London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Street-Sellers of Coals.

ACCORDING to the returns of the coal market for the last few years, there has been imported into London, on an average, tons of seaborne coal annually. Besides this immense supply, the various railways have lately poured in a continuous stream of the same commodity from the inland districts, which has found a ready sale without sensibly affecting the accustomed vend of the north country coals, long established on the .

To the very poor the importance of coal can be scarcely estimated. Physiological and medical writers tell us that carbonaceous food is that which produces heat in the body, and is therefore the fuel of the system. Experience tells us that this is true; for who that has had an opportunity of visiting the habitations of the poor—the dwellers in ill-furnished rooms and garrets—has not remarked the more than half-starved slop needlewoman, the wretched half-naked children of the casually employed labourer, as the dock-man, or those whose earnings are extorted from them by their employers, such as the ballast-man, sitting crouched around the smouldering embers in the place where the fire ought to be? The reason of this is, because the system of the sufferer by long


want of food has been deprived of the necessary internal heat, and so seeks instinctively to supply the deficiency by imbibing it from some outward source. It is on this account chiefly, I believe, that I have found the ill-paid and ill-fed workpeople prize warmth almost more than food. Among the poorest Irish, I have invariably found them crowding round the wretched fire when they had nothing to eat.

The census returns of the present year (according to the accounts published in the newspapers) estimate the number of the inhabitants of London at , and the number of inhabited houses as . Now if we take into consideration that in the immense suburbs of the metropolis, there are branching off from almost every street, labyrinths of courts and alleys, teeming with human beings, and that almost every room has its separate family—for it takes a multitude of poor to make rich man—we may be able to arrive at the conclusion that by far the greater proportion of coals brought into London are consumed by the poorer classes. It is on this account of the highest importance, that honesty should be the characteristic of those engaged in the vend and distribution of an article so necessary not only to the comfort but to the very existence of the great masses of the population.

The modes in which the coals imported into London are distributed to the various classes of consumers are worthy of observation, as they unmistakably exhibit not only the wealth of the few, but the poverty of the many. The inhabitants of Belgravia, the wealthy shopkeepers, and many others periodically see at their doors the well-loaded waggon of the coal merchant, with or swarthy "coal-porters" bending beneath the black heavy sacks, in the act of laying in the or tons for yearly or half-yearly consumption. But this class is supplied from a very different quarter from that of the artizans, labourers, and many others, who, being unable to spare money sufficient to lay in at once a ton or of coals, must have recourse to other means. To meet their limited resources, there may be found in every part, always in back streets, persons known as coal-shed men, who get the coals from the merchant in , , or tons at a time, and retail them from cwt. upwards. The coalshed men are a very numerous class, for there is not a low neighbourhood in any part of the city which contains not or of them in every street.

There is yet another class of purchasers of coals, however, which I have called the 'very poor,'—the inhabitants of pairs back—the dwellers in garrets, &c. It seems to have been for the purpose of meeting the wants of this class that the street-sellers of coals have sprung into existence. Those who know nothing of the decent pride which often lingers among the famishing poor, can scarcely be expected to comprehend the great boon that the street-sellers of coals, if they could only be made honest and conscientious dealers, are calculated to confer on these people. "I have seen," says a correspondent, "the starveling child of misery, in the gloom of the evening, steal timidly into the shop of the coal-shed man, and in a tremulous voice ask, as if begging a great favour, for The coalshed man has set down his pint of beer, taken the pipe from his mouth, blowing after it a cloud of smoke, and in a gruff voice, at which the little wretch has shrunk up (if it were possible) into a less space than famine had already reduced her to, and demanded —'Who told you as how I sarves o' coal?—Go to Bill C—— he may sarve you if he likes—I won't, and that's an end on 't—I wonders what people wants with o' coal.' The coal-shed man, after delivering himself of this enlightened observation, has placidly resumed his pipe, while the poor child, gliding out into the drizzling sleet, disappeared in the darkness."

The street-sellers vend any quantity at the very door of the purchaser, without rendering it necessary for them to expose their poverty to the prying eyes of the neighbourhood; and, as I have said were the street dealers only honest, they would be conferring a great boon upon the poorer portion of the people, but unhappily it is scarcely possible for them to be so, and realize a profit for themselves. The police reports of the last year show that many of the coal merchants, standing high in the estimation of the world, have been heavily fined for using false weights; and, did the present inquiry admit of it, there might be mentioned many other infamous practices by which the public are shamefully plundered in this commodity, and which go far to prove that the coal trade, , is a gigantic fraud. May I ask how it is possible for the street-sellers, with such examples of barefaced dishonesty before their eyes, even to dream of acting honestly? If not actually certain, yet strongly suspecting, that they themselves are defrauded by the merchant, how can it be otherwise than that they should resort to every possible mode of defrauding their customers, and so add to the already almost unendurable burdens of the poorest of the poor, who by means or other are made to bear all the burdens of the country?

The usual quantity of coals consumed in the poorest rooms, in which a family resides, is cwt. per week in summer, and cwt. do. in winter, or about tons per annum.

The street sale of coals was carried on to a considerable extent during the earlier part of the last century, "small coalmen" being among the regular street-traders. The best known of these was Tom Britton, who died through fright occasioned by a practical joke. He was a great fosterer of a taste for music among the people; for, after hawking his coals during the day, he had a musical gathering in his humble abode in the evening, to which many distinguished persons resorted. This is alluded to in the lines, by Hughes, under Tom Britton's portrait, and the allusion, according to the poetic fashion of the time being made by means of a strained classicality:—

Cyllenius so, as fables tell, and Jove,

Came willing guests to poor Philemon's grove.



The trade seems to have disappeared gradually, but has recently been revived in another form.

Some few years ago an ingenious and enterprising costermonger, during a "slack" in his own business, conceived the idea of purchasing some of the refuse of the coals at the wharfs, conveying them round the poorer localities of his beat, in his assor pony-cart, and vending them to "room-keepers" and others, in small quantities and at a reduced rate, so as to undersell the coal-shed men, while making for himself a considerable profit. The example was not lost upon his fraternity, and no long time had elapsed before many others had started in the same line; this eventually took so much custom from the regular coal-shed men, that, as a matter of self-defence, those among them who had a horse and cart, found it necessary to compete with the originators of the system in their own way, and, being possessed of more ample means, they succeeded, in a great measure, in driving the costers out of the field. The success of the coal-shed men was for a time so well followed up, that they began by degrees to edge away from the lanes and alleys, extending their excursions into quarters somewhat more aristocratic, and even there establishing a trade amongst those who had previously taken their ton or half ton of coals from the "brass-plate merchant," as he is called in the trade, being a person who merely procures orders for coals, gets some merchant who buys in the coal market to execute them in his name, and manages to make a living by the profits of these transactions. Some of this latter class consequently found themselves compelled to adopt a mode of doing their business somewhat similar, and for that purpose hired vans from the proprietors of those vehicles, loaded them with sacks of coals, drove round among their customers, prepared to furnish them with sacks or half sacks, as they felt disposed. Finally, many of the van proprietors themselves, finding that business might be done in this way, started in the line, and, being in general men of some means, established it as a regular trade. The van proprietors at the present time do the greater part of the business, but there may occasionally be seen, employed in this traffic, all sorts of conveyances, from the donkey-cart of the costermonger, or dock labourer, the latter of whom endeavours to make up for the miserable pittance he can earn at the rate of fourpence per hour, by the profits of this calling, to the aristocratic van, drawn along by plump, well-fed horses, the property of a man worth or

The van of the street-seller of coals is easily distinguished from the waggon of the regular merchant. The merchant's waggon is always loaded with sacks standing perpendicularly; it is drawn by immense horses, and is driven along by a gaunt figure, begrimed with coal-dust, and "sporting" ancle boots, or shoes and gaiters, white, or what ought to be white, stockings, velvet kneebreeches, short tarry smock-frock, and a huge fantail hat slouching half-way down his back. The street-seller's vehicle, on the contrary, has the coals shot into it without sacks; while, on a tailboard, extending behind, lie weights and scales. It is most frequently drawn by horse, but sometimes by , with bells above their collars jingling as they go, or else the driver at intervals rings a bell like a dustman's, to announce his approach to the neighbourhood.

The street-sellers formerly purchased their coals from any of the merchants along the river-side; generally the refuse, or what remained after the best had been picked out by "skreening" or otherwise; but always taking a or quality as most suitable for their purpose. But since the erection of machinery for getting coals out of the ships in the Regent's Canal basin, they have resorted to that place, as the coals are at once shot from the box in which they are raised from the hold of the ship, into the cart or van, saving all the trouble of being filled in sacks by coal porters, and carried on their backs from the ship, barge, or heap, preparatory to their being emptied into the van; thus getting them at a cheaper rate, and consequently being enabled to realize a greater profit.

Since the introduction of inland coals, also, by the railways, many of the street-sellers have either wholly, or in part, taken to sell them on account of the lower rate at which they can be purchased; sometimes they vend them unmixed, but more frequently they mix them up with "the small" of north country coals of better quality, and palm off the compound as "genuine Wallsend direct from the ship:" this (together with short weights) being, in fact, the principal source of their profit.

It occasionally happens that a merchant purchases in the market a cargo of coals which turns out to be damaged, very small, or of inferior quality. In such cases he usually refuses to take them, and it is difficult to dispose of them in any regular way of trade. Such cargoes, or parts of cargoes, are consequently at times bought up by some of the more wealthy van proprietors engaged in the coal line, who realize on them a great profit.

To commence business as a street-seller of coals requires little capital beyond the possession of a horse and cart. The merchants in all cases let street-sellers have any quantity of coals they may require till they are able to dispose of them; and the street-trade being a ready-money business, they can go on from day to day, or from week to week, according to their pre-arrangements, so that, as far as the commodity in which they deal is concerned, there is no outlay of capital whatever.

 There are about 30 two-horse vans continually engaged in this trade, the price of each van being 70l. This gives . . . £ 2100 
 100 horses at 20l. each . . . 1200 
 160 carts at 10l. each . . . 1600 
 160 horses at 10l. each . . 1600 
 20 donkey or pony carts, value 1l. each 20 
 20 donkeys or ponies at 1l. 10s. each 30 
 Making a total of 210 vehicles continually employed, which, with the horses, &c., may be valued at . . . 6550 
 This sum, with the price of 210 sets of weights and scales, at 1l. 10s. per set 315 
 Makes a total of . . . . £ 6865 



This may be fairly set down as the gross amount of capital at present employed in the street-sale of coals.

It is somewhat difficult to ascertain correctly the amount of coals distributed in this way among the poorer classes. But I have found that they generally take turns per day; that is they go to the wharfs in the morning, get their vans or carts loaded, and proceed on their various rounds. This turn usually occupies them till dinner-time, after which they get another load, which is sufficient to keep them employed till night. Now if we allow each van to carry and a half tons, it will make for all tons per day, or tons per week. In the same manner allowing the carts to carry a ton each, it will give tons per day, or tons per week, and the pony carts half a ton each, tons per day, or tons per week, making a total of tons per week, or tons per annum. This quantity purchased from the merchants at per ton amounts to annually, and sold at the rate of per cwt., or per ton, leaves per ton profit, or a total profit of , and this profit divided according to the foregoing account gives the subjoined amounts, viz.:—

 To each two-horse van regularly employed throughout the year, a profit of . . £ 429 0 
 To each one-horse cart, ditto, ditto, 171 12 
 To each pony cart, ditto, ditto, 121 12 

From which must, of course, be made the necessary deductions for the keep of the animals and the repair of vehicles, harness, &c.

The keep of a good horse is per week; a pony horses can be kept for the price of , and so on; the more there are, the less cost for each.

The localities where the street-sellers of coals may most frequently be met with, are , Poplar, , Stepney, St. George's East, Twig Folly, , Spitalfields, , Kingsland, , and . It is somewhat remarkable that they are almost unknown on the south side of the Thames, and are seldom or never to be encountered in the low streets and lanes in lying contiguous to the river, nor in the vicinity of Marylebone, nor in any place farther west than ; this is on account of the distance from the Regent's Canal basin precluding the possibility of their making more than turn in the day, which would greatly diminish their profits, even though they might get a higher price for their commodity.

It may be observed that the foregoing statement in figures is rather under the mark than otherwise, as it is founded on the amount of coals purchased at a certain rate, and sold at a certain profit, without taking into account any of the "dodges" which almost all classes of coal dealers, from the highest to the lowest, are known to practise, so that the rate of profit arising from this business may be fairly supposed to amount to much more than the above account can show in figures.

I received the following statement from a person engaged in the street traffic:—

I kept a coal-shed and greengrocer's shop, and as I had a son grown up, I wanted to get something for him to do; so about six years ago, having a pony and cart, and seeing others selling coals through the street, I thought I'd make him try his hand at it. I went to Mr. B——'s, at Whiting's wharf, and got the cart loaded, and sent my son round our own neighbourhood. I found that he soon disposed of them, and so he went on by degrees. People think we get a great deal of profit, but we don't get near as much as they think. I paid 16s. a ton all the winter for coals and sold them for a shilling a hundred, and when I came to feed the horse I found that he'll nearly eat it all up. A horse's belly is not so easy to fill. I don't think my son earns much more now, in summer, than feeds the horse. It's different in winter; he does not sell more nor half a ton a day now the weather's so warm. In winter he can always sell a ton at the least, and sometimes two, and on the Saturday he might sell three or four. My cart holds a ton; the vans hold from two to three tons. I can't exactly tell how many people are engaged in selling coals in the street, but there are a great many, that's certain. About eight o'clock what a number of carts and vans you'll see about the Regent's Canal! They like to get away before breakfast, because then they may have another turn after dinner. There's a great many go to other places for coals. The people who have vans do much better than those with the carts, because they carry so much that they save time. There are no great secrets in our business; we haven't the same chance of 'doing the thing' as the merchants have. They can mix the coals up as they like for their customers, and sell them for best; all we can do is to buy a low quality; then we may lose our customers if we play any tricks. To be sure, after that we can go to parts where we're not known. I don't use light weights, but I know it's done by a good many, and they mix up small coals a good deal, and that of course helps their profits. My son generally goes four or five miles before he sells a ton of coals, and in summer weather a great deal farther. It's hard-earned money that's got at it, I can tell you. My cart is worth 12l.; I have a van worth 20l. I wouldn't take 20l. for my horse. My van holds two tons of coals, and the horse draws it easily. I send the van out in the winter when there's a good call, but in the summer I only send it out on the Saturday. I never calculated how much profit I made. I haven't the least idea how much is got by it, but I'm sure there's not near as much as you say. Why, if there was, I ought to have made a fortune by this time." [It is right I should state that I received the foregoing account of the profits of the street trade in coals from one practically and eminently acquainted with it.] "Some in the trade have done very well, but they were well enough off before. I know very well I'll never make a fortune at anything; I'll be satisfied if I keep moving along, so as to keep out of the Union.

As to the habits of the street-sellers of coals,


they are as various as their different circumstances will admit; but they closely resemble each other in general characteristic—their provident and careful habits. Many of them have risen from struggling costermongers, to be men of substance, with carts, vans, and horses of their own. Some of the more wealthy of the class may be met with now and then in the parlours of respectable public houses, where they smoke their pipes, sip their brandy and water, and are remarkable for the shrewdness of their remarks. They mingle freely with the respectable tradesmen of their own localities, and may be seen, especially on the Sunday afternoons, with their wives and showilydressed daughters in the gardens of the New Globe, or Green Dragon—the Cremorne and of the east. I visited the house of of those who I was told had originally been a costermonger. The front portion of the shop was almost filled with coals, he having added to his occupation of street-seller the business of a coalshed man; this his wife and a little boy managed in his absence; while, true to his early training, the window-ledge and a bench before it were heaped up with cabbages, onions, and other vegetables. In an open space opposite his door, I observed a -horse cart and or trucks with his name painted thereon. At his invitation, I passed through what may be termed the shop, and entered the parlour, a neat room nicely carpeted, with a round table in the centre, chairs ranged primly round the walls, and a long lookingglass reflecting the china shepherds and shepherdesses on the mantel-piece, while, framed and glazed, all around were highly-coloured prints, among which, Dick Turpin, in flash red coat, gallantly clearing the toll-gate in his celebrated ride to York, and Jack Sheppard lowering himself down from the window of the lock--up house, were most conspicuous. In the window lay a few books, and or old copies of Among the well-thumbed books, I picked out the , and the "," as he called it, of which he expressed a very high opinion. "Lor bless you," he exclaimed, "them there stories is the vonderfullest in the vorld! I'd never ha believed it, if I adn't seed it vith my own hies, but there can't be no mistake ven I read it hout o' the book, can there, now? I jist asks yer that ere plain question."

Of his career he gave me the following account:—"I vos at von time a coster, riglarly brought up to the business, the times vas good then; but lor, ve used to lush at sich a rate! About year ago, I ses to meself, I say Bill, I'm blowed if this here game 'ill do any longer. I had a good moke (donkey), and a tidyish box ov a cart; so vot does I do, but goes and sees von o' my old pals that gits into the coal-line somehow. He and I goes to the Bell and Siven Mackerels in the , and then he tells me all he knowed, and takes me along vith hisself, and from that time I sticks to the coals.

I niver cared much about the lush myself, and ven I got avay from the old uns, I didn't mind it no how; but Jack my pal vos a awful lushy cove, he couldn't do no good at nothink, votsomever; he died they say of lirium trumans" [not understanding what he meant, I inquired of what it was he died]; "why, of lirium trumans, vich I takes to be too much of Trueman and Hanbury's heavy; so I takes varnin by poor Jack, and cuts the lush; but if you thinks as ve don't enjoy ourselves sometimes, I tells you, you don't know nothink about it. I'm gittin on like a riglar house a fire.

This object is in collection Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
DCA Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights
View all images in this book
 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