‘The only way we have of earning bread for our families is by selling fruit in the streets’: a costermonger’s lament

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This week, just ahead of the next round of marking that will fall due in mid July, I’ve managed to return to my current research project. Nether World is a study of late Victorian London through the lens of the Police Magistrate courts. Commissioned by Reaktion Books it will explore the rich culture of everyday life in the metropolis in the period c.1840-1900.

Today I have mostly been looking into the lives of costermongers, the people that sold fruit and veg and other ‘perishables’ from barrows. Increasingly their tradition of wheeling and then stationing their barrow on the street, so their customers could easily come and buy from them, came into conflict with property owners and local authorities who wanted to keep the thoroughfares of the city free and open to a growing commercial and private transport network.

From 1829 onwards the capital had a new weapon to use against this form of itinerant trading: the men of Peel’s Metropolitan Police. Given that the ‘New’ Police were tasked with patrolling the streets during the day (when the old watch had only done so at night) it was inevitable that they would quickly clash with these traditional street vendors.

Costermongers were fiercely independent, rebellious in their dress and outlook, and had little time for ‘middle class moralizing’ and attempts to suppress or restrict their way of life. As a result the police engaged in a long running battle to force them to conform to set pitches and markets rather than be allowed to trade where they liked. Using the wide-ranging powers given by the highways acts costers were constantly being asked to move along and were arrested or summoned to court if they refused.

This caused considerable resentment within the costermonger community and  it is hardly surprising that one trader admitted to Henry Mayhew (the celebrated journalist and social investigator) that it was considered legitimate to punch a policeman.

‘To serve out a policeman is the bravest act by which a coster-monger can distinguish himself. Some […] have been imprisoned upwards of a dozen times for this offense […]’, one explained.

Henry Mayhew, London Labour And The London Poor, (London, 1851),

In November 1858 Lloyd’s Newspaper reported the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell was ‘engaged for some considerable time’ in processing the costermongers that the police had arrested on the preceding Saturday evening. No less than 17 costermongers had been brought before Mr Corrie. They had been locked up and their barrows and stock removed to the Green Yard.

One defendant had been locked up for 36 hours before being bailed at 11 in the morning. When he went to collect his barrow he was at first refused it and then later, when he returned, he found all his stock of apples had been carelessly thrown into a sack so that they were now bruised and unsalable. Another man, that sold fish, got out of lock-up to find is stock left in the yard without any care and so, similarly, spoiled and valueless.

‘Some of the defendants’, the paper reported, ‘remarked that the only way they had of earning bread for their families was by selling fruit in the streets’.

They were given little or no notice by the police to move along, and most times their barrows were ‘causing no obstruction’ and yet they were ‘treated and pushed about like felons’.  Despite having some sympathy for their situation the magistrate still found for the police and although he waived the fines for those locked up for hours, imposed a shilling fine on everyone else.

No wonder them that the costermongers of London viewed the capital’s police with contempt. In their eyes they were only trying to earn a living, which was being thwarted by the police who they must have seen as the friends of their rivals, the lower middle class grocers that had fixed places to sell their wares.

Nowadays of course we are used to the idea that most trade takes place in shops and while markets exist, these are mostly periodic not daily concerns. The modern retailer’s grumbles about the unrestricted and low-cost competition offered online might find an echo in the grumbles of costers forced off the streets by Victorian shopkeepers and their ‘friends’, the police.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 7 November 1858]

Stoke Newington ‘has a great reputation’; ‘anything will sell or let there’.

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In the last two blog posts I explored the murder of John Broome Tower, whose lifeless body was dragged from a reservoir in Stoke Newington. No one was ever prosecuted for the clerk’s murder and the police eventually seem to have decided that he’d taken his own life, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

In 2020 this blog will change tack from the course it has been on since I started writing it in April 2016. All the stories from the capital’s police magistrate courts will remain and I will probably revisit those sources from time to time, rich as they are. Having completed writing two books in 2019 (both of which should reach the shops before the end of 2020) I will now be concentrating my writing efforts on a new work for Reaktion books on the police courts. I suspect this to go to print in about 12-18 months, and I’ll post updates on this site.

In the meantime I am going to use the notebooks left by Charles Booth (and held by the LSE) to explore London’s streets and communities in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London was carried out between 1886 and 1903 and the most outstanding result of his research were his poverty maps revealing the distribution of wealth in the late Victorian capital.

Booth, working with a small team of investigators, many from the Toynbee Hall settlement in Spitalfields, walked the streets with police and London School Board visitors, interviewed employers, trade unionists, clergymen, and others in his attempt to understand individual circumstances of poverty and want. All of this went into his notebooks, 450 of them, and the level of detail is fascinating.

My aim is to explore an area mapped by Booth and compare its conditions today to those at the end of the nineteenth century. I have already looked at the area around Tufnell Park (where I was born in the 1960s) and today I’ll explore the streets where my wife’s family settled in London having migrated here from Cyprus in the 1950s.

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William Patten School on Dynevor Road (formally Church Street Board School). It had a open air playground on the roof, built deliberately – as others were – to bring fresh air to London’s children in a period when levels of TB were dangerously high.

I think migration (from overseas, the Empire and Commonwealth, what is now the EU, and the rest of the UK) is likely to be one of the themes of this project, as London has always been a multi-cultural city. Another is the diversity of wealth in the capital: Booth’s maps reveal that poverty and relative affluence existed side-by-side in the 1880s just as they do today, and I hope that will come out in this blog.

Another theme that I suspect might feature is that of change. When the houses in St George’s Avenue, Tufnell Park were built in the last quarter of the 1800 the aspiring middle class inhabited them. When Booth mapped them in the early 1890s the area was on the brink in his view; at risk of sliding downwards economically as poor housing and cheaper rents prompted the ‘better sort’ to move elsewhere. When my parents moved in to their house in St George’s in about 1960 the area was far from prosperous.

They moved out in the early 1970s seeking the more open spaces of Finchley (and in so doing echoing the paths trodden by countless Londoners from the late eighteenth century onwards, in fleeing the congested centre for the suburbs to the north and south). Now Tufnell Park is desirable and expensive. A house that might have cost under £2,000 in 1960 will cost you close to £2,000,000 today.

The same is true for Stoke Newington. My wife’s family sold their property there in the late ‘70s and now an equivalent house would be worth around £1,500,000. They left because the area was ‘rough’ and in the 1870s (when the board school at the end of their road was built), poverty was endemic and life expectancy one of the worst in London. By the 1890s Booth thought that the streets behind Church Street Stoke Newington were largely ‘comfortable’ and we saw (in the last two posts) that in the mid 1880s the area was a ‘rapidly expanding’ suburb on the up.

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Old public house on Nevill Road

What you will notice today is the overwhelming concentration of domestic property. Of course there are plenty of shops and pubs, most of which are on Stoke Newington Church Street and the High Street, but few if any commercial buildings exist beyond there. In Booth’s walks he or his team noted the existence of Maynard’s confectionary factory (on Gordon Road) that had once been a factory.

The area south of Maury Road was one of the ‘roughest’ in the area according to the notebooks. Ottway Street, Mellington Street, Stellamn and Landfield Street varied in cloulor from blue to pink and were nicknamed ‘Tiger’s Bay’ and ‘Spike’s Island’ at the time. The inhabitants were ‘low-bred English of no particular occupation’. Their problem was the lack of a regular wage, an uncertainty that remains a problem today and is a causal factor in poverty. The policeman that accompanied Booth or his researcher told him that ‘some of the women washed but others, “you’d better judge for yourself”.’

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I concentrated my walk the other day around Nevill Road and Dynevor Road, ending up back on Church Street via Dumont Road and Kersley Road. For the most part the properties are fine late Victorian ones in good condition. There are some modern builds, mostly post war social housing some of which are probably a result of enemy bombing. A ‘doodlebug’ hit Defoe Road for example, and parts of Dynevor Road were destroyed or badly damaged by enemy action.

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For Booth in the 1890s this was a decent respectable part of the district. It ‘looks pink and clerical’ he said but was actually largely occupied by ‘artisans’. Dynevor Road was pink (‘fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings’) and it was here (at 106) that John Broome Tower lodged in 1884. Chesholm and Broughton Road were both similar. Oldfield, Harcombe, Woodland, and Sandbrook Roads were occupied by artisans and shop workers, most of whom presumably employed by businesses on the High Street or Church Street (or those communing into the West End of London). It was pink in the 1890s, it is probably similar today, although the cost of living makes this an expensive place to live now (true for much of London of course).

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An echo of the area’s past: a Victorian post box by Walford Road (next to a synagogue – another reminder of the mixed community that existed in the 1890s and still exists today).

Stoke Newington was – in the 1880/90s – ‘very healthy’ Booth wrote. ‘It has a great reputation’. The houses were small but nearly all of them were occupied. That is still true in the streets I walked around. There were properties for sale and estate agents boards advertising letting opportunities but relatively few. It feels ‘well-heeled’, quite and ‘desirable’. ‘Anything will let or sell in Stoke Newington’ the police constable accompanying Booth on his travels told him with confidence.

One imagines the same is true today.