Posted on Oct 07, 2002 – 01:02 AM by Anthony Waldstock
In 1877 Adolphe Smith and J Thomson followed Mayhew’s footsteps onto the streets of London with the intention of updating his material. Taking advantage of advances in technology they “sought to portray these harder phases of life, bringing to bear the precision of photography in illustration of our subject”. They concentrated on the street characters who were most seen on the crowded streets and took quite a different line to that of Mayhew. One day they came across one of the licensed hawkers,his wife and his donkey. The donkey agreed to be photographed, the wife declined!
John Walker, commonly known as “Black Jack,” or “Darkie,” is one of the army of licensed hawkers who supply the daily wants of the Metropolitan poor. Aided by his wife – an expert needlewoman – it is the proud boast of Black Jack that he has “fetched up the young uns pretty tidy – one’s gone soldiering, t’other green-grocering round the corner.” In regard to his early career, my informant says,”Well you see, sir, my father was, or would have been, a gentleman if he could. He had no natural inclination for slaving to support a family. He took more kindly to his pipe and his liquor, and his ease, and such like. My mother – bless her !-she kep’ things going. She did a roaring trade in washing. The old gentleman, he drove the machine.” “What sort of machine?” I inquired. “Well, the mangle, if you must ave it. It took the go out of my guv’nor wonderful, and kep’ him steady. As a boy I would ha’ given a’most anything to turn that machine; but as I got up I found a standing perfession wasn’t in my line, so I took to hearth-stone and silver sand in summer, and coke in winter time. I used to go about with a gentleman, a friend of ours, wot was up to every trick and turn in the trade. I was pretty well kicked and cuffed into the mysteries of the business; but let bygones be bygones.
“After a bit me and my missus got together some ‘tanners’ – shillings – and started a barrow and donkey. Wot we didn’t ave we borrowed, and ad to pay the poor man’s price for it. It was a battle to keep things going; because you see, sir, all our goods are cash down, and no mistake, unless a man as a friend to lend him a shilling when he’s down in luck, or been lushing [drinking].
“I am not so well off as I should be, and most like no one’s to blame for it more than myself, so my missus says. But Providence and my donkeys have always befriended me. My donkeys took me ome many a night when I had a drop o’ drink in me.””A skinful o’ drink, Jack, is more like the thing,” said his wife. “Yes, wot you say is ‘korreck so far.’ It’s all too true, lad. You remember that morning at two o’clock they fetched you all the way from Elton?””Not all the way, missus; old ‘ard, I took charge of ’em and the barrow till the publics took me in – and well, no matter.””I never got such a sense in my life,” continued the woman. “It was the first time. Mrs. Jones was at her window when the barrow rattled into the court. Where’s master?” I cried. Says Mrs. Jones, ‘there’s either Jack or a sack of coke in the bottom of the barrow.’ I ad to unyoke the beasts, tilt up the barrow.””Well, well, never mind,” said Jack; “donkeys ave more sense than their masters. I believe, sir,” resumed the husband, “I am the only man living that was ever brought afore a magistrate for furious driving of donkeys. I ‘ad a bet with a gentleman that ‘is donkeys would lick mine hollar on the road. Mine, as fine a pair as ever stepped, was flying like the wind, and it took three bobbies’ to stop em. I appeared in court and was discharged.”Black Jack was charged not only with furious driving but with cruelty to his animals, a remarkably fine pair for which he had the most tender regard. Jack stood charged with cutting and wounding the donkeys with a heavy flail-like instrument. At the request of the magistrate the instrument was put in as evidence. It was produced by the defendant from the depths of a side pocket, and proved to be a switch of about eighteen inches in length. “This is the flail, your honour,” said I, “and I own I use it for tickling Tom and Billy, my donkeys. They want no more to make em fly. The case was dismissed.Jack left the court with a clear conscience and an unblemished name among costers; for, although some of them may neglect their wives and families, it seems to be a point of honour with all to treat their donkeys with kindness. For the kindness bestowed the animal invariably shows its gratitude by perfect docility and willingness to bear the yoke imposed by its master. The donkeys fare like their owners, a prosperous day will secure for them some dainty, or at least a feed without stint, of oats, beans, and hay, at a cost of eightpence or ninepence.”I always feed my beast, said a coster to me, “to make sure he gets his grub regular. I look after him too, as I would a brother. He’s worth all the trouble I can take about him. If he could only speak, I’m blest if he wouldn’t lick all the scholards at the Board School. I bought him for five pounds at Smithfield Market, Caledonian Road. Some ten years ago he would have fetched only half that money. Everything’s gone up, and donkeys to about double the price they used to was. Nothing in that line with legs to be had now under two pounds, and nothing good under a flyer. I’ve seen me get five shillings out of the sovereign in buying a beast some ten years ago. There’s ever so many more costers now in London than there wor at that time. That’s how it comes, I think; greater demand, and everything dearer. The carts we use may be bought second-hand, from a pound to five pounds, and the harness, wot’s been used, from five shillings to a sovereign, according to its condition.
“During winter I deal in coke, which I get at the gas works at five shillings a load of six sacks. Wholesale, a sack fetches me one and six; but it pays best to sell it to poor folks, my chief customers, in small lots at a penny and twopence a lot. I carry no weights, a basket is my measure, it goes much further that way. Coke measures better than it weighs. But if one be fairly honest – some ain’t by half so honest as they should be – it makes not such mighty odds in the end which way the coke is sold. I don’t know as it’s fair, but the poorer folks be, the more ave they to fork out for everything. Costers, most on ’em, could not live if they did everything on the square. Many buy dear, and sell dearer.
“My customers are poor, wonderful poor, living round Battersea and thereabouts. I don’t believe some of ’em women and children ‘ave clothes to cover ’em, so they use coal or coke in winter to get up some heat. Many of my best customers I never see, though they deal ‘reglar.’ I see no more of ’em than a dirty and, or lean arm, stuck out with the coppers through half-closed doors. Summer’s the time for such like folks, when the sun’s out and warm. They take art then and come out with some cheap rags on. Most of the men are labourers when they can get work, and loafers when they can’t. The women, many of ’em, work in the dust-yards, picking rubbish. That is in fine weather. They make about two shillings a day, and they tell me they gets the bones and rags that turns up.
“The best men can make four shillings or four and six a day labouring at the gas works. When I set up, as I said, part of my traps was borrowed. Everything in our line can be ‘ad on hire, from a basket or weights to a donkey, and stock can be got by going shares in the profits. But it don’t pay to borrow or hire. You ‘ave to pay as much for the hire of a basket or a pot in a fortnight as would buy the article.”Jack trades in summer with silver sand, which may be bought from a dealer in sand, hearth-stone, bath-brick, and pipeclay, in Old Kent Road. The silver sand costs the coster about eleven shillings a ton. Red sand about the same. When ordered in large quantities, the coster will undertake to lay it down in any part of London at about thirty shillings per ton. The red sand is chiefly used in livery stables, and the white for tap-room floors, the polishing of pewter pots, horse-harness, etc. Half-a-crown a bushel, measured in a basket, is paid for silver sand, one shilling and sixpence a peck; the price increasing in proportion as the quantity supplied decreases. [Note 1]Half a ton sold piecemeal this way returns a profit of at least twenty-five shillings. The average profits of the costermonger, with care and economy, not only enable him to live well, but to save a portion of his earnings, which he not unfrequently lends at enormous rates of interest to his less provident neighbours. The loans contracted by persons of his class are speedily repaid, as security is neither sought by the lender nor tendered by the borrower. It is customary in some instances to lend barrow and stock clay by day. If the stock is worth twenty shillings, about thirty shillings must be returned to the lender at the close of the day, when the barrow has been cleared. There are, nevertheless, many members of this modest fraternity who, like Black Jack, started life by borrowing, and who at length filled the position of independent master costermongers.
Note: 1. In the old English Imperial measurement system, the capacity of dry goods was measured in gallons, pecks and bushels. Two gallons equalled one peck and four pecks made up a bushel. The equality with Avoirdupois weight was made through the bushel where eight bushels equalled one quarter. Four quarters made a hundredweight and twenty hundredweights a ton. Thus, 640 bushels or 2560 pecks or 5120 gallons were equivalent to one ton Avoirdupois.
2. Smith’s complete text and all of Thomson’s photographs can be viewed on-line in the Victorian Dictionary.