Tag Archives: London markets

Hidden London: Bermondsey Market

When working nights, Fridays was an opportunity to visit Bermondsey market before going home, but for most, the problem was having to get up very early to do it.

Situated on the other side of Tower Bridge, thanks to rampant property development, it has now become a shadow of itself from my time working in an ex-baked bean factory producing printed matter for the Government. It’s also a parking nightmare.

It used to be called the New Caledonian Market, having been relocated from North London (the actress Valerie Hobson opened it in 1949), but because it’s in Bermondsey Square people changed the name.

Bermondsey at the time was a ‘market ouvert’, following an ancient law that was finally repealed just under 25 years ago. Under this law, if you sold an item between sunrise and sunset then its provenance couldn’t be questioned, so stolen goods could be traded without any legal comeback on the buyer. The law originated centuries ago when people did not travel much; if the victim of theft did not bother to look in his local market on market day – the only place where the goods were likely to be – he was not being suitably diligent. It’s amazing how many Londoners don’t know it exists, tourists are often better informed than we are.

The old law meant you used to get a lot of stolen goods turning up. But the market opens before dawn, so you need a torch to check out the goods. This is where it gets tricky because although there are many cheap items, you could also pay a fortune for a dud, which is why Bermondsey is something of an experts’ market.

Market overt

In a previous life, before becoming a London cabbie, I could get to Bermondsey Market before dawn and rummage around and see all that it had to offer.

At that time it was much larger than we see today, the development of ‘executive’ apartments and a trendy hotel built on the original site has seen to its demise.

An ancient market, it was once called New Caledonian Market relocating from north London in 1949 which had claim to an ancient law, until that is the amendment in 1994 of the Sale of Goods Act. It had the privilege of Market Overt or Marché Ouvert.

[T]he city of Leicester has King Richard III to thank for its reverse in fortunes after reinterring his remains in their cathedral. Likewise dodgy dealers could thank for last Plantagenet King for giving immunity from prosecution when selling ‘hooky’ goods.

Market overt, French for open market, is a throwback from medieval days which conferred the purchaser of stolen goods at designated markets during daylight hour’s right to title. Condemned as a thieves charter the 15th century law was conferred on 20 markets throughout England.

The principle was sound. In an age when travel by many was unheard of, a victim of theft was allowed to retrieve their goods by going to the market before dawn and searching through the stalls. As the local market was one of the few ways of selling goods (stolen or otherwise) there was a high chance of their wares ending up there.

All that changed during Victoria’s reign, when transport was available to the many and nicked goods could be whisked away from the scene of the crime.

King Richard might have come from a ruthless line of monarchs, but the ‘Del Boys’ over the years have earned a nice little earner from his largesse.


The actress Valerie Hobson, seen here, who was the wife of John Profumo (he of the Profumo Affair) opened the market in 1949 but because it’s in Bermondsey Square people changed the name.

Bermondsey collage: Ramblings of a Feisty Spirit