Touring London’s Flea Markets

A lot has changed on the London antiques market scene in the last couple of decades; rampant property development has swept away some traditional sites, and altered others beyond recognition. But as our London correspondent Judith Dunn writes, it is by no means all bad news.

There has been a parallel care to preserve the city’s rich architectural heritage, and sympathetic restoration by enlightened entrepreneurs has made many markets infinitely more pleasant for traders and customers alike. While the trend for urban living has drastically reduced demand for large furniture, the love affair with all things vintage has generated a real bandwagon. London markets now are leaner and fitter, and there is a youthful energy alongside the traditional camaraderie.

A whistle-stop tour of the major attractions will illustrate these points. First, two warnings. Antiques shopping in London is unlikely to yield any quantity of stock to sell on. The trade is firmly retail oriented, with prices to match. Bargains will be on street stalls at weekly markets at the crack of dawn and advertised timings can be misleading – a 7am start might be required by the by-laws, but it bears little relation to when dealing actually begins. And planning is of the essence. Large venues such as Portobello Road and Camden Passage need a route map; in this instance their websites are invaluable.

Bennie Gray, entrepreneur extraordinaire

Some markets operate in fixed premises with shop opening hours. The most prestigious of these are Alfies and Grays (not a typo – they don’t use apostrophes). Bennie Gray runs SPACE, the Society for the Promotion of Artistic and Creative Enterprise, whose various premises provide working space for 2000 people. His recipe for urban regeneration is simple: bring together small businesses, give them space to thrive and to be mutually supportive. It certainly worked in his native Marylebone. Church Street and its surroundings were virtually derelict in the early 1970s. Bennie Gray spruced up a large Art Deco building, called it Alfies after his jazz musician father (‘a brilliant jazz musician, but sadly not a great antique dealer,’ says Bennie), and opened it as an antiques market in 1976.

Thirty years on, Alfies has over seventy dealers on four floors, offering a vast range of antiques and collectables, vintage clothing and arts and crafts. A number of the early dealers have set up in their own premises nearby, there’s a thriving 220 pitch Saturday street market and the whole area is buzzing. On weekdays there is a multi-ethnic food market and there are occasional food festivals. Alfies has its own rooftop restaurant and a bureau de change.

Vintage clothing is particularly strong at Alfies, and you can visit the wonderful retro hair and beauty salons to acquire the look to go with the clothes. Another strength is mid-20th century interior design. The entire basement area is a showroom for Decoratum, the largest interiors showroom in Europe to stock original vintage mid-20th century furniture, lighting and accessories.

If Alfies is bohemian chic, Bennie Gray’s other London outlet, opened in 1977, is designer chic. Grays Antiques Market is a step across Oxford Street from the Bond Street tube and has 200 dealers in two buildings, the Market and Grays Mews. The Grade II listed building is a striking terracotta 19th century former water closet factory and showroom. The Mews was built in 1900 in similar style. In Grays you will find dozens of jewellers, Biblion with 40+ specialist antiquarian book dealers, Islamic art, antiquities, militaria, dolls and toys; a real treasure house.
Portobello Antiques Market

Other markets mix fixed premises with street stalls, and are only open on certain days. The antiques market in London’s Portobello Road is one of the capital’s top twenty tourist attractions. With over 1500 dealers selling everything from fleamarket stock to the finest bronzes, clocks and porcelain, you would have to try very hard not to find something to take home.

It all began in the 1940s, when Susan Garth set up a market in the Red Lion Arcade. She sold mainly clothes, and there is still a very strong clothing and textile element to the whole market, which claims to have the largest group of textile dealers in Britain. These days the main trading day is Saturday, with the street market kicking off around 5am and buzzing by 8am. Many dealers are in permanent shop premises and are open at other times – some all week.

What is known as ‘Portobello Road’ actually covers a far greater area. There are also dealers and stands lining Westbourne Grove and the numerous little spurs off these two main thoroughfares. Many addresses along Portobello are galleries housing considerable numbers of dealers. For example, Rogers Antiques Gallery at number 65 has 40 stands, as does Chelsea Galleries at 67, 69 and 73. Admiral Vernon Market at 141-149 has 190 dealers.

Get there as early as possible for the Portobello experience of sitting down for breakfast with dealers in Admiral Vernon’s lower trading hall. Catering is excellent. On the spot is an information booth (corner of Portobello Road and Westbourne Grove) and all the arcades and galleries are clearly signposted off the main drag.

You can buy with confidence from a large majority of the dealers. Since 1998, customer confidence has been further enhanced by the Portobello Antiques Dealers Association, linked to LAPADA. The clearly visible brown and gold PADA logo indicates membership.

Saturday is the main street market day. Fridays and Sundays see a pavement market between 101 and 177 Portobello, and all three days have the Portobello Green Market under the Westway flyover near Ladbroke Grove tube. Portobello Green focuses on retro, Art Deco, antiques and 1950s-‘60s on Friday, fashion on Saturday and a fleamarket (clothes, bric-a-brac, books, records) on Sunday, although there is certainly crossover.

Camden Passage

Like Portobello Road, Camden Passage in Islington extends well beyond the eponymous Passage. A mix of street markets, small units and upmarket dealers in proper shops and galleries, it is a major antiques and collectables venue. Most dealers trade on Wednesday and Saturday, and those are the street market days. You will find vintage clothing, hats and accessories, oriental carpets, leather goods and all manner of collectables. As with Portobello, check out the website to plan which permanent premises to visit and your route will then take you past the street traders.

Weekly markets

There are a number of thriving one-day weekly markets in London. Friday at Bermondsey is the best example of a market torpedoed by developers and now resurrected. It has a colourful history. At the heart of Dickensian London it was a marché ouvert (open market), where it was lawful to trade in stolen goods before dawn – allegedly. In fact, marché ouvert (now abolished) had more to do with the transfer of ownership of stolen goods on resale than immunity from prosecution.

Be that as it may, in Bermondsey’s heyday – before traffic restrictions, congestion charges and whopping parking fees – the market attracted 1000 dealers, some from 100 miles away, with dealing in the pub the night before (if you believe the old-timers). Now relocated and streamlined, the market attracts a couple of hundred dealers selling mostly smalls, good silver and flatware.

Others have had a smoother passage. Sherman and Waterman Associates run two antiques markets in beautifully restored buildings at Covent Garden and Spitalfields.

Covent Garden: Jubilee Antiques Market

Covent Garden, with its pedestrianised piazza, is a major London tourist attraction. The ‘Convent’ was the Abbey of Saint Paul, whose garden produce in medieval times went to Westminster Abbey. The covered central market building was designed by Charles Fowler and completed in 1830. The produce market moved to Battersea in 1974, and the building was colonised by today’s small shops and stalls which, in turn, soon spilled across the piazza into Jubilee Hall.

In 1985 a traders’ committee (backed by developers Speyhawk) bought the building, making Jubilee Market the only London market owned by its traders. Sherman and Waterman Associates acquired the Monday lease for antiques and collectables.

There is some furniture, but smalls predominate. Jewellery is plentiful, ranging from good antique and vintage through costume to new. There are quality antiques, good silver, paintings and ceramics. Watches, antiquarian books and ephemera are also in evidence. There is some attractive kitchenalia and a variety of decorative items.

Spitalfields

Spitalfields has a long history, and so do its markets. The area takes its name from Saint Mary’s Spital, a hospital founded amid fields in 1197. Markets were established in 1680, shortly after the Great Fire. The covered market building was designed by Robert Horner and built in the last quarter of the 19th century.

The antiques market began in 2004 and there are now 70 traders. A significant number of young dealers give the market a real sense of energy and enterprise. There is plenty of vintage clothing, along with all the jewellery and accessories – bags, scarves, kid gloves, shoes, silk stockings, even spectacles and cases. Noticeable too is the quantity of militaria – clothing, medals and general paraphernalia. Stamps, books, prints, postcards, advertising ephemera and fishing tackle are among the high quality collectables. Small antique furniture and decorative items, ceramics, silver and paintings grace several stalls. Spitalfields Market currently attracts around 25,000 visitors per week.

Greenwich Antiques Market

The market in the London Borough of Greenwich has held a Royal Charter for a thousand years. It developed as a fruit and vegetable market, and is now housed in a glass and iron Victorian structure with a colonnaded entrance. Established nearly a decade ago by Greenwich Space Management Ltd, Thursday’s antiques market attracts upwards of 40 traders. There is plenty of interest for collectors. Most striking is the vintage clothing; one stall has bridal and evening wear, others have dresses, coats, shoes and accessories galore. Elsewhere are vintage toys, tools, cameras, maps, books and prints, as well as an array of general collectables and French decorative items.

Some stalls – notably prints – do have reproductions alongside the antique and vintage, but all merchandise is appropriately described. Morning trading at Greenwich is slow. The market runs from 7.30am but Spitalfields is on the same day, so dealers tend to call there first. The antiques market is also advertised for Fridays. Some traders are there, but most stand elsewhere, notably Portobello and Westway.


ACPP.

This article is courtesy of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit magazine. A year’s subscription (that’s four issues: spring, summer, autumn and winter) is $48. To subscribe visit www.acpp.com.au.

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