Yes I remember East Lane when they had the flea market I used to love all the jewellery. Buying roasted chestnuts. Plus Berties shoes on the Walworth Road. All the del boy types selling fake perfume giving it all the schpill. Happy Days ......

  6. Yes I remember East Lane when they had the flea market I used to love all the jewellery. Buying roasted chestnuts. Plus Berties shoes on the Walworth Road. All the del boy types selling fake perfume giving it all the schpill. Happy Days ......

  7. Lord Poofum was my great great grandad who was called Washington Davis. He was not only a herbalist but an aclaimed musichall artist in his own righ known as Washington Davis.

  8. Lord Poofum was my great great grandad who was called Washington Davis. He was not only a herbalist but an aclaimed musichall artist in his own righ known as Washington Davis.

  9. Very interesting comments to read. Thank you all

  10. I come from a South East family going back generations. My grandmother lived as a young child in the bottom of the Old Vic or so she said. No one We knew ever called it other than East Lane so when did some smart a*** start to call it East Street. Arments pie and Mash still the best in London!