East End Memories


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One of the great joys about Sunday mornings in London when I was a child was in going to the street markets that took place then. There were a number at that time with markets in Brick Lane, Wentworth Street, Middlesex Street, Club Row and, best of all, the Columbia Road Flower Market.

Of all of London’s markets, Petticoat Lane together with the Portobello Road Market, are the most famous. Most visitors to London are sure to visit Petticoat Lane during their time in the city. Although it is a must-see-site for many, it is surprisingly not officially designated as a tourist attraction – go figure! Petticoat Lane is a weekday market that is found on Wentworth Street and when I was a child, I found it to be a magical and wondrous street filled with the most succulent things to eat. On Sundays, the market expands over to Middlesex Street.

Petticoat Lane in the past

The interesting thing about Sunday markets is that they were, and still are required to close, by law, by 2 p.m. Certain markets in the East End were originally allowed to open on Sundays to accommodate Jewish settlers who did not work or shop on Saturdays. This proved useful to non-Jewish sellers as well, as it allowed them to sell anything not sold in the markets on the previous day.

'Look at Life' - The Market

The market roadway was once called Hogs Lane and had been a place where the wealthy kept pigs. By 1590, this road, which was now known as Peticote Lane became well known as a site for the selling and exchange of goods. A formal market has existed here, just outside of the old London city wall, since the beginning of the 17th Century when second-hand clothes and junk began to be offered to the public. Towards the end of the century, the Huguenots left France and came to Spitalfields and helped increase the manufacturing and sales of clothing in the area. In the 1850s, Peticote Lane was renamed to Middlesex Street and marked the border between the City of London and Whitechapel. From 1882, Jewish immigrants fleeing from Eastern Europe came to the area and entered the shmateh trade of the area. Following the devastation of the East End during the Second World War, the market declined to some extent, but has revived thanks to the Asian immigrants that now live in the area.

Until the 1930s, the market was not officially recognized by the City Fathers and was a source of irritation to them, who often called upon the police to disrupt it. However in 1936, its rights as a market, at long last, became protected by an Act of Parliament. And despite City Fathers, a world war, various out-fluxes of the populace, along with changing tastes and fashions, the market continues to flourish.

When I was a child, my parents would take me to Petticoat Lane about once a month. It was here that I first met Prince Monolulu who advised me to become a jockey and gave me my first contribution towards the purchase of a horse. During my early years I went to the market many times, both during the week and on Sundays. I have to confess that when I was sent to Sunday school, I would occasionally not go and would take off for fun and a ramble down the lane.

In those days, the costermongers, as the people that worked on the stalls were called, were colourful characters in themselves and it was great entertainment just to stand and watch them in action. It was normal for the costermongers to provide a performance and entertain the public for a while in hope of attracting a large group of potential punters around them. Once this was done, they would then launch into their spiel or sales pitch. I used to love to stand and watch some of them in action. It was amazing how they were able to manipulate the crowd into buying anything and everything.

These sellers were amazing and talented men and were able to sell anything – clothes, kitchen utensils, envelopes, food, bedding etc – you name it, they could sell it! I seem to remember that things like bath towels, sheets and pillow cases were very popular and there were many stalls selling them. Another particular item that was very popular was crockery. This would include anything and everything that could be drunk from or eaten off.

One of my favourite entertainers was a local man who I believed was called Jack. Jack was a cockney, with a deep powerful booming voice with lots of the old pitter patter (i.e. chat – an ability to talk; with a talent to a phrase). He always dressed in a unique and dapper style which included a dark brown trilby hat and a gold coloured silk waistcoat with a gold watch and chain dangling from its pockets over a white shirt and dark brown tie. When it was time for him to perform, he would step up onto a platform of empty wooden fruit crates piled up behind his stall. From here, he was able to survey the scene, like a king holding court.

Jack’s stall was typical of many down the lane, as it was stacked with crockery – cups, saucers, tea services, dinner services etc. Although most of his ware was undoubtedly ordinary stuff, he had the necessary gift of the gab to convince many that he was flogging quality stuff. This man had great charm and was able to convince the punters that either he was giving it away for next to nothing or that they were stealing it from him at rock bottom prices. I am sure that most of his clobber was seconds that costermongers knew how to get hold of cheaply and I expect that no matter how little he charged for his goods, he wasn’t losing by it.

Jack was always aided by one or two helpers or runners who were there to move amongst the crowd to collect the dibbles in return for the sales. These fellas moved very fast from customer to customer so as not to miss anyone.

When Jack decided that it was time to start his performance, he would step up and begin his routine to attract passers-by to stop and linger. He would do this by doing a warm up. His jocular manner would soon attract a crowd around his stall. Once he had a decent number of potential punters standing before them, he would begin his warm up in earnest by telling them some harmless, if not risqué stories. I believe that it was his style more than the actual stories themselves that soon got the crowd laughing and putting them in a good mood, which later guaranteed a willingness to open wallets and purses alike.

If Jack was lucky, there were be a group of middle-aged women in the audience. Such women were like gold to a vendor since they were ready, willing and able to respond to just-about-anything that he said. Their response was the catalyst he needed to fire up the rest of the on-lookers. Individually, each of these women was normal a quiet and well-mannered mother and matron, however when in a group of her peers, she was anything but! These women were out together for the morning and were on a beano! For a few hours, they were free of their husbands and kids and were looking for harmless amusement and for simple fun. Remember, this was an era where there were few places for women to behave as badly as men – this was a time before hen parties and male strippers. When it came to Jack’s warm-up stories, the more vulgar, the more obvious the innuendo, the more these ladies squealed, screamed and guffawed in mock surprise before collapsing into raucous laughter. Every punch line, every innuendo also brought nudges between the group members, which served to inform their mates that they had fully understood the joke.

After a suitable period of time, the hoots, hollers and squeals of the amused would have attracted a goodly number of people from around the area to the stall. Most were attracted by the laughter and came more to see what all the noise was about, than to buy the products. Jack, raised up on his throne with his court before him, was now ready to turn to the job in hand and start his actual pitching. His selling technique was done with a certain flare and always guaranteed a goodly number of oohs and ahhs from his fans.

Jack began his sales pitch by producing some object, such as a plate or a vase. He would hurl it high into the air and catch it with his other hand that he had quickly moved behind his back just in time to stop it clattering to the ground. He would perhaps repeat this action a number of times with minor variations such as spinning around prior to the catch. While he continued to entertain the crowd with his juggling, he would be extolling the virtues of the twirling object. Other vendors were perhaps more dexterous in their juggling, but were less appealing to me. I remember one vendor in particular who was able to hurl what seemed to be vast numbers of plates and cups into the air and successfully bring them back to safety without breakage. Dexterous he might have been, but his patter lacked that certain style and rhythm that was Jack’s trademark.

Jack’s shenanigans served to shift the audience’s interest momentarily away from him to the flying object and to develop further an atmosphere conducive to the opening of wallets and purses. Next he might slap the object between twirls while continuing to extol its virtues. His words and maneuvers cunningly established in the punter’s mind that here, before them, was something of excellent quality and, more importantly, caused them to wonder how it was that they had managed their life without before owning one, or perhaps two of them. He would pepper his spiel with suggestions on how this magnificent and vital object would perhaps make the ideal present for that most difficult person you know, that person that you never seem able to please – and here he would then, in an off-hand manner mention mother-in-laws! This could cause many of the men in the crowd to start to laugh, but their responses would soon be cut short by the sour looks given to them by their wives. Not to be defeated, Jack next told them that his mother-in-law now looked at him with new and kind eyes since he bought the old battleaxe one! This remark was certain to establish a sense of camaraderie amongst most married men in the crowd and Jack, which gave them the necessary courage to overcome their wives’ displeasure and allowed them to roar aloud with laughter. It was now their turn to nudge their mates in the ribs thereby reasserting their unison against the common foe.

Now with almost everyone laughing and having a good time, it was time for Jack to get down to business. Next he would subtly direct the crowd’s attention to the value of the object. He would begin, and take great pleasure in doing so, by informing his endearing audience how much this magnificent and useful present for someone near and dear would fetch up West – meaning the cost when bought at the large and fancy department stores of Oxford and Regent Streets or Kensington. Naturally, the helpers, now strategically positioned throughout the crowd, would lead the onlookers in gasps and displays of shock at such an outrageous price and everyone would be shaking their heads in disbelief. Jack would then tell his audience that he would insult them by asking this price. No sir! He would then become serious and would suggest lesser prices. Upon the mere mention of a lesser price, he would slap the object of interest and yelp, with great gusto, NO! I will not even ask you for this. No! No! No! Each additional rejection would naturally be punctuated with more slaps.

Jack, who had excellent timing, would next pause for a second or two to allow the audience to grasp the full nature of his generosity and also to allow them to prepare itself for the great shock that was about to come.

During Jack’s perfectly timed pause, a ripple of excitement would pass throughout the audience in anticipation of what they were about to hear. For they knew that now they were about to be treated to an exceptional price, which they hoped was going to be within their budgets. Naturally, should no ripple develop the helpers who were fully versed in the art of ripple development, would be sure to start one! Now with everyone riveted to his every word, Jack would yell what he considered to be a ridiculously low price out loud and then quickly fall back a little, which served to feign both shock and exhaustion and also in response to his mock belief that the crowd would now surge forward, stampede fashion, to claim one of these objects for themselves. But before anyone could actually rush forward and demand to be sold the precious commodity, he would raise his hand. This action served once more to bring to silence the now very interested public, who naturally were unable to resist what they took to be a bargain. Jack, in true showman-like fashion next closed his eyes, and as if in a trance, and following yet another suitable pause, would slowly open them and slap the priceless and now salivated over object once again. He would say that since he liked this morning’s crowd very much, he was going to do each and everyone present a favour! The crowd was now panting and ready once more to pounce. Again, a raised hand brought them to a hush. Now at last, Jack was ready to stop toying with the crowds emotions, which had been ebbing and flowing these last few minutes, and go for the jugular! Like the matador standing before a bruised and battered bull, he was ready to take his final plunge at them. Now, quietly, rather than in a flurry, above the tranquility that had settled over his audience, he almost whispered, in humble tone of course, that in order to clear his stall of the offending object, he was prepared to take a loss and was willing to offer it to the public for – and here he raised his voice to a crescendo – and told them his final offer!

This final price was always greeted with gasps of disbelief! However, the feeling of disbelief was not allowed to last, and so interfere with business, as the helpers sprang into life and began darting back and forth in an all-out effort to rid the stall of the suddenly offending object by placing it in the grasping hands of the customers. While the buying frenzy continued, Jack would continue his patter along with constant reminders that he was making nothing from these sales and that if he continued to be so generous to such a lovely crowd today, he would find himself in the poor house.

The prices that were asked by a seller were generally the cost of a note – either a pound or multiples of them or perhaps a ten shilling note – certainly nothing that would require the giving of change as this would impede business. The helpers were quick on their feet and continued to dart about the crowd with the agility of young gazelles so as to leave no punter disappointed. Bank notes were stuffed into the zipped money belt around their waists, which soon took on a bulged appearance.

Within minutes, the stall was cleared of the offending objects. Once the public had their own package, their tongues would be loosened and they would be telling each other how fortunate they were to obtain such a wonderful bargain. However, nothing is for nothing, especially when it is obtained in a street market! For now, the real selling was about to begin.

Although some of the public – the shrewd ones – would take off for sellers new, others would remain. These were the people who were mesmerized by the scene set by Jack and were eager for more free entertainment and even more eager to obtain more bargains. They would soon be joined by others who had heard of the giveaways Jack’s stall. Now that Jack had an audience begging to buy, he moved into his real sale pitch mode. Jack, with great dexterity along with a tremendous amount of charm and guile, would offer vases, dinner and tea services etc and offer them at less than rock bottom prices. Many punters were now programmed into thinking that everything offered was really at a bargain price and would eagerly button hole a helper in order to be sure they were not forgotten when the selling began.

Jack and his cohorts down the lane were true masters of entertainment and could keep the public in stitches with their jokes and comments. Sellers were cunning fellows and would invariably turn their charm onto one particular woman in the audience. They would generally choose a woman of middle aged years who would invariably be slightly overweight, perhaps a bit dowdy and possibly feeling slightly neglected by her husband and family despite her efforts to make a happy and comfortable home for them. They would find something – anything – to complement her on – perhaps her hair, her coat etc – and start to engage her in conversation. Often they might ask her for her opinion of an object and then complement her on her good taste. The woman, being unused to complements and perhaps starved for attention, would be flattered and might giggle and smile in appreciation. During the course of his spiel, the seller would return to her periodically being sure to use her name, which he had been sure to obtain during their initial interaction. This mild flirting would cause the ladies of the audience of similar age and disposition to eat out of the seller’s hands once more while passing notes and coins to the helpers in return for objects that would soon be placed in those out-of-reach kitchen cabinets following little use. Still, most ladies would not regret their purchases since for a few moments they were seen as women and were not just as someone’s wife or somebody else’s mother.

A performance lasted for as long as the seller felt that sales were going well. Most sellers in those days were not greedy fellows. They realized that others further down the lane also needed to get a taste of the pigeons and so would not allow them to overstay his welcome. Like every good entertainer of the day, the seller knew how to end his act and always had a good finale that always left the punters wanting more. Jack et al were always sure to wish those special women that had been singled out for particular attention well and requested that they and everyone else come back next week to see him when he would be sure to have more bargains just for them.

I always found Jack’s performance to be great stuff and the entertainment given easily rivaled what was heard on the radio and seen at the pictures. Since I was very taken with the costermonger life when I was a kid, I decided that this was going to be the life for me after I grew up! When I shared this declaration with my parents, I remember that my mother was none too pleased. Apparently not every woman of a certain age fell victim to Jack’s charms or saw the joys of barking on a stall down the lane!

As a child, whenever I went down the lane, the buying of cups and saucers and the like were of little interest to me. However, my father had a certain interest in stalls selling crockery. For he had a quest! To me, at that time, I felt that his life was dedicated to the search, and finding, of his version of the Holy Grail! Please do not think for a moment that I jest here! For I do not! Also, please do not think that I am being blasphemous either, as I do not intend to be. My father could not pass a shop, a stall, a department store without stopping to look and rummage through the wares, for he was always on the lookout for the perfect cup. But this is another story.

Not everyone that worked the lane was as honest and good-natured as Jack. Like any place where crowds are formed, there was a fair share of dishonest and slightly dishonest people. Naturally, the market was littered with pickpockets. Sensible woman carried their handbags on their shoulders. Men kept their wallets in inside pockets, out of the way of sticky fingers. Still, there were many, who without thinking, would expose their hard earned cash to the elements, and quick as a flash, whoosh, it would be gone!

The tradesmen or costermongers required a license to sell goods from a stall. This license is supposed to be displayed in full view of the public so that the punters know that they are buying with a legitimate person. Naturally, where there are laws and rules, there are going to those that will want to break them. And a market is full of those folks who are unwilling or un-wanting to follow the laws and want to sell goods without forking out money to buy a license. These fellas, although often hard working, belonged to the get-rich-quick group.

Some were halfway decent and had good natures and good hearts and did not break any serious laws. They were generally looked upon reasonably kindly by the beak – judge or magistrate once they found themselves arrested by a copper and brought to court. Since they were generally caught red-handed breaking the law, and since they were realistic about the pros and cons of their chosen lifestyle and knew that they had to take their medicine, they would plead guil’y yer ‘onour (i.e. guilty your Honour), pay their fine and be out to renew their business acquaintances within the hour. Naturally, beaks did not look kindly upon habitual offenders.

These kinds of petty crooks were basically harmless fellows and had a willingness to work hard. Most scratched out a living and rarely made the fortune that they dreamed of. Like most people of the time, they enjoyed betting on dog and horse races and would often blow any profit, no matter how large or small, on a cert or a sure thing running in the 3 o’clock at Kempton. This tip, which was guaranteed to romp home ten lengths ahead of the field and at 100-1, was either given to them by a mate who heard about it from another mate who knew about it from the jockey or was bought for a pittance, most likely in a pub, from a stranger, but who seemed to know what he was about! Like most tips, their horses either came in last or fell at the first jump and they were left with nothing.

These more pleasant get-rich-quick boys were generally called wide boys while the more dishonest one, who broke more serious laws, were generally known as spivs. The two groups of crooks shared two things in common: firstly, they generally were local boys and secondly, they dressed in a particular style that did not allow the average person to distinguish between them.

Spivs and wide boys dressed in what could only be described as a flash manner. The term wide boy referred to the width of the ties that they wore, hence the name. These ties were brightly coloured and were painted with exaggerated motifs such as hula girls and naked girls in seductive poses. Already, their ties set them apart from the remainder of society. Besides the wearing of outrageous colourful wide ties, they also wore large trilby hats with the brims turned down at the front and worn at a jaunty angle. Their suits were double-breasted and with much padding at the shoulders. The suit material was generally of cheap fabric and dyed with less-than-conservative colours. Unfortunately, exaggerated strips were also very popular. Their shoe wear was special and unique to them. They liked what were called crepe shoes. These were what looked like lace-up black or brown conventional shoes, but differed from the norm as they had very high soles made from crepe, which was a synthetic rubber. Wide boys could be legitimate vendors or else small time crooks, whereas a spiv was always thought of as someone dodgy and never to be trusted.

Wide boys could be divided into two groups: those that worked out of an attaché case or those that worked from a barrow. The ones that worked from an attaché case were more mobile and were often able to out run the police once spotted. They would rest their case either on the ground or on a portable stand, which they carried. These fellas were not official vendors and so had no official pitch in a market. Instead, they would set-up wherever they felt that there was a clientele available to them. Generally, this was in a market or else in a shopping street. When I was a kid, Oxford Street was filled with wide boys standing in the gutter with their cases open on the pavement. There would always be a small group of people around them, who would be rummaging around in the case or else looking at specimens handed to them. People did not seem to care that these men had no license to sell goods. All they cared about was that they had bargains for sale. Generally they sold things that would appeal to women, but not always.

Arthur English as a wide boy   Arthur English as Mr. Harman
in Are You Being Served?

In the days after the war, women’s stockings were expensive and not always easy to get. It was not uncommon for boxes of stockings to fall off the back of a lorry. These wares would soon find their way into the attaché case of a wide boy and be on offer at a good price. Seemingly, everyone was happy once a sale took place – everyone that is except the original owner. If a wide boy could carry it and it fitted into an attaché case, he would be willing to flog it. And invariably, he would find a market.

Wrist watches were also a very common piece of merchandise that was a good earner for a wide boy. Such commodities were a perfect thing to tote. They were popular with the punters and extremely easy to transport since they could be carried on the arms. All a wide boy had to do to display his wares was to raise his sleeves! People lapped up this sort of thing! And the wide boys didn’t have to worry so much about the bill.

The other type of wide boy worked from a barrow or push stall. These fellows were often called barrow (bar-ra) boys and had the reputation of being slightly less savory than those that touted attaché cases. A bar-ra boy generally sold fruit and vegetables. Although most were fair and gave value for money, some did not. They were famous for putting the best fruit at the front of the display so as to entice customers and then selling less than perfect examples from the back. The more honest ones did not try to pass off rotten fruit on an unsuspecting customer, but other did. One also needed to be concerned about their scales, since they were not subject to check from the people that concerned themselves with correct weights and measures. It could often be a case of buyer beware when dealing with a bar-ra boy. But careful inspection of the fella, as well as some inspection of what others had bought would soon let the clever customer know he was reputable or not.

For those dissatisfied punters who brought back less-than-ideal fruit along with a demand for the return of their money or else a wish to choose from the front display. These kind of bar-ra boys were generally not folks to mess with since they did not take criticism well. Sadly, such interaction would lead to words being said, which occasionally led to fists flying and would end with the punter getting a punch up the throat!

Bar-ra boys did not have a legal pitch, but rather moved along a street as needed. The tradesmen would generally push his stall along. Occasionally, he would have this done by a horse, but in general, the use of a horse was left to the legitimate barrow boys who had licenses.

Old barrows   Modern stall

The Bill, as the police have been affectionally called for years, was quick off the mark when it came to wide boys. Obviously their fines brought in a decent amount of revenue for the Borough. Once the cops spotted one, they would swoop and a collar was quickly made. In those days, the plod did not generally ride around in cars. They walked a beat, which meant that they walked a particular route several times during their shift. Oftentimes, in an attempt, to stamp this kind of thing out, as magistrates were often fond of saying, a number of our boys in blue would be drafted to a particular area and they would attempt to collar the teams of wide boys working the patch that day. The wide boys, for their part, were generally organized when they were not working alone. They had lookouts posted about the area whose job it was to spot the copper and give the nod when one or more was seen. The nod was generally a loud whistle – which was a loud piercing shrill made by blowing through the fingers (this was a skill greatly admired by children of my day, which most certainly included me) or else a shout. Some days, the wide boys got caught and were carried off to the cop shop. Other times, they took off double quick and disappeared, later to return once old bill had moved on.

It still amazes me today when I think about these wide boys and also of their modern counterparts seen in all big cities and towns today. Their profit margin must have been small. However, I expect that they did manage to eke out a living mainly by increasing the volume sold. It must have been extremely hard work requiring many hours of labour in all kinds of weather. I used to wonder, even then, why they did not make the effort and just go legit!

The other type of crook was more notorious and dangerous. This included the spiv. Although many were also petty criminals and perhaps harmless and well meaning, others were not. These were decidedly the fellows that one needed to stay away from. These were crooks and had either been or were destined to go to prison. They were the robbers, the pickpockets and the ones had up for GBH – grievous bodily harm.

England has always, despite popular myth and idea, been a violent country. Young men are subject to fashion and enjoy following a leader. Many fashions have been associated with some form of violence. Young men enjoy bashing others and don’t seem to mind getting bashed in return. How else can one explain the current and long-term violence at football matches?

Football Hooligans

Prior to this current and long-term site of violence, violence was closely allied with many fashion trends. For example, the Mods and Rockers of the 1960s – here mods were those who followed the current trends while rockers wore leather and rode motor bikes. When groups were encouraged to meet – such as on a Bank Holiday in a seaside resort – violence would be sure to erupt and people would get hurt. Prior to this came teddy boys who dressed in an Edwardian style and were often violent in mood. Many carried bicycle chains for defence. When I was young, London was plagued by a group of young hooligans known as cosh boys.

Teddy Boys   Mods - The Kinks   Rockers

Cosh boys were youths and young men that carried an implement called a cosh. This was generally a long – about six to eight inches in length – leather sac filled with something like sand and used to bring down on the head of anyone that got in the way of the owner. For a time, after the war, various part of England suffered an increase in assaults. According to the Metropolitan Police, a new kind of criminal appeared after the war, one that was not afraid to combine violence with crime. Other such criminals also carried cut-throat razors, which they were happy to wield against anyone who opposed them. The East End of London spawned many such cosh and razor boys.

Although not all spivs carried coshes or razors, many did. Spivs tended to be much more organized in breaking of the law. They often were the culprits of bank hold-ups and other robberies and most often associated themselves in gangs. When they came up before the beak, it was generally for crimes that brought them serious time. Unlike the wide boys, they did not get off with a fine and a slap on the wrist. The most notorious of such people were the infamous Kray Twins, who frequented the Blind Beggar public house, not a stone’s throw from my parent’s pie ‘n’ mash shop and who spent the remainder of their lives enjoying Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

Petticoat Lane is still open for business every Sunday – rain or shine – and has perhaps changed little over the years. The faces of the sellers may change and everything may seem to cost that much more today, but the basic premise is still in existence. People flock down the lane for bargains and to be entertained.






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Copyright© 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins