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Henry Mayhew’s Street Traders

August 19, 2011
by the gentle author

The Long-Song Seller

There is a silent ghost who accompanies me in my work, following me down the street and sitting discreetly in the corner while I am doing my interviews. He is always there in the back of my mind. He is Henry Mayhew, whose monumental work,”London Labour & London Poor,” was the first to give ordinary people the chance to speak in their own words. I often think of him, and the ambition and quality of his work inspires me. And I sometimes wonder what it was like for him, pursuing his own interviews, one hundred and fifty years ago, in a very different world.

Mayhew’s interviews and pen portraits appeared in the London Chronicle and were published in two volumes in 1851, eventually reaching their final form in five volumes published in 1865. In his preface, Mayhew described it as “the first attempt to publish the history of the people, from the lips of the people themselves – giving a literal description of their labour, their earnings, their trials and their sufferings in their own unvarnished language.”

These works were produced before photography was widely used to illustrate books, and although photographer Richard Beard produced a set of portraits to accompany Mayhew’s interviews, these were reproduced by engraving. Fortunately, since Beard’s photographs have not survived, the engravings were skillfully done. And they are fascinating images, because they exist as the bridge between the popular prints of the Cries of London that had been produced for centuries and the development of street photography, initiated by JohnThomson’s “Street Life in London” in 1876.

Primarily, Mayhew’s intention was to create a documentary record, educating his middle class readers about the lives of the poor to encourage social change. Yet his work transcends the tragic politics of want and deprivation that he set out to address, because the human qualities of his subjects come alive on the page and command our respect. Henry Mayhew bears witness not only to the suffering of poor people in nineteenth century London, but also to their endless resourcefulness and courage in carving out lives for themselves in such unpromising circumstances.

The Oyster Stall. “I’ve been twenty years and more, perhaps twenty-four, selling shellfish in the streets. I was a boot closer when I was young, but I had an attack of rheumatic fever, and lost the use of my hands for my trade. The streets hadn’t any great name, as far as I knew, then, but as I couldn’t work, it was just a choice between street selling and starving, so I didn’t prefer the last. It was reckoned degrading to go into the streets – but I couldn’t help that. I was astonished at my success when I first began, I made three pounds the first week I knew my trade.  I was giddy and extravagant. I don’t clear three shillings a day now, I average fifteen shillings a week the year through. People can’t spend money in shellfish when they haven’t got any.”

The Irish Street-Seller. “I was brought over here, sir, when I was a girl, but my father and mother died two or three years after. I was in service, I saved a little money and got married. My husband’s a labourer, he’s out of worruk now, and I’m forced to thry and sill a few oranges to keep a bit of life in us, and my husband minds the children. Bad as I do, I can do a penny or tuppence a day better profit than him, poor man! For he’s tall and big, and people thinks, if he goes round with a few oranges, it’s just from idleniss.”

The Groundsel Man. “I sell chickweed and grunsell, and turfs for larks. That’s all I sell, unless it’s a few nettles that’s ordered. I believe they’re for tea, sir. I gets the chickweed at Chalk Farm. I pay nothing for it. I gets it out of the public fields. Every morning about seven I goes for it. I’ve been at business about eighteen year. I’m out till about five in the evening. I never stop to eat. I am walking ten hours every day – wet and dry. My leg and foot and all is quite dead. I goes with a stick.”

The Baked Potato Man. “Such a day as this, sir, when the fog’s like a cloud come down, people looks very shy at my taties. They’ve been more suspicious since the taty rot. I sell mostly to mechanics, I was a grocer’s porter myself before I was a baked taty. Gentlemen does grumble though, and they’ve said, “Is that all for tuppence?” Some customers is very pleasant with me, and says I’m a blessing. They’re women that’s not reckoned the best in the world, but they pays me. I’ve trusted them sometimes, and I am paid mostly. Money goes one can’t tell how, and ‘specially if you drinks a drop as I do sometimes. Foggy weather drives me to it, I’m so worritted – that is, now and then, you’ll mind, sir.”

The London Coffee Stall. “I was a mason’s labourer, a smith’s labourer, a plasterer’s labourer, or a bricklayer’s labourer. I was for six months without any employment. I did not know which way to keep my wife and child. Many said they wouldn’t do such a thing as keep a coffee stall, but I said I’d do anything to get a bit of bread honestly. Years ago, when I as a boy, I used to go out selling water-cresses, and apples, and oranges, and radishes with a barrow. I went to the tinman and paid him ten shillings and sixpence (the last of my savings, after I’d been four or five months out of work) for a can. I heard that an old man, who had been in the habit of standing at the entrance of one of the markets, had fell ill. So, what do I do, I goes and pops onto his pitch, and there I’ve done better than ever I did before.”

Coster Boy & Girl Tossing the Pieman. To toss the pieman was a favourite pastime with costermonger’s boys. If the pieman won the toss, he received a penny without giving a pie, if he lost he handed it over for nothing. “I’ve taken as much as two shillings and sixpence at tossing, which I shouldn’t have done otherwise. Very few people buy without tossing, and boys in particular. Gentlemen ‘out on the spree’ at the late public houses will frequently toss when they don’t want the pies, and when they win they will amuse themselves by throwing the pies at one another, or at me. Sometimes I have taken as much as half a crown and the people of whom I had the money has never eaten a pie.”

The Street- Seller of Nutmeg Graters. “Persons looks at me a good bit when I go into a strange place. I do feel it very much, that I haven’t the power to get my living or to do a thing for myself, but I never begged for nothing. I never thought those whom God had given the power to help themselves ought to help me. My trade is to sell brooms and brushes, and all kinds of cutlery and tinware. I learnt it myself. I was never brought up to nothing, because I couldn’t use my hands. Mother was a cook in a nobleman’s family when I was born. They say I was a love child. My mother used to allow so much a year for my schooling, and I can read and write pretty well. With a couple of pounds, I’d get a stock, and go into the country with a barrow, and buy old metal, and exchange tinware for old clothes, and with that, I’m almost sure I could make a decent living.”

The Crockery & Glass Wares Street-Seller. “A good tea service we generally give for a left-off suit of clothes, hat and boots. We give a sugar basin for an old coat, and a rummer for a pair of old Wellington boots. For a glass milk jug, I should expect a waistcoat and trowsers, and they must be tidy ones too. There is always a market for old boots, when there is not for old clothes. I can sell a pair of old boots going along the streets if I carry them in my hand. Old beaver hats and waistcoats are worth little or nothing. Old silk hats, however, there’s a tidy market for. There is one man who stands in Devonshire St, Bishopsgate waiting to buy the hats of us as we go into the market, and who purchases at least thirty a week. If I go out with a fifteen shilling basket of crockery, maybe after a tidy day’s work I shall come home with a shilling in my pocket and a bundle of old clothes, consisting of two or three old shirts, a coat or two, a suit of left-off livery, a woman’s gown maybe or a pair of old stays, a couple of pairs of Wellingtons, and waistcoat or so.”

The Blind Bootlace Seller. “At five years old, while my mother was still alive, I caught the small pox. I only wish vaccination had been in vogue then as it is now or I shouldn’t have lost my eyes. I didn’t lose both my eyeballs till about twenty years after that, though my sight was gone for all but the shadow of daylight and bright colours. I could tell the daylight and I could see the light of the moon but never the shape of it. I never could see a star. I got to think that a roving life was a fine pleasant one. I didn’t think the country was half so big and you couldn’t credit the pleasure I got in going about it. I grew pleaseder and pleaseder with the life. You see, I never had no pleasure, and it seemed to me like a whole new world, to be able to get victuals without doing anything. On my way to Romford, I met a blind man who took me in partnership with him, and larnt me my business complete – and that’s just about two or three and twenty year ago.”

The Street Rhubarb & Spice Seller. “I am one native of Mogadore in Morocco. I am an Arab. I left my countree when I was sixteen or eighteen years of age, I forget, sir. Dere everything sheap, not what dey are here in England. Like good many, I was young and foolish – like all dee rest of young people, I like to see foreign countries. The people were Mahomedans in Mogadore, but we were Jews, just like here, you see. In my countree the governemen treat de Jews very badly, take all deir money. I get here, I tink, in 1811 when de tree shilling pieces first come out. I go to de play house, I see never such tings as I see here before I come. When I was a little shild, I hear talk in Mogadore of de people of my country sell de rhubarb in de streets of London, and make plenty money by it. All de rhubarb sellers was Jews. Now dey all gone dead, and dere only four of us now in England. Two of us live in Mary Axe, anoder live in, what dey call dat – Spitalfield, and de oder in Petticoat Lane. De one wat live in Spitalfield is an old man, I dare say going on for seventy, and I am little better than seventy-three.”

The Street-Seller of Walking Sticks. “I’ve sold to all sorts of people, sir. I once had some very pretty sticks, very cheap, only tuppence a piece, and I sold a good many to boys. They bought them, I suppose, to look like men and daren’t carry them home, for once I saw a boy I’d sold a stick to, break it and throw it away just before he knocked at the door of a respectable house one Sunday evening. There’s only one stick man on the streets, as far as I know – and if there was another, I should be sure to know.”

The Street Comb Seller. “I used to mind my mother’s stall. She sold sweet snuff. I never had a father. Mother’s been dead these – well, I don’t know how long but it’s a long time. I’ve lived by myself ever since and kept myself and I have half a room with another young woman who lives by making little boxes. She’s no better off nor me. It’s my bed and the other sticks is her’n. We ‘gree well enough. No, I’ve never heard anything improper from young men. Boys has sometimes said when I’ve been selling sweets, “Don’t look so hard at ‘em, or they’ll turn sour.” I never  minded such nonsense. I has very few amusements. I goes once or twice a month, or so, to the gallery at the Victoria Theatre, for I live near. It’s beautiful there, O, it’s really grand. I don’t know what they call what’s played because I can’t read the bills. I’m a going to leave the streets. I have an aunt, a laundress, she taught me laundressing and I’m a good ironer. I’m not likely to get married and I don’t want to.”

The Grease-Removing Composition Sellers. “Here you have a composition to remove stains from silks, muslins, bombazeens, cords or tabarets of any kind or colour. It will never injure or fade the finest silk or satin, but restore it to its original colour. For grease on silks, rub the composition on dry, let it remain five minutes, then take a clothes brush and brush it off, and it will be found to have removed the stains. For grease in woollen cloths, spread the composition on the place with a piece of woollen cloth and cold water, when dry rub it off and it will remove the grease or stain. For pitch or tar, use hot water instead of cold, as that prevents the nap coming off the cloth. Here it is. Squares of grease removing composition, never known to fail, only a penny each.”

The Street Seller of Birds’ Nests. “I am a seller of birds’-nesties, snakes, slow-worms, adders, “effets” – lizards is their common name – hedgehogs (for killing black beetles),  frogs (for the French – they eats ‘em), and snails (for birds) – that’s all I sell in the Summertime. In the Winter, I get all kinds of of wild flowers and roots, primroses, buttercups and daisies, and snowdrops, and “backing” off trees (“backing,” it’s called, because it’s used to put at the back of nosegays, it’s got off yew trees, and is the green yew fern). The birds’ nests I get from a penny to threepence a piece for. I never have young birds, I can never sell ‘em, you see the young things generally die of cramp before you can get rid of them. I gets most of my eggs from Witham and Chelmsford in Essex. I know more about them parts than anybody else, being used to go after moss for Mr Butler, of the herb shop in Covent Garden. I go out bird nesting three times a week. I’m away a day and two nights. I start between one or two in the morning and walk all night. Oftentimes, I wouldn’t take ‘em if it wasn’t for the want of the victuals, it seems such a pity to disturb ‘em after they made their little bits of places. Bats I never take myself – I can’t get over ‘em. If I has an order of bats, I buys ‘em off boys.”

The Street-Seller of Dogs. “There’s one advantage in my trade, we always has to do with the principals. There’s never a lady would let her favouritist maid choose her dog for her. Many of ‘em, I know dotes on a nice spaniel. Yes, and I’ve known gentleman buy dogs for their misses. I might be sent on with them and if it was a two guinea dog or so, I was told never to give a hint of the price to the servant or anybody. I know why. It’s easy for a gentleman that wants to please a lady, and not to lay out any great matter of tin, to say that what had really cost him two guineas, cost him twenty.”

Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to take a look at

John Thomson’s Street Life in London

Aunt Busy Bee’s New London Cries

Marcellus Laroon’s Cries of London

John Player’s Cries of London

More John Player’s Cries of London

William Nicholson’s London Types

John Leighton’s London Cries

Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana of 1817

Thomas Rowlandson’s Lower Orders

More of Thomas Rowlandson’s Lower Orders

Adam Dant’s  New Cries of Spittlefields

10 Responses leave one →
  1. August 19, 2011

    It sounds like a remarkable book, indeed. I do wish the original photographs had survived, though.

  2. John B permalink
    August 19, 2011

    I agree, such a shame the photos were lost. These pen portraits are vivid, and the sketches do them justice, but it would have been such a treat to see the true visages of the speakers. I don’t recall yet seeing any of these ‘interview with the poor’ type books with actual photographs?

  3. jeannette permalink
    August 19, 2011

    ackroyd, in his amazing bio of dickens, has a couple of short chapters in which he writes of encountering dickens’ ghost on the streets. highly recommended.

    i think mayhew — along with dickens, who was similarly employed — is one of the top 100 revolutionaries in the history of mankind.

  4. Cherub permalink
    August 19, 2011

    Such moving tales of the things people had to do to keep the wolf from the door, especially the blind and disabled. About 25 years ago I read Charles Booth’s London and it made me very grateful that we have a welfare state. The people he spoke of lived in such grinding poverty that it made me shiver to read about them. The same with Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.

  5. jeannette permalink
    August 19, 2011

    p.s. ackroyd claims sam weller was the first cockney/working class protagonist, which in part account for the amazing popular success of dickens’ first novel, the Pickwick Papers:

    But perhaps the most important evidence for the success of Dickens’ work is to be found in the report of one of his first biographers who, at the time of the novel’s appearance, had visited a locksmith in Liverpool: “I found him reading Pickwick…to an audience of twenty persons, literally, men, women and children.” It [the serialized periodical instalments of PP] was hired by them all for twopence a day from the circulating library, because they could not afford a shilling for the monthly number, and the observer never forgot how these humble people, who themselves could not read, laughed with Sam Weller and cried with “ready tears” at the death of the poor debtor in Fleet prison. This was the audience Charles Dickens had found — not only the judges and the doctors, but the labouring poor.
    ackroyd, p 197

  6. CornishCockney permalink
    August 20, 2011

    Absolutely fascinating. I love these glimpses into a bygone age.

  7. Chris F permalink
    August 20, 2011

    If you ever get the opportunity of seeing the actor ‘Simon Callow’ playing the part of Charles Dickens ‘Doctor Marigold’, take it. It is one of Dickens lesser known pieces but it ranks as one of my favourites.

  8. August 31, 2011

    This post has really made my day – I have been intrigued about learning more about Mayhew’s work, and so this has given me a good taste. I like learning about social history of Victorian times, and recently read The Ghost Map about the 1834 (?) cholera epidemic in London. (That’s where I heard about Mayhew.) It’s so nice when you read something, get curious about it, and then a few days later, end up being gifted with knowledge from an unexpected source.

    Thanks a lot.
    liz in texas

  9. December 5, 2013

    A real influence on my life probably why so much of my work is street orientated. Mayhew is there in my DNA. An extraordinary man. http://www.jjwaller.com

  10. September 24, 2014

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful article. Many thanks for providing this info.

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