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ENGLAND
Samuel Pepys
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London's Underworld
Fleet Marriages.
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London is become an overgrown monster; which, like a dropsical head, will in time leave the body and extremities without nourishment and support.

-- Tobias Smollet 1771



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The Wet-fish Seller
Posted on Aug 15, 2002 - 02:56 AM by Bill McCann

In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew has left us a detailed picture of London street life in the mid nineteenth century. In his first volume he describes the street-sellers and their lives. Vast quantities of fish of all types were consumed by Londoners and Mayhew investigated all aspects of the trade. He also interviewed some of those directly concerned in the tradce. This is the story of the seller of wet fish.



Concerning the sale of "wet" or fresh fish, I had the following account from a trustworthy man, of considerable experience and superior education:

"I have sold 'wet fish' in the streets for more than fourteen years; before that I was a gentleman, and was brought up a gentleman, if I'm a beggar now. I bought fish largely in the north of England once, and now I must sell it in the streets of London. Never mind talking about that, sir; there's some things won't bear talking about.

"There's a wonderful difference in the streets since I knew them first; I could make a pound then, where I can hardly make a crown now. People had more money, and less meanness then. I consider that the railways have injured me, and all wet fish-sellers, to a great extent. Fish now, you see, sir, comes in at all hours, so that nobody can calculate on the quantity that will be received - nobody. That's the mischief of it; we are afraid to buy, and miss many a chance of turning a penny. In my time, since railways were in, I've seen cod-fish sold at a guinea in the morning that were a shilling at noon; for either the wind and the tide had served, or else the railway fishing-places were more than commonly supplied, and there was a glut to London.

"There's no trade requires greater judgment than mine - none whatever. Before the railways -- and I never could see the good of them - the fish came in by the tide, and we knew how to buy, for there would be no more till next tide. Now, we don't know. I go to Billingsgate to buy my fish, and am very well known to Mr. -- and Mr. -- (mentioning the names of some well-known salesmen). The Jews are my ruin there now. When I go to Billingsgate, Mr. -- will say, or rather, I will say to him, `How much for this pad of soles?' He will answer, 'Fourteen shillings.' 'Fourteen shillings!' I say, `I'll give you seven shillings, - that's the proper amount;' then the Jew boys - none of them twenty that are there - ranged about will begin; and one says, when I bid 7s., 'I'll give 8s;' 'nine,' says another, close on my left; 'ten,' shouts another, on my right, and so they go offering on; at last Mr. -- says to one of them, as grave as a judge, 'Yours, sir, at 13s,' but it's all gammon. The 13s. buyer isn't a buyer at all, and isn't required to pay a farthing, and never touches the goods.

"It's all done to keep up the price to poor fishmen, and so to poor buyers that are our customers in the streets. Money makes money, and it don't matter how. Those Jew boys - I dare say they're the same sort as once sold oranges about the streets - are paid, I know 1s. for spending three or four hours that way in the cold and wet. My trade has been injured, too, by the great increase of Irish costermongers; for an Irishman will starve out an Englishman any day; besides if a tailor can't live by his trade, he'll take to fish, or fruit and cabbages.

"The month of May is a fine season for plaice, which is bought very largely by my customers. Plaice are sold at a halfpenny and a penny a piece. It is a difficult fish to manage, and in poor neighbourhoods an important one to manage well. The old hands make a profit out of it; new hands a loss. There's not much cod or other wet fish sold to the poor, while plaice is in. My customers are poor men's wives, - mechanics, I fancy. They want fish at most unreasonable prices. If I could go and pull them off a line flung off Waterloo-bridge, and no other expense, I couldn't supply them as cheap as they expect them. Very cheap fish-sellers lose their customers, through the Billingsgate bummarees, for they have pipes, and blow up the codfish, most of all, and puff up their bellies till they are twice the size, but when it comes to table, there's hardly to say any fish at all. The Billingsgate authorities would soon stop it, if they knew all I know. They won't allow any roguery, or any trick, if they only come to hear of it. These bummarees have caused many respectable people to avoid street-buying, and so fair traders like me are injured.

"I've nothing to complain of about the police. Oft enough, if I could be allowed ten minutes longer on a Saturday night, I could get through all my stock without loss. About a quarter to twelve I begin to halloo away as hard as I can, and there's plenty of customers that lay out never a farthing till that time, and then they can't be served fast enough, so they get their fish cheaper than I do. If any halloos out that way sooner, we must all do the same. Anything rather than keep fish over a warm Sunday. I have kept mine in ice; I haven't opportunity now, but it'll keep in a cool place this time of year. I think there's as many sellers as buyers in the streets, and there's scores of them don't give just weight or measure. I wish there was good moral rules in force, and everybody gave proper weight. I often talk to street-dealers about it. I've given them many a lecture; but they say they only do what plenty of shopkeepers do, and just get fined and go on again, without being a pin the worse thought of. They are abusive sometimes, too; I mean the street-sellers are, because they are ignorant.

"I have no children, thank God, and my wife helps me in my business. Take the year through, I clear from 10s. to 12s. every week. That's not much to support two people. Some weeks I earn only 4s., such as in wet March weather. In others I earn 18s. or 1. November, December, and January are good months for me. I wouldn't mind if they lasted all the year round. I'm often very badly off indeed - very badly; and the misery of being hard up, sir, is not when you're making a struggle to get out of your trouble; no, nor to raise a meal off herrings that you've given away once, but when your wife and you's sitting by a grate without a fire, and putting the candle out to save it, a planning how to raise money. 'Can we borrow there?' 'Can we manage to sell if we can borrow?' 'Shall we get from very bad to the parish?' Then, perhaps, there's a day lost, and without a bite in our mouths trying to borrow. Let alone a little drop to give a body courage, which perhaps is the only good use of spirit after all. That's the pinch, sir. When the rain you hear outside puts you in mind of drownding!"





Note: The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.

 

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