Coster living

Beer-makers, Clapham Common, 1877. Wikimedia Commons

Street Food: Hawkers and the History of London

Charlie Taverner, Oxford University Press, 2023, 256pps, £30
KEN BELL remembers the street-traders who fed a burgeoning city

The image of London street food is a trendy one, with well-paid hipsters eating what they sweetly tell each other is authentic, usually ethnic, food that is purchased at a high price from a sleek metal catering caravan that has an expensive license to trade. However, for generations until the middle of the last century, as Charlie Taverner shows, street food was how the bulk of Londoners got their daily sustenance.

Many of them had no choice, because as London expanded, the established markets ever became further away from the new centres of population. A large number of people lived in rookeries, such as the monstrous one that existed quite near to today’s Regent Street, where they lived several to a room with little or no cooking facilities apart from, perhaps, a fireplace in the kitchen if they were lucky. So street hawkers enabled the urban poor to keep body and soul together.

Mrs. Hunt, selling at Covent Garden, 1923

The capital outlay needed to become a street hawker was very low, as a large wicker basket could be obtained for a small sum and the apples or other fruits needed to fill it being readily available at the Covent Garden market. Consider Mrs Hunt who was photographed in the 1920s with her wicker basket of apples (see above). One foreign visitor in the 1600s noted that Londoners did not eat much fruit at home, but were “always munching through the streets, like so many goats”, so we can imagine that women like Mrs Hunt were selling soft fruit to theatre audiences in Shakespeare’s day. Fast forward a few decades to the Restoration, and the legend of Nell Gwyn and her oranges is well-known even today.

Pretty much anything edible was sold on the street, with herring, shellfish and eels becoming as ubiquitous as the fruits. Milk was sold by milkmaids who purchased their supplies from the owners of herds of cows that were kept in London. In the days before milk was pasteurised or sterilised, an army of maids selling the fresh variety ensured that the supplies reached the consumers in a reasonable condition.

A step up in terms of capital outlay from the baskets was the wheelbarrow, which meant that more produce could be carried and sold, including hot food, and by the Victorian age, hawkers were selling hot pies and potatoes from an oven atop a wheelbarrow. Hawkers of hot coffee also used them with a brazier of hot coals, although quite why coffee was preferred by the street sellers and their customers to tea is anyone’s guess.

Finally, we have the hawkers who either owned or rented a cart which they pushed by hand or had pulled by a donkey. These were the famous London costermongers and although Taverner accepts them as a caste apart, he really does not give them credit for just how far apart they were even from the bulk of the street hawkers. A costermonger was noted for his dress, which was invariably topped off with a large handkerchief worn around his neck called a Kingsman. A costergirl would take one of her man’s handkerchiefs and wear it draped across her shoulders for probably the same reason that a girl today enjoys helping herself to one of her boyfriend’s shirts. Costers spoke a cant tongue to each other and were largely illiterate, mathematical geniuses. They could work out how much profit was to be made for a given wholesale price in their heads and then set to work in family groups to earn it.

They had to operate in a family unit as the work was labour-intensive. Children would be put to work intermixing live eels with dead ones in the hope that the customers did not notice and others would boil fading oranges to give them the illusion of vitality. When times were bad, costergirls were not adverse to a spot of whoring, usually with their boyfriends doubling as pimps and protectors. Much of this street colour is missing from Taverner’s work, which I think is a pity, but it probably owes a lot to the fact that it was first written as a university thesis.

That said, Street Food is an excellent overview of the earnings of street hawkers and a discussion of the casual nature of the work, with some hawkers shifting from street hustling on their own accounts to working for employers when such work became available. One such man who sold whelks is quoted as bemoaning that “seafood don’t pay more than a poor living,” so when times were really bad, “he left his wife with the barrow and took odd jobs such as beating carpets and cleaning windows”.

This casual economy reminds today’s reader of London’s latest innovation – the gig economy, with the delivery riders taking the place of the street hawkers of old. If we add to them the army of men who push the unlicensed hot dog carts around the West End of London, chased by the council jobsworths in much the same way as the costermongers were harried by officialdom in their day, a good case can be made for saying that everything has changed and much has remained the same.