London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the Wholesale Business at the Old Clothes Exchange.
A CONSIDERABLE quantity of the old clothes disposed of at the Exchange are bought by merchants from Ireland. They are then packed in bales by porters, regularly employed for the purpose, and who literally them up square and compact. These bales are each worth from to , though seldom , and it is curious to reflect from how many classes the pile of old garments has been collected —how many privations have been endured before some of these habiliments found their way into the possession of the old clothesman—what besotted debauchery put others in his possession—with what cool calculation others were disposed of—how many were procured for money, and how many by the tempting offers of flowers, glass, crockery, spars, table-covers, lace, or millinery—what was the clothing which could be spared when rent was to be defrayed or bread to be bought, and what was treasured until the last—in what scenes of gaiety or gravity, in the opera-house or the senate, had the perhaps departed wearers of some of that heap of old clothes figured—through how many possessors, and again through what new scenes of middle-class or artizan comfort had these dresses passed, or through what accidents of "genteel" privation and destitution—and lastly through what necessities of squalid wretchedness and low debauchery.
Every kind of old attire, from the highest to the , I was emphatically told, was sent to Ireland.
Some of the bales are composed of garments
|originally made for the labouring classes. These are made up of every description of colour and material—cloth, corduroy, woollen cords, fustian, moleskin, flannel, velveteen, plaids, and the several varieties of those substances. In them are to be seen coats, great-coats, jackets, trousers, and breeches, but no other habiliments, such as boots, shirts, or stockings. I was told by a gentleman, who between and years ago was familiar with the liberty and poorer parts of Dublin, that the most coveted and the most saleable of all -hand apparel was that of leather breeches, worn commonly in some of the country parts of England half a century back, and sent in considerable quantities at that time from London to Ireland. These nether habiliments were coveted because, as the Dublin sellers would say, they "would wear for ever, and look illigant after that." Buck-skin breeches are now never worn except by grooms in their liveries, and gentlemen when hunting, so that the trade in them in the Old Clothes Exchange, and their exportation to Ireland, are at an end. The next most saleable thing—I may mention, incidentally— vended cheap and -hand in Dublin, to the poor Irishmen of the period I speak of, was a wig! And happy was the man who could wear , over the other.
Some of the Irish buyers who are regular frequenters of the London Old Clothes Exchange, take a small apartment, often a garret or a cellar, in or its vicinity, and to this room they convey their purchases until a sufficient stock has been collected. Among these old clothes the Irish possessors cook, or at any rate eat, their meals, and upon them they sleep. I did not hear that such dealers were more than ordinarily unhealthy; though it may, perhaps, be assumed that such habits are fatal to health. What may be the average duration of life among old clothes sellers who live in the midst of their wares, I do not know, and believe that no facts have been collected on the subject; but I certainly saw among them some very old men.
Other wholesale buyers from Ireland occupy decent lodgings in the neighbourhood—decent considering the locality. In Phil's-buildings, a kind of wide alley which forms of the approaches to the Exchange, are respectable apartments, almost always let to the Irish old clothes merchants.
Tradesmen of the same class come also from the large towns of England and Scotland to buy for their customers some of the left-off clothes of London.
Nor is this the extent of the wholesale trade. Bales of old clothes are exported to Belgium and Holland, but principally to Holland. Of the quantity of goods thus exported to the Continent not above -half, perhaps, can be called old , while among these the old livery suits are in the best demand. The other goods of this foreign trade are old serges, duffles, carpeting, drugget, and heavy woollen goods generally, of all the descriptions which I have before enumerated as parcel of the -hand trade of the streets. Old merino curtains, and any -hand decorations of fringes, woollen lace, &c., are in demand for Holland.
bales, averaging somewhere about each in value, but not fully , are sent direct every week of the year from the Old Clothes Exchange to distant places, and this is not the whole of the traffic, apart from what is done retail. I am informed on the best authority, that the average trade may be stated at a week all the year round. When I come to the conclusion of the subject, however, I shall be able to present statistics of the amount turned over in the respective branches of the old clothes trade, as well as of the number of the traffickers, only - of whom are now Jews.
The conversation which goes on in the Old Clothes Exchange during business hours, apart from the "larking" of the young sweet-stuff and orange or cake-sellers, is all concerning business, but there is, even while business is being transacted, a frequent interchange of jokes, and even of practical jokes. The business talk—I was told by an old clothes collector, and I heard similar remarks—is often to the following effect:—
"How much is this here?" says the man who comes to buy. "," replies the Jew seller. "I won't give you above half the money." "Half de money," cries the salesman, "I can't take dat. Vat above the dat you offer now vill you give for it? Vill you give me eighteen? Vell, come, give ush your money, I've got ma rent to pay." But the man says, "I only bid you , and I shan't give no more." And then, if the seller finds he can get him to "spring" or advance no further, he says, "I shupposh I musht take your money even if I loosh by it. You'll be a better cushtomer anoder time." [This is still a common "deal," I am assured by who began the business at years old, and is now upwards of years of age. The Petticoat-laner will always ask at least twice as much as he means to take.]
For a more detailed account of the mode of business as conducted at the Old Clothes Exchange I refer the reader to p. , vol. i. Subsequent visits have shown me nothing to alter in that description, although written (in of my letters in the ), nearly years ago. I have merely to add that I have there mentioned the receipt of a halfpenny toll; but this, I find, is not levied on Saturdays and Sundays.
I ought not to omit stating that pilfering from another by the poor persons who have collected the -hand garments, and have carried them to the Old Clothes Exchange to dispose of, is of very rare occurrence. This is the more commendable, for many of the wares could not be identified by their owner, as he had procured them only that morning. If, as happens often enough, a man carried a dozen pairs of old shoes to the Exchange, and pair were stolen, he might have some difficulty in swearing to the
|identity of the pair purloined. It is true that the Jews, and crock-men, and others, who collect, by sale or barter, masses of old clothes, note all their defects very minutely, and might have no moral doubt as to identity, nevertheless the magistrate would probably conclude that the legal evidence—were it only circumstantial—was insufcient. The young thieves, however, who flock from the low lodging-houses in the neighbourhood, are an especial trouble in , where the people robbed are generally too busy, and the article stolen of too little value, to induce a prosecution—a knowledge which the juvenile pilferer is not slow in acquiring. Sometimes when these boys are caught pilfering, they are severely beaten, especially by the women, who are aided by the men, if the thief offers any formidable resistance, or struggles to return the blows.