July 23, 1991
Sylvester Hughes,market stall- holder, born Potter's Village Antigua 23 December 1926, married1957 Maria Broadshaw (two sons, four daughters), died London 6 July 1991.
SYLVESTER HUGHES wasthe first West Indian stallholder on the Portobello Road fruit and veg market.He stood out on Stall 109, but not for the colour of his skin. He was reservedin rough- and-tumble circumstances. His produce was exotic among the mundane.
The snaking Victorianlane of Portobello Road is famous for its weekend antique trade, but it is thefood stalls that, Monday to Saturday, make it a vital working part of westLondon. Known as ''the belly'' by its primarily cockney traders, its threeblocks of food pitches are the toughest and most vivid on the market. Toughbecause every morning the barrow boys roll out the wagons at 3.30am, haulingproduce from lock-ups hidden throughout Notting Hill.
It is tougher yetbecause of the weather. Traders braved an especially punishing cold snap inJanuary 1985 in anoraks and moon boots. While they joked, stamped their feetand nursed cups of steaming tea, their produce froze on the stalls. Insummertime, they increasingly favour lurid sports gear, exposing a wealth oftattooed forearms. The race is to hawk their stuff before it melts or wilts.English strawberries! All the straws you like!
Mr Hughes, however,wore more or less the same outfit year- round. Tweed hat, pressed cotton shirt,knotted tie, wool jumper. He never hawked. There was no easy familiarity. Headdressed others as ''Miss'', ''Missus'' or ''Mister'' - never ''love'',''lovey'' or ''darling''. And he was known locally, even by those who knew himwell, as ''Mr Hughes''.
His produce, too, wasan exercise in contrast: where, until very recently, his neighbours sold fairlystandard selections of oranges, apples, leeks and cabbage, he sold Jamaicanpeppermint, white and yellow yams, plantains, ackee, limes, several types ofroot ginger, a good variety of chillies, coconuts, smooth Jamaican avocadoesand the exotic squash chayote. Well before the supermarkets, specialistdelicatessens and neighbouring stalls cottoned on to the market in fresh herbs,he sold large bouquets of mint, coriander, flat-leaved parsley, thyme androsemary from boxes stored out of sight. He rarely displayed these: they wouldwilt.
Business was good. Hehad known most of his customers for over 30 years. He was part of the greatwave of West Indian immigrants who flooded into Notting Hill in the 1950s. Hesailed from Antigua on Christmas Eve 1957, three days after marrying anAntiguan girl, Maria Broadshaw, with whom he had already had several children.Unlike many embittered by the vicious landlord Peter Rachman and the raceriots, Hughes, according to his wife, grew to love England.
His first job was as akitchen porter in Lyons Corner House for pounds 6 10s a week. He lived ingovernment accommodation in North Kensington, sharing a room with six othermen, until his family followed two years later, when they moved only severalblocks off the market. For the next 15 years, as his family grew to include sixchildren, he worked as a carpenter, rising to the rank of foreman.
By the Seventies, heyearned for self-employment. He took to stall-holding. The progression to aprime site on the Portobello took some eight years of trading in lesser sites inChurch Street in Paddington, then Golborne Road in North Kensington. When hearrived on the Portobello in the early Eighties, the only rival supplying WestIndian produce was a dank shop off a side-street, T. Spencer & Mum onLancaster Road. The shop reeked of disinfectant and rotting fruit.
Mr Hughes never soldanything but the best, which he took pains to secure. To newcomers, he oftenseemed remote. It was difficult to prise from him the names of his more curiousitems. My favourite were his sour sops, which he called ''ginnips'': ugly podson scraggly branches with a delicious limey pulp around big seeds.
Until early this year,he was never ill - always at his stall. On Wednesday 17 July, the day of hisfuneral at All Saints' Church, Notting Hill, stall 109 was heaped with bouquetsfrom shoppers and neighbouring stall-holders, who had grown quite fond of thequiet man with the queer fruit.
Copyright 1991Newspaper Publishing PLC.