Object: Oyster shells
Found: Basement of the old Nisa Stores on Chalton St
Street markets have been a part of life in Somers Town since the area became established in the late 18th century. By 1795, the busy and raucous Brill Market was operating every Sunday in Brill Row, Chapel Street and Skinner Street and as the population of Somers Town grew after Euston station opened in 1837, the Brill thrived. By the 1850s (see image), a well-known social commentator, Henry Mayhew, noted that there were 300 pitches at the market every Sunday selling meat, fish, vegetables, clothes, and shoes. After Kings Cross station opened in 1852, the market continued to flourish and became the second largest street market in London.
Much of the area in which the Brill Market took place was swept away by the construction of St Pancras station and Midland Road in the 1860s, but street markets continued to be an important part of the fabric of life in Somers Town. By 1892, there were still four active local markets in Chalton Street, Chapel Street, Ossulston Street and Churchway with Sunday markets still attracting large attendances. In addition to the local residents, the three stations delivered a relentless influx of travellers into the area, some of whom stayed in the four hotels that opened locally between 1839 and 1873 and visited the markets.
Despite the general decline in the area’s fortunes in the last quarter of the 19th century, local streets such as Chalton Street, Ossulston Street and Drummond Street were still bustling enclaves of trade in 1900. In addition to the street markets, there were coal merchants, timber merchants, furniture dealers, dairy and potato merchants and butchers, and a Sainsbury’s in Chalton Street.
In 1900, Somers Town suffered from poor housing, public health, and much poverty, but the area was neither down nor out.
By John Lynch
Image of Victorian of Brill Market
Read more from Henry Mayhew: London Labour and the London Poor
John Seed Poem
Listen to the rain
Through cracks and crevices and broken
Panes the day begins in
Disappointment dream us
Different again the crowded syllables
Through the poorhouse door things
Profitable must continue
The spatial order the social
Somers Town Agar Town
Built on broken bottles and oyster shells
A few wet sole-skins drying on a line
The landlord the bailiff and the police in
Ordinary as brick
Fluttering green rag of a window blind the
Organization of unhappiness
Behind the gothic violence of St. Pancras
Sky blazing into defeat
Parapet and projection
Angles and boundaries
Incisions of the chisel
Liquids it’s impossible to decipher
The exact time it feels like
Loose masonry crashing to the ground