Wellclose Square market to relaunch after 150 years

Fire performer in Wellclose Square
A fire performer at a Wellclose Square consultation event. Photograph: Jim Ford

Residents are to revive Wellclose Square market in Whitechapel after 150 years in the wilderness.

The square was home to the old Rosemary Lane rag fair for three centuries until it was renamed Royal Mint Street in 1850.

The fair and its local rival in Petticoat Lane were at the heart of the East End’s second-hand clothing industry. But after the street was renamed, the famous rag trade died off, and with it went the fair.

Architect John Bell, who lives in a tower block overlooking the square, is part of a small team of locals relaunching the market, close to the iconic Wilton’s Music Hall.

He said: “Fifteen years ago I looked out of my window and recognised a square. It piqued my interest.

“My late father was a historian and I came across some books about great losses in architecture. In one of those books, I read about the origins of Wellclose Square.

“I’ve been fascinated with it ever since.”

John Bell
History: architect John Bell is helping to revive the market. Photograph: John Bell

The old rag fair was a thriving centre for the local community, running every day on Rosemary Lane apart from Saturdays, to honour the Jewish Sabbath. It was where merchants traded cheap wares to poverty-stricken families living in the area.

But Mr Bell says the area’s “sense of history” has been lost.

“A guy was giving a historical tour in the square recently, but other than a blue plaque, there’s not much to point out.

“The sense of Wellclose Square’s history has gone.”

Wellclose Square in 1961
Corner of Wellclose Square in 1961. Photograph: London Metropolitan Archives

Although the new market is inspired by its 19th century counterpart, Mr Bell insists it will be modern, featuring music, hypnotism and even a recycling workshop along with traditional food stalls.

He said: “We’re also hoping to attract tech entrepreneurs from the local area. We want to get them out of their bedrooms and give them a chance to show off their products to the public.”

But the most important purpose of the market, which is running on a trial basis for four consecutive Saturdays starting from 20 August, is to engage the local community.

“We want to bring life and activity and a place for people to meet back into being.

“We’re also looking to start a community café run by residents from St. George’s Estate. We want to include all members of the community, because we know that with them we can create a strong market with a long future,” he said.

To make it accessible to people from all backgrounds, Wellclose Square’s offering will be “50 per cent affordable”, according to Mr Bell.

Sketch of Wellclose Square market
Plans: a sketch of what the market may look like. Image: John Bell

But he is keen to make clear that this is a brand new venture and there are bound to be a few hiccups.

“It is all bootstraps and no budget at the moment,” he said.

The market’s trial run is being sponsored by East End Homes, but the team has started a conversation with Tower Hamlets Council about a long-term future.

The project to reignite the “sense of history” in this little corner of East London has only just begun.

Wellclose Square
St George In The East
London
E1 8HY

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