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Obituary: Sad farewell to George Gladwell, stalwart of Columbia Road flower market since 1949 who dies at 91

PUBLISHED: 10:00 03 May 2020

Columbia Road's famous flower market loses its 'grandfather' trader George Gladwell at 91 to Covid-19. Picture: Jeremy Freedman (inset) and Google

Columbia Road's famous flower market loses its 'grandfather' trader George Gladwell at 91 to Covid-19. Picture: Jeremy Freedman (inset) and Google

Jeremy Freedman & Google

The “grandfather of Columbia Road flower market” George Gladwell has died from coronavirus at the age of 91.

George Gladwell... selling his plants and seeds down Columbia Road. Picture: Jeremy FreedmanGeorge Gladwell... selling his plants and seeds down Columbia Road. Picture: Jeremy Freedman

Tributes have come from the people of Bethnal Green who knew him at the Sunday street market where he had traded since 1949.

He was founder of Columbia Road’s market traders organisation, which represented the stallholders with Tower Hamlets Council, and continued working as recently as three months ago before he fell ill.

“George was a lovely ‘old school’ gentleman,” writer Sara Dixon told the East London Advertiser. “He sold bulbs and seeds for many years and always had time to talk to you. A wise ‘young soul’ and a stalwart of Columbia Road.”

George traded almost until the market had to shut because of the approaching pandemic, which ironically took his life.

George in his heyday in the 1960s selling plants from the back of his van. Picture: Gladwell familyGeorge in his heyday in the 1960s selling plants from the back of his van. Picture: Gladwell family

But he had turned the unknown backwater in the post-war years, when growers sold plants from lorries and horse carts, into east London’s famous flower market.

The father of four from Billericay had his own horticulture nursery for plants which he sold in Romford and Epping markets before joining the Sunday trade at Columbia Road in 1949. His first licensed pitch was opposite the Royal Oak pub in 1958.

Word soon got round with the crowds in Petticoat Lane just 20 minutes away about the “secret little flower market”. It was George who promoted it as “Columbia Road flower market” in the 1960s.

“We were professional growers relying on the seasons at Columbia Road,” George recalled recently in a Spitalfields Life blog. “But some traders stopped growing their own and sold imported plants.”

George Gladwell 1928-2020. Picture: Jeremy FreedmanGeorge Gladwell 1928-2020. Picture: Jeremy Freedman

Not George, a stalwart for home-grown horticulture who even did a mail order trade.

“I also picked up fruit trees at auctions for next to nothing and sold them down Columbia Road for 2,000 per cent profit,” he would tell you. “Those were happy times!”

But there was trouble with noisy traders in the 1990s unloading at 4am disturbing the neighbourhood. The council threatened to shut down the market when George, in fighting mood, set up a market traders association which negotiated a deal for trading hours and parking. It saved the market.

His early life was growing up in the Essex countryside on farms, helping with milking at 5am before school. He studied architecture, but preferred the outdoor life of the markets.

George was given end-of-life care by Macmillan nurses until he died on April 19. His funeral is on May 18 at 2.30pm, with donations to Farrer funeral directors at 33 High Street, Billericay, CM12 9BA, or to Macmillan Nurses for the George Gladwell Tribute Fund.


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