Travel: Looking and seeing at Deptford Market

“What you see isn’t always what you get,” says walking tour guide Sandra Shevey.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 14th May 2013, 7:00 am

There’s heaps going on beneath the surface in London’s ancient markets; but if you don’t look, you won’t see!

Deptford market is a shabby old dame of a market, until you realise there’s a fishmongers who sells snails the size of baseballs and a collectibles stall where a £100 vintage bike was sold to another dealer who got £600 for it.

Even at Billingsgate I haven’t seen ‘snails’ this weight and/or size, and the only explanation is, inasmuch as Deptford (Lewisham) has become multi-cultural, there is a demand from Nigerians for this variety of snail.

And vintage bikes at £100 – probably only in Boston or one of the other East Midlands markets – will I have seen vintage bikes for 100 quid.

Established in 1883 as a daily market selling perishables and non-perishables, its principal trading day on Saturday, Deptford market catered for the increased working-class which had settled in Deptford to cater for the Foreign Cattle market that opened in 1871 following the Contagious Disease Act 1869. The cattle market closed in 1914 and never re-opened again after the war.

It is worth noting originally that stalls and barrows were excluded from the High Street which was the exclusive domain of the shops.

Deptford was a thriving market until the demise of the old cattle market inasmuch as the market, 28 acres, employed 15,000 people in 63 sheds. Employees included `shochetim` who were the only people trained to check the meats fitness for consumption.

A wander around market precincts suggests a Fifties time warp. Most of the pubs still host billiards and darts (unusual to find) and the cafes are working class (plenty of pie and mash shops).

There’s one old dear which was used by Tony Richardson in that wonderful tea room scene with Richard Burton and Claire Blooms from `Look Back in Anger` and every time I pass by I pause and sigh.

So what do the traders make of the Deptford Regeneration Project?

`A lot of old twaddle`, says one. `A total waste of money`, adds another. `What we need is a car park` `What regeneration`, asks a third. `Oh, that letter... I tore it up and tossed it in the bin`.

Fact is there`s only one trader left on Giffin Square, whilst the builders knock down everything on the side of and around him.

He has a fabrics stall; he’s been there for 16 years and can`t see what difference a dandified garden square is going to make to the market. `What we need is a parking lot`, he says, querying, `You going to write this up?... Good on you’.

Terry is one of 92 stalls in a market which used to boast hundreds. And on a rainy day there are probably half that number. Why? `Alot of the traders are Asians`, says the market inspector. `When the weather is bleak, they make for Thailand for a few months’.

Still, the Deptford fishmongers are the best I’ve seen; as I say including the great buys and choice at Billingsgate. At Deptford you can haggle. You`re in Cockney land. These guys understand what it means to `pinch pennies’. A whole carp was selling for £7 and I was told I could have a 12lb bag of mussels for a tenner. Merry Christmas to you too.

Who can beat that? So let’s celebrate what we`ve got; let`s defeat regeneration plans; let`s get behind the traders and help them to get what they need. If the council is using the traders to make a bit, let`s see they give something back to the traders. Let`s demand a revised planning application for regeneration of Deptford market?.

From Deptford market, I make for the old Greenwich Hospital market as I wanted to see if the traders have been relocated on the Cutty Sark in consequence of a trustee proposal to redevelop the market as a hotel.

Joy! Jubliliation! Success! The trustee proposal has been defeated by town planners who argue that Greenwich has enough hotels and wine bars.

Well said too. I know that I couldn`t find one local cafe and had my tea in a Yuppie place where the scone was so crusty it was barely edible. And it was pricey too. I can remember the days when the English owned the cafes and where they couldn`t feed you enough. I used to exit shouting,`Enough. Enough. I’m stuffed’.

Of course the trustees have been doing the dirt and fudging the covenant since they abolished the traditional fruit and veg market in the Seventies.

The market now runs four days a week Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday) dealing primarily in antiques and collectibles and with a ‘s surviving and hasn`t been supplanted by chain shops or top of the range designer boutiques which is a current development at the old Covent Garden market.

But Greenwich markets are dying like markets all over London. The Middle Market off Stockwell Street was closed in 2009 to make way for an extension to the university (a school of architecture) and the Clock Tower flea market, having eclipsed the Hospital arts and crafts by just a few years, has been diminished on account of redevelopment of hotel, cinema, offices and flats.

So, the next time you have a wander, look and look hard. See what is going on beneath the surface. You won’t see it if you don`t look.

Travel facts

Looking with Sandra Shevey. Sandra leads regular walking tours around London’s ancient markets. –

She has also produced a documentary about four ancient London markets – – and has increased her remit to include a countryside markets walk

Copyright: Sandra Shevey 2010 (All Rights Reserved)