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A Brief History Of Street Food Sellers

January 12, 2023
by Charlie Taverner

The ubiquitous ‘street food’ sellers of the modern capital have precedents dating back centuries, as Dr Charlie Taverner, author of Street Food: Hawkers and the History of London, explains.


‘Nice Fat Rabbit!’ by Luke Clennell, c.1812 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)


Between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries, hawkers of food carried baskets, pushed wheelbarrows, and set up stalls right across the metropolis. All sorts of Londoners relished their mackerel, mussels, oranges, cherries, turnips, muffins, puddings, and pies. But street sellers were particularly important for those in neighbourhoods at the edge of the medieval city, such as the East End.

When I started my research on London’s hawkers, I scoured court reports and parish records for mentions of individuals who got by through hawking food. There were women like twenty-nine-year-old widow Mary Knapp, who in 1695 resided in Shadwell and explained her livelihood as ‘selling Fish and fruit & the like’. Or Joan Cornish, a milk vendor, who on 30th November 1721 was crossing the road on the way out to Hackney, with her yoke and pails across her shoulders, when she was trampled by a coach and horses. She died two days later.

There were men too, like oyster seller John Witchalls. In 1821, he rented a garret above a public house in St Leonard, Shoreditch. Witchalls cannot have been making much money because he shared the room with a shoemaker, a man found guilty of stealing his roommate’s coats, trousers, shirts, and other belongings, along with some cash. I found hundreds of examples of hawkers who spent their working lives in and around these busy, ever-changing districts.

In the nineteenth century, street sellers began to gather in regular haunts several days a week. While exploring the east side of the City, journalist George Augustus Sala chanced upon one of these street markets, describing ‘an apparently interminable line of “standings” and “pitches” consisting of trucks, barrows, baskets, and boards on tressels, laden with almost every imaginable kind of small merchandise’.

The air rung with the advertising cries of traders, their patter with customers, and the hum of conversation. After dark, flickering candles and naphtha lamps illuminated the whole performance. An 1893 survey by the London County Council identified 112 such markets citywide. The largest was Wentworth St, between Whitechapel and Spitalfields. In full flight, 335 stalls were pitched in rows parallel to the kerbs and down the middle of the highway, so all traffic was stopped. The market ran throughout the week but peaked on Friday afternoons and Sunday mornings, reflecting the Shabbat observance of the Jewish people who called the area home.

Why were hawkers so important to this part of the capital? It was partly to do with its position on the City’s immediate periphery. As London expanded rapidly from the late Tudor period, poor labourers and immigrants were drawn to tightly-packed houses with cheap rents beyond the City wall. Over the following centuries, these suburbs were surrounded by further sprawl, giving rise to some of the most awful inner-city slums. Their residents, working long hours for meagre wages and with little room to cook, relied on the small parcels of inexpensive food that hawkers provided around the clock.

Street selling was especially vital to the East End. In the mid-seventeenth century, the City of London had fifteen official food markets, the western suburbs had four but the east had none. The tens of thousands of residents of Hackney and Stepney had to walk miles to do their shopping. Though more markets were built after the Fire of 1666, this part of town remained badly provisioned. Street vendors made up much of the deficit.

Hawkers also lived on London’s margins in other ways. Until the twentieth century, when newly formed borough councils started handing out licences, the legal basis for street selling was shaky. Since the Middle Ages, all buying and selling in London was supposed to be limited to certain locations, either marketplaces such as Cheapside, Leadenhall and Billingsgate, or the shops of privileged retailers like fishmongers and butchers. Those who traded elsewhere, including hawkers roaming the streets, were breaking the law.

Major crackdowns were irregular. In 1612, the City of London aldermen tried to make all female street sellers pay sixpence for a badge and have their details listed in a register, yet it seems enforcement was half-hearted. An Act of Parliament in 1867 appeared to ban hawking altogether, but a public outcry allowed traders to keep operating as long as they stuck to a new set of rules laid down by the Metropolitan Police. However, hawkers were always at risk of prosecution. If they tended not to be harassed, arrested, or fined by officials for street selling alone, they were frequently accused of a variety of other offences: cheating customers, dealing rotten produce, corrupting the youth, and blocking the thoroughfare.

Popular culture cast them as people on the margin. The most famous chronicle of street folk is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, first published in 1851. Mayhew encapsulated the hawking population in the character of the costermonger. Fiercely independent and resistant to authority, the coster wore a distinctive uniform of waistcoat and neckerchief, spoke a dialect, and was accompanied by his constant friend, a scruffy donkey, which sometimes was stabled in his owner’s rooms. Costermongers were depicted as a class or even a race apart, one of the ‘nomad tribes’ cut adrift from mainstream society.

Mayhew was drawing on and developing an older tradition, the Cries of London. From the late Elizabethan era, this genre, encompassing visual prints, courtly music, and ballads, captured the sights and sounds of the streets. Artists and composers conjured a cast of stereotypes, like the vulgar, hard-drinking fishwife, the naïve, rustic milkmaid, and the seductive oyster girl whose basket of shellfish concealed her true occupation, selling sex.

But the Cries also suggest a different side to the story. The genre was eventually adopted by the new media of children’s books and photography and remained popular into recent history, as The Gentle Author has charted. Londoners continued to be fascinated by street sellers who took centre stage in how they imagined their metropolis. At the same time, the majority of people knew full well that the hawkers who inspired those prints and songs provided them with food they could not find anywhere else.

Yet the location of the margin is a matter of perspective. In 1888, James Briggs, a clerk representing the owner of Spitalfields Market, gave evidence to a Royal Commission investigating the food trades across Britain. Established in the seventeenth century in response to London’s eastward growth, the Market became a wholesale hub for hawkers stocking up with fruit and vegetables. In fact, street sellers had become so crucial to business and to feeding the wider community that the owner even allowed them to drive their barrows directly into the midst of the trading floor.

As Briggs explained, ‘I have seen costermongers who have come from all parts, east and west and north and south to this place to buy, because it is known to be a place where not so much articles of luxury come, but articles which are the prime necessities of life.’ Like most Londoners, Briggs was confident of where the heart of his city really lay.


Click here to buy a copy of Dr Charle Taverner’s Street Food: Hawkers and the History of London, published by Oxford University Press.

Costermonger by Marcellus Laroon, 1687 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

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

Hot spiced gingerbread! by William Craig Marshall, 1804 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

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

Ice cream seller by John Thompson, 1876 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

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My love for the Cries of London

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    January 12, 2023

    My favourite was the hot chestnut man.

  2. Hilda Kean permalink
    January 12, 2023

    An interesting account. Trust it includes the work of Francis Wheatley and, of course, Henry Mayhew not just commenting on the people as workers but also heir varying relationships with many animals, London inhabitants at those times.

  3. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 12, 2023

    It amazes me that anyone survived from those times. The ‘artistic’ pictures above appear to make the food sellers look remarkably clean and well dressed! I studied Henry Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor when I was doing a history degree many years ago. Thank you so much for yet another very interesting post, as always.

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