From the feather man who went from town to town, cleaning bedding made of feathers, to the cat-meat men who fed the felines of London, to the rag and bone men who were some of the first recyclers, it was an eclectic group of people who made their living as pedlars, tinkers and hawkers in Britain’s history. Travelling either on foot with a basket or barrow, or using a horse and cart or wagon, the pedlars, tinkers and hawkers of yesterday supplied their customers with diverse wares and services often not available otherwise locally. They set up shop at fairs and markets or simply wandered the streets, banging a drum or ringing a bell and calling out what they had for sale, pushing a barrow or handcart laden with their merchandise.
Hawkers, Costermongers and Pedlars
Although the words costermonger, hawker and pedlar were used interchangeably, the costermonger or hawker was, technically speaking, someone who sold his wares by crying them out in the street. The pedlar travelled the countryside with his wares, visiting houses along the way to sell them. The coming of the railway provided an fast and economical way to deliver merchandise throughout the country and all but brought an end to the travelling pedlar by the latter part of the nineteenth century but costermongers and hawkers ply their trade in most cities and towns even today.
With the improvements of the shipping industry in the nineteenth century, exotic produce came into England from far away ports and the costermongers brought these novel offerings from the wholesalers. There were cocoanuts, pineapples and sponges from the West Indies and exotic nuts such as the Barcelona, the black Spanish from Spain and Brazil nuts from South America. While shopkeepers and green grocers pounced on such shipments as soon as they landed, their patrons were mainly the upper and middle classes. It was the hawkers and the costermongers who brought these delicacies to the lower classes, buying and selling in the street for ready cash.
Rag and Bone Men
Travelling throughout their neighbourhood, the rag and bone men scavenged unwanted items such as rags, bones, metal and other unwanted items of value, taking them back to their lodgings to sort before selling them to local traders and shops. Most carried their plunder in sacks, greasy from the bones, although others pushed a handcart and the most prosperous among them might have had a donkey to draw their cart. They offered sweets to children in trade for articles that they might steal from their parents or others, and were frequently surrounded by crowds of the young. Sometimes the rag and bone man would find valuables in the old clothing given to them, and although the occasional story made its way into the news when the valuables were turned into the local authorities, no doubt most such windfalls were kept quiet.
The bones they collected could be used for knife handles and other manufactured goods and the grease from them was sometimes used in soap making. These were collected from kitchen waste heaps, clubs and hotels, occasionally still with meat attached and the piles of bones in the bone picker’s yard would become noxious. The stench arising from the rag and bone man’s collection was regarded as a public nuisance and frequently was brought to the attention of the sanitary inspector. White rags might earn them as much as three pence per pound, while colour rags were worth less at two pence per pound. Brass, copper and pewter were valued at four or five pence per pound. It was a hard way to make a living.
Rag and bone men often supplemented their income in other ways such as by running an “Aunt Sally and the cocoa-nut” game on the street corners. Spectators were charged a penny to knock down ‘Aunt Sally’ with a wooden ball or stick. For each successful shot, the shooter won an exotic cocoa-nut from the West Indies, although with chances of winning being less than one in seven, the proprietor generally came out ahead.
London’s Cat’s-Meat Men
From as early as 1815, with an estimated 250,000 cats in London, the business of supplying homes with food for the feline population employed several thousand men and women. One such man, described by a local resident as ‘an old man with a battered hat, a long coat and an apron.’ perhaps had delusions of grandeur and had “Purveyor of Meat to his Canine and Feline Patrons of the Metropolis” written on the side of his wagon.
The cat meat man sold meat on wooden skewers that cost anywhere from a half-penny to threepence, depending on the size and was most often boiled horse meat. Occasionally, unscrupulous pedlars would throw down an empty skewer near a cat so that it’s owner, upon opening the door, would assume that the cat had eaten and would pay the seller the price of the treat, leaving the poor cat hungry and the cat-meat man with a 100 percent profit.
Historically, women of the poor and working classes had a limited choice of occupations. For those without experience or references, domestic service was often out of reach and many turned to hawking and peddling as a way to stay out of the workhouse. Sprat-women sold sprat or young herrings, regarded as a luxury to the poor. In season from the beginning of November for about ten weeks, a half bushel of sprats weighing 40 to 50 pounds could be had for anywhere from 1 shilling to 5 shillings and were often sold by women and children in the street. When shellfish were in season, women and children sold whelks, mussels, cockles and periwinkles in great quantities as well as oysters which might sell at four for a penny in the street. Many of these shellfish were sold raw, but some hawkers would pay extra at London’s Billingsgate to have them boiled and salted, ready to eat.
During the season, periwinkle hawkers could be heard calling ‘Winketty-winketty-wink-wink-wink—wink-wink— winketty- winketty-wink – fine fresh winketty-wink-wink wink’ through the streets.
Regarded as one of the lower classes of women hawkers, the chip girls gathered small bits of wood and sold baskets of kindling. Similarly, the watercress women, frequently too old for any other occupation, gathered watercress, wading into the dykes up to their knees. They harvested and cleaned the watercress they found and packed it into baskets. Shop keepers would seldom pay more than two shillings per bundle for watercress but it might fetch three or four shillings per bundle if it could be sold direct to the housewives. Orange sellers too were often women and children, frequently Irish and the women had a reputation for being loud with ‘orange-wives’ being synonymous with ‘fish-wives’. The Irish women hawkers also frequently sold onions, twisted and platted onto a straw rope. These were easy to carry and sold for sixpence.
Whatever the women and children sold, the hawker’s life was a hard one, and the living it afforded them was frequently only a step away from destitution.
General Dealers’ Protection Society
The estimated 20,000 costermongers in London in the mid-nineteenth century were, for the most part, regarded with disdain and prejudice by the merchants of the city who saw them as a threat to their trade. Costermongers and other hawkers were frequently fined and imprisoned by the city authorities for various offences, often after presuming to set up their stand too near a shop-keepers door.
When the General Dealers’ Protection Society was formed in 1861, so prevalent was the opposition of shopkeepers to the costermongers that the society had difficulty even finding an establishment to rent them a room for their meetings. The society required dues of sixpence, but would in turn pay the fines levied by the authorities, normally five shillings, making it an attractive proposition to the street vendors. Many of the London costermongers rented their barrows for one shilling a week and the Society proposed that members could pay into the society the same one shilling per week but that, unlike their present arrangement, that eventually they would become the owner of the barrow.
Licenses and Laws
1697 licenses for hawkers and pedlars
The Hawkers’ and Pedlars’ Office London 1697 was charged with granting licenses to the hawkers and pedlars of London and Westminster and a district of 10 miles around. The applicant was required to obtain a certificate of his good behaviour from a clergyman and two householders in his home parish. Although the office provided the license, they had no jurisdiction afterwards but anyone found pursuing such an occupation without a license was instead brought before the Justice of the Peace. Any fines levied were divided in two with one half sent to the Board in London and the other awarded to the informer according to the law.
Markets and Fairs Clauses Act 1847
With the passage of the Markets and Fairs Clauses Act of 1847, licensed hawkers were forbidden to sell specified products within the prescribed limits of the market or fair except from their own home or shop. Any person found hawking in the street within the area of the market or fair who had not paid the prescribed toll would be fined.
Pedlars’ Acts of 1871 and 1881
With the pedlars’ act of 1871, pedlars (including hawkers, pedlars, petty chapmen, tinkers, casters of metals) were required to apply to the local police for a pedlar’s certificate. The applicant had to be ‘above seventeen years of age, a person of good character, and in good faith intend to carry on the trade of a pedlar’ and the certificate was good for one year. On payment of the £12.25 fee, the pedlar was allowed to trade in his own police area. This made matters difficult for the itinerant pedlar and in 1881, the amendment allowing a pedlar to operate anywhere in the UK came into effect.
Case Study: A Miser’s End
Mrs. Elizabeth Hart, a scrap dealer and hawker, by all appearances and expectations was not a wealthy woman. She was born into a poor labourer’s family on 13 February 1827 in Chelsea, the only daughter of Robert and Industrious Ball. When she was 14-years-old, her father died, leaving the family without support. Her mother, needing to put food on the table, started a marine dealer’s business. With her daughter, she collected whatever old marine parts and general scrap metal she could find, and sold her second-hand wares from a small shop.
In 1851, both mother and daughter got married. Elizabeth chose a common labourer, William Hart, for her husband and married him at St. Mary’s in Lambeth on 29 June. A few weeks later, in the same church, her mother Industrious married her second husband, a labourer by the name of Frederick William Kulb. The marine and general dealer business continued to support the family.
Tragedy struck Elizabeth Hart in 1883. Her husband died early that year, leaving her a widow at 55-years-old and only a few months later, her mother, who had lived with them, died at the age of seventy-seven. Elizabeth continued to hawk the scrap she collected, living frugally in a room above her shop on the Plain in Wandsworth. The street where she lived and worked was an odd mix of a lodging house, several old cottages and some mixed shops. It was home to the working class poor.
On the morning of Wednesday, 9 March 1892, Elizabeth’s neighbours, concerned that she had not opened her shop in several days, had summoned the police who forced their way in and found her lying dead in her bed in her lodgings above the shop. She was 66-years-old. The police found no sign of foul play and the attending doctor found that the she had died of syncope, a sudden loss of blood pressure, most likely in her sleep. But when Sergeant James Hicks, Inspector Roach and Mr. Cooper searched the flat above the store, they were shocked to find money stashed in every nook and cranny. In all, they found twenty-four £5 notes, £832 in gold, and another £438 in silver. Copper coins, stashed throughout the premises totalled about £60 and a bankbook showed a further £30 on deposit. The total sum collected from amongst the miserly widow’s residence was £1485, 12s and 9d.
Elizabeth Hart, hawker and scrap dealer, left no close relatives, no will to dictate her last wishes and no clues as to how she had accumulated her substantial savings.
On 7 April 1892, Eliza Lett, the wife of James Lett, and sister of the late William Hart, took out letters of administration against his estate, hoping to claim the prize. But two days later, Stephen William Morgan, a shoemaker who claimed to be next-of-kin to Elizabeth Hart herself, took out letters of administration on her estate. Morgan’s notice to the creditors of Elizabeth Hart’s estate appeared in the Gazette at the end of June and soon after, Charles Bray came forward, contested the Morgan claim saying that he, rather than Morgan, was Hart’s next of kin. As word spread of Elizabeth Hart’s estate, yet more claimants came forward and the case went to the Chancery Court.
How Elizabeth Hart, a simple widowed shopkeeper who bought and sold scrap metals and parts and lived humbly and frugally on a comparatively poor street in Wandsworth managed to accumulate what was a substantial amount of cash will likely forever remain an unsolved mystery.