As reported earlier this year, Damian Fowler, who had run Gilgrove on Buyers Walk, tragically passed away in January. Less than two months previously, he had taken the extremely hard decision to close down the family business after 37 years of very successful trading in London’s wholesale markets. Here we look back on the company’s history and recount conversations with three of the firm’s long-standing employees on the day the firm closed
On Tuesday November 28th one of the leading and most widely respected wholesalers on Buyers Walk shut its doors. Gilgrove was established just a couple of years before the relocation to Nine Elms in 1974 and had been run by Peter Fowler MBE and then his son Damian since Peter’s C&C Group purchased the business in the 1990s. In 1986, Peter Fowler had famously purchased C&C from retiring market veteran Lenny Cooper on the onerous basis that ‘If at any time, you fail to pay me my money by mid-morning every Saturday, the company reverts to my name’.
He never did miss a Saturday payment and C&C went from strength to strength. It became known as an exotic fruit specialist, as Peter moved the business away from its focus on traditional fruit, set up at New Spitalfields on the day it opened in 1991 – where Peter and eldest son Damian worked tirelessly to establish a cracking business – and added a firm at Borough Market, where his other son Lawrence and daughter Kelly ran Elsey & Bent.
The purchase of Gilgrove increased capacity further. The firm was pretty acquisitive in its early years, before combining its strengths under the Gilgrove banner at New Covent Garden Market.
Throughout its 37-years, Gilgrove remained a family firm in the real sense of the words – thriving with the service of not just the Fowler clan, but other families who have made the market their livelihood. Also part of the C&C “family” were long-standing suppliers from all corners of the world and a loyal band of customers who will miss them.
Fred, Paul and Keith
Paul Wise started his career in the old Covent Garden Market in 1965 and had worked for other fruit and vegetable wholesalers before Peter Fowler gave him a job in the mid-noughties. “Peter was very hard working. A shrewd operator who built up quite a big company,” said Paul. “Gilgrove was established on Russell Street in the old market by Tony Goldsmith in about 1972. Peter bought it out at some point and it became part of the C&C Group.
“Times change, things change - they ended up closing down the Spitalfields firm. They combined everything on the one stand here and it worked quite well, particularly at the start,” Paul said.
“It has been such a good company. I have been there for 18 years - on the fruit side - and have always enjoyed it. They left you to get on with it. It was a good firm to work for. No one was on top of you as long as you did your job properly, which is what anybody really wants.
“It is a very relaxed atmosphere in the Market anyway. And that firm was very relaxed. There was a good team of people there.
“I’d like to think Gilgrove was the kind of place where you could come and, as we say, get on for what you wanted. You had us doing the fruit at one end, the salad and veg in the middle and the exotics at the far end. So you could buy whatever you wanted here. Salesmen and customers build up relationships. You know certain people and know what they want. As they walk up you think ‘I’ve got something for you’. That is what I have always done.”
Paul with regular market customers Darren and George Cox
What was Paul’s reaction when he found out that Gilgrove was shutting its doors? “It came as a surprise,” he admits. “We all knew that Damian was very ill. But somehow you expected it to go on. It was probably really because of the [prospect of moving to the] new part of the Market, which would have needed an enormous outlay to kit out one of those stands. That would have been a big commitment to make with his state of health. Without that he may have let the firm just continue. I’d like to have thought so. I should have thought it was an extremely, extremely difficult decision to make.
“It feels very difficult. Even though everyone there has found somewhere else in the Market it’s very hard because any change is hard.
“It’s hard to describe if you have never been in this business and I don’t like phrases like ‘It’s in the blood’ but actually it is. It’s been an enormous part of my life this Market. All my life since I was 15. I can’t imagine not being here. I am now at Newmans. We closed there [at Gilgrove] that morning at midnight and walked round the corner and started here at 1 o’clock. I walked from one stand to the next. It keeps it seamless. And I don’t want to let down the people I serve either. So here I am.”
Fred Hooper sold fruit and bananas for Gilgrove for the last 14 years. He also moved to Newmans in November. “I feel very sad, disappointed - for the company and also for Damian,” he said. “I’d known him since he was 8. I used to work on James Street in the original Covent Garden. Then came here. I did a 15-year stint in Western International then came back here again.”
Fred will take away only fond memories of his time at Gilgrove. “It was very good. It was a family job. You came and had fun although you worked hard as well. Business has changed. It’s not like it used to be. But Gilgrove always had a good reputation. They were secure. And fair. But times change don’t they? Even though we [Paul and me] have both been here a long time it’s new again. People work in different ways.”
Keith Hart had been working for Gilgrove for 16 years. “My first contract, with Peter Fowler, was a handshake,” he remembers. “I didn’t have to sign anything. Someone recommended me and Peter took their word that I was ok. He was a lovely, lovely guy - hard but so fair. If you ever needed him for anything he would be there. And Damian took it over. He was a diamond.
“I feel really empty. I think you spend more time here than you do at home. Awake, anyway! I was a bit of everything - purchase ledger, sales ledger, taking the money, interacting with the customers, doing the BACS payments. Although you did your work when you were here, to me it wasn’t like coming to work. You are with your mates.
"It’s like being back at school really. It was the atmosphere of everybody - meeting different people, you tell them your problems, you are like a therapist to them sometimes. It’s one big giant family. You know everyone down here.”