One of the classic ‘screen’ images we have of the late Victorian/Edwardian period is that of Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in Covent Garden market in My Fair Lady. Eliza, as one of London’s poorest and least educated citizens, is chosen by Professor Higgins for his experiment in linguistics.
According to the social investigator Henry Mayhew there was somewhere between 400 and 800 flower sellers in mid Victorian London, and most of them were very young girls, often the daughters of costermongers. They operated throughout the capital but were concentrated on the ‘busiest thoroughfares’ such as the Strand where they ‘cried their fares’ to attract passing ladies (mostly) to buy them.
Perhaps with the passing of the Elementary Education Act (1870) and increased schooling for the 5-13 year olds this took some of the girls off the streets, at least on weekdays. This might mean that the character of Eliza Doolittle, as a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, was more typical of flower sellers by the late 1800s.
One Monday in June 1887 Martha Smith was selling roses at Charing Cross. She was calling out, ‘Roses, penny a bunch’ to catch the attention of pedestrians when a drunk started to hassle her. Thomas Davis (56) was also trying to sell flowers but his were withered and decayed. He ‘mocked her cry’ but when this failed to make her move along he resorted to violence.
He was carrying his own roses on a basket lid and he violently shoved this in her face, then punched her in the mouth, knocking out two teeth. He hadn’t finished though. Grabbing a ‘Chinese parasol’ he proceeded to beat her over the head with it. Somehow Martha managed to get away from him and found a policeman who arrested the man.
When he was charged at the station Davis said nothing but in court at Bow Street he told the magistrate that he competed for business with Martha and that she was trespassing on his territory, a lamppost by Charing Cross station. He alleged that she’d started the row and had scratched his face; he was only defending himself. PC 254E testified that Davis had said nothing of this version of events when he’d been arrested or charged and so Mr. Vaughan was not inclined to believe him.
The justice told Davis that just because both parties were on the same trade it was no reason for them for their assaulting one another’. The attack he’d made had been ‘barbarous’ and he ‘must go to gaol for one month’.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 29, 1887]
This is not my first ‘flower girl’ story – for another follow this link.