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Columbia Road Sunday Flower Market

Bethnal Green’s famous Sunday Flower Market

If you walk down Old Bethnal Green Road towards Gosset Street, or any of the adjoining side streets on Sunday morning the chances are that you will meet what seems to be a walking jungle. Cars pass with giant ferns poking through the sun roof. Young couples will be struggling home with large potted plants and shrubs. In fact, almost everyone you pass will be carrying some sort of vegetation, either potted, cut, or in trays ready for bedding. There is no need to ask where the market is, even though it is not on the main road, but tucked away in a side street. Just walk in the opposite direction to the people carrying the plants and you cant miss it. A word of warning though if you intend to drive. You may have to park quite a way from the actual market as there are strict clamping and towing regulations enforced in the area on Sundays. Read the parking signs carefully!

A brief history

The Jewish influence

Columbia Road was originally a weekday market that emerged in the street in the early 1800’s. It ran the length of Columbia Road and included The Birdcage and the Royal Oak pubs. It was not a specialist market then, just a mixture of stalls selling everyday needs.
There were many philanthropists around in the Victorian era and one of them, Baroness Coutts decided to build a proper market for the traders. This would take the form of a large building with shops around the edge of a market square. Living accommodation for the traders was included in the design. The building work went ahead in 1864 and the market was used for fish and foodstuff traders.
Unfortunately the traders were not too keen on the new market and it’s rules and regulations. This, coupled with the lack of trade, made it doomed from the start. The traders started moving back to the street itself. The market building was gradually taken over by the furniture trade and became, along with the shops in the industrial units for the cabinet makers. As this transformation was taking place most of the market traders moved out to start trading in other established markets in the area.

As most of the furniture makers moving into the area were of Jewish origin permission was granted for Sunday trading to be allowed in Columbia Road. Because there were fewer traders now, the market was much reduced in size and they set up their stalls between the two pubs. Today it covers an even shorter distance as the stalls in the main main market have gradually congregated in one place. The weekday market gradually died out and a specialised Sunday market became a permanent fixture. The licensing of pitches in 1927 to sell specific goods caused traders selling other goods in the market to gradually disappear and create Columbia Road Flower Market.
To prevent the market remaining empty during the winter months the council brought in regulations in the 1960’s to ensure an all year round turnout by traders. Every trader risks losing their license if the do not set up their stall at least once every four weeks. This means that you can buy plants for the home or garden all year round. As well as tools and utensils to aid their growth. It’s a great market and if you spend enough time there you will see many celebrities.

A thriving market again

The Columbia Road market today, and indeed the shops that line the street, have really come alive in the last few years. The influx of l the ‘'trendies' and the young ‘arty’ type of person into the surrounding area has only helped improve it. The once empty and derelict shops have been renovated and opened to sell all manner of items. It has featured on many TV reality garden shows and if you’re early enough (market opens at eight, but the traders are there at six) you may catch a glimpse of a famous gardener or two. I prefer to get down there around midday when it is in full throng.