Wonderful London: London Cries 1927
Reproduced from issue 24 of the magazine ‘Wonderful London’, published in 1924.
By Gilbert Thomas
Author of “Things Big and Little,” “Sparks From the Fire,” etc.
THE other day a small boy of my acquaintance I – though, when I come to think of it, he will soon be ten years old – found, in a book he was perusing, a picture of a London horse ‘bus, and, with perfect innocence, asked me what that curious vehicle was. His question gave me a shock. It was, to begin with, an unpleasant reminder that middle-age, which a little while ago seemed so incredibly remote, is already looming before me; and, secondly, it made me suddenly appreciate the amazing transformation of the world that has gone on imperceptibly before my eyes. When, as a youth, I first settled in London eighteen years ago, it was still the London, if not of Dickens, at least of his century.
It is true that the first shoots of the present age were beginning to show themselves. Kingsway and Aldwych were in course of construction. “Development” had been started at Golders Green, which, however, was still in the country and boasted but a solitary café. As for the traffic, from which a city takes so much of its colour, the hansom, in spite of the growing number of taxi-cabs, still gaily tinkled along the streets; the “Vanguards,” snorting and groaning when they were not lying helpless by the kerb, had not ceased to be a target for the wit of the loftily-throned drivers of the multi-coloured horse ‘buses; and though the first mammoth electric trams had appeared on Finsbury Pavement to the edge of Moorgate, they had to crawl – the very picture of outraged dignity – between the green horse-drawn cars from Islington.
Now, how completely the London of the hansom and the beflagged Road Car ‘buses has disappeared! But, though gone from sight, it is still dear to memory; and sometimes it lives again in the mind when, in the drowsy dusk of a suburban Saturday afternoon, the sound of the muffin man’s bell is heard along the street. Seldom, indeed, do I hear that bell Without being carried back in thought to the London I originally knew, or without dreaming, for some not immediately apparent reason, of that earlier London which Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller loved – a London of mean streets, narrow and murky, but less racked by noise; of more leisurely habits, of cosy and companionable, if not always sanitary, interiors.
Perhaps it is that the Cries of London are among the strongest remaining links between the London of to-day and of yesterday, and, if one have imagination enough, the London of still remoter times. Some of the street cries have centuries of tradition behind them, and, gaily or plaintively, they take us back to “far-off things and battles long ago.” They may no evoke in our minds any very clear image of bygone Londons. But, like music, they stir within us at least a vague sense of the past, “felt in the blood and felt along the heart.” As “progress” marches forward, alas, the cries grow less numerous and less assertive, and the most picturesque among them are the first to succumb to the utilitarian blasts of a mechanical era.
A friend tells me that only a year ago, in Bloomsbury, he heard the quaint, long-drawn song of a woman crying “Sweet Lavender.” He was lucky. I have not heard that song for a long time, and I have to confess that were it not for Wheatley’s paintings and Vincent Thomas’s music, as well as for a recent series of “Player’s” cigarette pictures – to which in these times we owe so much of our general education! – I should, in company perhaps with most modern Londoners, have but a hazy, instinctive impression of the cries of other days.
FOOD, raiment and fuel were, it seems, the stock-in-trade of the earliest London pedlars. The milkmaid – for the carriers employed by the milk dealers of the past were usually strongly-built Irish or Welsh girls – must have been a familiar figure in the streets for centuries, with her cry of Buy my Curds and Whey, or Will you buy any Milk to-day, Mistress? or I Have fresh Cheese and Cream. Come, Who’ll Buy? Hot Green Peas was a “crie” of Chaucer’s day, and it appears that asparagus – Ripe Sparrow-grass – which some of us might have been inclined to regard as a modern luxury, has been sold in London for hundreds of years.
Other vegetables and fruits seem to have vied in popularity with “collyflowers and asparagus,” and the seventeenth century Londoner was not merely offered Fair Lemons and Oranges; Potatoes, Ripe Potatoes; White Onions, White St. Thomas’s Onions, and Round and Sound, Fivepence a Pound, Duke Cherries; but was exhorted to Buy Green and Large Cucumbers, Green and Large Cucumbers, Twelve a Penny. Many herbs, such as rue, balm and hyssop, were also hawked. Fish, too, was commonly cried – as, in the suburbs, it still occasionally is – and it is reported that “owing to the mournful manner” in which a weather-beaten Hungerford fisherman called his Large Silver Eels, Live Eels, a lady in Harley Street “allowed the fellow five shillings a week” to discontinue his activities in her neighbourhood.
Of the many sellers of cakes and other confections that tempted our great-grandfathers, only the muffin-man remains, and even he, in neighbourhoods where every other gate bears the legend of “No Hawkers, No Circulars,” seems to ring his bell with less confidence than of old. Gone – even, it may be, from the legends of the modern nursery – is the Hot-Cross Bun man; certainly gone are the purveyors of Penny Pies, all hot, Hot Spice Gingerbread, and Dutch Biskets; gone the crier of Diddle-diddle-dumplins, oh!; and gone the noisy oyster-wives who were denounced, like many other street-traders, as “unruly people,” but who continued to thrive in defiance of the squeamish respectability – not uninfluenced, perhaps, by more sordid considerations – of the shop-keeping classes.
IT is not surprising to find that the traffic in old clothes is among the most ancient of London’s travelling trades. The “O’ Clo’” man is still to be heard sometimes, but gone are his former cries of Olde Doublets, Olde Satten, Olde Taffety or Velvet. Another surviving itinerant type whose ancestry goes far back into the past is the seller of firewood, who in earlier times went about, with axe and wedge, to the tune of Have you any Wood to Cleave? The introduction of coal brought the firewood man a rival; but it was some time before competition became serious. Complaints against coal as a public nuisance were numerous at first, and it was not until about 1625 that it came into common use in London. “At that time,” we are told, “the small-coal man went from door to door with his supply of coal on his back, bawling his cry Small Coale a penny a peake (peck), an interesting indication of a city with very. few fires to be kept replenished.”
THE earliest street traders, as we have seen, catered for man’s primitive needs of food and warmth. In due course, however, came the cries of Have you any work for the Tinker? and Any Work for John Cooper? Increasingly the vendors of general merchandise appeared, in their various picturesque costumes, in the streets. Singing glasses – which modern collectors would give much to possess – were sold for a few pence in Shakespeare’s time; and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries all kinds of hardware and trinkets – including pots and pans, knives, spectacles, brushes, combs, needles, watches and chains – were tendered with such characteristic refrains as Door Mats, Want?, Do you want any Matches?, Pretty Pins, pretty women?, Buy a Mop, buy a Mop! Good to-day!, and Roasting Jacks, Toasting Forks, Files or Skewers. Nor were luxuries overlooked. Toys – especially hobby-horses, windmills, flags, swords and wooden figures – were offered, with such cries as Troop Every One! and ‘Ere’s yer Toys for Girls and Boys! Song-birds in cages are still sold in the shops of Stupidity Street. But they are not hawked to-day, and it is a long time since the cry of Come, Buy my Singing Birds, Buy a Linnet or a Goldfinch, was heard. Nor may the sentimental now procure:
Songs; Songs; Beautiful Songs;
Love Songs; Newest Songs; Old Songs;
Popular Songs; Songs Three Yards a Penny.
It will be seen that the cry of the song-seller was itself a song; and many other examples could be given, if space permitted, of the ballads sung of old by the street traders. Here, for example, is the cry of the primrose girl, painted (and perhaps idealised!) by Wheatley in 1792:
Come, who’ll buy my roses, primroses who’ll buy?
They are sweet to the sense, they are fair to the eye!
They’re covered all over with diamond dew,
Which Aurora‘s bright handmaid unsparingly threw
On their beautiful heads, so I ask but of you
To buy, buy, buy!
Nay, never refuse me, nor cry my buds down,
They are nature’s productions, and sweet ones, you’ll own;
And tho’ torn from the Earth they will smile in your Hall
And still look the loveliest flowers of all.
So buy, buy, buy!
WELL, it is only rarely now that “the streets with treble voices ring.” No longer do
“Successive cries the Seasons’ change declare
And mark the monthly progress of the year.”
But, while most of the old cries have fallen upon silence, a few, if less melodious, happily remain. In the City itself, the newsboy, rushing from Carmelite or Bouverie Street with the “Fourth Edition” of the evening papers before noon, and continuing throughout the day to shout himself hoarse with his “speshul” or “final”: All the Results – as though racing and cricket were the only matters of moment under the sun – alone attempts to make his voice heard above the babel of motor horns and changing gears.
In the East End, and in the less “respectable” suburbs, there is a strong conservatism of habit, and there you may still hear the variously pitched cries of the coster, the small-coal man, the rag-and-bone man, the hokey-pokey man, the grinder of knives, the mender of chairs, and the cat’s-meat man, with his train of feline admirers. And who shall do justice to the vocal gymnastics of the milkman, as, swinging his can, he thuds with the heavy, fantastic toe down the area steps? Only the little boys of Hackney or Bermondsey or Camberwell – the true Cockney children – can mimic his efforts to perfection; and as a rule the milkman – on the principle, no doubt, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – does not appear to resent their pert echoes.
In order fully to appreciate the Cries of London you need to be, perhaps, a newcomer from the country and laid up with sickness (as I was when I first settled in Town) in one of the inner suburbs. London, judged by provincial standards, is in some respects very inhospitable. You may live in it for years without knowing your next-door neighbour; and its vast size only accentuates its indifference to the stranger within its gates. To be stranded, ill, solitary and inexperienced, in a Finsbury Park boarding-house is not the most heartening of beginnings; and I shall never forget the relief and cheer brought to me by the bells and cries of the street vendors.
It was not merely that they punctuated the long day and helped to break its monotony; but they linked me, in some not completely definable way, with my fellows. I might know none of the people within the tall, basemented houses that lined the road in stolid blocks, but at least I was sharing something with them. They, too, would be hearing the same bells and cries; they, too, though without consciously appreciating the fact, would be drawn by them a little closer in spirit to one another. The cries of London are, indeed, the vocal expression of that mystic fellowship which pervades the London streets – especially the poorer streets. This fellowship, springing primarily perhaps from a community of habit and a subconscious realization of common needs and hopes and fears, can no more definitely be analysed than can, say, the “public school spirit.” But it is just as real, and far more human.
HOW much longer will the cries of London be heard? This morning, as I was writing, a circular was pushed through my letter-box. It was from an ice-cream company, and a card was enclosed which I was requested to put in the window whenever I felt in need of “fourpenny tubs” or “twopenny chocolate bars.”
We already put cards in the window for Carter Paterson, and the circular from the ice-cream company has set me wondering whether perhaps we are, in more senses than one, on the eve of a new Ice Age. Are we, so far as the human voice in the street is concerned, entering upon an era of frigid silence? May it soon be unnecessary for any vendor to cry his wares because, whatever our needs – whether they be for ice-cream, vegetables, groceries, clothing or cat’s-meat – we shall have but to place the right device in the window? Possibly we may come to summon the family doctor in this way, or even, when requiring spiritual comfort, to “guarantee a call” from a clergyman belonging to a new Order of Patrolling Priests.
It may be that “efficiency” will yet bring us to this. I doubt, however, if such a system would endure for very long. It would be against the deeper instincts of the human heart. In his book on William Cobbett, Mr. Chesterton, who as a boy lived in the main Kensington thorough- fare along which Cobbett often passed on horseback, tells how, in a sort of symbolical day-dream, he has frequently pictured that burly farmer’s son riding backward through time as he rides westward through space, until at last, approaching “the stormy wall of Wales,” he reaches the spot where “a low red light glows for ever upon things forgotten and the last ruins of the Round Table.”
London – “the Wen” – which Cobbett so fervently hated, has spread farther and farther along that sunset road, swallowing not only Kensington, but Chiswick and Richmond; and often it seems as if nothing could stem the modern tide. Then, however, there comes to Mr. Chesterton “the notion that high tides can turn,” and sometimes, in “that unvisited hour of almost utter stillness” that preludes the rumbling of the market carts into town, he has had the impression that the vast modern emporiums, “seen in outline like uncouth drawings,” stand less securely than they did against the sky, and, in fancy he has “heard, tiny and very far away, something like a faint voice hallooing and the sound of horse-hoofs that return.”
YES, “high tides can turn.” Mechanism and “science” are, after all, comparatively new toys, and we have not yet had time to adjust our-selves to them. But, having been swept away by the advance of “progress,” some of us are already regaining our feet and are asking ourselves whether man was made, for machinery or machinery for man. Against the rush and drive of to-day there will certainly come a reaction, and there are more unlikely possibilities than that – as forecasted by a prominent architect recently – a belt of green fields may at no very remote date appear between the heart of London and those outer regions to which its population is increasingly migrating. We cannot put the clock back to medievalism as Mr. Chesterton would have us do. Yet for our successors there may be a very different London from that we know to-day. It will be a London clean, trim and sanitary, spacious in proportions and noble in architecture; but reinvested, it is probable, with something of the homely, intimate charm it has temporarily lost.
IN its street cries the tradition of the old London still endures. That tradition may seem to live on precariously, but I believe it has yet enough strength to carry us through to a revival of what is best in it. And so, when I hear the muffin-man’s bell, I dream not only of the Londons that have gone, but of the Londons that are yet to be; and just as Mr. Chesterton catches the sound of returning horse-hoofs, so, “tiny and very far away,” I seem sometimes to hear, ringing back to us with healing and peace, the old music of Sweet Lavender and Come, Who’ll Buy My Roses?