London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the Old Clothes Exchange.
THE trade in -hand apparel is of the most ancient of callings, and is known in almost every country, but anything like the Old Clothes Exchange of the Jewish quarter of London, in the extent and order of its business, is unequalled in the world. There is indeed no other such place, and it is rather remarkable that a business occupying so many persons, and requiring such facilities for examination and arrangement, should not until the year have had its regulated proceedings. The Old Clothes Exchange is the latest of the central marts, established in the metropolis.
, or the Cattle Exchange, is the oldest of all the markets; it is mentioned as a place for the sale of horses in the time of Henry II. , or the Fish Exchange, is of ancient, but uncertain era. Covent Garden—the largest Fruit, Vegetable, and Flower Exchange— became established as the centre of such commerce in the reign of Charles II.; the establishment of the Borough and Spitalfields markets, as other marts for the sale of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, being nearly as ancient. The dates from the days of Queen Elizabeth, and the and the Stock-Exchange from those of William III., while the present premises for the Corn and Coal Exchanges are modern.
Were it possible to obtain the statistics of the last quarter of a century, it would, perhaps, be found that in none of the important interests I have mentioned has there been a greater increase of business than in the trade in old clothes. Whether this purports a high degree of national prosperity or not, it is not my business at present to inquire, and be it as it may, it is certain that, until the last few years, the trade in old clothes used to be carried on entirely in the open air, and this in the localities which I have pointed out in my account of the trade in old metal (p. , vol. ii.) as comprising the district. The old clothes trade was also pursued in , but then—and so indeed it is now—this was but a branch of the more centralized commerce of . The head-quarters of the traffic at that time were confined to a space not more than square yards, adjoining . The chief traffic elsewhere was originally in Cutlerstreet, , , and in Harrowalley—the districts of the celebrated Rag-fair.
The confusion and clamour before the institution of the present arrangements were extreme. Great as was the extent of the business transacted, people wondered how it could be accomplished, for it always appeared to a stranger, that there could be no order whatever in all the disorder. The wrangling was incessant, nor were the tradecontests always confined to wrangling alone. The passions of the Irish often drove them to resort to cuffs, kicks, and blows, which the Jews, although with a better command over their tempers, were not slack in returning. The East India Company, some of whose warehouses adjoined the market, frequently complained to the city authorities of the nuisance. Complaints from other quarters were also frequent, and sometimes as many as constables were necessary to restore or enforce order. The nuisance, however, like many a public nuisance, was left to remedy itself, or rather it was left to be remedied by individual enterprise. Mr. L. Isaac, the present proprietor, purchased the houses which then filled up the back of Phil's-buildings, and formed the present Old Clothes Exchange. This was years ago; now there are no more policemen in the locality than in other equally populous parts.
Of Old Clothes Exchanges there are now , both adjacent, the opened by Mr. Isaac being the most important. This is feet by , and is the mart to which the collectors of the cast-off apparel of the metropolis bring their goods for sale. The goods are sold wholesale and retail, for an old clothes merchant will buy either a single hat, or an entire wardrobe, or a sackful of shoes,—I need not say , for odd shoes are not rejected. In department of "Isaac's Exchange," however, the goods are not sold to parties who buy for their own wearing, but to the old clothes merchant, who buys to sell again. In this portion of the mart are stalls, averaging about square feet each.
In another department, which communicates with the , and is -thirds of the size, are assembled such traders as buy the old garments to
|dispose of them, either after a process of cleaning, or when they have been repaired and renovated. These buyers are generally shopkeepers, residing in the old clothes districts of , , , (Borough), (), , , the Waterloo-road, and other places of which I shall have to speak hereafter.
The difference between the and class of buyers above mentioned, is really that of the merchant and the retail shopkeeper. The buys literally anything presented to him which is vendible, and in any quantity, for the supply of the wholesale dealers from distant parts, or for exportation, or for the general trade of London. The other purchases what suits his individual trade, and is likely to suit regular or promiscuous customers.
In another part of the same market is carried on the old clothes trade to any —shopkeeper, artisan, clerk, costermonger, or gentlemen. This indeed, is partially the case in the other parts. "Yesh, inteet," said a Hebrew trader, whom I conversed with on the subject, "I shall be clad to shell you coat, sir. Dish von is shust your shize; it is verra sheep, and vosh made by tip-top shnip." Indeed, the keenness and anxiety to trade—whenever trade seems possible—causes many of the frequenters of these marts to infringe the arrangements as to the manner of the traffic, though the proprietors endeavour to cause the regulations to be strictly adhered to.
The Exchange, which is a few yards apart from the other is known as Simmons and Levy's Clothes Exchange, and is unemployed, for its more especial business purposes, except in the mornings. The commerce is then wholesale, for here are sold collections of unredeemed pledges in wearing apparel, consigned there by the pawnbrokers, or the buyers at the auctions of unredeemed goods; as well as draughts from the stocks of the wardrobe dealers; a quantity of military or naval stores, and such like articles. In the afternoon the stalls are occupied by retail dealers. The ground is about as large as the firstmentioned exchange, but is longer and narrower.
In neither of these places is there even an attempt at architectural elegance, or even neatness. The stalls and partitions are of unpainted wood, the walls are bare, the only care that seems to be manifested is that the places should be dry. In the instance the plainness was no doubt a necessity from motives of prudence, as the establishments were merely speculations, and now everything but seems to be disregarded. The Old Clothes Exchanges have assuredly recommendation as they are now seen—their appropriateness. They have a threadbare, patched, and look. The dresses worn by the dealers, and the dresses they deal in, are all in accordance with the genius of the place. But the eagerness, crowding, and energy, are the grand features of the scene; and of all the many curious sights in London there is none so picturesque (from the various costumes of the buyers and sellers), none so novel, and none so animated as that of the Old Clothes Exchange.
Business is carried on in the wholesale department of the Old Clothes Exchanges every day during the week; and in the retail on each day except the Hebrew Sabbath (Saturday). The Jews in the old clothes trade observe strictly the command that on their Sabbath day they shall do no manner of work, for on a visit I paid to the Exchange last Saturday, not a single Jew could I see engaged in any business. But though the Hebrew Sabbath is observed by the Jews and disregarded by the Christians, the Christian Sabbath, on the other hand, is disregarded by Jew and Christian alike, some few of the Irish excepted, who may occasionally go to early mass, and attend at the Exchange afterwards. Sunday, therefore, in "Rag-fair," is like the other days of the week (Saturday excepted); business closes on the Sunday, however, at instead of .
On the Saturday the keen Jew-traders in the neighbourhood of the Exchanges may be seen standing at their doors—after the synagogue hours —or looking out of their windows, dressed in their best. The dress of the men is for the most part not distinguishable from that of the English on the Sunday, except that there may be a greater glitter of rings and watch-guards. The dress of the women is of every kind; becoming, handsome, rich, tawdry, but seldom neat.