The incredibly famous London market that became a 'ghost town' before attracting traders who have stayed 20 years

Eric Graham has been the manager of Spitalfields Market in East London for more than 30 years
Eric Graham has been the manager of Old Spitalfields Market for more than 30 years -Credit:The Cast

Old Spitalfields Market in East London is one of London's most iconic places to visit. A market has been held on the site near Liverpool Street Station for more than 350 years, and is now a thriving bazaar full of unique finds.

MyLondon sat down with Eric Graham, who has been managing the market for more than 30 years, to find out the secrets behind its success. Eric started by describing the area around Spitalfields when he and his team first arrived in 1992.

"It was very desolate," he said. "It was like a dead zone. So we had then to put life into this place." There had previously been a popular fruit and vegetable stall, which had moved out of the market in 1991, leaving the 'old' Spitalfields Market a "ghost town" for more than a year, Eric said.

READ MORE: Famous 850-year-old London market a 'shadow of its former glory' - but there are 'revival' plans

So when he and the new owners of the market moved in, they started ripping out all the old sheds that were inside, determined to create new ways to use the huge space. "We went from having essentially a scrap yard when we moved in, to putting life into it," he explained.

The area around Spitalfields wasn't a popular area for people to visit at the time. Homeless people would sleep in cardboard boxes in the gateways to the market, and soup kitchens would base themselves nearby. But a combination of the surrounding residential properties being bought and done up, and the presence of the developing market itself, led to the gentrification the area saw in the 1990s and 2000s.

The market built football pitches that doubled up as tennis courts, and there was even a swimming pool at the time. "It was part of what we brought in," Eric said. "We had a market sports section - we rented that space to them."

People sitting down at benches enjoying food from the vast selection of stalls at Old Spitalfields Market
Old Spitalfields Market is full of food stalls as well as a range of other shops -Credit: Alex Segre/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

And in just a few years, the market was incredibly popular with both traders and customers - but not without its challenges at first. In the early 1990s, the main market in the area was on Petticoat Lane, and many traders were very wary and even antagonistic towards Old Spitalfields Market at the time.

But what Spitalfields was offering was completely different to the everyday offerings that other markets sold, Eric said. "We brought in the sort of person who would go to Portobello [Market], who would go to a vintage shop," he added.

Traders soon started to hear about Old Spitalfields Market, largely through word-of-mouth. "We became successful quite quickly," Eric said. At first, Spitalfields Market had around 20 to 30 traders, but within a year or so, they had more than 50. Eric added: "And within a few years we'd gone to 300 - it was a bit of a monster!"

Adam English, who runs Klasik Spitalfields on Thursdays and Sundays, has worked from the market since 2001. At that point, there were around 450 stalls, all on a Sunday, the only day the market would open at that time. "Eric would start collecting the rent first thing in the morning, and he wouldn't finish until the afternoon," Adam remembered.

Adam English runs Klasik Spitalfields and has been trader at the market since 2001
Adam English runs Klasik Spitalfields and has been trader at the market since 2001 -Credit:Anna Willis

"It would take you as a punter all day to get round. It was an event to turn up to, and to just be here for the whole day." It was profitable for all the traders too, Adam said.

But what's even more surprising now is that in 1992, the plan was only for the market to stay for around five years, Eric said. They had a five-year plan to use the site while the developers made up their mind about what they wanted to do with it.

But the market became so successful it's continued well beyond its original five-year stay. As Old Spitalfields Market started to grow in popularity, celebrities started visiting. Eric remembered Jarvis Cocker coming in, adding: "One of the funny things was watching him trying to play tennis, he was gangly and everything." The Spice Girls would visit, Eric said, as did Pete Doherty.

Members from the Arctic Monkeys were spotted wandering the rows of stalls, as was Keira Knightley. Explaining the appeal, Eric said: "The good thing was they didn't get bothered. People didn't ignore them, they knew they were there. But they felt they could come here and spend days here."

Eric prides himself on his 'laid-back' management style, which he hopes will continue after he retires
Eric prides himself on his 'laid-back' management style, which he hopes will continue after he retires -Credit:Anna Willis

Now, more than 30 years later, Eric tried to describe the singularity of Old Spitalfields Market. "We're always trying to offer something new within the styles you would see, but we're also trying to retain the good stuff that people want to keep coming back for," he said.

Some traders have been working from Old Spitalfields Market for more than 20 years now. Eric added: "They've been here that long because they're surviving, and they will go through changes mentally. Ladies fashion in particular, it really does change, and you have to be able to do that."

Stallholders have moved with the changes in fashion

It's not cheap to continue to remain up to date with fashion, Eric acknowledged, and said some traders will charge up to £250 for clothes - but because they're good quality. The ambiance of the market is also special, Eric thinks, even down to the roof. "It's not like walking into a shopping centre," he points out. It's both outside and inside at the same time, and can also protect shoppers from the rain - a very valuable resource in London.

But in the last few years, the market has been hit by new challenges. Crime has gone up in the last 18 months, Eric admitted, though said he didn't think it was just down to the cost of living crisis. "A lot of thieving is done by people who are thieves anyway. It's not like supermarket shopping, where they're stealing butter and wine and things like that," he adds.

"We know [crime] will go ahead and people will just shrug and say, 'what's the point [in reporting it]?' It's gone." But for Eric, to have two or three phones stolen on the same day at the market would be considered a crime wave - and it's not something they see very often." Crime is definitely something that does happen," Eric said. "But it's not something that I think puts people off."

A bird's eye view of Old Spitalfields Market
'You can see the people who are in to shop, and people who are in, it's somewhere to come to, and they know they can have a huge variety of choice in eating and drinking while they're here' -Credit:Anna Willis

The cost of living crisis has also had an impact on the market and the traders too. "People are not making the money they were making five or six years ago," Eric said. "The sensible people have realised that and they've set their sights slightly differently. They've also had to adjust their prices."

Eric added: "For the first time in many years, we want to put a rent increase in." Rent is set quarterly by management, increasing each quarter from January through to December, the busiest time of year for the market. But the market itself is facing huge cost increases, from building insurance through to electricity.

Traders notice success of the food stalls

But Eric said they've not noticed fewer people going to the market as a result of the cost of living crisis. And the food outlets have been fairly consistent, with some points where they're doing very well. Eric adds: "You can see the people who are in to shop, and people who are in, it's somewhere to come to, and they know they can have a huge variety of choice in eating and drinking while they're here."

However, Adam said he now feels like he and other traders are "a backdrop to the food". He said: "I come here two days, but all of the time here, I'm just handing out cards to my shop because I don't sell anything."

Eric hopes that the market will continue in the future, and that a new manager would continue his 'laid-back' approach to management. And as new markets have sprung up in London in recent years, including the market near King's Cross station, he hopes that some inspiration has come from Old Spitalfields Market.

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