I should have called this post Stall Stories for it relates to a market which runs parallel to Hatton Garden and has done for hundreds of years – Leather Lane.
If you expect it to be the centre of London’s leather goods market you will be disappointed. The leather trade once centred around Bermondsey Street now commemorated with Leathermarket Street, Morocco Street and Tanner Street.
The story of Leather Lane is far more interesting and if local legend is to be believed, more Regal.
[K]ing Charles II would like to have a punt on the horses and at one time found himself owing £500 to a local merchant named Le Vrunelane after a wager on two horses that lost. To pay off the debt the canny merchant offered the King a way out, if he was granted a charter to set up a market and receive 1p on each customer.
The market was named Le Vrunelane and after a number of derivatives was Anglicised to Lovreland, then to Liver Lane and finally Leather Lane.
Another explanation for its name is said to come from the old French word for greyhound – leveroun, it was probably the name of a local tavern, nowadays the word for greyhound is spelt leveier.
Whether it got its name from a foolish king or the local boozer by the 1960s it had shaken off its 19th century description of being ’a very poor neighbourhood . . . much invested with thieves, beggars, and Italian organ-grinders’. It was a melting pot of culture, class and countries.
Working at that time near Leather Lane’s junction with Clerkenwell Road the area still had an Italian ambience. Delicatessens with strange sausages hanging from the ceiling; a tobacconist who had a permanent flame emitting from a pole on his counter to enable customers to sample his wares; greengrocers stocking exotic fruit, mangoes, lichees and kiwi – a work colleague would take the rarely seem kiwi fruit as a thank you offering when asked to dinner.
The man who sold cheap china dinner services (“how much will you give me ladies for this fine English bone china”), while stacking and balancing the entire 6-piece set on his arm. One stallholder made living selling second-hand comics another second-hand clothes.
The local wide boys were grateful for the requirement at that time that policemen had to be nearly 6-foot tall with a uniform topped off by a tall helmet. They would see the coppers coming towards them through the crowd as they towered over the regular market goers. It took seconds to scoop up their wares into a ready suitcase and retire to the local café which helpfully provided benches under which their stolen booty could be hidden.
According to author Graham McCann in his book Only Fools and Horses: The Story of Britain’s Favourite Comedy, the show’s writer John Sullivan had worked in Hildreth Street Market and knew some of the market characters, who existed in London. Many had a natural ‘gift of the gab’. Comedian Tommy Cooper, was once a market trader in Leather Lane Market, Tommy was very tall and certainly would have had no trouble spotting an approaching policeman.
As a theatre of commercial and cultural endeavour recovering from austerity and if you wanted to see post-war life, there was no better place to look than in Leather Lane.
Photos and life in modern Leather Lane are to be found at Leather Lane Stars.