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London Characters

July 3, 2012
by the gentle author

Last week, I supplemented my ever-growing collection of the Cries of London down the ages with this fine set of London Characters, cigarette cards by an unknown artist issued by Lambert & Butler in 1934.

Remarkably, The Chestnut Seller, The Boot Black, The Coffee-Stall Keeper, The Flower-Seller, The Ice-Cream Vendor, The Hyde Park Orator, The Newsboy, The Fish-Stall Keeper and The Pavement Artist survive, in very limited numbers and in differing forms. With references to black-shirts and the depression, these cards speak eloquently of the life of inter-war London, – “these enlightened days of stainless steel ” as they are described here with brash confidence. Yet, only yesterday, I saw a woman standing outside Liverpool St Station with a large handmade placard ,”2 Bedroom Flat to Sell,” which made me wonder if we might be on the brink of a street-selling revival in our capital.

“Baked Chestnuts!” – With the approach of autumn, the Baked Chestnut Man wheels his barrow with its glowing fire – over which the chestnuts pop and sizzle – to a frequented spot where the appetizing smell of his wares tempts pennies from the pockets of the passers-by.

A Billingsgate Porter – Beginning his day’s work at five am, the Billingsgate Porter has nearly finished his labours by the time the trains and buses are unloading hundreds of City workers onto Eastcheap and Fish St Hill – streets which are pervaded by the unmistakable sea-weedy and fishy odours which never entirely depart from the neighbourhood of the Monument.

The Boot-Black – In bygone days, the boot-black was found in every street corner. Each man had a large tin kettle for removing mud, two or three brushes and a very old wig – the latter being indispensable in a shoeblack outfit, very useful for whisking away dust and wiping off wet mud.

The “Cabby” – Drivers of “growlers” and “hansom” cabs are still to be seen, and may be recognised by their whole-hearted contempt for motors, their ready wit and and preferences for frequenting places associated with horses, such as Tattersall’s, Barnet Fair and Regent’s Park on Whit Monday.

“Catch ‘Em Alive!” – Modern hygiene with its slogan “Swat that fly” has done away forever with, “Catch ’em alive, O!” – the cry of the tall man in the tall hat which displayed a struggling mass of flies on its sticky trimming.

The Chair-Mender – The kerbside mender of chairs, who “if he had more money to spend would not be crying – “Chairs to mend!” is one of the neatest-fingered of street traders. Watch how deftly he weaves his strips of cane in and out – how neatly he finishes off each chair, returning it to the owner, “good as new.”

The Coffee-Stall Keeper – Many a drama of London-in-the-darkness is enacted at the coffee stall, which trundles its way each evening to its pitch where it remains until the city begins to awaken. Men and women of many types seek its hospitality during the hours of darkness, “down and outs” rubbing shoulders with revellers returning home in the early morning – and not a few are gladdened by a copper or two thrust into their hands by comrades a little better off than themselves.

The Cornet Player – A character never lacking in London streets is the Cornet Player, who provides a kind of magic that draws dogs like a magnet to him. He relies chiefly upon the licensed houses for his living, and can usually be recognised by his bulk.

The Covent Garden Porter – The Covent Garden Porter is the “Cockney of all the Cockneys” – good-humoured, hard working and possessed of a ready wit. Like his confrère at Billingsgate, he has been accused of being a “linguist” but although his speech may occasionally be forceful and picturesque, there is doubtless many a fox-hunting squire who might give him points and a licking!

The Crossing Sweeper – In bygone days, the Crossing Sweeper was a veritable “gentleman” of the road, who in many cases inherited his broom and his pitch from his parents. Tradition relates that the profession of a crossing sweeper was at one time a safe road to fortune.

The Flower Seller – The Flowers Sellers or perhaps more correctly “flower-girls” – for flower sellers in London always remain girls irrespective of age – are among the most picturesque of London characters. The flower-girl of Piccadilly, sitting beside her gay and fragrant basket in the shadow of “Eros” is the aristocrat of them all.

The Hyde Park Orator – Red-shirt, black-shirt, green-shirt and others – all are sure of an audience, especially on Sundays, when occupying their rostrums near Marble Arch. they are usually prepared for good-natured heckling – and often get it! Should things take a less friendly turn, there is always a “bobby” to keep his eye on things!

The Ice-Cream Vendor –  The old-fashioned ice-cream barrow is dying hard, despite the rivalry of mass-production. Ice-cream “merchants” were usually Italian and the gaudy representations of Lake Como and the Rialto decorating his stall. Invariably called “Johnnie,” he met the demands of his of his youthful clientele, of messenger-boys and the like – to whom ice-cream makes an irresistible appeal – with exemplary patience and good humour.

The Kerbstone Trader – Dignity fails at the sight of the Kerbstone Trader. Aldermen, merchants and mere office-boys “fall” for his latest novelty “all made to wind up.” Red hot from an important board meeting, the Chairman of the Company relaxes on hearing the unspeakable sounds which proceed from the slow collapsing india-rubber pig.

The Newsboy – In some respects, the Newsboy reveals quite remarkable business instincts, chief among them his gift of shouting commonplace news in such a manner to make it sound important. He reads his own papers – how and when is a complete mystery – for his eye is always on a likely customer, but he can always tell you what Arsenal has done, and who is riding the favourite in the “big ‘un.”

The Old Fish-Stall Keeper – Wherever Londoners gather together, the fish-stall is found, whether in the crowded streets or one of the seas-side resorts where Cockneys take their doses of  ozone. “Arry” and “Arriet” do much of their courting around the whelk stall, and comic singers owe much amusing patter to its delicacies, winkles and the necessary “extra” in the shape of a pin.

The Organ Grinder – The Organ Grinder and his monkey belong to a less sophisticated age than the present, with its bands of unemployed musicians and “tinned music” in various forms. This organist of the eighties was usually a native of Switzerland and instrument was a worn-out organ, under the weight of which he could sometimes scarcely stagger.

The Pavement Artist –  He is above all an optimist – a sudden shower and all his day’s work is in vain!  You may find him in any open space – near St Martin-In-The-Fields, Trafalgar Sq or on the Embankment – with his equipment of brightly-coloured chalks and a duster. The pavement artist is said to have been “the cradle” of some successful artists, but is certain that many who have known better days have resorted to this means of making a living.

The Quack Medicine Man – The “Medicine Man” of the street corner sells many things, from a cure for toothache to a remedy for broken hearts. Blessed with a wonderful gift of the gab and an endless store of ready wit, he is ready to expose all the secrets of Pharmacopoeia.

The Rag & Bone Man – The cry of “rags and bones” is familiar in the meaner streets, but often it is nit easy to recognise the words! Closely allied with the dealer in “rags” is the dealer of “old clo!” – the lady or gentleman who offers an aspidistra or a pot of ferns for an overcoat or a pair of trousers which has seen better days!

The Knife Grinder – Even in these enlightened days of stainless steel, the old-fashioned Knife Grinder may still  be seen plying his trade in the London streets, with his well-known cry, “Knives, scissors, grind!” His lack of wares is more than compensated for by the picturesqueness of his outfit.

The Muffin Man –  This is the Muffin Man, his bell clangs out its story of cosy fireside teas, and at the same time announces that summer is over! But history relates that ever since one of the fraternity was summoned for ringing his bell on a Sunday afternoon, the Muffin Man must choose with care the locality in which he goes selling the muffins.

The Sandwich Man – The Sandwich Man strikes a minor note in the great symphony of London life. His is the métier of the unfortunate, and sometimes his role as a perambulating advertisement is tinged with bitter irony. The shabby man directing all and sundry to the smart tailor, and the shaggy man advertising a first-class barber are bad enough, but what is one to say of the poor stray condemned to carry a board advertising the price of a first-class lunch with complete menu?

The Windmill Man – The Windmill Man will go down to posterity as a kind of “Pied Pier” who lured away the children from the noise and squalor of the streets to fairyland. The sound of his voice – for street vendors are still permitted to call their wares in the meaner streets – is a signal for a throng of scampering children to gather round him to exchange old bottles for gaily-painted windmills.

You may also like to take a look at these other sets of the Cries of London

Geoffrey Fletcher’s Pavement Pounders

Faulkner’s Street Cries

William Craig Marshall’s Itinerant Traders

London Melodies

Henry Mayhew’s Street Traders

H.W.Petherick’s London Characters

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

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana II

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana III

Thomas Rowlandson’s Lower Orders

More of Thomas Rowlandson’s Lower Orders

Adam Dant’s  New Cries of Spittlefields

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Maureen Gardner permalink
    February 8, 2013

    My paternal Grandfather had two big cart horses and a covered wagon, and used to go to Billingsgate every weekday morning, to bring fish and shellfish back to Barking, delivering it to Wet Fish Shops,and Fish and Chip shops, along the way and in Barking.
    As it was so early in the morning he used to sleep in the afternoons. He used to have his nightly pint in the pub at the top of the road,and if I was staying with my Grandparents, he used to have to come home to sing me to sleep. No lullabies for me but all the old Musical Hall Songs he knew.

  2. trudi ridge permalink
    December 27, 2013

    İ would love to have been there magic!!

  3. February 26, 2014

    my great,great grandfather was caretaker of this building (bedfordhouse)hhis name was
    john Robert Murton

  4. November 16, 2020

    I used to work near Oxford Circus in the 1980s and can recall a Sandwich Board Man whose boards said “The End of The World is Nigh”. It always intrigued me and I never stopped him to ask as I was always in a hurry to get home.
    I love reading your daily posts and usually find myself reading more from the links provided at the end.

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