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Rathbone Market as Intangible Heritage

Why is Protection Crucial for Local Communities?

by Kleovoulos Aristarchou


Markets are crucial for the growth of cities, both for their economy and their social life. Important marketplaces, which reflect the intangible heritage of cities, are often declining, and have almost disappeared from cities. This article investigates why markets, as evidence of intangible heritage and places for social interaction, are important for local communities. This research then focuses on Rathbone Market, to investigate the impact of one regeneration scheme. The article also looks at how much the market was considered as intangible heritage within the planning application.


Cities and towns throughout history used urban spaces for social gathering, social interaction, and for discussion of common problems and politics. The ancient agora in Greece was such a place where people gathered to discuss or buy goods. Until the Roman times, these spaces were used both for political discussions and for trading goods. The idea that markets were used as multipurpose spaces ended during the Renaissance, when the two functions were separated. Markets were normally located within a central open space in the inner city. Such urban spaces were crucial for the activation and unification of nearby neighbourhoods by bringing diverse citizens together in one place.

In Britain, markets have a very long history. Historically, several towns were known as ‘market towns’. One of those markets is Rathbone Market, located in Canning Town, Newham, East London. For many years, the market was declining and almost disappeared. In addition, a new regeneration scheme even accelerated this decline.


Markets in Britain have a long history as important focal points within the centres of many cities and towns [1]. During Tudor’s and Stuart’s England there were approximately 760 market towns. The towns were in close proximity to one another and were centres for the supply and trade of agricultural products. Each town had its official market day or days each week. Aside from agricultural products, fish and flesh, markets usually included tailors and shoemakers who worked in public at their trestle tables [2]. 


Regardless of their historic importance as places of consumption, social interaction, and commerce, traditional British marketplaces have been in decline over the last 20 years. In this time, a large number of markets have been at risk, shut down or replaced all over Britain[3].


Markets undoubtedly function as important places of sociability, where variety in conditions, locations and people with different backgrounds mix together. According to Watson and Studdert, markets provide social functions, social mixing across groups, social inclusion, social interaction and the creation of social ties. Additionally, markets can be a place where families and friends who operate together may develop stronger social bonding, and shape a particular community over time [4]. 

The market works as a site of social bonding and social inclusion, particularly  for older people who visit markets for the pleasure of interaction with others. Furthermore, Watson and Studdert found that in several markets, traders tend to behave cooperatively with each other- for example, assisting in carrying things or helping if someone has trouble [5]. For many customers within the market, a trip to the market might be the only opportunity they had to talk with someone during the day [6]. Indeed, an important reason for some shoppers to visit the market is the interaction they have with traders, even if they have nothing else to purchase there. 

According to Watson and Studdert, all user groups within a given community use a market as a critical site of social interaction, but each group uses the market in different ways. One of the most important spaces for social interaction within markets is the cafeterias, where customers can relax and socialize. In addition to social interaction, markets can also offer an extensive choice of inexpensive goods. Watson and Studdert state that the market's variety reflects the socio-demographics of the nearby community and act as a place of connection and mixing in exceptionally positive ways. Indeed, by visiting some of London markets, one can observe the variety and diversity of traders, consumers, and products [7].


Markets are places which are intercontinental in flavour, but at the same time, are accessible and free to everyone. Markets are places which improve the city by making it more sociable and attracting a variety of tourists. Beyond this, markets reflect the emergence of new ideas and communities while at the same time encouraging users to come together as a community. In addition, markets are an urban, ephemeral theatre, where traders are acting and consumers are spectators on a frequent basis [8]. 

Markets not only offer diversity and variety, but also the character and history of its neighbourhood. They are a necessary part of citizens’ daily experience of the city, providing a range of services and goods that the local population rely on. Markets are an expression of their neighbourhood and help build a strong sense of the community identity. Most importantly, markets are often accessible urban spaces which provide a unique low-risk opportunity for individuals to learn new skills and try new business ideas. Additionally, markets can offer a gateway to employment, and open up opportunities to various types of work [9]. 

Markets are physical expressions of local heritage, because they are the sites where the latest and most interesting tastes and trends first emerge. Markets are usually the foundational spaces where the locality grew from. Furthermore, they are an important part of the neighbourhoods’ heritage, and can simulate its character and energies reaching back into its history [10]. This is the reason that markets represent the intangible heritage of communities, and must be places that we need to consider and protect. Until recently, markets were not often protected by heritage organisations, especially the ones that are ephemeral and do not include architectural elements. UNESCO developed the term ‘cultural heritage’ the past few decades with the scope to protect such ephemeral structures. To support that, UNESCO states that intangible heritage is an essential aspect in maintaining cultural diversity against increasing globalization [11]. Indeed, the protection of intangible heritage including markets in a global city such as London - is crucial.


As discussed in the previous sections, the role of markets is significant for the city and the local community. Nevertheless, markets often experience struggles which lead to a decline of those social spaces. Many factors play a role in this issue, and in this section we are going to analyse the most important ones.

The rise of supermarkets

To start with, the most important factor of the decline of markets is the emergence and rise of supermarkets. Traders are experiencing competition from supermarkets, discount retailers, the internet, and general transitions in shopping trends [12]. Younger generations are getting used to going to supermarkets, while the amount of people that visit markets is diminishing over time [13]. The declining presence of the younger generation from markets is dependent on a few factors. To start with, supermarkets often have large free parking areas and longer shopping hours compared to traditional markets, which can be more attractive to people in the workforce (who may be in a hurry, shopping on their way to or from work). For that matter, the more modern methods of payment preferred by young people, such as debit/credit cards or paying by phone, may not be accepted by vendors in traditional markets  [14]. 

Rapid gentrification

Another reason for the decline of markets may be the swift gentrification of a neighbourhood. Newcomers may not have time, and do not want, to get to know the community, with the unintentional result of not supporting local markets and shops. According to Watson, there is a common sense of frustration and disappointment, for the locals who remain living and/or working in the market, for a decline in the sense of community, social harmony, the locality’s prosperity, moral certainty, and vibrancy [15].

Lack of support, diversity and advertisement

The lack of support by the local council, and the resulting lack of modernisation and advertisement contribute to the decline of markets. National and local governments tend to support large capital projects at the expense of the lower income class [16]. This can be caused, as Watson states, by neoliberal deregulations which benefit the rich. Neoliberal deregulation is a term used to signify political and economic ideas of removing or reducing regulations for the sake to benefit investors and a few wealthy individuals. Furthermore, the economic limitations of real stall holders is another important factor. According to Watson, nowadays most of the markets’ stall holders are people on the dole. Moreover, many local authority-run markets work under legislation that limits stall holders ability to grow and progress [17].  Watson and Studdert argue that the remodelling of market places by private developers can often lead to the relocation of markets to different places far from the market’s original area [18]. In this situation, markets lose their core support from their local community, especially their loyal customers. Relocated markets need additional advertising to attract a new customer base which can prove to be a major hassle as stall owners try to find their footing in a new neighbourhood [19].


Rathbone Market is a marketplace located in Canning Town, Barking Road, Newham. The market has played a crucial role for the community of Canning Town for hundreds of years [20]. Nowadays, the market is managed by Tudors Markets, an organisation which manages several other markets within the U.K. Since October 2016, the Rathbone Market has been open every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The market offers fresh vegetables, fruit, a variety of food like waffles or Caribbean Jerk chicken, as well as goods like clothes and accessories [21]. 

The origins of Rathbone Market trace back to 1253, when the reigning King Henry III promised a Wednesday market in West Ham. Thereafter the market thrived in Victoria Dock Road until the nineteenth century, when the introduction of tramlines moved it out to a new location within Canning Town at Rathbone Street. The market then took its name from the street, and it became known for its herbalists. The market extended almost a quarter of a mile along Rathbone Street [22]. 

In the early 20th century, the increase of vehicular traffic reinforced the council's position to enforce regulations. The council shifted the few nearby street markets out of the road when the borough’s tramways were being electrified and extended, for the reason that they would cause hazardous obstructions for the tramways. According to Powell, by 1911 the Rathbone Street market had absorbed many traders from those relocated markets. The well-established Rathbone Market grew dramatically over  the next few years [23]. 

In 1963, the local council redeveloped the area and moved the market again to its current location on the south side of Barking Road. The Rathbone Market retained its name, and its new location was designed specially to accomodate 60 shops, 160 stalls, and walkways for the pedestrians [24]. Within the market, a visitor could find high-quality second hand clothes, bric-a-brac, and textiles markets. As you can see from Image 10, the market was full of many traders offering a great variety of goods.  Every year on Good Friday there was a huge annual market event which was attracting many thousands of shoppers and hundreds of traders. In 2009, a planning application was approved for the regeneration of the Rathbone Market site. The regeneration scheme consisted of a community centre, shops, over 600 new homes, a library and a newly redesigned market square. In 2015, the redesigned market was opened again [25].


According to Whyatt, Newham is the most economically deprived area within the U.K, due to the fact that it has a large, diverse ethnic minority population with high unemployment levels. Furthermore, she pointed out that most East London inhabitants are heavily reliant on public transport due to the lack of jobs within their boroughs [26]. 

 The significant poverty of this borough prompted civic leaders to explore new ideas for revitalization that could make the borough flourish. For this reason, the borough successfully competed for the opportunity to host the 2012 Olympics - a unique opportunity to bring investors from abroad to boost the economy of the area. The council of Newham, in 2010, used a brochure and film to promote the idea  they named ‘regeneration supernova’ that was happening within the borough. The purpose was to indicate the financial potential of “regenerating” these places to foreign investors at the Shanghai Expo. According to Campkin, both the brochure and film presented an image of Newham as a land of untapped resources, such as labour, connectivity, and countless ‘empty’ developable lands [27]. The promotion of this ‘regeneration supernova’ highlights the Neoliberal urban regeneration policy embraced by London over the past few decades. Although the regeneration of Rathbone Market was done before the promotion of ‘regeneration supernova’,  it seems that it was part of the overall plan of the Newham council to regenerate many areas across the borough. Richard Sennett and Pablo Sendra said that “there’s no interest under capitalism in investing in places'' [28]. This sentiment is apparent in the regeneration strategies and policies implemented by the Newham council. (It is worth mentioning that the film and brochure were later removed from the internet by the new council of Newham).


The planning application for the regeneration of the Rathbone Market site includes many studies and analysis of the area. The application was submitted on December 19th, 2008 by the English Cities Fund, and on April 20th, 2010, the application was approved by the planning department of Newham. Although the planning application consisted of many documents, there was no evidence or any reference to the heritage and the importance of Rathbone Market as a place of diversity and community. This may have been done intentionally to avoid any rejection or delay. Additionally, within the ‘Design and Access Statement’, Pevsner describes the existing market as ‘dismal’, due to the fact that it was wedge shaped with a series of low roofed shops and covered stalls [29]. 

Within the market planning statement, the applicant states that the quality and the variety of the trade offered at Rathbone Market had declined over the past years. It is plausible that they mentioned that in order for their redevelopment scheme to be seen as the alternative that would save the market. Indeed, the applicant mentions that the new scheme will increase the retail floor space within the site. Furthermore, they argue that  the way to maximise the retail floor space of the market is by adding shops around the new Market square, which would act as a high quality backdrop of the market [30]. In actuality, upon visiting the markets today, it would seem that those backdrop shops only negatively affect the original market. As you can see from Image 14, the motorcycles create a separation between the market and the shops, while at the same time, the parking of the motorcycles and the continuous movement along the road creates an unwelcome environment for the customers to the Market. Furthermore, there is no signiificant interaction between the retail shops and the market.

In order to get the application approved, the applicants made many promises like the above. For example, they promised that the redeveloped site would provide parking for the cars that normally took most of the area from the market. They also promised that the market would have the capacity for 60 stalls, with the possibility to expand on some occasions within the square and alongside Barking Road. In the planning statement, it was stated that the high quality landscape of the market square would make a major difference to the experience and perception of the market. Together with an active management and the removal of cars from the square, Rathbone Market could be successfully rejuvenated [31]. In actuality, on my site visits I observed that both visitors and traders are using the square as a parking area, due to the limit of parking space around.

The redesign of the square included some elements, such as tall light masts, and interactive water features, which in their position and function were no benefit to the market’s operations.  On the other hand, sitting was excluded from the square in order to maximise the capacity of the market stalls [32]. As we saw previously, sitting areas within markets are crucial due to the fact that they provide spaces for customers to sit and relax before and after they shop, giving them an opportunity to talk with friends or strangers.


Markets are crucial spaces for social interaction which unite the community and strengthen the relations between peoples with various backgrounds, racial, social and sexual differences. Sometimes markets are the only places for people to speak and interact with others during the day. As we learned recently with Covid-19 pandemic, human interactions are essential for our daily life. The removal of markets from an area usually has the effect of dichotomizing and weakening the social bonds between the local communities.

Until the last few years, markets were not typically recognised as heritage places. UNESCO is now trying to identify intangible heritage places to protect them for future generations. Markets are important intangible heritage spaces, as they reveal traditional crafts, techniques,  various food tastes, and global cultures. In some cases, the interest in protecting those places is more for economic reasons rather than for social and cultural purposes.  In the case of Rathbone Market,  developers were likely motivated to redevelop the Market not for heritage protection, but primarily for profit. 


Neoliberal deregulation has caused many heritage spaces to disappear, including Rathbone Market. In most cases, the market is not a destination anymore, and this has a negative effect on local communities. The act of Newham council to sell its history and culture was motivated by the desire to generate profit for the borough, and caused the removal of critical social spaces for the sake of few profiteers. The development team only emphasised the negative things about the previous market structure in order to convince the planning team to execute the new proposal. What they neglected to mention was the importance of the markets, and how the proposal would extinguish the intangible heritage of the historic Rathbone Market. The knowledge we obtained from Rathbone Market should educate us to prevent similar transformations to other markets around the world.

[4] [5] Studdert,Watson (2006), p.14.

[6] Studdert,Watson (2006), p.29.

[7] Studdert,Watson (2006), pp.29-30.

[1] Studdert,Watson (2006), p.1.


[2] Kostof (1999), p.93.

[3] Studdert,Watson (2006), p1. 

[8][9] Jarvis (2017), p.5.

[10] Jarvis (2017), p.14.

[11] UNESCO (2021).

[12] Jarvis (2017), p.12.

[13] Watson (2006), pp.53-54.

[14] Studdert,Watson (2006), p.23.

[15] Watson (2006), p.45.

[16] Watson (2006), p.45.

[17] Jarvis (2017), p.12.

[18] Studdert,Watson (2006), p.3.

[19] Watson (2006), p.54.

[20] Rathbone Market (2021).

[21] Tudors Market (2021).

[22] Tudors Market (2021).

[23] Powell (1973) pp.93-96.

[24] Powell (1973) pp.93-96.

[25] Tudors Market (2021).

[26] Whyatt (1996), p.267.

[27] Campkin (2013), p.163.

[28] Sendra, Sennett (2020), p.123.

[29] Design and access Statement (2008), p.11.

[30] Planning Statement (2008), pp.22-24.

[31] Planning Statement (2008), pp.22-24.

[32] Design and access Statement (2008), p.11.

[Image 1] Historic VS Neoliberalism.


Image by the author (2022).

[Image 2] Collage of stories from markets.


Image by the author (2021).

[Image 3] The image shows the location of Rathbone Market .


Image by the author (2021).

[Image 10] Image of Rathbone Market.


Image by the author (2021).

Image 12.jpg
Image 13.jpg

[Image 9] Collage showing in the middle the current situation of Rathbone Market, and on the four sides, how busy and full of life was in the past.


Image by the author (2022).

Image 10-1.jpg
Image 8-1.jpg

[Image 7] Site plan of Rathbone Market before the regeneration .


Image by the author (2022).

Image 9-1.jpg

[Image 8] Site plan of Rathbone Market after the regeneration.


Image by the author (2022).

Image 7-1.jpg

[Image 6] The image shows the location of Rathbone Market in relation to the London Olympic Stadium (top of the image), Canary Wharf (bottom Left), O2 Arena (bottom), and the area of ExCeL London and City Airport (on the right). In the middle, we see part of the area of the Regeneration Supernova. All

of these places are results of Neoliberal deregulation within London.


Image by the author (2022).

Image 6-1.jpg

[Image 5] The Regeneration Supernova: The image shows the use of historic buildings and contemporary structures as lures for foreign investors.


Image by the author (2022).

Image 5-1.jpg

[Image 4] The birdseye view shows the location of Rathbone Market and the nearby new high-rise housing projects. 


Image by the author (2021).

Image 4-1.jpg
Image 2-1.jpg
Image 1.jpg

[Image 11] Image of Rathbone Market.


Image by the author (2021).

Image 14.jpg

[Image 12] Image of Rathbone Market.


Image by the author (2021).

All Images
Image 15.jpg

[Image 13] Image of Rathbone Market.


Image by the author (2021).


Watson, Sophie, City Publics: The (dis)enchantments of Urban Encounters (Abingdon, Oxon, England: Routledge, 2006).

Kostof, Spiro and Greg Castillo, The City Assembled: The Elements of Urban Form through History (London: Little, Brown, 1992).

Studdert, David and Sophie Watson, Markets as Sites for Social Interaction: Spaces of Diversity (Bristol: Policy Press, 2006).

Whyatt, Anna, ‘London East: Gateway to regeneration’, in Tim Butler and Michael Rustin (eds.), Rising in the East? : The Regeneration of East London (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1996), pp.265-287.

Powell, W.R., ‘West Ham: Markets and fairs, marshes and forest,’ in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6 (London: Victoria County History, 1973), pp. 93-96.

Sendra, Pablo and Richard Sennet, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City. (London: Verso, 2020).

Campkin, Ben, Remaking London: Decline and Regeneration in Urban Culture. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013).

Online References

Borough of Newham online planning applications, ‘Planning Application Reference Number: 08/02263/LTGDC: Design and Access Statement’, (December 19, 2008), https://pa.newham. do?keyVal=KAMXCJJY01R00&activeTab=summary (accessed April 03, 2021).

Borough of Newham online planning applications, ‘Planning Application Reference Number: 08/02263/LTGDC: Planning Statement’, (December 19, 2008), https://pa.newham. do?keyVal=KAMXCJJY01R00&activeTab=summary (accessed April 03, 2021).

Jarvis, Sarah, ‘Understanding London’s Markets’, London: Greater London Authority (2017). https:// (accessed April 03, 2021).

Rathbone Market, ‘Rathbone Market’, https://www. (accessed April 03, 2021).

Tudors Markets, ‘Rathbone Market’, https:// (accessed April 03, 2021).

UNESCO, ‘Intangible Heritage’, https://ich.unesco. org/ (accessed April 07, 2021).

UNESCO, ‘Social practices, rituals and festive events’, rituals-and-00055 (accessed April 07, 2021).

UNESCO, ‘What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?’, heritage-00003 (accessed April 07, 2021).

UNESCO, ‘Why safeguard intangible cultural heritage?’, safeguard-ich-00479 (accessed April 07, 2021).

Kleovoulos Aristarchou is a practising architect in the U.K. and Europe and specialises in projects with historic context. His interest lies in the materiality and craft of the city, as well as juxtapositions between historic and contemporary architecture, art, and theories.

Gort Scott Architects, London, U.K.
MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2021

MArch Architecture, The Glasgow School of Art, 2020
PGDipArch Architecture, The Glasgow School of Art, 2019
BArch(Hons) Architecture, Nottingham Trent University, 2015

The research and writing of
this article is an export from an article written by the author for the module Histories of Global London, 1900 to the Present from MA Architecture and His- toric Urban Environments at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL in 2021.


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