To most of us, street vendors are an inherent aspect of Victorian Britain, familiar from Oliver Twist and My Fair Lady. But the sheer scale of the phenomenon, and many of the individual trades which were once widely practiced, are often forgotten.
London’s streets in the early 19th century were ringing with the cries of thousands of itinerant traders, to an extent that startled visitors. An 1837 handbook for newcomers lamented: ‘It is impossible to get any rest in London, after five o’clock in the morning’ due to ‘the various cries, and screams, of ‘Milk below!’ ‘Sweep!’ ‘Dust-o!’’, advising readers to take ‘a dose of laudanum every night for supper!’ In cataloguing the Henry Collection, which focuses on chimney sweeps but includes many fascinating depictions of other street traders, I have come across numerous vendors specialising in surprisingly specific merchandise, including hot peas, watercress, lemons, young lambs, doormats, umbrellas, pickled cucumbers and horse meat. In this blog, I will examine a few of the more curious or overlooked professions who peddled their trade in Britain’s Georgian and Victorian city streets.
Cats’ meat sellers
There were 1,000 sellers bearing this gory title in London alone by the 1860s. They did not, you may be relieved to hear, sell chopped-up cat flesh, instead peddling food for cats. However, the nature of their grisly wares was no more appealing, as it consisted of hunks of horse meat. As many as 26,000 old or wounded horses were slaughtered each year and bought cheaply by these men, who would then wheel their carts through residential streets in the hope that wealthy and doting cat owners would buy their pets a treat. The meat was sometimes even dyed green or blue by the horse slaughterers (knackers) to prevent untrustworthy traders from using it in pies or selling it on as meat for human consumption (a precaution which recent supermarket activities appear to validate). Some residents became regular customers, paying weekly for the meat vendor’s daily visits. Cats from wealthy streets learnt to recognise these traders as soon as they appeared, besieging their carts or buckets in a storm of salivating feline forms. The tradesman pictured here is dressed in the typical fashion, with a blue apron and a neckerchief, and is one of the better-off vendors: poorer cats’ meat sellers would carry only a wooden board with meat strips pinned onto it with pegs.
In 1804, The Itinerant Traders of London in their Ordinary Costume described the impressive phenomenon of a one-man movable pantomime. This was an extraordinary device, comprising a large box with eye-holes topped with a wire cage holding one or more live squirrels, whose scurrying rang a row of bells to advertise the showman’s arrival. Passers-by could pay a penny or half-penny to look into the show-box, where they would see a series of coloured images illustrating a story narrated by the operator, who pulled strings to change the picture at relevant points. The showman pictured above, like many beggars and street vendors of the early 19th century, is a wounded veteran of the French Revolutionary Wars: many soldiers lost their sight or limbs but failed to qualify for pension. Some beggars would deliberately attempt to take on the guise of a veteran in order to elicit greater public sympathy, donning a sailor’s jacket and trousers or singing military ballads.
W.H. Payne noted in 1827 that ‘In the City of London every street is crowded with old women, young women, men and boys’ bearing baskets that seemed to hold ‘all the oranges that are grown in the world’. Unsurprisingly, this army of cheap vendors was a constant irritation to fruiterers and greengrocers, as members of the public could buy produce from them at a third or even a quarter of their store price. The life of a fruit seller, like that of most street vendors, was physically exhausting: they would go to Covent Garden market in summer at 4 a.m. to purchase stock at wholesale price, and would frequently lug heavy baskets or barrows over 15 miles a day in all weathers, yelling out their wares over a cacophony of competitors’ cries. Many barrow-women were single mothers working all hours to feed their children, having been widowed or abandoned by their husbands, or, in Payne’s words, ‘wedded to miscreants who are too dissolute or idle to protect their families’. Many foodstuffs were also sold by children: one watercress girl told the groundbreaking journalist Henry Mayhew in 1865: ‘I ain’t a child, and I shan’t be a woman till I’m twenty, but I’m past eight, I am’.
Charles Wood and his dancing dog
Many London beggars supported themselves with activities like violin-playing or selling penny religious tracts. Charles Wood, a blind man, played a tiny organ while his surprisingly well-dressed dog danced to its music. Wood introduced him as ‘The real learned French dog, Bob’, and when money was thrown down, Bob would pick it up and put it in his master’s pocket. Training dogs to collect money was a common trick of London beggars and performers: another blind beggar, George Dyball, became notable in the same period for wandering the streets with his dog, who would let out a pitiful whine and turn imploring eyes on spectators on his master’s cue, rubbing a tin money-box against their knees.
The lives of these street traders, eking out a precarious living in filthy and polluted streets, are almost unimaginable to us now. Yet they were such integral part of the fabric of 18th, 19th and early 20th century cities that fresh representations are still appearing, such as in this year’s Mary Poppins Returns. By researching and discussing these professions, we can keep alive the experiences of hundreds of thousands of people who left almost no material legacy of their own.
By Natascha Allen-Smith, Henry Collection Project Placement