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John Leighton’s Cries Of London

July 21, 2023
by the gentle author

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John Leighton’s ‘London Cries & Public Edifices’ were published in 1851 under his pseudonym of ‘Luke Limner.’ Today Leighton is remembered primarily for his designs for book bindings but his ingenious Cries of London evoke the long-lost street life of the capital with sympathy and sly humour.

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

The Cherry Seller, The Milk Maid and The Bay Seller are elegant young women presenting themselves with poise to catch the attention of the viewer, but in engraving of 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 underlines the irony of the lowliest vendor standing in front of the symbol of the greatest wealth.

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

It is remarkable how many of the landmarks of 1851 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 just as they did then, and further west, Charing Cross Station and Trafalgar Square are as we know them. At first, I thought 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

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to take a look at

Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana of 1817

6 Responses leave one →
  1. July 21, 2023

    All of London is here. A wide range of services and products against a backdrop of well-known landmarks – many still standing but some sadly lost. I think the muffin man is standing in front of the Euston arch? I’ve mentioned this in my next blog post. It’s the end of term today so I’ll hopefully have the time to finish it after the last few manic weeks.

    Thanks GA, I love looking at these images and remembering my paternal great grandfathers, both of whom were street traders – one a cats’ meat man and the other selling fish and firewood.

  2. July 21, 2023

    Wonderful pictures! On rhubarb as a medicine, you may like this:

  3. Saba permalink
    July 21, 2023

    Wonderful! The poorest, photographed against cornerstone buildings of the British empire and other symbols of wealth and privilege, look out at me as individuals making direct contact.

    The artist includes great detail while maintaining a free hand, not a small achievement.

    Please, GA, let us know more about the media and size of the works shown.

    Thank you, as always, GA for making these opportunities available to us, the GRs.

  4. July 21, 2023

    If the portraits of the street sellers were not compelling enough, the final image of John Leighton surrounded by all his little characters is delightful!

    I particularly like the fact that they are portrayed in specific locations… I do not remember, off-hand, another Cries of London drawn that way.

    There is such a wealth of history in these images!

  5. July 21, 2023

    I just enlarged the final image, and am totally captivated. Like one of Durer’s allegorical etchings awash in countless visual elements; this highly-detailed portrait of the Artist accompanied by his Subjects is a masterful work of art. I smiled to see the little figure, gesturing to the artist, seemingly encouraging him to “get it right” and include every salient detail. “Don’t forget now…….” And I loved the setting of the art session. The heavy draped cloth, the theatrical sword, the nail heads pounded into each wooden carton, the tied-with-ribbon portfolios (“Please may I have a look?”) the suit of armor emerging, the very top of a nearby building showing through the handsome leaded glass window. Most of all, I loved the little characters clamoring about in the midst of art supplies. Not only was this artist masterful at depicting London’s Cries and professions…………he created a most engaging portrait of his OWN chosen career. Here’s to the illustrators!

  6. Richard permalink
    July 26, 2023

    Thanks for showing these pictures. A bit of artistic licence in the Smithfield one. St Paul’s has snuck in!

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