American Collections blog

20 May 2021

Sandra Agard: An Ode to Ridley Road

This is the fourth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.

*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***

This blog is about Sandra Agard, a storyteller and author who is currently based at the British Library. Sandra’s parents travelled from Guyana (British Guiana at the time) in the early 1950s and infused their London home with the flavours of Guyana. A life-long Hackney resident, this blog focuses on memories of her parents’ cooking and trips to Ridley Road market but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Delicious, magical, sumptuous … it’s about stories, journey, tradition … a melting pot of so many influences coming together to make the Caribbean, and that’s what Caribbean food is, it’s history, it’s us, it’s me

Caribbean food is

Capturing the magic of Caribbean food, Sandra connects her own life to that of her parents, and the wider history of Guyana and the Caribbean, through recollections of freshly baked bread, chow mein and Guinness punch with hot milk. Dishes like chow mein speak to what Sandra calls Guyana’s ‘melting pot’ history. Those fried noodles stretch back to the period of indentureship, when Chinese labourers transported ingredients, tastes and cooking techniques, as they arrived on ships from Hong Kong, to supplement labour shortages following the abolition of slavery.1

Legacy

Sandra’s sumptuous memories of delicious and comforting meals speak to nourishment as a form of community building. Throughout the interview, Sandra spoke tenderly about her parents, Evelyn and Cecil Agard. She thanks them for instilling the family with a strong sense of Caribbean identity. From Cecil’s Black Cake – which he laboriously made at Christmas time – to Evelyn’s curries, duffs and roti, interspersed with parties and trips to Speakers’ Corner, the family was raised on a diet of Guyanese delicacies, culture and politics. Families like the Agards are revealing of a bigger story about food, migration and identity. A storyteller herself, Sandra avows the importance of maintaining stories and legacies because these ‘mothers and fathers, grandparents, they sacrificed too much to become invisible’. Her memories of Ridley Road market are just one part of this legacy, and they echo Hackney’s working-class and multicultural heritage.

Memories of Ridley Road

Ridley Road Market, as a child, it was the boom

Red, white and green painted flyer with text
Save Ridley Road sign on Colvestone Crescent, collect by the author

Sandra remembers when Ridley Road Market was so busy that ‘you couldn’t move … it was just chock-a-block’. She would go on Saturday mornings with her mother, Evelyn, who was constantly bumping into friends, stallholders and fellow nurses – you could not go ‘two seconds without meeting somebody and standing up for years and talking and talking’. These memories capture the community spirit of one of London’s oldest markets. Whilst official records of Ridley Road date back to 1926, Freddie Sherrif – who was once the market governor – explains that this date refers to the time when stallholders asked the council to regulate it and that the market long predates this. Recorded for the Millennium Memory Bank, Sherrif traces the history of the market, from his grandfather who fought against Oswald Mosley (founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists, 1932-40) to the changing demographics of the surrounding area in the post-war period.

‘that’s why this market’s survived, basically we’ve got a catchment of customers that come from cultures that are market-based … we realise that and we’re very grateful. Where other markets, great markets within London have failed … Ridley Road’s still thriving because of that one reason … The whole world meets here and there’s never any trouble … no more than you would in Harrods’

Freddie Sherrif interviewed by Matthew Linfoot - Millennium Memory Bank BL Shelfmark C900/05075

Both of these interviews – with Sandra and Sherrif – depict the market as a hub of trade, nourishment and comradeship, with its comparative success and longevity resulting from the rich composition of Hackney’s population.

Page from the book
Great Domesday Book, 1086. National Archives Shelfmark E 31/2/2

Markets have existed for millennia, to provide goods and services to the surrounding locality and as a space for farmers and artisans to sell their wares. Commissioned by William the Conqueror, in 1085, the Great Domesday Book (1086) recorded details of 13,418 settlements in England – including 50 market towns. From the 12th century, the number of market towns in England increased rapidly; between 1200 and 1349 thousands of new weekly markets were licensed by the Crown.2 These markets are a part of our national heritage, that speak to the everyday histories of food, trade and of family life. Even as the prevalence of street markets decline (in the UK), they continue to be an important part of daily life for many people and cultures across the world. In fact, ‘The Market’ was one of the topics included in Going to Britain?, a guide for prospective Commonwealth voyagers from the Caribbean. Published by the BBC in 1959, the pamphlet was authored by a combination of Caribbean men who were already living in London (including Samuel Selvon, the Trinidadian novelist), political figures and civil servants. It covered several topics, such as the journey, housing and work, in a sometimes humorous but generally stern and condescending tone.  

Front cover, black and white photo and page of text
BBC Caribbean Service, Going to Britain? (London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1959) British Library Shelfmark Andrew Salkey Archive Dep 10310. Box 17. Available to view online

Nurses shopping in the market

A.G. Bennett’s section on shopping warned future settlers that ‘Fruit dealers hate buyers handling and squeezing things on display.’ This reminds me of Sandra’s anecdote about nurses shopping for provisions – ‘plantains, sweet potatoes and yams’ – on Ridley Road after they had come off the night shift. When the shopkeeper told the nurses off for touching the produce, Sandra thought ‘how dare he?!’ These feelings of anger prompted her to tell ‘him what’s for’ and demand that he show these women, nurses, mothers and customers more respect. These were women that had been recruited by the newly-formed NHS to come to Britain and train as nurses in order to meet the health needs of post-war Britain.3 Sandra remembers that everyone else started to join in, which ‘was just so brilliant’ – it was part of a process of ‘finding their own voice and standing up for themselves’. This is why recording and archiving stories like Sandra’s is so important, because it speaks back to the archive and, in this case, to the politics of assimilation that publications like Going to Britain epitomised.

Article 'Black Angels' with text and photographs
'Black Angels: Coloured doctors and nurses are saving Britain's hospital services from breakdown', Flamingo, October 1961 British Library Shelfmark P.P.5109.bq.

How the market's changed 

Nostalgic for the market’s ‘vibrant’ and ‘electric’ feel, Sandra explains that there is now ‘something missing’, which has only been intensified by the global pandemic. Acutely aware of the forces that have intensified the market’s decline, she comments on the fact that Ridley Road is ‘prized land’, as much of Hackney is now. Listing some of Hackney’s diminished or lost markets, like the Waste along Kingsland Road and Roman Road Market, in comparison to thriving Broadway Market, Sandra provides a window onto the fast-changing gentrified landscape of Hackney, through the lifecycle of the market. Much like the Save Ridley Road campaign – for which you will see beautifully painted and printed signs on display in the surrounding area – Sandra proclaims ‘We need our markets’!

Photograph of a red, white and green sign surrounded by leaves
Save Ridley Road sign on Colvestone Crescent, Dalston, taken by the author

Thank you Sandra Agard for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.

Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Read the next blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Ranette Prime: food and identity in Britain

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Charlie Phillips: The Story Behind Smokey Joe's Diner

References / further reading

  • 'Great Domesday Book', Anglo-Saxons Collection Items, British Library 
  • BBC Caribbean Service, Going to Britain? (London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1959) British Library Shelfmark Andrew Salkey Archive Dep 10310. Box 17
  • ‘Black and white photos of pre-gentrification Hackney’, Huck, 12 February 2020
  • Flamingo, October 1961, British Library Shelfmark P.P.5109.bq.   
  • Freddie Sherrif interviewed by Matthew Linfoot - Millennium Memory Bank British Library Shelfmark C900/05075
  • Future Hackney
  • H. Britnell, ‘The Proliferation of Markets in England, 1200-1349’, The Economic History Review, 34 (1981). 209-221
  • Linda McDowell, 'How Caribbean migrants helped to rebuild Britain', Windrush Stories, 4 October 2018
  • 'Local storytelling collective to stage public exhibition celebrating Ridley Road', Hackney Citizen, 13 October 2020
  • William Lobscheid, Chinese Emigration to the West Indies. A trip through British Guiana undertaken for the purpose of ascertaining the condition of the Chinese who have emigrated under Government contract. With supplementary papers relating to contract labor and the slave trade (Demerara: Royal Gazette Office, 1866) British Library Shelfmark Digital Store 8155.ee.9.(6.)
  • P. Lee, Chinese Cookery. A hundred practical recipes with decorations by Chiang Yee (London: Faber & Faber, 1943) British Library Shelfmark 7946.df.32.
  • Sandra Agard interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Save Ridley Road
  1. William Lobscheid, Chinese Emigration to the West Indies (Demerara: Royal Gazette Office, 1866)
  2. R. H. Britnell, ‘The Proliferation of Markets in England, 1200-1349’, Economic History Review, 34 (1981). 209-221
  3. Linda McDowell, 'How Caribbean migrants helped to rebuild Britain', Windrush Stories, 4 October 2018
.