Course launched on how to trade on East End street markets

Schoolchildren from Bethnal Green's Virginia Primary learn about running a market stool in Petticoat Lane 

Schoolchildren from Bethnal Green's Virginia Primary learn about running a market stool in Petticoat Lane - Credit: THP

A free course on how to be a market trader and run your own stall is being organised to help reboot the East End’s traditional street markets. 

The one-week Trader Training course by Tower Hamlets Council teaches newcomers how to set up and run a market business, working with seasoned stallholders as their mentors.   

Petticoat Lady Lane... campaigning for more women stallholders.

Petticoat Lane... campaigning for more women stallholders. - Credit: LBTH

The town hall is using £140,000 of the mayor’s Covid Recovery Fund to entice the public back to street markets, which are recovering from the impact of the pandemic. 

Mayor John Biggs visited historic Whitechapel market to meet stallholders who will mentor the new generation of traders on their patch.    

Meeting Whitechapel market traders... Mayor John Biggs

Meeting Whitechapel market traders... Mayor John Biggs - Credit: LBTH

“The pandemic has hit businesses hard,” the mayor said. “It's been devastating to traders who were closed for more than a year.  

“Now we’re helping them back on their feet and want to create jobs for people who may never have thought of trying out a market stall.” 

Seasoned stallholders acting as mentors include Whitechapel Road fashion traders Necip Fehmi and Syed Rehman, Brick Lane food sellers Mark Gevaux and Shathil Islam, Roman Road fashion trader Altaf Hussain and Roman Road bread merchant Enzo Moshetta. 

Petticoat Lane... in its 1960s heyday

Petticoat Lane... in its 1960s heyday - Credit: Lesley Love

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The East End has four world-famous street markets at Petticoat Lane, Columbia Road, Brick Lane and Whitechapel Waste, as well as others in Bethnal Green, Bow, Shadwell and Poplar.

There are more street markets in Tower Hamlets than any of the 32 London boroughs. 

Bethnal Green’s colourful Columbia Road is world-renowned as a flower market, once the largest in London. It declined in the 1930s until the “grandfather of Columbia Road” George Gladwell came in post-War years. 

Columbia Road's George Gladwell... 70 years a trader

Columbia Road's George Gladwell... 70 years a trader - Credit: Jeremy Freedman

George, who died last year at 91, had traded since 1949 when growers sold plants from lorries and horse carts. He founded the market traders' organisation representing stallholders.  

But it had its dark history; customers could buy a corpse for medical research in the 1820s for eight guineas each (£8.40), all freshly dug by churchyard grave “traders” John Bishop and Thomas Williams. The business was a roaring trade selling 1,000 bodies in 12 years.

Bishop and Williams turned to murdering destitutes when they ran out of churchyard graves, using a deep well behind the Birdcage tavern to process their “merchandise”. They were hanged in 1831 and Columbia Road was able to recover from the gruesome pre-Victorian episode.

2009... film set off Columbia Road market for Hovis TV add

2009... film set off Columbia Road market for Hovis TV ad - Credit: CValino

Columbia Road itself goes back to medieval times, as author and former Amnesty International chair Linda Wilkinson discovered while researching the street where she was born.  

“It was a thoroughfare for cattle and sheep drovers from Essex,” she explains. “They stopped off here to fatten up their herds before heading to the slaughterhouses in the city.” 

Nowadays Linda has taken on a somewhat different task, campaigning to stop traffic barriers blocking off the famous flower market.  

But the grand-daddy of all the East End street markets is in Petticoat Lane, which goes back to Tudor times.  

It is being turned into a 2022 cultural Heritage Zone with an annual festival on the cards to help turn its fortunes.  

A market was first recorded in 1608 where merchants sold or exchanged clothing outside the City walls, which gave the name, although trading had gone on long before.

Throngs down Petticoat Lane early 1950s

Throngs down Petticoat Lane in the early 1950s - Credit: Lesley Love

But it wasn’t legally recognised until a 1936 Act of Parliament finally protected stallholder rights every Sunday morning, with trading licences from Stepney borough council.   

The name previously was Hog Lane, a swine drovers’ trail, which became “Peticote Lane” from its merchandise.  

The name Middlesex Street was formally adopted in 1830 to mark the boundary between Whitechapel and the City, both in the County of Middlesex at the time.    

Street stall 1940s Sclater Street

Street stall 1940s Sclater Street - Credit: Marion Kraft

But no-one ever calls it Middlesex Street Market. The world knows it as Petticoat Lane, where shoppers have been mooching from Aldgate at one end to Bishopsgate at the other for almost five centuries — and now in need of a some TLC after the pandemic along with the East End’s other street markets.