Victorian London - Clothing - Second-hand clothes

see also Henry Mayhew, Letter XIV - click here

see also James Grant in Light and Shadows of London Life - click here  


    The old clothesmen of the London-streets may be found about Petticoat-lane to a man-either with huge bags, filled to bursting, proceeding towards the great Exchange in the neighbourhood, or with the same bag twisted round his arm, gossiping with a friend upon the day's adventure. A strange race are these old clothesmen; and a certain air of shabby, second-hand mystery hangs about them and their trade.
    "Ole clo'! ole clo'!" Stealthily the Jew seems to glide along the street-his bag filling quickly, yet by a process hard at first to discover; so cautiously does he conduct his movements, so delicate is he in managing the pride of his summoner.
    "Ole clo'! ole clo'! A form, half-concealed by a curtain, appears at a window, and looks timidly into the Street; a finger is hastily raised, and then the figure as hastily retires. It is enough; the Jew saunters across the road, glances with apparent carelessness around, and slips quietly into the house, of which the door is conveniently ajar, and the whole business is managed with that secrecy so greatly desired by penurious but highly respectable householders.
    "Lots of histories wrapt up in these old clothes," remarks our official friend, as seized by a sudden philosophic turn, he halts in the centre of Harrow-alley, and waves his hand comprehensively around. " Lots of histories, truly !" comes like an echo from ourselves, as we also come to a halt, and, with much curiosity, examine the strange scene which presents itself to our gaze. The shops are crammed, and the roadway covered, with articles of clothing in every degree of shabbiness - in every stage of decay. You peer into the dark recesses of the shops, and, rising to the roofs, bulging from cupboards, weighing down shelves, hanging from walls, and littering the floors, are old clothes - nothing but old clothes. " Lots of histories, truly !" The brocade, that at one time might have decorated the form of a duchess, is here vended by the Jewess, to be purchased by the drab. The broadcloth, which has clad the portly form of the merchant, the Pharisee of trade, who, proudly conscious of his utter respectability, has commented upon its texture and surface, oblivious of the ragged jacket and corduroys of his childhood, is here exposed for sale, and - oh, profanation ! - may soon become the property of the poor broken-down hack who sweeps out the merchant's office. The clothes which were yesterday my lord's, to-day are his lackey's; and to-morrow will be - here. Surely there is equality enough in the old clothesman's bag to satisfy even the wildest of democrats! The coat of my lord is here compelled to suffer the companionship of his valet's, and both shudder with genteel abhorrence at the profane touch of the dingy velveteen that Moses' saffron hand has just crammed down upon them. The bag filled, it travels eastwards, and its contents, with those of many thousand others, go to swell these heaps of old clothes which stagnate for awhile in Petticoat-lane and its neighbourhood. Stagnate, but not for long: in your Hebrew's hands, few things rest that lose by keeping. This vast sea of old clothes, which, from its numerous tributaries, is continually increasing, overflows at stated times, and scatters its gathered riches over the world. Ireland is partly clothed from this great Clothes Exchange: the Irish dealers being ever on the spot, ready to "trade to any amount, and, being "known men," have the pick of the market. Poor Ireland ! her very rags the cast-off clothing of her sister, England. Norah, sweetly improvident, weds herself to hunger and a husband - her wedding-gown a faded relic of Belgravia, which, passing through Petticoat-lane, has found its way to Donnybrook; while Paddy buttons round his ague-shaken form the remains of a coat that once encased the body of poor Paddy's master - a famous absentee landlord.
    To America ship-loads of old clothes are consigned,- "chiefly for the Irish, says our informant; rags and wretchedness pursuing them even across the waves, and forcing themselves upon them as they sit crouching, seeking a shelter in a distant land.
    The Wild Tribes of London find in Petticoat-lane and Ragfair outfitters in plenty, who, without the show or shameless puff of their great competitor and his worthy son, whose Mart is the "feature of the neighbourhood," rival that illustrious family in the cheapness of their prices, and surpass them in the quality of their goods.
    This coat, now dangling at Levi's door, once belonged to a cabinet minister. Stare not! Cabinet ministers are but men, and a coat may not be the only link that binds them to the lower grade of humanity, -such as this which circulates in Petticoat-lane. Yes, this heavy-looking overcoat,-we repeat it with all due solemnity-once encircled the form of a cabinet minister! In its comfortable embrace he has slumbered, when borne swiftly along on his road to Osborne or Windsor, the music of the last new opera still ringing in his ears, and a vision of the ballet dancing gaily through his brain; while deep down in the recesses of this breast-pocket, which now gapes so invitingly open, lay the "destinies of Europe" done up carefully with red tape - a bundle of papers, nothing more ! Yet on authority slight as these papers contain, may the wolf cross the stream that separates it from the lamb, and Bruin steal the honey uninjured by the bees.
    This statesman is a man great in the kingdom of chicane, with a face deceptive as Talleyrand's, a policy crooked as Machiavelli's. Suppose a nation's honour attacked, a kingdom ravaged, and its independence destroyed, - he will answer indignation with a laugh, an accuser by a bon mot, and reply to invective with a jest.
    But we are forgetting the coat., which, as it didn't admit of turning, has been thrown off by the master, and, through the valet, has travelled to the Jew. It is now an object of especial attraction to a slim, active-looking fellow, who is inspecting its capabilities for wear. "Our friend" knows him, and he as evidently knows our friend. A nod of recognition is exchanged, and the inspection of the coat is leisurely renewed.
    "That's Dick - Dick Abbot, of the Mint - Downy Dick, as we call him; and a knowing card he is, too; the best hand at a burglary of any in the trade. Many's the crack I've known to be Dick's, but could never bring any home to him but once; that was an affair down away in Kent. Lagged him then, and no mistake; slipped through my fingers after all, though; getting only two years, where another would have had his fourteen cut and dried for him. Ah! he's slippery as an eel, and harder to catch. Dick's got a head as long as your arm, and that's a fact. Our friend pauses, and we look with increased interest upon this clever specimen of a successful rogue, and then at the coat he is now engaged in cheapening, and fall a-thinking upon the difference of position between its first owner and this ruffian, perhaps its last.
    "Difference of position-only that?" Only that, gentle reader. Education and position might have made a cabinet minister of Downy Dick ; and-our hand trembles while we trace the sentence-the cabinet minister, deprived of both, might have been no better than the skilful housebreaker. A queer world, my masters, is it not? where the coat that yesterday was travelling towards the Queen's palace, tomorrow may be journeying a less pleasant road towards one of the Queen's prisons!
    What have we here? A dress - a wedding dress; fashioned daintily enough, though, from its present shabbiness, it must have seen many a change of fortune, besides the strange chance which has deposited it here. We can fancy the maker of that dress, bending, poor girl, with red eyes and tired fingers over her ill-paid toil. Does she think of her own wretched home-the cheerless garret she dignifies with the name? Yes, to contrast it (for there is a touch of romance about the girl) with the splendour of the home of the fortunate wearer of this very dress; and while her busy needle plies its unremitting task, she thinks of the fair girl whose graceful form this robe shall clasp,-of the bright eye that will glance lovingly upon, and the tongues that will echo time praises of, the wearer. Then she muses upon her own hard lot, and the blinding tears come hot and fast, to he hastily brushed away, as, with a sigh, she dismisses her dream, and again resumes her work. A dream, indeed! The dress clasps the form of the bride; its folds fall about her, diamonds bedeck her bosom and sparkle in her hair, while-tear-drops glisten in her eyes.
    Tear-drops ?-are they never seen in a bride's eyes now a-day? Are they such rarities in Belgravia? By the bride's side sits her mother-a woman great in her way - humane too, as an admiring public can testify, - has attended Uncle Tom meetings near a hundred, and signed Anti-Slavery addresses by the score. She has sold her daughter nevertheless-sold her for a title ; traded away the happiness of her child for a coronet - that tinsel thing which so coldly glitters on her brow. There is a step on the stairs, a tottering and uncertain step. The mother looks up hastily. A frown, a few harsh words, and the daughter's face is as a stone; the eves are red, perhaps, but the tears have disappeared. The doors open, and the bridegroom enters. This the bride-groom? - this man with palsied head and shaking limbs? Let us turn from the spectacle, and pity the well-dressed martyr by his side.
    But Petticoat-lane! Oh, the dress is soon cast aside as a reminiscence neither needed nor sought for. The attentive Abigail who, to the second-hand airs adds the second-hand clothes of her mistress, becomes its possessor; from her it descends lower, and then lower still, till it bedecks the misery that trafficks in the streets, and then finds its way sure enough to Petticoat-lane. What will be its ultimate fate? Who knows! Will that brazen-looking woman, whose dirty face is streaked with filthy rouge, become its owner? or, will Betty housemaid call it hers, that she may wed young Pluck, the butcher's man, with whom she has been keeping company for ever so long, and whose red, round face, and jolly smile with which he greets you he polishes his countenance with the sleeves of his coat, or sleeks down his unctuous hair, bespeak him a good-tempered fellow, and argue well for the happiness of Betty? May the dress find an owner in the housemaid; for, from the poor girl who fashioned it, the miserable child who first wore it, down to its present low proprietor, this wedding-dress has seen nothing but misery and tears ! May it, therefore, ere it finds its grave in the old clothesman's bag, be folded over at least one warm and loving heart, though it be but Betty housemaid's, and her admirer nothing higher in the social scale than young Pluck, the butcher's man!
    We are standing opposite to an old Jew, who is busily engaged devouring olives, which he abstracts with dirty finger and thumb from his waistcoat-pocket. His shop is a large one - a huge collection of old wardrobes. You gaze into its confusion with feelings of dismay and wonder; mountains of bonnets, pyramids of hats, forests of umbrellas, avenues of dresses, galleries of coats, a wilderness of blankets, and a chaos of shawls. "Where could they all have come from? we mutter half aloud, as with outstretched neck we peer through the unglazed window.
    "Some from von part, some from another," is the prompt reply of the intelligent Hebrew, as he returns a half-eaten olive to his pocket, while he answers our self-communicating interrogatory; "but they goes as fast as they comes. Those bonnets, now, are for Australy ; with lots o' ribbins; they'll be all the go at the diggins. Them shawls and gownds are for Ireland and the country market; and them hats -"
    Here our official friend interrupts with a laugh, and a remark that "They're small good, any how, 'xcept to burn em."
    "Burn em !" and the eyes of Isaac distend with horror,  and his beard bristles with indignation; " burn em! rubbish! -vy, bless yer, the old hats is vurked up till they're better than new, bright and shining, like a new pin - just the sort o' thing to captiwate young chaps, such as you," -and he glances, with a knowing look, at the graceful gossamer which surmounts our head. "Vy, my dear, the sheap 'ouses, an' many of the others as vell, haven't such a thing as a new at in their shops, 'cepting, p'r'aps, in the vinders. Ah! we could let you sharp fellers into a wrinkle or two, if -" and here he removes an olive from his mouth to give vent to his mirth - if it vere vurth our vile."
    His laughter over, he continues. "Sold a pair of the Queen's vhite satin slippers yesterday. How did they come here? Vell, that's no odds; come they did, and many a fine lady's beside. Sold the whole lot to a actress; fashionable vun, too, as plays up there at Vinsor - acts before the Queen in her Majesty's own slippers. Funny idea, ain't it? Ah! ye makes the old lamps look like new vuns here, I can tell you. Many's the old coat that finds its vay back to the owner as sold it the veek afore, and whose eye has been caught by its beauty at the door of a sheap tailor s. Ve've lots o' mourning about this time, enough to fit out all London in grief for a tvelvemonth. There's a lot just come in," flinging the remains of an olive in the direction of a lugubrious-looking heap of clothing. "Poor families, you see, half ruin themselves to get them bits o' duds together, cos no grief ain't respectable vithout 'em; and so they pinches their pellies an empties their pockets to hang themselves all round with crape like a veeping viller" - we are rather startled by the simile, but, forbearing to interrupt, he proceeds; "then, after a time, the family goes to the vurkus, an' the duds, in course, comes to us.
    Here a curly-pated, pock-marked boy, with that sharp, precocious look never absent from the face of Hebrew youth, comes dashing up, and informs the shopkeeper that he is wanted in the market.
    This suffices for Isaac. He turns his back upon us at once, determining to waste no more time in such unprofitable converse, and crowning himself with the first old hat that comes to hand, hurries down the lane in pursuit of what he is certain to overtake - his "pusiness."

Watts Phillips, The Wild Tribes of London, 1855