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The Peoples History of Petticoat Lane

A panel illustrating the history of the famous Street Market on Middlesex Street E1. The market has been going since the 18th century, primarily selling clothes and fabrics. It was originally called Petticoat lane as it was a good place to buy underwear but the Victorians thought this indelicate and renamed the street.

The panel shows some of the colourful characters associated with the market and patterns taken from the fabrics sold in the market through the ages.

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1. Pearly Queen

The tradition of Pearly Kings and Queens originated with Henry Croft who lived near St Pancras in the 1870s. He was a street sweeper but he felt compassion for poor and created an eye catching and decorative costume to help him raise money for those less fortunate than himself. The idea took off and by 1911 there were Pearly Kings and Queens in all the London Boroughs. They would gather at popular places like fairs and markets and persuade their admiring audience to donate to good causes.


2. Spitalfields Silk

Huguenot weavers settled in Spitalfields in the 17th century to escape from persecution in France. They were highly skilled and created luxury fabrics for the gentry. This design is by James Leman of Steward Street (pictured left) around 1705. He was second generation Huguenot and ran a highly successful business as well as being a talented designer.Many of his fabrics show a Chinese influence which was very fashionable at the time.

3. Dutch Wax

These fabrics were inspired by the batik prints of Java but manufactured in the 19th century in Holland using machine techniques. Initially exported to the Dutch East Indies their market expanded to West Africa. Some Africans had been enslaved or employed in the Army in the Dutch East Indies and when they could finally get home they brought the colourful textiles with them. The Dutch manufacturers leapt on this new market and began creating designs that would be popular  there. Some designs tell stories and send send symbolic messages. This pattern was designed in 1936 by Piet Snel of Vlisco, the main manufacturer and a company that still survives today. In the 1960s and 70s, after the countries were independent, these fabrics were very popular as emblems of both status and national pride, and the European companies went into partnerships with local firms. The pattern is called Plaque Plaque, Target or, in Nigeria, Record. In recent years Petticoat Lane has become an international centre for the trade of these beautiful fabrics.


4. Sid Strong

In 1964 Sid Strong was voted the Best Market Trader in Europe at a competition in The Hague. His company was Strongs (Fancy Goods) Ltd and they mostly sold china and glass. He had a market stall at Gravesend as well as Petticoat Lane, and would drive up to Stoke on Trent to purchase his wares. As well as having an exciting and dramatic patter he was able to throw a dinner service into the air and catch it without breaking a single piece. At the Hague he had taken a ton of china and sold it all within an hour.

5. Prince Monolulu 1881-1965

The Prince claimed that he was the chief of the Falasha tribe in Abyssinia but his real name was Peter Carl McKay and he came from St. Croix in the Caribbean. His family had been horse breeders and riders and when, after a stint as a sailor, he arrived in Britain in 1902 he became a racing tipster. In 1920 he tipped an outsider called Spion Kop in the Derby and when it won it made his name (and a small fortune).He would go to race tracks all over the country as well as paying regular visits to Petticoat Lane where he would parade up and down in his colourful clothes and ostrich feather headdress, shouting his catch phrase - 'I gotta horse'. In the 1930s he was probably the most famous black man in the country and appeared in many films, including a government public information film encouraging people to wear gas masks saying 'I gotta gas mask"


6. Jamdani

This is a famous traditional weaving technique used in Bangladesh. It used very fine thread, creating a translucent fabric sometimes described as 'the thread of winds'. It was exported to the West as valuable luxury since the 15th century and became very fashionable in the 18th century when some considered its transparency scandalous. The fabric is decorated with a secondary weave of various flowers and motifs including the characteristic 'kalaka'. This is the Persian term for the shape that became known in the West as 'Paisley' after the Scottish town that was famous for machine produced versions of these designs in the 19th century. The origin of the shape is uncertain, possibly representing a cypress tree, or possibly a teardrop. Jamdani fabrics are still prized to this day as beautiful and luxurious fabrics for saris and some are sold in the Bangladeshi shops of Petticoat Lane.

7. Pearly button design

Henry Croft's idea of using pearl buttons was probably inspired by the costermongers or street sellers who used to decorate the seams and edges of their clothes with pearl buttons to emulate the finery of the rich. It is rumoured that he found an abandoned shipment on the shore of the Thames but it is also said that he was attracted to the white, shiny treasures because they symbolised purity and innocence. All the outfits are different and some include representational elements as well as patterns.


8. Organ Grinder

There was often an organ grinder playing his tunes in the Market. They were usually of Italian origin and the barrel organs they played were made by Italian companies who would hire them out to the itinerant grinders who would then have to pay them some of their earnings. An extra attraction was the accompanying monkey that was trained to dance to the tunes. There are many descriptions of the terrible nuisance that the organ grinders caused in 19th century London, and how their earnings largely came from people paying them to move on and make their noise elsewhere. Their numbers declined rapidly at the beginning of the 20th century, not because of their apparent unpopularity, but because of the growing imposition of copyright laws that forbade the unlicensed use of popular music.

9. Petticoat Lane Market

The view of the Market in full swing one Sunday Morning around 1900. The view seems to be looking North towards Bishopsgate.

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