Covent Garden conversation with a general dealer (or costermonger) and his boy 'Chirper' on barrow-work and the advantages of fish over flowers.
Published in The Railway Review, 10 September 1880 - read the original article through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.
Illustration: "The cheap fish of St Giles's", from 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, available through the LSE Digital LibraryLink opens in a new window.
"What do we call ourselves? Well, we don't call ourselves costermongers, and for why? People are too much in the habit of supposing that the costermonger, as they call him, and the 'rough' are men of the same breed, when there's as much difference as between a thief and a gentleman. Strong language! I know it is; but not a bit too strong. A 'rough,' sir, is a lazy warmint, and you can't say much worse of any grown-up human creeter who ought to be working for a living He'll make his wife work for him, and he'll beat her if she doesn't do enough, and he'll starve her and her children too rather than go short of beer and 'bacca. He's got a mind to do any amount of willany; but he's mongrel-hearted, and daren't do it, only in a sneaking and behind-your-back kind o' way. He'll sponge on any one, will a rough, and sham any mortal thing to cadge a sixpence; and that being a true picter of him, you'll 'scuse me if I prefer to call myself a 'general dealer.'"
He was loading his humble, horseless vehicle in a side street near Covent-garden Market, and his purchase for the day was a gay and blooming abundance of flowers growing in flower-pots. He had not bought them in what may be called Covent-garden proper, however. It is a fact not generally known to the majority, even of Londoners bred and born, that the great early flower market of London is not held in the crystal covered arcade, or in any part of the market square within which it is hedged, and where, until a late hour of morning, mighty mounds of cabbages and pyramids of cauliflowers, or whatever vegetable happens to be in season, diminish under the spirited assaults of besieging greengrocers. He who would enjoy one of the prettiest sights in the metropolis must take the ripe spring-time for his excursion, and he must rise with the lark. Six o clock, at latest, must find him in the Strand; and, turning into Southampton-street, he will discover, on the left-hand side of the way, and near the far end, a handsome pair of iron gates, which are open, and at which he is free to enter. But the visitor will have made a shrewd guess as regards the treat in store for him long ere he reaches the said gates. Southampton-street, Tavistock-street, and the many connecting links of lanes and narrow ways cannot in ordinary boast of a soil favourable to floriculture, but in the early mornings of spring, excepting a narrow strip in the centre of the various roads for the convenience of carts and waggons, the whole place is a blooming flower garden. There is scarcely a cobble stone or a square yard of "macadam" to be seen. The wand of the magician has softened the heart of the grim granite, and prevailed on it to yield a flourishing crop of sweet-scented mignonette; the very gutters sport rare exotics and gorgeous heads of "bloom;" and the asphalte pavement has become a hot-bed planted thick with floral gems. One has to pick his way carefully to avoid doing damage. The paths between the fragrant beds and banks are so grudgingly stinted that projecting buds and petals are severed from the plants by the sleeves and skirts of those who pass to and fro, and strew the ground, to be eagerly gleaned by the ragged little "earlybirds" who make this their favourite hunting-ground for this kind of "first worms," and which, later on in the day, will be cunningly manoeuvred into "button-holers," and retailed at a penny each. It is a perilous business for "ragged Robin," however, especially should he venture to extend his field of operation and venture into the flower market where richer findings tempt him. There he has to beware the beadles with their lissome canes, ready grasped, and, as it were, a-quiver and hungering for a cut of ill-breeched ragamuffin. They had need be vigilant, these liveried guardians of the flower mart, for the crowd is great, and on every side, especially in the cut-flower department, there are exposed in baskets and boxes, and delicately packed in fleecy wool, foreign blossoms that are worth at least their weight in silver, and business is so brisk that the stall-keepers cannot well keep a watchful eye on their stock. And brisk it continues until the market clock chimes nine, and when the great gates are closed against further ingress, and there will be no more marketing until to-morrow morning at day-dawn.
My costermonger, however — I beg his pardon, "general dealer" — had no need to worry himself on account of the arbitrary and strictly enforced regulation last mentioned. It was as yet barely seven o'clock, and he was already "loaded up," and with his "Chirper" — I heard him address the boy who was with him as Chirper — to push behind, making light of the prospect of doing donkey-work with five or six hundred-weight to haul behind him over rough road and smooth, all the way to Walworth. I took his word as regards the weight of the barrow-load. In response to my inquiry on the subject, he glanced at the oppressed springs of the vehicle, and gave it as "five and a 'arf — pr'aps six," with a degree of confidence that was convincing.
"What time was it when you left home this morning?" I asked him.
"It was a quarter arter four when we got to the Elephant and Castle," he replied.
"You will be tired enough, then, by the time you and the boy have drawn this great load home?"
He regarded me with a good-humoured twinkle in his eye, as he replied —
"We just shall that. Me and Chirper is going to bed when we get home; ain't we Chirper?"
Chirper was a small, pale boy, with a large head, and such a quantity of uncombed hair as rendered his ragged cap a superfluity. His master, seemingly, had presented him with the corduroy trousers he wore, judging from the fact that they were about a foot too big for him at the waist, and that they had suffered summary amputation a little below the knees in order to accommodate themselves to the shortness of Chirper's legs. It would have been an act of charity, only that they would have been so tremendously too big for him, if the barrowman had at the same time given him a pair of his boots, since those the boy wore were in a wofully dilapidated condition. When the barrow-man made his little joke about going to bed when they reached home, he laughed aloud. But Chirper did not appear to be tickled with the humour of it.
"It won't do for us to talk about being tired, mister, this side of six or seven to-night," he remarked, to which his master retorted with some asperity-
"You are a cuttin' and a dryin' of it, you are, Chirper; we shall be tired when we're sold out, not afore."
By virtue of a process, which need not here be particularly described, I made myself "agreeable" to the cheerful general dealer (he was an elderly man, but broad-shouldered and muscular still), and for the space of half an hour or so, and with much frankness and freedom, he favoured me with his views and experiences in the various branches of his avocation, and of barrow-man life generally. I inquired respecting Chirper, and desired to be informed who gave him that name.
"Well, he wasn't christened it," was the reply; "I calls him Chirper, because that's what he is. He chirps for me, don't you see. Oh, yes; his is rigler employment. I gives him his wittles, and he sleeps along er the barrer, and when times are good I give him a bob for himself on Saturdays. Wouldn't he look better in a pair of trowsis wot fit him? Wot's the matter with them he's got on? They're roomy, ain't they? And they're warm! Wery well, then; what does a growing boy want more? He's a very good little nipper; he goes to market with me o' mornings, and he minds the barrer and the goods, and he's about with me all day. Where did I pick him up? Why, where the same sort may be picked up plentiful as blackberries in September — at one o' the markets. The Borough Market is a rare place for these sort of boys. You may find scores of them there any morning; and talk about trowsis! It's a wonder the poor little beggars ain't took up, if it's only on that account. They're only too glad to find such as me, as will take em in hand and give 'em summat of a home and a holding. What'll my nipper be when he grows older? Why, he'll have a barrer of his own, very likely. It's as good as being bound 'prentice being along o' me. He learns how to buy, and he learns how to sell, and he gets to make nothing of early risin', summer or winter, which is the pivot everything turns on."
"Don't I find it a nice agreeable change to go in for all a-blowin' and a-growin', 'stead of fish or wegitables? No, I don't. Pleasanter and more refreshing? Well, perhaps there is that to be said about flowers when you have to deal with 'em in small doses; but you come to tackle six hundred-weight of 'em on a barrer, and it aint so pleasant as you may think. No; in a business kind o' way I like the smell of fish better than sweetest geraniums that ever was growed."
"Then why didn't you buy fish instead of flowers this morning?"
"So I should, if there was plenty of it. Besides, there is always two or three weeks at this time o' year when all a-blowin' and a-growin' is a good game. Dashed if I know how it is, but in the spring-time poor people wot live in back streets with only a little bit of a paved yard, where the garden ought to be, seem to have the fit on 'em to buy a few pots of flowers whether they can afford it or not. It's summat in the air that sets 'em on it, I s'pose."
And the general dealer laughed, little knowing how near the mark he was. No doubt it is "something in the air" that generates in the minds of the poor crowded lodgers in courts and alleys, and other places inaccessible, a craving for the sun, a craving for spring flowers; and little knew the barrowman, with his avowed preference for the smell of fish before the fragrance of roses, the thrill of thankfulness that stirs many a sad heart when, in these regions of gloom and squalor, his cheery cry of "all a-blowing and a-growing" is for the first time heard. The old and decrepit, who for their life's sake dare not stir out of doors while it is so bitterly cold, sick-a-bed poor little children, the half-starved, out of work, one and all, hail the welcome announcement of my fustian-jacketed friend, and pluck up renewed spirit in the assurance that now indeed the sluggish winter is at an end, and, as betokened by the spring flowers, a long spell of genial weather is within hail. The fourpenny geranium in a clay flower-pot is not a splendid specimen of floriculture perhaps, or a thing for its own sake to take great pride in; but to those who — God knows how — had managed to struggle through a protracted season of adversity, it may come pretty much as the dove-borne olive branch came to Noah, and is as such received. But if by hinting anything of this nature I hoped to raise any latent feeling of sentimentality lurking in the bosom of my general dealer, I was disappointed.
"Oh, yes, it's all wery well to talk about being the means of cheering 'em up," he remarked sarcastically; "but they aint so overcome as to lose sight of the main chance. It makes me wild sometimes to see 'em ketch hold of a real beauty of a plant, just full out in bloom, and shake it up like a bottle of medsin, to see if the flowers are on tight. They will have plants that will 'wear well,' as they say. What shall I make out of this lot? Well, I don't mind telling you. They cost me two-and-three a dozen, and there's five dozen of them, and when I sell 'em all at four pots a shillin', I shall clear eight-and-ninepence."
"And suppose you don't sell them all? You'll bring them out again to-morrow, I suppose?"
"But I shall sell 'em all to-day," he replied, with surprising confidence. "If they won't all go at fourpence a pot, they must at three pence — twopence, if it comes to that; what they'll fetch, in fact."
"But is that judicious?"
"I don't know nothing about that," said the barrowman; "I only know that I am bound to have a clear barrow to go to market with in the morning."
"And is that the system of business you all follow?"
"It is the system of business that is forced on us in a manner o speakin'," he replied; "not one in ten of us have got any place to put away unsold stock. When a man's got only one room to live in, and that it stands to reason that the air aint tip-top, and such as flowers get on well in, and a night of it would take a lot of the shine out of 'em ; and if you tried it on with wet fish you might as well save yourself the trouble, and throw it away before you went to bed. Of course it's different with some goods. Some fish — haddocks, and that — you can stow anywheres for a night or two. So you can oranges, when they're new in and green. The warmth of your room will help ripen 'em rather than hurt 'em."
"And what about pineapples?" said I. "I sometimes see a great quantity of that fruit about on barrows, and it is generally more or less damaged — that is a stock that will not keep well, I should imagine, under the difficult conditions you mention?”
"Well, you see," explained the friendly general dealer, "it isn't often a man who works on his own hook — 'and to mouth, as you may call it — goes in for that sort o' trade. It's worked by 'bucks,' who are hired by the stock-masters."
"And do you mind telling me what a 'buck' is, and what a 'stock-master?'"
"A buck is a fool in general; leastways he can't be called nothing else when he's a chap as has broke into his 'stock-money,' and spent it all somehow. By his stock-money, I mean the money he sets aside when he's done his day's work to go to market in the morning. A man who hasn't got any stock-money is a 'buck,' and a 'stock-master' is a man who stocks barrers with anything that is in season, and the 'bucks' takes 'em out and work 'em on commission. Threepence in the shilling is about the regler, but sometimes it's fourpence. Is it a good game to be a stock-master? Rather! I used to know one over in Lock's-fields, who had forty barrers going, not all of 'em stocked. Pr'aps half of 'em, and the others let empty at eighteenpence a week, and he died rollin' in money in his own willa up New-cross way. But he used to speculate. I've know’d him lay out £120 at one pineapple sale in Moniment-yard, and to buy as many oranges as could be stacked in a two-horse van. It was all fruit he went in for, 'cept when there happened to be a glut of fish — mackerel, say — at Bilingsgate; then he'd pitch in for a few barrer-loads, but not often."
"But you prefer the fish trade?"
"I do, because I never touch it 'cept it's worth my while. Sometimes I can buy as many mackerel as I can wheel away at the rate of eighteenpence a score. Poor-family fish, mind you, and something for the young uns to bite at arter they're cooked. Well, I can give all away, in a manner o' speaking, and do well by 'em. I can sell 'em at six a shilling all round, and make a pound out of 'em by dinner time. 'Course there are times when the wind is against the boats, when fish of all kinds is as dear as butchers' meat. Then we leave it to the fishmongers."
"Then," said I, "one may always know that when fish is dear at the fishmonger's that it is a bad time for the barrowmen?"
My general dealer laughed.
"Did ever you know what I call the topping fishmongers to sell fish cheap? 'Taint in their natur, sir. It often amooses me when I hear what a kick-up there is about the prices the butchers charge. Why, sir, they're regular good St. Marytuns compared with the fishmongers. It's the fluctevating market that gives them the pull. There's hardly two mornings a week when fish is at the same price, and the public — the swell public, I mean — don't know anything about it. Why, sir, I've known hundreds of times when soles have been fetching half-a-crown a pair at the fishmongers', the same size fish has been going in Brick-lane at fourpence or fivepence. Look at plaice, again, and congers and haddocks. Three pounds for sixpence, take one with the other, and tons and tons sold every week at the price, thanks to the barrowmen and the market-street stallkeepers. Do away with em, sir, and the law and the westries are werry hard on us sometimes; do away with 'em, and you'll do as much harm to the poor as though you clapped twopence on the price of the four-pound loaf. It is the barrowman that fills the poor mother's market basket with cheap fish, and stands betwixt her and the awaricious fishmonger, who'd be down on her as hot and as heavy as the butcher is if he on'y had the chance. But if I was to go on jawing about it for a hour, mister, I couldn't say more, so I'll wish you good morning."
And returning the compliment and wishing him luck with his load, off he went, Walworth way, tugging the handles of his vehicle, while Chirper pushed behind, butting at the barrow like a ram who had a spite against it.