On Wednesday, 4th April, 1894, The Sketch treated its readers to an armchair visit to Wentworth Street Market.
A VISIT TO WENTWORTH STREET 1894
“Whitechapel’s principal market is in Wentworth Street, a thoroughfare reached by way of Middlesex Street, nee Petticoat Lane.
I arrived there about two o’clock, when the business of the day was in full swing.
At best the street is a narrow one, but when lined on both sides with barrows and thronged in every part with people it is very difficult to get through.
THE BARROWS AND THE STALLS
The barrows, mostly presided over by Poles, contained fish, meat, poultry, vegetables, bread, cakes, hardware, hosiery, and heaps of other things too numerous to describe.
The stalls were surrounded by purchasers of many nationalities and ages, few of them clean, all of them picturesque.
An old Dutch woman was selling oranges, and the yellow glow of the fruit lighted up her face with an effect which would have charmed any of the old masters who lived and died in her native land.
FOOD OF THE FINEST QUALITY
The food sold was of the finest quality.
The people, poverty-stricken though they looked, were purchasing the finest supplies of the great metropolitan markets. The fish looked as though it had just come from the sea, the meat, though raw, looked appetising. The prices at which things were being sold would have brought tears to the eyes of the average housekeeper, little piles of fish fetching but a few pence.
A MUSICAL INTERLUDE
It takes no little time to get accustomed to the hustle and din of the Wentworth Street market.
Luckily, the men and women are sober and honest, the ruffianly loafer is a thing unknown, and the police are never needed.
Strolling down the street, greeted with good-humoured chaff and offers of impossible purchases, I discovered three musicians about to perform on violins and ‘cello. They were gaunt, hungry-looking foreigners, and their instruments were as worn as themselves; yet, strange to say, they earned a few pence from the crowd, which had but little to spare or spend.
They are very good to one another, these refugees from Russia and other parts of the Continent, and their charity is never-failing. Yet they are not all industrious, and some of the men live by begging from their co-religionists.
The bargaining was exceedingly amusing, although a lot of it, being in Yiddish a dreadful combination of Hebrew and German was lost upon me.
THE HORROR OD THE POLUTRY MARKET
I edged my way to the end of the street, where the poultry-sellers had congregated.
This was the strangest part of the market, and the only one which calls for the attention of the authorities or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In wicker baskets, piled in many- instances on top of one another, were the fowls.
Round them stood the old Polish women, like the wicked fairy grandmothers of our nursery tales.
They would point out some fowl, and the vendor would put his hand into the basket and pull it out by leg, wing, or tail, whichever, seemed nearest.
Then the old women would examine the limbs carefully, and prod them with their fingers in every corner to see that they were well covered. If there was anything wrong they were returned, and a fresh selection made. If they were sound and plump, the bargaining commenced, and when prices were agreed and paid the women carried the fowls under their arms to the butcher’s establishment close by, where for the sum of one penny they were killed in the orthodox fashion.
What I would point out and protest against is the merciless handling of the unfortunate chickens. Surely the old women can ascertain their condition without prodding them in the cruel fashion now in vogue.
A STRANGE WORLD
I stopped in Wentworth Street for nearly an hour, bewildered by the many aspects of the life around me, by the odd conglomeration of poverty and plenty, hard work and good temper, open temptation and invariable honesty.
I left wondering that so few men visit these places to make them popular, and point out to lovers or the picturesque the strange world that lies so near them.”