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The story of Caledonian Market: 'It was the greatest in the world'

PUBLISHED: 14:50 09 March 2018 | UPDATED: 14:55 09 March 2018

Caledonian Market, circa 1930s. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Caledonian Market, circa 1930s. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

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It's hard to imagine now, but the Cally used to have one of the world's most famous markets. One day you could buy a coffin, the next you'd see a rampaging bull on the loose. The Gazette trawls the archives and tells the story of the market from 1852 to 1964.

Caledonian Market in 1910. Picture: Islington Local History CentreCaledonian Market in 1910. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

“A man who looked like a kind of obscene bird – for he had an enormous beak of a nose and a round glaring eye – was saying: ‘Perfect, perfect!’ For a minute I could not understand what he was talking about, but then I saw he was referring to the uglisest wash hand stand I have ever seen.”

Caledonian Market, ladies and gents.

This was J. B. Priestley’s slightly scathing assessment of the huge market, at the site of where Caledonian Park and the Market Estate is today.

It’s hard to imagine an Islington market more famous than Chapel Market. But that’s exactly what Cally Market was, up until its closure in 1939. In fact, it was one of the most famous markets in the world.

A Metropolitan Cattle Market scene drawing from the 19th century. Picture: Islington Local History CentreA Metropolitan Cattle Market scene drawing from the 19th century. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Its origins go back to 1852. According to Marjorie Edwards in the Illustrated Islington History Journal, the City of London Corporation needed the site to replace its live cattle market at Smithfield.

It bought the 75-acre grounds for £400,000 – the equivalent of about £53million today – and so the Metropolitan Cattle Market opened in 1855.

There was room to accommodate 7,000 cattle, 35,000 sheep, 1,500 calves and 900 pigs. Towering over it all in the middle was the Cally clocktower, which survives to this day.

At first, Marjorie wrote, the cattle market was just that – a place to trade livestock. But it diversified, and later became known as Caledonian Market.

Caledonian Market in 1926. Picture: Islington Local History CentreCaledonian Market in 1926. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

She said it was the “greatest market in the world”, and wrote: “It wasn’t long before the Cockney costermongers who had traded beside the old Smithfield came along to the new market as well.

“Every Friday, people could be seen scrambling along from all directions with their barrows, prams, horses and carts full of goods, all eager to be first in the queue when the gates opened at 10am. Then it was bedlam as everyone made a mad dash to find the best pitch.

“It was said you could buy everything at the Caledonian Market, from a suit of armour to a coffin. There were fresh food stalls, fruit, flowers, clothes, tools, books, soaps, furniture. You name it, it was there.”

Market days would not be without their dramas, either. On one morning in January 1912, a bull being herded from the York Road rail depot suddenly broke away and plunged into the York Dwellings estate in Market Road.

Caledonian Market in 1935. Picture: Islington Local History CentreCaledonian Market in 1935. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

According to a newspaper report, the three-quarter-tonne monster climbed five staircases to the top of the block. Hapless cops made fruitless efforts to lassoo the bull as it “rushed madly” from side toside.

A police inspector decided to join the bull on the roof and slaughter it. But when his first shot had no effect – owing to the animal’s thick hide – it charged him. Luckily for the officer, he managed to aim a second shot at the bull’s head.

Even more brutally, the carcass was pushed off the roof, falling 50ft and breaking two paving stones in half.

Cally Market had to close at the outbreak of the Second World War – and it never reopened.

An ornament stall at Caledonian Market in 1936. Picture: Islington Local History CentreAn ornament stall at Caledonian Market in 1936. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Instead, it stood derelict for 25 years as the land became subject of a huge legal wrangle between the City, London County Council and Islington Council.

Despite the previous popularity of the market – thousands would fill the site – there was no desire to re-open it.

Instead, Islington Council saw it as a huge opportunity to build social housing and open space, much like the Holloway Prison campaign today.

But, weirdly, the City wanted to use the land as a storage area for empty containers and fruit and veg.

A derelict Caledonian Market site in 1962. Picture: Islington Local History CentreA derelict Caledonian Market site in 1962. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

There was uproar. East Islington MP Eric Fletcher thundered in 1962: “It is monstrous that the wellbeing of inhabitants of the borough of Islington should be sacrificed.”

A deal was finally agreed in 1964, leading to the construction of the 271-home Market Estate in 1967.

Fifty-one years on, the Holloway Prison campaigners will be hoping for a similar outcome.

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