Restoration and Renaissance: How Borough Market Became a Culinary Destination


In the second part of this story, we go back to Borough Market’s roots, and examine how London’s evolution as a global city, as well as the persistence of a passionate individual, helped shape Borough Market today. (Some obscure 18th century legislation also came in handy.)

As we explored in part one of this story, the renewal of Borough Market took place in a favorable mix of factors: the improving economic climate in London, rising residential values in the local area and an influx of new residents.

But George Nicholson’s involvement in the market’s development provided the local knowledge, political know-how and placemaking vision to bring about successful change.


A produce vendor at Borough Market sets up shop for the day. 

Setting the Table

As part of an effort to save the market from closure, a development committee was set up in 1995, with a brief to manage the market’s real estate and develop some new thinking. It is not widely appreciated that as well as needing to find and develop new businesses, the Trustees of the Market were faced with the need to completely renovate the existing market structures. The first initiative by the development committee was to stage an architectural design competition under the auspices of the RIBA, the winner of which—architects Greig & Stephenson—had just completed the renovation of Leeds Market.

The first “green shoot” for the market emerged the following year, in 1996. The market had hit rock bottom with little left but a few traders and a mobile barber’s stall operating from a caravan. Neil’s Yard Dairy approached the market seeking additional space in damp conditions for the preservation of their expanding cheese business. Damp space, according to Nicholson, “was something we had lots of.” 

Damp space, according to Nicholson, “was something we had lots of.” 

This represented the first major additional tenant to the market in many years. Passersby started to inquire as to whether they could buy the cheese, and a cash register appeared behind the gate servicing retail sales once a month, on a Saturday morning. In 1997, Brindisa, a Spanish delicatessen goods importer then located outside the market, and a couple of wholesale fruit and vegetable traders from the market, started a series of “Warehouse Sales” every six weeks, which immediately attracted a variety of new customers for the quality of the produce.

Although it would be several years before the market would become known for high-quality, specialist food retailing, Nicholson was not slow to notice the market potential. In the next significant move, Brindisa started to rent space within the existing wholesale market—the first new trader in many years.


People sitting and strolling through the Market Hall. 

Redevelopment and Regeneration

The same year that Neil’s Yard Dairy opened, the development committee, chaired by Nicholson, applied for a Single Regeneration Budget in partnership with the Peabody Trust, with the idea of redeveloping the market and including an element of affordable housing in some surplus market property.

The bid was named “London’s Larder”—borrowed from the historical name of nearby Hay’s Wharf in Tooley Street. This was granted, bringing £2.5 million to kickstart the market’s regeneration, although significantly more funds were required in order to complete the project. The next important piece of the jigsaw puzzle was the acquisition for £1 of the architectural structure of the Floral Hall from the Covent Garden, which Nicholson knew about from his involvement with the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House while Chair of the Greater London Council planning committee.

The inclusion of the Floral Hall in the emerging renewal scheme provided the opportunity for the market to return to something of its former glory, as well as introduce a new quality restaurant element above some new retail and market space. In turn, this paved the way for a more robust and varied mix of uses within the emerging new market. The sale of a number of warehouses under the market’s ownership by the development committee and some additional funding from the London Development Agency allowed the rest of the redevelopment to take place.

The next key event—a huge success—was Henrietta Green’s three-day “Food Lovers Fair” in 1998, held in Borough Market, attracting 50 producers from around the U.K. Following the fair, six of the producers participated in the warehouse sale and this continued over the following year. As the popularity of the market started to increase again between 1998 and 2000, it went to a monthly, and then to a weekly event, and finally over time to its current six days a week.


The exterior of Borough Market today. 

Some Obscure Legislation

Maintaining a healthy mix of tenants supplying the best quality food could be the primary focus.

The final element to the market’s later success is found in an unexpected corner. The market’s statutes, originating in 1755, had two key elements:

  •  To hold a market on land acquired by the market in perpetuity.
  •  That its profits must be distributed to local parishioners.

However, when it was pointed out to the Trustees that distributing the profits was a “charitable activity,” unless it could be accepted that “the holding of the market” was also a charitable activity, the Trustees would have no option but to maximize the income from their land holdings.

Five years of negotiations with the Charity Commission, led by Nicholson, recognized that the market had two charitable aims, paving the way for Borough Market to gain charitable status. This made sure that pursuit of profits through increasing stall rents was not the key goal of the institution, so that maintaining a healthy mix of tenants supplying the best quality food could be the primary focus. For Nicholson, “this was absolutely key.”

Richard Barkham and George Nicholson trying out Borough Market's selection…
A seafood vendor as he serves a customer.
One of many entrances leading into Borough Market.
Borough Market's Market Hall includes vertical planters and moveable seating.

Lessons of Renewal

What can be learned from the rejuvenation of Borough Market for community builders elsewhere? While there are a number of specific factors at play, there are three broader themes that could be applied elsewhere:

First, renewal did not happen in isolation: The economic revival of the area and London in general created the demand, and the means to meet this demand, for high-quality and more highly priced items.

Second, an individual with the local knowledge and understanding of the area’s history and the political elements of urban planning was intimately involved in the project over a long period. This local knowledge meant that a new function for the market could be layered over the old, remaking while being sensitive to the function and ambience of the previous market. Social entrepreneurship is an important part of placemaking.

Social entrepreneurship is an important part of placemaking.

Finally, the market’s recent development through times of success has had to be carefully curated to ensure a healthy tenant mix. This has been thanks to the market’s charitable status and statutes enforcing its function as a market. While the tenants cannot be subsidized, and pay their way to rent space in the market, the need to maximize these rents has been removed by the different structuring of the market as an institution. 

By altering the focus from profits to vibrancy, the character of the market can be preserved. This also applies to the land use, which, at current prices, would provide an attractive plot for residential development. Placemaking here therefore requires some taming of the impulse to maximize the monetary value of the market in order to survive and thrive.


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