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. Here he describes the character of the various stalls which the costermongers used to ply their trade. On being told of a curious type of stall holder at Marylebone he found her and recorded her story.
The stalls occupied by costermongers for the sale of fish, fruit, vegetables, etc., are chiefly constructed of a double cross-trestle or moveable frame, or else of two trestles, each with three legs, upon which is laid a long deal board, or tray. Some of the stalls consist merely of a few boards resting upon two baskets, or upon two herring-barrels. The fish-stalls are mostly covered with paper, generally old newspapers or periodicals, but some of the street-fishmongers, instead of using paper to display their fish upon, have introduced a thin marble slab, which gives the stall a cleaner, and, what they consider a high attribute, a "respectable" appearance. Most of the fruit-stalls are, in the winter time, fitted up with an apparatus for roasting apples and chestnuts; this generally consists of an old saucepan with a fire inside; and the woman who vends them, huddled up in her old faded shawl or cloak, often presents a picturesque appearance, in the early evening, or in a fog, with the gleam of the fire lighting up her half somnolent figure. Within the last two or three years, however, there has been so large a business carried on in roasted chestnuts, that it has become a distinct street-trade, and the vendors have provided themselves with an iron apparatus, large enough to roast nearly half a bushel at a time. At the present time, however, the larger apparatus is less common in the streets, and more frequent in the shops, than in the previous winter.
There are, moreover, peculiar kinds of stalls, such as the hot eels and hot peas-soup stalls, having tin oval pots, with a small chafing-dish containing a charcoal fire underneath each, to keep the eels or soup hot. The early breakfast stall has two capacious tin cans filled with tea or coffee, kept hot by the means before described, and some are lighted up by two or three large oil-lamps; the majority of these stalls, in the winter time, are sheltered from the wind by a screen made out of an old clothes horse covered with tarpaulin.
The cough-drop stand, with its distilling apparatus, the tin worm curling nearly the whole length of the tray, has but lately been introduced. The nut-stall is fitted up with a target at the back of it. The ginger-beer stand may be seen in almost every street, with its French-polished mahogany frame and bright polished taps, and its foot-bath-shaped reservoir of water, to cleanse the glasses. The hot elder wine stand, with its bright brass urns, is equally popular.
The sellers of plum-pudding, "cake, a penny a slice," sweetmeats, cough-drops, pin-cushions, jewellery, chimney ornaments, tea and tablespoons, make use of a table covered over, some with old newspapers, or a piece of oil-cloth, upon which are exposed their articles for sale. Such is the usual character of the street stalls. There are, however, "stands" or "cans" peculiar to certain branches of the street-trade.
The other means adopted by the street-sellers for the exhibition of their various goods at certain "pitches" or fixed localities are as follows. Straw bonnets, boys' caps, women's caps, and prints, are generally arranged for sale in large umbrellas, placed "upside down." Haberdashery, with rolls of ribbons, edgings, and lace, some street-sellers display on a stall; whilst others have a board at the edge of the pavement, and expose their wares upon it as tastefully as they can. Old shoes, patched up and well blacked, ready for the purchaser's feet, and tin ware, are often ranged upon the ground, or, where the stock is small, a stall or table is used. Many stationary street-sellers use merely baskets, or trays, either supported in their hand, or on their arm, or else they are strapped round their loins, or suspended round their necks.
These are mostly fruit-women, watercress, blacking, congreves, sheep's-trotters, and ham-sandwich sellers. Many of these stand on or near the bridges; others near the steam-packet wharfs or the railway terminuses; a great number of them take their pitch at the entrance to a court, or at the corners of streets; and stall-keepers with oysters stand opposite the doors of publichouses. It is customary for a street-seller who wants to "pitch" in a new locality to solicit the leave of the housekeeper, opposite whose premises he desires to place his stall. Such leave obtained, no other course is necessary.
I had the following statement from a woman who has "kept a stall" in Marylebone, at the corner of a street, which she calls "my corner," for 38 years. I was referred to her as a curious type of the class of stall-keepers, and on my visit, found her daughter at the "pitch." This daughter had all the eloquence which is attractive in a street-seller, and so, I found, had her mother when she joined us. They are profuse in blessings; and on a bystander observing, when he heard the name of these street-sellers, that a jockey of that name had won the Derby lately, the daughter exclaimed,
"To be sure he did; he's my own uncle's relation, and what a lot of money came into the family! Bless God for all things, and bless every body! Walnuts, sir, walnuts, a penny a dozen! Wouldn't give you a bad one for the world, which is a great thing for a poor 'oman for to offer to do." The daughter was dressed in a drab great-coat, which covered her whole person. When I saw the mother, she carried a similar great-coat, as she was on her way to the stall; and she used it as ladies do their muffs, burying her hands in it.
The mother's dark-coloured old clothes seemed, to borrow a description from Sir Walter Scott, flung on with a pitchfork. These two women were at first very suspicious, and could not be made to understand my object in questioning -100Column 1 them; but after a little while, the mother became not only communicative, but garrulous, conversing, with no small impatience at any interruption, of the doings of the people in her neighbourhood. I was accompanied by an intelligent costermonger, who assured me of his certitude that the old woman's statement was perfectly correct, and I found moreover from other inquiries that it was so.
"Well, sir," she began, "what is it that you want of me? Do I owe you anything? There's half-pay officers about here for no good; what is it you want? Hold your tongue, you young fool," (to her daughter, who was beginning to speak;) "what do you know about it?" [On my satisfying her that I had no desire to injure her, she continued, to say after spitting, a common practice with her class, on a piece of money, "for luck,"]
"Certainly, sir, that's very proper and good. Aye, I've seen the world, the town world and the country. I don't know where I was born; never mind about that, it's nothing to nobody. I don't know nothing about my father and mother; but I know that afore I was eleven I went through the country with my missis. She was a smuggler. I didn't know then what smuggling was, bless you, sir, I didn't; I knew no more nor I know who made that lamp-post. I didn't know the taste of the stuff we smuggled for two years, didn't know it from small beer; I've known it well enough since, God knows. My missis made a deal of money that time at Deptford Dockyard. The men wasn't paid and let out till twelve of a night, I hardly mind what night it was, days was so alike then, and they was our customers till one, two, or three in the morning, Sunday morning, for anything I know. I don't know what my missis gained; something jolly, there's not a fear of it. She was kind enough to me. I don't know how long I was with missis.
After that I was a hopping, and made my 15s. regular at it, and a haymaking; but I've had a pitch at my corner for thirty-eight year, aye! turned thirty-eight. It's no use asking me what I made at first, I can't tell; but I'm sure I made more than twice as much as my daughter and me makes now, the two of us.
I wish people that thinks we're idle now were with me for a day. I'd teach them. I don't, that's the two of us don't, make 15s. a week now, nor the half of it, when all's paid. D--d if I do.
The d--d boys take care of that. There's 'Canterbury' has lots of boys, and they bother me. I can tell, and always could, how it is with working men.
When mechanics is in good work, their children has halfpennies to spend with me. If they're hard up, there's no halfpennies. The pennies go to a loaf or to buy a candle. I might have saved money once, but had a misfortunate family. My husband? O, never mind about him. D--n him. I've been a widow many years. My son - it's nothing how many children I have, is married; he had the care of an ingine. But he lost it from ill health. It was in a featherhouse, and the flue got down his throat, and coughed him; and so he went into the country, 108 miles off, to his wife's mother. But his wife's mother got her living by wooding, and other ways, and couldn't help him or his wife; so he left, and he's with me now. He has a job sometimes with a greengrocer. at 6d. a day and a bit of grub; a little bit, very. I must shelter him. I couldn't turn him out. If a Turk I knew was in distress, and I had only half a loaf, I'd give him half of that, if he was ever such a Turk, I would, sir! Out of 6d. a day, my son - poor fellow, he's only twenty-seven!, wants a bit of 'baccy and a pint of beer. It 'ud be unnatural to oppose that, wouldn't it, sir? He frets about his wife, that's staying with her mother, 108 miles off; and about his little girl; but I tell him to wait, and he may have more little girls. God knows, they come when they're not wanted a bit.
I joke and say all my old sweethearts is dying away. Old Jemmy went off sudden. He lent me money sometimes, but I always paid him. He had a public once, and had some money when he died. I saw him the day afore he died. He was in bed, but wasn't his own man quite; though he spoke sensible enough to me. He said, said he, 'Won't you have half a quartern of rum, as we've often had it?' 'Certainly, Jemmy,' says I, 'I came for that very thing.' Poor fellow! his friends are quarrelling now about what he left. It's 56 pound. they say, and they'll go to law very likely, and lose every thing. There'll be no such quarrelling when I die, unless it is for the pawn-tickets.
I get a meal now, and got a meal afore; but it was a better meal then, sir. Then look at my expenses. I was a customer once. I used to buy, and plenty such did, blue cloth aprons, opposite Drury-lane theatre: the very shop's there still, but I don't know what it is now; I can't call to mind. I gave 2s. 6d. a yard, from twenty to thirty years ago, for an apron, and it took two yards, and I paid 4d. for making it, and so an apron cost 5s. 4d., that wasn't much thought of in those times. I used to be different off then. I never go to church; I used to go when I was a little child at Sevenoaks. I suppose I was born somewhere thereabouts.
I've forgot what the inside of a church is like. There's no costermongers ever go to church, except the rogues of them, that wants to appear good. I buy my fruit at Covent-garden. Apples is now 4s. 6d. a bushel there. I may make twice that in selling them; but a bushel may last me two, three, or four days."
Note: The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.