A coster fights back: evidence of collective action in mid Victorian London?

One of the issues the BBC Series that the Victorian Slum dealt with this week was the impounding of costermongers’ barrow, effectively depriving them of a livelihood. Costers (market tradesmen who sold a variety of goods from a mobile stall)  traded on the streets and throughout the 19th century they were engaged with an almost daily war with the police, who tried to move them on so they did not block the streets.


In October 1844 the street keeper of St Luke’s parish was summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court charged with assaulting a coster and seizing his barrow unlawfully.

The trader’s name was Charles Thwaites and he complained that on the previous evening Peter Dixon (the street keeper) came up to him while he was wheeling his stall with his stock of cauliflowers. It was about 9 o’clock and Thwaites was on his way to where he usually stood – outside a pub on Fore Street, near the Barbican.

Dixon approached him and told him he was going to impound his cart and take it to the Green Yard. The Green Yard had been the City of London’s ‘pound’ for centuries; wandering cattle and sheep, barrows and abandoned carriages all ended up there and  (just like modern car pounds) owners had to pay a fee to get their property released.

Thwaites objected to being taken there since he said he’d done nothing wrong. When a passing policeman came in range he appealed to him fro help. PC Coley (126G) listened patiently and then instructed him to go to the Police Station instead, to clear things up. However, as the coster set off Dixon once again interfered and tried to lead him off to the yard.

Dixon used force now, trying to take control of the barrow and when Thwaites resisted he threatened to ‘break his arm’. PC Coley now intervened – but on behalf of the parish officer, grabbing Thwaites by the collar and his neckerchief. The poor man complained that ‘he was nearly strangled’ and then ‘thrown to the ground. When he recovered himself his barrow and his cauliflowers were nowhere to be seen.

When he investigated he fondu that his vegetables had been taken to the workhouse and used to feed the inmates there, they had cost him 10s and he had not be recompensed for them. He added that his wife and children relied on him and if it had not been for some charitable donations they would be starving now.

Several witnesses were called to support Thwaites’ case and he had a lawyer as well. The policeman deposed that he had been called to assist the street keeper and that Thwaites was a regular problem, always been asked to move on. Thwaites’ lawyer pointed out that stalls in Whitecross street were routinely left unmolested, and that this seemed like a vindictive action by the police and parish official.

The magistrate agreed and said that PC Coley should also be in the dock, binding both of them over to appear at the sessions of the peace to answer what he considered to be  a very serious charge. However, he suggested that to avoid this the men might come to a settlement with the costermonger and so avoid trial.

I wonder whether Thwaites drew wider support from the coster community. I doubt he could have found the money for a lawyer on his own and this suggests that the traders were keen to challenge the authority of the street keepers and the police in their ongoing war over the use of the footpaths for commerce. In that at least there is a distant echo of collective action to protect customary rights from change.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, October 26, 1844]

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