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. He found an extraordinary variety of ready-cooked food being sold on the streets for immediate consumption. This is how he describes those who sold and those who consumed the "Fast Food" of his day.
The Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
These dealers were, more numerous, even when the metropolitan population was but half its present extent. I heard several causes assigned for this, such as the higher rate of earnings of the labouring people at that time, as well as the smaller number of shopkeepers who deal in such cheap luxuries as penny pies, and the fewer places of cheap amusement, such as the "penny gaffs." These places, I was told, "run away with the young people's pennies," which were, at one period, expended in the streets.The class engaged in the manufacture, or in the sale, of these articles, are a more intelligent people than the generality of street-sellers. They have nearly all been mechanics who, from inability to procure employment at their several crafts -from dislike to an irksome and, perhaps, sedentary confinement -or from an overpowering desire "to be their own masters," have sought a livelihood in the streets. The purchase and sale of fish, fruit, or vegetables require no great training or deftness; but to make the dainties, in which street-people are critical, and to sell them at the lowest possible price, certainly requires some previous discipline to produce the skill to combine and the taste to please.
I may here observe, that I found it common enough among these street-sellers to describe themselves and their fraternity not by their names or callings, but by the article in which they deal. This is sometimes ludicrous enough: "Is the man you're asking about a pickled whelk, sir?" was said to me. In answer to another inquiry, I was told, "Oh, yes, I know him -he's a sweet-stuff." Such ellipses, or abbreviations, are common in all mechanical or commercial callings.
Men and women, and most especially boys, purchase their meals day after day in the streets. The coffee-stall supplies a warm breakfast; shell-fish of many kinds tempt to a luncheon; hot-eels or pea-soup, flanked by a potato "all hot," serve for a dinner; and cakes and tarts, or nuts and oranges, with many varieties of pastry, confectionary, and fruit, woo to indulgence in a dessert; while for supper there is a sandwich, a meat pudding, or a "trotter." The street provisions consist of cooked or prepared victuals, which may be divided into solids, pastry, confectionary, and drinkables. The "solids" however, of these three divisions, are such as only regular street-buyers consider to be sufficing for a substantial meal, for it will be seen that the comestibles accounted "good for dinner," are all of a dainty, rather than a solid character.
Men whose lives, as I have before stated, are alternations of starvation and surfeit, love some easily-swallowed and comfortable food, better than the most approved substantiality of a dinner-table. I was told by a man, who was once foodless for thirty-eight hours, that in looking into the window of a cookshop he longed far more for a basin of soup than for a cut from the boiled round, or the roasted ribs, of beef. He felt a gnawing rather than a ravenous desire, and some tasty semi-liquid was the incessant object of his desires. The solids then, according to street estimation, consist of hot-eels, pickled whelks, oysters, sheep's-trotters, pea-soup, fried fish, ham-sandwiches, hot green peas, kidney puddings, boiled meat puddings, beef, mutton, kidney, and eel pies, and baked potatos. In each of these provisions the street poor find a mid-day or midnight meal.
The pastry and confectionery which tempt the street eaters are tarts of rhubarb, currant, gooseberry, cherry, apple, damson, cranberry, and (so called) mince pies; plum dough and plum-cake; lard, currant, almond and many other varieties of cakes, as well as of tarts; gingerbread-nuts and heart-cakes; Chelsea buns; muffins and crumpets; "sweet stuff" includes the several kinds of rocks, sticks, lozenges, candies, and hard-bakes; the medicinal confectionery of cough-drops and horehound; and, lastly, the more novel and aristocratic luxury of street-ices; and strawberry cream, at 1d. a glass, (in Greenwich Park).The drinkables are tea, coffee, and cocoa; ginger-beer, lemonade, Persian sherbet, and some highly-coloured beverages which have no specific name, but are introduced to the public as "cooling" drinks; hot elder cordial or wine; peppermint water; curds and whey; water (as at Hampstead); rice milk; and milk in the parks.
At different periods there have been attempts to introduce more substantial viands into the street provision trade, but all within these twenty years have been exceptional and unsuccessful. One man a few years back established a portable cook-shop in Leather-lane, cutting out portions of the joints to be carried away or eaten on the spot, at the buyer's option. But the speculation was a failure. Black puddings used to be sold, until a few years back, smoking from cans, not unlike potato cans, in such places as the New Cut; but the trade in these rather suspicious articles gradually disappeared. Mr. Albert Smith, who is an acute observer in all such matters, says, in a lively article on the Street Boys of London:
"The kerb is his club, offering all the advantages of one of those institutions without any subscription or ballot. Had he a few pence, he might dine equally well as at Blackwall, and with the same variety of delicacies without going twenty yards from the pillars of St. Clement's churchyard. He might begin with a water souch e of eels, varying his first course with pickled whelks, cold fried flounders, or periwinkles. After alluding to the former glories of some of the street stands, more especially of the kidney pudding establishments which displayed rude transparencies, one representing the courier of St. Petersburg riding six horses at once for a kidney pudding, Mr. Smith continues,
Whitebait, to be sure, he would find a difficulty in procuring, but as the more cunning gourmands do not believe these delicacies to be fish at all, but merely little bits of light pie-crust fried in grease; and as moreover, the brown bread and butter is after all the grand attraction, the boy might soon find a substitute. Then would come the potatoes, apparently giving out so much steam that the can which contains them seems in momentary danger of blowing up; large, hot, mealy fellows, that prove how unfounded were the alarms of the bad-crop-ites; and he might next have a course of boiled feet of some animal or other, which he would be certain to find in front of the gin-shop. Cyder-cups perhaps he would not get; but there would be 'gingerbeer from the fountain, at 1d. per glass;' and instead of mulled claret, he could indulge in hot elder cordial; whilst for dessert he could calculate upon all the delicacies of the season, from the salads at the corner of Wych-street to the baked apples at Temple Bar.
None of these things would cost more than a penny a piece; some of them would be under that sum; and since as at Verey's, and some other foreign restaurateurs, there is no objection to your dividing the "portions," the boy might, if he felt inclined to give a dinner to a friend, get off under 6d. There would be the digestive advantage too of moving leisurely about from one course to another; and, above all, there would be no fee to waiters."
"But of all these eating-stands the chief favourite with the boy is the potato-can. They collect around it as they would do on Change, and there talk over local matters, or discuss the affairs of the adjacent cab-stand, in which they are at times joined by the waterman whom they respect, more so perhaps than the policeman; certainly more than they do the street-keeper, for him they especially delight to annoy, and they watch any of their fellows eating a potato, with a curiosity and an attention most remarkable, as if no two persons fed in the same manner, and they expected something strange or diverting to happen at every mouthful."A gentleman, who has taken an artist's interest in all connected with the streets, and has been familiar with their daily and nightly aspect from the commencement of the present century, considers that the great change is not so much in what has ceased to be sold, but in the introduction of fresh articles into street-traffic -such as pine-apples and Brazil-nuts, rhubarb and cucumbers, ham-sandwiches, ginger-beer, etc. The coffee-stall, he represents, has but superseded the saloop-stall (of which I have previously spoken); while the class of street-customers who supported the saloop-dealer now support the purveyor of coffee. The appearance of the two stalls, however, seen before dayoreak, with their respective customers, on a bleak winter's morning, was very different. Round the saloop-stall was a group - hardly discernible at a little distance in the dimly-lighted streets - the prominent figures being of two callings now extinct, the climbing-boy and the old hackney-coachman.
The little sweep would have his saloop smoking hot - and there was the common appliance of a charcoal grate - regaling himself with the savoury steam until the mess was cool enough for him to swallow; whilst he sought to relieve his naked feet from the numbing effects of the cold by standing now on the right foot and now on the left, and swinging the other to and fro, until a change of posture was necessitated; his white teeth the while gleamed from his sooty visage as he gleefully licked his lips at the warm and oily breakfast.
The old hackney-coachman was wrapped up in a many-caped great coat, drab when it left the tailor's hands some years before but then worn and discoloured, and, perhaps, patched or tattered; its weight alone, however, communicated a sort of warmth to the wearer; his legs were closely and artistically "wisped" with haybands; and as he kept smiting his chest with his arms, "to keep the cold out," while his saloop was cooling, he would, in no very gentle terms, express his desire to add to its comforting influence the stimulant of a "flash of lightning," a "go of rum," or a "glass of max," for so a dram of neat spirit was then called. The old watchman of that day, too, almost as heavily coated as the hackneyman, would sometimes partake of the street "Saloop-loop-loop! Sa-loop!" The woman of the town, in "looped and windowed raggedness," the outcast of the very lowest class, was at the saloop, as she is now and then at the coffee-stall, waiting until daylight drove her to her filthy lodging-house.
But the climbing-boy has, happily, left no successor; the hackneyman has been succeeded by the jauntier cabman; and the taciturn old watchman by the lounging and trim policeman. Another class of street-sellers, no longer to be seen, were the "barrow-women." They sold fruit of all kinds, little else, in very clean white barrows, and their fruit was excellent, and purchased by the wealthier classes. They were, for the most part, Irish women, and some were remarkable for beauty. Their dress was usually a good chintz gown, the skirt being tidily tucked or pinned up behind, "in a way," said one informant, "now sometimes seen on the stage when correctness of costume is cared for." These women were prosperous in their calling, nor was there any imputation on their chastity, as the mothers were almost always wives.
Concerning the bygone street-cries, I had also the following account from the personal observation of an able correspondent: - "First among the old musical cries,' may be cited the 'Tiddy Doll!' -immortalised by Hogarth -then comes the last person, who, with a fine bass voice, coaxed his customers to buy sweets with, 'Quack, quack, quack, quack! Browns, browns, browns! have you got any mouldy browns?' There was a man, too, who sold tripe, etc., in this way, and to some purpose; he was as fine a man as ever stepped, and his deep rich voice would ring through a whole street, 'Dog's-meat! cat's-meat! nice tripe! neat's feet! Come buy my trotters!' The last part would not have disgraced Lablache. He discovered a new way of pickling tripe - got on - made contracts for supplying the Navy during the war, and acquired a large property. One of our most successful artists is his grandson. Then there was that delight of our childhood - the eight o'clock 'Hot spiced gingerbread! hot spiced gingerbread! buy my spiced gingerbread! sm-o-o-king hot!' " Another informant remembered a very popular character (among the boys), whose daily cry was: "Hot spiced gingerbread nuts, nuts, nuts! If one'll warm you, wha-at'll a pound do? -Wha-a-a-at'll a pound do?" Gingerbread was formerly in much greater demand than it is now.
Note: The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.