Greenwich has long been an active hive of industry and trade. Yet, while its maritime and royal past are justly famous, this important commercial history is less appreciated. And at the heart of this fascinating story sits Greenwich Market.
Greenwich began as a separate settlement on marshy ground five miles downriver from London. While human activity here is far more ancient, it was first mentioned as ‘Gronewic’ by the Anglo-Saxons in 918. Historically associated with the British navy and royalty (particularly the Plantagenets and Tudors – some of whom, like Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, were born here) 18th-century Greenwich had become a fashionable resort and busy urban centre.
Greenwich’s growth demanded a Royal Charter Market to replace an untidy clutter of stalls that had operated since the 14th century. Accordingly, on 19 December 1700 the Commissioners of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich were granted a 1000-year Royal Charter to establish a properly regulated market.
Opening on 3 September 1737, the original market housed about 60 stallholders, more than half of whom came from as far away as the City of London. Again, over half were butchers – there was only one grocer, one baker and one hatter for variety. Stallholders paid rent directly to the Hospital, with records showing the market was initially a commercial success. Trade declined by the end of 1760s, however, and rents had to be lowered to attract stallholders.
Part of the problem was the market’s original location. Clustering around the Hospital’s West Gate, it spread uncontrollably into the neighbouring area. A market occupying dark streets and narrow alleys proved difficult and dangerous to control, and a new site was badly needed.
The current site, across the way from the West Gate of what it now the Old Royal Naval College, was deemed ideal. The move was part of a general late-Georgian initiative to clean up Greenwich’s river frontage and bring its buildings up to the standards set by Christopher Wren’s grand Naval College.
Established between 1827 and 1833, the new market was sturdily paved with cobbles and covered by a timber roof. More diverse stallholders were attracted to the site, and by 1831 the central market could boast traders selling meat, fish, eggs, butter, poultry, fruit and vegetables. Vendors of china, glass and earthenware also set up shop on its periphery.
In 1845 The Admiral Hardy pub was given permission to open a small theatre over the newly built arch into the market leading from College Approach. Today, the inscription on the arch can still be read: “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord but a just weight is his delight”.
Establishing the new market was a costly exercise for the Greenwich Hospital Commissioners. Recognising this, Parliament passed an Act to enable the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital to regulate and manage the Markets held at Greenwich in the County of Kent on 26 June 1849.
The Act that added to the powers entailed in the original charter, enabling the Hospital to better regulate and manage the market. The Commissioners could now not only collect rent from tolls and stalls but create new byelaws.
Further improvements were made between 1902 and 1908, when the degraded timber roof was replaced by three separate roofs, glazed and supported by trussed steel. Elegant and functional, they were restored in 2016, and are key criteria in the market’s Grade II Heritage listing. Other significant developments included a 1905 byelaw extending trading to six days a week (exempting Sundays, Christmas Day and bank holidays) and the closure of the noisome slaughterhouses in 1908. Today, the market opens every day of the week.
As horse traffic declined in the early 20th-century, the adjacent stables were repurposed for storage. Today, some of the old stables and slaughterhouses can still be seen in the surrounding lanes. Further improvements were made in 1958–60 and during the 1980s.
The last century was, however, challenging, as Greenwich Market’s wholesale produce trade steadily declined between WWII and the 1980s. It wasn’t until 14 May 1985 that, inspired by examples such as Camden Lock Market, the market reinvented itself as a purveyor of antiques and arts-and-crafts.
Complementing this change of direction, from 1987 adjoining shops were increasingly let to tenants also dealing in handicrafts. Next, food stalls selling an ever-growing range of world foods were admitted, which was to prove another positive move. Today, Greenwich Market’s handsome, historic site and alluring range of handicrafts, bric-a-brac, clothing and delicious food make it one of the Royal Borough’s essential destinations.