Bermondsey antique market is one of London’s great institutions and one of its great survivors. Properly called the ‘New Caledonian market’, it had originally been established as the ‘Metropolitan Cattle market’ by the Corporation of City of London, as Smithfield could no longer meet the demands of London’s mercurial rise in population.
Opened by Prince Albert in 1855, it was originally located close to the newly built Kings Cross and St Pancras Railway stations, on a 30 acre site at the top of York Way in Islington. Here it abutted the Caledonian Road and it is from this association that the market gained the name – the ‘Caledonian market’. This rebranding reflected a shift in the early 20th century when the ‘Metropolitan Cattle market’ ceased to be a cattle-market and instead become the general goods ‘Caledonian market’.
In 1939 the war came and the market was commandeered by the military. They used it as a giant car park for military vehicles until after the war. The Caledonian market never re-opened, as the whole area was designated for post-war redevelopment. Therefore, in 1947 the ‘Caledonian market’ was relocated south of the river and amalgamated with two existing local markets, one in Bermondsey Street and the other Tower Bridge Road. Both of these were street markets located in these important roads but were restricting the increasing flow of motor traffic. Therefore, the three markets were not only amalgamated, but also moved to Bermondsey Square and renamed the ‘New Caledonian market’.
Initially, the ‘New Caledonian market’ was a general market. This was out of necessity as in post-war London everything remained rationed and therefore anything at all for sale had plenty of potential customers. Bermondsey was no different from any other general market up to the end of rationing in 1954.
The ‘Caledonian market’ had long sold second-hand goods and bric-a-brac, but now the ‘New Caledonian market’ started to specialise in antiques and this replaced the general market. By 1960 the Friday market in Bermondsey Square had become colloquially known as ‘Bermondsey antiques market’.
The ‘New Caledonian market’ flourished, with up to three hundred stalls pitched out in and around Bermondsey Square every week. This made Bermondsey antiques market a centre of South London life and culture, as well as an iconic backdrop to swinging sixties London, along with the likes of Carnaby Street, the Kings Road and Petticoat Lane.
One elderly Bermondsey trader who was born and raised close to Bermondsey Square recalled:
“From the age of 16 I spent every Thursday night and Friday morning at Bermondsey market. It had a terrific buzz and was the most exciting place in the whole of South London. Everybody would go there. It is the reason why I have been in the antiques business for over sixty years.”
Bermondsey market enjoyed the status of a ‘marché ouvert’ or ‘open market’ until 1995. This was a medieval French legal concept that allowed for the open sale of stolen goods between the hours of sunset and sunrise in certain designated markets in a City. It was reasoned that anyone who did not bother to check his stolen property was not being openly sold in a local market, had failed to take reasonable steps to recover his property. This explains why Bermondsey traditionally opened at 4 am. Furthermore, marché ouvert allowed anyone purchasing goods from such a market to acquire a legitimate ownership and title to them, even if the goods were stolen.
Bermondsey market’s shamelessly ‘Del-Boy’ character continued unabated during the 1970s and 1980s, but this was scandalously and publically exposed in the early 1990s. In the early 1990s a number of paintings were stolen from Lincoln’s Inn. These were subsequently sold in Bermondsey antiques market for the ridiculously low sum of £100 each. The purchaser avoided prosecution for handling stolen goods by arguing the sale was subject to the marché ouvert rules operating at the market.
However, the Honourable Society of Lincoln Inn, whose property the paintings were, is one of the grandest, wealthiest and most powerful legal institutions in the Realm. It is the cradle of Barristers, wet nurse of High Court Judges and includes a rookery of MPs and Ministers as members. Its legislative revenge was the Sales of Goods (Amendment) 1994 Act. This finally killed off the concept of marché ouvert in English Law, but in doing so they confirmed Bermondsey market’s popular reputation for fencing stolen goods.
Near death experience
The scandal nearly finished the market. It frightened off many of the legitimate traders, who didn’t want to be associated with people selling stolen goods, whereas the less scrupulous were frightened off by the persistent Police attention arising from the market’s notoriety.
Furthermore, the market’s all-weather and outdoor character, unattractive Car Park location and the growing dereliction of Bermondsey, all conspired to further undermine its reputation and popularity. New rival indoor antiques markets offered a less rain-swept experience and captured much of the trade that had previously passed through Bermondsey. The arrival of e-bay and ‘car-boot’ sales further impacted on the antiques trading, leading to a steady decline in the numbers of traders attending and consequently the amount, range and quality of antiques offered for sale at the market. As a result, by 2000 Southwark Council, who licensed Bermondsey market, began questioning the long-term viability of the market and offered up the site for redevelopment.
In response to this threat a hard-core of stallholders formed the Bermondsey Antiques Traders Association and refused to give up. They believed the antiques market still had a future and persuaded the developers of the value and potential of retaining the market as part of their planned redevelopment. The redevelopment itself was challenging as Bermondsey Square overlies the Norman Bermondsey Abbey (c.1080). English Heritage conducted extensive archaeological excavations here in 2005-6. These recovered archaeology dating from the 11th to 19th century, which emphasised the historical character of the location and directly linked the past and present, as the medieval drainage requirements of the site explains why the ground surface in Bermondsey Square all slopes unevenly, irregularly and crazily inwards towards its centre.
By 2012 Bermondsey antiques market was reduced to just twenty stalls on a good day. A year on and a very different market has started to emerge at Bermondsey Square. For example, on the 20th June 2014 there were no less than eighty-five stalls. The excellent weather obviously helped, as rain always affects an outdoor market, but it is a remarkable turnaround in fortune in just a year.
Market times have also changed slightly. Bermondsey now starts at 7am and finishes at 2 pm. However, a considerable amount of business is still conducted whilst setting up the stalls. Even before 7 am, taxi-loads of Chinese buyers are often the first members of the public to arrive. By 7 am the market is busy with about half the stalls set-out and dealers, collectors and visitors circulating, and the coffee stall is doing a roaring business in freshly made coffee and bacon butties. Some of the foreign buyers run antiques businesses here in the UK, but most are on purchasing trips to acquire new stock for their shops back home.
French antiques traders have now become a regular feature, as well as a trendier and younger generation of traders, who have now joined the older Bermondsey veterans. Along with these new entrepreneurs come new ideas, stock and types of antiques. This means that the range of goods at Bermondsey antiques market now includes vintage collectables, alongside more traditional antiques. This might shock the antiques purists, but it simply reflects the reality of a change in tastes and the market. A young professional today is just as likely to buy a 1980s arcade game as a traditional antique and Bermondsey market can now offer both!
Old part of a new Bermondsey
However, not everything has changed. Bermondsey continues to enjoy its status as London’s principal antiques ‘traders’ market, where ‘the trade’ deals and haggles amongst itself. Many of the stall holders at Bermondsey also run antiques shops outside London, they bring stock into the capital for sale from across the South East of England and purchase new stock to take back to their shops. This redistributes antiques around the UK and means that new antiques are always arriving every week at Bermondsey, making real bargains and interesting finds still a real possibility.
Bermondsey antiques market refuses to quit or lie down. It battles on and despite blows that would have felled many others, it continues to surprise and delight. It remains a work in progress, but after years of hard slog it is finally getting the recognition it deserves, reinventing itself for the 21st century and looking forward to a great future as an old part of a new Bermondsey.
Running a market at Bermondsey Square is a logistical challenge. The open air location means that the traders, stock and public are all exposed to the elements. The new tall buildings channel the wind and this can make the location ‘blowy’. Twenty-four hour open public access means that the drunk, mad or simply lost, occasionally turn-up and this can still make the market feel ‘edgy’ in the early hours of the morning. Despite demon cyclists speeding across it, no vehicles are allowed onto Bermondsey Square. Therefore, all stock has to be carried. With a maximum of ten vehicle loading bays, traders have to stagger their arrivals and departures as car-parking is located a little distance from the market.
After 6 years of doing a great job, in 2019 Sherman and Waterman stood down from the management and an interim team took over.
Early 2020 brought us Covid-19 and, following several months of lockdown and the market closure, a new, dedicated business, BAM 2021 Ltd, was created to take over the management and development of the market from Southwark Council.
Bermondsey retains a unique character, which is lacking from other antiques markets. The ‘frontier’ conditions of the covered stalls at Bermondsey breed a particularly tough type of trader, but when the weather is good, as it has been this summer, the market conditions have been fantastic. Then there is the Bermondsey spirit, people might haggle hard over a deal or moan about a day’s takings, but they remain cheerful and friendly. Bermondsey remains old fashioned in that everyone still sticks together and looks-out for one another.
It is imperative that stakeholders of the market return to using it to not only pre-Covid levels but to take it back to its great position of years past. In working with dealers and listening to their needs, whilst maximising footfall through traditional and modern marketing methods, it is planned to get get the market back to being the major antiques & collectors destination, not only in London, but the UK.