Street cries of the world

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


From the Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, Saturday 29th January 1876.



An old friend of mine who was attracted to Sydney by the last grand exhibition paid me a visit one morning. He had not seen Sydney for a good many years, and he was loud in his praises of the improvements that had been made in the city during the last twenty years. By the way, one of the many advantages of our annual agricultural exhibition is the fact that thev attract many persons to the metropolis who have perhaps lived nearly all their lifetime in the bush; and it is morally certain that most of them will carry back a few ideas which may develope into something practically useful to themselves and to their rural neighbours. Those country storekeepers who complain that the exhibitions draw much of their ready money trade to Sydney may take comfort, if they will, in the prospective increase to their business when bushfolks shall acquire a taste for something beyond the bare necessaries of life in their homes.

As my old friend Tom Flail and I sat enjoying a pleasant chat about bygone days, when we were both young and lively, I noticed that he stopped his talk once or twice, and listened to something that attracted his ear. Presently he said, as he glanced through the window, “I cannot make out what wares that man is crying in the street below there. It is a dismal cry, anyway.”

From my daily hearing queer street-cries, hand-organs, and other discordant noises, I have happily become oblivious to such nuisances. I had often heard the dreary notes of the man below, without ever thinking of what he was crying about; but, my friend having called my attention to it, I listened for a few minutes, and then said, “I think he says ‘Haw-yaw-didoo-yie-undes-illid.’ ”

“What in the world does that mean, Boomerang?”

“Ah, now you puzzle me. Perhaps he has some rare commodity that came up last week in the brig from New Guinea. Let us go and see. When I was a horseman, I always made my beast go up and look at anything that he shied at.”

“Yes, and he used to kick at it sometimes – didn’t he?” replied Flail, and he playfully imitated a frisky nag. “But come away; let us dive into the mystery of that fellow’s cart. I dare say it is only cat’s-meat he is selling.”

It was but a minute’s trot by the short cut through my back gate into the street’ below. When we got there, the man was serving a customer with a shilling’s worth of firewood – five small bundles. The interpretation of his mysterious cry was clear in a moment. “Here’s your firewood! Five bundles for a shilling.” That is what the man meant, though I should never have guessed it exactly, even if I peeped into his cart, if I had not seen him making a sale. On our way back, my friend laughed at the woodman’s eccentricity, and then he laughed at the woman’s simplicity, for giving a shilling for a mere armful of sticks; but he forgot that Sydney folks have not the convenience of a bush paddock close at hand, where they can go and gather as many sticks as they want, for nothing.

“The cries of Sydney have tickled me amazingly since I came to town,” remarked Mr. Flail, after we were again cosily seated in my sanctum. “I heard an old fellow yesterday singing out, ‘Cow keel O! Tripe O!’ and I shall never forget him as long as I live. Ha ha ha! I have learnt his cry by heart, on purpose to scare the flying-foxes from my plum trees when I get home. Ha ha! such touching groans I never did hear before, from a man standing on his legs. No wonder you have so many bolting horses in Sydney! I am glad I live in the bush.”

“But that man sells good, clean tripe, Tom; or so some of my folks say. I never eat tripe rnyself.”

“I don’t say anything against his tripe, or his cow heels either; but, be whipped if ever I heard such a yelling as he made about it – enough to set one against tripe for ever. Hark, now! What does yonder chap say?” Mr. Flail pointed me again to a man with a vegetable cart, in the street below.

“His cry is plain enough, surely. Listen to him, Tom. A la-r-g-e cab–b-a-g-e; ta-ters, pump-kins, rhu-b-a-r-b!”

“Yes, it is pretty plain, compared with the fire woodman’s cry. But mercy ‘pon us! what a voice the chap has! Like high-pressure steam blaring through a fog-horn. It’s wonderful how he could learn such discordant, rough-raspy notes.”

“His everyday practice helps to perfect him in his calling.”

“No doubt that’s it. Perhaps he practises at home, too. Ha ha! I should not like to live next door to him. It must surely be a hard duty for the wives and children of some of your town-shouters to love them fondly, after hearing them make such monstrous noises.”

“It is said that love is blind, Tom.”

“True; and it had need to be deaf sometimes, to keep lively. But what staggers me most is the marvellous indistinctness of many of your hawkers’ cries. I might have been freezing to death for want of fuel, and should never have dreamt that that firewood cart was within hail, from any single word I could hear its driver pronounce. It does seem to me a ridiculous wear and tear of lungs for fellows to be shouting gibberish that nobody could possibly put into any intelligible language under the sun.”

“You may as well say it is a waste of pens and ink for folks to write in the present fashionable, scrawling style, because common people cannot read such writing,” I remarked, with a smile at the simple earnestness of my country friend.

“Well, so I will say it is a waste of pen and ink; and sometimes, I fear, it has resulted in a waste of human life. I have myself seen some doctors’ prescriptions which looked as if they had been written in a runaway cart with a cockatoo’s claw. I am not spitetul enough to think that doctors scribble as badly as possible for the sake of encouraging the undertakers; but I suppose it is one phase of the human weakness which everybody possesses more or less – a fancy for raising a little halo of mystery about their calling. Or perhaps the doctors think it would indicate a dull practice if they took time to write prescriptions legibly.”

“I think you had better not go back to the bush, Tom. We want a man in Sydney knowing enough to put everything to rights.”

“Aye, that would be two men’s work, Boomerang. Wait till I bring my strapping son Bill down with me to your next exhibition. But, speaking of street cries again, I distinctly remember that the first new sounds which struck my ears when I first landed in. Sydney, one Sunday morning, nearly forty years ago, were from the locusts in the garden near Campbell’s Wharf; but the first street cry that attracted me was from, a man crying, or rather singing, ‘Here’s yer fine fresh schnapper! Schnapper, all alive O!’ I wondered what schnapper was, but I soon found out, for I had part of one for my breakfast half-an-hour afterwards. That fishman had a musical voice, and I liked to hear it. I suppose it has worn out its body long ago; but you see I remember it pleasantly. What boy of to-day will say, forty years hence, that lie remembers yonder cabbageman’s trade voice with pleasure, think you? Pooh! it will be incredible, even if the man’s own grandson should say it. Surely, parental pride, or ordinary self-esteem, ought to influence that man, and other roarers like him, to change their lugubrious notes into some more human like key! I wish I could talk to them all!”

“It would certainly be a great boon to thousands of delicate ears if you could persuade all our street hawkers to study the elements of harmony or melody, Tom. Cannot, you give a popular lecture on the subject at Paddy’s Market, next Saturday night? You would have a rare audience.”

“Aye, you may laugh, old friend; but I am in earnest. I mean to say that it is a reflection on the common sense – to say nothing about the good taste – of our age, to tolerate such crying nuisances in this growing city. It looks like marching back to the savage corroboree era, before Captain Cook’s arrival, instead of sticking to our advancing motto that we so proudly talk about. I never heaxd half so much street-yelling when I lived in Sydney thirty years ago as I have heard since I came to town this time; and I should begin to think that you citizens are retrograding in taste, if it were not for your grand exhibition and other indisputable signs of progress. As for lecturing at Paddy’s Market, you can do that if you like; but if you should thus appear again in public, you may at the same time just throw out the hint from me, that some of our young budding poets might more usefully exercise their gifts in making couplets and triplets for the street-hawkers than in writing sonnets on buttercups and moonbeams, or whatnot.”

“A bright notion that, Tom! I’ll make a note of it. Yes, what a pleasant change it would be to hear yonder costermonger chanting bis vegetables to that lively air, ‘Paddle your own Canoe;’ and the dismal woodman selling his sticks to the tune of ‘Up in a Balloon, boys!’ And why should not the groaning tripeman sing, ‘Tripe, boys! Tripe!’ to the merry tune of ‘Cheer, boys! Cheer!’ I don’t think it would damage the composer’s copyright much.”

“I can see you are making fun of me, Boomerang; but I am not joking just now. I dare say you remember, when you were a boy in London, hearing the Bavarian broomgirls offer their wares with a song, ‘Buy a broom, ladies!’ I have stood and listened to them dozens of times; but if they had been selling their brooms to that old tripeman’s dirge, or anything like it, I should have run off like a scared rabbit. I remember, too, how sweetly the fiowergirls about London used to sing their primroses, or ‘Flower roots for your garden! All a blowing and a growing!’ Their voices used to tickle my tender young ears like the music of spring birds. I’ll be bound that scores of folks bought brooms or flowers from the girls who would not have bought from them at all if they had been yelling about their wares instead of singing pleasantly. Cannot you see the drift of my rough bush reasoning: wouldn’t you rather hear the warbling of canary birds in your garden than the cawing of hawks or crows?”

“Yes, to be sure I would, Tom. You must excuse me for laughing; I assure you it is not because I think you are talking nonsense. You are right in your deductions, anyhow. I remember on last Good Friday morning I was awakened at daybreak by the cries of hot cross bun hawkers. I must have heard, thoughout the day, more than fifty different voices crying ‘Hot cross buns!’ Some of the voices I easily recognized as old, every-day nuisances, croaking like thirsty frogs in a dry well; but there were many little boys who were quite fresh, in the hawking line; and it struck me that some of them had been practising their cries beforehand. One little fellow I especially noticed: his voice was as clear as a bell-bird. I was quite charmed to hear him sing, ‘One a penny hot bun, two a penny buns ; one a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns!’ If the little songster had come within hail of me, I would have spent sixpence with him, whether I ate his buns or not. Some of our street-hawkers have pleasant voices; indeed, it is almost a treat to hear one old man, in this neighbourhood, sing about his ‘Fine fresh fish;’ but I cannot help thinking with you that many others must study to make their cries as dolorous as possible. There can be no other conclusion.”

“To stop them from crying by a law of the land would be another conclusion, Boomerang. But I don’t want to appear arbitrary, so I shall never propose such a stringent measure. I think, however, that many of the strong, able-bodied young fellows that I have seen hawking fruit and other articles about the city might be employed far’ more beneficially for themselves and the community at large, if they were to go into tlie country and hire to some of us farmers, who are badly in want of liandy men just now.”

“Yes, that is a conclusion that I came to long ago, Tom; and I put it into print, too. We should, in such case, hear fewer harsh street-cries; and there would be fewer cries of another sort, if there were not so many folks in the city who are striving to live without honest work.”