Whitecross Street Market is apparently the oldest surviving street market in London. Whitecross Street Market was certainly in existence at least 150 years ago in the reign of Queen Victoria, but it is possible that it existed as far back as the 17th century.
At its height, in the mid-19th century, Whitecross Street Market contained 150 stalls and stretched along ‘the upper part of Whitecross Street’ as far as Old Street. (In those days, Whitecross Street extended to Fore Street in the City, so the ‘upper part of Whitecross Street’ may well have meant the whole extent of what we now know as Whitecross Street.)
Whitecross Street Market would not have been a tidy affair. Traders did not have easily dismantled tubular metal frames with light canvas. They did not have vans which could offload everything and then be parked a few streets away. They had heavy wooden-framed stalls which were semi-permanent. All the goods they were selling had to be transported to Whitecross Street Market on donkeys toiling through the street with mountainous bundles on their backs, and then by men with carts. The donkeys needed stables with hay and water and people to look after them. ‘Costermongers’ was the traditional name for people who worked in street markets. The market was surrounded by slum dwellings and many of the costermongers of Whitecross Street Market lived in the tenements in Whitecross Street and surrounding streets.
The Whitecross Street slums were cleared in the 1880s to be replaced by more sanitary housing. This was the time when the Peabody estates were built on either side of Whitecross Street. The costermongers of Whitecross Street Market were losing their homes too in this clearance, and they formed a movement to ensure that the new housing would give them new homes and places for their donkeys and carts. Dufferin Court was built specifically for the costermongers, and the developers were only allowed to have costermongers as tenants. (If you look closely at Dufferin Court, you can see the spaces at ground level which were designed to keep their carts and donkeys.)
When Whitecross Street market was closed down in 1892 to make way for slum clearance and the construction of Dufferin court, some of the traders moved to Exmouth Street. So, Whitecross Street Market gave birth to Exmouth Street market.
Whitecross Street Market was operating again by Edwardian times, when it was nicknamed ‘Squalor’s Market’. Whitecross Street Market must have improved a lot since those day because there is nothing squalid about the collection of attractive stalls in Whitecross Street Market nowadays.
Improvements to Whitecross Street were carried out in 2006, with a view to revitalising the market. The footpath along the west side of Whitecross Street was widened to provide space for 27 new stalls in Whitecross Street Market. Sockets for an electric power supply were provided at intervals along the street. The pavements were improved, and the area was generally tidied up. The new design was by MUF Architecture. Funding came from EC1 New Deal For Communities, Transport for London, English Heritage, and the Corporation of London.
Licences to trade on Whitecross Street Market are granted by Islington Council’s street trading team, which is also responsible for day-to-day management of the market. Market inspectors are employed to check on waste removal and pavement cleaning. Refuse is collected after the market closes each day.
The Victorian era Whitecross Street Market operated all day every day, possibly excluding Sunday, the official day of rest. Before the 2007 regeneration, the market operated all day, six days a week, selling household goods, and with a food market on Fridays and Saturdays.
When the market reopened after the regeneration, there was a food festival twice a week. This was such a big success that the council turned Whitecross Street Market into a Monday to Friday food market, which is basically how it is today.
Now Whitecross Street Market operates on weekdays only, and runs from about 11.00 am to 3.00 pm. Most of the stalls sell food, and the main business is selling lunch to office workers from the surrounding areas.