|The Covent Garden Flowerwomen|
Posted on Aug 23, 2002 – 12:35 AM by Bill McCann
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 selected their “material in the highways and the byways, deeming that the familiar aspects of street life would be as welcome as those glimpses caught here and there, at the angle of some dark alley, or in some squalid corner beyond the beat of the ordinary wayfarer”. They concentrated on the street characters who were most seen on the crowded streets and took quite a different line to that of Mayhew. Here they visit the flowerwomen of Covent Garden and compare their lot with that of the famous Isabelle, flower-girl at the Paris Jockey Club.
The metropolis of the vegetable world has class divisions of its own, and a special population depending for their livelihood on the business here transacted. By the side of the wealthy salesmen and wholesale purveyors of fruit, green stuff and flowers, there are innumerable hangers-on, parasites of the flower world, who seek to pick up the few crumbs that must incidentally fall from the loaded boards and counters where so much is bought and sold.Where nature, as Charles Kenney puts it, “empties forth her teeming lap filled with the choicest of produce,” the poor may well hope to find some small assistance. Indeed, there seems to be something inexpressibly touching in the tendency of the poor to fall back on nature’s gifts when reduced to the last extremity. The familiar sight of a poor woman holding a pale child in her arms and offering modest violets to the pedestrian, is pregnant with a poetry which rags and dirt fail to obliterate. In exchange for nature’s gifts, she seems to challenge human compassion; and shall the heart of man remain cold where the produce of field and garden are so bounteous and beautiful? Unfortunately, with the spread of civilization, nature seems to lose its hold, and artifice gains on almost every sphere of human endeavour.The fruits, which the earth gives gratuitously, have been converted into the property of a privileged few; and the pauperized street vendor must bargain and haggle before she can obtain the refuse flowers disdained by fashionable dealers. Even such simple flowers as the primrose and violet are now governed by the inexorable and iron laws of supply and demand. They are sold by auction and by contract; the poor, as is customary in trade, paying in proportion a higher price for the worst goods. Nor is this all, the pure and most delicate flowers fade and bow their heads, as if with shame, in the unwholesome atmosphere of ballroom and theatre. To support such an ordeal, they must be drilled and trained, pierced and propped up with cruel wires, and made to look as stiff and unbending as the world of artifice they are called upon to adorn.How different is the Covent Garden of to-day, with its bustle and din, its wealth and pauperism, its artifices, its hot-house flowers and forced fruit, its camelias with wire stems, its exotics from far-off climes, to “the fair-spreading pastures,” measuring, according to the old chronicle, some seven acres in extent, where the Abbots of Westminster buried those who died in their convent. In those days vegetables were not only sold here but grew on the spot; and the land, now so valuable, was considered to be worth an annual income of £6 6s. 8d., when given by the Crown to John Russell, Earl of Bedford, in 1552.Many an interesting story is attached to this celebrated spot, honoured by the daily presence and preference of some of the brightest lights of genius England has ever produced; but it is not my purpose to trace the history of the market. I have to deal rather with the group of women who may be seen daily standing by those ugly Tuscan pillars which Inigo Jones designed to ornament the church of St. Paul. Fire, it is true, destroyed the building in 1795, but the design unfortunately remained, and it was rebuilt after the old model. The flower-women seem to follow a somewhat similar policy. When death takes one of the group away, a child has generally been reared to follow in her parents’ footsteps; and the “beat in front of the church is not merely the property of its present owners, it has been inherited from previous generations of flower-women. Now and then a stranger makes her appearance, probably during the most profitable season, but as a rule the same women may be seen standing on the spot from year’s end to year’s end, and the personages of the photograph are well known to nearly all who are connected with the market.Find Covent Garden on the Map
By the side of the flower-women may be noted a familiar character, of whom it may truly be said “the tailor makes the man:” for this individual is named not after his family but after his clothes. “Corduroy” generally refused to give his real name, and at last it was conjectured that some mystery overhung his birth. I have, however, only been able to ascertain that he worked for many years in the brickfields; and, on his health giving way, came to the market in search of any little “job” that might bring him a few pence. In the early morning he stood and watched over the costermongers’ barrows, while they attended the sales; in the day-time he was assiduous in opening carriage doors, and gallantly held out his arm to prevent ladies’ dresses brushing the wheels; while the evening found him loitering about in the vicinity of public-houses always in quest of a “treat” or of “pence.” He is now, however, missing; and, as he suffered severely from asthma, it is supposed that he has sought shelter from the inclement weather in the workhouse infirmary.His friends and associates, the flower-women, are also greatly dependent on the weather, for it not only influences the price of the flowers, but the wet reduces the number of loiterers who are their best customers. Their income therefore varies considerably according to the season. In the summer months, more than a pound net profits have been cleared in a week; but in bad weather these women have often returned home with less than a shilling as the result of twelve hours exposure to the rain. They arrive at the market before the break of day, and are still faithful to their post late in the afternoon. Those who have children teach them to take their places during the less busy hours, and thus obtain a little relaxation; but at best the life is a hard one, which is the more painful as the women are generally entirely dependent on their own exertion for their existence.The flower vendor, for instance, standing beside “Corduroy,” has to provide not only for herself, but for an invalid husband, who, when at his best, can only help her to prepare the nosegays and button flowers. She boasts, however, that in this art he excels all competitors, and certainly we have noticed many customers give preference to her flowers. Her son brings his share of grist to the mill by earning pence as an “independent boot-black;” but how different is the position of this woman to that of Isabelle, the favourite flower-girl of the Paris Jockey Club.Complimented by almost all the crowned heads of Europe, in receipt of £400 a year from the Jockey Club, living in a most luxurious apartment, endowed with a fine collection of diamonds, besporting herself in a neat little brougham, this notorious Parisian flower-girl cannot be compared, morally speaking, with the rough and simple woman whose portrait is before the reader. Notwithstanding her ample income, it is well known that Isabelle refused to give £30 a year to save her mother from starvation; and her meanness caused so great a scandal, that the Jockey Club withdrew its patronage from her, and the popular favourite fell into merited disgrace. The flower-women of Covent Garden are not gifted with the artistic instinct and coquettish charms of Isabelle, but warmer hearts beat beneath their hoddin-grey than ever stirred the black and yellow satin of the Jockey Club.