‘Joseph Carney, a street vendor or “costermonger”, sells fresh herring from a barrow in a street market near Seven Dials’.1
The summary courts of the capital could sometimes side with the ‘little man’ against authority, especially when that ‘authority’ was seen to be officious and heavy handed. This was certainly the case in October 1888 when a costermonger known only as Nathan, brought a summons against a servant of the vestry.
The magistrate – Montagu Williams – listened as Nathan outlined his complaint. He sold goods from a barrow and on Sunday morning he had left it briefly unattended while went to settle a debt to a local publican. On his return the barrow had gone and he soon learned that it had been impounded by John Dowling, a street keeper working for Bethnal Green parish.
Nathan went to the parish greenyard, where all impounded vehicles and animals were taken, but he was told he would have to wait until the next morning to retrieve it. The next day he went but since Dowling was not there he was now instructed to come back on Thursday.
This meant he would be unable to trade for three days.
‘My children will starve’, he complained.
‘Well let them starve’, was the reply from one of the men that worked there.
On Thursday he saw Dowling who now refused to release the barrow until a 5s fee had been paid. Nathan didn’t have 5s so he offered 3 and a half. He was told to go away and find the balance. Meanwhile he couldn’t work.
The vestry was represented at Worship Street by Mr Voss, the clerk. He defended Dowling and the right of the vestry to impound barrows after 11am on a Sunday (when they were no longer allowed to trade). He had little or no sympathy for Nathan and his family nor for another complainant who appeared to support the costermonger. Mary Donovan said she had also had her barrow impounded by Dowling and was unable to pay the fee to get it back. As a consequence she’d fallen behind with the rent and her landlord had sent in the bailiffs to get her ‘bits o’ things’.
‘What do you have to say to that?’ Mr Williams demanded of Voss.
The clerk stuck to his script.
‘This man, Sir, was acting under his orders. The vestry makes certain regulations’.
The justice felt that these were extremely bad regulations and, what is more, they were being applied without care or understanding for the lives of the people they affected. Nathan told him he had threated to go to law but the street keeper had dismissed this saying he ‘did not care for the magistrate, for he had bigger people behind him’ who would support his actions.
Mr Williams now demonstrated exactly who had authority in the district by admonishing the clerk and the street cleaner, and demanding that the barrows be returned ‘instantly’, and without further costs to either party. The war between the costers and the vestry would, no doubt, rumble on and on, just as tensions between these sorts of street traders and the police did. But on this occasion at least, we can raise a glass to the victory of the little man (and woman).
[from The Standard, Tuesday, October 23, 1888]