If you find yourself close to Liverpool Street station with a bit of time on your hands, or feel like a visit to one of London’s best markets, then a visit to Spitalfields Market may be a good idea. There has been a market on this site, in various guises, since the 13th century and this was once the site of London’s largest fruit and vegetable wholesale market.
Today’s market is one of the trendiest and most popular in London and is well worth a visit.
The early days of Spitalfields Market
It is thought that the first market in the Spitalfields area was established in the 1200s in a field next to the priory of St Mary’s Spittel. At the time Spitalfields, known as Spittle Fields, was a mainly rural area like much of the East End of London. The small local population was focused around the priory and its hospital.
However, after the Great Fire of London decimated much of the central and city areas of the capital in 1666, many Londoners found themselves living in the East End, in areas like Spitalfields. This population shift helped make the area less rural and more urban and its market flourished.
The market gets a formal mention in the 1680s when it became licensed to run on Thursdays and Saturdays. At that time, if you wanted to run a legal market, you needed permission from the King. So, Charles II granted a license for Spitalfields to set up a market. This version of the market was established by John Balch, a silk thrower, who was given permission to set up a market selling “flesh, fowl and roots”.
The market helped contribute to prosperity in the area and it also played a key role in feeding the general population of London during the next century or so. The market was soon open every day and started to specialise in selling fresh fruit and vegetables. Spitalfields also soon became home to French Huguenots who moved to London to escape persecution at home.
They established their silk weaving businesses in the area. Over the years, more immigrants moved into the East End and it became more socially deprived and less popular with non-residents.
Spitalfields Market in Victorian times
In the Victorian era, the market was to formally change from a general trading point to a wholesale market. The market was not as popular at this time as in the past, most likely because of the area’s problems, however it still had potential. A market porter, Robert Horner, purchased the lease to the market in the 1870s and constructed a formal building to house it. Before that point, the market had simply been a mix of buildings and stalls spread across open land in the area. This new build gave the market a new focus.
The New Spitalfields Market
The Horner Buildings were ultimately to house London’s primary fruit and vegetable wholesale market. This became one of the leading fresh produce markets in the country. But, the original buildings and the narrow streets around the market were a bit of a headache and there was no room for much needed expansion. Traffic congestion on market days was really bad and it was clear that the market had outgrown the Spitalfields area and needed to move. It managed to stay on the Spitalfields site until 1991.
At that point, the wholesale market moved to Leyton to a purpose built site spread across over 30 acres that is now known as the New Spitalfields Market. Although there were fears that this would result in the loss of the market in Spitalfields, the market ultimately bounced back and is now a popular place to visit for locals, other Londoners and tourists.
The modern Spitalfields Market
In the early 2000s, a new development extended the original market buildings to create a larger complex. The Horner Buildings themselves and some surrounding streets were also restored. The market now contains a range of permanent independent shops and restaurants, public spaces, arts and events venues, and, of course, various market stalls selling a wide range of goods. The market complex is open every day; however, the primary markets mainly run on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Each of these markets takes a different focus.
If you visit Spitalfields market on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays, you will get a general market selling just about everything for all the family. The Thursday market is a well-known and popular antique market. Friday deals with fashion and art, but on the first and third Fridays in the month also includes a record fair. Saturday markets follow a theme, such as vintage or designer markets. Spitalfields is also only a few minutes’ walk from Petticoat Lane and Brick Lane markets if you feel like a full-day trading experience!