It’s Sunday morning. You’re in Shoreditch or Bethnal Green or Hackney. And, all of a sudden, you start to spot a little trend. A cactus in a coat pocket. Some tiger lilies pouring out of a tote bag, some blooming buddleias brimming over a bicycle basket. Ah, yes, it must be Columbia Road Flower Market day.
Every Sunday, just off Hackney Road, this usually peaceful street is jam-packed full of locals and tourists, scouting out a floral bargain. It’s a real sensual overload – of course the scents of trees and herbs, the colours of blooms and buds and the sounds of the market traders bantering and bartering away and the punters cooing at the beauty that surrounds them. Seasonal flowers, trees, shrubs, herbs and bushes go on sale first thing in the morning, and, it’s all over by 3pm. Come at 4pm and you’ve missed it. It’s all deserted again. With a short day like that, you can see why it feels like a rush, with everyone trying to make a deal before trading’s up.
If flowers aren’t really your bag, this market is still well worth a visit. Columbia Road is lined with 60 independent retailers, selling a range of wares. There’s vintage fashion at Glitterati, antique furniture at Two Columbia Road and quirky gifts at Dandy Star. There are also art galleries, casual cafés and, naturally as this is the East End, there’s also a pub or two. If you need a snack for all your flowery, arty, gifty perusing, try Lee’s Seafoods, which has been serving fish here since the Second World War.
Of course, I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence as a tour guide, if I didn’t point out a bit of interesting history on this street. Columbia Road had humble beginnings as a simple path for farmers and their sheep, traipsing from the rural East End towards the slaughterhouses of Smithfields. It became famous in the 1830s thanks to an even more gruesome story. It was the address of the London Burkers, an infamous gang that would dig up bodies just after they’d been buried in order to sell them to hospitals for medical studies. In fact, on this street, then called Novia Scotia Gardens, they even went one step further and committed several murders. Their crimes gained this road true notoriety in London at the time – so much so that people even visited it as a tourist destination! The police charged 5 shillings for entrance into their house, where, naturally, there was even a gift shop. Charming!
Throughout the first half of the 19thcentury, the street fell into disrepair and became one of the East End’s many slums. On seeing the poverty here in the 1860s, the philanthropist, Angela Burdett-Coutts decided to do something about it. She started a project to build social housing here and, rather than kick out the residents as some similar projects of the time had done, she also founded a market here, to give them the chance to earn a living. Burdett Coutts endowed the Bishopric of British Columbia, so the road was named in honour of her. By the end of the century, this area had a large Jewish population, so the market’s trading day was moved to Sunday instead of Saturday. The Saturday traders from Covent Garden flower market saw a new opportunity to sell their leftovers for bargain prices in the East End on Sunday in Columbia Road. And that’s how it came to be what it is today. So, there you go, now you have something to tell your friends about and to look all knowing on your next visit, when you’re knee-deep in roses and hydrangeas. Why not give Columbia Road Flower Market a visit this Sunday?
Coutours offers private tours of the East End’s markets including Columbia Road, Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Petticoat Lane.
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.