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]

Bakery wars and anti-semitism in the East End

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The Levy Brothers Jewish Bakery, 31 Middlesex Street, Whitechapel: c.1900

 

We are now (perhaps sadly) used to the reality that Sunday is no more special than any other day. In the 1990s the Sunday trading laws were relaxed allowing even large stores to open (albeit with some restrictions on their hours). Bank Holidays are only holidays if you don’t work in retail and we have very few (if any) days in the year when everything shuts.

In the nineteenth century things were different, although businesses and those that worked in them worked extremely long hours and in much poorer conditions. Workers’ rights were much less well protected than they are today (although these are been systematically eroded in the name of competitive global capitalism).

The key difference was that trading on a Sunday was against the law. Sunday was the Lord’s day and on the sabbath you did no work. Instead it was a day to rest, to be with the family, and, of course, a day to go to church.

Not everyone kept Sunday as the sabbath however. The seventh day in the Old Testament is Saturday, and this was the Jewish holy day, not Sunday. So, for Jews, working on a Friday night and Saturday was against their religion. Unfortunately for them English law followed the tenets of Christianity not Judaism.

In February 1891 this affected several traders in East London directly, and landed them in the Thames Police Court.

Morris Kosminsky, a Jewish baker who lived (ironically) at 35 Christian Street off the Commercial Road, was summoned under the 16th section of the Bread Act (1822). This forbade the making or baking of bread on the sabbath. Bread could be sold but only between 9 and 1 and there were tight restrictions preventing the delivering of bread to premises other than the baker’s own shop.

Kominsky had been seen delivering bread contrary to the terms of the act and the prosecution was brought by a representative of the Bakers and Confectioners’ Co-opertaive Union (BCCU).

The representation told the magistrate that the law was there to protect bakers from being required to work more than six days a week. But it was pointed out that Jewish bakers always shut up shop on Saturdays (their ‘Lord’s day’) and it was unfair that they could not be allowed to continue baking on Sundays, since they were not contravening the spirit of the law. ‘Our law said a Jew should not open on a Sunday’, said Mr Blanchard Wontner, who appeared as counsel for Kominsky and the other men, while ‘his religion said he should not open on a Saturday’.

Blanchard argued that this was a vindictive prosecution brought privately by the BCCU who were, he added, ‘probably composed of Christian bakers’. He suggested that the justice issue a small fine to deter future unnecessary prosecutions under the act.

Kominsky pleaded guilty, hoping for leniency. He was followed by Ascher Levy of Cable Street who had made rolls on a Sunday, A Freedman (who admitted being a baker trading on Sundays) and Mark Rosenbaum of Umberston Street likewise guilty of not obeying the Bread Laws.

If they hoped that the blatant unfairness of the law would guide the justice’s decision they were to be disappointed. Mr Mead told them they had clearly broken the law, regardless of whether it was there for commercial, moral or any other purpose and he was going to make an example of them.

He fined them each 10s (the full penalty) and awarded 5s costs in each case to the prosectors.

There was plenty of anti-semitism about the 1890s and I rather suspect that Mr Mead was happy to side with his co-religionists and fellow Anglo-Saxons against the ‘alien’ presence in East London.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 11, 1897]