I saw a raggedy man with crazy eyes disappear down Catherine Wheel Alley, so I followed to see what he was up to. When I entered the putrid alley, he disappeared around the corner, yet I heard him cry, “Rabbit, Rabbit. Nice Fat Rabbit!” So I hurried to catch up, and found myself lost in the maze of passages and back streets that fill the space between Bishopsgate and Middlesex St. Arriving at a cross-ways where several paths met, I could not see him anywhere. Uncertain which way to turn, I spotted a large woman swathed in layers of old clothes and wielding a heavy basket, trudging off down another alley with evident fatigue. Once she turned the corner, I followed her at a discreet distance and I could hear her shrill cry, “Lilies of the Valley, Sweet Lilies of the Valley,” echoing between the high walls. But again, when I turned the corner, she had vanished. Then, I heard another behind me, crying, “Hot Mutton Dumplings – Nice Dumplings, All Hot!” and so I retraced my steps.
Let me explain, I had just spent the morning in the Bishopsgate Institute poring over a small book of prints entitled, “London Melodies; or Cries of the Seasons.” Published anonymously and bound in non-descript brown boards, and printed on cheap paper with several torn pages – even so, the appreciative owner had inscribed it with his name and the date 1823 in a careful italic script.
This book entranced me with the vivid quality of its beautiful wood engravings of street hawkers. Commonly in the popular prints illustrating Cries of London, the peddlers are sentimentalised, portrayed with cheerful faces and rosy cheeks, ever jaunty as they ply their honest trades. These lively wood engravings could not be more different. These people look filthy, with bad skin and teeth, dressed in ragged clothes, either skinny as cadavers or fat as thieves, and with hands as scrawny as rats’ claws. You can almost smell their bad breath and sweaty unwashed bodies, pushing themselves up against you in the crowd to make a hard sell. These Cries of London are never going to be illustrated on a tea caddy or tin of Yardley Talcum Powder and they don’t give a toss. They are a rough bunch with ready fists, that you would not wish to encounter in a narrow byway on a dark night, yet they are survivors who know the lore of the streets and how to turn a shilling as easily as a groat. With unrivalled spirit, savage humour, profane vocabulary and a rapacious appetite, they are the most human of all the Cries of London I have come across. And they call to me across the centuries, crying, “Sweet and Pretty Beau-Pots – One a-Penny” and “Buy my Live Scate.”
I do not know who was responsible for these superlative wood engravings, which capture the vigorous life of these loud characters with such art. From a contemporary perspective these are portraits that sit naturally alongside the work of Ronald Searle, Ralph Steadman, Ian Pollock, Quentin Blake and Martin Honeysett. This artist glories in the grotesque features and unrestrained personalities of street people, while also permitting them a humanity which we can recognise and respect. How I wish I could catch up with them all and record their stories for you.
Rabbit, Rabbit – Nice fat Rabbit
All Round & Sound, Full Weight, Threepence a Pound, my Ripe Kentish Cherries.
Buy my Fresh Herrings, Fresh Herrings, O! Three a Groat, Herrings, O!
Buy a Nice Wax Doll – Rosy and Fresh.
The King’s Speech, The King’s Speech to both Houses of Parliament.
Here’s all a Blowing, Alive and Growing – Choice Shrubs and Plants, Alive and Growing.
Hot Spice Gingerbread, Hot – Come buy my Spice Gingerbread, Smoaking Hot – Hot Spice Gingerbread, All Hot.
Any Earthen Ware, Plates, Dishes, or Jugs, today – any Clothes to Exchange, Madam?
Hot Mutton Dumplings – Nice Dumplings, All Hot.
Buy a Hat Box, Cap Box, or Bonnet Box.
Buy my Baskets, a Work, Fruit, or a Bread Basket.
Chickens, a Nice Fat Chicken – Chicken, or a Young Fowl.
Sweet and Pretty Beau-Pots, One a-Penny – Chickweed and Groundsel for your Birds.
Buy my Wooden Ware – a Bowl, Dish, Spoon or Platter.
Six Bunches a-Penny, Sweet Lavender – Six Bunches a-Penny, Sweet Blooming Lavender.
Here’s One a-Penny – Here’s Two a-Penny, Hot Cross Buns.
Lilies of the Valley, Sweet Lilies of the Valley.
Cats Meat, Dogs Meat – Any Cat’s or Dog’s Meat Today?
Buy my Live Scate, Live Scate – Buy my Dainty Fresh Salmon.
Mackerel, O! Four for shilling, Mackerel, O!
Hastings Green and Young Hastings. Here’s Young Peas, Tenpence a Peck, Marrow-fat Peas.
Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute
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