London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Metal articles.


I HAVE in the preceding remarks specified the wares sold by the vendors of the -hand articles of metal manufacture, or (as they are


called in the streets) the "old metal" men. The several articles I have specified may never be all found at time upon stall, but they are all found on the respective stalls. "Aye, sir," said old man whom I conversed with, "and there's more things every now and then comes to the stalls, and there used to be still more when I were young, but I can't call them all to mind, for times is worse with me, and so my memory fails. But there used to be a good many bayonets, and iron tinder-boxes, and steels for striking lights; I can remember them."

Some of the sellers have strong heavy barrows, which they wheel from street to street. As this requires a considerable exertion of strength, such part of the trade is carried on by strong men, generally of the costermongering class. The weight to be propelled is about lbs. Of this class there are now a few, rarely more than halfa- dozen, who sell on commission in the way I have described concerning the swag-barrowmen.

These are the "old metal swags" of street classification, but their remuneration is less fixed than that of the other swag-barrowmen. It is sometimes a quarter, sometimes a , and sometimes even a half of the amount taken. The men carrying on this traffic are the servants of the marine-store dealers, or vendors of old metal articles, who keep shops. If of these people be "lumbered up," that is, if he find his stock increase too rapidly, he furnishes a barrow, and sends a man into the streets with it, to sell what the shopkeeper may find to be excessive. Sometimes if the tradesman can gain only the merest trifle more than he could gain from the people who buy for the melting-pot, he is satisfied.

There is, or perhaps was, an opinion prevalent that the street "old metals" in this way of business got rid of stolen goods in such a manner as the readiest mode of sale, some of which were purposely rusted, and sold at almost any price, so that they brought but a profit to the "fence," whose payment to the thief was little more than the price of old metal at the foundry. I understand, however, that this course is not now pursued, nor is it likely that it ever was pursued to any extent. The street-seller is directly under the eye of the police, and when there is a search for stolen goods, it is not very likely that they would be paraded, however battered or rusted for the purpose, before men who possessed descriptions of all goods stolen. Until the establishment of the present system of police, this might have been an occasional practice. street-seller had even heard, and he "had it from the man what did it," that a last-maker's shop was some years back broken into in the expectation that money would be met with, but none was found; and as the thieves could not bring away such heavy lumbering things as lasts, they cursed their ill-luck, and brought away such tools as they could stow about their persons, and cover with their loose great coats. These were the large knives, fixed to swivels, and resembling a small scythe, used by the artizan to rough hew the block of beechwood; and a variety of excellent rasps and files (for they must be of the best), necessary for the completion of the last. These very tools were, in days after the robbery, sold from a streetbarrow.

The -hand metal goods are sold from stalls as well as from barrows, and these stalls are often tended by women whose husbands may be in some other branch of street-commerce. of these stalls I saw in the care of a stout elderly Jewess, who was fast asleep, nodding over her locks and keys. She was awakened by the passing policeman, lest her stock should be pilfered by the boys: "Come, wake up, mother, and shake yourself," he said, "I shall catch a weazel asleep next."

Some of these barrows and stalls are heaped with the goods, and some are very scantily supplied, but the barrows are by far the best stocked. Many of them (especially the swag) look like collections of the different stages of rust, from its incipient spots to its full possession of the entire metal. But amongst these seemingly useless things there is a gleam of brass or plated ware. On barrow I saw an old brass door-plate, on which was engraven the name of a late learned judge, Baron B——; another had formerly announced the residence of a dignitary of the church, the Rev. Mr. ——.

The -hand metal-sellers are to be seen in all the street-markets, especially on the Saturday nights; also in Poplar, , and the Commercial-road, in , and in and Old-street-road, St. Luke's, in and , in the , and the Whitechapel-road, in , and in the district where perhaps every street calling is pursued, but where some special street-trades seem peculiar to the genius of the place, in . A person unacquainted with the lastnamed locality may have formed an opinion that is merely a lane or street. But gives its name to a little district. It embraces , Artillery-passage, , Frying-pan-alley, Catherine Wheelalley, Tripe-yard, Fisher's-alley, Wentworthstreet, Harper's-alley, Marlborough-court, Broadplace, Providence-place, Ellison-street, Swan-court, Little Love-court, Hutchinson-street, Little , Hebrew-place, Boar's-head-yard, Black-horse-yard, , , Meeting-house-yard, , , , and Borer's-lane, until the wayfarer emerges into what appears the repose and spaciousness of , , up Borer's-lane, or into what in the contrast really looks like the aristocratic thoroughfare of the , down ; or into through the halls of the Old Clothes Exchange.

All these narrow streets, lanes, rows, passages, alleys, yards, courts, and places, are the sites of the street-trade carried on in this quarter. The whole neighbourhood rings with street cries, many uttered in those strange east-end Jewish tones which do not sound like English. Mixed with the incessant invitations to buy Hebrew


dainties, or the "sheepest pargains," is occasionally heard the guttural utterance of the Erse tongue, for the "native Irish," as they are sometimes called, are in possession of some portion of the street-traffic of , the original Rag Fair. The savour of the place is moreover peculiar. There is fresh fish, and dried fish, and fish being fried in a style peculiar to the Jews; there is the fustiness of old clothes; there is the odour from the pans on which (still in the Jewish fashion) frizzle and hiss pieces of meat and onions; puddings are boiling and enveloped in steam; cakes with strange names are hot from the oven; tubs of big pickled cucumbers or of onions give a sort of acidity to the atmosphere; lemons and oranges abound; and altogether the scene is not only such as can only be seen in London, but only such as can be seen in this part of the metropolis.

When I treat of the street-Jews, I shall have information highly curious to communicate, and when I come to the division of my present subject, I shall more particularly describe Petticoatlane, as the head-quarters of the -hand clothes business.

I have here alluded to the character of this quarter as being much resorted to formerly, and still largely used by the sellers of secondhand metal goods. Here I was informed that a strong-built man, known as Jack, or (appropriately enough) as Iron Jack, had, until his death or years ago, of the best-stocked barrows in London. This, in spite of remonstrances, and by a powerful exercise of his strength, the man lifted, as it were, on to the narrow foot-path, and every passer-by had his attention directed almost perforce to the contents of the barrow, for he must make a "" to advance on his way. of this man's favourite pitches was close to the lofty walls of what, before the change in their charter, was of the East India Company's vast warehouses. The contrast to any who indulged a thought on the subject—and there is great food for thought in Petticoat-lane—was striking enough. Here towered the store-house of costly teas, and silks, and spices, and indigo; while at its foot was carried on the most minute, and apparently worthless of all street-trades, rusty screws and nails, such as only few would care to pick up in the street, being objects of earnest bargaining!

An experienced man in the business, who thought he was "turned , or somewhere about that," gave me the following account of his trade, his customers, &c.

I've been in most street-trades," he said, "and was born to it, like, for my mother was a raggatherer—not a bad business once—and I helped her. I never saw my father, but he was a soldier, and it's supposed lost his life in foreign parts. No, I don't remember ever having heard what foreign parts, and it don't matter. Well, perhaps, this is about as tidy a trade for a bit of bread as any that's going now. Perhaps selling fish may be better, but that's to a man what knows fish well. I can't say I ever did. I'm more a dab at cooking it (with a laugh). I like a bloater best on what's an Irish gridiron. Do you know what that is, sir? I know, though I'm not Irish, but I married an Irish wife, and as good a woman as ever was a wife. It's done on the tongs, sir, laid across the fire, and the bloater's laid across the tongs. Some says it's best turned and turned very quick on the coals themselves, but the tongs is best, for you can raise or lower." [My informant seemed interested in his account of this and other modes of cookery, which I need not detail.] "This is really a very trying trade. O, I mean it tries a man's patience so. Why, it was in Easter week a man dressed like a gentleman—but I don't think he was a real gentleman—looked out some bolts, and a hammer head, and other things, odds and ends, and they came to 10 1/2d. He said he'd give 6d. 'Sixpence!' says I; 'why d' you think I stole 'em?' 'Well,' says he, 'if I didn't think you'd stole 'em, I shouldn't have come to you.' I don't think he was joking. Well, sir, we got to high words, and I said, 'Then I'm d—d if you have them for less than 1s.' And a bit of a crowd began to gather, they was most boys, but the p'liceman came up, as slow as you please, and so my friend flings down 1s., and puts the things in his pocket and marches off, with a few boys to keep him company. That's the way one's temper's tried. Well, it's hard to say what sells best. A latch-lock and keys goes off quick. I've had them from 2d. to 6d.; but it's only the lower-priced things as sells now in any trade. Bolts is a fairish stock, and so is all sorts of tools. Well, not saws so much as such things as screwdrivers, or hammers, or choppers, or tools that if they're rusty people can clean up theirselves. Saws ain't so easy to manage; bedkeys is good. No, I don't clean the metal up unless it's very bad; I think things don't sell so well that way. People's jealous that they're just done up on purpose to deceive, though they may cost only 1d. or 2d. There's that cheesecutter now, it's getting rustier and there'll be very likely a better chance to sell it. This is how it is, sir, I know. You see if a man's going to buy old metal, and he sees it all rough and rusty, he says to himself, 'Well, there's no gammon about it; I can just see what it is.' Then folks like to clean up a thing theirselves, and it's as if it was something made from their own cleverness. That was just my feeling, sir, when I bought old metals for my own use, before I was in the trade, and I goes by that. O, working people's by far my best customers. Many of 'em's very fond of jobbing about their rooms or their houses, and they come to such as me. Then a many has fancies for pigeons, or rabbits, or poultry, or dogs, and they mostly make up the places for them theirselves, and as money's an object, why them sort of fancy people buys hinges, and locks, and screws, and hammers, and what they want of me. A clever mechanic can turn his hand to most things that he wants for his own use. I know a shoemaker that makes beautiful rabbit-hutches and sells them along with his prize cattle, as I calls his great big long-eared rabbits. Perhaps I take 2s. 6d. or 3s. a day, and it's about half profit. Yes, this time of the year I make good 10s. 6d. a week, but in winter not 1s. a day. That would be very poor pickings for two people to live on, and I can't do without my drop of beer, but my wife has constant work with a first-rate laundress at Mile End, and so we rub on, for we've no family living.

This informant told me further of the way in which the old metal stocks sold in the streets were provided; but that branch of the subject relates to street-buying. Some of the street-sellers, however, buy their stocks of the shopkeepers.

I find a difficulty in estimating the number of the -hand metal-ware street-sellers. Many of the stalls or barrows are the property of the marine-store shopkeepers, or old metal dealers (marine stores being about the only things the marine-store men do not sell), and these are generally placed near the shop, being indeed a portion of its contents out of doors. Some of the marine-store men (a class of traders, by the by, not superior to street-sellers, making no "odious" comparison as to the honesty of the ), when they have purchased largely—the refuse iron for instance after a house has been pulled down—establish or pitches in the street, confiding the stalls or barrows to their wives and children. I was told by several in the trade that there were old metal sellers in the streets, but from the best information at my command not more than appear to be strictly -sellers, unconnected with shop-keeping. Estimating a weekly receipt, per individual, of (half being profit), the yearly street outlay among this body alone amounts to

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 Title Page
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work