The Dials Vegetable Market

The final instalment of life in the Seven Dials by Tony Hill

Because Dad had to be able to drive his lorry to the far corners of Sussex to put injured horses and cows out of their misery, he had a virtually unlimited supplementary petrol ration. This allowed him to be the only Brighton greengrocer who was able to deliver to the big houses around Dyke Road Avenue and the back of Hove, and boosted his trade considerably. You chose your own price in the Dials Vegetable Market. If, for example, he had peas that could be sold at seven pence a pound, he would split the batch into two piles on opposite sides of the shop, one pile labelled Peas 6d lb, the other marked Best Peas 8d lb. Three out of four ladies chose the dearer ones! This made more profit for Dad, saved money for the really poor, of whom there were quite a few, and made the other customers feel they were living well, so everybody was happy. Dad often drove up to Covent Garden to buy stock, leaving at 4am, and most other days he would be in the Brighton Vegetable by six. The shop opened at seven and did quite a good trade with people on their way to work.

Dad hated barrow boys, who paid no rent or rates, and probably no taxes. The barrow boys would go to the market after all the shopkeepers had gone to open their shops, and take the leftover stock at a knockdown reduction, then sell it at prices the shops couldn’t possibly match. If a barrow was set up near the Dials, Dad was straight on the phone to the police, as he knew that most of the barrow traders were unlicensed, and could be moved on or even prosecuted.

By about 1947 I used to join him on Saturday mornings, and full-time from the end of the Autumn term until Christmas Eve, helping him load stock at the market, bringing sacks of potatoes and carrots into the shop, serving customers, and delivering orders on the trade’s bike. Most days after opening up he would be off on his other business. He employed a pair of sales assistants in the shop, as did Nina in the Florists.

On Christmas morning he would wake me with a cup of tea laced with whisky, and I used to go with him to the shop, where we picked up presents for some of his Brighton friends and favourite customers, and then made a pilgrimage around Brighton, usually drinking the health of each person visited. By the time we got home for lunch, Dad would be what he used to call ‘cousined’ (breathalysers had not been invented then) and after roast turkey and a bottle of Entre Deux Mers he would be ready for an afternoon nap of about eight hours. That, however, was not the end of Christmas Day! For a few days after Christmas we lead a nocturnal existence. We would have a party starting at about 10pm and lasting until 5am, go to sleep all day and get up to go to the second house of the Pantomime at the Hippodrome.

Other parties followed on successive nights, with plenty of booze and singing with Dad on banjo or guitar – he had been a full-time musician between the wars) and me on piano (later to be semi-pro), so it was usually nearly New Year before we saw daylight!


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