London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
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.
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