Favourite London Market Places 2

Farringdon Road Book Stalls

The second and last part of Bill Lofts article (possibly unpublished) about London markets. This mainly deals with his search for books, comics and 'boy's books.' Loft's prose style is not exactly Nabokov but his enthusiasm and tireless research carries it along…there is much online about the dealer turned publisher Gerald Swan. Bill gives an affectionate portrait of him..

But easily the main attraction to me was the second-hand bookstall where I used to exchange my comics, and later boys papers. The proprietor was a Gerald Swan, later to become quite a famous publisher in our field of cheap paperback novels, comics, and boys papers, as well as Annuals which he named 'Albums'. These 'Swan Albums' were priced at 3/6d each - printed on the cover, but were sold at a shilling, when he probably still made a big profit on them. Mr Swan was really an extraordinary dressed man to be in charge of a wooden shabby bookstall.

Tall, thin, very distinguished looking with grey hair, a smart pin-striped suit, black bowler hat, and complete with usually a long black overcoat that he seemed to wear winter and summer. He wore a gold prince-nex, carried a rolled black umbrella as well as a pigskin brief case. In direct contrast to the roughly dressed costermongers on either side of him, he looked completely out of place in a common street market. Indeed he could have easily passed for a solicitor, or successful business man- though the latter he undoubtedly was, and who later dabbled on The Stock Exchange. His secondhand boys papers were as a rule sold for roughly halfprice though there were variations when they were much cheaper, as I seem to recall that the 4d Libraries were only a penny. But his real source of profit was in the exchange that was simply one copy for two of yours - two for one. When one considers the hundreds of customers who frequented his bookstall - in the long run the profit and amount of stock was enormous. No wonder that just before the last War he was able to set up business as a publisher.

A Gerald Swan publication

Personally I have very happy memories of Gerald Swan, as he was a very genial friendly type of man, and indeed how he dressed a real gentleman. He had the characteristic of showing a customer a certain type of paper for their interest, and hoping that they might buy it - that is if it were to their taste. When only about ten years old, he showed me a copy of The Thriller, when the reading matter, plus the rather sinister drawings by Arthur Jones with gangsters in slouch hats was way beyond my tender years. Several years later when I was about 13, and beginning to outgrow comics - a copy of the new 'Mickey Mouse Weekly' was for my inspection. I declined it because the contents were too babyish for a thirteen year olds tastes !

I met Gerald Swan again some thirty years later at his home in Hendon - North London, when I recognised him straight away, though he obviously did not recognise me from the hundreds of boys who frequented his stall. I had also changed considerably from a small thin boy dressed in a red jersey to what I am now ! Mr Swan had recently sold his publishing business to Allied Newspapers of Manchester complete with all his files and records, so had to rely on memory in answer to so many of my questions. His old bookstall he had eventually given away to his main assistant, where it still operated until the sixties, but has now disappeared.
Gerald Swan died a few years ago, leaving a small fortune that all started with myself and many others exchanging our rather tattered comics at his market stall in Church Street.

It is also worth recording, that there were other vendors of comics in street markets. Men usually with large satchels that were full of very cheap looking and crude drawing type of comics - sold for as cheap as four or five a penny - though the printed price on them was a Penny each. They were certainly a thorn in the flesh to the mighty Amalgamated Press. But there is also no doubt that other cheap comics were sold and printed by obscure and back street printers whose titles have yet to be discovered and recorded in the research world of comic papers.

In pre-war days the market started at dawn and went on to about nine at night. In winter months stalls were mainly lit by naphtha lamps that spurted a long yellow evil smelling flame, whilst the end of the day, did not mean the end of activity, as hords of elderly men and women were scouring the gutters for fruit and vegetables and fruit thrown away as either specky or rotten as well as collecting disused wooden boxes to take home to be used either as firewood, or chopped up and sold from door to door for a few choppers.

One cannot close the chapter on Church Street market without mentioning the home-made sweet stall where one could see such famous old fashioned sweets as Cough Candy and toffee-apples made. The ice-cream vendors - usually Italian sold a sort of lemon white ice, as well as something called a Hokey Pokey' and chestnuts winter-wise Situated about half-way through the market was the Royal West London Theatre - where it was nothing better than a flea-pit. All the same the childrens film shows on Saturday mornings usually comprising of cowboy films attracted large audiences - the heroes in those days were Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, and John Wayne in his early career. Happy days indeed!

Bell Street market of old junk only operates on a Saturday, when they clear out the Phillips Auction Rooms at nearby Lisson Grove. It is only two turnings away from the more famous Church Street, and just off the block of flats where I live. When they unload various large vans full of old junk and furniture that was not sold at Auction, it is amusing to see people fighting to get hold of something of value first. Once I saw two men fighting over a small stool - then one of the legs fell off, resulting then in the argument as to who would have to pay for it ! It is also very sad at times to see piles of old family photographs and books cleared out of some house lying in the gutter and if not sold by the time the market closed, just swept up by the dustment into their lorry.

Shepherds Bush market is opposite the Metropolitan Line Tube stations of Shepherds Bush and Goldhawk Road. It had a curious beginning when troops were billeted under the railway Arches in the 1914 period. After the War a few stalls started, and it just grew from there. After rositing the football match at Queens Park Rangers on a Saturday afternoon, I always made a point of travelling its length that stretched bet the two stations as mentioned previously. In the fifties, it had at least four different second-hand bookstalls, when all sold Old Boys Papers the speciality being Sexton Blake Libraries. It also had a fun-fair and bingo hall. Unfortunately through the years all have disappeared, and today the large Indian community has resulted in a large number of stalls with Eastern foods and clothing for their benefit.

The old Caledonian Road* market at Islington, was quite famous before the last War. I use the expression 'old' because in 1949 a new one opened to a new site in Bermondsey in South East London- the other side of London Bridge. It is like comparing chalk to cheese, as the new one comprises of antique and second hand jewellery stalls that has no interest to the book searcher.
The old one was a massive size, held inside the old Caledonian cattle market that was a mile square, still complete with pens. It started around 1855 when pedlars and tinkers making their way with wares on to the Great North Road used it as the first stopping place to and from London. The large space was ideal for their purpose, and soon the market was packed with all sorts of goods and old junk, the days being Tuesdays and Fridays. The market claimed to sell anything from a pin to a sailing ship- which was no exaggeration. I can remember as a boy some men unloading from a large trailer a small sailing ship. I also recall not only piles of old books but simply mountains of them, many being voumes of old magazines, though of course in those days I had not the slightest interest in them. Old timer collectors in the Fifties, told me that the place had been a gold-mine for the Old Boys Collector. The late Charlie Wright informed me how as a boy, he picked up a copy of the rare Penny Blood entitled "May Turpin - Queen of the Road" - reputed to be the sister of the more famous Dick Turpin the Highwayman. It cost him only a few coppers, when later on Barry Ono- self styled King of the Penny Blood Collectors gave him £5 for it. This being in those days a working mans wage for a month !
The British Library copy had been missing since 1899, and when Ono died just about the start of the War, his collection went into their archives including this rare item, so they have got a copy again. The only one known to be in existence it could fetch as much as £750 or more today at Auction.

An artist friend of mine, much older than me, who was born in Islington, used to visit the market twice weekly. He once bought an original Tom Browne painting with the characters looking somehow like his creation Weary Willie and Tired Tim. Complete with frame it still adorns the wall of his study.
Whole suites of furniture could be bought for as low as ten shillings, and delivered to ones home in any part of London, a boon to the newly weds with not much money.

Not all that long ago, and now going the rounds with various T.V. networks is an old English film entitled "Friday the Thirtienth" which deals with a group of people involved in a bus smash - showing flashbacks of their lives. In one episode, Max Miller the famous Music Hall comedian was portrayed as a sort of spiv selling goods off one of the market stalls.
One shot in the film taken from a birds eye view shows the original market in all its glory, with its gates, clock tower in the centre and four public houses in each corner. Outside waiting for the gates to open, was a huge crowd of totters men with barrows and horse and carts. Then when the gates finally opened there was a mad rush to secure ones pitch to sell ones wares. At least preserved for posterity is this living scene of the old Caladonian market - part of our now gone for ever Social history.
The market closed in 1939, no doubt to the restrictions imposed of crowds gathered in open spaces in case of air-raids, the big mystery is why at the end of hostilities it moved right away to another part of London - not a fraction as big or attractive to the public at large.

Undoubtedly however, the most famous street market of them all, if not the World, is the Sunday morning market of 'Petticoat Lane' situated in the East End of London. Visitors, and there are hundreds of thousands each year, come from all over the World to see this famous locality. Those unfamiliar with the London scene, would be surprised to not find the name in any street Directory. This is simply because since 1830 the name was changed to 'Middlesex Street' - that runs of Bishopsgate opposite Liverpool Street station, and runs up to Aldgate.
This has quite a fascinating history, as in medieval times the place was originally called 'Hog Lane' - a muddy wide path that ran between fields where wild pigs used to roam - hence its name.

About 1600 when a large number of French weavers settled at nearby Spittlefields - they made and sold petticoats in this Lane, and the name stuck - being recorded in history since 1601. "Petty France" the home of the main Passport Office at St. James' Park was similarly named - at an earlier period meaning simply 'Little France'. Petticoat Lane was renamed 'Middlesex Street' in 1830 as it formed the boundery between the City of London and Middlesex.

Visitors to 'Petticoat Lane' today as I will call it, would be most disappointed, if they were looking for vintage material, as like most other places it only sells modern material with the usual wares that one can find in any other market. I don't honestly think that a bookshop is to be seen. Being a densly populated Jewish area far more clothes are to be found sold than any other material, when before the last War it comprised of many second-hand clothing stalls and shops - though today large factories of the manufacture of clothing material can be seen.

The visitor would find it far more rewarding and colourful to visit the old junk markets that is about a quarter of a mile away just off the main Bethnal Green Road. Starting opposite Club Row, where until it was stopped a few years ago by animal rights protestors the domestic and bird market operated and had been there for over 600 years when the area was all fields. Here shabby, shifty men openly sold dogs and kittens in the street, some just stuffed in their overcoat pockets.  Most if not all had been stolen from their rightful owners, when the vendors carried as a rule forged papers to show that the poor animal had a true pedigree. Many a customer has bought such a creature, and then after giving the poor animal its first bath, has found the colour coming off, and that the dog was obviously a mongrel. Birds it has been known were painted exotic colours to sort of prove that they were foreign, and wild birds were still sold openly despite the law that forbid such happenings.

From Club Row one will find a whole host of streets, maze of allyways disused warehouses, and factories in the area of Brick Lane, Slater Street, Cheshire Street, with Shoreditch Underground Station in the centre of its activity. Certainly before the last War, and during activities it had a most unsavory reputation. Full of pickpockets there was a well known saying that I heard even as a small boy 'that one could start at the market at one end, and before one reached the other someone would offer you your own watch for sale'. The last War made it a haven for black marketeers, forged clothing coupons, stolen identity cards, as well as being frequented by criminals, and deserters from the armed forces on the lookout for such items. There was regular raids by the police as well as the Military Red Caps inspecting all identity cards or Service Passes.

I don't recall the market in pre-war days, but in the early Fifties when I had just started in the hobby, I was informed that hardly anything had changed. One could certainly pick up vast quantities of Old Boys Papers in those days, but my main interest was the Sexton Blake Library where I was attempting to get the complete set. I simply took no notice of the piles of Magnets and Gems, that was usually desposited on disused brick walls from bombed areas.

I once saw what must have been a complete run of the A.P. Champion and Triumph being unloaded from a shabby small Van, and Boys Own Paper volumes galore as well as Chums. Once I bought some copies of the C.I.D. and Target Libraries, the only ones I have ever seen. Later, when my interest began to grow with other boys papers, I picked up a long run of Red Magnets that included all the Double Xmas and other numbers. Once I also secured a complete run of bound Monster Libraries though in this case the covers had been removed. This did seem a general practice at one time, as I have often seen bound volumes of The Gem similar. Why they did this I have never been able to find out exactly, as although the British Library did this at one stage, at least they bound the covers in at the back. This obviously lessens the value of same to almost half.

One side street off Brick Lane, was full of shifty eyed men shouting "What you got to sell, I'll buy" when they were willing to purchase anything you had to sell without any questions asked where one had obtained it ! Old rings, jewellery, cigarette cases, and watches were bought dirt cheap, and then sold at a large profit. Indeed it was highly amusing to watch some vendors keep altering the hands of watches to make them the correct time to show to unsuspecting customers! Some were also caught by offering a bank note of a high denomination, when the dealer would tell them to hold on a minute whilst he got change from round the corner. Of course he never came back, when the sucker not only lost a few quid but was lumbered with a watch that would not go as well !

Through the passing of years, Old Boys Books have just gone from the scene, though Annuals are to be found in large numbers. Often when I have a free Sunday morning, I just go down there to pass the time, when the colourful scene in many places is just the same as in Charles Dickens day - certainly many of the old grimy disused buildings and down and outs have not altered.

Of course there are numerous other street markets in London. Portobello Road- that is mainly antiques, Hoxton market, Chapel Market at Islington. Well Street, Hackney, a well known one at Poplar, The Cut, Lower Marsh at the back of Waterloo Station had such a terrible reputation that the police had to walk in pairs almost up to the last War. A curious place called Clare Market* - near the London School of Economics - though there is nothing there at all today, and may have been a book market. Leather Lane that is a turning away from Hatton Garden that caters purely for the office workers in Holborn or the City. Farringdon Street book market that has now only about six stalls belonging to the same vendor. Exmouth market opposite Mount Pleasant Post Office.
Most are pale imitations of what they used to be in pre-war days, but I have no doubt that many others could relate about their own favourite market place, as I have done, on those situated in dear old London Town.

*Was built the Second Earl of Clare - 1700 to have his own market of Fish, Vegetables, Fruit and Flesh - soon spread to nearby allyways and streets, so that by 1800 it had become the most notorious in London - a haunt for pickpockets and highwaymen who flogged off stolen proceeds. Indeed the famous Jack Sheppard who escaped from Newgale Prison obtained a Butchers apron and while smock from there before he was finally captured at Finchley - and hanged. The building of Kingsway and Aldwych - plus the building of The London School of Economics in 1900 - saw the market completely disappear.

One thought on “Favourite London Market Places 2

  1. Anonymous

    Fascinating posts! Lofts wonders why illustrated covers are removed when runs of comics were bound in hardcover volumes. This is still done in binderies today. Any journals or periodicals with glossy covers, when bound, have their covers removed because the glue doesn't adhere well to the covers – the sections will tend to split. If asked, bookbinders will stitch and paste all the covers in at the rear of a volume, but generally they are discarded.


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