BRIXTON PEOPLE: Donna at Dagon’s

It’s a-fish-shoal! Brixton’s favourite is a fillet of red bream! Bobbie Lakhera had a chat with Donna Corley from Dagon’s Fishmongers as she nears twenty years working in Brixton Market.

Donna Dagons

“It’s so multicultural. You’re mixing with different people and you get to learn about other cultures. It proves that we do all get on well together. What you read in the papers and see on the news, they think it’s not possible. Come to Brixton! We’ll show you how to do it.”

Donna and I were discussing the recent scaremongering about immigration. Born in one of the flats surrounding the Stockwell skate park, the 46 year-old grandmother-of-three has lived in the area all her life. Immigration and its impact on the local community are subjects she knows well.

Donna was born in 1967 to parents who had moved to Brixton from neighbouring Camberwell. As the family grew they relocated from the flat, staying nearby. She was a regular at the market shopping with her mother from a young age.

She got her first job there in the 1980s, following in the footsteps of an elder brother. At fourteen Donna became the Saturday girl in one of the butcher’s, taking on extra shifts during the school holidays before working there full-time upon leaving school. In those days she was regarded as a bit of an oddity.

“There were no women, none at all! I was the first female. I sort of knew everybody so there was no discrimination against me whatsoever. When I first started I didn’t actually like working with the meat, but I was young and it was pocket money. The boss told me to go on the fish. I thought I was going to absolutely hate it, but I loved it. It’s a very dirty job, but the more muck the better for me! I spent five years there, learnt it as I went along.”

Donna left the market to work for Lambeth Education, working with children with behavioral issues. Cuts in the early nineties resulted in her being made redundant and she returned to the market in 1995.

“My brother was working at Dagon’s for the Hodges and Gareth’s father asked if I could help over Easter as I knew the fish trade. They kept me on, obviously that came at the right time as I wasn’t working. It has recently been taken over by Mr Rusi.”

Fortunes at the market have ebbed and flowed, but Donna felt that lately it was like a ghost town. People used to get as far as the fishmonger’s, look past and see closed units and not consider exploring further.

“Back in the 90s the market was thriving and then we had a bit of a dip. Then it picked up, but when the council closed the car park a few years ago, that had a massive impact on our customers. People used to bulk buy but they don’t do that now because the parking is horrendous. It has started to pick up again. Everybody is walking around the avenues and it’s lovely. It’s good to see all the units trading now.”

After so many years, Donna has picked up which communities favour what fish, the cultural differences that can determine a customer’s choice. The changes to the market have brought new customers also.

“We still get your locals during the week, your everyday regular who has been coming to us for many, many years. The weekend clientele has changed a lot. Most of the people I serve are new, but they are getting familiar as they keep coming back. They’re becoming regulars! We’ve got some right characters. It’s also a family thing. Some of our customers have passed on, but their kids come to us now.”

With supermarkets ever present, it’s a testament to the produce and service at Dagon’s that it remains a firm favourite. Customers come from across London and the new restaurants are also shopping locally. Donna knows what brings people back.

“With Brixton, everybody is so friendly and you get that banter that you don’t get at the supermarket. You get the personal touch. Service with a smile goes a long way as well! Lots of people ask for advice and we can give recommendations or new ideas. Customers think it’s good value for money. The good thing with our fish is that my boss will go and pick it out himself in the morning. We get the freshest in.”

With many more women working in the market, it has become ever more diverse. There’s no rivalry between shops and they help each other out when needed. Donna sees her future at Dagon’s and couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.

“You get great satisfaction from it. You know you’re doing something right when the customers come back and say they enjoyed the fish. Especially with some of the older people. They come and have a good chat with you and sometimes you can be the only person they have a conversation with that day. It makes them feel good. They leave with a smile on their face, it’s your good deed for the day.

“No matter where I go, I always bump into a customer. I was in Portugal on holiday once, sitting there with my family and a customer tapped me on the shoulder! My customers are my neighbours.

“When the schools come down the kids ask questions that adults wouldn’t think to ask. Kids are curious, and I always make an effort to speak to them. We get kids out shopping with their parents who want to know about the fish. The market is educational.

“I’ve gone home and changed, then come back down with friends to eat in the evening time. My favourite place is Elephant. It’s nice to see the place from another point of view!”

Dagon’s, 16 Brixton Village, SW9 8PR / 020 7274 1665.