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My Love For The Cries Of London

January 7, 2021
by the gentle author

To give you a chance to stock up for the new lockdown, we are extending our January sale. All titles in the online shop are half price with the discount code JANUARY until midnight on Sunday.

Click here to visit the Spitalfields Life Bookshop

THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S CRIES OF LONDON is included in the sale

Cries of London 1600, reproduced from Samuel Pepys’ Album © Magdalene College, Cambridge

Costermonger by Marcellus Laroon, 1687 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

Pedlar by Marcellus Laroon, 1687 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

‘Two Bunches a Penny, Primroses, Two Bunches a Penny!’ The Primrose Seller by Francis Wheatley, 1793 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

‘Strawberries, Scarlet Strawberries’ by Francis Wheatley, 1793 (image courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

Hair Brooms outside Shoreditch Church by William Marshall Craig, 1804 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

Showman with a raree show at Hyde Park Corner by William Marshall Craig, 1804 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

‘Rabbit, Rabbit – Nice fat Rabbit!’ by Luke Clennell 1812 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

‘Lilies of the Valley, Sweet Lilies of the Valley’ by Luke Clennell 1812 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

Pickled Cucumbers by John Thomas Smith, 1816 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

The Flying Pie Man by John Thomas Smith, 1816 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

London boardmen & women by George Scharf 1825-33 © British Museum

Long Song Seller, engraved from a photograph by Richard Beard, 1851 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

The dispossessed and those with no other income were always able to cry their wares for sale in London. By turning their presence into performance with their Cries, they claimed the streets as their theatre – winning the lasting affections of generations of Londoners and embodying the soul of the city in the popular imagination. Thus, through time, the culture of the capital’s street Cries became integral to the distinctive identity of London.

Undertaking interviews with stallholders in Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Columbia Road and other East End markets in recent years led me to consider the cultural legacy of urban street trading. While this phenomenon might appear transitory and fleeting, I discovered a venerable tradition in the Cries of London. Yet even this genre of popular illustrated prints, which began in the seventeenth century, was itself preceded by verse such as London Lackpenny attributed to the fifteenth century poet John Lydgate that drew upon an earlier oral culture of hawkers’ Cries. From medieval times, the great number of Cries in London became recognised by travellers throughout Europe as indicative of the infinite variety of life in the British capital.

Given the former ubiquity of the Cries of London, the sophistication of many of the images, their significance as social history, and their existence as almost the only portraits of working people in London through four centuries, it astonishes me that there has been little attention paid to this subject and so I have set out to reclaim this devalued cultural tradition.

I take my cue from Samuel Pepys who pasted three sets of Cries into his albums of London & Westminster in a chronological sequence spanning a century, thereby permitting an assessment of the evolution of the style of the prints as well as social change in the capital in his era. In my book, I have supplemented these with another dozen series published over the following centuries which trace the development of the Cries right into our own time. My policy has been to collate a personal selection of those that delight me, those that speak most eloquently of the life of the street and those created by artists who demonstrated an affinity with the Criers.

Through the narrow urban thoroughfares and byways, hawkers announced their wares by calling out a repeated phrase that grew familiar to their customers, who learned to recognise the Cries of those from whom they bought regularly. By nature of repetition, these Cries acquired a musical quality as hawkers improvised upon the sounds of the words, evolving phrases into songs. Commonly, Cries also became unintelligible to those who did not already know what was being sold. Sometimes the outcome was melodic and lyrical, drawing the appreciation of bystanders, and at other times discordant and raucous as hawkers strained their voices to be heard across the longest distance.

Over time, certain Cries became widely adopted, and it is in written accounts and songbooks that we find the earliest records. Print collections of pictures of Criers also became known as ‘Cries’ and although the oldest set in London dates from around 1600, there are those from Paris which predate these by a century. Characteristically, the Cries represented peripatetic street traders or pedlars, yet other street characters were also included from the start. At first, the Cries were supplemented by the bellman and the town crier, but then preachers, beggars, musicians, performers were added as the notion of the Cries of London became expanded by artists and print sellers seeking greater novelty through elaborating upon the original premise.

Before the age of traffic, the streets of London offered a common public space for all manner of activity, trading, commerce, sport, entertainment and political rallies. Yet this arena of possibility, which is the primary source of the capital’s cultural vitality has also invited the consistent attention of those who seek policing and social control upon the premise of protecting citizens from each other, guarding against crime and preventing civil unrest. It suits the interest of those who would rule the city that, in London, street traders have always been perceived as equivocal characters with an identity barely distinguished from vagrants. Thus the suspicion that their itinerant nature facilitated thieving and illicit dealing, or that women might be selling their bodies as as well as their legitimate wares has never been dispelled.

Like the internet, the notion of the street as a space where people may communicate and do business freely can be profoundly threatening to some. It is a tension institutionalised in this country through the issuing of licences to traders, criminalising those denied such official endorsement, while on the continent of Europe the right to sell in the street is automatically granted to every citizen. Depending upon your point of view, the itinerants are those who bring life to the city through their occupation of its streets or they are outcasts who have no place in a developed modern urban environment.

When I interviewed Tony Purser on his last afternoon after fifty-two years selling flowers outside Fenchurch Street Station in the City of London, he admitted to me that as a boy he assisted his father Alfie, and, before licences were granted in 1962, they were both regularly arrested. Their stock was confiscated, they were charged three shillings and spent the night in the cells at Bishopsgate Police Station, before going back to trade again next day.

Street trading proposes an interpretation of the ancient myth of London as a city paved with gold that is not without truth. Many large British corporate retailers including Tesco, started by Jack Cohen in 1919, Marks & Spencer, started by Michael Marks in 1884, owe their origin to single stalls in markets – emphasising the value of street trading to wider economic development.

In the twentieth century, the Cries of London found their way onto cigarette cards, chocolate boxes, biscuit tins, tea towels, silk scarves, dinner services and, famously, tins of Yardley talcum powder from 1912 onwards, becoming divorced from the reality they once represented as time went by, copied and recopied by different artists.

Yet the sentimentally cheerful tones applied by hand to prints that were contrived to appeal to the casual purchaser, chime with the resilience required by traders selling in the street. And it is our respect for their spirit and resourcefulness which may account for the long lasting popularity of these poignant images of the self-respecting poor who turned their trades into performances. Even now, it is impossible to hear the cries of market traders and newspaper sellers without succumbing to their spell, as the last reverberations of a great cacophonous symphony echoing across time and through the streets of London.

Surely none can resist the romance of the Cries of London and the raffish appeal of the liberty of vagabondage, of those who had no indenture or task master, and who travelled wide throughout the city, witnessing the spectacle of its streets, speaking with a wide variety of customers, and seeing life. In the densely-populated neighbourhoods, it was the itinerants’ cries that marked the times of day and announced the changing seasons of the year. Before the motorcar, their calls were a constant of street life in London. Before advertising, their songs were the jingles that announced of the latest, freshest produce or appealing gimcrack. Before radio, television and internet, they were the harbingers of news, and gossip, and novelty ballads. These itinerants had nothing but they had possession of the city.

The Cries of London have taught me the essential truth of London street traders down through the centuries, and it is one that still holds today – they do not need your sympathy, they only want your respect, and your money.

Click here to buy a copy of the CRIES OF LONDON for half price

6 Responses leave one →
  1. January 7, 2021

    Thanks for these great images – thought you might be interested to know that the strawberry seller is carrying pottles, the small pointed baskets in which soft fruit was packed. The tapering shape ensure that the fruit in the bottom was less lkely to be squashed by the fruits above. These were carried upright in the large basket on her head. I have written a piece about Thames osier growers and basket makers which includes the pottle business here:

    Best wishes, Val

  2. Ian Lee permalink
    January 7, 2021

    I remember the roast chestnut sellers in the Oxford Street area in the lead-up to Christmas, back in the ’60s/’70s.

    Not that I liked their product, once I’d tried them. But they certainly added to the ambience.

  3. David Antscherl permalink
    January 7, 2021

    One street cry I’ve not seen recorded I recall from my childhood.; a man and his boy on a horse-drawn cart crying “Raaboaah! Raaboaah!” Translated, this was “Rags and bones!”. In this case, he was a buyer, not a seller. This was state-of-the-art recycling in the late 1940’s.

  4. January 7, 2021

    I hadn’t noticed before that in the image of London boardmen & women by George Scharf, there is a reference to Catlin’s Indian Exhibition: you might be interested in this.

  5. Pamela Traves permalink
    January 8, 2021

    Love the Vintage Paintings of the people who sold their ideas. They are Wonderful!!??????????

  6. January 15, 2021

    Loved reading this, thank you.

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