The South London Market That Sells Everything

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 30 months ago
The South London Market That Sells Everything

We visited the market and wrote this article back in 2016 — some things may have changed since then.

'The Rat'.

"I'm known as The Rat, sir. Because I'm always burrowing for stuff."

"Where do you get your stuff from?"

"Dead people, sir. That's all. Citizens ring me up, you go and clear a house. Then I charge, or not charge. Mainly I don't charge because I have the stuff inside. Then I bring it here and sell it."

'Here' is the boulevard of bric-a-brac on Douglas Way, just off the main drag of Deptford High Street. The market, we're told by Mandy, another trader, has been here since the 1960s. Judging by some of the items laid out — a cricket annual from 1964, a British Rail rule book, a tub of Boots 'theatrical removing cream'— they've been trying to shift some of the stuff ever since.

Whole lifetimes are sold piecemeal on this market, and like life itself, it's not all pretty, and it doesn't always make a lot of sense.

We've all got some in the medicine cabinet.

The Rat — or Peter, as we later learn is his real name — has been in the game for 42 years. With his grubby captain's cap, Union Flag shorts and military medal pinned to his polo shirt (he tells us he got it "for herpes", we don't believe him), he is the market's biggest character. We wonder how he got into a business like this:

"By accident, sir. Someone gave me some junk. I went up to East Street — which you wouldn't know about — which was a really old antique and junk market, fly-pitched — you know what fly-pitched means? When you go on the pavement with no licence..."

Mandy's done this job, often seven days a week, for 15 years.

The Rat tails off to deal with a customer clutching a box: "Go on, can you open the box? Is there anything in there? What's in there love? Right, they're a pound. And 50 pence for the scissors."

In fact most of the traders seem to be doing nine things at once; haggling, doling out change, poring over their unlikely table of accoutrements.

We wish we'd asked this man if he'd bought his outfit from the market.*

It's more than just business though. One group of women is sat round a TV watching Jeremy Kyle, sipping tea together. Advice is exchanged too: "You mustn't bury your head love. That's the worst thing, to bury your head," The Rat tells one of his customers.

You feel some come here for the chat as much as the bric-a-brac.

"99.9% of customers", Mandy tells us, "are regulars", although that doesn't necessarily mean they're locals. The market's reputation precedes it, and she often sells to people from as far as Brighton.

Ali — presiding over a fleet of vacuum cleaners — agrees: "Loads of people come from out of London for this market to buy stuff," he says.

Ali (right) with a friend who would only give his name as 'Rambo'.

The Rat is now back to recounting his tale, although instead of talking to us, he's directing his story to a neighbouring trader. We listen in:

"I was an assistant quantity surveyor, I was earning 15 quid a week, right. And I went up to East Street on the first day and took 15 quid. And it was like a big burst of knowledge come out of my head - 'what am I doing, doing 39 hours and doing what I'm told to do... and that's how it started...

"(There we are sir, 50 pence...)

"...When you've been selling stuff for 40 years you know what you're doing," The Rat laughs — now talking to us again, "If you don't, get out of the game.

"You learn by mistakes. You put something on the stall, you put two quid on it, no one argues... you think 'right, next time it's going to be £2.50.'"

Not everyone on the market shares the optimism of The Rat.

Vicky, who says "They're expecting us to compete with pound shops."

Vicky has been working here "too bloody long. 26 years, plus," and doesn't have high hopes for the market's future. Especially, she says, since Lewisham Council got rid of the free parking two years ago.  

"It's had it. They've taken the car parking away, which has got rid of the customers. People only come here that can make it on foot.

"Trade slumped pretty much overnight.

"You used to be able to walk down here and find an antique vase. It was a good market but there's no footfall. If people come by buses they can't carry anything."

One previous owner, still unopened.

Don't the younger, trendy residents of Deptford people come here to buy things?

"They've got no money, they're students," Vicky says, "if you look at people, they're just walking past. They've got no money. It's a shame."

But even if hell froze over, these market traders will carry on flogging everything under the sun. "Anything and everything," is how Mandy, succinctly describes her wares. The Rat — who is even trying to flog a few old tins of baked beans — concurs:

"We put out everything," he says, "even the dirty clothing... well, HE buys all the ladies dirty clothing," The Rat says, suddenly turning to a man with a scraggly beard and a camouflage fishing hat.

"Have you got anymore?!" the man replies.

"No, you'll have a heart attack, I'm telling you. At your age."

The Douglas Way bric-a-brac market is open along with the rest of Deptford Market on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

*We have since been informed that the gentleman in the fifth picture down did indeed purchase his attire from a stall "not 10 yards away" from where the picture was taken. The dog is called Hamish.

Last Updated 31 March 2020