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John Leighton’s London Cries

February 2, 2011
by the gentle author

John Leighton’s “London Cries & Public Edifices” were published in 1851 under his playful pseudonym Luke Limner. Today Leighton is remembered primarily for his designs for book bindings but I have a fondness for his Cries because, while they may not have the grace of  Francis Wheatley’s set from the seventeen nineties or the draughtsmanship of John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana from 1817, they share the same fascinating evocative poetry, recalling the long lost street life of London with sly humour.

This Turkish rhubarb seller in Leadenhall St is of great curiosity to me, especially as fresh rhubarb is sold by the Costard-Monger in another plate, but since Leighton refers to rhubarb in this context as a drug and it is being sold here in dried form, I can only conclude that this oriental gentleman is selling rhubarb as a laxative. I leave you to imagine what cry might be appropriate to such a tradesman, although I understand the phrase “Fine Turkey Rhubarb!” was sufficient to get the message across in 1851. In fact, John Leighton himself was not averse to a little hawking and if you look at the hoardings closely, you will see they advertise his other self-published works.

Francis Wheatley’s influence can be discerned in The Cherry Seller, The Milk Maid and  The Bay Seller, elegant young women presenting themselves with poise to catch the attention of the viewer. But in the Match Seller a different sensibility is at work, the nature of the viewer is specified through the shadow of the lady and gentleman approaching the Bank of England, and the anxious expression upon the seller’s face points the irony of the poorest vendor standing in front of the symbol of the greatest riches.

Each of Leighton’s characters have unsentimental vivid life, as if they are all paying rapt attention – like the Cats’ & Dogs’ Meat Seller in Smithfield, surrounded by dogs and cats, and just waiting for some sentimental animal lover to come along with cash to feed the hungry. Some of these drawings appear to be portraits, because who would invent the one-legged chair mender, or the camp Costard-Monger or the crone selling watercress who seems to have walked out a fairy tale? The hunched posture of the Umbrella-Mender tells you everything about his profession, while Hot Potato Seller jumping to keep warm in the snow speaks of direct observation from life.

Finally, it is remarkable how many of the landmarks of 1851 still stand unchanged – in the City of London, where John Soane’s Bank of England, The Mansion House and the Royal Exchange  face each other today as they did then, and further towards the centre, Charing Cross Station and Trafalgar Square are as we know them. At first, I though the sellers and the buildings looked as if they were from separate drawings that had been pasted together, until I realised that this disparity is the point – the edifices of wealth and the occupations of the poor.

The Tinker is swinging his fire-pot to make it burn, having placed his soldering iron in it, and is proceeding to some corner to repair the saucepan he carries.

Of all the poor itinerants of London, the Matchsellers are the poorest and subsist as much as on donations as by the sale of their wares.

Here is a poor Irish boy endeavouring to dispose of his oranges to some passengers outside an omnibus.

These little prisons are principally manufactured by foreigners who have them of all sizes to suit the nature and habits of little captive melodists.

This artificer does not necessarily pay much rent for workshops, as he commences operations with his canes or rushes up the nearest court or gateway.

As the vendor approaches, the cats and dogs bound out at the well-known cry.

The  costume of the Dustman bears a string resemblance to that of the Coalheaver, probably through their being connected with the same material, the one before it is burnt, the one after.

The blind must gain a livelihood as well as those who are blest with sight. He sells cabbage nets, kettle-holders, and laces, doubtless the work of his own hands in the evenings.

During the day, the Umbrella-mender goes his rounds, calling “Umbrellas to mend! Sixpence a piece for your broken umbrellas!” and then he returns home to patch and mend them, after which he hawks them for sale. Here he appears in his glory under the auspices of St Swithin.

Of cherries, there are a great variety and most come from the county of Kent.

The Costard Monger is an itinerant vendor of garden produce, in the background is a seller of hearthstones in conversation with a Punch & Judy man.

The dealers in these items are mostly Italians, our vendor has some high class items, the Farnese Hercules, Cupid & Psyche, and Chantrey’s bust of Sir Walter Scott.

“How very cold it is!” The Potato-merchant jumps about to warm his feet.

Bow Pots! (or Bay Pots!) two a penny!

Wild ducks from the fens of Lincolnshire, Rabbits from Hampshire and Poultry from Norfolk.

There is a law that permits of Mackerel being sold on Sundays, and here comes the beadle to warn off the Fish-woman.

The old clothesman and bonnet -box seller go their rounds.

Of dealers in milk there are two classes – the one keeping cows, and the other purchasing it from dairymen in the outskirts and selling it on their own account.

At half past eight, the step is mopped and Betty runs to get the penny for the poor old dame.

Knife Grinder at the entrance to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, with a seller of rush, rope and wool mats.

This is the evening cry in Winter.

John Leighton and his cries of London.

You may like to take a look at

Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana of 1817

Adam Dant’s  New Cries of Spittlefields

4 Responses leave one →
  1. James Ramsay permalink
    February 2, 2011

    Clarity has been granted. The smoke shall finally blow away, never to return. Fire is imminent.

  2. February 2, 2011

    what an amazing set of pictures – i almost felt as if i were there
    these people remind me of some of the street sellers we used to see in the streets 20 years ago when i first came to live in my town – even the chestnut sellers have disappeared…

  3. Gary permalink
    February 2, 2011

    John Leighton’s work is by far the best, it leaves the others well behind.
    A history of both cries, architecture and the gulf between rich and poor.

  4. richard jackson permalink
    March 11, 2014

    I was unaware that Limner/Leighton was a bookbinder – Ihave a copy of the original street cries (which by the way I thought was published in 1849) and the binding and covers are in some ways as impressive as the contents. Rhubarb as a medicine was on its way out when Leighton drew his ‘cries’ – Mayhew records that only four such street sellers were left, and rhubarb (as a dessert) was also on its way out of London since very shortly after the publication of ‘cries’ Myatt and the other market gardeners were literally railroaded out of the capital. Myatt’s son took his famous Deptford/Camberwell business to the Vale of Evesham and rhubarb growing moved north to Leeds from which it could be sent to London as cheaply and faster (thanks to the same railways which pushed Myatt out) than rhubarb grown in the capital’s outer suburbs. I live in Manila and only just came across your superb blogs – thank you for the pleasure the reading of them gives.

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