Once upon a time, you could purchase a lion cub on the streets of Shoreditch. At the Club Row Animal Market, just north of Bethnal Green Road, every Sunday the cobblestone road would transform into a theatrical scene where the whoop of monkeys, the howling of dogs, the singing of exotic birds and the hissing of snakes competed with market vendors.
Bird cages were stacked from pavement to roof and even the road’s permanent businesses joined in on the circus.
“It was an extraordinary sight, this marvellous old pub full of stacked up cages of exotic screeching birds” remembers Derek Brown on the Spitalfields Life blog. That pub was the Knave of Clubs, a regular host to the market’s “bird singing” contests. Today, it’s an upmarket restaurant called Les Trois Garçons that pays homage to the site’s history with exotic taxidermy.
Of course, the Club Row Animal market was full of vendors who really had no business selling live animals. Cockney hustlers peddled puppies to excited children and their less-enthused parents.
“Hi, mate, buy a dog to keep you warm!” … “Here’s a good dog, born between the sheets, got his pedigree in my pocket!” … “Who’d care for a German sausage? – stretch him to make up the rations,” yelled the salesmen, according to Kaye Webb’s vivid account of the market in her 1953 book Looking at London and People Worth Meeting.
Some traders would buy cheaply at the Club Row dog market only to sell them for twice the price in the West End to wealthier customers.
The RSPCA and other animal rights groups eventually succeeded in shutting the market down in 1983 when the street sale of live animals was outlawed. It was London’s first and last live animal market which had begun centuries earlier by French Huguenots who immigrated to the area with their tradition of keeping canaries and various singing birds.
I like to think (hope) most of these little guys went to loving London homes after a rather overwhelming introduction to city life.