London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the Street-Sellers of Shells.
THE street-trade in shells presents the characteristics I have before had to notice as regards the trade in what are not necessaries, or an approach to necessaries, in contradistinction of what men must have to eat or wear. Shells, such as the green snail, ear shell, and others of that class, though extensively used for inlaying in a variety of ornamental works, are comparatively of little value; for no matter how useful, if shells are only well known, they are considered of but little importance; while those which are rarely seen, no matter how insignificant in appearance, command extraordinary prices. As an instance I may mention that on the there was purchased by Mr. Sowerby, shell-dealer, at a public sale in , Covent-garden, a small shell not inches long, broken and damaged, and withal what is called a "dead shell," for the sum of guineas. It was described as the , and had it only been perfect would have fetched guineas.
Shells, such as conches, cowries, green snails, and ear shells (the latter being so called from their resemblance to the human ear), are imported in large quantities, as parts of cargoes, and are sold to the large dealers by weight. Conch shells are sold at per cwt; cowries and clams from to per cwt; the green snail, used for inlaying, fetches from to per cwt.; and the ear shell, on account of its superior quality and richer variety of colours, as much as and per cwt.
|The conches are found only among the West India Islands, and are used principally for garden ornaments and grotto-work. The others come principally from the Indian Ocean and the China seas, and are used as well for chimney ornaments, as for inlaying, for the tops of work-tables and other ornamental furniture.|
The shells which are considered of the most value are almost invariably small, and of an endless variety of shape. They are called "cabinet" shells, and are brought from all parts of the world —land as well as sea—lakes, rivers, and oceans furnishing specimens to the collection. The Australian forests are continually ransacked to bring to light new varieties. I have been informed that there is not a river in England but contains valuable shells; that even in the Thames there are shells worth from to each. I have been shown a shell of the snail kind, found in the woods of New Holland, and purchased by a dealer for , and on which he confidently reckoned to make a considerable profit.
Although "cabinet" shells are collected from all parts, yet by far the greater number come from the Indian Ocean. They are generally collected by the natives, who sell them to captains and mates of vessels trading to those parts, and very often to sailors, all of whom frequently speculate to a considerable extent in these things, and have no difficulty in disposing of them as soon as they arrive in this country, for there is not a shell dealer in London who has not a regular staff of persons stationed at Gravesend to board the homeward-bound ships at the Nore, and sometimes as far off as the Downs, for the purpose of purchasing shells. It usually happens that when or of these persons meet on board the same ship, an animated competition takes place, so that the shells on board are generally bought up long before the ship arrives at London. Many persons from this country go out to various parts of the world for the sole purpose of procuring shells, and they may be found from the western coast of Africa to the shores of New South Wales, along the Persian Gulf, in Ceylon, the Malaccas, China, and the Islands of the Pacific, where they employ the natives in dredging the bed of the ocean, and are by this means continually adding to the almost innumerable varieties which are already known.
To show the extraordinary request in which shells are held in almost every place, while I was in the shop of Mr. J. C. Jamrach, naturalist, and agent to the Zoological Society at Amsterdam— of the largest dealers in London, and to whom I am indebted for much valuable information on this subject—a person, a native of High Germany, was present. He had arrived in London the day before, and had purchased on that day a collection of shells of a low quality for which he paid Mr. Jamrach ; to this he added a few birds. Placing his purchase in a box furnished with a leather strap, he slung it over his shoulder, shook hands with Mr. Jamrach, and departed. Mr. Jamrach informed me that the next morning he was to start by steam for Rotterdam, then continue his journey up the Rhine to a certain point, from whence he was to travel on foot from place to another, till he could dispose of his commodities; after which he would return to London, as the great mart for a fresh supply. He was only a very poor man, but there are a great many others far better off, continually coming backwards and forwards, who are able to purchase a larger stock of shells and birds, and who, in the course of their peregrinations, wander through the greater part of Germany, extending their excursions sometimes through Austria, the Tyrol, and the north of Italy. A visit to the premises of Mr. Jamrach, Ratcliff-highway, or Mr. Samuel, Upper , would well repay the curious observer. The front portion of Mr. Jamrach's house is taken up with a wonderful variety of strange birds that keep up an everlasting screaming; in another portion of the house are collected confusedly together heaps of nondescript articles, which might appear to the uninitiated worth little or nothing, but on which the possessor places great value. In a yard behind the house, immured in iron cages, are some of the larger species of birds, and some beautiful varieties of foreign animals—while in large presses ranged round the other rooms, and furnished with numerous drawers, are placed his real valuables, the cabinet shells. The establishment of Mr. Samuel is equally curious.
In London, the dealers in shells, keeping shops for the sale of them, amount to no more than ; they are all doing a large business, and are men of good capital, which may be proved by the following quotation from the day-books of of the class for the present year, viz.:—
Besides these there are about private dealers who do not keep shops, but who nevertheless do a considerable business in this line among persons at the West End of London. All shell dealers add to that occupation the sale of foreign birds and curiosities.
There is yet another class of persons who seem to be engaged in the sale of shells, but it is only seeming. They are dressed as sailors, and appear at all times to have just come ashore after a long voyage, as a man usually follows them with that sort of canvas bag in use among sailors, in which they stow away their clothes; the men themselves go on before carrying a parrot or some rare bird in hand, and in the other a large shell. These men are the "duffers" of whom I have spoken
|in my account of the sale of foreign birds. They make shells a more frequent medium for the introduction of their real avocation, as a shell is a far less troublesome thing either to hawk or keep by them than a parrot.|
I now give a description of these men, as general duffers, and from good authority.
An instance of the skill with which the duffers sometimes do business, is the following. of these persons some time ago came into the shop of a shell dealer, having with him a beautiful specimen of a -coloured cockatoo, for which he asked The shell dealer declined the purchase at that price, saying, that he sold these birds at a piece, but offered to give for it, which was at once accepted; while pocketing the money, the man remarked that he had paid guineas for that bird. The shell dealer, surprised that so good a judge should be induced to give so much more than the value of the bird, was desirous of hearing further, when the duffer made this statement:—"I went the other day to a gentleman's house, he was an old officer, where I saw this bird, and, in order to get introduced, I offered to purchase it. The gentleman said he knew it was a valuable bird, and couldn't think of taking less than guineas. I then offered to barter for it, and produced a shawl, for which I asked twentyfive guineas, but offered to take guineas and the bird. This was at length agreed to, and now, having sold it for , it makes I got for the shawl, and not a bad day's work either."
Of shells there are about a million of the commoner sorts bought by the London street-sellers at the gross. They are retailed at apiece, or the gross, when sold separately; a large proportion, as is the case with many articles of taste or curiosity rather than of usefulness, being sold by the London street-folk on country rounds; some of these rounds stretch half-way to Bristol or to Liverpool.