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Street Sellers of Plants, Fruit, Veg & Flowers

December 2, 2018
by David Marsh

It is my pleasure to publish this piece by David Marsh of The Gardens Trust who was inspired by my writing on the Cries of London to do further research into horticultural street traders

Copeman, Gardener, Yarmouth by John Dempsey from the eighteen-twenties reproduced courtesy of Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery

Listening to the stallholders in Columbia Rd Flower Market crying their wares strikes a poignant note for me. It is the last gasp of a centuries-old sales technique that is still in use in much of the rest of the world, reminding us that most goods and services used to be sold here by hawkers walking the streets. These days in London, it is only in markets where traders catch the attention of buyers in this way.

The Cries themselves, often simple rhymes or short bursts of song, are the equivalent of advertising jingles performed to a live audience.  They are first documented in England by John Lydgate, the fourteenth century poet, although they do not appear in printed form in England until the early seventeenth century when they became popular subjects for a new genre of broadsheet. It was the beginning of a tradition that evolved from prints into children’s books, even printed on cigarette cards and lasting well into the last century.

Images like that of  “John Honeysuckle, the industrious gardener” give an insight into how gardeners and gardening were perceived. He is described as “with a myrtle in his hand, the produce of his garden. He is justly celebrated for his beautiful bowpots and nosegays all round the country.” Other images show the range of foodstuffs and flowers available, and the ways in which they were sold.

Printed street Cries were generally small in scale productions, making them cheap to collect, and their low price gave them the widest appeal. Samuel Pepys was a collector of books and topographic prints, but he also collected popular images of hawkers and street vendors. His library contained  a file labelled “Cryes consisting of Several Setts thereof, Antient & Moderne: with the differ Stiles us’d therein by the Cryers” where he had three different sets of the Cries of London, together with two sets of Cries from Bologna, and others from Paris and Rome. His collection is the only surviving contemporary visual record of the street life of these places.

What these street Cries also reflect is the increase in availability of goods and how, by the last part of the sixteenth century, fruit like oranges and lemons, which were once luxury imports, had become commonplace – moving from expensive shops in the Royal Exchange to markets with open stalls and then to itinerant street traders.

By the mid-eighteenth Dr Johnson was able to write ”The attention of a newcomer is generally first struck by the multiplicity of Cries that stun him in the streets, and the variety of merchandize and manufactures which the shopkeepers expose on every hand…” On the trades of London, The Adventurer, 27th June 1753.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the choice of fruit and vegetables that could be bought by ordinary Londoners. Common vegetables like onions, carrots and turnips were joined by cucumbers, and all sorts of greens – with peas being especially popular. Potatoes too, especially new ones, were hawked on the streets  and there are often revealing notes included in the accompanying text, “About the latter end of June and July, they become sufficiently plentiful to be cried at a tolerable rate in the streets. They are sold wholesale in markets by the bushel and retail by the pound. Three halfpence or a penny per pound is the average price from a barrow.”

Asparagus became affordable, although as Marcellus Laroon reveals this was not the soft juicy young shoots we expect but rather overgrown and stringy ones, probably the leftovers from those available to the better-off. Whilst strawberries and cherries were seasonally popular and are the most commonly recorded, oranges and lemon are regularly shown too.

Images of working gardeners selling plants are much less common and tend to be much later in period than those of street hawkers selling basic foodstuffs. It is obviously difficult to assess the accuracy of the images of the plants they are selling: tulips in bloom, an orange tree, what looks like ivy on a small trellis and a miniature conifer. But taken collectively they do give an indication of the range of plants available for both indoors and outdoors.

What is perhaps surprising is that street hawkers were also able to sell one of the ultimate non-essential goods, cut flowers. There was clearly a limited range at the cheap end of the market and, while we know that nurserymen were growing roses and other ornamentals  for the cut-flower market, what appears in the Cries are those that could be picked in the hedgerows.

While some lavender or rosemary have several uses, such as perfuming clothes or masking less pleasant smells others, primroses or sweetbriar, were bought simply because they were pretty and would bring joy to the buyer.

Whereas most of the cries depict generic types, some are known to depict individuals. Anthony Antonini (illustrated below by John Thomas Smith) was an Italian immigrant, from Lucca, one of many driven abroad by poor  economic conditions  after the Napoleonic Wars. He is shown with a tray of potted plants and flowers. But, unlike John Honeysuckle’s plants, Anthony Antonini’s are artificial with wax birds perched amongst them. His goods would almost certainly have been made at home by his family, including his children.

Another familiar character, depicted in several books, was “The Turk, whose portrait is accurately given in this plate.” He “has sold Rhubarb in the streets of the metropolis during many years. He constantly appears in his turban, trousers and mustachios and deals in no other article. As his drug has been found to be of the most genuine quality, the sale affords him a comfortable livelihood.”

Cries vary in quality of imagery and detail but the poses and costumes remain much the same. What emerges over time is the change in the underlying attitude of the artists to those they were portraying. In the early cries, the hawkers and sellers are usually portrayed as respectable working people, reasonably dressed with little sign of drudgery or hard work. Thereafter there is a division between images that show something of the reality of street life which have the feel of being based on real people and those that sentimentalize or romanticize their subjects.

The Cries of London have gradually disappeared from our streets. Their numbers declined after the First World war and although some – like flower girls – survived until comparatively recently, in the twentieth century there was an element of nostalgia in the images. Yet the reality was markedly different for these workers, enduring extremely hard and difficult lives with little romance.

To this end, I quote a paragraph The Gentle Author wrote on Luke Clennell’s London Melodies which nails the contradiction between the harsh reality and nostalgia:

“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.”

This is John Honeysuckle, the industrious gardener, with a myrtle in his hand, the produce of his garden. He is justly celebrated for his beautiful bowpots and nosegays all round the country. (From Pictures Of Real Life For Children, 1819)

Three Cries dating from around 1600 as collected by Samual Pepys in his scrapbook, “A very antient Sett thereof, in Wood, with the Words then used by the Cryers.”

Two Cries from the mid-sixteenth century from Samuel Pepys scrapbook, described as, “A later Sett, in Wood – with the Words also then in use.”

Four Cries by Marcellus Laroon from Samuel Pepys’ scrapbook, 1687

“Two Bunches a Penny, Primroses, Two Bunches a Penny!” by Francis Wheatley, 1790

‘Sweet China Oranges, Sweet China’ by Francis Wheatley, 1790

“Fresh Gathered Peas, Young Hastings” by Francis Wheatley, 1790

Rhubarb! – The Turk, whose portrait is accurately given in this plate, has sold Rhubarb in the streets of the metropolis during many years – by William Marshall Craig, 1804

Baking & boiling apples are cried in the streets of the metropolis from their earliest appearance in sumer throughout the whole winter – by William Marshall Craig, 1804

Strawberries – Brought fresh gathered to the markets in the height of their season, both morning and afternoon, they are sold in pottles containing something less than a quart each – by William Marshall Craig, 1804

New potatoes – About the latter end of June and July, they become sufficiently plentiful to be cried at a tolerable rate in the streets – by William Marshall Craig, 1804

From The New Cries of London, 1803

From March’s New Cries of London, early nineteenth century

The Vegetable Man, 1852

Lilies of the Valley, Sweet Lilies of the Valley by Luke Clennell, eighteen-twenties

All Round & Sound, Full Weight, Threepence a Pound, my Ripe Kentish Cherries by Luke Clennell, eighteen-twenties

Here’s all a Blowing, Alive and Growing – Choice Shrubs and Plants, Alive and Growing by Luke Clennell, eighteen-twenties

George Smith, a brush maker afflicted with rheumatism who sold chickweed as bird food by John Thomas Smith, 1819

Anthony Antonini, selling artificial silk flowers adorned with birds cast in wax by John Thomas Smith, 1819


7 Responses leave one →
  1. December 2, 2018

    I was curious to find out more about pottles, and came across this interesting blog:
    Thank you for leading me on an interesting meander.

  2. December 2, 2018

    Absolutely fascinating as a follow on to GA’S wonderful book which I already own.
    I have special interest in this subject as family history research has revealed that many of my ancestors were ‘Hawkers’ living in Bethnal Green in the mid to late 1800’s.
    I am in no doubt that given their addresses at the time …..they would look like those street vendors portrayed by Luke Clennell. …….and described by the GA as ‘a rough bunch ‘ with ‘unrivalled spirit’. I am proud of them and their resourcefulness, struggling to do whatever they could to survive in such difficult times.

  3. December 2, 2018

    A wonderful collaboration – great to see these images and stories brought together. Fascinating record of how people have made a living in horticulture – and how the public purchased plants for their houses and gardens before the convenience of the garden centre and internet.

  4. Andrea permalink
    December 2, 2018

    Yardley and Co. used the illustration of the the lavender sellers in their adverts for years.

  5. Paul Loften permalink
    December 2, 2018

    Thank you both for bringing back the sounds , smells and images of old London to us. All of these are memory stimulants but since the real memories are now buried along with their owners we can now try to imagine this very different London with the help of this beautifully written book

  6. December 2, 2018

    Absolutely fascinating, thank you, GA! I particularly liked the donkey cart of John Quill and Mary Gold, and the Turk hawking rhubarb, which of course was a great panacea (and rare, until it became clear that it could be grown in this country): you might like this?

  7. Robin Gladstone permalink
    December 2, 2018

    Two LPs/CDs you should know about if you don’t already.

    Cries of London by Paul Hillier/Theatre of Voices and Fretwork Viol Consort
    This is a CD release from about 10 years ago with early 17th century musical illustrations of cries by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Weelkes and others.

    Luciano Berio (Italian composer active in the second half of the 20th century) Cries of London
    Marvelous contemporary interpretation/composition of cries performed by the second iteration of the Swingle Singers, Swingle ll. This is an LP release from the mid seventies, possibly with a CD reissue.

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