London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the Street-Sellers of Petticoat and Rosemary-Lanes.
IMMEDIATELY connected with the trade of the central mart for old clothes are the adjoining streets of , and those of the not very distant . In these localities is a -hand garment-seller at almost every step, but the whole stock of these traders, decent, frowsy, half-rotten, or smart and good habilments, has passed through the channel of the Exchange. The men who sell these goods have all bought them at the Exchange—the exceptions being insignificant—so that this street-sale is but an extension of the trade of the central mart, with the addition that the wares have been made ready for use.
A cursory observation might lead an inexperienced person to the conclusion, that these old clothes traders who are standing by the bundles of gowns, or lines of coats, hanging from their doorposts, or in the place from which the window has been removed, or at the sides of their houses, or
|piled in the street before them, are drowsy people, for they seem to sit among their property, lost in thought, or caring only for the fumes of a pipe. But let any indicate, even by an approving glance, the likelihood of his becoming a customer, and see if there be any lack of diligence in business. Some, indeed, pertinaciously invite attention to their wares; some (and often welldressed women) leave their premises a few yards to accost a stranger pointing to a "good dresscoat" or "an excellent frock" (coat). I am told that this practice is less pursued than it was, and it seems that the solicitations are now addressed chiefly to strangers. These strangers, persons happening to be passing, or visitors from curiosity, are at once recognised; for as in all not very extended localities, where the inhabitants pursue a similar calling, they are, as regards their knowledge of another, as the members of family. Thus a stranger is as easily recognised as he would be in a little rustic hamlet where a strange face is not seen once a quarter. Indeed so narrow are some of the streets and alleys in this quarter, and so little is there of privacy, owing to the removal, in warm weather, even of the casements, that the room is commanded in all its domestic details; and as among these details there is generally a further display of goods similar to the articles outside, the jammedup places really look like a great family house with merely a sort of channel, dignified by the name of a street, between the right and left suites of apartments.|
In off-street, where on a Sunday there is a considerable demand for Jewish sweet-meats by Christian boys, and a little sly, and perhaps not very successful gambling on the part of the ingenuous youth to possess themselves of these confectionaries at the easiest rate, there are some mounds of builders' rubbish upon which, if an inquisitive person ascended, he could command the details of the upper rooms, probably the bed chambers—if in their crowded apartments these traders can find spaces for beds.
It must not be supposed that old clothes are more than the great staple of the traffic of this district. Wherever persons are assembled there are certain to be purveyors of provisions and of cool or hot drinks for warm or cold weather. The interior of the Old Clothes Exchange has its oyster-stall, its fountain of ginger-beer, its coffeehouse, and ale-house, and a troop of peripatetic traders, boys principally, carrying trays. Outside the walls of the Exchange this trade is still thicker. A Jew boy thrusts a tin of highly-glazed cakes and pastry under the people's noses here; and on the other side a basket of oranges regales the same sense by its proximity. At the next step the thoroughfare is interrupted by a gaudylooking ginger-beer, lemonade, raspberryade, and nectar fountain; "a halfpenny a glass, a halfpenny a glass, sparkling lemonade!" shouts the vendor as you pass. The fountain and the glasses glitter in the sun, the varnish of the wood-work shines, the lemonade really does sparkle, and all looks clean—except the owner. Close by is a brawny young Irishman, his red beard unshorn for perhaps days, and his neck, where it had been exposed to the weather, a far deeper red than his beard, and he is carrying a small basket of nuts, and selling them as gravely as if they were articles suited to his strength. A little lower is the cry, in a woman's voice, "Fish, fried fish! Ha'penny; fish, fried fish!" and so monotonously and mechanically is it ejaculated that might think the seller's life was passed in uttering these few words, even as a rook's is in crying "Caw, caw." Here I saw a poor Irishwoman who had a child on her back buy a piece of this fish (which may be had "hot" or "cold"), and tear out a piece with her teeth, and this with all the eagerness and relish of appetite or hunger; eating the brown outside and then the bone. I never saw fish look firmer or whiter. That fried fish is to be procured is manifest to more senses than , for you can hear the sound of its being fried, and smell the fumes from the oil. In an open window opposite frizzle on an old tray, small pieces of thinly-cut meat, with a mixture of onions, kept hot by being placed over an old pan containing charcoal. In another room a mess of batter is smoking over a grate. "Penny a lot, oysters," resounds from different parts. Some of the sellers command streets by establishing their stalls or tubs at a corner. Lads pass, carrying sweet-stuff on trays. I observed very dark-eyed Hebrew boy chewing the hard-bake he vended—if it were not a substitute—with an expression of great enjoyment. Heaped--up trays of fresh-looking sponge-cakes are carried in tempting pyramids. Youths have stocks of large hardlooking biscuits, and walk about crying, "Ha'penny biscuits, ha'penny; a penny, biscuits;" these, with a morsel of cheese, often supply a dinner or a luncheon. Dates and figs, as dry as they are cheap, constitute the stock in trade of other street-sellers. "Coker-nuts" are sold in pieces and entire; the Jew boy, when he invites to the purchase of an entire nut, shaking it at the ear of the customer. I was told by a costermonger that these juveniles had a way of drumming with their fingers on the shell so as to satisfy a "green" customer that the nut offered was a sound .
Such are the summer eatables and drinkables which I have lately seen vended in the Petticoatlane district. In winter there are, as long as daylight lasts—and in no other locality perhaps does it last so short a time—other street provisions, and, if possible, greater zeal in selling them, the hours of business being circumscribed. There is then the potato-can and the hot elder-wine apparatus, and smoking pies and puddings, and roasted apples and chestnuts, and walnuts, and the several fruits which ripen in the autumn—apples, pears, &c.
Hitherto I have spoken only of such eatables and drinkables as are ready for consumption, but to these the trade in the district is by no means confined. There is fresh fish, generally of the cheaper kinds, and smoked or dried fish (smoked salmon, moreover, is sold ready
|cooked), and costermongers' barrows, with their loads of green vegetables, looking almost out of place amidst the surrounding dinginess. The cries of "Fine cauliflowers," "Large penny cabbages," " a shilling, mackarel," "Eels, live eels," mix strangely with the hubbub of the busier street.|
Other street-sellers also abound. You meet man who says mysteriously, and rather bluntly, "Buy a good knife, governor." His tone is remarkable, and if it attract attention, he may hint that he has smuggled goods which he sell anyhow. Such men, I am told, look out mostly for seamen, who often resort to ; for idle men like sailors on shore, and idle uncultivated men often love to lounge where there is bustle. Pocket and pen knives and scissors, "Penny a piece, penny a pair," rubbed over with oil, both to hide and prevent rust, are carried on trays, and spread on stalls, some stalls consisting of merely a tea-chest lid on a stool. Another man, carrying perhaps a sponge in his hand, and well-dressed, asks you, in a subdued voice, if you want a good razor, as if he almost suspected that you meditated suicide, and were looking out for the means! This is another ruse to introduce smuggled (or "duffer's") goods. Account-books are hawked. "Penny-a-quire," shouts the itinerant street stationer (who, if questioned, always declares he said "Penny half quire"). "Stockings, stockings, a pair." "Here's your chewl-ry; penny, a penny; pick'em and choose 'em." [I may remark that outside the window of shop, or rather parlour, if there be any such distinction here, I saw the handsomest, as far as I am able to judge, and the best cheap jewellery I ever saw in the streets.] "Pencils, sir, pencils; steel-pens, steel-pens; ha'penny, penny; pencils, steel-pens; sealing-wax, wax, wax, wax!" shouts , "Green peas, ha'penny a pint!" cries another.
These things, however, are but the accompaniments of the main traffic. But as such things accompany all traffic, not on a small scale, and may be found in almost every metropolitan thoroughfare, where the police are not required, by the householders, to interfere, I will point out, to show the distinctive character of the street-trade in this part, what is sold and not encouraged. I saw no old books. There were no flowers; no music, which indeed could not be heard except at the outskirts of the din; and no beggars plying their vocation among the trading class.
Another peculiarity pertaining alike to this shop and street locality is, that everything is at the veriest minimum of price; though it may not be asked, it will assuredly be taken. The bottle of lemonade which is elsewhere a penny is here a halfpenny. The tarts, which among the street-sellers about the are a halfpenny each, are here a farthing. When lemons are a-penny in St. George's-market, , as the long line of street stalls towards the western extremity is called—they are and a-penny in Petticoat and Rosemary lanes. Certainly there is a difference in size between the dearer and the cheaper tarts and lemons, and perhaps there is a difference in quality also, but the rule of a minimized cheapness has no exceptions in this cheaptrading quarter.
But is essentially the old clothes district. Embracing the streets and alleys adjacent to , and including the rows of old boots and shoes on the ground, there is perhaps between and miles of old clothes. proper is long and narrow, and to look down it is to look down a vista of many coloured garments, alike on the sides and on the ground. The effect sometimes is very striking, from the variety of hues, and the constant flitting, or gathering, of the crowd into little groups of bargainers. Gowns of every shade and every pattern are hanging up, but none, perhaps, look either bright or white; it is a vista of dinginess, but many coloured dinginess, as regards female attire. Dress coats, frock coats, great coats, livery and game-keepers' coats, paletots, tunics, trowsers, knee-breeches, waistcoats, capes, pilot coats, working jackets, plaids, hats, dressing gowns, shirts, Guernsey frocks, are all displayed. The predominant colours are black and blue, but there is every colour; the light drab of some aristocratic livery; the dull brown-green of velveteen; the deep blue of a pilot jacket; the variegated figures of the shawl dressing-gown; the glossy black of the restored garments; the shine of newly turpentined black satin waistcoats; the scarlet and green of some flaming tartan; these things—mixed with the hues of the women's garments, spotted and striped—certainly present a scene which cannot be beheld in any other part of the greatest city of the world, nor in any other portion of the world itself.
The ground has also its array of colours. It is covered with lines of boots and shoes, their shining black relieved here and there by the admixture of females' boots, with drab, green, plum or lavender-coloured "legs," as the upper part of the boot is always called in the trade. There is, too, an admixture of men's "button-boots" with drab cloth legs; and of a few red, yellow, and russet coloured slippers; and of children's coloured morocco boots and shoes. Handkerchiefs, sometimes of a gaudy orange pattern, are heaped on a chair. Lace and muslins occupy small stands or are spread on the ground. Black and drab and straw hats are hung up, or piled upon another and kept from falling by means of strings; while, incessantly threading their way through all this intricacy, is a mass of people, some of whose dresses speak of a recent purchase in the lane.
I have said little of the shopkeepers of , nor is it requisite for the full elucidation of my present subject (which relates more especially to ), that I should treat of them otherwise than as being in a great degree connected with street-trade. They stand in the street (in front of their premises), they trade in the street, they smoke and read the papers in the street; and indeed the greater part of their lives seems passed in the street, for, as I have elsewhere remarked, the Saturday's or Sabbath's recreation to some of them, after synagogue hours, seems to be to stand by their doors looking about them.
In the earlier periods of the day—the Jewish Sabbath excepted, when there is no market at all in , not even among the Irish and other old clothes people, or a mere nothing of a market—the goods of these shops seem consigned to the care of the wives and female members of the families of the proprietors. The Old Clothes Exchange, like other places known by the name— the , for example—has its daily season of "high change." This is, in summer, from about half-past to , in winter, from to o'clock. At those hours the crockman, and the bartering costermonger, and the Jew collector, have sought the Exchange with their respective bargains; and business there, and in the whole district, is at its fullest tide. Before this hour the master of the shop or (the latter may be the more appropriate word) is absent buying, collecting, or transacting any business which requires him to leave home. It is curious to observe how, during this absence, the women, but with most wary eyes to the business, sit in the street carrying on their domestic occupations. Some, with their young children about them, are shelling peas; some are trimming vegetables; some plying their needles; some of the smaller traders' wives, as well as the street-sellers with a "pitch," are eating dinners out of basins (laid aside when a customer approaches), and occasionally some may be engaged in what Mrs. Trollope has called (in noticing a similar procedure in the boxes of an American theatre) "the most maternal of all offices." The females I saw thus occupied were principally Jewesses, for though those resorting to the Old Clothes Exchange and its concomitant branches may be but - Jews, more than half of the remainder being Irish people, the householders or shopkeepers of the locality, when capital is needed, are generally Israelites.
It must be borne in mind that, in describing , I have described it as seen on a fine summer's day, when the business is at its height. Until an hour or after midday the district is quiet, and on very rainy days its aspect is sufficiently lamentable, for then it appears actually deserted. Perhaps on a winter's Saturday night—as the Jewish Sabbath terminates at sunset—the scene may be the most striking of all. The flaring lights from uncovered gas, from fatfed lamps, from the paper-shaded candles, and the many ways in which the poorer street-folk throw some illumination over their goods, produce a multiplicity of lights and shadows, which, thrown and blended over the old clothes hanging up along the line of street, cause them to assume mysterious forms, and if the wind be high make them, as they are blown to and fro, look more mysterious still.
On of my visits to I saw foreign Jews—from Smyrna I was informed. An old street-seller told me he believed it was their visit to the district. But, new as the scene might be to them, they looked on impassively at all they saw. They wore the handsome and peculiar dresses of their country. A glance was cast after them by the people, but that was all. In the Strand they would have attracted considerable attention; not a few heads would have been turned back to gaze after them; but it seems that only to those who may possibly be customers is any notice paid in .