Covent Garden was London’s largest and most vibrant market, a bustle of chaos and confusion as thousands of street sellers converged on a tiny piazza to sell their wares. For Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit it was a place of extremes and contradictions, where ‘romance, abundance, want, beauty, ugliness, fair country gardens, and foul street gutters … all confused together.’
The market had been established in 1678, when the Dukes of Bedford, owners of the surrounding land, were granted a 250-year lease for a market. Yet, for centuries afterwards Covent Garden’s primary draw was entertainment, and the market mostly went unnoticed. Two of London’s most popular theatres, the Drury Lane Theatre and the Royal Opera on Bow Street were in the vicinity, attracting crowds of theatre-goers. Though the Dukes of Bedford had intended that Covent Garden would be a neighbourhood for ‘the habitations of Gentlemen’, the theatre-goers and commercial market brought vice with them, and by the end of the 18th century the neighbourhood was full of coffeehouses, book shops, drinking dens, gambling houses and brothels.
In the 19th century the market rapidly expanded, overflowing from its initial position on the central piazza to the surrounding streets. The size of the market, which specialised in fresh produce – fruits, vegetables, flowers – was dazzling. Other trades lined the outside of the market. In the early 1820s the Bedford Estate extended their lease and received permission to build permanent structures. Flower Hall, built to house the flower sellers, was built in the 1850s, and followed the style of the Great Exhibition’s iconic Crystal Palace.
Like something out of a novel by Charles Dickens, many of the regulars at the market were colourful characters who captured the imagination of Victorian London. Costermongers were the heart of the market. Though the term refers strictly to those who sold fish, fruit and vegetables from carts on the street, the costermongers of Covent Garden sold goods ranging from silkworms to fried eels. They were assisted by barra boys, who pushed wheelbarrows full of goods.
Other porters in the market were Irish basket-women, who shocked Victorian London by being as strong, alcoholic and foul-mouthed as their male counterparts. They sat around the piazza ‘smoking short pipes’ and offering to carry loads – often on their back or head – for customers who could not afford a horse or cart.
The most enduring Covent Garden characters were the flower-girls, young girls who supplemented their parents’ income by selling flowers. They were famously ‘persevering’, following on the heels of passers-by and shouting in the particular jargon of the market: ‘Please, kind lady, buy my violets. Oh, do, please! Poor little girl! Do buy a bunch, please, kind lady!’ (Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 1851). These Covent Garden flowergirls inspired the character of Eliza Doolittle, heroine of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and later portrayed by Audrey Hepburn in the musical My Fair Lady.
Covent Garden remained in operation as a market into the 20th century, but was relocated in early 1974. The site remained empty until 1980, when it reopened as a market, now home to artisan goods and emerging local designers.
London’s other great market, the Smithfield meat market, was a flashpoint for controversy through the 19th century. The site had been used as London’s livestock market since the Middle Ages, when it was a broad, grassy area known as Smooth Field right on the edge of the city. In addition to the meat market, Smooth Field was used through the Middle Ages for public gatherings. In 1390, King Richard II held one of Europe’s largest tournaments on the sites, in which knights came to London from England, Scotland, Germany, Flanders, and France. The site was also used for public executions of heretics and dissidents: Sir William Wallace, leader of the First War of Scottish Independence (and the subject of the movie Braveheart) was executed on Smithfield in 1305, as was Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. During the English Reformation, King Henry VIII executed Catholics on Smithfield – while his Catholic daughter, Mary I, would do the same to Protestants a couple of decades later.
In the 17th century London grew rapidly and Smithfield was no longer on the edge of the city. By the early 18th century, the site had become primarily a meat market, described by Daniel Defoe as ‘without question, the greatest in the world.’ Between 1740 and 1750, the average yearly sales at Smithfield were around 74,000 cattle and 570,000 sheep – by the mid 19th century, this had become 220,000 cattle and 1, 500,000 head of sheep.
The amount of livestock forced into a small square in the middle of London each day – and the resulting poor hygiene, stench, and animal cruelty – became a major issue of concern in the Victorian Era. As one pamphlet claimed:
Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed, there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined; and this abomination is suffered to continue year after year, from generation to generation, in the very heart of the most Christian and most polished city in the world. (Maslen, Suggestions for the Improvement of our Towns and Houses, 1843).
One American visitor claimed to avoid the market because he loathed the ‘fiendish brutality of their drivers’, with calves ‘piled into a cart … their heads being suffered to hang out of the cart at each end, and to beat against the frame at each end, and to beat against the frame at every jolt of the vehicle.’ (quoted Flanders, The Victorian City, 128). Prongs were stuck into the tender part of bulls’ feet and their tails were twisted in order to get them into their allotted stands, while blows were frequently inflicted on the cattle.
The market posed a threat to public safety, as animals – driven wild by the cruelty – ran amok. Charles Dickens wrote in his journal of being in the market in the 1850s when the cry ‘Mad bull! Mad bull!’ was heard. The streets cleared until the owner found the animal in ‘a back parlour … into which he had violently intruded through a tripe-shop’ (quoted Flanders, The Victorian City, 129).
The early 19th century saw a movement to have the market shut down emerge. There were parliamentary inquiries into Smithfield in 1828, 1849, and 1850, but nothing could move the City of London to act as Smithfield made a lot of money for the city, around 10,000 pounds a year. The obvious solution to the problem was to move the market to the outskirts of the city – but since this meant moving the market out of the council area, the City of London stalled.
Finally, in 1852, Parliament passed a bill providing for its removal, and the meat market was closed in 1855. In 1868 the ground was converted into a dead-meat market. The new market was a showcase of Victorian modernity, iron-roofed and lit by gas, complete with restaurants and drinking establishments.
The new meat market remained in operation almost until the present day, London’s only wholesale market not to move out into the suburbs in the 20th century. In 2019, it was announced that the market would move to the outskirts of London, while the site would be taken over by the Museum of London.
Billingsgate Fish Market:
The other major market in London was Billingsgate Fish Market, held on the Thames riverside between London Bridge and the Tower of London. The market was first established in the seventeenth century, though fish had been sold informally on the site for centuries before.
At the time, Billingsgate was the world’s largest fish market. Despite this, it did not appear particularly impressive: the market was held in the open street until 1849, when it moved into a number of rather dilapidated sheds and stalls.
In the early 19th century, the market sold the local catch. In 1810, 400 boats fished the river between Deptford and London Bridge, providing Thames roach, plaice, smelts, flounder, salmon, eel, dace and dab. In the 1820s, increased pollution meant that the London fisheries were destroyed, and fish were transported up the Thames from downriver and the coast. By the 1850s, eel were brought from the Netherlands, while fish were caught in the North Sea and then transported to the market by train.
Work at Billingsgate started early, with workers arriving on site before 4 am. Many met at the local tavern, the Darkhouse, to discuss quality and prices over their favourite breakfast – gin laced with milk. At five the market opened with the ringing of the bell, and buyers headed towards their favorite stalls. It was a blur of action and excitement. Crowds gathered by each auctioneer as they set out baskets of fish. No examination was permitted and bidding began by Dutch auction, with the auctioneer setting a high opening price, which was dropped by increments until someone made an offer.
Due to increased crowding at the market, Billingsgate would be rebuilt and expanded in the 1870s. The new buildings were in elegant Italianate style, and the new market was twice the size of the old one.
The market would move down river in 1982, to the Isle of Dogs in Poplar. In 2019, plans to move the market to a consolidated site with Smithfield Market and New Spitalfields Market on the outskirts of London were announced.
The huge markets that drew people from around London were the exception, however. Most markets were simple neighbourhood affairs. In the 19th century, virtually every London neighbourhood had its own market, while many had more than one.
These markets sold produce, meats, and other provisions. Slaughterhouses providing the markets often existed in the middle of (poorer) residential neighbourhoods – something that most Victorians took for granted.
For London’s working-classes, the small markets were their main shopping location for most of the century. Wages were paid at the end of the working day on Saturday, and the markets started Saturday night. By the middle of the century, most markets had gas lighting, which vividly lit up the array of goods. The lights were matched by the noise, as each seller had their own cry enticing shoppers to their stalls.
The majority of shopping was done by women. They carried large baskets, some accompanied by their husbands. A moderately well-off artisan’s wife would start at the butcher stall to buy the Sunday roast – and didn’t hesitate to bargain with the seller. She then went on to the butterman, buying cheese, butter, and dairy, and then fresh fruit and vegetables.
The markets continued on Sunday but became less respectable. Middle class observers felt that decent people should be in Church on a Sunday and not out shopping. Most of the Sunday shoppers were very poor – women could not afford baskets, and instead carried purchases in their aprons. Men generally stood around and talked with their friends, or went to the barber – which often discreetly served ‘revivers’, or alcohol to cure a Saturday night hangover.
Another important form of market was the second-hand clothes market. The best known of these was Rag Fair (or Petticoat Lane) in the East End. Rag Fair was a place where migrants from around the world mingled. A large proportion of second-hand clothing sales people were Jewish, while other traders came from Ireland, North America, India, and Australia.
Petticoat Lane was renamed Middlesex Street in 1830. Despite the change, the market remained and has been in business ever since.