First Wilton’s, now Bawdrick’s Rag Fair could make come-back to Whitechapel after 150 years

Rosemary Lane rag fair, 1730s [Rowlandson's watercolour]

Rosemary Lane rag fair, 1730s [Rowlandson's watercolour] - Credit: TH Archive

Ambitious plans are on the drawing board to revive a traditional East End street market near the Tower of London that vanished more than 150 years ago.

Rosemary Lane rag fair, 1730s [Rowlandson's watercolour]

Rosemary Lane rag fair, 1730s [Rowlandson's watercolour] - Credit: TH Archive

Architect John Bell and his neighbours in Whitechapel’s Wellclose Square have the go-ahead for a Saturday market from next month behind Wilton’s historic music-hall.

This is where the old Rag Fair traded for three centuries along Royal Mint Street—known then as Rosemary Lane—winding its way from Tower Hill to Cable Street and Wellclose Square.

It sold cheap clothes where poor families could be decked out for a few shillings and has its origins, believe it or not, with a real-life character nearly four centuries ago called Bawdrick.

Rosemary Lane, or Hog Lane as it was originally, was renamed Royal Mint Street in 1850 after the Royal Mint which had moved to Tower Hill in 1810. But ‘Royal Mint Street’ market just didn’t have the same ring as Rosemary Lane. The name-change was at the same time that Petticoat Lane became Middlesex Street, although that market continued flourishing.

Architect David Bell... in today's Wellclose Square, bringing back street market like Rosemary Lane

Architect David Bell... in today's Wellclose Square, bringing back street market like Rosemary Lane after 150 years - Credit: Archant

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“We want to restart a market in Wellclose Square which in its day rivalled Petticoat Lane,” an enthusiastic John Bell tells you. “But this will be a 21st century market to attract tourists who come to Wilton’s, to encourage them a little further east than the Tower of London on the edge of the City and into the heart of the East End.”

A Wellclose Square steering committee is now looking for traders and community groups to join, after agreement with East End Homes to set up stalls in a car-park and a community café in the pedestrian area behind Hatton House tower block off Cable Street.

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The first four Saturday market days are planned for August 20 and 27 and September 3 and 10.


Rosemary Lane rag fair, 1730s [Rowlandson's watercolour]

Rosemary Lane rag fair, 1730s [Rowlandson's watercolour] - Credit: TH Archive

But some dream of a future that could connect with the East End’s historic past... Rosemary Lane was the centre of the second-hand clothing trade, which ended by the late 19th century.

The ‘Rag Fair’ tag may have lent its name to the Rag Trade clothing industry that dominated London’s East End in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries.

First records show a grant in 1631 to William Bawdrick—yes, it really was Bawdrick!—and Roger Hunt for certain tenements in Rosemary-lane, Middlesex, on His Majesty’s behalf.

But there was also an infamous connection with the Puritan revolution and the English Civil War.

Wellclose Square Bird and Flower Show, 1874

Wellclose Square Bird and Flower Show, 1874 - Credit: St George's East parish archive

Richard Brandon, the public executioner who beheaded Charles I, died in a Rosemary Lane hovel in 1649, buried at St Mary Whitechapel. He was paid £30 in half-crowns within an hour of striking the blow.

The Rag Fair was well established by the 18th century, trading every day along Rosemary Lane except Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Many of its traders were immigrant Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

Rowlandson’s watercolour of the period shows shop signs declaring “old hats & wigs bought, sold or exchanged”. Widow Levy sold old breeches, Moses Estardo offered “most money given for bad silver,” while Peter Smoutch promised “mony rais’d on good security”.

The Rag Fair was mentioned in 1854 in George Godwin’s London Shadows: “A man and his wife might be clothed head to foot from 10/- [shillings] (50p) to 15/- (75p). The mother may go to Rag-fair with her family and for a very few shillings deck them out from top to toe.”

The chronicler Henry Mayhew wrote in 1861: “Rosemary-lane has some cheap lodging-houses, to which the poor Irish flock; they are frequent street sellers on busy days.

“The chief business is in the vending of articles which have often been thrown aside as refuse, but from which numbers in London wring an existence.

“One side is covered with old boots and shoes, men’s, women’s and children’s clothes, new lace for edgings and cheap prints and muslins, hats and bonnets. Some wares are spread on the ground on wrappers or matting or carpet, occasionally straw.

“Cotton prints are heaped on the ground with boots and shoes, piles of old clothes or hats and umbrellas. Amidst all this motley display, the buyers and sellers smoke, shout, bargain, wrangle.”

Typical prices haggled over in old money were: flannel petticoat 4d, white cotton stockings 1d, cotton gown 10d, single-soled slippers with spring heels 2d, double-dyed bonnet and cap 2d, cotton gloves 1d, lady’s silk paletot (overcoat) lined with crimson silk 10d—total 2s/6d, or half-a-crown (12½p).

But Mayhew also observed: “This district is infested with young thieves and vagrants from the lodging-houses, running about, often bare footed, bare-necked and shirtless, but ‘larking’ one with another and what may be best understood as ‘full of fun’.”

Today’s neighbourhood activists in Wellclose Square hope to bring back some of that street market ‘fun’ to this corner of Whitechapel—but not the thievery that went with it that Mayhew recorded in 1861.

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