Petticoat Lane is a street market in London that has been in existence for several centuries. The name of the thoroughfare in which it is held was changed to Middlesex Street in the nineteenth century, but everyone still refers to the market by its original name. Originally food and livestock were sold there, but for the last 150 years or so it has been almost exclusively devoted to clothing. Until the mid 1990s, under the ancient law of marché ouvert anything you bought at an officially recognized street market during daylight hours was yours to keep even if it later turned out that you had bought stolen property!
This short, silent black and white clip was filmed in Petticoat Lane one sunny day in 1903. Watch and enjoy, and please allow me to point out Thirteen Points of Interest.
This clip is from the Mitchell & Kenyon collection. They were a company based in the north of England and in the last few years of the 19th century and the first decade of the twentieth, they sent out cameramen to film street scenes, football matches, markets, etc across the north of England and sometimes in London. These were shown in “picture palaces” before the main feature and proved to be very popular as locals came to see if they appeared on screen. The company went out of business in the 1920s, and in 1995 their building was being demolished. Some men were taking some old metal churns to the scrapyard when they noticed that there was something inside them. It turned out that dozens of film clips from 1895 to 1913 had been stored in them seventy years before, and so they were saved just minutes before they would have been destroyed, and lost to posterity forever. They have now all been restored and are in the possession of the British Film Institute.
This short, silent black and white clip was filmed in Petticoat Lane one sunny day in 1903. Watch and enjoy, and please allow me to point out Thirteen Points of Interest..
The most noticeable thing is most people’s reaction to a film camera. They stand and stare back at it! In those days, most people never saw a film camera from one year to the next, so the sight of a man with a wooden box on a tripod, steadily cranking a brass handle, would have been a curiosity. Some people maybe didn’t even know what he was doing!
In the 2 minutes and 32 seconds of the clip, we see remarkably few women, even though the street is very crowded.
Almost everyone wore a hat! We see bowlers, straw boaters, cloth caps and more. It was almost unheard of in those days for a man to go out of doors bareheaded.
0:18 The name above the shop is Ginsberg. This reflects the wave of immigration from eastern Europe that began in the 1880s. Before then there were very few foreigners living in Britain, and even fewer Jewish people.
0:39 Two people walk away from the camera under umbrellas. This is the only indication we have in the entire clip that maybe it was raining. If it was, no one else seems to take any notice!
0:45 I don’t know what he is selling but this chap seems to be a market huckster. He is even holding an auctioneer’s gavel as he gives the crowd his spiel, even though he doesn’t seem to have anything to bang it on.
1:17 The man, taller than all the rest, wearing a straw boater, seems unconcerned by the camera. He doesn’t even spare it a glance as he talks to one of the traders, then walks off.
1:41 The trader in the white panama hat has a certain timelessness about him. He doesn’t look particularly historic. He could walk down a street today and not excite too much comment.
1:51 By contrast, that old chap with the Victorian side whiskers and wearing a bowler hat looks just like someone out of an old photograph – which is what he is! I wish the film were high quality enough for a lip reader to be able to tell us what he says as he raises his hat high and speaks to the camera.
2:07 There is a chap in a Stetson, with a tape measure hanging from his neck, staring fixedly at the camera. Stetsons were not commonly found in England in those days. I wonder what the story is behind that. Is he an American? Has that fellow been to American and back, on one of the old transatlantic liners, where he bought the hat? Was it a gift?
2:25 That trader looks as though he is shredding paper, or maybe dealing cards. I don’t know what he is doing but he seems to be making a meal of it.
There are lots of boys in this clip. Maybe it was filmed on a Saturday, or during the school holidays. Some stare blankly at the camera, others wave, others grin cheekily, as small boys do. And it’s very sad. Why? Because eleven years later, when the First World War began, all those boys would have been of military age. Britain lost a million men in that war, and it’s a racing certainty that some of the boys, and the young men too, that we see here went off to that war and never returned.