portobello-road-market-1960s-k4075b

Favourite London Market Places 1

Portobello Road circa 1970
(from the Library Time Machine)

From the Peter Haining papers, this typed manuscript  by the great researcher and expert on British comics and periodicals W.O.G. ('Bill') Lofts (1923-1997). It is from the early 1970s and is slightly politically incorrect. Autre temps etc., The second part deals with Bill's quest for second hand books at these markets and here his taste is distinctly old fashioned. A vanished world.

My Favourite London Market Places.

I should think that most collectors, or at least those as youngsters in pre-Second World War days, would remember with some affection their local market place. In all probability this was where they bought or exchanged their comics and later Old Boys papers at a second-hand bookstall. This to supplement their regular weekly favourite ordered from the newsagent.

All Cities, towns and smaller localities in those days had its own market place, even if it comprised of just a few stalls, always the busiest time on a Saturday for the weekend shopping. Sad to say a great many have now disappeared due to development of the old sites, or found the huge supermarkets too much of a competition. Many that still remain have little interest to say the book collector consisting of the usual fruit and vegetable stalls, household goods, carpets, record and video shops, then the seemingly endless rows and racks containing cheap clothing such as dresses, jeans, leather jackets, then the cheap watch and jewelry stalls.

How vastly different it was in pre-days ! My own local market place was* Church Street market in St. Marylebone. London, that runs off the Edgware Road, about half a mile from Marble Arch. As I lived in a block of buildings off a turning from its centre, it took only a few minutes to get to. For a youngster with plenty of space time on his hands, it provided a very colorful scene in those days, with always plenty of interest. The market started around 1830, replacing an old Portman market, and there were quack doctors galore selling patent medicine or powder that cured anything from the toothache to bunions ! Certainly not allowed today by the Trade Descriptions Act. Racing tipsters including the famous Prince Monolulu** complete with ostrich feathers. He actually lived in St. Marylebone, being a tall figure of a man, with a hoarse cry of 'I've got a horse' - but unfortunately his tips were never better than picking winners with a pin ! Another man dressed in jockey clothes claimed to be an ex-rider of some classic winners. As he was over six foot and weighed at least twenty stone one can only pity the poor horses with his Billy Bunter weight on his back! Fortune tellers with crystal balls told ones future, some even had birds picking out ones horoscope. Men with weighing machines who guessed ones weight, and if they were wrong say within seven pounds you did not have to pay.

*First recorded 1818 when it ran from Regents Paru to St. James Church Paddington Green.

**Real name was Peter Machry after a Scottish Missionary was born in Abbysimmie left as a youth to go to sea- then via America to Great Britain.


Apple fritter stalls, cats meat stalls that was actually horse flesh, which some people are in the last War. The Indian toffee man with a tin case, who served something that looked like todays candy floss in a paper cone rolled from old newspaper. Butchers that sold pease pudding and faggots, and there was even a pie and eel shop that sold pie and mash for three-pence with a greenish thick mint flavoured liquor. There was also the Sarsasparilla drinks man who had large brightly coloured bottles attached to a kind of tank on a horse and cart. The drink sort of had a herbal taste, when the various colours of red, green, yellow, and brown were supposed to be good for ones health.

The tricksters were there in force, never having a regular pitch, but just with a large suitcase standing in the the gutter. The silk stocking man, used to display a sheer silk pair of stockings, then sell you a pair of factory rejects, odd sizes, or the seam in the wrong place! Another with his suitcase perched on a small folding stall packed with small envelopes stuffed with waste paper. After attracting a crowd he would pull an empty envelope out of his pocket and place in it a silver watch with a pound note on top, after sealing it, he would shuffle it in with all the rest, pull two out and offer them for half-a-crown each ! Of course he was very clever with not only sleight of hand, but knew what the envelope contained by the weight and feel. One very rarely won, except his confederate in the crowd, who would gleefully open the packet, then egg suckers on to buying an empty packet.

The crown and anchor men, as well as the three card tricksters. Maybe I had powers of observation then, as one noticed that their stooges in the crowd placed their bets at the very end after the poor public and they nearly always won. The dealer would then make a big show of paying them out, who would later give the money back to him to catch more suckers in the crowd. The gang also had lookouts at each end of the street to give a warning if the police were about. They were usually strong arm men, who soon dealt with anyone who may have attempted to protest about being swindled or had lost all their money.

The saucy book vendor usually had a large cardboard box full of plain wrapped books with the large red words of 'Censored' across them. After a lot of patter saying they had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain he told the gaping audience to keep them away from the children, as well as not opening the book till they got home. Probably serves them right for buying such literature or thinking it was, as when they unwrapped the white plain cover they found they had paid half-a-crown for a sixpenny harmless joke book sold at Woolworth's.

The china stall was another main attraction, as the salesman would have set out on a large tray a complete dinner or tea service, with anything up to fifty pieces. He would start the bidding at a very high price, and go right down to a few pounds. Often he would throw the tray in the air catching the cups and plates quite neatly, as well as flicking a cup with his finger to give a delightful ring to show that the tone denoted that it was real bone china.
He, and his assistants would then sell similar sets from cardboard containers, when the customer on reaching home would often or not find flaws in some of the pieces. Maybe a soup plate that would not lie flat, or a cup with a double lip. Plain fact is that the sets were factory rejects that are normally smashed, but bought for a song by these traders to resell at a large profit. For many years we used to have at a home a beautiful set of cups hanging on hooks on a dresser. My mother told me that they were not to be used, but were just for show. I know one day I did use a cup, and found that the handle seemed to be fixed in the wrong position, so that it was awkward to hold. They probably originally came off one of these stalls, and maybe given to our family as a present.

The balloon man stood usually holding aloft two of the biggest balloons one ever saw, almost like two small barrage balloons. I bought one once, and went almost purple in the face in trying to get it to a small sausage size. Even a bike pump only resulted in a small football size then it burst. Maybe I was lucky as some of the balloons sold were perished ! Of course the vendor had special extra samples blown up to attract customers. A request to buy the actual balloons he was holding would be greeted with a stream of abuse.

The curious thing about all these swindles, was that it was rare for the customer to complain afterwards, or try to get his money back. Maybe the cockney who always prided himself to be sharp and quick witted, recognised the fact that someone sharper than he had outwitted him and decided to leave it at that, and eat humble pie.

The street entertainers were usually at the market place in force, from the oneman band to the penny whistle player. There were also groups of men who copied the famous Wilson, Kepple, and Betty Act dressed as Arabs dancing on a mat strewn with sand, as well as being in clergymens garb doing funny dances. Other groups of men were in drag dressed in fancy clothes wearing heavy makeup, dancing to usually a man turning the handle of a piano player, but these were always moved on by the police. The men who were handcuffed, tied up with chains placed in a sack were plentiful in the late twenties, who after quickly releasing themselves were soon walking round with the hat for the audiences appreciation. Another man with a chain used to wind it round his neck and get the public to pull at each end whilst he took the strain. Once I know he went purple and then almost black in the face, when the crowd stopped the men tugging the chain as he almost 'had it'.

The coloured man who would stamp on broken milk-bottle glass for a few shillings collected amongst the audience was a speciality act. To get people to cough up he used to gingerly put one bare foot on top of the glass, and then vow to run from the top of the street on to the broken glass and jump on it. The money was collected, and he loped up the street and then disappeared from sight ! Maybe he had seen one large man in the crowd make sure that some jagged edges were showing. He did return a few weeks later, and then when someone asked him if he was the chap who scarpered a few weeks before, he gave a flash of his white teeth, & said it 'was his wicked brother who looked like him '.

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3 thoughts on “Favourite London Market Places 1

  1. R.M.Healey

    When I came to London to fend for myself for two weeks in 1968 aged 16, I recall that in Oxford Street there were shysters operating the Find the Lady card trick and the upturned metal cup trick at almost every street corner. There was a stooge who always won the money, and lookouts in case the police intervened.Within just a few years there conmen completely disappeared from the streets of London and never( it seemed ) returned. Perhaps there is more money to be made picking pockets nowadays or conning old ladies at the door.Has anybody else got an explanation ?

    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      Sixteen? Perhaps London just seemed bigger back then than it does now :) (see Solomon Pottesman entry above)

      Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Just did a search, and tourists are still being warned about these scams today. One warning specifically mentioned London's bridges as a location. Perhaps the scam artists try to keep ahead of the police by changing locations, or perhaps tourists are a little more savvy today and therefore business is "down."

    Reply

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