Historic pictures capture final days of Wolverhampton's old wholesale market

It may have been the best part of half a century ago, but the sights, sounds and smells of Wolverhampton's old wholesale market are still fresh in George Foster's mind.

One of the men on site at the time of demolition
One of the men on site at the time of demolition

The imposing brick and terracotta building, which would surely have been given listed status were it around today, was about to close forever. But during its last days of trading, George recalls it as a place still bursting with life.

"It was still a busy place, first thing in the morning, with lots of banter from the traders and porters," he says.

"I recall the smell of vegetables, diesel fumes from the vans being loaded and unloaded, with a background whiff of cigarette smoke and coffee."

The market was busy during the early hours of the morning
A cheery wholesaler seems to be enjoying his work during the market's last days

It is 47 years this month since Wolverhampton's old wholesale market was razed to the ground. George, then a 21-year-old graphic design student at what was then Wolverhampton Polytechnic, was fascinated by this bustling hive of activity with its colourful personalities, and decided to capture its last days on film.

The 1960s and early 70s was a period of profound social change, and during his time in Wolverhampton George started photographing the last vestiges of the town's traditional working-class communities. When he heard the wholesale market was about to be demolished to make way for the new Civic Centre, it was only natural he would want to record this end of an era.

He went along with his camera during its last days of trading, in November 1973, and returned the following April to see it being reduced to rubble.

One of the cheery wholesalers chats to a colleague
A porter during the last days of Wolverhampton's wholesale market on the site now occupied by the Civic Centre

While the combination of tobacco, diesel carcigonens and fresh fruit and veg might not be appreciated by today's health-and-safety inspectors, for many the old market hall is still sadly missed.

Wolverhampton historian Billy Howe started work on the market as a groundsman and porter from the time he left school in 1952 at the age of 15, and was still working at the time it closed

"I would say the first three years working here in the market, before a break for National Service, were the best three years of my working life," he says.

"I started off as a groundsman, working with the salesmen. The trucks would drive inside the market, and we had to take the produce off them, and then load them up when they went out.

"We were one of the main wholesale markets outside Birmingham, there were 2-300 green grocers in there."

One of the demolition men driving a Morris Minor van

But by the early 1970s, it seems the market may have become a victim of its own success, its town centre location no longer considered suitable for the heavy traffic it generated.

"As the road transport got bigger, it became more congested, and they wanted the area to build the Civic Centre, they had been planning that since the end of the war."

The market was designed by the architect J W Bradley, and its brick-and-terracotta facade looked very elegant when it was built in 1902. It was located on the north side of an area then known as the Horsefair, between North Street and Wulfruna Street, opposite the retail market.

The retail market was long gone by the time George took his pictures. With its Doric and Corinthian columns at its main entrance, Billy likens the old building to the Coliseum at Rome.

It celebrated its centenary in 1953, but by this time its days were numbered. It was demolished in 1961, and replaced by the forgettable market hall in Salop Street. The wholesale market would survive another 12 years before being moved to its present out-of-town location in Hickman Avenue.

George captured one of the demolition men shovelling rubble from just beneath the roof beams
George captured one of the demolition men shovelling rubble from just beneath the roof beams

George's first batch of pictures, taken during the final days before the wrought-iron gates clanked shut for the last time, capture scenes where cheeky chappie wholesalers in white coats would compete for who could shout the loudest as they peddled their wares to shopkeepers. There would be a constant stream of trucks driving in and out the market, an army of porters rushing around with boxes of fruit and veg on small trollies as the wheels of commerce turned at break-neck pace.

"It was a bit like Covent Garden, I suppose," says George, who is now 68. "I was always interested in photographing people, and I knew there would be some interesting characters in there.

"It may have been the last week of trading, and they were starting to wind things down."

The stairs inside the shell of the empty building
The demolition men sit round a fire during their break

George returned the following April to catch the final days of the building, as the demolition men took over and flattened the market which had stood on the site since 1902. By this time, the loud men in white coats had made way for burly men with pickaxes.

Again, health and safety was less of a priority back then compared with today.

"There were no sign of hard hats or hi-vis jackets, just the basic shovels and pickaxes," says George.

"I must have gone willingly up onto that open space where the guy is seen shovelling rubble over the edge (demolition man 3), but did not stay up there long."

Today, of course, his presence – if allowed at all – would be highly regulated, but back in 1974 the workmen were quite happy to allow him onto the site and have their pictures taken.

"There were some interesting characters there," he says.

"It didn’t seem to take long to knock the place down. Within a few weeks another bit of Wolverhampton history had gone for good."

  • Do you recognise any of the people in these pictures? Please telephone Mark Andrews on 01952 241491 or email mark.andrews@mnamedia.co.uk

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