If you walk out of the front gate of Trinity College Dublin and across College Green, a sharp left will bring you up Church Lane and as far as the statue of a woman pushing a cart stacked with baskets. These days, you’re likely to see tourists queueing to have their photos taken with her. A relatively recent tendency to rub the statue has left her with a cleavage that’s buffed to a shine. This is Molly Malone, who sold cockles and mussels ‘alive, alive oh’ until a fever carried her away. The song that bears her name is a maudlin affair – even the best musicians have struggled to do much with it – but it’s persistently associated with the city. Wheeling her barrow, we’re told, through the streets broad and narrow, advertising her wares with a distinctive and memorable cry, and catering to Dubliners of all classes hungry for fresh seafood, Molly Malone was an archetypal ‘hawker’ – mobile sellers of food whose presence was, until relatively recently, an essential part of the European urban economy.
Across the water from Dublin, hawkers were making sure that London’s population was well fed. They walked the streets in daylight and darkness, hauling barrows, baskets and ovens, cajoling donkeys and mules, offering fresh (and not-so-fresh but cosmetically revived) produce in every corner of the city. Hawkers could sell you fruit and vegetables, meat and fish – fresh Kentish strawberries, whelks, sprats and fine Thames oysters, Yorkshire muffins and Dutch biscuits, hot green peas, damsons and cherries, baked potatoes, fried fish, puddings and pies. They walked suburban roads far from the city’s central markets; they sold by lamplight outside theatres and in the crush of passengers disembarking from trains. Charlie Taverner writes that theirs was the ‘street-based experience of working people who scraped, slogged and hustled to get by’, and in Street Food he offers up an entertaining, deeply researched history of hawking from the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th, finding surprising continuities in this essential form of urban labour.
The presence of hawkers shaped the streets of London. Their barrows and stalls might block the traffic, especially when they set up in busy places – on bridges, for instance. But they are best remembered for their sound. Hawkers were the voice of many cities – the travel writer and historian James Howell advised 17th-century tourists on the continent to keep their windows open when lodging at an urban inn so that they could hear the cries of the town and better understand how it worked and the language its people spoke. Samuel Pepys, not averse to a street snack himself, owned a huge print that contained little sketches of the street sellers of Rome with the texts of their cries appended. Those ‘cries’ remained an object of fascination (and sometimes of revulsion) across the three centuries covered by Taverner. A slew of musicians and artists competed to capture the sights and sounds of hawking. Orlando Gibbons composed a madrigal in the first decades of the 17th century based on the cries of London, featuring the overlapping calls of traders selling ‘new lilywhite mussels’, ‘hot mutton pies’, garlic, samphire, ‘fine Seville oranges’ and ‘ripe cowcumbers’. In the years before industrialisation and motorised transport, the voices of those who walked the streets touting produce were especially audible, even as the ambient volume levels of city life rose and rose. Some street sellers hired prepubescent boys whose shrill tones could be heard above the din; they were known in the trade as ‘chirpers’. In the early 18th century, the Spectator complained that ‘Vocal Cries are of a much larger Extent, and indeed so full of Incongruities and Barbarisms, that we appear a distracted City, to Foreigners, who do not comprehend the Meaning of such Enormous Outcries’. A century and a half later (and 118 years before Blur’s ‘Parklife’), a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette groused that ‘Every morning, as surely as the sun rises, am I woke up at six o’clock by the melancholy shriek of the milkman.’ Capturing those cries remained a common pastime – a Victorian image of a vegetable seller is captioned: ‘Here Pertaters! Kearots and Turnups! Fine Brockello-o-o!’ After the First World War, the Folk Song Society made an effort to preserve hawkers’ cries before they vanished, sending listeners out into the streets to render the voices of street sellers in stave music.
London was a modernising city built on medieval foundations. The city’s main markets still specialised in particular kinds of produce (Smithfield will soon shut up shop as London’s main meat market after over eight centuries of trading). But in a rapidly growing city, not everyone could make it to the market in time, and ways had to be found to get the produce from stalls to city-dwellers’ stomachs. The rules about trading were meant to be clear: buying food for resale, a practice known as ‘regrating’, was supposedly illegal, yet seems never to have been prosecuted with much vigour by the authorities. This isn’t to say there wasn’t conflict. In 1595, apprentices ran the fishwives of Billingsgate out of the market, accusing them of having bought up all the produce; three centuries later, police descended on the Somers Town street market, violently halting trade and arresting traders. But when the markets opened early in the morning – at Billingsgate, its name a byword for coarse language, the fish came fresh from the coast – hawkers descended on the stalls, buying the goods they would lug through the streets and to the city’s outlying neighbourhoods. In the mid-19th century, Henry Mayhew estimated that five thousand hawkers descended on Covent Garden on a busy Saturday, ready to carry away the produce in barrows and baskets for distribution across the city. Hawkers bought cheap, with some waiting until the end of selling hours to pick up the leavings at a bargain; they often needed to be ready to change the product they sold whenever there was a glut of something else that needed shifting. In a city that was always hungry, the need for hawkers’ services trumped the complaints of their opponents. The sense we get from Taverner is of three centuries of civic government which accepted – even if it didn’t like – its reliance on hawkers to get fresh food onto its inhabitants’ tables.
Like every contestant on Great British Menu, London’s hawkers championed local, seasonal ingredients. It mattered that they were local because goods spoiled fast: until the advent of railways, hawkers were part of a just-in-time supply chain involving perishable food from the farmlands. Milk, for all the murmuring about crafty hustlers diluting and doctoring it with water or worse, had to be sold quickly. Before refrigeration, milk sellers – many of them Welsh or Irish – who walked the streets with yoke and pails were a familiar sight. Freshness was prized: in Green Park, where cows grazed, you could treat yourself to a warm cup of milk straight from the udder. Fish was subject to similar pressures – like milk, mackerel was exempt from Sunday trading laws in recognition of how quickly the product spoiled. Not everything sold by traders was spanking fresh, and there were common complaints about hawkers’ sharp practices – boiling oranges so they’d look fresher, or washing cabbage leaves in fresh water to spruce them up – and even where produce was ripe for sale, it could be a cause for suspicion, as in an 1897 dispute over a blackened banana.
Hawkers’ business followed the seasons. Some goods were sold all year round, but everyone knew that soft fruit came in summer, apples in autumn and hardier greens in the winter. Sellers spoke of ‘damson time’ and ‘lamb time’, and one 17th-century trader recalled that an argument she had witnessed the previous summer took place ‘when Wall Nutts came just in season, and black Cherrys were going out’. Around Lord Mayor’s Day on 9 November, there was a crush at London’s docks for the first sprats of the season; these little fish were wholesome, cheap and tasty – one hawker called them ‘God’s blessing for the poor’. An early commitment to sustainability can be discerned, too, in the use of returnable and reusable ‘pottles’ to sell soft fruit – you paid an extra penny for a little conical basket full of strawberries but could reclaim the fee when you returned the pottle to the seller. Hawkers came to you, offering a ham sandwich after the theatre, a piece of fruit outside the Royal Exchange or a snack of shellfish at the pub (one hawker said that ‘Oysters, whelks and liquor go together inwariable’). London was a city that loved to snack: a Venetian visitor wrote in 1618 that ‘between meals one sees men, women and children always munching through the streets, like so many goats.’ But while buying from hawkers could be a source of treats to leaven a relatively boring diet, it could also be good household management: the difficulty of storing food in cramped labourers’ dwellings, and the cost of fuel and food preparation at home, made cooking from scratch every night a complicated affair. Picking up dinner on your way home – a baked sheep’s head, say – made economic sense.
Who were the hawkers? Taverner is keen to challenge the idea that they were the poorest of the poor, though for many the choice to rent a barrow or walk the streets with a basket was a strategy aimed at keeping them from destitution. For some, the work had to fit around other duties: family servants were sent out to sell on the streets in slack hours to earn some extra money for the household. Others took up hawking because opportunities had dried up. After the First World War, the ranks of street sellers were swelled by demobbed soldiers amid an unemployment crisis. Some hawkers had always made it their trade to sell a particular commodity, even taking on apprentices or, in some cases, leaving their daily rounds to their heirs. In an attempt to make sure her children could pound the same pavements and serve the same customers she had, in 1787 the dairy seller Mary Wordsworth left to her children the ‘two Milk Walks which I die possessed of’. Others paid rent for a pitch, and vigorously defended their rights to it. From the earliest days, London was populated by migrants, and new arrivals found their place in the hawker economy: Italians set out from their homes in Clerkenwell to buy ice and cream and whet London’s appetite for gelato, Irish hawkers sold nuts, and from the late 18th century Jewish immigrants cried ‘Oranges!’ among the crowds at the Royal Exchange.
In the early modern era, women were especially associated with hawking. London’s 17th-century authorities considered petitions from ‘poore woemen selling milke’, ‘pore woman Fruterers’ and ‘ancient poore fishwifes’. The Elizabethan writer Thomas Lodge recalled a performance of a play that might have been a forerunner of Hamlet in which a ghost cried ‘Hamlet, revenge!’ in miserable tones like those of ‘an oyster-wife’. Selling food on the streets was one of the few public economic activities deemed acceptable for a woman – even a married one. But female hawkers could find themselves accused of selling other services – the commonly believed subtext of ‘Molly Malone’ is that she was a sex worker. Walking the streets, haggling with customers and crying her wares made the female hawker a target of male attention and violence. The risks ran from verbal abuse – in 1671, a cherry seller was abused in the street by a man roaring ‘You are a whore, you are a private whore, and you Know your self to be a whore’ – to physical and sexual assault: a woman selling oysters was raped by three men at a Newgate Street tavern in 1753. Over time, male hawkers become more visible (and audible) in the records, though Taverner argues that this was not because of a reduction in the number of female street sellers, but because more men were turning to hawking as a way to make money.
Taverner writes evocatively about hawkers’ living standards and labour-saving devices. They might live in cramped accommodation that doubled as storage for unsold produce; some converted toilet facilities to allow for the stabling of a donkey. Over Taverner’s three centuries, ‘horses, donkeys, carts, coaches, barrows and baskets, to say nothing of boots and shoes, were the key technologies of London’s streets.’ The use of barrows seems to have taken off towards the end of the 17th century; hawkers might rent one for daily use, paying for it out of their meagre profits, or buy one at the beginning of the season and sell it at the end. A barrow was handy because it could double up as a stall. Some hawkers also converted and accessorised them: an image from c.1760 shows a pudding seller pushing an oven on wheels with the caption: ‘The Grand Machine from Italy. Bake as I go.’ A photo of a baked potato seller shows a wheelable oven topped with potatoes impaled on spikes. There’s evidence to suggest that carrying goods on one’s head wasn’t just a feature of romantic representations – giving evidence at the Old Bailey, Catherine Mackar, for instance, recalled how she had been ‘going down Long-acre with my basket of oysters upon my head’. Baskets, barrows, donkeys and mules were the tools of the trade, and hawkers saw them also as a trademark: sports days organised by street sellers featured donkey races, barrow races and hawkers who raced each other while balancing baskets on their heads.
Such occasions suggest that hawkers had a sense of collective identity, and Taverner shows that even where they were considered to be outsiders – marginal figures who skimmed small profits off the formal economy – hawkers worked, played and agitated together. Taverner winkles out evidence of occupational solidarity – hawkers who petitioned in groups, for example – and notes the emergence in the 19th century of a new sense of shared identity around the term ‘costermonger’. Initially a term denoting a seller of apples, it came to mean a street seller of any kind and, among costermongers themselves, the word became a badge of pride. In the 1840s, Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor offered a depiction of the hawker’s trade based on a journalist’s close acquaintance with street sellers and observation of their activities. Mayhew tried to calculate the number of hawkers at work and the amount of the city’s produce that passed through their hands. In an account sometimes coloured by romanticism, he saw them as ‘nomad tribes’ in the imperial capital. Mayhew was the chairperson in 1850 when more than a thousand hawkers gathered under the banner of the ‘Friendly Association of London Costermongers’, one of a variety of hawkers’ associations and societies that defended hawkers’ interests to the urban authorities, provided support for their members (including funeral costs) and arranged outings and recreational activities. A humble street seller could call on the backing of the collective to defend their rights to trade against civic authorities or the vested interests of other city traders.
Taverner’s long view has its frustrations for the reader, in particular when examples from centuries apart are jumbled together like fruit on a costermonger’s cart. But his non-narrative approach hammers home a central argument: that hawkers and hawking were an intimately familiar part of London life for three centuries, and that there were distinct continuities between the fishwives carrying ‘their shops on their heads’ through 17th-century London and women like Old Mrs Priddy, nibbling celery and crying ‘Nice lettuce dear?’ at her Walworth stall in the 1930s. The work of street trading, Taverner argues, remained remarkably unchanged in its essentials from the last days of Elizabeth I to the outbreak of the First World War: ‘street sellers came from a similar swathe of the working poor, trod the streets with similar tools and tactics, and played a similarly vital role in the city’s food supply.’ But as hawkers performed the same daily rounds and advertised the same products, the streets and the city around them were transformed. From Elizabethan London, which could be covered on foot from east to west by a steady walker in about half an hour, the city swelled and spilled beyond its walls, turning what had been semi-rural areas and villages into bustling suburbs. The streets, often filthy, gradually became better lit, though not free of danger. Some kind of artificial lighting was needed for a food trade that never truly slept: in 1787, an observer passing some hawkers near Drury Lane at ten at night noted that they were still at work, selling fish ‘with lights in their baskets’. Gas lighting and costermongers’ naphtha lamps illuminated the Victorian city.
But not everything had moved on since the 16th-century martyrologist John Foxe described the only lights on London Bridge and some of the capital’s streets as coming from the candles of costermongers trading along the way. For a long time, even as London changed, hawkers traversed the city and fed its residents in ways that kept faith with the practices of their early modern and medieval forebears. Taverner says they ensured that the street remained ‘a place of petty commerce, where everyday essentials and occasional treats were bought and sold’. Efforts to get hawkers off the streets and into purpose-built premises commonly fell flat, as in the case of the ill-fated Columbia Market in Bethnal Green, which lasted only lasted six months after it was opened with great pomp in the spring of 1869. Hawkers preferred not to be herded into Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts’s carefully designed neo-Gothic market; the view its founder took of them might have seemed clear from the way the space was decorated with injunctions to ‘Be Sober’ and ‘Be Courteous’. Meanwhile, street markets, which saw hawkers take over whole streets at appointed times of the week, flourished in places like the New Cut, Petticoat Lane and Chrisp Street – King Street market in Hammersmith was described by one observer as the ‘great weekly shopping carnival of the poor’. The Victorian journalist George Augustus Sala visited a street market in Whitechapel, invoking for his readers ‘the noise! The yelling, screeching, howling, swearing, laughing, fighting saturnalia; the combination of commerce, fun, frolic, cheating, almsgiving, thieving, and devilry; the Geneva-laden, tobacco-charged atmosphere’.
A century later, street selling was viewed as an antiquarian curiosity – why elbow your way through the barrows or pick a path over traders’ leavings when the new supermarkets offered a cleaner, quieter, more efficient experience? But after the 2008 financial crash, street food once more became big business in London. Food trucks and street markets brought a seemingly improvised, itinerant feel to London’s culinary scene. Repurposed shipping containers and street food markets popped up around the city, though these were curated spaces whose operators could pick and choose their traders, and where price points were modest only to those with money to spare. The KERB market where I used to buy lunch while working at the British Library began, its website says, with ‘a vision to make it normal to enjoy good food on the streets of London’. Expanding from one lunchtime market, the KERB initiative has become an ‘incubator’ and ‘accelerator’ of food businesses, which seeks to ‘grow this dynamic but previously unorganised industry into something greater than the sum of its parts’. A stroll through centuries-old markets in Borough or Spitalfields still offers plenty of options to grab something on the hoof, but these markets are geared towards tourists and treats, and are no longer the vital organs of the city’s food supply. ‘Local’ and ‘seasonal’ are sold as luxuries, rather than an essential aspect of a sane food system. Street food in London – and in much of the Western world – is now a far cry from what Taverner describes. Where cooking and selling on the street survives outside these sanitised and corporatised environments, it is almost always marginal and precarious – and still irritating to the authorities. During pandemic lockdowns, how and where we ate changed, drawing ever more attention to the labour that made cheap and delicious food possible. Written in lockdown, Street Food reflects this renewed attention to the people whose labour feeds London today. ‘The way London fed itself was a marvel,’ Taverner writes. It still is.
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