Writing Watney

Sometimes I would walk through Watney Street, that short dingy thoroughfare of small shops lined on both sides with barrows of every description: fruit barrows, fish barrows, groceries, vegetables, sweets, haberdashery…. Once I stopped at a fruit barrow. The large woman in a bright apron and wellington boots smiled as she weighed the apples.
— E.R. Braithwaite, To Sir With Love, 1959

To Sir, With Love

In 1959, E. R. Braithwaite visited the market in his autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love; and in 1967, the market featured in the film adaption of the novel starring Sidney Poitier.

Tower Hamlets Arts Project

In the 1970s the Tower Hamlets Arts Project (THAP) campaigned for greater recognition of east London writers and artists. They opened an independent bookstore at 59 Watney Street in 1977, which became the home to many writers groups such as the Basement Writers run by Chris Searle. The bookshop moved to Whitechapel in 1980 (under the name Eastside) and later became Brick Lane Books, a popular local bookshop which still thrives today.

For more about the history of THAP, the bookshops and writers groups see http://bricklanebookshop.org/

 ©Tony Bock All Rights Reserved

©Tony Bock All Rights Reserved

Gladys McGee

Gladys McGee was a performance artist, poet, and member of the Basement Writers, an east London writers group connected to THAP. ‘People are always walking around looking at the ground... they never look up’, she told photographer Tony Bock when he photographed her at Watney Street in the mid 1970s. This is an extract from her 1983 poem Watney Street:

It was always a pleasure and a treat,

When our Mum went down Watney Street

It was us kids’ own market

And there was no argument about it

We always found a specked apple, dropped off a stall

And we always had a do ‘bout the oranges on the ground

They might’ve been a bit soft, but to us they seemed quite sound

Christmas down there was like havin’ gold,

To see the stalls packed up

Every apple, orange and banana in its rightful place

And behind the stalls were shops, and they were overflowin’ with toys

Dolls for the girls and guns for the boys

And clothes and joints of meat

Which today would set your heart a glow

- Gladys McGee, Watney Street, 1983