The Flowergirls of 1851
The image of the London flowergirl lingers in the popular imagination today primarily because of the writing of George Bernard Shaw who created the most famous of East End flowergirls, Eliza Doolittle, in his play “Pygmalion.” Subsequently transformed by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe into the musical “My Fair Lady,” and filmed with great success by George Cukor starring Audrey Hepburn, the romance of the flowergirl has seduced the world. Yet there was a vivid historical reality behind Shaw’s fiction that was less glamorous but equally revealing of human nature.
To complement my portraits of two contemporary flowersellers Tony Purser of Fenchurch St Station and Finty Chester of Columbia Road Market – I am publishing this account of two flowersellers by Henry Mayhew from his “London Labour & London Poor,” 1851.
Sunday is the best day for flowerselling, and one experienced man computed, that in the height and pride of the summer four hundred children were selling flowers on Sundays in the streets. The trade is almost entirely in the hands of children, the girls outnumbering the boys by more than eight to one. The ages of the girls vary from six to twenty, few of the boys are older than twelve, and most of them are under ten.
Of flowergirls there are two classes. Some girls, and they are certainly the smaller class of the two, avail themselves of the sale of flowers in the streets for immoral purposes, or rather, they seek to eke out the small gains of their trade by such practices. Their ages are from fourteen to nineteen or twenty, and sometimes they remain out offering their flowers until late at night.
The other class of flowergirls is composed of girls who, wholly or partially, depend upon the sale of flowers for their own support or as an assistance for their parents. They are generally very persevering, more especially the younger children, who will run along barefooted, with their, “Please, gentleman, do buy my flowers. Poor little girl!” or “Please kind lady, buy my violets. O, do! please! Poor little girl! Do buy a bunch, please, kind lady!”
The statement I give is of two orphan flowersellers, the elder was fifteen and the younger eleven. Both were clad in old, but not torn, dark print frocks and they wore old broken black chip bonnets. The older had a pair of old worn-out shoes on her feet, the younger was barefoot, but trotted along, in a gait at once quick and feeble – as if the soles of her little feet were impervious, like horn, to the roughness of the road. The elder girl has a modest expression of countenance, with no pretensions to prettiness except in having tolerably good eyes. Her complexion was somewhat muddy, and her features somewhat pinched. The younger child had a round, chubby, and even rosy face, and quite a healthful look. Her portrait is here given.
The elder girl spoke not at all garrulously, but merely in answer to my questions, “I sell flowers, sir, we live almost on flowers when they are to be got. I sell, and so does my sister, all kinds, but it’s very little use offering any that’s not sweet. I think it’s the sweetness as sells them. I sell primroses, when they’re in, and violets, and wallflowers, and stocks, and roses of different sorts, and pinks, and carnations, and mixed flowers, and lilies of the valley, and green lavender, and mignonette.
The best sale of all is, I think, moss-roses, young moss-roses. We do best of all on them. Primroses are good, for people say, ‘Well, here’s spring again to a certainty.’ Gentlemen are our best customers. I’ve heard that they buy flowers to give to the ladies. Ladies have sometimes said, ‘A penny, my poor girl, here’s three-halfpence for the bunch.’ Or they’ve given me the price of two bunches for one, so have gentlemen. I never had a rude word said to me by a gentleman in my life. I never go among boys, I know nobody but my brother.
I was born in London. Mother was a chairwoman, and lived very well. None of us ever saw a father. We were all ‘mother’s children.’ Mother died seven years ago last Guy Fawkes’ day. I’ve got myself, and my brother and sister a bit of bread ever since, and never had any help but from the neighbours. I never troubled the parish.”
In answer to my inquiries their landlady assured me that these two poor girls were never out of doors all the time she had known them after six at night.
“I buy my flowers at Covent Garden, sometimes, but very seldom, at Farringdon. I pay 1s. for a dozen bunches, whatever flowers are in. Out of every two bunches I can make three, at 1d. a piece. We make the bunches up ourselves. We get the rush to tie them with for nothing. We put their own leaves round violets. The paper for a dozen costs a penny, sometimes only a halfpenny. The two of us doesn’t make less than 6d. a day unless it’s very ill luck.
I always keep 1s. stock-money if I can. If it’s bad weather, so bad that we can’t sell flowers at all, and so if we’ve had to spend our stock-money for a bit of bread she (the landlady) lends us 1s., if she has one or she borrows one of a neighbour. We never pawned anything, we have nothing they would take in at the pawnshop. We live on bread and tea, and sometimes a fresh herring of a night.”
The brother earned from 1s. 6d. to 2s. a week, with an occasional meal, as a costermonger’s boy. Neither of them ever missed mass on a Sunday.
I now give the quantity of cut flowers sold in the streets. The returns have been derived from nurserymen and market salesmen. It will be seen how fully these returns corroborate the statement of the poor flowergirl, “it’s very little use offering anything that’s not sweet.” I may remark, too, that at the present period, from the mildness of the season, wallflowers, primroses, violets, and polyanthuses are almost as abundant as Spring sunshine.Wallflowers ………………………………………. 115,200 bunches Lavender…………………………………………… 296,640 bunches Pinks and Carnations ……………………………..63,360 bunches Moss Roses …………………………………………172,800 bunches China Roses ……………………………………….. 172,800 bunches Mignonette …………………………………………. 86,400 bunches Lilies of the Valley …………………………………… 1,632 bunches Stocks ………………………………………………… 20,448 bunches Total cut flowers sold yearly in the streets …. 994,560 bunches
George Bernard Shaw played upon the perceived moral ambiguity of the flowergirl in “Pygmalion.” While Eliza Doolittle protests her virtue by declaring, “I’m a good girl, I am,” her father is entirely amenable to prostitute his daughter to Professor Higgins for whatever he can get. Henry Mayhew’s testimony confirms the historical veracity of this ambivalence, while emphasising that the majority of flowergirls struggled to scrape a living by selling flowers and chose to retain moral dignity in spite of their poverty. And the cathartic moment in Shaw’s play when Eliza throws Professor Higgins’ slippers to the floor dramatises this crucial assertion of self-esteem.
Speaking with Tony Purser on the day of his retirement as a flowerseller after fifty-two years, I was surprised to learn of his early arrests for flowerselling without a licence. It reminded me that the lack of distinction between street traders and beggars – categorising all street people as low-life – which existed in the nineteenth century, persisted well beyond the Victorian era. I was inspired to meet Finty Chester, a contemporary Sunday flowergirl, who attends college in the week studying for a professional career, though the irony of our age is that even as a full time student, she also needs to run a flower stall to support herself.
Seventeen year old Finty Chester, twenty first century flowergirl, is studying media with a view to pursuing a parallel career as a journalist.
Photograph copyright © Jeremy Freedman