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Old publications about street cries

Street cries were once a popular subject of songs and literature in Britain, continental Europe and elsewhere. Each month throughout 2018 I'll be scanning and transcribing publications to build this collection.

THE CRIES OF LONDON

THE CRIES OF LONDON.

BY GEORGE AUGUSTUS SALA

With Illustrations from Contemporary Prints.



THERE have been Cries and Cries in every age, and in every country under the sun; and nearly every one of the exclamations or proclamations in question is susceptible of subdivision into numerous classes. Thus , among military cries in antiquity, and in the middle ages, there was a substantial difference between the “way-cry,” and the “cry of arms.” The first was a purely martial and often capricious shout, frequently recalling the memory of a local event, of a particular victory, or a particular defeat: thus, “Come on, you Cheesemongers!” – the bantering cry of a commanding officer of a cavalry regiment of the Household Brigade at Waterloo* [* The contemptuous term of “Cheesemongers” was applied by the London populace to the gallant corps in question because, until a late period of our great war with France, they had not been sent on foreign service] – “Forward, Dirty Half-hundred!” “To your tents, O Israel!” were war-cries; and could it be fully proven that the Iron Duke did textually utter the words attributed to him, when he bade the infantry of the Guards charge at Waterloo, “Up Guards and at ‘em!” would assuredly have been a war-cry. The cry of arms was, on the other hand, a feudal and heraldic one. It was the means of exciting the pride and pugnacity of one nation against another which the first was burning to destroy. Our “St. George for Merry England!” the French “Montjoye, St. Denis!” the Crusaders’ “Dues Vult!” the Bohemians “Prague! Prague! the cry of the Counts of Hainault, “Back to back, Waudripont!” – because the escutcheon of the House of Waudripont bore in chief two lions “adossés.” According to Froissart the cry of arms of the House of Stanley was, “Lancaster for Earl Derby.” These were all feudal and armorial to the backbone; but there were also general cries of a hostile nature which partook equally of the nature of martial and feudal ululation. Of these, there can scarcely be two more typical illustrations than Shakespeare’s “Havoc!” which simply means “destruction,” and the medi&aeligval “Sus! Sus!” which may be very aptly translated into sterling English as “to come down souse” – and indeed, it was used in the sense of a sudden attack or rushing upon the foe by Edmund Burke; but, in modern times, we have come to associate “souse” with some kind of pickle. We understand what is meant by soused gurnet and soused mackerel; but if the Hon. Leader of the Opposition announced his intention of “coming down souse” on the Right Hon. Leader of the House of Commons, the House would laugh.

The Cries on which I am about to descant, have nothing whatever to do with war or with the feudal system. They are of an eminently peaceful and domestic character; yet I venture to think that an attempt to inquire into their former character and prevalence, and to seek for the reasons which have led to so many of them falling into desuetude, is task well worthy to be undertaken by the earnest student of civilization; and that, on the whole, if we would wish to comprehend with some amount of clearness the manners of our ancestors, we should pay quite as much attention to the popular trading cries they uttered as to the ballads which they sang, and the proverbs which they were accustomed to repeat.

It fortunately happens that the bibliography and iconography of the Cries of London – of which engravings of a few leading types, with some kindred chapbook subjects, embellish this paper – are of a very copious nature; and, looking at the restricted space which a periodical with pleasantly-varied contents can offer to a single contributor, it will be rather from an embarras de richesse, than from a paucity of materials, that I shall suffer. Fruit, vegetables, fish, cakes, clothes, toys, flowers, fuel, water, and household commodities too numerous to specify, were very likely cried in the streets of London even in Anglo-Saxon times; and there were certainly a good store of cries before the time of Queen Elizabeth; but I do not propose to go farther back than 1584 in my present quest. In the year just named, there was published a comedy called The Three Ladies of London, in which there is a poetical catalogue of metropolitan cries, too long to quote in its entirety, but of which I may give the pith. One Constamce, with brooms on her back, enters singing:–

“New brooms, green brooms, will you buy any?
Come maidens, come quickly; let me take a penny!”

Constance goes on to say that her brooms are “not stupid, nor crooked,” but “very well bound, and smooth cut and round.” She proceeds to hint that she is not averse to exchange and barter, and that she will be glad to take “old boots or shoon, pouch-rings or buskins, to cope for new brooms.” In our vignettes the brooms most conspcious are the sooty fasces, borne by the chumney sweep and the small boy his assistant; and this picture is from a series of etchings called the “Cryes of London, drawne after the Life,” by Marcellus Lauron, a nature of the Hague, where he was born in 1653. He came to England with his father, by whom he was instructed in drawing and painting; and he so surpassed his contemporaries in drapery, that Sir Godfrey Kneller employed him to “clothe” his portraits. To Lauron’s etching-needle we owe, apparently, the “Nonconformist Minister,” the tinker with his hammer and kettle who cries “Pots to Mend!” the man and woman who have “Many new Songs to sell,” the water-carrier who hawks “New River Water,” and the itinerant clothesman who cries “Old Cloaks, Suits, or Coats.” You will observe, also, that he carries in his right hand a couple of rapiers:– in fact, he corresponds precisely with the Parisian industrial described in 1815 in Béranger’s song, “Vieux Habits, Vieux Galons!” The woman who cries “Buy my Dutch Biskets,” and the female vendor of London Gazettes, both point distinctly to the period of the Restoration, in the second year of which the London Gazette made its first appearance. The lady newsvendor is evidently a descendant of the “Flying Stationers” of Tudor times; while the Dutch “bisket” seller, reminds us of the intimate social link which – although England and Holland were during a period of ten years constantly at war – bound Dutch and English domesticity together. The patronage in this country of Dutch tiles, “drops,” dolls, clocks, herrings, ovens, cheeses, and very many other articles of household use, is due, in the main, first to the long residence of the exiled Charles II. in the United Provinces; and next, to the even more protracted sojourn at the Hague of Mary, Princess of Orange, and afterwards Queen of England, in co-partnership with William III. Let is be added that this food and charitable woman introduced into England something else besides Dutch “notions” from her husband’s native land. She brought home with her Dutch cleanliness and the Dutch system of charity schools.

To return to brooms, I find them figured in a great many plates coming down to 1815, in which year the indefatigable cockney antiquary, John Thomas Smith, the author of the Life of Nollekens, and the delightful Book for a Rainy Day, who died keeper of the Print Room at the British Museum, published a series of graphic etchings illustrative of the Cries of London in his day. I shall have more to say about John Thomas Smith ere I have done; but for the present my business is brooms. The hawkers of these indispensable articles frequently included mops in their stock-in-trade, and it is not at all unlikely that the slang term for an inebriated man being “mops-and-brooms” springs from the frequency of dealers in such articles, when they had sold out their stock, indulging somewhat too copiously in alcoholic stimulants. “Green” brooms, that is to say brooms made out of rushes or of green osiers, “well-bound and cut smooth and round,” have long since faded out of London street-traffic; and it is only elderly persons, I should say, who have been privileged to hear in the youth the cry of “Buy a broom.” It was a very frequent one in London town when I was young. The broom-sellers were German girls, imported generally, so it was said, from Bavaria, who plied their trade from the age of ten to fifteen, and were usually the thralls and bond-servants of German crimps at the east end of London, who stood towards their helpless little serfs in the relation in which the Italian padroni of Saffron Hill formerly stood towards the Italian organ and hurdy-gurdy grinding, and monkey and white-mouse-exhibiting children. Both the German mädchen and the Italian boys were sent out early in the morning to beg, under the pretence of giving musical entertainment or selling brooms; and if they did not bring home that which the slave-owner considered to be an adequate amount of money at night, they were mercilessly beaten. This revolting traffic has long since been stamped out, and at the present day the street trade in brooms seems to be to a great extent monopolized by gipsies or travelling-dealers, who are of half Romany engendure, and who do not offer their wares by solitary outcry, but heap them high on carts and caravans, which they conduct slowly through carefully selected districts of the town and suburbs. Baskets and brushes of every shape also form an important portion of the stock-in-trade of these worthies.

“Knives and Scissors to grind O!” is a cry almost as ancient as the introduction into our civilisation of scissors and knives themselves; while the useful vocation of the nomads – who are to be found busy at their wheels in the streets fashionable and unfashionable of the metropolis, excluding only those thoroughfares in which the traffic is heavy as to make the wheelmen obstructive and consequently liable to be moved on by the police – has had literary renown conferred on it by Canning’s immortal ballad of “The Needy Knifegrinder,” in the Anti-Jacobin. Canning’s hero appears from the text to have been an ordinary specimen of the itinerant industrial of the period. He was indigent; his hat had got a hole in it, so had his breeches; and when his labours were over he was apt to get tipsy at the Chequers, and to become disorderly as well as drunk; whereupon, the next morning, Justice Oldmixon set him in the stocks for a vagrant. I think, however, that I have heard my friend, Mr. Charles G. Leland, more than once remark, that many of the needy knifegrinders with whom he has conversed in London or in the provinces are gipsies, or have at least sufficiently foregathered with the Romany folk as to be able to converse in their dialect.

Some of our illustrations are engraved from the well-known pictures of Francis Wheatley, R.A., who as a figure-draughtsman had much of the facile ease and simple elegance of his contemporary, George Morland. “Old Chairs to Mend,” a prime favourite with the illustrators of street cries, is a subject admirably treated by Wheatley. From his pencil also come our illustrations of “Sweet China Oranges!” “Hot spiced Gingerbread,” “Strawberries, scarlet Strawberries!” “The Fruit-Barrow;” “Do you want any Matches?” “A new Ballad, only a Ha’penny each;” and of course “Knives and Scissors to grind O!” Again, this particular craft appears in almost every collection of Cries with which I am acquainted; from the penny Seven Dials’ productions of the Catnach press fifty years since, to the more artistic and expensive productions of Lauron, Wheatley, and John Thomas Smith. As I have said, “Knives and Scissors to grind!” has been pictorially dwelt upon by many other artists. Hogarth, in particular, has introduced a needy knifegrinder in that astonishing demonstration of street noises, The Enraged Musician. Whether the exasperated composer – presumably of foreign extraction – who is furiously gesticulating at the open window, in this drollest of droll prints, be Handel or Pepusch or neither of those men of melody, it is only the Cries of London that I have to consider in considering Hogarth’s engraving. Mark the female ballad singer vociferating “The Lady’s Fall;” look at the little French drummer accompanying his rataplan with his squeaky voice; while the buxom vendor of milk melodiously screams “Milk Belo-o-o-w1” and an itinerant performer on the hautboy – evidently an alien, and possibly a portrait from life – is tootling seraphic notes on his instrument. In the background is a dustman in the noisy exercise of his calling, and the ambulatory fishmonger shouts his commodities. Just as the knifegrinder appears in Hogarth, so is he also to the fore, only in a more graceful vignette, in Wheatley who, by the way, has occasionally diverged from the portraiture of London cries to “Scenes of Clerical Life.” At least we behold him, here, in the quiet little composition of “The Curate of the Parish returned from Duty.”

Among those London Cries in the series etched by John Thomas Smith, and published in 1815, of which I have already spoken, the one perhaps that has the most remote genesis is the figure of the man crying, “Hot Pease!” J. T. Smith has made him quite a poetical looking street-seller, with curly locks, clean-shaven cheeks, and eyes turned sweetly upwards, just as though he could appreciate such poetic efforts as “Queen Mab” or “Endymion.” He has a turn-down collar, too, over his black stock; and his lower limbs are cased in a kind of Hessian boots made of strongly ribbed woollen stuff with leather soles. His tin canister of hot pease he carries under one arm, and in his disengaged hand he bears a pepper-castor. Now the distributor of hot pease had been selling them in London streets since Queen Bess’s time, and probably for many generations before. He was known in Chepe and Cornhill and Fleet Street long before the “Tiddy Dolls” and “Colly Molly Puffs” were heard of; but in Tudor and Stuart times, he was a street restauranteur of a somewhat more enterprising character than the sentimental youth with the upturned eyes in J. T. Smith’s etching. He sold “Hot grey Pease, and a Suck o’ Bacon;” that is to say, he had a piece of boiled bacon attached to a little stick, which he carried in one hand; and the purchaser of a pennyworth or a ha’penny worth of hot grey pease was entitled to introduce the piece of bacon between his lips and extract as much nutriment therefrom as he could during the extremely limited time allowed him for suction. I do not find it on record that any of the hot grey pease customers ever bolted the bacon en bloc: perhaps the peasemonger was cautious enough to place the tempting bit of pork on a “paternoster” hook of grapnel shape; so that if the bacon were gorged by a wickedly gluttonous small boy, he would be unable to disengage himself from the hook, and might be dragged hither and thither to the serious detriment of his internal organs.

In another illustration will be found a reproduction of one of J. T. Smith’s characters, “The Italian Image Boy.” If you note the date, 1815, and the effigies of public characters in plaster of Paris which crowd the board which the boy holds on his head, you will admit that the etching possesses some curious historic interest. Never mind the Three Graces and the Farnese Hercules; but take careful note of the fact of that Chinese building to the right, being evidently a model of the pagoda erected on the bridge over the reservoir in the Green Park on the occasion of the fêtes and illuminations held in commemoration of the Peace of 1814. I cannot exactly settle in my mind whether the bust of the gentleman of somewhat florid aspect, and with a large shirt frill, is the Prince Regent; but I am sure that I can make out a little statuette of Frederick the Great of Prussia, a bust of the Hetman Platfoff, and another of Napoleon I,; and unquestionably the plaster head which the Italian boy holds in his hand is that of Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, and Prince of Waterloo.

Likewise among J. T. Smith’s cries is that of the “Flying Pieman” – the vendor of patties being a spare, bustling little man with a protruding pig-tail. He wears a large white apron, and is in his shirt sleeves, which are tucked up to the elbow. He has just a dozen of pies displayed on a board before him. The “Flying Pieman” has all but disappeared from our social scheme; he has been, in the fugitive pastry line of business, deposed by the keeper of the permanent sedentary pie-shop; and so far as kerb-stone traffic is concerned, he has been compelled to yield the pas to the proprietor of the “Hokey-pokey” stall, or vendor of cheap ices. The pieman of the past was rather a fraudulent character. He used to gamble with his juvenile customers and toss them at a game practically amounting to “heads they lost, tails he won,” till he was improved off the face of the pavement by the police. So far as I can recollect, nearly the last mention of the tossing pieman in English literature is to be found in Dombey and Son, in which “Rob the Grinder” tosses away with the pieman a gratuity which the little scamp has just received. “Pickled Cucumbers!” is another of J. T. Smith’s cries. The seller carries his marinaded gherkins in a dish on his head: a fork being stuck in one of the cucumbers. He has long dark hair and an aquiline nose and a full underlip; and altogether I should say that he was a child of Israel. I am confirmed in my belief by the circumstance that the last time I explored a Sunday morning market in Petticoat Lane, now Middlesex Street, E.C., I heard frequent cries of “Pickled Cucumbers!” the dealers in which were exclusively Jews.

Yet another J. T. Smith etching is one of the men who used to cry “Door Mats!” and who carried those domestic appliances in several superposed layers back and front, like so many herald’s tabards. The advantage of such a mode of exhibiting door-mats may be considered as analogous to the benefit which ladies in a dressmaker’s showroom obtain from beholding the dress which they wish to criticise being donned by one of the young lady-assistants, who gracefully marches up and down the room, turns round, bends, and submits the costume to examination from every point of view; only the young lady-assistant can only exhibit one costume at a time. J. T. Smith’s street-seller could place simultaneously at least a dozen samples of his commodity in evidence; and intending purchasers would lift up his frontal mats, one after the other; then turn him round and examine his dorsal rugs; and ultimately select the article that pleased them best.

There are a great many more London cries, ancient and modern, that I could descant upon; but the brief remaining space at my command bids me to be as concise as I can in enumerating the many cries which have passed away, and the few which are still audible in the streets of London. The most implacable foe to our cries has been the statute known as the New Police Act. Almost all the popular announcements that were once so pleasantly frequent have been silenced by the stern ordinances of municipal authority. The tinkling bell of the muffin man is still, I believe, occasionally heard in the outlying suburbs; but not long ago a hawker of muffins and crumpets was summoned to a metropolitan police court, for employing the traditional tintinnabulum is proclaiming the beginning of his afternoon rounds. I don’t think the poor man was prosecuted to conviction; still, I am afraid that he was warned not ring his bell in the streets again. The dustman’s cart, it is true, perambulates the streets at irregular periods, although householders complain that when they do place a pasteboard ticket inscribed with the letter “D” in the corner of the window-pane as a hint to the contractor’s men that they would like their dust removed, the dustmen are slow in coming, and even when they do come decline to remove the rubbish unless they are regaled with “backshish” or with beer. But their official voice is hushed. No more do they cry “Dust ho!” no more do they lustily peal the clanging bell.

“Bellows to Mend” is another street-cry which at present is seldom if ever heard. People who like aesthetic surroundings in their houses sometimes indulge in the luxury of a pair of fine art bellows; elaborately carved or painted; but the kitchen bellows has become more or less a negligible quantity. The chimney sweep has become quite as mute as the dustman. The New Police Act gagged him more than half a century ago; and I was reading only the other day in a volume of the Examiner for 1835, of a chimney sweep was summoned before the Lord Mayor for the offence of crying “Soot!” in a public thoroughfare. The incriminated sweep was a very cunning fellow. His defence was that he never pronounced the word “soot” at all, and that he only cried “Boots!” a pronouncement which he contended was not prohibited by the statute. Moreover, he produced two witnesses – a periwinkle merchant and watercress-girl – who were willing to swear their heads off that he cried “Boots!” and not “Soot!” The Lord Mayor, laughing, sent the sable casuist about his business. “Milk O!” is another cry which is growing feebler; nor even do you often see nowadays the sturdy Welsh milk-woman, with her shining cans pendant from the ends of the wooden yoke fixed on her broad shoulders. Milk is now generally dispensed by cleanly-dressed youths, who glide about the streets on tricycles and draw their lacteal stores from securely-locked cans; in spite of which precaution it happens now and then – so at least the sanitary inspectors say – that a considerably larger quantity of water than should be present in honest milk somehow gets into the carefully secured receptacles.

About the cry of the old clothesman, I am scarcely qualified to say whether the once common morning jödel, “Clo! Clo!” is quite so audible as was formerly the case; because for many years past I have not lived in a London street which was habitually in the beat of a second-hand clothes dealer. I should say, however, that the indefatigable pickers-up of cast-off garments occasionally make themselves heard to the dwellers of the suburbs. Their business, in any case, must have been seriously interfered with by the wholesale dealers in second-hand wearing apparel, who systematically advertise their business in the daily papers, and to whom you send by parcel-post the wearing-apparel which you are anxious to get rid of; receiving by return of post a remittance which the buyer probably thinks to be quite ample, but which, in the majority of cases, the seller thinks to be shamefully inadequate. “All Hot!” again is a cry which no longer issues from the lips of the baked-potato man, who has now become, I am told, a merchant of “Irish fruit,” and has a baking-machine on wheels before him of a far more elaborate construction than the old potato-can, one of which, some five and forty years ago, was installed in permanence in the middle of the northern extremity of the Haymarket. “Pickled Oysters!” once a familiar cry, has become as hushed in West-end London as the cry of “Fresh Oysters!” in “Namby Pamby” Philipps’s poem of “The Splendid Shilling;” still I am not prepared to assert, positively, that pickled oysters have altogether vanished from the East-end of London. I fancy that those bivalves pickled are still to be heard of in Petticoat Lane, to which I intend to pay a flying visit some Sunday morning during the autumn. “Boot-laces and Stay-laces, a Penny a Pair!” are very seldom cried at present. They are as defunct in a street-selling sense as the “Last Dying Speeches” which used to be hawked about the streets by fellows with harsh voices every execution morning, – ordinarily Monday morning; and these public hangings, it is a national shame to remember, occurred on a great many Mondays during the year. A very long time also has elapsed since I have met the man with a wooden pole over his shoulder, supporting at either end a mountain of bonnet-boxes and cap-boxes. He, too, may still haunt to a limited extent the environs of the great city; but in the main thoroughfares the law and the police, and indeed the exigencies of public convenience, are all dead against him.

There are still, it is scarcely necessary to say, vast numbers of street-vendors of fruit, vegetables, flowers, and fish, and the cries of the industrious and poverty-stricken folk who hawk these wares are most distinctly heard at early morning, when their operations are not likely to prove inconveniently obstructive to the traffic. Among the really pretty cries which still obtain, but which you must go to the uttermost ends of London to hear, are “Sweet Lavender, Sweet Lavender, Sixteen Branches a Penny!” nor has there yet been any solution to the continuity of the industrial who has the pretty little woolly trifles, which he calls “Young Lambs” to sell; his grandfather and his great-grandfather, commercially speaking, dealt in these commodities; and his portrait duly figures in J. T. Smith’s etchings. I have been told, too, that the man who cries hearth-stones may yet be occasionally met with; but I am afraid you would have to travel far and wide before you came across the reduced gentlewoman who was compelled to sell Bath brick for a livelihood, but who, when, in faint accents, she proclaimed her wares, added the murmured expression of a hope that nobody heard her. “One a Penny, Two a Penny, Hot Cross Buns!” is essentially a Good-Friday cry, and would not, probably, be resented by the police; but in genteel neighbourhoods householders order their hot-cross-buns on Thursday evening, and have no need for the services of the wandering bun-purveyor. “Hot and Strong, Peppermint and Ginger Drops!” is a cry that is head no longer; nor are your ears often assailed by the strident bawl of the man who sells dog-collars, and who, as I knew him fifty years ago, used from neck to heel to be hung round with straps, collars, and muzzles. There is as much cats’ meat and dogs’ meat needed in these days, I suppose, as was the case half a century since; but the dealers in these refreshments for our fourfooted friends no longer proclaim their goods from the housetops, or, rather from the kennel.

The plain truth is, that the New Police Act and the costermongers’ barrows have between them all but completely stifled the Cries of London. You do hear, it is true, “Yah! ah! Sparra-grass!” and “Mackerel!” and “Strawberries! fourpence a pottle!” but not many more yells of peripatetic retailers. I myself am partially deaf; but the result of my inquiries among my friends who have two ears a-piece, and can make sharp use of them, is that although they often hear “Lavender!” “Primroses!” “Cresses!” and “Shrimps!” cried, they very seldom listen to the prolonged “yaup” of the man who used to go about with a basketful of live eels, or the woman who shouted “Sprats! Alive O!” in a voice that was almost pathetic. Nearly all the articles which street-buyers want can be had now off the costermongers’ barrows; and the keepers thereof are content to exhibit them without uttering any more definite announcement than “Will you Buy – Will you Buy, Buy, Buy?” which may be considered a mere invitation to purchase, but cannot be accepted as a genuine Cry.