What Will Crossrail Mean For Whitechapel Market?

James Drury
By James Drury Last edited 9 months ago
What Will Crossrail Mean For Whitechapel Market?
Fresh fruit on sale at Whitechapel Road Market
Fresh fruit on sale at Whitechapel Road Market

Whether informal set-ups tolerated by the Manor of Stepney in the 1700s, or the costermongers' barrows of the mid-19th century, people have been selling to people on this stretch of road heading into and out of the City for centuries.

As the decades passed, so did the stalls. In the 1880s Walter Besant described finding "second-hand boots and shoes; cutlery; hats and caps; rat-traps and mouse-traps and birdcages; flowers and seeds; skittles; and frames for photographs". In the 1970s, alongside the clothing and food stalls, you could buy second hand records, hi-fis and electronics.

Today it's a focal point for many in the Bengali community. The stallholders' calls are a mix of languages: sometimes English, sometimes Bengali, sometimes a blend of the two.  

It's also a focal point for Europe's current largest infrastructure project. Leaving the station's temporary exit you're immediately faced with a board hailing all the benefits that Crossrail will bring: a new large ticket hall, bright underground spaces, full height platform screens and a "green roof topped with Sedum plants".

The £14.8bn scheme is expected to bring more people to the area, whether visiting from the soon-to-be more accessible parts of Essex or west London, or staying because of the even better link with Canary Wharf.

That's what the stallholders are hoping for, anyway.

Mostafa Kamal at his stall in Whitechapel Market.
Mostafa Kamal at his stall in Whitechapel Market.

"It's going to get busier here — well, that's what they say," smiles Mostafa Kamal, whose electronics stall has been on the market for 20 years.

"I hope so, because it's been quieter for four or five years now. It used to be so much busier before. But I don't necessarily think it's to do with the station works. People don't have as much money as they did.

He also hits on something which could end up being a threat to the diversity of markets everywhere: "People are buying more things online now."

It's the plight of many physical retailers. Whether it's a national chain, an independent shop or a market stall, online shopping is creating serious challenges.

The key, as Juheal Amin says, is providing something you can't get elsewhere.

His fruit and veg stall groans with ginger, chillis, garlic, potatoes and parsnips packed in alongside more exotic fruit and veg you won't find in the enormous Sainsbury's just around the corner.

"It's usually busier than this in the summer," shivers Amin, as he unpacks a crate of fruit. "Business is good, though. There's a lot of Bengali people living here, and we specialise in Bengali food here so people come to us.

"I reckon it'll get busier when Crossrail opens — it'll mean more people can get here more easily.

"But you never really know, do you?" A customer draws his attention and he's back to working. The stall is thronged with people, poking at what's on sale, picking up something for lunch or dinner.

Walking the market, we ponder how little the market has changed since this photo was taken in 1975. The striped plastic sheeting covering the metal frames looks like it could be the same material, it's so worn and tatty these days. If there's pressure on the traders now, how's the market going to look when the new station opens, complete with new public square, "bright underground spaces" and "a series of exciting new public artworks"?

Tower Hamlets Council noted the problem in a report which sets out a strategy for improving the market.

Jewellery on sale at Kamal Uddin's stall/
Jewellery on sale at Kamal Uddin's stall.

Further west, past the scarves and coats stalls is Kamal Uddin's jewellery stall, which he's had for two years.

"The market is busy," he says. "The construction works haven't really affected the amount of people coming here."

As if to prove his point, our conversation is frequently punctuated by customers browsing the selection of jewellery sparkling in the winter sunshine.

Uddin's a natural salesman, confidently showing off his wares and explaining the difference between the different price ranges. Pretty much everyone who stops, buys something.

"You get all sorts of people coming here from all over the world," he grins. "I can speak four languages: English, Bengali, Hindi and Spanish, so I can chat to many people in their own language."

The council has a job on its hands preserving the fact that so many of these stalls cater for the community, while aiming to increase the variety of what's on offer. But all the stallholders we chatted to were hard working and had an acute understanding of the needs of their customers.

The improvements will no doubt ensure there's life in this market for some years to come. How the traders respond to the growth of online shopping will be key to its longer future.

Last Updated 19 December 2017