Victorian London - Childhood - Children - children selling goods on the street

see also James Greenwood in In Strange Company - click here


    STREET INDUSTRY OF LONDON CHILDREN. — NOW let us see what the little busy bees of the streets are doing in this great hive of London. Flitting about amongst the throng of people from early morn till late at night, they ‘improve each shining hour' as well as the busy merchants. And not only the shining hour, but the darker hours of evening and up to midnight find many of them still eagerly trying to earn a few pence. These are the children of the poor who have to earn their own living. And for some of them cruel beatings await them if they cannot gather together, honestly or wickedly, a certain sum of money for their parents. Sometimes amongst these workers we see a child who has been driven from home, turned into the streets to fight his own way through life; or, as he says, to ‘fish for himself.' Uncared for, in fear of almost everybody, in terror of the police, alone in the world, what wonder that he should go wrong! But thanks to good Drs. Stephenson and Barnardo, and other noble men and women, many of these uncared-for little ones are lifted right away from evil and put into comfortable homes.
    It was the younger of the little Londoners of the poorest class whom we just now watched at play. We will see how their elder brothers and sisters are occupied. If we went to Covent Garden Market at about five or six o'clock one morning, we should find many of these boys and girls waiting to purchase their stock in trade. There are the flower-girls, choosing and buying their bunches of flowers and fern-leaves, which they will carry to their homes. Arranging them there, and making them into neat little ‘button-holes,' they will sally forth after their meagre meal, to the various railway stations from which the streams of City people are pouring into the streets. The sweet scent of their daintily arranged flowers, and their cry of ‘Sweet Violets,' soon bring cus­tomers. For busy City people like a flower, to remind them of what is beauti­ful outside the smoky town. Another early bird is the water-cress girl. She goes to market for the fresh young water-cress that is brought from the country in the early hours of the morning. Tying them into bunches as she goes along, her cries of ‘Water-cree-sue' will sometimes let us know it is time that we, too, were up. The telegraph-boy is a busy, active lad. Watch him as he goes along, carrying important messages. There is no idling, no stopping to play. He strides along, legs and arms moving in active swing, as though he were walking a race.
    The road scavenger boy is busily at work all day in the crowded streets of the City, and seems to have a special providence protecting him from harm. His daily life is spent continually within a few inches of horses' hooves and cart wheels. He may be seen just in front of the horses, running, with the help of his scraper and brush, on all-fours, in monkey fashion, and, like a monkey,. twisting and turning about out of one danger after another.
    And who, on a cold, damp, foggy day, when it seems almost impossible to keep warm, has not enjoyed some of the really hot chestnuts from the tray above the glowing fire of the young chestnut-vendors. With each hand full,. we feel the warmth creeping right through us again.
    The newspaper boy is, I suppose, considered to be quite as much needed as any of them. We want to know what is happening in the world; what our leading men have to tell us; where our soldiers and sailors are; what is going on in the cold north; and, indeed, we want to know a bit of everything. We travel by ‘bus or train, and must read as we go. We have to wait at a station, and must hunt up the news there; and we read out the news as we warm our­selves before the fire at Ionic. These boys know that, and as quickly as they can get away from the publishing office are in the street with piles of papers over their shoulders, and the placard spread out before them, shouting: ‘Here y'are, Sir! Special!' With so many papers bringing out several editions dur­ing the day, and people so eager for news, there is employment for hundreds of boys. I saw a had the other day who one night sold a paper to a gentleman, and gave the change for what he, and the gentleman too, thought was a Six­pence. The boy, in counting his money soon afterwards, found that this was a half-sovereign. He was poor, and ten shillings was a mine of wealth to him. It was a great temptation to him to keep it; but I am glad to say he wrapped it in the corner of his handkerchief and returned it to the gentleman when he purchased a paper the next evening. I don't think he sells papers now, for I believe the gentleman got him a situation because of his honesty.
    But there are those who find their busiest time when you are asleep. Of these our artist pictures two. The little match-seller, with ragged clothes and with his bare little feet pattering along at our sides, begs us in piteous tones to buy ‘a box o' matches, Sir: two hundred and fifty wax-uns for a penny!' ‘or two boxes of flamers, the best a-goin'.' And the little orange-girl is sure to be seen quite late at night, standing outside the places of amusement, and offering her ‘sweet oranges; three a penny, sweet oranges!'
   Not all these lads and lasses are good. Many of them see so much vice at home, and live amid such wicked surroundings, that the wonder is they can be honest at all. But these industries help to make them honest, and keep most of them from a life of crime. And good men and women are at work in and around their homes, and are trying to make them really good. Let us try to help them a little, if we can!

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)