For 1,000 years it has stood at the foot of London Bridge, serving the people of Southwark. After the construction of the first medieval bridge, probably in the mid-990s, the road we now know as Borough High Street acted as a vital artery joining London—a walled metropolis on the north side of the river—to the ports and towns of the south, making it a magnet for farmers, bakers, brewers and fishermen hoping to sell their wares to travellers. By the 1270s, the presence of these hawkers beside the highway, on land owned by the crown, was providing stiff competition to London’s markets and causing considerable irritation to the City authorities, who responded by banning citizens from crossing over to Southwark to buy “corn, cattle, or other merchandise”.
Any disgruntlement was eased in 1406, when Henry IV granted London “assay and assize of bread, wine, and ale and other victuals” traded at Borough Market, and completely assuaged in April 1550, when Edward VI sold control of Southwark to the City for £1,000, creating the wonderfully-named Ward of Bridge Without, at the heart of which stood this busy bazaar.
An engraving from 1616 shows traders plying their wares in the shadow of the grand gateway to London Bridge, atop which sway the severed heads of 18 “traitors”, planted on spikes. The traders were supervised by bailiffs and constables, who enforced price controls, inspected goods, collected fees and unleashed a battery of petty regulations. One set of rules from the 16th century positioned the stalls with the fish sellers closest to the bridge, followed by the butchers, the poulterers from the countryside, the oatmeal makers, the fruiterers and herb sellers, then finally the local bakers and poulterers. A further set of ordinances from 1624 aligned everyone in a completely different order, with the added stipulation that fishwives weren’t allowed to sit down.
In an era before refrigeration, meat was brought to market both whole and very much alive, so irritable goats and wandering cattle were a constant menace. One ordinance attempted to force butchers to stop entering local shops or slaughterhouses with oxen, bullocks or cows “that are so wild, that they will not enter but run away (as often it happeneth)”.
Eventually, the City would tire of having the only southern route into London completely blocked by bakers and bullocks. In 1754 a bill went before parliament declaring that as “the market obstructs much trade and commerce”, it would have to cease trading by 25th March 1756.
Stunned by this injunction, local residents petitioned to be allowed to start a new market away from the high street, independent of the City. Parliament agreed that “for the convenience and accommodation of the public” the parishioners of St Saviour’s church could set up a market, to “be and remain an estate for the use and benefit of the said parish for ever”. The parishioners raised £6,000 and bought an area called The Triangle. In February 1756, advertisements were placed stating that a “commodious place for a market is now preparing on the backside of Three Crown Court”. Borough Market had found a new home.
In the 19th century, the character of the market—previously busy but parochial—rapidly evolved. Driven by urbanisation, a population boom and the arrival of the railway (a branch of which was constructed through the middle of the market in 1862), Borough was transformed into a crucial hub of the fruit and vegetable wholesale trade, selling to the greengrocers who fed the capital. Blanchard Jerrold, in his evocative London: A Pilgrimage (1872), described a place “choked with market carts and costers’ barrows, and crowded with unclassable poor, who seem to linger about in the hope that something out of the mighty cupboard may fall to their share”.
By the mid-1930s, 188 pitching stands were being let to 81 merchants in the central area of the market, with a further 203 stalls around the periphery manned by individual farmers. Trading took place through the night and into the following day. As one 1950s guidebook put it, “one only has to pay an early morning visit to see what a veritable hive of industry such a concentrated area actually is, and what a highly important and essential service is given in order that a vast population served shall have its daily requirements so efficiently met.”
Borough Market’s status as a wholesale hub was sabotaged in part by the construction of the huge New Covent Garden market in the 1970s, but mainly by the relentless growth of the supermarkets which, by killing off independent greengrocers, destroyed the entire ecosystem in which the market had thrived. Its decline was swift and sad.
In the 1990s, a few pioneering artisan food businesses began moving into the area’s abandoned warehouses. In 1998, two of these newcomers—Neal’s Yard Dairy and Brindisa—and Turnips, a forward-looking fruit and veg wholesaler, began opening their doors to the public for occasional ‘warehouse sales’. Later that year, a three-day Food Lovers’ Fair was held at the market, gathering together around 50 of Britain’s finest food producers. The event was a roaring success, with many traders selling out within hours.
This clear evidence of public demand led to a decision by the trustees to hold a regular monthly retail market, with British traders joined by those offering produce from around the world. This soon became a weekly affair. In the blink of an eye, Borough Market became an institution of international renown, open six days a week, as vibrant and relevant as it had ever been in its 1,000 years at the foot of London Bridge.
Here it will remain, not just for years, nor even for centuries, but—as its 18th century constitution made clear—for ever.