The Wonderful World Of Stolen Goods

London, Observatory

Eek! The Hidden Victorian Mothers are back! (see earlier post) And I don’t like the cut of that blond kid’s jib, either, he looks like a young Edgar Allen Poe.

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether the children are dead, but I think people are confusing two entirely separate types of photograph. It was not uncommon in Victorian times to have your child photographed in the hours following death (infant mortality rates being extremely high) is as natural a pose as possible.

These photographs would then go into a death album, which stood on a little wooden stand in your front room along with all the other Victorian clutter, birds in cases and the like. I remember seeing a whole batch of gold-edged child death albums on sale at Bermondsey Market, the strange market just over Tower Bridge that used to open at 4am every Friday morning. They would get themed batches of items come in. The fact that these were clearly collections made you very suspicious about their provenance.

I virtually furnished my last house from the torchlit stalls of Bermondsey. The police kept an eye on the place, too. The market was unique in that it was the last one in London to really use the ancient law of marche overt, which was only abolished in 1995. Under this law, in number of designated markets including Bermondsey Market, if an item was sold between sunrise and sunset then its provenance could not be questioned, so stolen goods could be traded and good title would pass to the purchaser. I imagine several nicked Banksys ended up there. In the warehouses around the market edges were more legitimate items from reputable dealers, but on the stalls you’d find masses of strange old Victoriana, often very cheap.

As far as I know, East Lane, Portobello Road Leather Lane and Petticoat Lane all went legit – but you could always find high-end stolen stuff in Bermondsey. Then coachloads of Japanese tourists started invading the market, and it stopped being fun to wander around with your glass of hot sarsaparilla, the biting sweet blackcurrant drink that had ceased being popular at around the time Oliver Twist was first hitting the shelves. As the alleyways became overran with camera-waggling tourists, we retreated – ands then the site was redeveloped. Today it’s all but unrecognisable, and the nearby Bermondsey Street is dead posh instead of being somewhere you could fence a dinner service.

Supposedly the market still takes place, but as the actual square itself seems to have disappeared, I don’t know where they hold the market – perhaps someone can enlighten me?

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5 comments on “The Wonderful World Of Stolen Goods”

  1. Pheeny says:

    I know what those invisible mother photos remind me of now – the work of the late, great Edmund Gorey!

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I have to agree, Pheeny. Gorey must have known of these photos as he was so deep into Victoriana, his source material.
    Mother’s family had an old farm out in Ohio. When we went to clear it out, we found a great many such items both in the rooms and up in the baking hot attic.
    Glass-lidded, deep photo boxes with a death picture, a hair clipping or some hair woven with small dried flowers, or woven into a finger ring, or tied with a faded ribbon; a straight-pin-fixed gold pocket watch and chain; a tear collector; a Free Mason’s button or tieclip; and bits of wedding lace, a baby’s scuffed shoe(s) or item of clothing, a feather, a paper bit with an old style signature. All very carefully wrapped in tissue paper and stored in a large humped-backed wooden chest. Unfortunately not everything named because the departed had been so well known to the family members in the house. And various photographs printed by various methods. Creepy. Out much of it went.
    This is a great topic and thanks for the second installment. Will the street markets reported on above figure in one of the coming B&M novels? You must know they should. Bryant would have a wonderful time. As grandmother used to say: “Dan, it’s time to prime the pump.” Are you?

  3. David Read says:

    I just find these deeply disturbing at a level I don’t even want to think about. That said there are plenty of people i have filmed who I wish were behind a curtain…

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Then there are coffin plates. I actually have one and had to have explained to me the fact that people had them made separately from the one actually on the coffin and displayed them at the ‘viewing’ on a separate table. They became very elaborate but went out of style in the early 20th century. The one I have is very plain. I don’t have any invisible mothers or dead children photos. All mine are very lively.

  5. Colin Bulent says:

    Is it just me, or is the child standing in the last pic a zombie? Talk about death portraits!

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