London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the Street-Sellers of Salt.
UNTIL a few years after the repeal of the duty on the salt, there were no street-sellers of it. It was taxed in the time of William III., and during the war with Napoleon the impost was the bushel, or nearly times the cost of the article taxed. The duty was finally repealed in . When the tax was at the highest, salt was smuggled most extensively, and retailed at and the pound. A licence to sell it was also necessary. Street salt-selling is therefore a trade of some years standing. Considering the vast consumption of salt, and the trifling amount of capital necessary to start in the business, it might be expected that the street-sellers would be a numerous class, but they do not number above at the outside. The reason assigned by a well-informed man was, that in every part of London there are such vast numbers of shopkeepers who deal in salt.
The street-sellers pay at the rate of per cwt. for the salt, and retail it at lbs. for , which leaves profit on every cwt. day with another, taking wet and dry, for from the nature of the article it cannot be hawked in wet weather, the street-sellers dispose of about cwt. per day, or tons cwt. per day for all hands, which, deducting Sundays, makes tons in the course of the year. The profit of per cwt. amounts to a yearly aggregate profit of , or about per annum for each person in the trade.
The salt dealers, generally, endeavour to increase their profits by the sale of mustard, and sometimes by the sale of rock-salt, which is used for horses; but in these things they do little, the most profit they can realize in a day averaging about
The salt men who merely use the barrow are much better off than the donkey-cart men; the former are young men, active and strong, well able to drive their truck or barrow about from place to another, and they can thereby save the original price and subsequent keep of the donkey. The latter are in general old men, broken down and weak, or lads. The daily cost of keeping a donkey is from to ; if we reckon as the average, it will annually amount to the year, which will reduce the profit of to about , and so leave a balance of in favour of the truck or barrow man.
There are or places where the streetsellers purchase the salt:—Moore's, at Paddington, who get their salt by the canal, from Staffordshire; Welling's, at Battle-bridge; Baillie, of Thamesstreet, &c. Great quantities are brought to London by the different railways. The street-sellers have all regular beats, and seldom intrude on each other, though it sometimes happens, especially when any quarrel occurs among them, that they oppose and undersell another in order to secure the customers.
During my inquiries on this subject, I visited , Bloomsbury, to see a street-seller, about in the evening. Since the alterations in St. Giles's, has become of the most crowded places in London. The houses, none of which are high, are all old, time-blackened, and dilapidated, with shattered window-frames and broken panes. Stretching across the narrow street, from all the upper windows, might be seen lines crossing and recrossing each other, on which hung yellow-looking shirts, stockings, women's caps, and handkerchiefs looking like soiled and torn paper, and throwing the whole lane into shade. Beneath this ragged canopy, the street literally swarmed with human beings—young and old, men and women, boys and girls, wandering about amidst all kinds of discordant sounds. The footpaths on both sides of the narrow street were occupied here and there by groups of men and boys, some sitting on the flags and others leaning against the wall, while their feet, in most instances bare, dabbled in the black channel alongside the kerb, which being disturbed sent up a sickening stench. Some of these groups were playing cards for money, which lay on the ground near them. Men and women at intervals lay stretched out in
|sleep on the pathway; over these the passengers were obliged to jump; in some instances they stood on their backs as they stepped over them, and then the sleeper languidly raised his head, growled out a drowsy oath, and slept again. or women, with bloated countenances, blood-shot eyes, and the veins of their necks swollen and distended till they resembled strong cords, staggered about violently quarrelling at the top of their drunken voices.|
The street salt-seller—whom I had great difficulty in finding in such a place—was a man of about , rather sickly in his look. He wore an old cloth cap without a peak, a sort of dun-coloured waistcoat, patched and cobbled, a strong check shirt, not remarkable for its cleanliness, and what seemed to me to be an old pair of buckskin breeches, with fragments hanging loose about them like fringes. To the covering of his feet—I can hardly say shoes—there seemed to be neither soles nor uppers. How they kept on was a mystery.
In answer to my questions, he made the following statement, in language not to be anticipated from his dress, or the place in which he resided: "For many years I lived by the sale of toys, such as little chairs, tables, and a variety of other little things which I made myself and sold in the streets; and I used to make a good deal of money by them; I might have done well, but when a man hasn't got a careful partner, it's of no use what he does, he'll never get on, he may as well give it up at once, for the money'll go out times as fast as he can bring it in. I hadn't the good fortune to have a careful woman, but who, when I wouldn't give her money to waste and destroy, took out my property and made money of it to drink; where a bad example like that is set, it's sure to be followed; the good example is seldom taken, but there's no fear of the bad . You may want to find out where the evil lies, I tell you it lies in that pint pot, and in that quart pot, and if it wasn't for so many pots and so many pints, there wouldn't be half so much misery as there is. I know that from my own case. I used to sell toys, but since the foreign things were let come over, I couldn't make anything of them, and was obliged to give them up. I was forced to do something for a living, for a half loaf is better than no bread at all, so seeing or selling salt, I took to it myself. I buy my salt at Moore's wharf, Paddington; I consider it the purest; I could get salt or the cwt., or even cheaper, but I'd rather have the best. A man's not ashamed when he knows his articles are good. Some buy the cheap salt, of course they make more profit. We never sell by measure, always by weight; some of the street weights, a good many of them, are slangs, but I believe they are as honest as many of the shopkeepers after all; every does the best he can to cheat everybody else. I go or evenings in the week, or as often as I want it, to the wharf for a load. I'm going there to-night, miles out and miles in. I sell, considering everything, about cwt. a day; I sold to-day, but to-morrow (Saturday) I'll sell or cwt., and perhaps more. I pay the cwt. for it, and make about a cwt. profit on that. I sold sixpennyworth of mustard to-day; it might bring me in profit, every little makes something. If I wasn't so weak and broke down, I wouldn't trouble myself with a donkey, it's so expensive; I'd easily manage to drive about all I'd sell, and then I'd save the expense. It costs me or a day to keep him, besides other things. I got him a set of shoes yesterday, I said I'd shoe him and myself afterwards; so you see there's other expenses. There's my son, too, paid off the other day from the , after a years' voyage, and he came home without a sixpence in his pocket. He might have done something for me, but I couldn't expect anything else from him after the example that was set to him. Even now, bad as I am, I wouldn't want for anything if I had a careful woman; but she's a shocking drunkard, and I can do nothing with her." This poor fellow's mind was so full of his domestic troubles that he recurred to them again and again, and was more inclined to talk about what so nearly concerned himself than on any matter of business.