Sitting in isolated splendour at the centre of Globe Town Market Square, surrounded by Sixties apartment blocks, a traditional market stall owned by Downey Brothers has been supplying the local community with fresh seafood for as long as the East End can remember.
‘I’ve been selling fish for 38 years,’ says Del Downey, the third-generation fishmonger who is pretty much a local celebrity.
Downey’s family has been in the fish business for 130 years, starting with his grandfather Cornelius Downey who set up a small shop in Bethnal Green opposite the Repton Boxing Club. His father George with brother Harry then followed in their father’s footsteps, moving from a shop to a fish stall on the Roman Road in 1930s.
‘My father volunteered to join the army and when he finished his stint he opened a stall in Roman Road. There used to be a street market there but now it is on the market square,’ he recalls.
Downey’s father started selling fish when he was 14 years old. Like father like son – Downey too started working for his father when he was 14. ‘Most kids at 14 can’t even make a cup of tea’ says Downey, smirking.
‘On a Saturday, my father used to come into the bedroom and shake me: ‘Wake up! Wake up!’ and I was like what ‘What?’ ‘We’re late!’ he said. And I replied: ‘For f***’s sake dad. How can we be late, it is 4:30 in the morning!’
To get the best pick of fresh fish, Del and his father would try to be first to arrive at Billingsgate Fish Market. Back then it was near Tower Bridge and there was a bell on the market. When the bell rang, it meant we could start buying fish. You couldn’t buy fish before then.’
‘My job was to buy a block of ice while my dad was buying fish. I used to go to the back of the market, buy a block of ice and stagger up the hill back to the van. Today it would probably count as child abuse. It got easier as I got older as I could just put it on my shoulders,’ says Downey gazing into the distance, fishing out the happy moments from his memory.
Downey is easy to recognise in his brown leather cap, white bib and rubber boots. With his weather-beaten face, sturdy build and fisherman’s hands, he looks like he has just stepped off a fishing boat and straight onto Roman Road.
But even though Downey looks like he was made for his job, he didn’t always want to be a fishmonger. When he first left school he did an apprenticeship as electrician and later became a professional welder.
Throughout his working life he has worked with his brother, a fully trained heating engineer who used to instal air-conditioning and fire escapes.
When his mother died in the 1980s, Downey started to work full-time to support his father ‘because that’s what you do’ and he has been working as a professional fishmonger for 38 years.
His father retired when he was 75 years old and Downey started to work at the stall on his own, sometimes with the help of his older brother Roger.
‘I’ve seen four generations of customers come through here. My oldest customer is 104 years old,’ he says proudly.
Downey is very much a part of the local community, and many of his customers are his friends who have been buying from him for many years. As if to prove it, an elderly lady walks up to the stall and Del, having noticed her from the distance, calls out: ‘Not today my love! Come tomorrow,’ before she even has time to roll the words off her tongue.
‘She’s after the spreads,’ he explains. ‘I know what my customers want and how much they want to spend,’ says Downey, whose mind-reading powers are a testimony to his daily engagement with the community. Downey then explains to a French customer that ‘spreads’ means sardines.
‘We’re dedicated to supplying the best product at the most competitive price. I like to say that we’re West End quality and East End prices,’ he says, not lifting his glance from the tank full of scallops while giving them a swirl in the cold water.
The company, Downey Brothers, has seen changes in the business over the last couple of years. The clientele has changed rapidly and fish isn’t as fashionable as it used to be.
‘On Fridays we would have a cue of 20 people. Today Friday is just another day,’ says Downey. ‘When it gets harder you just have to work harder,’ he admits.
On Saturdays, which are the busiest days, the stall doubles up and Downey works alongside his brother to supply shoppers with amazing fish, seafood and ready-to-eat shellfish such as prawns and cockles. His stall is the most colourful on this day and includes a little DIY station with salt, pepper, tabasco and bottles of Vinney.
Vinney is a non-brewed condiment similar to vinegar that people can douse on their take-away. According to Downey, this non-brewed condiment goes better with shellfish than regular malt vinegar and it’s commonly used in traditional fish and chips shops across the country.
Downey scoops the seafood with a old quart cup that dates back to the sixites, which is the size of a quarter of a gallon. ‘It’s a quick way of serving someone opposed to weighing it. It’s the way it’s always been done in the East End. It’s also because it’s the perfect size for a portion of mussels,’ he explains.
‘On Saturday I pick my brother up in five in the morning, we start trading at eight and there is no break till two. As soon as you get a sandwich someone comes and you’re done. You can’t make them wait to finish your sandwich because you have to serve them,’ explains Downey who takes his job seriously.
‘I don’t smoke but every Saturday evening we have a half of a cigar and we can chat. We can’t chat while at work because the customer is the important person.’
Running a business is not an easy job, and there were many times when he thought about packing it all in. ‘It was getting too hard. This year we had extreme ranges of weather with the Beast of the East and then the hottest summer in a thousand years, both disrupting trade in different ways.’
Things turned for the better when a few local competitors retired, including the much-loved George’s Plaice further up near Roman Road Market. Downey’s stall has now inherited a percentage of their trade, which is all he needed to tip the balance and carry on.
When asked about what the best selling product is, he hesitates before he picks up a large pink fillet from the ice. ‘Salmon is the best seller nowadays. A lot of Spanish people buy sea bass because it’s a Mediterranean type of fish but everything sells, really,’ he says while pointing the fish at me, his bare wet hands gleaming in the sun.
However good a mind-reader he is, Downey can’t predict what the best catch of the day will be until he arrives at Billingsgate market. ‘You shouldn’t decide what you want before you go out. You should shop on the day,’ he says.
Pausing his reminiscence, Downey turns to serve a customer, who ends up buying sea bass. He takes the fish and begins to scrape off the scales with the iron teeth of a curry comb, more commonly used for grooming horses.
‘My wife used to come here a lot before she changed her job. The fish is better here than at Whitechapel market. It’s much fresher,’ the customer declares.
Del Downey doesn’t live locally and travels almost every morning to Billingsgate Market and East End from his house in Lakeside, Essex. Despite knowing the area very well, he tries to avoid it on his days off.
“Parking here is a nightmare” he grumbles. He prefers riding and collecting motorcycles and his eyes light up when he begins to talk about his off-road racing days. ‘I used to own 70 motorbikes. You buy one it’s the best thing in the world, then a year later you change it for another one,’ he recalls.
The best thing about his job is being his own governor, but running his own business also has its dark sides. “If I take a day off, people might even not want to buy a fish but they will notice it.”
Throughout the years Downey has collected a lot of experiences and stories from his customers. One of the funniest he remembers was when he used to sell live eels. ‘I cut one up for this lady and when she got home, her little daughter got plasters out and tried to stick it back together. Intentions of the child, miracle plaster.’
Stories, whether funny or sad connect him with his customers and Downey is always ready to listen and give his opinions.
‘A few years ago we used to sell live crabs and this lady kept touching it. I said don’t touch it, it will bite you. She didn’t stop so the crab went and bit her. The crab claw wouldn’t let go off her because even if you detach the crab’s body from the claw it will stay locked. It’s a long time ago now but her daughter often comes up here and we always remember the crab situation.’
Downey has a soft spot for animals too. He has befriended a local seagull he calls George, who perches on the roof of his stall or van. George enjoys the food and Downey has a loyal companion. ‘He loves salmon bellies,’ Downey says with a big smile on his face.
‘I had two Indians come here and ask me if I wanted to sell the bird. I said I can’t sell it, it’s a wild bird. Imagine putting a seagull in a cage. The Chinese fishermen keep cormorants as pets so they think it’s my cormorant’ explains Downey.
The thing he likes about Roman Road is the diversity of the customers; all religions, cultures and types of people. ‘It’s like going on a world cruise. The only one I’ve never seen is an Eskimo.’
Thinking about the future makes Downey admit that he and his brother will be the final generation. ‘We’re getting old,’ he says, confessing that none of his children want to take over the business when he retires.
‘They all did their time here which made them realise they want a different career. My eldest son is an accountant, my other son is a head teacher and my daughter works as a child social worker,’ he explains, unphased by what this spells out for the legacy of his business.
For as long as his health will allow him, Downey will continue serving the local community. With no-one to inherit the business, Downey Brother’s fish stall on Globe Town Market is something we should all cherish for as long as we can.
‘This isn’t a job. It’s a lifestyle,’ adds Downey before returning to dismantle his shop without a roof.
A day in the life of a Roman Road fishmonger