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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Lights for the cats, Liver for the dogs: Street Sellers

During the various lockdowns, it's been interesting to note the growth in licensed fast food sellers on Worthing's Prom; from fresh doughnuts to fresh oysters through to Worthing Gin. Whether all these initiatives will survive the post Covid world, we shall have to wait and see, but judging by their popularity I believe they may well be here to stay.

There is ,of course, nothing new in street food, as anyone who has visited Pompeii knows full well. Known in Latin as thermopolium, from the Greek meaning a place where something hot is sold, there are numerous fast food joints along Pompeii's streets.

The earliest account of life in medieval London comes from the brief essay by William FirtzStephen in the twelfth century, '....there is in London on the river bank.....a public cook shop; there food is found every day.... dishes of meat, roast, fried and boiled, great and small fish, coarser meats for the poor, more delicate for the rich, of game, fowls and small birds'.

Probably the heyday of street food, especially in London, was the Victorian Age. The life and work of these street sellers, or costermongers, was brilliantly captured for us by Henry Mayhew in 1862 with his book, 'London Labour and the London Poor'.

Mayhew identifies eight categories of street seller, which goes well beyond food and drink:

  1. Sellers of fish, poultry, game and cheese

  2. Sellers of vegetables and flowers

  3. Sellers of eatables and drinkables, including, Mayhew tells us, pickled whelks, sheep's trotters, hot green peas, chelsea buns, ginger beer, hot wine, asses milk, amongst much other appetising fare!

  4. Sellers of stationery, books, newspapers and similar

  5. Sellers of manufactured articles, such as blacking, lucifers, rat poison, red herring toasters (I'd love one of those), and most intriguingly 'pretended smuggled goods'.

  6. Sellers of second hand articles, mainly tools and clothes

  7. Sellers of live animals from goldfish to little birds and tortoises

  8. Sellers of mineral products and curiosities, such as coke, sand, and spar ornaments

I mentioned above the word costermonger, which is best associated with street traders in London. Originally it was restricted to those selling food and drink and derives from the old word for a type of apple, a costard, and monger, to sell.

Not all approved of such street sellers and from the time of Elizabeth I attempts, all too often unsuccessful, were made to control the trade. One of the reasons was the mess, crime, and the noise they generated - Henry Mayhew writes of New Cut in Lambeth on a Saturday night, 'Lit by a host of lights......the Cut was packed from wall to wall....The hubbub was deafening, the traders all crying their wares with the full force of their lungs against the background din of a horde of street musicians'. The Authorities also looked down on their dodgy selling ways. As Mayhew tells us in a piece on 'Of the tricks of costermongers', 'Cherries are capital for mixing.....They purchase three sieves of indifferent Dutch, and one sieve of good English cherries, spread the English fruit over the inferior quality, and sell them as best'. He gives many other examples of unscrupulous selling techniques.

Although known in London, and elsewhere, since the Middle Ages, and undoubtedly before that too, the street selling trade really took off in the capital after The Great Fire of London when the large open market of Stocks was destroyed. The sellers took to the streets and never looked back.

Mention street sellers, and even today, we think of the sellers' cries to attract custom. This was first noted in the early 15th century by the writer and monk John Lydgate from Bury St Edmunds. He wrote a ballad extolling street cries. It begins,

'Then unto London I dyd me hye,

Of all the land it beareth the pryse:

Hot pescods [peas in their pods], one began to crye,

Strawbery ripe, and cherryes in the ryse.'

One of my favourite old cries is,

'Lights for the cats, Liver for the dogs'

Not all street sellers chose the trade, some were forced by circumstances to join at the very bottom. One such was a hero of The Peninsular War, Thomas Plunkett. Thomas had made his name in Spain, under Wellington, when lying on his back he shot a French General at over two hundred yards. Sadly he couldn't deal with life outside the Army, lost his wife and took to the bottle. He ended his days on the streets of London selling matches. This match selling trade was taken up by many men suffering from physical wounds or PTSD after The Great War.

So Worthing Gin sold on the Prom has an honourable, as well as dishonourable, history behind it.

London Labour and The London Poor by Henry Mayhew

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