Cheap Street

London’s street markets and the cultures of informality, c. 1850–1939

Cheap Street tells the history of London’s street markets and of the people who bought and sold in them. From the 1850s anything that could be bought in a shop in London could also be bought in the street markets, which were the butcher, baker, greengrocer, provision merchant, haberdasher, tailor and furnisher of the working-class city. They sat uncomfortably on the edge of the law, barely tolerated by authorities that did not quite know whether to admire them for their efficient circulation of goods, or to despise them for their unregulated and ‘low’ character. They were the first recourse of immigrants looking to earn a living, and of privileged observers seeking a voyeuristic glimpse of street life. London’s street markets have frequently been overlooked, viewed as anomalous among the sophisticated consumer institutions of the modern city, the department stores and West End shops. Cheap Street shows how the street markets, as an emanation of the informal economy that flourishes in the interstices of urban life, adapted nimbly to urban growth and contributed to consumer modernity, and how in doing so, they propagated myths about what it meant to live in London and be a Londoner. The book analyses the street markets through their legal and economic informality, material culture, sensory affects and performative character, using varied documentary and visual evidence. It reshapes the interpretation of London’s urban geographies and consumer cultures, offering new insights into London’s history.

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