Barrow wars: competing for territory in the world of fruit and veg

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The difference between a fixed trader – generally but not always a shopkeeper – and a costermonger became the key distinction in a case heard before Mr Woolrych at Westminster Police court in early December 1870.

William Haynes, a fruiter and potato dealer with premises on  Churton Street and Tachbrook Street in Pimlico, was summoned to explain why he had obstructed the carriageway. He was prosecuted under the ‘new Street Act’ for ‘allowing two barrows to rest longer than necessary for loading or unloading’. The court heard he had left them there for five hours.

His defense lawyer (Mr Doveton Smyth) accepted the facts of the case but tried to argue that since his client sold apples from these barrows he might be classed as a costermonger, and therefore be allowed to do so.

Mr Woolrych might have admired the creativity of the brief but he rejected his reasoning. The word ‘costermonger’ might have derived from “costard,” a large apple’, as the lawyer suggested but ‘that term had become obsolete’.

There was ‘no doubt the present acceptation of the word costermonger was an itinerant trader who hawked perishable articles, such as fruit, vegetables , and fish, etc., and in the course of that vocation went from place to place’.

The magistrate pointed out that Mr Haynes owned two shops and didn’t move them around. Mr Woolrych left the fruiterer off the fine but insisted he pay the costs of the summons. The lawyer said he would take the question of ‘whether a tradesman cannot be a costermonger if he please’ to the Court of Queen’s Bench for a higher authority to determine.

Two weeks later Haynes was back in court and again defended by Mr Doveton Smyth. Again the charge was the same, as was the defense. This time the defendant was fined.

Two years later, in April 1872 William Haynes was one of three Pimlico greengrocers brought before the Westminster magistrate for obstructing the pavements.

The court heard that they occupied premises ‘where costermongers are allowed to assemble in accordance with the  provisions of the Metropolitan Street Act’ and that the area was a ‘a regular market on a Saturday night’. Once again Mr Smythe presented the argument that his clients had as much right to trade from stalls outside their shops as the costermongers did to sell from barrows nearby, so long as ‘did not infringe the police regulations’.

But it seems they did infringe the law.

Inspector Turpin from B Division said that Haynes’ stall was fully 50 feet long while Joseph Haynes (possibly his son or brother), had one that was 35 feet long. Both stalls forced pedestrians to walk out into the road to get past.

The defendants pleaded guilty, promised to ‘make better arrangements’ in the future, and were fined between 10 and 40s each, plus costs. They paid up but with some protest.

This was not something that was going to go away however. The greengrocers could afford to keep paying fines and may well have thought it a necessary expense to be able to compete for trade with the costermongers.

Ultimately, as we know, the grocer in his shop would win the battle for the streets with the coster and his barrow. The latter were eventually restricted from selling wherever they liked and confined to fixed markets; the grocers developed a network of independent shops that ultimately grew into small and then larger chains, displacing very many of the independent traders that they competed with.

Today we have a high street  with very few independent grocers and greengrocers; most of that business has been captured by the supermarkets.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday 7 December 1870; Morning Post, Friday 19 April 1872]

 

Milking the profits in 1880s Rotherhithe

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There is still a ‘proper’ milkman who delivers in the early hours of the morning in our street. Milkman used to be ubiquitous though; this was how nearly everyone got their milk until the supermarkets and convenience stores usurped the trade.

In the 1970s and 80s (when I was growing up in north London) milk was delivered in glass bottles which were then left as ‘empties’ to be returned to and refilled by the dairy. In the Victorian period a milkman brought his milk in pails and sold it by the pint, decanting it into whatever container the housewife produced.

Just as we have a foods standards agency to protect consumers Victorian society had sanitary inspectors who checked the quality of meat, dairy, and other consumables, visiting the various shops, markets and street traders to ensure their produce was both safe and unadulterated.  Throughout the 1800s food was adulterated (adding chalk to bread to make it ‘white’ for example) and beer watered down. This was all down to improve margins and increase profits but the last quarter of the century it was illegal and offenders could be prosecuted before a magistrate.

Joseph King fell foul of the law in late July 1881. The Bermondsey milkman was driving his cart in Rotherhithe and crying ‘milk, oh!’ to attract his customers, when Joseph Edwards approached him. Edwards was a sanitary inspector and King clearly recognized him. When Edwards asked him for a pint of milk the milkman refused his request. When he continued to refuse the inspector withdrew and applied for a summons to bring him before a magistrate.

On Friday 29 July King was up before Mr Marsham at Greenwich Police court. Edwards presented the case as he saw it. He’d had his suspicions about King so had approached him as described. When he’d asked for some milk King initially said he didn’t have any, but Edwards ignored him and opened up on of the cans on the cart. There was plenty left inside it.

He then told the milk seller who and what he was (as if King didn’t know) and this prompted King to say that what he had there was milk mixed with water, which he sold for 4a pint. He added that his customers knew what it was and there was no deception on his part. If they wanted pure milk they could have it, at 5a pint.

Edwards then walked across to where he’d seen the milkman last make a sale and asked the woman there what she’d bought. She vehemently denied being told that the milk she’d bought had been mixed with water. He was bang to rights and the inspector told the court that a ‘very fair profit was got out of pure milk sold at 4d’.  Mr Marsham agreed and fined Joe King 20splus 2s costs for trying to deceive his customers and  drive up his margins.

Perhaps he should have suggested that milk with less fat and a higher water content might have been a healthier option for the good folk of Rotherhithe, but I don’t think we had progressed to skimmed or semi-skimmed (let alone almond or oat) milk by then.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 30, 1881]

Adulterated milk and the Inspector of Nuisances

 

There were no cases from the Thames or Worship Street Police Courts reported in the London press on 17 June 1881. As an exercise in following one court for seven days then this has been something of a failure. However, the absence of reportage is not evidence that the court did not do any work – we know these courts sat daily. Henry Turner Waddy recorded that:

‘All the police courts are open for business on every week-day of the year, Good Friday and Christmas Day only excepted. The ordinary hours are [from] 10 am to 8 pm’.  The Police Court and its Work, (London, Butterworth, 1925)

The manuscript records of the Thames court reveal that it opened on Saturdays as well. Given that they heard dozens if not hundreds of cases daily it stands to reason that the press representation of them is highly selective, when we can see that on some days they reported nothing from one or more of the courts then clearly we need to look carefully at what was (and was not) chosen by the reporter or his editor as worthy of inclusion.

With nothing from either of the two East London courts it is necessary to look at the others on this day.

Earlier in the week we had a short report of an assault that arose out of a dispute between rival milkmen. Well today that same milk company, the Farmers’ Dairy Company (FDC), were back in the news. George Shepparton, the manager of the FDC, was summoned to Clerkenwell Police Court for ‘selling as unaltered milk from which the cream had been extracted’.

We are encouraged to drink low fat milk and avoid cream but the Victorians had different concerns when it came to food. In the 1800s it was the adulteration of food which brought prosecutions: bread with bleached floor, or watered down beer, and of course milk from which the cream had been removed.

The case was brought by William Roache, the wonderfully entitled Inspector of Nuisances. He had seen a man selling milk in Lancing Street (near Euston Station) . The vendor was shouting ‘Fresh Farmhouse milk, twopence a quart’. He bought a pint and then informed the seller that he intended to have it analysed. This prompted the vendor to tell him that it was in fact ‘skimmed milk’.

In court the deface and prosecution lawyers argued over whether the milk had been intentionally sold as something other than skimmed milk. The prosecution said that since it was advertised at ‘Fresh Farmhouse milk’ that implied it was full cream. Mr Wakeling, for the dairy, argued that:

‘the price at which the milk was sold was sufficient to show that there was no pretence that it was anything but skimmed milk’.

Today a pint of milk is likely to cost much the same regardless of whether it is full fat, semi-skimmed or virtually far free. After all you are probably paying more for the packaging now than you are for the content. Supermarkets sell milk at ridiculously low prices compared to cost of producing it.

Back at Clerkenwell the magistrate felt he needed more time and advice before he could make a decision on the evidence he’d heard. He sent the parties away and asked them to return in a  week. Meanwhile he dealt with several other cases of adulteration.

Percival Hawes was convicted of selling milk from which all the butterfat had been extracted, he was fined £20 plus cost. Andrew Carrucio of Gray’s Inn Road was similarly convicted and fined, as was James Ernteman who operated a business on the same road.

George Matthews of Camden Town was summoned for selling adulterated mustard. Mr Roache claimed he had been sold mustard which was mostly flour with a small amount of turmeric (for colour). Matthews countered that he had bought it wholesale from a reputable business so ‘he thought he might safely trust them’. Roche said that the mustard powder he’d been sold came not from a wholesaler’s tin but loose from a drawer. The conviction stuck and Matthews was also fined £20 plus costs.

These are not petty fines, £20 in 1881 was a significant sum of money, close in fact to £1000 in today’s prices. So the state, in the form of Mr Roache the Inspector of Nuisances for St Pancras, was doing sterling work. Today I think that job is part of the role performed by councils and the Food Standards Agency, which checks up on labelling to make sure it is accurate and not misleading. It is worth remembering that this has such a long history.

[from The Standard , Friday, June 17, 1881]