Our Patch 7

Brighton Open Market History
Oxford Street market
Harry Cowley
Marshall's Row houses; gardens on the right
The Regency Society and The James Gray Collection
Image shows shoeing cage of Dawkin's family forge - Marshall's Row
Brighton History Centre

The Open Market in Brighton is situated just off London Road.

In its early days it was extremely popular with the poorer classes in Brighton and it was always thronged with customers.

On Saturdays there would be crowds of people waiting just outside of the market waiting for it to officially open. Then the large crowd who may have been waiting an hour would rush in, some of whom would be running in to their favourite stall. One of the most favourite stalls would be the fresh fish ones, and it was fresh fish too. In those early days there was a fish market on the beach and the stall holders would be waiting as the small fishing boats returned after fishing all night. The fishermen with their good catches would enjoy making a good profit from the fish they had caught. This profit would be enhanced should they have caught large crabs with their fish, especially flat fish.

Barrow Boys

The history of The Open Market really started in the 1880’s when ‘Barrow Boys’ began selling fruit and vegetables in Oxford Street. This was providing a source of cheap food to the poorer people of the town and was most welcomed. In the 1920’s Brighton Council decided they would rid the area of these ‘Barrow Boys’ as a result of complaints from shop owners. These traders didn’t want to lose their positions or their olivewood’s and argued forcefully about being moved. So much so that the Council decided they must find somewhere else they could trade from. This was reinforced by the public complaining about the loss of the cheap food. There was something called ‘The Battle of Oxford Street. A man called Harry Cowley led a very vocal protest against the local Council.

This complaint by Harry Cowley sealed his fate as the Barrow Boy’s leader. Harry mounted a rostrum, which had deliberately built in the middle of the tramlines in London Road and there addressed hundreds of supporters who had gathered to listen to Harry. The road was absolutely packed and the two policemen who were there were completely overwhelmed and were forced to call for assistance. As a result, two tram loads of Police Officers arrived at the scene and used their truncheons in an attempt to disperse the huge crowd. Whatever the police intended to do, Harry remained on the rostrum  long enough to get all of his message across to the people, who had gathered there but more importantly across to the local Council.

This incident did the trick as not long afterwards the council demolished the few houses in Marshall’s Row and the Open Market was finally born.

The name of Harry Cowley still circulates in the area, there was a ‘Cowley Café in London Road, named after him and he also has his name on a Brighton bus. He was famous for many good deeds in the town over the next few years.

Permission to trade

As a result, the barrow Boys and stall holders were given permission to trade. The people had had a tough 4 years during the war and money was very tight. The working classes in Brighton wanted somewhere cheap to buy their everyday food. A group of men, mainly ex-servicemen, bought some barrows and joined the Barrow Boys who were already trading. They started to sell all manner of different foodstuffs, cheaper than could be bought in the shops. This was just what the people wanted. However, the barrows were soon moved to the rose walk in the centre of The Level. But in 1926, a permanent site was found for the barrows on the gardens in Marshall’s Row, which is still the site of the current market. The local Council noted that the local people were very happy with the cost of the food that these people were selling, especially the cost of it.

In 1938 three cottages in Marshall’s Row were demolished with the exception of Dawkins Forge which survived until about 1960. In front of this old smithy was a horse stock for shoeing fractious horses as well as a trying wheel for shrinking iron rims onto cart wheels. Inside the building was a forge and anvil for shaping the horse shoes, a very welcome spot on a cold winter’s day. The Smithy was more than happy to have a small crowd at the door watching him work in the old fashioned way, a wonderful skill he had. Children were fascinated by what he did and the way he did it. He didn’t like the children too near, for when he struck the horse shoe, they would be red hot and sparks would fly all over the place, and could burn.

With the demolition of the three cottages a line of permanent stalls under a tiled roof was created selling mainly cheap fruit and vegetables, which the stall holder would have bought from the Fruit and Vegetable Market earlier that morning. The market was extended in 1960 by using the rear gardens of Baker Street, when some of the present stalls were constructed.


The success of The Open Market continued and an expanded market with a total of 42 stalls was opened by ‘The Duke of Norfolk.’ Although initially the market thrived, in the 1970’s it went into decline.

However, in April 2006, the Council and the Open Market Traders Association produced a business plan for a new market. The end result is very much to the fore today. The old market was demolished which then enabled the creation of the new market and under cover too.

Now, the new market has 45 stalls which are larger which now offer a more diverse range of goods that promote fresh, healthy food as well as local products. Also there are 12 small workshops for arts and crafts people and producer/retailers. There are also 87 affordable housing units.

This ‘New Market,’ is now owned by The Brighton Open Market Community Interest Company (CIC), as a social enterprise for the benefit of the local community. The CIC board has representatives from the Market Traders, the Council, the ethical Property Company and Hyde Housing, who developed the site. There are also independent directors. The Market is managed on behalf of the CIC by the Ethical Property Company

During the period before the Second World War and during the war and just after. London Road was possibly the most popular street for people to do their shopping although St. James’ Street was also a very popular shopping area. Western Road was another of the shopping areas which proved to be very popular. We, as one of the poorer of the families during those times, used to enjoy going shopping in Western Road as it meant we had a bus ride to and from there. It was always Christmas time when we went shopping there as it was a bit expensive for us to shop there.


I got to know Harry Cowley, as when I was a kid soon after WWII ended, he was living down from me in Grove Street, Brighton. When the war finished, he helped homeless soldiers who were just back from the war to house them and their families. I saw him house one family in the house next to his in Grove Street. He housed these soldiers in houses all over the town. The police fought a losing battle as they never knew where he was going to pop up next. It was their job to stop him but they never stood a chance, they never knew where he was going to house someone next. Harry used to be called ‘Harry Cowley and the vigilantes.’ Although wrong he did some very good work for those less fortunate than others.

Written and researched by David Rowland. (Author and researcher.)


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