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Story Of London

The Obsolete Cries of the Costermongers

The Obsolete Cries of the Costermongers
Posted on Aug 24, 2002 – 02:17 AM by Bill McCann

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. Here he discusses the antiquity of costermongers and examines the cries that once filled London’s streets but which were obsolete by his time. From this, he concludes that the diet of people who bought “fast food” on the street had changed substantially.

The earliest record of London cries is, according to Mr. Charles Knight, in Lydgate’s poem of “London Lyckpeny,” which is as old as the days of Henry V., or about 430 years back. Among Lydgate’s cries are enumerated “Strawberries ripe and cherries in the rise;” the rise being a twig to which the cherries were tied, as at present. Lydgate, however, only indicates costermongers, but does not mention them by name. It is not my intention, as my inquiries are directed to the present condition of the costermongers, to dwell on this part of the question, but some historical notice of so numerous a body is indispensable. I shall confine myself therefore to show from the elder dramatists, how the costermongers flourished in the days of Elizabeth and James I.”Virtue,” says Shakespeare, “is of so little regard in these costermonger times, that true valour is turned bear-herd.” Costermonger times are as old as any trading times of which our history tells; indeed, the stationary costermonger of our own day is a legitimate descendant of the tradesmen of the olden time, who stood by their shops with their open casements, loudly inviting buyers by praises of their wares, and by direct questions of “What d’ye buy? What d’ye lack?”Ben Jonson makes his Morose, who hated all noises, and sought for a silent wife, enter “upon divers treaties with the fish-wives and orange-women,” to moderate their clamour; but Morose, above all other noisy people, “cannot endure a costard-monger; he swoons if he hear one.”In Ford’s “Sun’s Darling” I find the following:”Upon my life he means to turn costermonger, and is projecting how to forestall the market. I shall cry pippins rarely.”In Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Scornful Lady” is the following:”Pray, sister, do not laugh; you’ll anger him,
And then he’ll rail like a rude costermonger.”Dr. Johnson, gives the derivation of costardmonger (the orthography he uses), as derived from the sale of apples or costards, “round and bulky like the head;” and he cites Burton as an authority: “Many country vicars,” writes Burton, “are driven to shifts, and if our great patrons hold us to such conditions, they will make us costardmongers, graziers, or sell ale.””The costard-monger,” says Mr. Charles Knight, in his London, “was originally an apple-seller, whence his name, and, from the mention of him in the old dramatists, he appears to have been frequently an Irishman.”In Ireland the word “costermonger” is almost unknown.A brief account of the cries once prevalent among the street-sellers will show somewhat significantly the change in the diet or regalements of those who purchase their food in the street. Some of the articles are not vended in the public thoroughfares now, while others are still sold, but in different forms.”Hot sheep’s feet,” for instance, were cried in the streets in the time of Henry V.; they are now sold cold, at the doors of the lower-priced theatres, and at the larger public-houses. Among the street cries, the following were common prior to the wars of the Roses: “Ribs of beef,” – “Hot peascod,” and “Pepper and saffron.” These certainly indicate a different street diet from that of the present time.The following are more modern, running from Elizabeth’s days down to our own. “Pippins,” and, in the times of Charles II., and subsequently, oranges were sometimes cried as “Orange pips,” – “Fair lemons and oranges; oranges and citrons,” – “New Wall-fleet oysters,” [“fresh” fish was formerly cried as “new,”] – “New-river water,” [I may here mention that water-carriers still ply their trade in parts of Hampstead,] – “Rosemary and lavender,” – “Small coals,” [a cry rendered almost poetical by the character, career, and pitiful end, through a practical joke, of Tom Britton, the “small-coal man,”] – “Pretty pins, pretty women,” – “Lilly-white vinegar,” – “Hot wardens” (pears) – “Hot codlings,” — and lastly the greasy-looking beverage which Charles Lamb’s experience of London at early morning satisfied him was of all preparations the most grateful to the stomach of the then existing climbing-boys – viz., “Saloop.” I may state, for the information of my younger readers, that saloop (spelt also “salep” and “salop”) was prepared, as a powder, from the root of the Orchis mascula, or Red-handed Orchis, a plant which grows luxuriantly in our meadows and pastures, flowering in the spring, though never cultivated to any extent in this country; that required for the purposes of commerce was imported from India. The saloop-stalls were superseded by the modern coffee-stalls.There were many other cries, now obsolete, but what I have cited were the most common.