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Story Of London

London’s Costermongers: 3 – The Varieties of Costermongers

In 1862, Henry Mayhew published his magnificent survey: London Labour and the London Poor.He now defines for us the different types of Street-Folk to be found in London. Of these, the costermongers are a special breed, or even distinct race, who seldom associate with the other groups. Of Irish extraction, fully one half of the Costermongers have been in the trade for many generations and refer to many of the other street-folk as the illegitimates.”

LONDON’S COSTERMONGERSPART THREE
Of the Varieties of Street-Folk in General, and Costermongers in ParticularA Costermonger.

Among the street-folk there are many distinct characters of people -people differing as widely from each in tastes, habits, thoughts and creed, as one nation from another. Of these the costermongers form by far the largest and certainly the mostly broadly marked class. They appear to be a distinct race -perhaps, originally, of Irish extraction – seldom associating with any other of the street-folks, and being all known to each other.

The “Patterers,” or the men who cry the last dying speeches, etc. in the street, and those who help off their wares by long harangues in the public thoroughfares, are again a separate class. These, to use their own term, are “the aristocracy of the street-sellers,” despising the costers for their ignorance, and boasting that they live by their intellect. The public, they say, do not expect to receive from them an equivalent for their money -they pay to hear them talk. Compared with the costermongers, the patterers are generally an educated class, and among them are some classical scholars, one clergyman, and many sons of gentlemen. They appear to be the counterparts of the old mountebanks or street-doctors. As a body they seem far less improvable than the costers, being more “knowing” and less impulsive.

The street-performers differ again from those; these appear to possess many of the characteristics of the lower class of actors, viz., a strong desire to excite admiration, an indisposition to pursue any settled occupation, a love of the tap-room, though more for the society and display than for the drink connected with it, a great fondness for finery and predilection for the performance of dexterous or dangerous feats.Then there are the street mechanics, or artizans – quiet, melancholy, struggling men, who, unable to find any regular employment at their own trade, have made up a few things, and taken to hawk them in the streets, as the last shift of independence.Another distinct class of streetfolk are the blind people (mostly musicians in a rude way), who, after the loss of their eyesight, have sought to keep themselves from the workhouse by some little excuse for alms-seeking. These, so far as my experience goes, appear to be a far more deserving class than is usually supposed -their affliction, in most cases, seems to have chastened them and to have given a peculiar religious cast to their thoughts.

Such are the several varieties of street-folk, intellectually considered – looked at in a national point of view, they likewise include many distinct people. Among them are to be found the Irish fruit-sellers; the Jew clothesmen; the Italian organ boys, French singing women, the German brass bands, the Dutch buy-a-broom girls, the Highland bagpipe players, and the Indian crossing-sweepers -all of whom I here shall treat of in due order.The costermongering class or order has also its many varieties. These appear to be in the following proportions: -One-half of the entire class are costermongers proper, that is to say, the calling with them is hereditary, and perhaps has been so for many generations; while the other half is composed of three-eighths Irish, and one-eighth mechanics, tradesmen, and Jews.

Under the term “costermonger” is here included only such “street-sellers” as deal in fish, fruit, and vegetables, purchasing their goods at the wholesale “green” and fish markets. Of these some carry on their business at the same stationary stall or “standing” in the street, while others go on “rounds.” The itinerant costermongers, as contradistinguished from the stationary street-fishmongers and greengrocers, have in many instances regular rounds, which they go daily, and which extend from two to ten miles. The longest are those which embrace a suburban part; the shortest are through streets thickly peopled by the poor, where duly to “work” a single street consumes, in some instances, an hour. There are also “chance” rounds. Men “working” these carry their wares to any part in which they hope to find customers. The costermongers, moreover, diversify their labours by occasionally going on a country round, travelling on these excursions, in all directions, from thirty to ninety and even a hundred miles from the metropolis. Some, again, confine their callings chiefly to the neighbouring races and fairs.

Of all the characteristics attending these diversities of traders, I shall treat severally. I may here premise, that the regular or “thorough-bred costermongers,” repudiate the numerous persons who sell only nuts or oranges in the streets, whether at a fixed stall, or any given locality, or who hawk them through the thoroughfares or parks. They repudiate also a number of Jews, who confine their street trading to the sale of “coker-nuts” on Sundays, vended from large barrows. Nor do they rank with themselves the individuals who sell tea and coffee in the streets, or such condiments as peas-soup, sweetmeats, spice-cakes, and the like; those articles not being purchased at the markets. I often heard all such classes called “the illegitimates.”