Broadway Market is a revelation these days. When I first knew it, just over 17 years ago, swathes of it were derelict. An infamous piece of graffiti said it all: ‘Broadway Market – not so much a sinking ship as a submarine’.
Yet today, it could hardly be more different. New shops, bars, restaurants, delis, coffee shops – the place is alive and buzzing.
And for the last eight and a half years, there’s been a ‘fine food’ market on a Saturday, which sees the place absolutely rammed.
Few people have really seen all the changes. But one who has is Henry Tidiman, a butcher on the street for over 50 years, man and boy.
It's a cold day and Henry is wearing a jacket over his usual red and white striped apron.
"I look like a greengrocer," he notes, rather dourly.
He left school at 14 and started working on his father’s butcher’s stall. “In them days, it was more difficult to get a shop up here than it is today.
“It was a very popular market. But after a few years, he eventually got a shop – right across the road from here. Can’t remember what year it was, but we were there for about 20 years.
“And then the GLC, as it was at the time, put a compulsory purchase order on the shops; they were building these at the time, and I was lucky enough to be able to get one of these and I’ve been here ever since.”
Were those times unlike what they are today?
“Oh, it was a different market then. I mean Saturdays up here is busy, but that’s the only day of the week that is busy. Back in the ’60s, it was busy every day,” says Henry.
“You had all stalls up here and it was mainly a food market. Everything was food – I mean, you had eight butchers’ shops – we was the eighth one to open, the only butcher’s shop that side.
“Wet fish shops … there was one, two … my uncle had a wet fish stall up here – there was quite a few of everything, although it was mainly a food market.
“And I came into this shop – I’ve been here about 30 years … something like that.”
He drifts for a moment or two, remembering Broadway Market as it once was.
“And things took a turn for the worse. The stallholders gradually went, for one reason or another; and there was people coming towards retirement age and nobody really wanted a shop in them days.
“About 15 years ago, there was 13 derelict shops up here. Hackney Borough Council, who’d taken over them the GLC, auctioned them off, and they went for about £25,000, £30,000 – that sort of region. They stood derelict for a number of years.
“I mean, my butcher’s shop over there, that I’d left, stood standing empty for a good four or five years. And then they took the compulsory orders away – or something like that – and they wasn’t prepared to spend any money on the market and that’s when it deteriorated.
He says that there were at least three bakers on the street that he can remember, who baked properly, on their own premises. The street now just has a Percy Ingle chain baker, where the bread dough is brought into the shop and only then baked there. And where a wholemeal loaf is still £1.85.
“For some reason or other, they just died away,” he muses, of the stalls and the shops.
Other people have said that supermarkets killed Broadway Market, but what does he think?
At first, he shakes his head, unwilling to go down this route. But then, as he’s thinking about it, he changes tack.
“Tesco had a store up here – just round the corner – that was one of Tesco’s big stores. These were in the days of Cohen, when he was alive and still owned Tescos. But that never interfered with anybody.”
There’s a local angle here. Tesco founder Jack Cohen started his retail empire in Hackney in 1919, operating market stalls in the nearby Wells Street area, with stock initially funded by his demob money after WWI.
“It was only when Tesco started to get bigger and those premises wasn’t big enough for them and they moved into the big supermarkets; when they expanded – of course that’s what crippled everybody. Not only this market – it crippled everybody. Supermarkets do – they kill the area. They take over and people can’t compete.”
He pauses. “Blowing me own trumpet, I could say that I was one of the survivors – I was the only survivor – after all those butchers’ shops closed.
“And I’m still here – although hopefully not for much longer.”
Is he looking forward to a rest?
“I’m looking forward to a different life!
“I’m here in the shop at half past six – I get up at half past three, four o’clock: half past three when I go to market: I still do my own buying. Up to a year ago, I was doing my own boning out and butchering, but as I’ve got older, it’s been too much work for me, so I buy prepared packs. Makes an easier life.”
We take a break as two women come into the shop. They buy meat and exchange a bit of banter with Henry before bidding farewell.
Broadway Market these days is a different world.
There had been attempts to reinvigorate the street, with a short-lived Saturday flower market, for instance, although that was always going to struggle, given that the famous Sunday Columbia Road flower market, which was originally set up in 1869, is only a 10-minutes walk over the border into Tower Hamlets.
When the current Saturday ‘fine food’ market took off some eight and a half years ago, of the remaining traders on the street, Henry was the only one that embraced it, developing what he stocked to include the likes of rabbit and corn-fed chicken.
“My trade has changed,” he explains. “Now I’m catering for the people who have gone away from supermarkets; they don’t like shopping at supermarkets. They’re anti-supermarket. Although the supermarkets are a trap – if something’s cheaper, they’ll go there and once they’re there, they’ll spend more money.
“I mean they provide parking facilities; you can have a breakfast in there – you can make a day of it if you want to.”
The parking issue is one that has gained widespread blame as one of the prime reasons for the demise of local high streets.
But in what other ways has his business changed?
“People are more particular today,” he notes.
“I think it’s a little bit over the top. I mean, now they want to know where it was bred, what part of England has it come from … what difference does it make, you know?
“They ask: ‘where do your eggs come from? What was the name of the hens that laid them?’ Stupid things like that. I mean, an egg is an egg.
“You look at something – like people used to do years ago – and if you liked the look of it, you bought it. You never worried about where it come from.
“They put dates on eggs now, when years ago they never. I can remember my mother, she never cracked an egg and opened it up straight into a frying pan – it was always put into a cup first to see if it was off. And if it wasn’t, then it was edible.”
This is something that I remember of my mother’s cooking: that she instinctively knew and understood such things. The problem was that she didn’t realise that that knowledge had to be taught, had to be handed down.
And what Henry is touching on, perhaps without realising it, is that so many people now lack the basic food skills that their forefathers (and mothers) had – like how to tell whether something is off or not.
“The welfare of animals has changed over the years – it’s much better now than it ever was,” he adds.
“I don’t agree with all that intensive farming,” he adds and then, after another pause: “but now people are into all this organic stuff.
“I often wonder how anything can be organic. Nothing can be 100% organic, when you’ve got acid rainfall, and this and that …
“Me personally, I can see all that dying out because people just won’t be able to afford it with things like they are.”
The issue of what people can afford is an interesting one. As Henry points out, “the UK exports 50% of our lamb to other EU countries, because the farmers can get a better price for it”.
It’s another reminder of how the supermarkets undercut small, independent businesses, with a recent report suggesting that many only pay something like 8-12% of the cost price of an item to the producer.
Henry continues on the theme of change. “People are spoilt today,” he states, and goes on to cite Jamie Oliver and campaigning around school meals.
“I used to get school meals – it’d be potatoes and something else – and if you didn’t like it, you didn’t eat it, but you didn’t get anything else.”
But when you point out that modern campaigning on school meals arose out of the whole ‘turkey twizzler’ syndrome, he agrees.
“Today there’s so much processed food about. Whereas years ago, I think food was better, quite honestly.
“You never seemed to get all the food poisoning … my father, when he had a butcher’s stall, we had no refrigeration; we had no fridge to keep it in. We only had our ice box – we used to have a delivery of ice twice a week, and we used to keep meat – it was like before people had fridges and you used to keep stuff in the larder and buy it from day to day, not for a week or fill your freezer, or this and that.”
One of the other changes he’s seen is in the size of families – they’re now much smaller. When he started as a butcher, families were much larger and “people used to buy bigger joints”.
But he’s also seen changes in what customers want.
“In my father’s time, you never used to cater for barbeques – no one had barbeques – they was Australian! What’s next? Because nothing stays the same.”
He says that “things are changing up here with this second market. It’s so expensive, and people all the time talk about how dear it is. They come into me and say: ‘I’ve bought a loaf of bread up there and it’s cost me something like £5’.
“I wouldn’t pay that. It’s all very well for these professional people, which they’re a lot of. Hackney’s come up now; Hackney’s the place to live. There’s a lot of actors round here, doctors, lawyers – they’re all over the place, Hackney is very trendy.
“It’s the only place I’ve been to where property hasn’t gone down. It’s risen. If you’ve got property in Hackney, well you’re laughing – at the moment.”
So have all these changes been good, bad – or somewhere in between?
“Swings and roundabouts. People have changed. A lot of people have moved into the area. You haven’t got no such thing as an Eastender any more. Not old school.
“A lot of people don’t like it, because it’s put the price of property up,” he adds.
And then comes the thunderbolt.
“My landlord has put my rent up from £8,500 to £20,000. What I’ve gained out of the market over the last three years, I’ve had to give to the landlord.
“I can’t afford that. That’s going to be one of things that’ll drive me out in the end. If I can’t sell, I’ll have to close, because I can’t carry on much longer. I can’t just bring in an extra £12,000 revenue a year.”
It’s a story that’s been seen more than once: perfectly sound businesses being driven to the wall because of sheer greed and a lack of regulation.
It’s time to change the subject to something a tad lighter.
He’s a butcher – what meat does he like eating most?
“My favourite meat? Anything!” he says.
“There’s nothing I don’t eat. I’m not fussy or particular. Most times, I eat what I can’t sell. That’s what you do when you’re a butcher. I don’t cut the best prime cuts for me; I’ll have whatever’s left, whatever’s around – and it’s never done me any harm!”
As I leave, he quips that he’ll still be around for some time. “You’ll be passing one day and you’ll see a coffin being carried out of the shop – that’s when you know I’m finally closed!”