Watney Market

In the early years of the 20th century the shops and stalls of Watney Street [the southern end of which was formerly Charles Street], making up Watney Market, was one of the liveliest local markets in London: in 1902 there were over 100 shops and 100 stalls (so this 1902 claim that it was in decline is curious). Left are some images from that period. At  no.68 there was an early branch of Sainsbury's (their first shop, in Drury Lane, opened in 1869): in 1881 John James Sainsbury took over his brother-in-law Edward Staples' shop selling cheese and salt bacon to dockers and lightermen, many of them Irish (Mary Ann Staples, whose family had built up a chain of shops, married John James Sainsbury in 1869). They were in competition with Mike Drummond, a popular Irish shopkeeper at no.67, and (as later recalled by J.J.'s son John Benjamin) employed a jocular character called Husk to invite passers-by to try out their butter and other products. They bought a house behind the shop, at 21 Morris Street [now an open space above the London Overground lines - which run underground at this point!] to conceal their deliveries [right] - perhaps the first example of rear deliveries. When Mike Drummond retired in 1894, the Sainsburys bought his shop.

Left is one of the several shops of Ernest Albert and Emily Sanders at 53 Watney Street. By 1928 the number of stalls had more than doubled, and Christ Church Watney Street joined with other local churches in opposing the renewal of licences for shops and stalls, because they were trading on Sundays. This was an issue for churches elsewhere in the parish - see here. But despite the illegality, licences continued to be issued. A compromise was attempted with the Shops (Sunday Trading Restriction) Act 1936 - superseded by the 1950 Shops Act - but this proved broadly unenforceable in heavily Jewish areas.   [Right is Johnny Philipps' rabbit stall in 1949].

In 1939 the Ministry of Food required people to register for rationing (committing them to use a particular shop); the paperwork was complex, and William Guest, manager of Sainsbury's in Watney Street, was inundated with customers who were unable to cope with it. He consulted the district supervisor, who referred it to the head office at Blackfriars; next day, Miss Potter and a group of clerical staff arrived by taxi, took several thousand ration books away and returned them the next day immaculately completed and with a complete card index system. Watney Street suffered in the blitz; an unexploded bomb fell on the Maypole Dairy next door to Sainsbury's, who traded from a street stall for a time. (See more in the Sainsbury's archive.)

In 1956 the Watney Streeters - most of them dockers, descendants of an earlier Watney Street gang who defended their patch against rivals from Bethnal Green - were involved in brawls with the Kray twins and their associates. 'Their' pub was the Britannia, at 44 Morris Street (run by Watney's - the name is coincidental), a few yards behind Watney Street: here Ronnie Kray bayonet-stabbed Terry Martin, a member of the gang, while the rest escaped through the back door. In retaliation they beat up Billy Jones, who ran a West End club, which in turn led to one of their leaders, Charlie, being 'worked over' by Bobby Ramsey at The Artichoke in Stepney Way (more details here). The Britannia was acquired by Belhaven in 1991 and closed in 2005; it now houses a fast food outlet, but the sign remains [left].

By the 1960s Watney Market was in decline: people were moving away, and beginning to shop elsewhere. By the end of the decade only a handful of stalls was left. Here are scenes from the 1960s (the second showing the [Lord] Nelson pub at no.65).

Mandy Brock's family history site describes the daily routine of her grandfather Frederick Cornelius Lyons (1903-65) which was no doubt typical of that of other traders in the street. Freddie started helping his mother Sally on the family fruit and vegetable stalls from the age of 11. When he was in charge, he rose at 3am to go to the wholesale market in Spitalfields and order the day's produce, only paying on delivery if it was up to standard (if not, he'd expect a re-delivery). Then he wheeled the loaded stalls to their spot (outside Rosen's - third image from left above), where his brother George would oversee of the day's selling. After a wash, a meal and a nap Freddie returned to the stall, returning it at the day's end to the shed under the Watney Street railway arches [right] - right up to the day he suffered a fatal heart attack. (All the family baptisms and weddings were at Christ Church Watney Street, or St John Grove Street, or other local churches; his daughter Jean Baldry and her family emigrated to Canada in 1968.)

Here are some of a set of pictures from 1973-78 by Tony Bock. Born in London and brought up in Canada, he came back to London and worked as a photographer on the East London Advertiser from 1973-78 before returning to Canada where he was a photojournalist for 30 years on the Toronto Star. The first shows Alf 'Dutchie' Lierens shop in its last days (remembered by his grandson David); the second Eileen Armstrong (who it's said was always smartly dressed in tailored coat and headscarf); the third Pat Crosher serving in a bakery.

Right is Joe the grocer, and the demolition of his shop.

Sites were cleared for redevelopment - housing and a new market - but it was slow in coming. Sainsbury's - by then on the corner of Commercial Road - moved to Cambridge Heath Road (their Watney Street site is now occupied by Iceland). By 1979 there were only eighteen stalls left.

Twenty years on, the rebuilding is now more or less finished, and the area has been expensively landscaped, but much of its character has gone.

Tower Hamlets Council has plans to regenerate the market, increasing the number of stalls and making them more attractive, widening the range of goods on sale and catering facilities, both for local people and as a 'venue' for those who work nearby or who will be passing through now that the East London line has re-opened as part of London Overground in June 2010; they have also added a neighbourhood Idea Store.

At the southern end of Watney Street was The Old House at Home pub at no.87, on the corner of Cornwall Street; when it closed, it became a Polish deli, with flats above, and is now Asian-run but with some Polish products. Next door was Peter's Pie and Mash shop (see various sites which describe the parsley-flavoured 'liquor' - far right): it closed in 2011 when Peter retired.The only pub now in Watney Street is the modern Thomas Neale Free House at no.39.
See here for more information about Watney Market.

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