The Importance of the History of Portobello Road Market Today

Jesse Smith's Greengrocers and Florists, now where Admiral Vernon Antiques Arcade on Portobello Road. HistoryTalk

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve attended two of the free history events held by North Kensington’s community history group, HistoryTalk. Both of these events have looked at Portobello Market, the first consisted of a community discussion on the history of the market. Discussion was prompted by a slide show of photographs of Portobello through the years and led by two local historians, Eddie Adams and Tom Vague. The lack of a structured talk didn’t diminish the obvious knowledge and expertise of Adams and Vague, but allowed the group to discuss memories, ask questions and generally express their love of the area. I learnt a lot, including that the Antiques arcade ‘Admiral Vernon’, used to be a large greengrocers and florists called Jesse Smith’s, and also where Tesco’s is now used to be a dairy, run by recent Welsh arrivals to the area. Immigrant communities have been central to Portobello’s history, to its development and character, and though I knew about the Spanish community escaping Franco’s regime and Civil War, and of course the West Indian community, but I didn’t know there has also been a Welsh community of settlers who ran the local dairies.

The second event was a screening of the film ‘Stall Stories: A History of Portobello Road Market‘. This was billed as a documentary made by the children at the local Colville Primary School, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Needless to say I was very impressed. We learnt afterwards that the film was a result of a HLF funded project led by an arts and educational charity, Digital:Works, which worked with four primary schools to make a film about their local market. The children did the research in the archives, spoke to local historians and then made the film, which meant they conducted the interviews and filmed them, their involvment didn’t reach into the cutting room, though they were shown a rough edit to give them a chance to make any changes. Some of the children who were involved came to the screening and also answered questions on the making of the film afterwards, and it was really inspirational to see the joy and pride they got out of the process, not only were they proud of their finished product but they also clearly enjoyed the historical research and practice of oral history. I was overjoyed when one of the girls said if she had to make another similar film her topic would be local black history, mentioning Claudia Jones and Kelso Cochrane.

What was also notable about the film, was that it wasn’t just a straight narrative history, it demonstrated the significance of history to the present day and the strong sense of heritage today’s stall holders felt. Stall holders past and present where the celebrated feature of the film and were presented as being responsible for creating and sustaining the character of the area. It made a strong case for why Portobello should continue to be a place for local independent traders, with a regret for the continued increase in rents and establishment of corporate chains along the road.

The film tells an emotive story and records a snapshot of life on the market today. It was good to hear that after it was made it was not only shown to the filmakers’ fellow students at Colville, but also to the market holders working on the market day by setting up a screening on it’s own stall one weekend. Some of the audience felt it needed to be shown to local Councillors, and I’m sure it does have some political strength, though I think it can also act as an inspiration to other children. History on TV, in a variety of forms, is at an all time high, from ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ to ‘Downton Abbey’, and work like this can encourage students to engage with history in an alternative way, as well as giving them training and ideas of how historical research and knowledge could be useful in a future career.

As you can see I liked the film, so it would be wrong of me not to share it, so please find it below. It would also be wrong of me not to mention that there is a campaign to ‘Save Portobello’ from the torrent of commercial chains and retain its historic character, more information can be found on the campaign’s facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Save-the-Portobello-Road-Market/300902793992

The project has also looked at Brixton, Leather Lane and Petticoat Lane, you can find more information at their website: http://www.stallstories.org.uk/

Also for more information on HistoryTalk and their events go here: http://www.historytalk.org/

Finally some articles on the Save Portobello campaign:
http://kensington.londoninformer.co.uk/2011/10/antiques-traders-fear-for-futu.html (18 Oct 2011)
http://www.frockery.co.uk/talk/environment/portobello-road-market-help-save-a-national-treasure (12 Nov 2010)
http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23824413-campaigners-claim-victory-in-battle-to-save-portobello-market.do (14 April 2010)
http://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/7482.aspx  (22 March 2010)

 

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