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.