diamond geezer

 Friday, April 15, 2005

...who lives in Drury Lane
The street-sellers of muffins and crumpets rank among the old street-tradesmen. It is difficult to estimate their numbers, but they were computed for me at 500, during the winter months. The ringing of the muffin-man's bell -attached to which the pleasant associations are not a few -was prohibited by a recent Act of Parliament, but the muffin bell still tinkles along the streets, and is rung vigorously in the suburbs. The best sale is in the suburbs. "As far as I know, sir," said a muffin-seller, "it's the best Hackney way, and Stoke Newington, and Dalston, and Balls Pond, and Islington; where the gents that's in banks goes home to their teas, and the missuses has muffins to welcome them; that's my opinion." [Henry Mayhew, 1861]
Muffin men were a familiar sight on the streets of Victorian London, plying their teatime treats from trays held high upon their heads. They were competing for trade with lavender sellers, eel-mongers, chestnut-merchants and all sorts of other street vendors, but few could resist the seductive smell of fresh muffins. Two centuries later the baking trade has moved on, and it's now nigh impossible to picture the famous muffin man of rhyme walking down modern Drury Lane. In fact (and I checked) there are no longer any fresh (non cake-based) muffins sold anywhere down this ancient thoroughfare.

What you will find down Drury Lane are theatres (admittedly Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat barely counts as properly theatrical, but The Producers more than makes up for it). Drury Lane marks the eastern border of London's Theatreland. It's an ancient street, a winding medieval lane that stretches down from High Holborn to Aldwych. The southern end is a mix of institutional and residential, strangely tucked away beyond the bustle of the surrounding city. Halfway up you can peek down a sideroad into Covent Garden, or turn to face the imposing facade of Freemasons' Hall. And to the north the lane narrows, edged by smaller independent shops and cafes (and a nasty concrete hotel block).

The most famous independent shop in Drury Lane was opened in 1869 by a certain John Sainsbury. He and his wife Mary sold low cost high quality butter, milk and eggs (but not muffins) to a mixed clientele of penniless locals and rich theatregoers. The shop's success meant that new stores were soon being opened in Stepney, Islington and Kentish Town, then across the capital, then across the country... and you all know how John's little empire ended up. Full history here. But there's no Sainsbury's store at 173 Drury Lane today. The glassy office block of New London House (see photo) is numbered 172, while the bright yellow Snappy Snaps on the opposite side of Macklin Street is numbered 175, so John's retail birthplace appears to have disappeared forever somewhere inbetween.

It's been left to Londis to hold the fort and to provide the only supermarket presence down Drury Lane. It's not a big store, it's more the size of John Sainsbury's old green- and white-tiled grocer's shop, but it sells pretty much everything amongst its crowded shelves. And yes, right at the back, even those nasty stodgy modern American muffins (69p, contains preservatives, best before 25 May, made on an industrial estate in Willesden). The muffin man is deeply missed around here.

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