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Petticoat Lane gets government cash boost after 500 years to get shoppers back for Christmas

PUBLISHED: 12:49 01 October 2020 | UPDATED: 14:24 01 October 2020

Tubby Isaacs' whelk stall the day it closed after 94 years in Petticoat Lane run by the same family. Picture: Isaacs family

Tubby Isaacs' whelk stall the day it closed after 94 years in Petticoat Lane run by the same family. Picture: Isaacs family

Isaacs

The ancient Petticoat Lane market has finally been turned into a “High Street Heritage” action zone to give it a much-needed seasonal boost after 500 years.

Petticoat Lane 21st century still selling clothes after 500 years. Picture: ArchantPetticoat Lane 21st century still selling clothes after 500 years. Picture: Archant

The town hall is throwing in £600,000 to restore shop fronts around Wentworth Street and even spruce up the Victorian public toilets in Leyden Street.

It’s part of a £95 million government spending programme to help businesses recover from the impact of Covid-19.

But Tower Hamlets Council was already on the case and planning to give Petticoat Lane more than a lick of paint two years ago, first revealed in the East London Advertiser in March 2018, to draw the crowds long before the pandemic that has since been keeping many shoppers away.

“Businesses across the East End are facing some of the toughest trading conditions in decades since the Covid outbreak,” mayor John Biggs said this week.

Petticoat Lane in the early 1900s. Picture: Lesley Love collectionPetticoat Lane in the early 1900s. Picture: Lesley Love collection

“We’ve supported businesses with rate relief and market traders with £500,000 emergency grants to give whatever assistance we can.”

The stalls and shops around Wentworth Street and Middlesex Street are what the world knows as “Petticoat Lane” going back to Tudor times.

But the conservation area today is rough and run-down, on the Heritage at Risk register because of poorly-maintained properties.

The town hall does what it can, but has to cope with a heritage of ageing buildings from previous times which had slipped into decades of neglect.

1920s Petticoat Lane bric-a-brac stall. Picture: Marion Kraft collection1920s Petticoat Lane bric-a-brac stall. Picture: Marion Kraft collection

Now the Covid recovery programme gives the council the chance for Petticoat Lane to recover from its slow decline.

Cabinet member Motin Uz-Zaman said: “Restoring the architecture will attract investment to the street market that has had an unprecedented challenge from the pandemic. We want to help property owners restore buildings in such an historic part of the East End.”

The town hall had already started a feasibility study in March 2018 on what to do with Middlesex Street and the whole market area north of Whitechapel High Street, including the busy Wentworth Street normally packed with bustling market stalls before the pandemic.

The Sunday market has been on the tourist trail for generations. But tradition alone isn’t enough to make sure it continues to thrive, the town hall accepted.

Thriving Petticoat Lane post-War street market in the early 1950s. Picture: Lesley Love collectionThriving Petticoat Lane post-War street market in the early 1950s. Picture: Lesley Love collection

Yet Petticoat Lane was not formally recognised as a street market until an Act of Parliament as late as in 1936, even though it had been a trading thoroughfare for four centuries before.

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

Parliament finally gave in and protected the rights of stallholders to sell their wares every Sunday morning, with new trading licenses issued by Stepney borough council.

One of its famous stallholders 100 years ago was the flamboyant “jellied eel king” Tubby Isaacs serving up traditional eels, whelks, cockles and mussels since 1919. The 28st ‘Tubby’ Isaac Brenner set up the stall a year after the First World War ended, which finally stopped trading in 2013 after four generations in the same family. Its heyday was in the 1950s, especially Sundays serving the market crowds and often visited by celebrities and film stars.

1950s heyday... Tubby Isaacs whelk stall traders Ted Simpson, Solly and Patsy Gritzman. Picture: Isaacs family1950s heyday... Tubby Isaacs whelk stall traders Ted Simpson, Solly and Patsy Gritzman. Picture: Isaacs family

Petticoat Lane was known in Tudor times as Hogs Lane, at the east end of the City of London on the parish boundary with St Mary Whitechapel, originally an ancient droving trail for pig herders outside the City wall. It became a regular street market by 1608 for second-hand 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 in the new town of Spitalfields.

Jewish refugees from the pogroms of eastern Europe arrived a century later, many entering the garment industry and joining the market trade.

“The Lane” became a centre for the rag trade for manufacturing and selling garments as its fame spread.

Bustling Petticoat Lane in the Swinging Sixties. Picture: Lesley Love collectionBustling Petticoat Lane in the Swinging Sixties. Picture: Lesley Love collection

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

But the old “petticoat” image didn’t vanish. Even today, no-one ever calls it “Middlesex Street Market”.

The world knows the East End’s famous Sunday trading thoroughfare, where shoppers would mooch from Aldgate at one end to Bishopsgate at the other, as the robust Petticoat Lane that has survived half a millennium—but now in need of some TLC makeover after the pandemic.


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