LONDON IS A mercantile city and the cries of street traders were long considered emblematic of its spirit. The earliest literary reference to London street cries is found in the satirical poem London Lickpenny written around 1410. They were later mentioned in the works of many authors, including Ben Jonson, Thomas Brown, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens and Thomas Burke.
Street-selling by itinerant vendors was in decline by the early twentieth century. When something’s about to vanish, belated appreciation for it often blossoms all of a sudden in the halls of high culture. The two street cries which were most successful in gaining such approval were those of violet sellers and lavender sellers.
The violet seller’s cry of Will you buy my sweet vi-o-lets? was adapted for A London Symphony by the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912. Decades later the cry formed the basis for the Thames Television signature tune Salute to Thames by Johnny Hawksworth:
The BBC Archives have only one brief recording of a violet seller, but there are two of lavender sellers. The one reproduced here is dated 2 November 1938 (BBC library number 1983) and is titled London Street Cries: Traditional Lavender Cry. The catalogue entry is very brief:
Traditional cry sung by Robert Penfold of 148 Culvert Road, Battersea, S.W.11.
You can hear how Mr Penfold has been recorded indoors, most likely on BBC premises, and there are two takes on the transcription disc. The one I’ve chosen has the microphone close to him. The other has the microphone further away, and so it is clear that the recordist wished not merely to document the cry, but to create in the listener’s mind an aesthetic experience.
The other recording of a lavender cry in the BBC Archives comes from 1954 (BBC catalogue number 822910) and its description is much more informative:
Lilly Brinkley, a gypsy hawker, who lives in Battersea. Yesterday, besides being Bastille Day, was also Lavender Day. In consequence lavender was on sale in the forecourt of Burlington House. A good trade was done at 2/ - a bunch. There was also the true lavender seller’s call – the last existing of all the calls of London. The woman selling the lavender learnt it from her mother 45 years ago. Two years ago the call almost became extinct when the police decided it was a public nuisance. The Royal Academy, with some support from Peterborough, rescued it – for one day a year. Recorded for ‘London Magazine’.
Lavender seems to have been cultivated mainly in south London, hence Lavender Hill, and also around Mitcham and Carshalton. In 1952, the Mitcham News and Mercury carried an article on lavender sellers in which the words of one version of the cry were set down:
Won’t you buy my sweet blooming lavender,
sixteen branches one penny,
Ladies fair make no delay,
I have your lavender fresh today.
Buy it once, you’ll buy it twice,
it makes your clothes smell sweet and nice.
It will scent your pocket handkerchiefs,
sixteen branches for one penny,
As I walk through London streets
I have your lavender nice and sweet,
sixteen branches for a penny.
An idealised form of a lavender seller was carved in stone by the English sculptor Newbury Abbot Trent for a building in St James’s Square, central London. The photograph below was taken by Gordon Lawson and is reproduced here under the terms of its Wikimedia Creative Commons licence.
Recording © copyright BBC. Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.