Knight's London: Street Noises 1841
Comprising Chapter VIII of Knight’s London, Vol 1, written by Charles Knight and published in London in 1841.
‘THE SILENT WOMAN,’ one of the most popular of Ben Jonson’s comedies, presents to us a more vivid picture than can elsewhere be found of the characteristic noises of the streets of London more than two centuries ago. It is easy to form to ourselves a general idea of the hum and buzz of the bees and drones of this mighty hive, under a state of manners essentially different from our own; but it is not so easy to attain a lively conception of the particular sounds that once went to make up this great discord, and so to compare them in their resemblances and their differences with the roar which the great Babel now “sends through all her gates.” We propose, therefore, to put before our readers this passage of Jonson’s comedy; and then, classifying what he describes, illustrate our fine old dramatic painter of manners by references to other writers, and by the results of our own observation.
The principal character of Jonson’s ‘Silent Woman’ is founded upon a sketch by a Greek writer of the fourth century, Libanius. Jonson designates this character by the name of “Morose;” and his peculiarity is that he can bear no kind of noise, even that of ordinary talk. The plot turns upon this affectation; for, having been entrapped into a marriage with the Silent Woman, she and her friends assail him with tongues the most obstreperous, and clamours the most uproarious, until, to be relieved of this nuisance, he comes to terms with his nephew for a portion of his fortune, and is relieved of the Silent Woman, who is in reality a boy in disguise. We extract the dialogue which will form a text to our paper; the speakers being Truewit, Clerimont, and a Page:–
“True. I met that stiff piece of formality, his uncle, yesterday, with a huge turban of night-caps on his head, buckled over his ears.
“Cler. O ! that’s his custom when he walks abroad. He can endure no noise, man.
“True. So I have heard. But is the disease so ridiculous in him as it is made? They say he has been upon divers treaties with the fish-wives and orange-women; and articles propounded between them: marry, the chimney-sweepers will not be drawn in.
“Cler. No, nor the broom-men : they stand out stiffly. He cannot endure a costard-monger; he swoons if he hear one.
“True. Methinks a smith should be ominous.
“Cler. Or any hammer-man. A brasier is not suffered to dwell in the parish, nor an armourer. He would have hang’d a pewterer’s ‘prentice once upon a Shrove-Tuesday’s riot, for being of that trade, when the rest were quit.
“True. A trumpet should fright him terribly, or the hautboys.
“Cler. Out of his senses. The waits of the city have a pension of him not to come near that ward. This youth practised on him one night like the bellman, and never left till he had brought him down to the door with a long sword; and there left him flourishing with the air.
“Page. Why, sir, he hath chosen a street to lie in, so narrow at both ends that it will receive no coaches, nor carts, nor any of these common noises: and therefore we that love him devise to bring him in such as we may, now and then, for his exercise, to breathe him. He would grow resty else in his cage; his virtue would rust without action. I entreated a bearward, one day, to come down with the dogs of some four parishes that way, and I thank him he did; and cried his games under Master Morose’s window; till he was sent crying away, with his head made a most bleeding spectacle to the multitude. And, another time, a fencer marching to his prize had his drum most tragically run through, for taking that street in his way at my request.
“True. A good wag! How does he for the bells?
“Cler. O! in the queen’s time he was wont to go out of town every Saturday at ten o’clock, or on holyday eves. But now, by reason of the sickness, the perpetuity of ringing has made him devise a room with double walls and treble ceilings; the windows close shut and caulk’d: and there he lives by candlelight.”
The first class of noises, then, against which Morose protected his ears by
“a huge turban of night-caps,” is that of the ancient and far-famed LONDON CRIES. We have here the very loudest of them – fish-wives, orange-women, chimney-sweepers, broom-men, costard-mongers. But we might almost say that there were hundreds of other cries; and therefore, reserving to ourselves some opportunity for a special enumeration of a few of the more remarkable of these cries, we shall now slightly group them, as they present themselves to our notice during successive generations.
And first let us go back as far as the days of Henry V. Lydgate, in his very
curious poem of ‘London Lyckpeny,’ has recorded the cries of four centuries and a half ago. He tells us that at the door of Westminster Hall,
“Fleming begun on me for to cry,
Master, what will you copen or buy,
Fine felt hats, or spectacles to read?”
Spectacles to read before printing was invented must have had a rather limited market; but we must bear in mind where they were sold. In Westminster Hall there were lawyers and rich suitors congregated, worshipful men, who had a written law to study and expound, and learned treatises diligently to peruse, and titles to hunt after through the labyrinths of fine and recovery. The dealer in spectacles was a dealer in hats, as we see; and the articles were no doubt both of foreign manufacture. But lawyers and suitors had also to feed, as well as to read
with spectacles; and on the Thames side, instead of the coffeehouses of modern date, were tables in the open air, where men every day ate and drank jollily, as they now do at a horse-race:–
“Cooks to me they took good intent,
And preferred me bread with ale and wine,
Ribs of beef both fat and full fine:
A fair cloth they gan for to spread.”
London itself seems to have been especially full of food and the cries of feeding. In Eastcheap
“One cries ribs of beef and many a pie.”
In Canwyke Street (Cannon Street)
“Then comes in one crying hot sheep’s feet.”
Those who preferred a vegetable diet had their choice:
“Hot peascod one began to cry:”
and the dessert was not wanting, for there was the cry of
“Strawberries ripe, and cherries in the rise.”
There were venders of “pepper and saffron,” bidding him draw near; and the cry which is still heard and tolerated by law, that of mackerel, rang through every street. There was the cry of “rushes green” which tells us of by-gone customs – rushes for the floor. In Cheap (Cheapside) he saw much people standing, who proclaimed the merits of their velvets, silk, lawn, and Paris thread. These, however, were shopkeepers; but their shops were not after the modern fashion of plate-glass windows, and carpeted floors, and lustres blazing at night with a splendour that would put to shame the glories of an eastern palace. They were rude booths, the owners of which bawled as loudly as the itinerants; and they went on bawling for several centuries, like butchers in a market, so that, in 1628, Alexander Gell, a bachelor of divinity, was sentenced to lose his ears and to be degraded from the ministry, for giving his opinion of Charles I., that he was fitter to stand in a Cheapside shop with an apron before him, and say “what lack ye?” than to govern a kingdom. With unpaved streets, and no noise of coaches to drown any particular sound, we may readily imagine the din of the great London thoroughfares of four centuries ago, produced by all this vociferous demand for custom. The chief body of London retailers were then itinerant, literally pedlers ; and those who had attained some higher station were simply stall-keepers. The streets of trade must have borne a wonderful resemblance to a modern fair. Competition was then a very rude thing, and the loudest voice did something perhaps to carry the customer.
If the age of the Stuarts was not the greatest period of London cries (and it is probable that the progress of refinement had abolished many of them), that period has preserved to us the fullest records of their wonderful variety. Artists of all countries and times have delighted to represent those peculiarities of costume and character which belong to the history of cries. Annibal Carracci has immortalized the cries of Bologna; and from the time of James I. to that of George IV., we have woodcuts and etchings almost numberless of the cries and Itinerant Trades of London. There is a very rare sheet of woodcuts in the British Museum, containing twelve cries ; and these may be taken, on the authority of Mr. Smith, the late keeper of the prints, as of the same date as Ben Jonson’s “fish wives and costard-mongers.” We have here the reverend watchman, with his “Hang out your light,” and the noisy “bellman,” described and engraved in a recent paper. The “orange-women” of Ben Jonson are here figured to the life. The familiar mention of the orange-sellers in the ‘Silent Woman,’ and this very early representation of one of them, show how general the use of this fruit had become in England at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It is stated, though the story is somewhat apocryphal, that the first oranges were imported by Sir Walter Raleigh. It is probable that about his time they first became an article of general commerce. We now consume about two hundred and fifty millions of oranges every year. The orange-women who carried the golden fruit upon their heads through every street and alley, with the musical cry of
“Fair lemons and oranges,
Oranges and citrons,”
lasted for a century or two.
The ‘Cries’ of Tempest were published in the beginning of the eighteenth century, but many of the designs, which are by Mauron (sometimes spelt Lauron), belong unquestionably to an earlier period. The orange-woman became, as everything else became, a more prosaic person as she approached our own times. She was a barrow-woman at the end of the last century; and Porson has thus described her:–
“As I walked through the Strand so cheerful and gay,
I met a young girl a-wheeling a barrow ;
Fine fruit, sir, says she, and a bill of the play.”
The transformation was the same with the cherry-women. The
“Strawberries ripe, and cherries in the rise,”
of the days of Henry V., was a poetical cry. It must have come over the ear, telling of sunny gardens not a sparrow’s flight from the city, such as that of the Bishop of Ely in Holborn, and of plenteous orchards which could spare their boughs as well as their fruit. “Cherry ripe” was the cry in the seventeenth century; and we all know how Herrick has married the words to poetry which is not the worse for having been as popular in our own day as “Jump Jim Crow:”
“Cherry ripe – ripe – ripe – I cry,
Full and fair ones; come, and buy .
If so be you ask me where
They do grow? I answer, there,
Where my Julia’s lips do smile,
There’s the land, or cherry-isle;
Whose plantations fully show
All the year where cherries grow.”
What a tribute to the fine old poet, who says,
“I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, arid bowers,”
to have had the dirty lanes of London, two hundred years after his death, made
vocal with words that seemed to gush from his heart like the nightingale’s song!
But the cries of “Cherry ripe” and of “Fair oranges” are now rarely heard. The barrow laden with its golden or ruby treasures is wheeled in comparative silence through the Strand. Driven off the pavement by the throng of population, the orange-woman stands upon the edge of the kerb, poising her laden basket so as to present the least impediment to the passengers, and thus satisfy the inexorable policeman. She is now silent. Even Morose, with his “turban of nightcaps,” would shun her not.
We shall not readily associate any very agreeable sounds with the voices of the “fish-wives.” The one who cried “Mackerel” in Lydgate’s day had probably no such explanatory cry as the “Mackerel alive, alive ho!” of modern times. In the seventeenth century the cry was “New mackerel;” and in the same way we have “New Wall-fleet oysters,” and “New flounders.” The freshness of fish must have been a considerable recommendation in those days of tardy intercourse. But quantity was also to be taken into the account, and so we find the cries of “Buy my dish of great smelts;” “great plaice;” “great mussels.” Such are the fish-cries in Overton’s various collections, The respectable one-eyed lady whom we here present is in Tempest’s set; and her cry is “Four for sixpence, mackerel.” She is to be contrasted with the damsel gaily tripping with a basket on her head, to the cry of “Buy my dish of great eels” and with another sprightly maiden, who vociferates “Crab, crab, any crabs?” The fish-wives are no longer seen in our great thoroughfares. In Tottenham Court Road, indeed, which still retains the character of a market, they stand in long rows as the evening draws in, with paper-lanthorns stuck in their baskets on dark nights; and there they vociferate as loudly as in the old time.
The “costard-monger” that Morose dreaded, still lives amongst us, and is still noisy. He bawls so loud even to this day, that he puts his hand behind his ear to mitigate the sensation which he inflicts upon his own tympanum. He was originally an apple-seller, whence his name ; and, from the mention of him in the old dramatists, he appears to have been frequently an Irishman. In Jonson’s ‘Bartholomew Fair,’ he cries “pears.” Ford makes him cry “pippins.” He is a quarrelsome fellow, according to Beaumont and Fletcher:–
“And then he’ll rail like a rude costermonger,
That schoolboys had just cozened of his apple,
As loud and senseless.”
The costermonger is now a travelling shopkeeper. We encounter him not in Cornhill, or Holborn, or the Strand: in the neighbourhood of the great markets and well-stored shops he travels not. But his voice is heard in most back streets stretching into the suburbs ; and there his donkey-cart stands at the door, as the dingy servant-maid cheapens a bundle of cauliflowers. He has monopolized all the trades that were anciently represented by such cries as “Buy my artichokes, mistress;” “Ripe cowcumbers;” “White onions, white St. Thomas* onions;” “White radish;” “Ripe young beans;” “Any baking pears;” “Ripe speragas.” He would be indignant to encounter such petty chapmen interfering with his wholesale operations. He would rail against them as the city shopkeepers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries railed against itinerant traders of every denomination.
In the days of Elizabeth, they declare by act of common council, that in ancient times the open streets and lanes of the city have been used, and ought to be used, as the common highway only, and not for hucksters, pedlers, and hagglers, to stand and sit to sell their wares in, and to pass from street to street hawking and offering their wares. In the seventh year of Charles I. the same authorities denounce the oyster-wives, herb-wives, tripe-wives, and the like, as “unruly people;” and they charge them somewhat unjustly, as it must appear, with “framing to themselves a way whereby to live a more easy life than by labour.”
“How busy is the man the world calls idle!”
The evil, as the citizens term it, seems to have increased; for in 1694 the common council threatened the pedlers and petty chapmen with the terrors of the laws against rogues and sturdy beggars, the least penalty being whipping, whether for male or female. The reason for this terrible denunciation is very candidly put: the citizens and shopkeepers are greatly hindered and prejudiced in their trades by the hawkers and pedlers. Such denunciations as these had little share in putting down the itinerant traders. They continued to flourish, because society required them; and they vanished from our view when society required them no longer. In the middle of the last century they were fairly established as rivals to the shopkeepers. Dr. Johnson, than whom no man knew London better, thus writes in the ‘Adventurer:’ “The attention of a new-comer is generally first struck by the multiplicity of cries that stun him in the streets, and the variety of merchandise and manufactures which the shopkeepers expose on every hand.” The shopkeepers have now ruined the itinerants – not by putting them down by fiery penalties, but by the competition amongst themselves to have every article at hand for every man’s use, which shall be better and cheaper than the wares of the itinerant. Whose ear is now ever deafened by the cries of the broom-men? The Bavarian broom-women, with their “buy a broom” and their hideous songs, belong to the class of street exhibitions. They go with the Savoyard and his monkey and white mice. But the man who bears about real brooms for use has vanished. He was a sturdy fellow in the days of old Morose, carrying on a barter which in itself speaks of the infancy of civilization. His cry was “old shoes for some brooms.” These proclamations for barter no doubt furnished a peculiar characteristic of the old London cries.