ictoria's reign was the costermonger's heyday even though the word had been coined in the early sixteenth century (coster is a corruption of costard, a kind of apple). Mayhew gave us a detailed snapshot of their lives, habits and beliefs in a series of twice weekly articles for the Morning Chronicle in the late 1840s. Later they were published as London Labour and the London Poor. Costermongers qualified because they were far from rich. Mayhew thought there were between thirty and forty thousand of them, quite a large number in a city of under two and a half million. There was no mystery about what did; they bought fruit and vegetables wholesale and sold them retail. Technically they were hawkers since only a minority had fixed stalls or standings. The rest cried out their wares as they walked the streets with barrows, donkey carts, or shallows (trays carried on the head).In the 1840s they accounted for ten percent of the cheaper produce sold in Covent Garden's wholesale market, and a good third of Billingsgate's fish. Earnings ranged from an average ten shillings a week to thirty at a time when a collier's wages was around twenty.
Saturday night and Sunday morning were busiest. Men were paid on Saturday evening, while Sunday's dinner had still to be bought. Mayhew gives a very vivid account of a Saturday evening market in November. Brightness was the first thing he noticed: naphtha flares, candles, gas jets, grease lamps, the fires of the chestnut roasters. Then the noise: hundreds of traders at hundreds of stalls calling out their wares: 'Chestnuts, a penny a score', 'Three a penny, Yarmouth bloaters', 'Now's your time, beautiful whelks a penny a lot', 'Penny a lot, fine russetts', 'Come and look at 'em, here's toasters' (that is bloaters, again).'Ho! Ho! Hi-i-i. Here's your turnips.' Butchers in blue aprons bellowed 'buy, buy, buy, buy, buy' outside their open fronted shops with gas jets wavering in the air. 'Be in time, be in time' barkers shouted outside the circus where the show was about to begin. Everything cheap and of use (or of no use) to the poor was there: saucepans, crockery, old shoes, trays, handkerchiefs, umbrellas, shirts. "Go to whatever corner of the Metropolis you please," Mayhew ended, "and there is the same struggling to get a penny profit out of the poor man's Sunday dinner."
Three wet days in a row brought them close to starvation. The trade itself was highly seasonal and January and February were starvation months in their own right; fish was the mainstay but wholesale prices were often too high for poorer men. Weekly average takings were then only eight shillings. In March they halved. April brought roots - wallflowers and sweet-scented stocks - and takings picked up. May was a herring and wallflower month. June brought new potatoes. July came in with cherries and soft fruit. August was the time for plums and greengages when earnings peaked at thirty-six shillings. In September apples were the new best sellers but income fell sharply. October saw apples fading out and oysters coming in. In November the Lord Mayor allowed sprats to be sold (he had the power to do so, presumably, because he controlled Billingsgate, otherwise his writ ended at the City walls.) Business was poor in early December but flared up briefly at Christmas with holly, ivy, and oranges, and then the dead new year began again.
There were thirty-two big street markets in London where costers lived together in colonies in courtyards and alleyways. Home for a family was almost invariably a single small room. Mayhew visited three. The first were what he called thriving costers — mother, son and daughter. Unsurprisingly they were teetotal. Pictures of saints were pasted on the wall above the fireplace. Crockery busts of Prince Albert and M. Jullien stood on the mantelpiece. They had a bedstead with a quilt and a dresser for cups and blue plates (clean, Mayhew pointed out).The floor was scrubbed not just clean but white. A pot of stew bubbled on the fire.
Five people lived in the next room he visited. He called it a kitchen though it sounds more like a cellar. A barrow, parked outside the window, darkened the room. The railings rattled so loudly when pedestrians walked by that people inside had to stop talking. There was only one bed. Where did they sleep? He wondered but never asked. A cat sat on the hearth. "They keeps the varmint away," said the woman, "and gives a look of home."
Lastly he visited three women living together in a single room on the first floor of a house with a slanting roof. The room was so filled with smoke he could barely see the cups in a three cornered cupboard only feet away. They had no bed, only a straw mattress on the floor. A young woman lay there. She'd just given birth. The child was dead. Among the bonnets was a clean night cap, for when the doctor called. The room was nine feet square and immediately below the roof; between the laths where the tiles were missing you could see the sky. Still: "We never want for water for we can catch plenty just over the chimney place," the old woman told him jokingly. Window panes were brown paper. Mats, normally unheard of, were needed to stop things falling through gaps in the floor into the stable below. But, as the old woman explained, the chimney smoked only when the wind was in the wrong direction and the rent was nine pence a week. So: "Mustn't grumble," she said, uttering the exact mantra English people would use for the next hundred or so years whenever things were not too good, or very often.
Yet costers lived most of their lives on the streets; breakfast might be bread and butter at a coffee stall, lunch a pie from a passing pieman or meat bought in a butcher's but cooked in a tap-room's oven. Beer shops, however were their natural haunts; nearly four hundred of them, Mayhew claimed, relied entirely on their trade. Typically a coster spent half his earnings on beer. But beer shops also provided him with recreation. Gambling was endemic. They'd bet their stock money, for example, against a pieman's tray of pies as they waited for the wholesale markets to open. Mostly they gambled in the beer shops — cards, three up (a game played by tossing three coins up in the air). They boxed (said they were better boxers than any but professional prize-fighters) for beer and side bets. Bouts were short since the winner was the man who first drew blood. Dog fights in beer shops were also common, and illegal. Ratting was popular, as was pigeon keeping, though perhaps not as popular as pigeon shooting. Not that the costers shot. They picked up injured birds when they fluttered down outside the wall of the Battersea shooting ground. They fetched three pence apiece.
Dances — twop'nny hops — were also popular, particularly with women. They too were held in the beer shops, organised by costers exclusively for their own kind. Music was provided by a fiddle, harp, and a cornopean — a kind of hooped trumpet not unlike a French Horn and only recently invented. They danced hornpipes, jigs, polkas and a kind of sword dance with tobacco pipes (presumably churchwardens) in place of swords. They were also a kind of coster marriage bureau where couples, as young as fourteen, could meet and decide to set up house together, sometimes on the same evening.
Marriage was rare; ninety percent cohabited. Men were free to do what they pleased but women were expected to be faithful and could be beaten up for even talking to the wrong man. (They could and were beaten up for almost anything.) As women, many regretted the choices they had made as girls. One eighteen year old woman had very strong opinions about coster men. They'll never go to Heaven, she said. "The lads is very insinivating, and after leaving them places" (Penny Gaffs) "will give a gal a drop of beer, and make her half tipsy, and then they makes their arrangements. I've often heerd the boys boasting of having ruined gals, for all the world as if they was the first noblemen in the land."
Penny Gaffs were one of the few things that made Mayhew openly angry. They were seedy temporary theatres often housed in empty shops. All they offered were obscene songs and sexually explicit dances. What appalled Mayhew was that three-quarters of the audience were girls, some only eight years old. The three penny gallery in the Vic (now the Old Vic) was to boys what the Gaffs were to girls, drawing them in huge numbers. The audience was mostly male, mainly young — twelve to twenty-three. The gallery itself could hold two thousand people and was packed so tight that small newcomers could curl into a ball and roll over their heads to a better place. The boys stamped, hollered, whistled, cat called, and sang (not unlike their 21st-century descendants at soccer matches, in fact.)
Mayhew also touches on back slang, a secret language exclusive to costers and which had been devised only five to ten years earlier. It relies heavily on the written word which is surprising since almost all costermongers were illiterate. (Perhaps there was a single more educated mind behind it?) Some said it was used to cheat customers but that's unlikely; men of equal standing, who could decide on prices, rarely worked together. Others said it was to keep prices and profits hidden from outsiders — but why? Costers often worked together in gambling scams where a secret language might come in handy, though nobody suggested it at the time. And not everybody bothered to learn it, any way, particularly those not born to the trade. Perhaps it gave a feeling of belonging and superiority.
And they did belong. They even had had their own dress code. In the late 1840s they wore long waistcoats of sandy or 'rat skin coloured' corduroy with brass buttons or buttons stamped with a fox or stag's head. Mother of pearl set off the darker ones. Trousers were of corduroy, too, and bell-bottomed. Boots often had motifs of roses, hearts and thistles. Neckerchiefs — called king's men — were of green silk (with yellow flowers) or red and blue. Mayhew couldn't emphasise their importance enough; only actual starvation would induce a coster to pawn his king's man, and it was the first thing to be redeemed when he'd borrowed enough to start again.They distrusted all authority, be it banks, the law, or a sovereign Parliament (they had no vote in the 1840s, of course). The police in particular they hated and would ambush them whenever they could, pelting them with bricks and stones. One man boasted he'd maimed a policeman for life; the price, twelve months in jail, had been worth it. Mayhew also tells of a policeman who impounded a barrow. When he went off to get help, costers rushed to undo the barrow's wheel and hide it. The fruit was handed to a nearby, unmolested, coster (they played fair with each other in matters like this). When the policeman returned with his helper, they had to carry the heavy barrow to the pound with the entire street population jeering and catcalling.
Not that they were a-political. Most were Chartists, though not many could quote the Six Points, while each colony had its agitators. "I like to make men discontented," one of them told Mayhew, "and I will make them discontented while the present system continues. People fancy when all's quiet that all's stagnating. It's when all's quiet that the seed's a growing. Republicans and Socialists are pressing their doctrines." They still are.
But if they had politics they were resolutely irreligious; ninety-seven percent had never been inside a church. Catholicism would have been their religion of choice, if they had had to choose, because they saw priests and nuns caring for the sick and dying. But they'd turn Turk, one man said, if they were paid to. And as for practical morality, religion was just too severe. 'Thou shalt not steal' was a commandment too far. "If we cheats in the streets," a young woman said, "I know we shan't go to Heaven, but if we didn't cheat we couldn't live. Why, look at apples. Customers want them for less than they cost us, and so we are forced to shove in bad ones and if we're to suffer for that, it does seem to me dreadful cruel."
Cheating was wide spread. Weights were flattened to make them look bigger and heavier, measures were fitted with thick or false bottoms, so a quart measuring pot might hold only a pint and a half. Mayhew, who had all the instincts of a statistician, worked out the capital tied up in animals and equipment: £24,135. Most of it was owned by a very few fellow-costers. Their capital gave them a yearly profit of £22,550 in hire and interest. Mayhew very accurately calls them usurers. What did they do with the income? They became 'settled men'. Some opened greengroceries with a coal shed attached, some bought leases and let rooms to lodgers, some lent money at a thousand percent interest, some hired out barrows and weights, others employed boys to sell for them, not for wages but a share of the profits.
Half the costermonger population were coster born and bred. Girls could start work at six years old selling watercress in the day, nuts in the pubs at night. Boys of seven joined their fathers, often supplying a treble voice for the street cries as adults were usually hoarse from shouting. (Not unusually boys set up on their own at around thirteen.) Hardly any of them went even to the cheap Ragged Schools. Two to three thousand costers were probably Irish, driven out of Ireland by the recent Famine. Twelve thousand or so were people down on their luck: labourers, mechanics, inn servants, greengrocers' assistants. These late comers fared poorly, generally being middle-aged and unversed in all the dodges. "We pity them," one man said. "It's just another way of starving."
Today's costermongers probably number only in the hundreds, though several of the old street markets still exist, even if completely changed. Camden Market thrives by selling clothes and trinkets, fripperies and joss sticks, to tourists. The great Tottenham Court Road market is reduced to a single stall on the sidewalk outside Goodge Street tube station (causing bottlenecks, particularly as it faces a news stand). The Brill, the Somer's Town market which Mayhew described in detail, has gone completely. I'm not even sure where it was. The Brill is the slope leading down from St Pancras Old Church to St Pancras Railway Station. The new British Library is down there, too, where the coal yards used to be, along with a public housing estate. Back slang is spoken now only by butchers. Costers no longer sell fish.
- Portrait of a Victorian.
- Stained Glass and Gaslight
- "Weeping Willow" Stands for Pillow: Victorian Rhyming Slang
Hotten, John Camden. A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words 2nd Edition, 1860
Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Vol 1, 1851.
Last modified 23 January 2007