The entrance to Smithfield market
Artillery Row

The resentments and resillience of London’s market traders

For now, the Smithfield Christmas auction is still going ahead. We can’t stop everything, can we?

The Pool of London at three in the morning is magical whatever the weather, at any time of year. From London Bridge it stretches to Limehouse, taking in HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge, the great spike of the Shard, and all the old wharves, now luxury developments. Old Billingsgate is there, St Katharine’s dock and the ghost cuts on the Surrey side leading, no longer, to Glove Pond and Lavender Dock.

On the Middlesex side, the city looms above, dark, but sparkle lit. The old mercantile heart of the city and nation. Even now, the Thames links the markets, from Nine Elms and New Covent Garden, to New Billingsgate on the side of the Isle of Dogs’ North Dock. Walking to Smithfield at that time in the morning is always a pleasure.

The old market is a bit of a mess. There has been a partial roof collapse in the Poultry Hall, and the grey Mondrian of scaffolding poles sheath it, narrowing the road which at that time in the morning is awash with refrigerated artics and dozens of white vans, clustering around the eye-scouringly bright loading bays, like so many automated suckling pigs.

Smithfield meat market (Photo credit: Gawain Towler)

I’d last come here in the first week of lockdown, eight months ago, and was expecting to see commercial carnage amongst the traders. Not so. Though Buyers Walk, the main thoroughfare, was quiet, there were no gaps amongst the traders. Carcasses still hang from their travelling tenterhooks, and the traders themselves, in blood smattered white uniforms, masks and chainmail aprons, bustle about, laughing and sidling off for a crafty fag in the lanes outside.

Our current fixation with cleanliness is nothing new for those in the food trade, so the basic restrictions make no real difference. The economy, however, is something completely different.

Greg Lawrence, of Greg Lawrence Meat Co., has been trading here for fifty years. He has been chairman of the Smithfield Markets Tenants’ Association and a London Corporation Common Council member for nearly twenty years. He is also responsible for the flying meat frenzy that is the annual Christmas Eve meat auction, one of London’s great, unprescribed, traditions.

Greg wants to talk, not so much about the market itself – it is surviving, no trader has closed and if only the authorities would keep up the maintenance, things will be good in the future – but instead about his frustration with the City of London:

“This lockdown is far more severe than the first one, the problem is the City. The Corporation has a death wish, the city is like a ghost town. For small businesses it is a nightmare. I’m confident that it will explode in a couple of years, but for that to happen we have to deal with the risk averse negativity embedded in the Corporation’s marrow. We need the City to think about January and February.  There is no better place for the recovery to start than here in the City of London. The City must realise it is not just absentee bankers who make it tick.”

Warming to his theme he is impassioned:

“The Corporation is £400 million better off this year, squirreling it away, but it is doing nothing to help the small businesses. This market supplies hospitals, the schools, even the prisons, but we have lost at least forty percent of our trade and we are suffering. And we are the heart, 8,000 years as the heart of the city itself, and the City doesn’t care.”

Down river, New Billingsgate Market, in the lea of Canary Wharf, is slick with melting ice under foot. The import routes from Turkey and Spain, so hampered by constant border controls across Europe during the first lockdown, are now open and the market has the semblance of busyness. This apparent prosperity is only skin deep. Scratch below and a different picture emerges.

New Billingsgate Market (Photo credit: Gawain Towler)

Here too, the second lockdown is harder and more damaging. Talking to store holders is difficult. There is a palpable fear. The Market Constabulary are very present, and there is no love lost. Nobody speaks openly:

“Go upstairs and speak to the authority” (part of the City Corporation), I’m told time and again.

“They won’t tell me the truth.”

“True. Bastards. They’re leaving us high and dry.” Then, “Don’t mention my name.”

Trade is brisk and ephemeral:

“The customers you see are like you, individuals, not business customers. During March, there were days when we had a queue stretching for over a mile. Largely Orientals, Chinese and West Africans. It’s all for personal consumption. We are all just about surviving, but pay cuts, layoffs and furlough are the order of the day.”

At the café, tables upturned, chairs stacked like a backyard fire sale, I mention that at Covent Garden the cafes are classified as works canteens: “I’ve complained a few times. They won’t listen. Just close us down.” It appears there is no imagination, no real thought for the impact. They will survive, but the scars will run deep, the relationship between the tenants and the Corporation is going to take a lot of work to rebuild.

At New Covent Garden, further upstream in Nine Elms, there is some optimism to serve alongside the economic misery doled-up as this year’s starter, main and pudding.

The misery is real. Gary Marshall, of Bevington Salads, Chairman of the New Covent Garden Tenants’ Association, in contrast to the Billingsgate traders, is happy to talk: “Only one company here has closed, but trade for everyone is down eighty percent and many businesses are looking at pulling down the shutters.”

In a letter he has written to the Prime Minister, he points out the knock-on effect that this will have for any future restaurant, and the broader hospitality trade. On behalf of the traders, he is calling for, “transparency of the metrics used to make decisions that make mandated restrictions necessary.”

This echoes the grizzled Alfie Lay, who runs Lays of Chelsea, with his three brothers, a nephew, and others. His business has been going 150 years, however, “yesterday was the worst day ever.”

Alfie Lay, New Covent Garden (Photo credit: Gawain Towler)

He believes, and this is a common suspicion in all three markets, that the big supermarkets are getting early information on the government’s strategic planning, leaving small businesses, who are the mainstay of employment and entrepreneurship, out in the cold.

“I live in Battersea and in the first lockdown I would drive back at 8am. I could have driven the whole way home on the pavement, there were so few people out. Now its traffic jams the whole way. This lockdown is only hitting the sectors where small business predominates.”

There are many reasons why the second lockdown has hit the three markets so hard, as Mr. Marshall points out, and in this he speaks for them all. The supermarkets were caught with their trousers down in the first lockdown. People were scared of the virus and didn’t want to go to the big shops, and when they did there was panic buying, stripping the shelves. The small businesses of Covent Garden (and the other markets) were nimble and resilient, set-up home delivery services, and took big pay cuts.

“This time round the supermarkets were not going to be caught out again, they have hired tens of thousands of delivery drivers. People cannot remain so frightened for so long. They are realising that they are not going to die if they pop into Tesco’s. Small businesses, us, and the shops, don’t have the contacts with government or the deep pockets of the big corporations. Most restaurants have not opened-up for this lockdown, resetting their business models to takeaway services. This lockdown is only a month, it’s cheaper to furlough. They have spent thousands of pounds making their premises compliant, and they are now hit again. And that hits us.”

The optimism comes from a deal finally struck with the DEFRA quango that runs the market, the Covent Garden Market Authority. Now, run by long term businessman David Frankish, who has earned the respect of Mr. Marshall. It took a court case but, as Marshall says,

“The market has a brilliant future, long leases at reasonable fixed prices, investment to help the traders refit and bring the market in the twenty-first century. The tunnel may be long but there is light at the end of it.”

A word that resounds in each of the markets is resilience. The traders are small, often family, businesses. They have been through hard times before, they are imaginative, innovative, and hard working. Their nocturnal trades build loyalty and a particular type of character. In each market the workforce, numbering in the thousands, comprises all ages and all sorts. It also seems to build-in a natural immunity to Covid, as, between the three markets, fewer than ten people have gone down with the virus, despite tight, hugger-mugger, working conditions.

There is a determination to survive and there is the belief that things will inevitably get better. Right now, there is general contempt for the authorities, and the political class as a whole.

“None of them have any idea about business,” is a refrain across all three sites. Boris and the government came in for some particularly earthy abuse from all comers, too.

There is good news. For now, the Smithfield Christmas auction is still going ahead. Damn it, we can’t stop everything now, can we? That would be defeatism.

*Declaration of interest: I managed to pick up some marvellous steaks from William Warman and Gutteridge, a couple of skate wings and some dover sole from Lawrence Brothers and some samphire and other assorted fruit and veg from Lays of Chelsea.

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