Petticoat Lane gets a makeover with its own festival — after 500 years

"Lady Lane" stallholders... women traders making their mark down "The Lane" on Sundays

"Lady Lane" stallholders... women traders making their mark down "The Lane" on Sundays - Credit: LBTH

The famous Petticoat Lane Market is set to become an cultural heritage zone with an annual festival on the cards to help turn its fortunes around after lockdown and years of decline. 

Petticoat Lane... revamped as a cultural heritage zone

Petticoat Lane... revamped as a cultural heritage zone - Credit: LBTH

A £90,000 grant to revamp the five-centuries-old street market will be given by Heritage England for the zone, which would be around Middlesex Street and Wentworth Street on the boundary between Whitechapel and the City. 

The cash comes on top of £600,000 put into the kitty by Tower Hamlets Council last year to improve shopfronts and even convert the public toilets in Leyden Street, which is part of a £95m government programme helping businesses up and down the country recover from the impact of Covid. 

A community group of stallholders, businesses, creative enterprises and the people of Whitechapel and Spitalfields has planned events for the next three years like an annual Festival of Petticoat Lane.

Petticoat Lane in its heyday in the 1960s

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

“This area has an incredible history," Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs said. "We’ll work to make sure this investment benefits our community.”  

The cultural programme led by the Toynbee Hall settlement involves an ad hoc consortium with Historic England, the Arts Council, National Lottery, Tower Hamlets Council and the City of London Corporation. 

Toynbee Hall’s Sam Crosby said: “We're helping people who live, work, and study in the area to celebrate their Petticoat Lane heritage and presence by commissioning their own cultural programme.” 

Down 'The Lane' on a packed Sunday morning in the 1950s 

Down 'The Lane' on a packed Sunday morning in the 1950s - Credit: Lesley Love

Most Read

The area has gone through two rough decades which began with the decline of traditional street markets and saw it appear on the Heritage at Risk register. A study by the London Assembly in 2008 called for steps to be taken to protect Petticoat Lane from developers and rocketing rents forcing out street traders. 

Stallholders at the time blamed the introduction of the weekday Congestion Charge zone, which covers that part of Whitechapel.

The Assembly's report suggested redrawing the Commercial Street boundary line further west to exclude the market - to run along the Tower Hamlets borough boundary with the City Corporation, which is Petticoat Lane itself - but that never happened.

Traders in Gouldston Street, off Petticoat Lane, in the pre-War years of the 1930s. 

Traders in Gouldston Street, off Petticoat Lane, in the pre-War years of the 1930s. - Credit: Carol Fisher

It was another decade before Tower Hamlets' feasibility study on what to do with the market area north of Whitechapel High Street came in 2018. The government’s Covid recovery programme in 2020 finally gave the council a chance for Petticoat Lane to recover.

The market has been on the shoppers’ trail for generations, but was not formally recognised until a 1936 Act of Parliament, even though it had been a trading thoroughfare for four centuries.

It was unregulated and police cars and fire engines were often used to disrupt illegal trading in the 1930s.  

Parliament finally gave in and protected the rights of stallholders to sell their wares every Sunday morning, and later through the week, with trading licenses from Stepney Borough Council.  

1919-2013... Tubby Isaacs' jellied eel stall in Petticoat Lane in its 1950s heyday... Ted Simpson, Solly and Patsy Gritzman.

1919-2013... Tubby Isaacs' jellied eel stall in Petticoat Lane in its 1950s heyday... Ted Simpson, Solly and Patsy Gritzman. - Credit: Brenner family

One of its famous stallholders was the flamboyant “jellied eel king” Tubby Isaacs serving up traditional eels, whelks, cockles and mussels. The stall set up by the 28th ‘Tubby’ Isaac Brenner in 1919 finally stopped trading in 2013 after four generations in the same family. 

Petticoat Lane was known in Tudor times as Hogs Lane at the east end of the City on the parish boundary with Whitechapel, an ancient droving trail for pigs outside the city wall.

“The Lane” became a regular street market by 1608 for clothes and bric-à-brac sold and exchanged. 

French Huguenots fleeing persecution arrived in the late 17th century, with master weavers settling in the surrounding streets of Spitalfields. Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of eastern Europe arrived a century later, many entering the garment industry and joining the market trade.

“Peticote Lane” changed to the more-formal Middlesex Street in 1830 to mark the boundary between Whitechapel and the City, both in the County of Middlesex at the time.   

But it is rarely called Middlesex Street Market; it is Petticoat Lane where shoppers have been mooching from Aldgate at one end to Bishopsgate at the other for half a millennium — and is now in need of a TLC makeover after the pandemic. 

Petticoat Lane... at the turn of the 20th century

Petticoat Lane... at the turn of the 20th century when it had already been a street market for 300 years. - Credit: Lesley Love

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter