Whitecross Street, ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’.

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In today’s Britain we are used to a 24/7 retail culture. We can shop every day of the week from dawn to early evening and beyond and the notion of keeping Sunday ‘special’ has long gone. Yet I can remember when Sunday trading was not ubiquitous and even a time when most shops still shut for a half day or closed early during the week.

Victorian London was a busy commercial city and shops and businesses opened early and shut late. The working day was long and, for much of the century, there was little protection for workers who had few rights. The rights we enjoy today were hard won in the twentieth century by the trades unions and the emerging Labour Party.

Nevertheless Victorian Britain was also a more religious society than is the case today. Even if fewer people regularly attended church than we might assume, there were laws in place – some going back to the reign of King Charles II – to maintain Sunday as a day of rest as stipulated in Christian teaching.

It would seem though that the laws surrounding Sunday trading were only partially obeyed or enforced. The New Police had fought a long running battle with small businessmen from the 1830s onwards to keep the Sabbath sacred, and it was a battle (according to Stephen Inwood) in which they frequently had to concede defeat.

Edward Varuvain and George Martin were shopkeepers who fell foul of the law in February 1873. The men ran shops in Whitecross Street and were summoned at the request of the St Luke’s vestry for ‘pursuing a worldly avocation on the Lord’s day’. Charities and essential services were exempt from the laws but Varuvain and Martin did not come under that category.

Whitecross Street had been a problem for the vestry for some time. There were several shops there and plenty of costermongers who plied their trade there. There had been a market there for centuries (and there is still a thriving food market there today and lots of trendy shops and eateries). The police had tried to move the costers off and shut the shops, but tensions had flared. Eventually an uneasy truce had broken out. The costers were allowed to operate up until 11 on a Sunday morning and the shopkeepers agreed to stay closed.

Then in early 1873 some of the retailers began to open on the sabbath and others, presumably emboldened or simply not wishing to miss out, followed suit. The costermongers, seeing their compromise agreement being effectively abandoned, resumed trading all day long.

The local sanitary inspector visited the street on the previous Sunday and found it cluttered with barrows and with several shops open. Martin was out in the street crying his wares, shouting ‘buy! buy! buy! What will you buy?’ and so ‘rendered the street a Babel’ as the inspector put it.

Mr Pedder from the vestry said it had become ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’ and the case against the two men was proved. However, given that Mr Ricketts (the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell) only fined them 1s each plus costs, I doubt it deterred them from similar behaviour in the future. After all, they had a living to make.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, February 9, 1873]

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