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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.

NOISY STREET CRIES

This article is taken from the New Penny Magazine, No. 141, Vol. XI, published in 1902. The author’s name is unknown.

NOISY STREET CRIES.

WITH PICTURES OF LONDON’S VOCAL HAWKERS
CAUGHT IN THE ACT.

A PEACE-LOVING and quiet-living British citizen has many annoyances to contend with. It is an insular boast that we are a free people; we are – too free! By degrees, however – slow degrees – a leisurely Legislature is making it obvious to the dull understandings of the thoughtless and the unscrupulously offensive that they may not annoy their neighbours with impunity. We now have a summary remedy for noisy dogs and other animals, for steam organs, shooting galleries, roundabouts, etc.

There yet remain street organs and shrieking hawkers to deal with. These may be improved upon eventually. We use the word “may” advisedly, for legislation for improve life in London advances with leaden tread, amid innumerable formidable obstacles. At the present time the County Council – worthy and zealous body that it is – is moving in a maze of laws, bye-laws, enactments, clauses, and vested interests. For years they have been endeavouring to clear up this almost hopeless muddle, but they have only gone from one tangle to another.

Two or three years back the Council addressed letters to the various local authorities, asking them to say whether or not they desired that a bye-law should be made in order to deal with street cries. Of the thirty-nine who replied, only seven said “No.” This bye-law was suggested by the Home Secretary, who has the final voice in matters of this kind. Thus, before a bye-law can come into force, it must receive the approval of this official.

Things were looking easy for the projected bye-law, when the Council received a visit from a deputation of the Society of Costermongers in Columbia Market. These good folk had a tale of woe to tell, and declared that if this law were put in force a large body of costers would practically be deprived of their livelihood. All must agree that any law which would confer such a hardship upon a community is not one which should receive support. But there are many equally good folk who maintain that the suggested law would certainly not injure the coster’s business. “Live and let live,” “Bear and forbear,” are excellent humanitarian and charitable maxims, but upon occasions they are apt to be distinctly one-sided. There is no reason why any body of tradespeople should not be allowed to live, but there are manifold reasons why they should not live by being a nuisance to many others; and, in the case of the costers, not the least forcible of these reasons is that they may very well exist without being a nuisance.

It is highly probable that the coster is real boon in poor neighbourhoods; it is also feasible that, as he states, if he did not shout his customers would not know of his presence in these same poor neighbourhoods. But the coster often persists in going into or through districts where his presence is not generally desired, and where his vocal efforts are anything but appreciated by the great majority of inhabitants. It is in such places as these, when quietude is desired, if not absolutely needed, by the inhabitants, that unnecessary street cries should be legislated out of existence. There is, of course, on objection to tradesmen calling and bringing their wares – good that have been ordered need no shouting about – but the perambulating salesman, with his hideous vociferations, is a real nuisance.

The writer proposes to attempt to give some idea of the variety and nature of the calls heard during an average day in one of these much-persecuted neighbourhoods.

The day invariably opens vigorously with the milk. It did upon the occasion in question. They come not, these milk vendors, as single spies, but in battalions, and they seem to make just as much noise as they possibly can. The unnecessary banging and tossing about of their cans would in itself more than suffice; but, in addition to this there is a keen rivalry existing between them as to who can scream the loudest and longest, and they do actually pipe one against the other with infinite gusto. One will give quite an operation selection – minus the music – and another will cry out as though he were in the direct peril. Others, less gifted with prolonged wind, confine themselves to sharp, piercing, penny-whistle notes, and there are those who give out plaintive, distressful cries like a rabbit in a gin. And all this about a drop of milk! It would be interesting to know how much extra trade is done for the extra exertion.

But they do not have it all their own way. “Swee-loop!” is the weird cry of the sable chimney sweep. Black, but not comely, he chortles his way through the street, followed, closely or passed by other associates of the brush, all industriously vocalising.

Then there is he who bears the staff of life, confining himself to a short and sharp “Ker!” You hear only the second syllable, the first is lost to the world in the shirt-front of the journeyman baker. As regards noise, he is one of the least offenders.

From this comparatively inoffensive individual we pass to those who are among the very worst offenders, if they do not deserve to rank alone as the superlative degree of street nuisances. “Any old lumber – Old clo’! – Any old ‘ats – I’ll buy ‘em!” From the frequency of their visits, and the persistency of their efforts, one would imagine that every house was a lumber emporium. Some come on foot, others with a barrow or in a cart, and they pass shrieking through. Their cries are weird to a degree. One individual whom the writer noticed on the occasion in question was particularly striking in voice and appearance. Apparently he had not washed for days, nor changed his clothes; his dirty old bowler hat was many sizes too large for him. From constant shouting in the open air he had almost entirely lost his voice, but he struggled strenuously to articulate. He managed only, however, to get out portions of words, the remainder being a series of hoarse croakings. Thus it sounded something like this: “an – ld – lum – I – bu – y – ‘ats – I – bot – ld – ‘lo!”

Then there is “Dust hoy!” the burly individual with lungs of leather and a voice like an asthmatical fog-horn. He adds his quota to the sum of local disturbances. He is closely allied to the “One-an;-three-a-hunder’!” individual. Coal men have a wonderful variety of calls. They also usually have vocal shortcomings, and are not remarkable for the excellence of their enunciation. With a black hand held against a black face they wheeze out some indistinct jargon, which you might make anything of except “Coals!”

The fisher vendor is always well in evidence, and his “Four-a-shillin’ mack’ril!” cannot fail to claim attention. He will also put it beyond a doubt that he is possessed of plaice, soles, and bloaters. But when he calls out “Plaice alive O!” he is evidently indulging in a trade witticism.

Following close on the rails of the live plaice is the individual who brags at the top of his voice about his sheep’s hearts and pigs’ feet. You have hardly recovered from the shock of this announcement when “Any ferns for your gardings?” breaks in upon your tortured ear. Never having taken less interest in ferns than at that particular moment, you are not likely to be entertained by the individual who inflicts upon you the alleged merits of his “Clothes perops!” Nor are you particularly pleased that you are still alive when you hear “‘Aar’ stone! Three lumps a penny!” You do not feel a bit more cheerful when you discover that, beside hearthstone, the man has salt also.

Even supposing you to be a confirmed vegetarian, you are not likely to feel amiably disposed towards the vocal greengrocer who never seems to tire of shouting his bargains in “taters” at “three pun’ a penny,” or his “summer cabbages,” or even his peas at “thrippence ‘arf a peck!” And when you hear “Wat-er cree-see!” – when you have heard it for about the fortieth time in five minutes – then you will probably proceed to break your vegetarian vow forthwith.

Later in the day come the boys with their newspapers, who seem to revel in blood-curdling announcements, and appear quite depressed if they have not anything startling to proclaim. “Orful slaughter! – Ter’ible murder! – Latest bettin’!” shout they with high glee, endeavouring, like those of the lacteal beverage, to drown one another’s voices.

There are many other vocal street nuisances, not omitting “singers.” Street piano-organs are being legislated for – or rather attempts are being made to legislate for them – on a separate basis. When the legislation will be successful is a moot point. At present these questions of street nuisances, both as regards trade cries and “music,” are what may be regarded as legislative “hardy annuals,” for they come up every year with equal if not renewed vigour. Be it noted they are practically in the same position every year, and although they increase in strength they do not move.

The London County Council is, however, doing all that appears to be within its power – the area of its influence is admittedly limited – but the frequent appearance in the printed reports of the pregnant words “referred back” and “postponed” are anything but encouraging.