Of all the street markets in London, few are as indelibly woven into their surroundings as the 300-metre strip of stalls and small shops that make up Shepherd's Bush Market. For more than a century, the people of this West London neighbourhood have shopped, worked and been inspired by the market, even as profound social and economic developments have transformed the character of the area. Author and West Londoner Sonia Purnell looks at how Shepherd’s Bush Market has contributed to the identity of the local area, defining it, shaping it and, in turn, being shaped by it.
Its roots can be traced back to the 1860s, but the market as we know it today began in 1914 - and some businesses have survived almost from that time, such as E. Mills and Son Linoleum Ltd, which has been trading since 1916.
Today, the market features on many tourist guide lists as a place to taste a different, earthier side of London. Where else can you see two old chaps in matching union jack T-shirts cheerfully greeting a smiling woman in a hijab while an immaculately-attired tourist inspects rolls of linens? Somehow, it manages to represent London at its most cohesive, ensuring that “SheBu,” as fashionistas like to call it, remains edgier, more mixed and, quite frankly, more interesting than neighbouring Chiswick and Barnes.
To be fair, the market has long had an edgy side. Back in the 1960s, it was at the epicentre of the youth-quake shaking the old Establishment, epitomised perhaps by a local band, The Who. Scenes from the film ‘Quadrophenia’ were shot in the market and a decade later, it was owned for a time by the late film director and restaurant critic Michael Winner. Visitor numbers declined thereafter, and the market became more shabby than chic. Footfall is still lower than it was 20 years ago but today, the market is fighting back.
The market has meant that “SheBu”, as the fashionistas like to call it, has never ventured into the arguably ‘nice but dull’ territory of its neighbours Chiswick and Barnes.
The Old Laundry Yard epitomises this resurgence – with planted-up oil drums and jauntily painted walls. Located on the site of a disused laundry and launched just this year, there are high hopes that it will become West London’s answer to Shoreditch. Shepherd Market’s food stalls have, after all, been a source of inspiration for some of the biggest names in the restaurant business. Celebrity chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Yotam Ottolenghi and Simon Hopkinson, have rootled around here for years, in search of unusual produce, from lamb tripe to rare varieties of aubergine.
The clothes stalls and shops have attracted some of London’s most talented designers too, including Cath Kidston and Vicky Gill, head costume designer for Strictly Come Dancing. Former Great British Bake-Off presenter Mel Giedroyc has also spoken fondly of the market’s clothes and fabrics. Yet traditional stalls such as Gulati’s nightie emporium, which has been on-site for twelve years, complain of reduced numbers. “Most of my customers are Arab ladies and they just don’t seem to have the money anymore,” Gulati reports. He is only licenced to sell nightwear so he cannot branch out into new lines.
And new lines are just what the market needs. Between the ribbons and washing-up bowls, for example, nestles the uber-cool Terra Hale gym, apparently the first in London to return the energy created by its spinning classes to the national grid. It’s also on trend by banning single-use plastics – just the type of forward thinking to appeal to SheBu’s next generation.
Fortunately, innovation runs through the market’s veins and a number of distinguished careers were kick-started by experiences round and about the stalls.
David Dein, former vice chairman of Arsenal FC and the Football Association, started out as a trader on his mother’s Caribbean grocery stall. And singer Heather Small, who made her name with M People, earned pocket money working “for a lovely Asian family in Shepherd’s Bush market on a shoe stall for £6 every Saturday when I was 13.”
After 104 years, two World Wars, a succession of economic cycles and huge social change in London, Shepherd’s Bush Market is still going – and still evolving. Few markets are more indicative of the way a string of street stalls can survive through thick and thin and, throughout, exert a pervasive influence over a neighbourhood’s identity.
Photography: Jasper Fry