Story Of London

The Billingsgate Bummarees

The Billingsgate Bummarees
Posted on Aug 15, 2002 – 02:27 AM by Anthony Waldstock

In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew has left us a detailed picture of London street life in the mid nineteenth century. In his first volume he describes the street-sellers and their lives. Here he investigates the various practitioners of forestalling in the London street markets and introduces us to the Billinsgate Bummarees.

“Forestalling,” writes Adam Smith, “is the buying or contracting for any cattle, provisions, or merchandize, on its way to the market (or at market), or dissuading persons from buying their goods there, or persuading them to raise the price, or spreading any false rumour with intent to enhance the value of any article. In the remoter periods of our history several statutes were passed, prohibiting forestalling under severe penalties; but as more enlarged views upon such subjects began to prevail, their impolicy became obvious, and they were consequently repealed in 1772. But forestalling is still punishable by fine and imprisonment; though it be doubtful whether any jury would now convict an individual accused of such practices.”In Billingsgate the “forestallers” or middlemen are known as “bummarees,” who, as regards means, are a far superior class to the “hagglers” (the forestallers of the “green” markets). The bummaree is the jobber or speculator on the fish-exchange. Perhaps on every busy morning 100 men buy a quantity of fish, which they account likely to be remunerative, and retail it, or dispose of it in lots to the fishmongers or costermongers. Few if any of these dealers, however, are merely bummarees. A salesman, if he have not disposed of the fish consigned to himself, will turn bummaree if any bargain tempt him. Or a fishmonger may purchase twice the quantity he requires for his own trade, in order to procure a cheaper stock, and “bummaree” what he does not require. These speculations in fish are far more hazardous than those in fruit or vegetables, for later in the day a large consignment by railway may reach Billingsgate, and, being thrown upon the market, may reduce the price one half. In the vegetable and fruit markets there is but one arrival. The costermongers are among the best cus- tomers of the bummarees.I asked several parties as to the origin of the word “bummaree,” and how long it had been in use. “Why, bless your soul, sir,” said one Billingsgate labourer, “there always was bummarees, and there always will be; just as Jack there is a ‘rough,’ and I’m a blessed ‘bobber.”‘ One man assured me it was a French name; another that it was Dutch. A fishmonger, to whom I was indebted for information, told me he thought that the bummaree was originally a bum-boat man, who purchased of the wind-bound smacks at Gravesend or the Nore, and sent the fish up rapidly to the market by land.I may add, as an instance of the probable gains of the forestallers, in the olden time, that a tradesman whose family had been long connected with Billingsgate, showed me by his predecessors’ books and memoranda, that in the depth of winter, when the Thames was perhaps choked with ice, and no supply of fish “got up” to London, any, that might, by management, reach Billingsgate used to command exorbitant prices. To speak only of the present century: March 11th, 1802, a cod fish (8 lbs.) was bought by Messrs. Phillips and Robertson, fishmongers, Bond-street, for £1. 8s. February, 1809, a salmon (19 lbs.) was bought by Mr. Phillips at a guinea a pound, £19. 19s. for the fish! March 24th, 1824, three lobsters were sold for a guinea each.The “haggler,” I may here observe, is the bummaree or forestaller or middleman of the green markets; as far as the costermonger’s trade is concerned, he deals in fruit and vegetables. Of these traffickers there are fully 200 in Covent- garden-market; from 60 to 70 in Farringdon; from 40 to 50 in the Borough; from 50 to 60 in Spitalfields; and none in Portman-market; such being the only wholesale green-markets for the purposes of the costermongers. The haggler is a middleman who makes his purchases of the growers when the day is somewhat advanced, and the whole produce conveyed to the market has not been disposed of. The grower will then, rather than be detained in town, sell the whole lot remaining in his cart or wagon to a haggler, who re-sells it to the costers, or to any other customer, from a stand which he hires by the day. The costermongers who are the most provident, and either have means or club their resources for a large purchase, often buy early in the morning, and so have the advantage of anticipating their fellows in the street-trade, with the day before them. Those who buy later are the customers of the hagglers, and are street-sellers, whose means do not command an extensive purchase, or who do not care to venture upon one unless it be very cheap. These men speak very bitterly of the hagglers, calling them “cracked-up shopkeepers” and “scurfs,” and declaring that but for them the growers must remain, and sell off their produce cheap to the costermongers.A species of forestalling is now not uncommon, and is on the increase among the costermongers themselves. There are four men, having the command of money, who attend the markets and buy either fish or vegetables largely. One man especially buys almost daily as much fruit and vegetables as will supply thirty street dealers. He adds 3d. a bushel to the wholesale market price of apples; 6d. to that of pears; 9d. to plums; and 1s. to cherries. A purchaser can thus get a smaller quantity than he can always buy at market, and avails himself of the opportunity.Moreover, a good many of the more intelligent street-dealers now club together, six of them, for instance, contributing 15s. each, and a quantity of fish is thus bought by one of their body (a smaller contribution suffices to buy vegetables). Perhaps, on an equal partition, each man thus gets for his 15s. as much as might have cost him 20s., had he bought “single-handed.” This mode of purchase is also on the increase.