Peter Batten goes misty eyed and remembers his real East End
MY FATHER’S FAMILY came from the Isle of Dogs, home of Millwal football club and the area of London portrayed in the TV soap, “East Enders”, but how true is that to the true East End?
I grew up in a house which looked out on a very substantial street market. On the other side of the road there were market stalls and behind them a row of shops. Just at the end of the row was a pub called, The Queen Victoria. My grandmother would meet her friends there most evenings. Just before closing time she would toddle home clutching her nightcap, a small jug of brown ale. On our corner, two houses away, was a fish and chip shop, and I can almost recapture the smell as I write these words.
Just a few yards away the market became denser, with stalls on both sides of the road and many different shops. Activity began at about 6am, when some stalls had to be brought out and ended after 6pm.
The street market I’ve described is typical of those inner London suburbs which grew up post 1850. They were active from Monday to Saturday, then on Sunday huge special markets took over, like the amazing Petticoat Lane (pictured) or the one I often visited just off Walworth Road. One of their special attractions was the sale of animals, which took up one or two side streets.
My memories of our market are based on the years 1938-1958. Each of the smaller local markets had a character of its own, but they all offered a diversity of goods and characters. Our market was known as “The Blue Anchor” after the pub which was at the heart of the market. It was older than the Queen Vic, a late Victorian pub, and an even younger pub, the Colleen Bawn. As a nosey child this name always irritated me. What did it mean? Only in the 1970s did I discover it was the title of a successful Victorian play by the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault.
We had a small fleapit cinema, the Rialto, a small Woolworth’s, a bank, and a Co-op, built on the road which had been destroyed by bombs. The variety was amazing, with all kinds of goods and foodstuffs on sale. Immediately opposite our house was a greengrocer’s, so it was easy to nip across if we needed extra veg for a meal. Right behind was a German bakery called Griesbach. A little further away was a German pork butcher that sadly closed in 1940. Among the more unusual offerings was Sarsparella, a red cordial sold by the glass from a barrel.
As in Ben Jonson’s Elizabethan play, “Volpone” there was usually someone offering some miracle cure for all ailments. Sometimes there would be a crockery stall where you were encouraged to make an offer for plates or a tea service, An allegedly ex-boxer stood with a set of scales offering to tell your weight. Someone called prince Monoloulou might come by offering to sell you betting tips.
Which reminds me. There is no illegal betting in East Enders. In my childhood it was going on all around me. “Runners” as they were called were quietly taking bets in every pub and every factory. Our elderly neighbour, Mr Westcar, found a handy way to add to his pension by running a small “Book”, as it was called. Just in case the police came calling, my mother explained to me, all his betting slips were pinned to the underside of his large kitchen table.
Such memories – and we still haven’t mentioned jellied eels.
(Pic: Andrew Dunn)