Club Row Bird and Animal Market

“The bird market … is attended from far and wide, but specially reflects the pleasures and habits of the neighbouring people of Bethnal Green, which turn largely on domestic pets; singing birds, rabbits and guinea pigs, fowls, pigeons, dogs, and even goats, are dealt in; any kind of animal that can be kept in a house or in a back yard” [1]

 RP pic 1

From Henry Scherren, ‘Bird-Land and Pet-Land in London’, in George Sims, ed., Living London, Vol. 2, 1902-3, p. 326.

As part of the Pets and Family Life project, we are looking at how people acquired their pets, as well as their impact on home and family life. Before and after pet shops became established in England during the early to mid-twentieth century, pets were acquired in a variety of ways. Wild animals and birds could be trapped and tamed, while some domestic animals like kittens were usually available for free. Many creatures intended as home pets were bought and sold, however. At one end of the scale they could, from the late nineteenth century, be purchased from the pet sections of some department stores, or from a breeder, reputable or otherwise. Pets could also be bought from itinerant sellers, from animal dealers’ shops and from live animal and bird markets.

There were several street markets that sold birds and animals intended for petting in Victorian London, for example in St Giles and Walworth. But probably the best known and certainly the longest lived was Club Row – the East End market described in the opening quotation of 1902 – so named after the road where it had begun in the early nineteenth century and where it traded in animals right through to 1983.

Club Row began as a bird fair and is said to have originated with Huguenot silk weavers locally, who were famously fond of songbirds. Bird fancying survived the decline of the silk industry in the early 1800s and by at least the 1850s the fair had begun to spill southwards into Sclater Street, Hare (later Cheshire) Street, Bacon Street, Brick Lane and the smaller Swan (later Cygnet) Street. The Shoreditch terminus for the Eastern Counties Railway (later Bishopsgate Goodsyard) arrived in 1840, just to the south, separating Bethnal Green from Spitalfields. The rerouted Bethnal Green Road removed the southern portion of Club Row in the late 1870s and in the 1890s the London County Council cleared a large area to the north for the new Boundary Estate, all of which concentrated the bird and animal trade into the six streets just named, as illustrated below.

RP pic 2

Detail of Burrow’s Pointer Guide to Shoreditch, c.1950, showing the main cluster of market streets.

Sclater Street was by the 1890s probably the busiest and best known of the animal market streets. But the “name of Club Row has not died out”, said an article of 1893, “and residents speak of Sclater Street and other market streets thereabouts as ‘The Row’, much as Middlesex Street, once “Petticoat Lane”, is spoken of as ‘The Lane’.” “English boys and men,” it continued, “even when cooped up in the streets of London, show their love of animals and like to possess them” [2].

RP pic 3

From A. St John Adcock, ‘Sunday Morning East and West’ in George Sims, ed., Living London, Vol. I, 1902-3, p. 282.

Birds and small animals were portable, convenient pets for those with small means. Bird and dog fancying was for some a livelihood and for many an important cultural activity that was carried on in the home, the pubs and the streets. On Sunday mornings the market stalls teemed with prize pigeons, and songbirds changed hands in their thousands: linnets, goldfinches, bullfinches, greenfinches and canaries were piled high in baskets and cages. Rabbits, mice, squirrels and other small animals were also on sale, as were cats and dogs, sold from the pavements and the open street:

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Dogs dealers in Bethnal Green Road near the junction with Sclater Street. From Cassell’s New Penny Magazine, No. 161, Vol. XIII, 1902, p. 161.

Club Row, like the other Sunday morning street markets locally, was where working people did their shopping. But over the course of its long life the market always attracted a wider clientele. Dog shows and “goldfinch slamming” – singing matches – held in local pubs drew participants from across the capital and further afield [3]; and naturalists, including correspondents with Darwin, came to study the local fauna [4].

Charles Booth’s social survey of the late 1890s classified local residents as for the most part very poor and in chronic want, with some ‘semi-criminal’. The area thus also attracted the police and a range of reforming organisations, including social investigators like Booth, school board inspectors, sabbatarians and missionaries. John Galt of the London City Mission photographed the bird shops around 1900:

Meanwhile Club Row and Sclater Street, in common with other parts of the East End, attracted social exploration and ‘slumming’ where journalists and well-heeled outsiders dressed down and went undercover among the poor [5]. A number of sensationalist accounts appeared from the 1860s, which were presented as journeys east into unknown territory where the explorer encountered not only animals and birds but also local human ‘types’ with strange calls [6]. Most of these reports criticised the cruelty of keeping wild birds in close confinement, though they were usually as much informed by middle-class views about the ‘uncivilised’ nature of bird fanciers as they were by concerns for animal welfare.

At Club Row, this kind of social tourism was often accompanied by hunts for stolen dogs – as Phillip Howell has explored, dog theft was a problem in Victorian London, and Club Row was for good reason known as a repository for “lost dogs” [7]. The press portrayed the market as a meeting of the West End with the East, and published reports of minor aristocrats and the well-to-do in search of their pets. At a court case prosecuting dog theft in 1912, the Sunday fair was called a “fashionable resort” by the magistrate, a place he said he had himself visited [8].

Meanwhile undercover exploration at Club Row was increasingly associated with the burgeoning animal welfare movement and RSPCA and RSPB officers made covert tours in an attempt to bring to justice those dealers who took part in illegal wild bird catching and trading.

By the turn of the century, Club Row Market was famous – and infamous – for the number and variety of creatures on offer, its human life, and for being a sort of strange relic of the past. Photographers flocked to the market, to photograph the pets on sale and the crowds of people who came to buy, sell and witness the spectacle:

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Postcard view posted in September 1908 showing the entrance to Sclater Street on Sunday morning, where the dog dealers congregated in the shadow of the Bishopsgate goods depot (top right).

A stampede in Sclater Street one Sunday morning in October 1923 brought national and local reporters into the district. Their accounts give us an idea of the types and numbers of pets on sale. They also offer a view of how local people felt about their animals, and of conflict between reputable bird dealers and the illegal trade. According to the press coverage, there were some three or four thousand people at the market when, at the peak hour of trading, someone raised an alarm. As the crowds rushed to get out of the street, a stall selling petrol was knocked over and in the resulting explosion and chaos scores of poultry died, and more than 100 dogs and puppies, cats and kittens. Locals set up a dog mortuary on the pavement. But the heaviest losses were among the birds. Some 2,000 were released or trodden to death in their cages, 800 to 1,200 of which belonged to Arthur Howard & Sons, canary importers and dealers. These included four parrots and hundreds of canaries, goldfinches, bullfinches, siskins, grosbeaks, and “a hundred rare softbills and nightingales that had just arrived from the Continent”. Mr Howard told a Daily Mail reporter:

“I heard shouts and saw a huge mob rushing down the street. People fell and were trodden on and stalls crashed over. Little Millie Silverman, a 12-years-old neighbour, had asked permission to look after my stall of tortoises – it was her own wish, she was not paid to do so – and she saved them at the risk of her own life.”

Some, in tears, were carrying lamed birds into shops and asking people to put them out of their misery. After recovering from a fainting fit, Mrs Howard obliged, and “was kept continuously employed for some time killing scores of maimed birds” [9]. The police blamed rival gangs playing a rough game of Crown and Anchor [10]. But stallholders claimed that the panic was deliberately induced by disreputable canary sellers waging war against those who dealt honourably. Arthur Howard contended that, “We all know that there are gangs in these parts, but I know them and I know that injury to animals and children genuinely upsets them” [11].

The incident did not seem to dim the market’s popularity, which continued through the interwar years, though with increasing regulation as a result of new street trading and animal welfare legislation. Reporters with a variety of agendas continued to visit and now seemed almost disappointed to find the livestock in good health – with the exception of the illicit trade in birds at the fringes of the market. In the post-war period, when it had spread into the bombsites, Club Row was generally known as the dog market. Campaigners now targeted this trade, which contravened the Pet Animals Act of 1951.

For long a space in which animal welfare organisations were active, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the market area became a place of public protest and confrontation with dealers as animal rights campaigners demonstrated in the street and at the town hall. Lord Houghton’s private members bill, an amendment to the 1951 Pet Animals Act, was passed in May 1983 and the market closed [12].

My next post will look at the many bird shops trading in Sclater Street in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This blog was written by Dr. Rebecca Preston.

The images are from the author’s collection.

Read more about the Club Row Market and the wider urban and social context here:


[1] Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London, Third Series: Religious Influences; London North of the Thames: The Inner Ring, London, 1902, p. 98.

[2] ‘Old Spots in London Town’, Chatterbox, 7 October 1893, p. 381.

[3] E.g. ‘Canine Fancy’, Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 17 February and 2 March 1856, both p. 6; and ‘Bird Fancy’, Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 9 February 1862, p. 7.

[4] Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6056,” 1868 [accessed on 20 June 2017]

[5] See Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, Princeton and Oxford, 2004 and Peter Keating (ed.), Into Unknown England 1866-1913: Selections from the Social Explorers, Manchester, 1976.

[6] Among the first were ‘Sunday Bird Fair in Shoreditch’, The Illustrated Times, 8 August 1868, p. 90; ‘The Bird Mart’, The Graphic, 25 December 1869, p. 89. James Greenwood’s well-known accounts followed in the 1870s.

[7] Phillip Howell, At Home and Astray: The Domestic Dog in Victorian Britain, Charlottesville, 2015, Chapter 2.

[8] ‘Alleged Theft of 38 Dogs’, Daily Mail, 19 June 1912, p. 3.

[9] ‘Canary Mart Stampede’, Daily Mail, 8 October 1923, pp. 9-11.

[10] ‘East End Market Stampede’, The Times, 9 October 1923, p. 9

[11] ‘Canary Mart Stampede’, Daily Mail, 8 October 1923, pp. 9-11.


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