Cor blimey, guv, strike a light

Me old China Peter Batten goes off searching for the East End he knew

Brick lane

My father’s family came from the Isle of Dogs, more politely known as Millwall. This is the area of London portrayed in the TV Soap, EastEnders. Several of my relatives were involved in amateur or professional boxing, a sport rarely mentioned in the BBC’s Albert Square.

That omission leads me to a question I am often asked, “How true to the East End is the BBC Soap. I should certainly be able to answer that question. 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. As in the soap my grandmother would meet her cronies 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. 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. One feature I recall immediately, which EastEnders does not recreate, is the lighting. In 1938 our road had been electrified, so the stalls had been linked to electric lighting.

One of my earliest memories (I was born in 1933) is of the warm attractive glow, in winter months, around the stalls early in the morning and again in the evening. Activity began at about 6am, when some stalls had to be brought out – lots of noise – and ended after 6pm.

There is just one problem with my description. When my mother and father married (they met in Greenwich Park) they lived in my grandmother’s flat in Southwark Park Road in Bermondsey, south of the river.

It suited my father because he worked at the Surrey Commercial Docks in Rotherhithe, just over a mile away. This is the road which I have been describing. It is certainly not in the East End.

The Street Market which I have begun to describe is typical of many throughout 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 near Liverpool Street Station or the one I often visited just off the 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. I think they make an interesting contrast with the market which has been created for EastEnders, but I do not intend that as a criticism of the soap. Each of the smaller local markets had a character of its own, but they all offered a diversity of goods and characters which EastEnders cannot hope to recreate. Our market was known as “The Blue Anchor” after the pub which was at the heart of the market area.

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 that it was the title of a very 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 supermarket, built on part of the road which had been destroyed by bombs. The variety of the stalls and shops was amazing, with all kinds of goods, groceries and foodstuffs on sale. Immediately opposite our house was a greengrocer’s stall, so it was very easy to nip across if we needed some extra veg for a meal.

Right behind him was a German bakery called Griesbach. A little further away was a German pork butcher offering some delicious specialities. Sadly, that 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 of something else. There is no illegal betting in EastEnders. In my childhood it was going on all around me. “Runners” as they were called were quietly taking bets and handling money 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.

OK EastEnders, so there’s no illegal betting these days. But what happened to our jellied eels??  

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