Costermongers, Who Exactly Are They? - RuralHistoria (2024)

Costermongers have been a familiar sight in London since at least the 1400s, if not earlier. In the 1840s, Mayhew referred to costermongering as an “ancient calling,” citing the earliest documented accounts of the street sellers’ unique cries and sales pitches in a ballad.

This ballad, known as London Lyckpeny, is believed to have been composed by John Lydgate in the late 14th century and was first performed circa 1409. Additionally, renowned playwrights Shakespeare and Marlowe have made references to costermongers in their works, further attesting to the long-standing presence of these street vendors in the heart of London’s society.

A costermonger, also known as a coster or costard, is a vendor selling fruits and vegetables on the streets of British towns. The name originates from “costard,” a type of medieval apple, combined with “monger,” meaning seller.

Contents

  • Background
  • History
  • Going Hungry
  • Victorian Era
  • Costermongers Today

Over time, the term broadened to encompass street hawkers of various goods. Historical analysis reveals a structured hierarchy within the costermonger community, distinguishing between those who sold goods from handcarts or animal-drawn carts and those hawkers who simply carried their merchandise in baskets.

Background

Costermongers played a crucial role in the swift distribution of food from wholesale to retail, bridging the gap between large marketplaces (such as Smithfield for meat, Spitalfields for fruit and vegetables, or Billingsgate for fish in London) and the working-class consumer.

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They employed various methods for transporting and showcasing their goods, ranging from stationary carts at market stalls to mobile units like horse-drawn carts or wheelbarrows, and even hand-held baskets for lighter items like herbs and flowers, adapting their sales approach to the needs of their clientele and the nature of their products.

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Despite facing a tumultuous history, costermongers withstood several attempts to remove them from the streets, encountering significant opposition during the reigns of Elizabeth I, Charles I, and notably in Victorian times.

The resilience of the costermonger community, bolstered by strong internal solidarity and public empathy, thwarted efforts to displace them.

Renowned for their lyrical sales pitches, poems, and chants, costermongers used these auditory and visual cues to draw attention in the bustling streets of London and other major European cities like Paris, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their distinctive sing-song calls and vibrant presence added a unique flavour to the urban milieu, becoming an integral part of street culture.

Costermongers Identity

Costermongers also cultivated a unique identity, with their mode of dress acting as a badge of community affiliation. A notable feature of their attire was the kingsman, a large neckerchief, that signified their belonging to the coster world.

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Their notorious antagonism towards law enforcement further underscored their distinctiveness. This rich culture and identity of the costermongers captured the imagination of artists, dramatists, comedians, writers, and musicians alike, making them a popular subject in Victorian music halls and beyond, where their lives and customs were often portrayed and parodied.

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History of Costermongers

Costermongers have been a fixture in London since the 15th century, if not earlier. In the 1840s, Mayhew referred to costermongering as an “ancient calling,” noting that the earliest accounts of their unique calls and sales tactics were depicted in “London Lyckpeny,” a ballad by John Lydgate believed to be written in the late 1300s and first performed in 1409.

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The profession also features in the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe, highlighting its long-standing presence. Originally, the term ‘costermonger’ broadly applied to any vendor of fresh goods, but it became closely linked with London’s street sellers following their proliferation in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Their numbers peaked in the Victorian era, with Mayhew recording an estimate of 30,000 to 45,000 in London by the late 1840s.

Teeming with Costermongers

The post-Great Fire of London reconstruction included the 1773 dismantlement of London’s primary produce market, Stocks Market. Its relocation triggered a decline in retail markets, contrasted by the flourishing of wholesale markets.

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Costermongers stepped in to bridge this gap, offering affordable produce in manageable quantities to the working class. This demographic, burdened by lengthy, demanding work hours, found it challenging to shop at markets located away from the city’s core.

The rapid population increase following the Industrial Revolution amplified this demand, underscoring the costermongers’ critical role in servicing the working class.

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By the 18th century, London’s streets were teeming with costermongers. Amid fierce competition, they began to adopt unique cries to distinguish themselves. Mayhew’s vivid depiction of a Saturday night in the New Cut, a Lambeth street south of the river, encapsulates this bustling scene.

Lit by a host of lights… the Cut was packed from wall to wall…. The hubbub was deafening, the traders all crying their wares with the full force of their lungs against the background din of a horde of street musicians.

Going Hungry

Three consecutive days of rain could nearly drive them to the brink of hunger, highlighting the precariousness of their trade, which was markedly affected by the seasons.

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January and February were particularly harsh, often described as months of famine, with fish serving as a critical but sometimes unaffordable staple due to high wholesale costs. During these months, weekly earnings could dwindle to as little as eight shillings, and by March, this figure was often cut in half.

April marked a slight improvement with the arrival of root plants like wallflowers and sweet-scented stocks, leading to a modest increase in income. May combined the sale of herrings with wallflowers, while June introduced new potatoes. J

uly signaled the arrival of cherries and other soft fruits, culminating in August with plums and greengages, when earnings could surge to thirty-six shillings. However, by September, as apples became the season’s highlight, there was a noticeable dip in income.

Costermonger Communities

October’s shift from apples to oysters and November’s introduction of sprats (sanctioned by the Lord Mayor, who had jurisdiction over Billingsgate Market) marked further seasonal transitions.

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Early December saw a lull in business, which briefly revived during Christmas with the sale of holly, ivy, and oranges before the cycle recommenced in the stark new year.

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London boasted thirty-two significant street markets, around which costermonger communities formed, living in close quarters within courtyards and alleyways. A typical family’s dwelling was often a cramped single room, a setting Mayhew explored during his visits to three such homes.

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The first belonged to what he termed thriving costermongers—a mother, son, and daughter who notably abstained from alcohol. Their room was adorned with saintly images above the fireplace and mantelpiece displays of crockery busts of Prince Albert and M. Jullien.

They owned a bedstead adorned with a quilt and a dresser for their clean cups and blue plates, as Mayhew specifically noted. The floor was not just cleaned but scrubbed to a bright white, and a pot of stew simmered invitingly on the fire.

Victorian Era

The zenith of the costermonger’s trade occurred during Queen Victoria’s reign.. With an estimated population of thirty to forty thousand in a city of less than two and a half million, costermongers were a significant presence in London’s economy, primarily engaging in the wholesale purchase and retail sale of fruits and vegetables.

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As most did not own fixed stalls, they fell under the category of hawkers, vocally advertising their goods while navigating the streets with barrows, donkey carts, or shallows (trays carried on the head).

In the 1840s, costermongers were responsible for selling ten percent of the more affordable produce at Covent Garden’s wholesale market and a third of the fish from Billingsgate. Their earnings varied widely, from ten shillings a week to as much as thirty, at a time when a collier might earn about twenty shillings a week.

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Their trade peaked on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, coinciding with the end-of-week pay and the need to purchase Sunday’s dinner. Mayhew vividly describes the hustle and bustle of a Saturday evening market in November, noting the illuminating naphtha flares, candles, gas jets, and the glow from chestnut roasters.

Chants of Butchers

The cacophony of hundreds of traders shouting their wares, from chestnuts and Yarmouth bloaters to beautiful whelks and fine russets, blended with the chants of butchers and the barkers outside circuses, creating a lively marketplace.

This scene, offering everything from saucepans to shirts, encapsulated the struggle to eke out a penny profit from the working-class Sunday dinner, a phenomenon Mayhew observed across all corners of the metropolis.

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In the 19th century, costermongers were often cast in a negative light, criticised for their “low habits, general improvidence, love of gambling, lack of education, indifference towards legal marriage ceremonies, and their use of distinctive slang.” Despite this unsavoury image, Mayhew’s views on costermongers were mixed.

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He acknowledged their reputation for dishonesty, noting instances of manipulated weights and measures to deceive customers. Yet, Mayhew also contended, based on his observations, that costermongers were not as dishonest as commonly perceived.

Similarly, Victorian journalist James Greenwood described costermongers in derogatory terms but recognised the vital role they played for the impoverished, who would suffer without access to the services costermongers provided. Methodist author Godfrey Holden Pike initially criticised the Sunday markets but later admitted that the negative portrayal of costermongers in influential publications was often exaggerated.

Stigmatisation of Costermongers

Historians, including Jones, suggest that the negative stereotyping of costermongers aligned with wider objectives to clear the bustling streets of London from the chaos brought by street vendors amidst growing vehicular traffic and congestion.

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This period also saw a push against Sunday trading, targeting the informal, unregulated retail sector. The media of the time contributed to the stigmatisation of costermongers, depicting them as central figures in narratives of moral decline associated with the locales they frequented.

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Efforts to eliminate street trading were not unique to the 19th century. Charles Knight noted similar attempts during the reigns of Elizabeth I and Charles I.

However, by the 1840s, costermongers faced mounting pressures from various factions: local vestries concerned with the disorder around street markets, campaigns against Sunday trading, and authorities troubled by the proliferation of unregulated markets and the resultant street congestion.

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Throughout the 1860s, Police Commissioner Richard Mayne took decisive action against costermongers, shutting down several markets. At the same time, new covered marketplaces were being built by authorities and philanthropists, aiming to transition trade from the streets to more controlled environments.

Formed in February 1888

By the late 1870s in Bethnal Green, London, tensions between local authorities and costermongers escalated significantly. The local vestry, arguing that costermongers were causing street blockages, littering, and fostering gambling and prostitution, revived an old law to restrict street trading at specific times.

To enforce these regulations, they established a Street Regulation Committee and appointed a paid Street Inspector. Among the contentious rules was the requirement for coffee stalls to shut by 7:30 am, a directive that directly impacted workers seeking a warm beverage on their way to work.

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Despite a petition from some 700 local residents opposing these restrictions, the vestry’s strict enforcement led to numerous fines for street vendors.

In Club Street and Sclater Street markets, costermongers faced harassment, with their stalls being attacked, barrows and carts seized, and sometimes their goods discarded into drains.

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In response, the Bethnal Green Costermongers’ and Stallkeepers’ Society was formed in February 1888, aiming to defend costers against legal actions with the support of a solicitor on retainer.

Discovering that similar measures were being imposed in St Luke’s Parish and St Georges Parish, they expanded their efforts by establishing the London United Costermongers’ League.

Justice of the Peace

The public largely sided with the costermongers, suspecting the vestry’s motives and conjecturing that shopkeepers were attempting to eliminate affordable street-sold produce to reduce competition.

Montagu Williams, a Justice of the Peace, personally investigated the situation in Sclater Street and concluded the vestry’s complaints were unfounded. Subsequently, justices began imposing minimal fines on stall-holders, diminishing the impact of the vestry’s campaign.

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The costermongers also sought support from philanthropist, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who advocated on their behalf, leading to the eventual withdrawal of the punitive measures.

The confrontations involving costermongers’ defiance against numerous efforts to remove them from the streets only intensified their bitterness towards the police, often reaching levels of extreme animosity.

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For a significant portion of the working class, the costermongers’ conspicuous opposition turned them into figures of admiration. As observed by one historian:

With thenavviesa state of permanent warfare with civil authority was common, but not inevitable; with the London costermongers it was axiomatic.

As the 19th century drew to a close, the presence of costermongers began to wane. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that mobile street vending by costermongers largely ceased, with the few remaining transitioning to established pitches in local markets.

Coster Culture and Style

Approximately half of the costermonger community were born into the trade, having been raised within costermonger families. Girls as young as six could be found selling watercress during the day and nuts in pubs by evening.

Boys, often by the age of seven, would accompany their fathers, their youthful voices lending clarity to the street cries that adults, frequently hoarse from constant shouting, could no longer produce.

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It was not uncommon for boys to strike out on their own in the trade by the age of thirteen. Education was a rarity among them, with few attending even the affordable Ragged Schools.

Among the costermonger ranks were an estimated two to three thousand Irish individuals, who had fled the devastating Famine in Ireland. Additionally, around twelve thousand were individuals who had fallen on hard times, including labourers, mechanics, inn servants, and greengrocers’ assistants.

These newcomers, typically middle-aged and inexperienced in the nuances of the trade, often struggled to make a living. “We pity them,” remarked one costermonger, summarizing their plight as “just another way of starving.”

Dress of Culture

Costermongers cultivated a distinctive culture, marked by intense competition yet also a sense of community. Within this community, respected figures, often referred to as “elder statespeople,” could be appointed as pearly kings and queens.

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Their role was primarily to mediate conflicts among rival costermongers and maintain harmony. Despite the competitive environment, crimes like theft were uncommon within the costermonger circles, particularly in the bustling open markets where there was a strong sense of mutual vigilance.

In fact, it was more likely for common thieves to target shop owners rather than costermongers, who were known to mete out their own form of justice directly on the streets.

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The attire of London’s costermongers was distinctive and played a crucial part in their identity. By the mid-19th century, the men typically donned long waistcoats made of sandy-colored corduroy, fastened with brass or lustrous mother-of-pearl buttons.

Their trousers, also crafted from corduroy, featured a notable bell-bottom design. Their footwear was often adorned with motifs of roses, hearts, and thistles, adding a decorative flourish to their practical attire. Their neckerchiefs, known as king’s men, were fashioned from green silk or a blend of red and blue.

This unique dress code set them apart in the crowded streets of London, with Covent Garden’s flower sellers even capturing the imagination of George Bernard Shaw, who immortalized them in his work “Pygmalion.”

Costermongers Today

The number of costermongers today has dwindled to merely a few hundred, despite the survival of several historic street markets, albeit in forms vastly different from their origins.

Camden Market, for instance, now bustles as a hub for selling clothing, knick-knacks, fripperies, and joss sticks, primarily catering to tourists.

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The once grand market of Tottenham Court Road has been condensed to a single stall on the sidewalk outside the Goodge Street tube station, creating congestion, especially given its proximity to a newsstand.

The Brill and the market of Somer’s Town, which Mayhew once meticulously documented, have disappeared entirely. The exact location of The Brill, known as the descent from St Pancras Old Church towards St Pancras Railway Station, is now overshadowed by modern developments like the new British Library and a public housing estate, standing where coal yards once did.

Back slang, a linguistic twist once common among costermongers, survives now only in the butchery profession. Moreover, costers have ceased selling fish, marking a significant shift from their traditional trade practices.

Costermongers, Who Exactly Are They? - RuralHistoria (2024)
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