London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry

1851

Of the Street-Sellers of Men's Second- Hand Clothes.

IN the following accounts of street-selling, I shall not mix up any account of the retailers' modes of buying, collecting, repairing, or "restoring" the -hand garments, otherwise than incidentally. I have already sketched the systems pursued, and more will have to be said concerning them under the head of STREET-BUYERS. Neither have I thought it necessary, in the further accounts I have collected, to confine myself to the trade carried on in the Petticoat and districts. The greater portion relates to those places, but my aim, of course, is to give an account which will show the character of the -hand trade of the metropolis generally.

People should remember," said an intelligent shoemaker (not a street-seller) with whom I had some conversation about cobbling for the streets, "that such places as Rosemary-lane have their uses this way. But for them a very poor industrious widow, say, with only 2d. or 3d. to spare, couldn't get a pair of shoes for her child; whereas now, for 2d. or 3d., she can get them there, of some sort or other. There's a sort of decency, too, in wearing shoes. And what's more, sir— for I've bought old coats and other clothes in Rosemary-lane, both for my own wear and my family's, and know something about it—how is a poor creature to get such a decency as a petticoat for a poor little girl, if she 'd only a penny, unless there were such places?

In the present state of the very poor, it may be that such places as those described have, on the principle that half a loaf is better than no bread, their benefits. But whether the state of things in which an industrious widow, or a host of industrious persons, spare but for a child's clothing (and nothing, perhaps, for their own), is to be lauded in a Christian country, is another question, fraught with grave political and social considerations.

The man from whom I received the following account of the sale of men's wearing apparel was apparently between and years of age. His face presented something of the Jewish physiognomy, but he was a Christian, he said, though he never had time to go to church or chapel, and Sunday was often a busy day; besides, a man must live as others in his way lived. He had been connected with the sale of old clothes all his life, as were his parents, so that his existence had been monotonous enough, for he had never been more than miles, he thought, from Whitechapel, the neighbourhood where he was born. In winter he liked a concert, and was fond of a hand at cribbage, but he didn't care for the play. His goods he sometimes spread on the ground—at other times he had a stall or a "horse" (clothes-horse).

My customers," he said, "are nearly all working people, some of them very poor, and with large families. For anything I know, some of them works with their heads, though, as well, and not their hands, for I've noticed that their hands is smallish and seems smoothish, and suits a tight sleeve very well. I don't know what they are. How should I? I asks no questions, and they'll tell me no fibs. To such as them I sell coats mostly; indeed, very little else. They're often very perticler about the fit, and often asks, 'Does it look as if it was made for me?' Sometimes they is seedy, very seedy, and comes to such as me, most likely, 'cause we're cheaper than the shops. They don't like to try things on in the street, and I can always take a decent customer, or one as looks sich, in there, to try on (pointing to a coffee-shop). Bob-tailed coats (dress-coats) is far the cheapest. I've sold them as low as 1s., but not often; at 2s. and 3s. often enough; and sometimes as high as 5s. Perhaps a 3s. or 3s. 6d. coat goes off as well as any, but bob-tailed coats is little asked for. Now, I've never had a frock (surtout or frock coat), as well as I can remember, under 2s. 6d., except one that stuck by me a long time, and I sold it at last for 20d., which was 2d. less than what it cost. It was only a poor thing, in course, but it had such a rum-coloured velvet collar, that was faded, and had had a bit let in, and was all sorts of shades, and that hindered its selling, I fancy. Velvet collars isn't worn now, and I'm glad of it. Old coats goes better with their own collars (collars of the same cloth as the body of the coat). For frocks, I've got as much as 7s. 6d., and cheap at it too, sir. Well, perhaps (laughing) at an odd time they wasn't so very cheap, but that's all in the way of trade. About 4s. 6d. or 5s. is perhaps the ticket that a frock goes off best at. It's working people that buys frocks most, and often working people's wives or mothers—that is as far as I knows. They're capital judges as to what'll fit their men; and if they satisfy me it's all right, I'm always ready to undertake to change it for another if it don't fit. O, no, I never agree to give back the money if it don't fit; in course not; that wouldn't be business.

No, sir, we're very little troubled with people larking. I have had young fellows come, half drunk, even though it might be Sunday morning, and say, 'Guv'ner, what'll you give me to wear that coat for you, and show off your cut?' We don't stand much of their nonsense. I don't know what such coves are. Perhaps 'torneys' journeymen, or pot-boys out for a Sunday morning's spree." [This was said with a bitterness that surprised me in so quiet-speaking a man.] "In greatcoats and cloaks I don't do much, but it's a very good sale when you can offer them well worth the money. I've got 10s. often for a greatcoat, and higher and lower, oftener lower in course; but 10s. is about the card for a good thing. It's the like with cloaks. Paletots don't sell well. They're mostly thinner and poorer cloth to begin with at the tailors—them new-fashioned named things often is so—and so they show when hard worn. Why no, sir, they can be done up, certainly; anything can be touched up; but they get thin, you see, and there's no- thing to work upon as there is in a good cloth greatcoat. You'll excuse me, sir, but I saw you a little bit since take one of them there square books that a man gives away to people coming this way, as if to knock up the second-hand business, but he won't, though; I'll tell you how them slops, if they come more into wear, is sure to injure us. If people gets to wear them lowfigured things, more and more, as they possibly may, why where's the second-hand things to come from? I'm not a tailor, but I understands about clothes, and I believe that no person ever saw anything green in my eye. And if you find a slop thing marked a guinea, I don't care what it is, but I'll undertake that you shall get one that'll wear longer, and look better to the very last, second-hand, at less than half the money, plenty less. It was good stuff and good make at first, and hasn't been abused, and that's the reason why it always bangs a slop, because it was good to begin with.

Trousers sells pretty well. I sell them, cloth ones, from 6d. up to 4s. They're cheaper if they're not cloth, but very seldom less or so low as 6d. Yes, the cloth ones at that is poor worn things, and little things too. They're not men's, they're youth's or boy's size. Good strong cords goes off very well at 1s. and 1s. 6d., or higher. Irish bricklayers buys them, and paviours, and such like. It's easy to fit a man with a pair of second-hand trousers. I can tell by his build what'll fit him directly. Tweeds and summer trousers is middling, but washing things sells worse and worse. It's an expense, and expenses don't suit my customers—not a bit of it.

Waistcoats isn't in no great call. They're often worn very hard under any sort of a tidy coat, for a tidy coat can be buttoned over anything that's 'dicky,' and so, you see, many of 'em's half-way to the rag-shop before they comes to us. Well, I'm sure I can hardly say what sort of people goes most for weskets" [so he pronounced it]. "If they're light, or there's anything 'fancy' about them, I thinks it's mothers as makes them up for their sons. What with the strings at the back and such like, it aint hard to make a wesket fit. They're poor people as buys certainly, but genteel people buys such things as fancy weskets, or how do you suppose they'd all be got through? O, there's ladies comes here for a bargain, I can tell you, and gentlemen, too; and many on 'em would go through fire for one. Second-hand satins (waistcoats) is good still, but they don't fetch the tin they did. I've sold weskets from 1 1/2d. to 4s. Well, it's hard to say what the three-ha'pennies is made of; all sorts of things; we calls them 'serge.' Three-pence is a common price for a little wesket. There's no under-weskets wanted now, and there's no rolling collars. It was better for us when there was, as there was more stuff to work on. The doublebreasted gets scarcer, too. Fashions grows to be cheap things now-a-days.

I can't tell you anything about knee-breeches; they don't come into my trade, and they're never asked for. Gaiters is no go either. Liveries isn't a street-trade. I fancy all those sort of things is sent abroad. I don't know where. Perhaps where people doesn't know they was liveries. I wouldn't wear an old livery coat, if it was the Queen's, for five bob. I don't think wearing one would hinder trade. You may have seen a black man in a fine livery giving away bills of a slop in Holborn. If we was to have such a thing we'd be pulled up (apprehended) for obstructing.

I sells a few children's (children's clothes), but only a few, and I can't say so much about them. They sells pretty freely though, and to very decent people. If they're good, then they're ready for use. If they ain't anything very prime, they can be mended—that is, if they was good to begin with. But children's woollen togs is mostly hardworn and fit only for the 'devil' (the machine which tears them up for shoddy). I've sold suits, which was tunics and trousers, but no weskets, for 3s. 6d. when they was tidy. That's a common price.

Well, really, I hardly know how much I make every week; far too little, I know that. I could no more tell you how many coats I sell in a year, or how many weskets, than I could tell you how many days was fine, and how many wasn't. I can carry all in my head, and so I keeps no accounts. I know exactly what every single thing I sell has cost me. In course I must know that. I dare say I may clear about 12s. bad weeks, and 18s. good weeks, more and less both ways, and there's more bad weeks than good. I have cleared 50s. in a good week; and when it's been nothing but fog and wet, I haven't cleared 3s. 6d. But mine's a better business than common, perhaps. I can't say what others clears; more and less than I does.

The profit in this trade, from the best information I could obtain, runs about per cent.

 
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 Title Page
 INTRODUCTION
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
Crossing-Sweepers