Bermondsey Market: The Last Of The Lawless


For 700 years, Bermondsey Market, just south of Tower Bridge, operated under a law that became known as ‘the thieves’ charter’. The market was a marché ouvert. The ancient allowed that if an item was sold between sunset and sunrise its provenance couldn’t be questioned. The law only changed its status in 1995.

Bermondsey Market was the last of the great London markets, selling everything from Victorian death albums to medical skeletons and antique candelabras. It opened at 5:00am so if you went in winter you had several hours of buying under the ancient law, which exempted buyers from prosecution so long as they did not know that the item they were purchasing was stolen.

Over the years I had a lot of fun in this market, which tumbled from the central square into the rickety damp warehouses of the former dockland area, where gigantic items like ship’s propellors, huge paintings and station clocks were housed.

But after a woman called Anne White discovered her burgled antique carriage clock being resold in the market she decided to do something about it. So began a journey round Britain’s antique and second-hand trade that took Mrs White into the murky worlds of art theft, shady dealers and ancient laws that help the thief rather than protect the victim.

To my knowledge the police still have no nationwide stolen property register. Mrs White got the thieves’ law revoked, and soon after property developers moved in and destroyed most of the area. The great market vanished beneath the usual conglomeration of boring ‘luxury loft living’ glass boxes, and the market was granted a miserable little space to continue in what appears to be a car park, atmosphere-free and uninteresting. A few of the original dealers remain, and let’s hope they return after the pandemic.

13 comments on “Bermondsey Market: The Last Of The Lawless”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    Fascinating stuff – you couldn’t make it up. Reading it made me think of a catch phrase from the character ‘Chris, The Crafty Cockney’ :(he’ s a little bit ‘Wurr!’ A little bit ‘Wahay!’; he’s a geezer and he will nick anything.)
    “It’s all pukka – it’s all nicked!”
    Chris had an older brother. Who was a Policeman – he will nick anyone.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    *from ‘The Fast Show’.

  3. Jan says:

    Interesting that Bermondsey is named for a man named Beormund originally from what is now Denmark or possibly Norway. This man who would have arrived by ship maybe after Viking his way across parts of Britain after crossing the North Sea – probably on numerous occasions – then settling on what was basically a dry “island” of land within South London which apart from certain ‘islands’ of solid land was a massive marsh. There’s a local leisure centre named for him! He’d be so proud and likely have a try on the rowing machine to remind him of his longship crewing days!

    Dunno about “Market Ouvre” but Dishonest Handling the offence of purchasing or receiving goods knowing or believing them to be stolen is a bit of a side issue – almost a bit of a red herring – here. There was no valid /automatic presumption to be made in these circumstances. Although it’s fascinating that the location of the market would have lead folk to believe that the goods offered may have come from London’s docks. In the 18 + 19 Cs the docks were so busy that cargo ships had to wait in the Thames close to the docks lining up to be unloaded for a number of days. Piracy became rife and crews on board the cargo ships were threatened and assaulted and their goods stolen. An early version of a localised police force partially river based was established to guard the docks. Many of these S.E. London pirates were captured and many were hanged at St Saviours Dock at the location where the Neckinger river reached confluence with the Thames. In fact that was likely how the Neckinger got its name “Neckinger” being a corruption of the term Devils Neckerchief a nickname for the noose basically!

  4. Paul C says:

    I remember Sid James singing a song called ‘Bermondsey’ and doing a nifty tap dance with Joe Brown in the film ‘Three Hats for Lisa’

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Do we know what sort of hats Lisa has?

  6. Jo W says:

    That Friday market in Bermondsey Square,behind the Trocette, was known as the New Caledonian market, or The Cally locally. It sold everything there,not only the ‘iffy antiques’ but lots of other stuff. Second-hand clothing, boots shoes etc. One stall,tucked in by a fire exit from the old Trocette cinema, always seemed to have plenty of sheets,towels etc. Seems she had an arrangement with laundry/bagwash shops. She bought up unpaid and collected bundles. Her repeated selling cry was- “Look at this, there’s not a crack nor a brack in it!”
    No, I still don’t know what that meant, but I slept on some of those sheets and wore some of the vests. Those days,you were just grateful.

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    Bermondsey market, along with a fair few dodgy markets and dealers, appeared in the excellent ‘Lovejoy’ novels. Great characters and excellent dialogue. Well worth reading again.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Interesting. If you’ve looked at any freighter these days you’ll see that they are filled with “cans”, some twenty and many forty feet long. When they entered use in the Port of Vancouver there was a big stink over where they would “break bulk”, be opened and the freight distributed. The longshoremen wanted it to happen on the dock while the shipper/receivers wanted it to happen in their warehouses. There were many nasty cries that the longshoremen didn’t want to lose tthe pickings from “broken” crates and boxes while others said that the warehouse owners just didn’t want to have to pay union wages for the work. Logic finally won out and break bulk happens in warehouses. You don’t want the dock area clogged with partially unloaded containers. Ships would end up sitting at anchor (v. above) waiting for a berth and have you any idea what the demurrage is on a ship idling in the harbour?

  9. Jan says:

    A good point Helen the answer in the UK seems to have revolved around creating new container ports absolutely massive places to deal with containers in vast numbers

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Demurrage is a frightening cost. I have no idea what it is now, but in 1991, I worked for a shipping company, and we charged demurrage of £13 per ton of cargo per day. If your container has, say, 20 tons of goods, that’s going to mount up very quickly. 1991 prices, remember.

  11. Jan says:

    I posted a more detailed comment into the wrong thread about docklands Helen.
    It’s in the one next door just behind this thread

    Hope you and Ken are doing alright. Jan

  12. Helen Martin says:

    We’re fine, Jan. thank you, although I seem to have blue spells periodically, possibly because I’m not seeing anyone these days and zoom meetings are beginning to pall a bit.

  13. Jan says:

    I think most of us have gone on a bit of down Helen when the 1st weeks + months of this pandemic were happening I felt the time had come along to rise to a new challenge. (and of course working in the health field now work wasn’t going to stop for me.) Gradually though when the light dawned and it became apparent this is really going to be a long old game and it was a case of coming to grips with this reality the shine went off things in a way bloody hell this ain ‘t going to all go away as rapidly as it arrived. This is long term. Life’s changed.

    In a sense the fundamental changes aren’t really appreciated yet. What we’ve seen so far is the fast forwarding of changes which were already in motion. We’ll see whats to really happen next in the next year or three……

    Must get gone I have got to go and get me ruddy covid test done @ work.
    Never done a Zoom meeting I thought Zooms were 1970s ice lollies and it was really weird hearing Zooms were central to computer communications! Stay safe you and Ken look after yourselves

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