Covent Garden Market
My father, Albert McSweeney — better known as Mack — worked as a porter in Covent Garden Market for most of his adult life, as did his father, also Albert.
The above picture was taken by a Fleet Street photographer. It shows my Dad, in the foreground, pulling a barrow and looking to his left. This was probably as a precaution against traffic, but it is equally possible that he was on the lookout for Old Bill in the unlikely event Plod were doing their job and collaring villains. In its heyday, much of the activity in the market was centred around nicking anything that wasn’t nailed down.
My Dad preferred to describe his working day as one spent ducking and diving.
Alfred Hitchcock made use of these activities to great effect for one scene in his film ‘Frenzy’. You can read more on this here.
In 1974, when the market moved to Nine Elms in Vauxhall, the authorities installed CCTV. This proved to be a futile gesture as the cameras were immediately stolen.
As a small child, my mother would occasionally take me to see him at work, and he would place me on his barrow, along with hessian sacks of vegetables and wooden crates of fruit, and he would pull me up and along Bow Street or across the cobbled stones of the Hall Yard which is now buried beneath the Royal Opera House Souvenir Shop. It was all very exciting which is why nowadays when I tread the streets of Covent Garden I feel a sense of loss. I can still recall the rich aroma of produce that emanated throughout the streets, added to no doubt by the detritus which was scattered along the gutters.
In the summer of 1971, when I was young university student — AKA You Stupid Long-haired Git — I worked in the market as a porter for a firm called Howard Chapman, which was situated on Long Acre,now. The site is now occupied by Russell & Bromley shoe shop. Howard Chapman was owned by the Vestey family, better known for their Dewhurst butchery business. The work was back-breaking but the pay was as much as quadruple what I could have earned elsewhere.
Work began at 6 a.m., and by 7 a.m. the foreman was drunk, courtesy of a breakfast visit to the Essex Serpent aka The Snakepit. It was sited at 6 King Street, which is now a shoe shop, thus reflecting our current nation’s craving for footwear as opposed to beer and sawdust.
The market was in constant motion all morning but by mid afternoon it resembled a ghost town only to spring back to life in the early evening when theatre and opera goers would descend on the area. My father also worked as stagehand in a number of theatres, as did many porters. I too followed in his footsteps and at some stage I will write something about that world. During Spring and Summer the market would operate on Saturday mornings. Sunday of course was a day of rest, and one certainly needed it, unless of course one turned out for a local football club. What happened to that boundless energy? I knew several porters who had successful careers as amateur footballers.
Harry Hutchins, shown below, was a very talented player as was my father who turned down terms with QPR following the end of WW2 during which time he played for the Royal Navy. His reasons? Being a professional footballer in those days did not pay enough. Even more shocking is my grandfather’s rejection of professional terms with Chelsea when he left the army at the end of WW1, for the very same reasons. Sadly I never inherited their talent, otherwise Chelsea’s mid-Seventies nightmare may have been averted, or so I like to dream.
My short working life as a porter was not exactly covered in glory. My party trick was to upend loaded trolleys of fruit along the length and breadth of the market — how I hated that sharp downhill left turn leading from Floral Street onto Garrick Street. However I did manage to learn other skills from the masters, which I have recently put to creative use, observing various miscreants setting about their daily business, which was rarely the job they were employed to perform.
One of these light-fingered gentlemen amassed a serious amount of money during his time, and I am reliably informed that he invested it wisely in an antiques business. He avoided identification by gullible foreign drivers, who were subsequently robbed of their goods, by employing a variety of disguises. I was particularly fond his Frenchman act when confronting an Italian or a Spaniard, whereby he would don a black beret and a striped T-shirt (I kid you not). He would also adopt the most appalling cod-French accent and invite the driver to adjourn to a nearby greasy spoon for café au lait, not that Frank’s Cafe ran to anything more than Nescafé, while the rest of the gang set about emptying the dupe’s truck. Of course if the driver was French then a suitably dressed Italian would be there to help. The extraordinary thing was that so many people fell for it.
I have used this tale of ingenuity in my book A History of Murder.