This is the fourth and final story of Tales from Tigerlily
The East End Rag Markets
Tigerlily came to life as a shop in 1974, as a vintage clothes store on Mill Road, Cambridge. But before that, I’d been getting into gear buying and selling through a friend’s stall on Cambridge market. The East End of London was where my serious buying began, in terms of sourcing ‘period clothing’ as we called it then. I drove down there almost every Sunday morning, leaving Cambridge in the dark, and often getting there before daybreak. Sometimes my business partner Helen would accompany me, or meet me there – it was she, in fact, who had introduced me to this extraordinary collection of stalls and sellers, with their treasures and junk, rubbish and bric-a-brac. This sprawling, colourful, ragamuffin of a second-hand market was held around Sclater Street and Cheshire Street, an area which runs across Brick Lane. The streets here were lined with stalls, which also edged into the dilapidated old warehouses, plus improvised sales pitches anywhere there was space. Piles of old clothes, shoes, bicycle parts and knick-knacks would be spread out along the walls and even the pavements. Some were only fit for the dustbin, and may even have come from there in the first place. Others could be treasures, retrieved from attics and forgotten places of storage. I had to be quick off the mark to decided which was which!
The pre-dawn raids
The first buyers would arrive before the day had fully dawned, flashing their torches onto the jumble of goods They were usually dealers, expertly picking out what was desirable stock for their own particular sales niche. It could be antiques, marketable second-hand modern clothes, vintage radios, old machinery, watches and clocks, collectable books, or anything else potentially specialist and desirable. And we weren’t the only ones looking for textiles and clothes. Some of the upmarket and expensive London vintage stores had buyers on the prowl; it was a relatively new type of business, but sellers in places like Portobello Road and the Kensington Antiques Market were already cashing in on the trend. And some had already beguiled the Brick Lane dealers into saving all the good stuff for them. I would regularly watch as a tall, red-haired young woman from Notting Hill and her trendy boyfriend would swan in to receive their piles of saved goods from the favoured stallholders, rather like a royal couple graciously accepting tribute from their subjects. Was I jealous? Of course! I had to get to a similar position – somehow, somewhere. And since these Tigerlily blogs aren’t chronological, you may have seen from the second in the series that I finally cracked this challenge in the rag mills up north, rather than on the streets of London.
Cheshire St and Sclater St- the best streets for bargains!
As mentioned, it was Helen who was already familiar with the Brick Lane whirl of buying and selling. Before Tigerlily opened, she ran her stall on Cambridge market one or two days a week, making a basic living from supplying crepe dresses, Victorian nighties, men’s jackets and grandad shirts from a bygone era. As I began giving her some of my finds from jumble sales and junk shops to sell on commission, we considered co-ordinating our efforts – I had the transport, she had the know-how. Before we dared to think about a shop, however, we needed to see if we could dovetail our efforts and build up enough of a supply.
Hitches and glitches – and advice on baby care!
So I made these trips to London for a year or two before we opened our shop Tigerlily, and we carried on with our joint expeditions for some time after we began trading. It wasn’t all straightforward – I remember when my hatchback Renault broke down at about 4am on a solo trip to London. No mobile phones back then, of course, and I had to try and hitch a lift home in the dark. I was picked up by a car full of male party goers on their way home. Luckily, they were plainly all shattered by then, the driver was sober, and they were courteously silent for the half an hour or so that it took to drop me off in Cambridge. Another more major issue was that I did a lot of trips while pregnant – my daughter was born just before the shop began trading – and the nausea I felt in early pregnancy was intensified by the ripe smells of the Brick Lane area. The origin of the smells came both from from rotting fruit left over from weekday trading, along with the smell of mould and decay from some of the ancient bundles of fabric piled up at the back of the derelict warehouses. So it wasn’t always a pleasant task, sorting through what was on offer.
After Jessica was born, I sometimes brought her with me on these buying trips, perfectly content in her carrycot-on-wheels, the only transport solution of the day for a small baby. Sometimes I met with East End disapproval – the fashion there was for enormous, shiny prams. And the new edict that babies should be put to sleep on their tummies hadn’t reached these parts, so our progress was greeted with shrieks of horror from Cockney mothers and grandmothers, who prophesied that she would suffocate this way. (Yes, I know, policy has reversed since then, probably several times over.)
Remnants of an even earlier time – these were probably still operational when I visited the area in the ’70s. Now the Bath House is smartly done up, its heritage preserved. Many old buildings had already been swept away then, some because of bomb damage, some because of ruthless redevelopment schemes.
Relics from a passing era
But we did find marvellous things in Cheshire Street and around. One day, I had finished my buying and was sitting waiting in the car for Helen to re-appear with her finds, so that we could start the drive back to Cambridge. She finally arrived, puffing under a load of blue velvet tailcoats.
‘I was on my way back, when I saw these. Some guy had just put them out.’ Apparently, she told me – though I haven’t been able to verify this –they had been worn by the Parliamentary Whips, in the style of 18th century men’s apparel, and were now being scrapped for something more modern. They went like hot cakes when she put one in Tigerlily’s window and I wish I’d kept one for my own collection.
I picked up a full-length hand-embroidered dress once, draped over some railings with a few pitiful items, and on sale for next to nothing. It was made of heavy hand-woven cream cotton, and I think it was probably Palestinian. That I did keep, and wear, for a while. Like Helen’s tailcoats, it appeared just at the last moment in the morning. Although most of the good things went very early, you never knew what you might spot later on. Hence it was difficult, sometimes, to drag ourselves away.
But needs must, and we’d turn for home by about 11.0 – Cambridge wasn’t a long drive away. I’d have emptied my flask of coffee while on the prowl, and on return I’d make myself a large fried brunch, and go back to bed for a few hours. The baby could share my nap, and I’d hope that my husband would look after both children and make our tea! The sorting, washing, and pricing could wait until the Monday.
Return to Brick Lane
The whole scene has remained vivid in my mind for over forty years, but I never went back again until very recently, just before lockdown in March 2020. I was thrilled beyond measure to revisit the area again. I had come to Spitalfields on a weekend blogging course run by ‘The Gentle Author’ of Spitalfields Life, and I eagerly took the first part of Sunday morning, before our session started, to walk down Brick Lane. I had been to London regularly since the 1970s, but somehow had never made it back to this part of town before.
I experienced sudden surges of memory – landmarks that I didn’t even know I remembered until they were there in front of me, like the railway bridge running over Brick Lane itself. But my most intense state of exaltation came from re-discovering Cheshire and Sclater Street, which had been the prime destinations for our buying trips. I couldn’t conjure up a mental map, but it was as though my feet and deep-buried memories just carried me there unerringly. And some of the stalls were reminiscent of those which had been there all those years ago. The old warehouses were still there, though some were now restored, and no longer full of stinking bales of old clothes.
It was a thrill to buy an old Cadbury’s hot chocolate jug from a bric-a-brac stall in a warehouse I’d once frequented, and mentioning the ‘good old days’ to stallholders brought smiles and recollections to share.
I chatted to a seller who described how, as a boy, he used to drive up with his Dad in their pick-up truck, and started unloading their goods before it got light, ready for the first buyers. I even began to think I might remember him and his father, but perhaps it was more of a generic memory of the fierce urgency for sellers to claim their pitches and get the items on display before the customers arrived. People would be trying to take the items off the truck themselves before they could unload, he told me.
I felt that in a tenuous way, I still belonged to the club! I bought a glass pendant too, as a token of my reunion with the markets of the Brick Lane area.
Now, as the morning progressed and my writing course beckoned me to return, I noticed that more people were coming out for a Sunday morning saunter, just as they had in the 1970s. I remembered how, from the shadowy figures running down the street flashing their torches to left and right, gradually the streets filled up with people in the morning light, until it was so packed that you could hardly get from one place to another. Then it was time to go home, and in those days, to drive back to Cambridge, in a car laden with my finds.
Those finds were never quite enough though, especially when it came to stocking a shop. So eventually, my forays led to the bigger rag mills, where I made links with the sorters and sellers. Planned, longer trips, took over from the frenzied excitement of Brick Lane in the early dawn of a Sunday morning. But Cheshire Street and Sclater Street remain as my essential memory of hunting for treasures in the debris of the past.
Before I left that Sunday in early March, 2020, I visited a superb bookstall where everything was just £1, and there were several excellent Folio editions available. I bought Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which turned out to be remarkably apt. Within a week, we were in lockdown.
The end of Tigerlily
We ran the shop for about five years, so all in all I had about seven years of buying and selling vintage clothing, antique textiles and linen, and related accessories. Towards the end, I began to weary somewhat of the sorting and washing of bundles of clothes. As a family, too, we started thinking about a move to the country, which we eventually managed, arriving near Dulverton on the southern side of Exmoor. And things had become awkward with Helen, my business partner, with issues from her personal life clouding our working arrangement. Eventually we found a solution: we both decided to let go of Tigerlily, and passed it on to a young woman, who had worked hard and loyally for us for several years. She was delighted to take over, and several years later, when I bumped into her unexpectedly in London, she was still in charge. So I’m glad that Tigerlily had a longer life, and that it has become something of a legend in Mill Road history!
I decided to embrace country living, and to put more time and effort into becoming established as a writer. I kept a few big boxes of old textiles and linen, and sold a little here and there – it was only in about 2010 that I finally put the last batch into auction, little pieces of embroidery, lace and costume which I had hung onto more for their sentimental value. But my trading genes resurfaced in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I founded Firebird Russian Arts, and they still bubble away. Researching my family history later, I discovered that I have generations of shop keepers on both sides of the family! However, as I tell my husband, ‘If I ever start talking about taking on a shop again, please hit me over the head and bring me to my senses!’ Twice was good, but three times would definitely be too many. And my great delight was always the sourcing of the treasures, rather than the day-to-day operations of selling.