Portobello Road in the 50s

I was born in the 1950s so although I can’t remember much if anything about that era, because I was alive then it doesn’t seem to me like it should be described as the historical past. More like an annexe to the present. But looking at these pictures from 1958 demonstrates how far away from us the 50s are. No internet, no mobile phones, almost no television by comparison with today. Only a few subtle differences in this photograph could place it twenty years earlier.

North Kensington has not yet become a particularly bohemian or counter cultural area. These images are from the other side of a cultural divide. It’s a view of almost forgotten working class west London.

That’s Mr Brooks and his vegetable stall. A hard working photographer from the Ministry of Health took these photographs to illustrate a now forgotten display about food retailing. They would have been thrown away if the man who donated them to the Local Studies collection had not had been thinking of their value to later generations.

A little further down from Mr Brooks’ stall is a branch of the once ubiquitous Woolworth’s stores.

In this photo you can see the Electric Cinema looking a little grim but obviously open, one of the longest surviving institutions of Portobello Road. In 1958, according to that year’s Kelly’s it was trading as the Imperial Playhouse.

But fruit and vegetable stalls in gloomy streets are not the whole Portobello story even in the late 50s. The market even then was an outlet for antiques, bric a brac and other second hand goods as shown in another set  of photographs from the same period.

I think you can see a couple of penguin paperbacks on top of the pile of books.

I couldn’t resist including this one. Some kind of basket made out of a dead armadillo. Try getting one of those on e-Bay.

This set of photographs seem brighter and more optimistic to my 21st century eye. Perhaps it’s just that they were taken on a sunny day or perhaps it’s the fact that the people in the pictures are not buying food but browsing for more interesting items.

The 1950s are still a long way off though. Look at this final image:

A trio of excited young women examine the contents of a stall selling jewellery. The detail that caught my eye was that all three are wearing gloves. So we’re still on the other side of that cultural divide.

The next time we go to the Portobello Road it will be to the 1970s a far more familiar era.

Thanks to the unknown Ministry photographer and to Corry Bevington who took the other photographs which are from the HistoryTalk collection.

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