London Labour and the London Poor, Volume 1

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Coster-Girls.


The costermongers, taken as a body, entertain the most imperfect idea of the sanctity of marriage. To their undeveloped minds it merely consists in the fact of a man and woman living together, and sharing the gains they may each earn by selling in the street. The father and mother of the girl look upon it as a convenient means of shifting the support of their child over to another's exertions; and so thoroughly do they believe this to be the end and aim of matrimony, that the expense of a church ceremony is considered as a useless waste of money, and the new pair are received by their companions as cordially as if every form of law and religion had been complied with.

The notions of morality among these people agree strangely, as I have said, with those of many savage tribes—indeed, it would be curious if it were otherwise. They are a part of the Nomades of England, neither knowing nor caring for the enjoyments of home. The hearth, which is so sacred a symbol to all civilized races as being the spot where the virtues of each succeeding generation are taught and encouraged, has no charms to them. The tap-room is the father's chief abiding place; whilst to the mother the house is only a better kind of She is away at the stall, or hawking her goods from morning till night, while the children are left to play away the day in the court or alley, and pick their morals out of the gutter. So long as the limbs gain strength the parent cares for nothing else. As the young ones grow up, their only notions of wrong are formed by what the policeman will permit them to do. If we, who have known from babyhood the kindly influences of a home, require, before we are thrust out into the world to get a living for ourselves, that our perceptions of good and evil should be quickened and brightened (the same as our perceptions of truth and falsity) by the experience and counsel of those who are wiser and better than ourselves,—if, indeed, it needed a special creation and example to teach the best and strongest of us the law of right, how bitterly must the children of the street-folk require tuition, training, and advice, when from their very cradles (if, indeed, they ever knew such luxuries) they are doomed to witness in their parents, whom they naturally believe to be their superiors, habits of life in which passion is the sole rule of action, and where every appetite of our animal nature is indulged in without the least restraint.

I say thus much because I am anxious to make others feel, as I do myself, that are the culpable parties in these matters. That they poor things should do as they do is but human nature—but that should allow them to remain thus destitute of every blessing vouchsafed to ourselves—that we should willingly share what we enjoy with our brethren at the Antipodes, and yet leave those who are nearer and who, therefore, should be dearer to us, to want even the commonest moral necessaries is a paradox that gives to the zeal of our Christianity a strong savour of the chicanery of Cant.

The costermongers strongly resemble the North American Indians in their conduct to their wives. They can understand that it is the duty of the woman to contribute to the happiness of the man, but cannot feel that there is a reciprocal duty from the man to the woman. The wife is considered as an inexpensive servant, and the disobedience of a wish is punished with blows. She must work early and late, and to the husband must be given the proceeds of her labour. Often when the man is in of his drunken fits—which sometimes last or days continuously—she must by her sole exertions find food for herself and him too. To live in peace with him, there must be no murmuring, no tiring under work, no fancied cause for jealousy—for if there be, she is either beaten into submission or cast adrift to begin life again— as another's leavings.

The story of coster girl's life may be taken as a type of the many. When quite young she is placed out to nurse with some neighbour, the mother—if a fond —visiting the child at certain periods of the day, for the purpose of feeding it, or sometimes, knowing the round she has to make, having the infant brought to her at certain places, to be "suckled." As soon as it is old enough to go alone, the court is its play--ground, the gutter its school--room, and under the care of an elder sister the little passes the day, among children whose mothers like her own are too busy out in the streets helping to get the food, to be able to mind the family at home. When the girl is strong enough, she in her turn is made to assist the mother by keeping guard over the younger children, or, if there be none, she is lent out to carry about a baby, and so made to add to the family income by gaining her sixpence weekly. Her time is from the earliest years fully occupied; indeed, her parents cannot afford to keep her without doing and getting Very few of the children receive the least education. "The parents," I am told, "never give their minds to learning, for they say, 'What's the use of it? won't yarn a gal a living.'" Everything is sacrificed—as, indeed, under the circumstances it must be—in the struggle to live—aye! and to live Mind, heart, soul, are all absorbed in the belly. The rudest form of animal life, physiologists tell us, is simply a locomotive stomach. Verily, it would appear as if our social state had a tendency to make the highest animal sink into the lowest.

At about years of age the girls go into the streets to sell. A shallow--basket is given to them, with about for stockmoney, and they hawk, according to the time of year, either oranges, apples, or violets; some begin their street education with the sale of water-cresses. The money earned by this means is strictly given to the parents. Sometimes—


though rarely—a girl who has been unfortunate during the day will not dare to return home at night, and then she will sleep under some dry arch or about some market, until the morrow's gains shall ensure her a safe reception and shelter in her father's room.

The life of the coster-girls is as severe as that of the boys. Between and in the morning they have to leave home for the markets, and sell in the streets until about . Those that have more kindly parents, return then to breakfast, but many are obliged to earn the morning's meal for themselves. After breakfast, they generally remain in the streets until about o'clock at night; many having nothing during all that time but meal of bread and butter and coffee, to enable them to support the fatigue of walking from street to street with the heavy basket on their heads. In the course of a day, some girls eat as much as a pound of bread, and very seldom get any meat, unless it be on a Sunday.

There are many poor families that, without the aid of these girls, would be forced into the workhouse. They are generally of an affectionate disposition, and some will perform acts of marvellous heroism to keep together the little home. It is not at all unusual for mere children of to walk their or miles a day, carrying a basket of nearly weight on their heads. A journey to Woolwich and back, or to the towns near London, is often undertaken to earn the their parents are anxiously waiting for at home.

Very few of these girls are married to the men they afterwards live with. Their courtship is usually a very short ; for, as told me, "the life is such a hard , that a girl is ready to get rid of a of the labour at any price." The coster-lads see the girls at market, and if of them be pretty, and a boy take a fancy to her, he will make her bargains for her, and carry her basket home. Sometimes a coster working his rounds will feel a liking for a wench selling her goods in the street, and will leave his barrow to go and talk with her. A girl seldom takes up with a lad before she is , though some of them, when barely or even , will pair off. They court for a time, going to raffles and "gaffs" together, and then the affair is arranged. The girl tells her parents "she's going to keep company with so-and-so," packs up what things she has, and goes at once, without a word of remonstrance from either father or mother. A furnished room, at about a week is taken, and the young couple begin life The lad goes out as usual with his barrow, and the girl goes out with her basket, often working harder for her lover than she had done for her parents. They go to market together, and at about o'clock her day's selling begins. Very often she will take out with her in the morning what food she requires during the day, and never return home until o'clock at night.

The men generally behave very cruelly to the girls they live with. They are as faithful to them as if they were married, but they are jealous in the extreme. To see a man talking to their girl is sufficient to ensure the poor thing a beating. They sometimes ill-treat them horribly—most unmercifully indeed— nevertheless the girls say they cannot help loving them still, and continue working for them, as if they experienced only kindness at their hands. Some of the men are gentler and more considerate in their treatment of them, but by far the larger portion are harsh and merciless. Often when the Saturday night's earnings of the have been large, the man will take the entire money, and as soon as the Sunday's dinner is over, commence drinking hard, and continue drunk for or days together, until the funds are entirely exhausted. The women never gamble; they say, "it gives them no excitement." They prefer, if they have a spare moment in the evening, sitting near the fire making up and patching their clothes. "Ah, sir," said a girl to me, "a neat gown does a deal with a man; he always likes a girl best when everybody else likes her too." On a Sunday they clean their room for the week and go for a treat, if they can persuade their young man to take them out in the afternoon, either to Chalk Farm or Battersea Fields —"where there's plenty of life."

After a girl has once grown accustomed to a street-life, it is almost impossible to wean her from it. The muscular irritability begotten by continued wandering makes her unable to rest for any time in place, and she soon, if put to any occupation, gets to crave for the severe exercise she formerly enjoyed. The least restraint will make her sigh after the perfect liberty of the coster's "roving life." As an instance of this I may relate a fact that has occurred within the last months. A gentleman of high literary repute, struck with the heroic strugglings of a coster Irish girl to maintain her mother, took her to his house, with a view of teaching her the duties of a servant. At the transition was a painful to the poor thing. Having travelled barefoot through the streets since a mere child, the pressure of shoes was intolerable to her, and in the evening or whenever a few minutes' rest could be obtained, the boots were taken off, for with them on she could enjoy no ease. The perfect change of life, and the novelty of being in a new place, reconciled her for some time to the loss of her liberty. But no sooner did she hear from her friends, that sprats were again in the market, than, as if there were some magical influence in the fish, she at once requested to be freed from the confinement, and permitted to return to her old calling.

Such is the history of the lower class of girls, though this lower class, I regret to say, constitutes by far the greater portion of the whole. Still I would not for a moment have it inferred that are bad. There are many young girls getting their living, or rather helping to get


the living of others in the streets, whose goodness, considering the temptations and hardships besetting such an occupation, approximates to the marvellous. As a type of the more prudent class of coster girls, I would cite the following narrative received from the lips of a young woman in answer to a series of questions.

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 Title Page
 The Street-Folk: Of Wandering Tribes in General
 Of the Wandering Tribes of this Country
 Of the London Street-Folk
Of the Number of Costermongers and Other Street-Folk
Of the Number of Costermongers and Other Street-Folk
Of the Varieties of Street-Folk in General, and Costermongers in Particular
Of Costermongering Mechanics
Ancient Calling of Costermongers
Of the Obsolete Cries of the Costermongers
Of the Costermongers 'Economically' Considered
The London Street Markets on a Saturday Night
The Sunday Morning Markets
Habits and amusements of Costermongers
Gambling of Costermongers
'Vic Gallery'
The Politics of Costermongers.-- Policemen
Marriage and Concubinage of Costermongers
Religion of Costermongers
Of the Uneducated State of Costermongers
Language of Costermongers
Of the Nicknames of Costermongers
Of the Education of Costermongers' Children
The Literature of Costermongers
Of the Honesty of Costermongers
Of the Conveyances of the Costermongers and Other Street-Sellers
Of the 'Smithfield Races'
Of the Donkeys of the Costermongers
Of the Costermongers' Capital
Of the 'Slang' Weights and Measures
Of Half Profits
Of the Boys of the Costermongers, and their Bunts
Of the Juvenile Trading of the Costermongers
Of the Education of the 'Coster-Lads'
The Life of a Coster-Lad
Of the 'Penny Gaff'
Of the Coster-Girls
The Life of a Coster Girl
Of Costermongers and Thieves
Of the More Provident Costermongers
Of the Homes of the Costermongers
Of the Dress of the Costermongers
Once Try You'll Come Again
Of the Diet and Drink of Costermongers
Of the Cries, Rounds, and Days of Costermongers
Of the Costermongers on their Country Rounds
Of the Earnings of Costermongers
Of the Capital and Income of the Costermongers
Of the Providence and Improvidence of Costermongers
Of the Costermongers in Bad Weather and During the Cholera
Of the Costermongers' Raffles
Of the Markets and Trade Rights of the Costerongers, and of the Laws Affecting Them
Of the Removals of Costermongers From the Streets
Of the Tricks of Costermongers
Of the Street-Sellers of Fish
Of Sprat-Selling in the Streets
Of the Street-Sellers of Fruit and Vegetables
Of the Stationary Street-Sellers of Fish, Fruit, and Vegetables
Of the Street-Irish
Of the Street-Sellers of Game, Poultry (Live and Dead), Rabbits, Butter, Cheese, and Eggs
Of the Sellers of Trees, Shrubs, Flowers (Cut and In Pots), Roots, Seeds, and Branches
Street-Sellers of Green Stuff
Of the Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
Of the Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
Of the Street-Sellers of Pea-Soup and Hot Eels
Of the Experience of a Hot-Eel and Pea-Soup Man
Of the Street-Sellers of Pickled Whelks
Of the Customers, Etc., of Pickled Whelk-Sellers
Of the Street Sellers, and of the Preparation of Fried Fish
Of the Experience of a Fried Fish- Seller, and of the Class of Customers
Of the Preparation and Quantity of Sheep's Trotters, and of the Street-Sellers
Statements of Sheep's Trotter Women
Of the Street Trade in Baked Potatoes
Of 'Trotting,' or 'Hawking' Butchers
Of the Experience of a Hawking Butcher
Of the Street-Sellers of Ham-Sandwiches
Of the Experience of a Ham Sandwich- Seller
Of the Street-Sellers of Bread
Of the Street-Sellers of Hot Green Peas
Of the Experience of a Hot Green Pea Seller
Of Cats' and Dogs'--Meat Dealers
Of the Street-Sale of Drinkables
Of Coffee-Stall Keepers
Of the Street Sale of Ginger-Beer, Sherbet, Lemonade, &c
Of the Experience and Customers of A Ginger-Beer Seller
Of the Street-Sellers of Hot Elder Wine
Of the Street Sale of Peppermint-Water
Of Milk Selling in St. James's Park
Of the Street Sale of Milk
Of the Street-Sale of Curds and Whey
Of the Street-Sellers of Rice-Milk
Of Water-Carriers
Of the Street-Sellers of Pastry and Confectionary
Of Street Piemen
Of the Street-Sellers of Boiled Puddings
Of the Street-Sellers of Plum 'Duff' or Dough
Of the Street-Sellers of Cakes, Tarts, &c.
Of Other Cake-Sellers in the Streets
Of the Street-Sellers of Gingerbread- Nuts, &c.
Of the Street-Sellers of Hot-Cross Buns, and of Chelsea Buns
Of Muffin and Crumpet-Selling in the Streets
Of the Street Sale of Sweet-Stuff
Of the Customers of the Sweet-Stuff Street-Sellers
Of the Street-Sellers of Cough Drops and of Medical Confectionary
'Lohoch de farfara,' the Lohoch of Coltsfoot
Of the Street-Sellers of Ices and of Ice Creams
Of the Capital and Income of the Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
Capital, or Stock in Trade, of the Street- Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
Income, or 'Takings,' of Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
Of the Street-Sellers of Stationery, Literature, and the Fine Arts
Of the Street-Sellers of Stationery, &c.
Of the Former and Present Street- Patterers
Of the Habits, Opinions, Morals, and Religion of Patterers Generally
Of the Publishers and authors of Street-Literature
Of Long Song-Sellers
Of Running Patterers
Experience of a Running Patterer
Of the Recent Experience of a Running Patterer
Of the Chaunters
Of the Experience of a Chaunter
Of the Death and Fire Hunters
Of the Sellers of Second Editions
Of the Standing Patterers
Experience of a Standing Patterer
Of Political Litanies, Dialogues, etc.
Of 'Cocks,' Etc.
Of 'Strawing'
Of the Sham indecent Street-Trade
Of Religious Tract Sellers
Of a Benefit Society of Patterers
Of the Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, and Characteristics of the Different Grades of Patterers
Of the Low Lodging-Houses of London
Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-Houses
Of the Children in Low Lodging- Houses
Of the Low Lodging-Houses Throughout the Country
Of the Street Stationers, and the Street Card-Sellers
Of the Seller of the Penny Short-Hand Cards
The Lecture
'I perish with hunger'
Of the Sellers of Race Cards and Lists
Of the Street-Sellers of Gelatine, of Engraved, and of Playing Cards, &c.
Of the Street-Sellers of Stationery
Of the Experience of a Street- Stationer
Of a 'Reduced' Gentlewoman, and a 'Reduced' Tradesman, as Street-Sellers of Stationery
Of the Street-Sale of Memorandum- Books and Almanacks
Of the Street-Sale of Pocket-Books and Diaries
Of the Street-Sellers of Songs
Of the Street 'Pinners-up,' or Wall Song-Sellers
Of Ancient and Modern Street Ballad Minstrelsy
Of Street 'Ballads on a Subject'
Of the Street Poets and Authors
Of the Experience of a Street Author, or Poet
Of the Street-Sellers of Broad-Sheets
Of the 'Gallows' Literature of the Streets
Of the Street-Sellers of Conundrums
Of the Street-Sellers of Comic Exhibitions, Magical Delusions, &c.
Of the Street-Sellers of Play-Bills
Of the Street-Sellers of Periodicals, Pamphlets, Tracts, Books, Etc.
Of the Street-Sale of Back Numbers
Of the Sale of Waste Newspapers at Billingsgate
Of the Sale of Periodicals on the Steam- Boats and Steam-Boat Piers
Of the Sale of Newspapers, Books, &c., at the Railway Stations
Of the Street Booksellers
Of the Character of Books of the Street-Sale
Of the Experience of a Street Book- Seller
Of Street Book-Auctioneers
Of the Street-Sale of Song-Books, and of Children's Books
Of the Street-Sellers of Account-Books
Of the Street-Sellers of Guide-Books, &c.
Of the Street-Sellers of Fine Arts
Of Street Art
Of the Street-Sellers of Engravings, Etc., in Umbrellas, Etc.
Of the Street-Sellers of Pictures in Frames
Of the Street-Sellers of Manuscript and Other Music
Of the Capital and Income of the Street-Sellers of Stationery, Literature, and the Fine Arts
Capital or Value of the Stock-in-Trade of the Street-Sellers of Stationery, Literature and the Fine Arts
Income, or Average Annual 'Takings,' of the Street-Sellers of Stationery, Literature, and the Fine Arts
An Epitome of the Pattering Class
Of the 'Screevers,' or Writers of Begging-Letters and Petitions
'God Save the Queen'
Of the Probable Means of Reformation
Of the Street-Sellers of Manufactured Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Manufactured Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Manufactured Articles in Metal
Of the Cheap Johns, or Street Han- Sellers
'The Original Cheap John'
The Crippled Street-Seller of Nut- Meg-Graters
Of the Swag-Shops of the Metropolis
Shopkeepers and Dealers Supplied with the Following Articles --
Of the Life of a Cheap-John
The Street-Sellers of Cutlery
Of the Blind Street-Sellers of Tailors' Needles, etc.
The Public-House Hawkers of Metal Spoons, Etc.
Of the Street-Sellers of Jewellery
Of the Pedlar-Jewellers
Of the Street-Sellers of Card-Counters, Medals, Etc.
The Construction is of Iron and of Glass, 1848 Feet Long. about Half is 456 Wide. the Remainder 408 Feet Wide, and 66 Feet High; Site, Upwards of 20 acres. Josh. Paxton, archt.
Of the Street-Sellers of Rings and Sovereigns For Wagers
Of the Street-Sellers of Children's Gilt Watches
Of the Street-Sellers of Tinware
Of the Life of a Tin-Ware Seller
Of the Street-Sellers of Dog-Collars
Of the Life of a Street-Seller of Dog- Collars
Of the Street-Sellers of Tools
Of the Beggar Street-Sellers
Pike's Patent Cotton. 120 Yards
'The Lace-Makers' Appeal'
'ALLEN, Printer, Long-row, Nottingham'
Of the 'House of Lords,' a Street-Seller's Defunct Club
Of the Street-Sellers of Crockery and Glass-Wares
Of the 'Swag,' Crockery, and Glass Shops
Of the Street-Sellers of Spar and China Ornaments, and of Stone Fruit
Of the Street-Sellers of Textile Fabrics
Of the Haberdashery Swag-Shops
Of Hawkers, Pedlars, and Petty Chapmen
Of the Packmen, or Hawkers of Soft Wares
Statement of a Packman
Of the Tally Packman
Of the 'Duffers' or Hawkers of Pretended Smuggled Goods
Of the Street-Sellers of 'Small-Ware,' or Tape, Cotton, Etc.
Of the Street-Sellers of Lace
Of the Street-Sellers of Japanned Table- Covers
Of the Street-Sellers of Braces, Belts, Hose, Trowser-Straps, and Waistcoats
Of the Street-Sellers of Boot and Stay- Laces, &c.
Of a Blind Female Seller of 'Small-Wares'
The Blind Street-Seller of Boot-Laces
Of the Life of a Blind Boot-Lace Seller
Of the Low Lodging-Houses
Statement of a Young Pickpocket
Statement of a Prostitute
Statement of a Beggar
Meeting of Thieves
Of the Country Lodging-Houses
Of the Street-Sellers of Chemical Articles of Manufacture
Of the Street-Sellers of Blacking, Black Lead, Etc.
Of the Street-Sellers of French Polish
Of the Street-Sellers of Grease-Removing Compositions
Of the Street-Sellers of Corn-Salve
Of the Street-Sellers of Glass and China Cement, and of Razor Paste
Of the Street-Seller of Crackers and Detonating Balls
Of the Street-Sellers of Lucifer-Matches
Of the Street-Sellers of Cigar Lights, or Fuzees
Of the Street-Sellers of Gutta-Percha Heads
Of the Street-Sellers of Fly-Papers and Beetle-Wafers
Of the Street-Sellers of Miscellaneous Manufactured Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Walking-Sticks
Of the Street-Sellers of Whips, Etc.
Of the Street-Sellers of Pipes, and of Snuff and Tobacco Boxes
Of the Street-Sellers of Cigars
Of the Street-Sellers of Sponge
Of the Street-Sellers of Wash-Leathers
Of the Street-Sellers of Spectacles and Eye-Glasses
Of the Street-Sellers of Dolls
Of the 'Swag-Barrowmen,' and 'Lot- Sellers'
Of the Street-Sellers of Roulette Boxes
Of the Street-Sellers of Poison For Rats
Of the Street-Sellers of Rhubarb and Spice
Of the Hawking of Tea
Of the Women Street-Sellers
Of the Children Street-Sellers of London