IF London were to be besieged, the lines of defence would contain five millions
of people. How would they be fed? It costs as many pounds now to feed London for
a twelvemonth as there are miles from the earth to the sun! What
would it cost then?
If this country were to lose the command of the seas the people would starve. A blockade would knock off a third of the meat supply, and all the groceries; that popular gauge of prosperity, the quartern loaf, would at once treble in price, and fruit and vegetables would be a luxury. And in the stress London would come off worst. Not long ago a snowstorm nearly caused a famine in the metropolis, and now a three days' fog in the Thames Valley would put us on half rations. To live, we must hold the roads by land and sea, and keep them clear; if once the roads are blocked, we are done. And just as London cannot exist without the country, so the country cannot exist without the colonist or the foreigner, for Britain alone of the kingdoms of the world feeds on more than it can grow, and only lives as the citadel of an ocean empire.
The country is fed a good deal from abroad; London is fed almost entirely from the outside. London within the lines - for, strangely enough, owing to the physiography of the Thames Valley, the fortifications of the metropolis would follow the outer boundaries of the metropolitan boroughs - grows hardly any of its food. The ever-advancing builder has appropriated the market-gardens, and run streets through the cornfields, so that besides a few dairy farms and watercress-beds, there is no area left for the produce of food within the only possible lines of defence. By the road, the rail, and the river, all but an infinitesimal part of London's commissariat is carried in; and the consideration of how it is carried in times of peace will enable us best to appreciate what the difficulties would be in times of war.
A large subject is the feeding of the capital, and not an easy one to handle. We have no gates and no octroi; there are no official statistics to give in the amount of the different commodities at a glance. We have tried in all directions. We have appealed to the Board of Trade, the different railway companies, and the different market authorities, but in all cases the answer has been the same. The home trade is free, and no records are kept, and to compile the statistics required would be impossible. Like our predecessors in the quest, we must depend on estimate, and do the best we can.
In one item we are tolerably sure of our ground, and fortunately that is the most important one. We have all been taught to sing of the Roast Beef of Old England - hard and stringy as it must have been, to judge by modern improvements, and by no means the delightful viand that legend would have us think - and the amount of roast beef (or, let us say, the butcher-meat of London) can be estimated with a near approach to accuracy. Thanks to the splendid markets of the Corporation, and the admirable way in which their statistics are presented by the courteous officials of the City, there is little doubt as to the meat supply of the hungry millions. But with regard to the other thousand and one articles that go to form a city's food, a very different state of affairs exists. Of the sugar, tea, coffee, cocoa, rice, butter, cheese, eggs, wheat, flour, fruits, and vegetables consumed within our limits no exact statement is possible. One guide we have, it is true - London contains an eighth of the population of these islands, and we shall not be very far wrong in assuming that the total food imports, divided by eight, will give the metropolitan consumption. We might even take the London imports to guide us, but unfortunately London is a port and a centre of distribution, and there is no record of the food sent into the country from it, which of course it would be needful to deduct to arrive at any approximation to the real figures. In butcher-meat we are, however, safe; practically, no meat received at the London markets is consumed beyond the London boundary. So with the roast beef of old England let us begin.
"No foreign meat sold," advertises the butcher, and on inquiry we find that by "foreign" he means colonial as well as continental. "I call all meat foreign," he explains, "that comes from farther than Ireland; and I have none of it! " Would that we could believe him, even if the "home" were better than the" foreign," which it is not. But consider for a moment what the chances are of his being wrong when there are consumed in London alone in one year over one hundred and thirty thousand tons of meat that was neither bred nor fed in these islands!
Of this enormous mass, the greater part imported alive, is landed at Deptford, on the Thames. Come with us to Deptford, that ancient dockyard which claimed to have been founded by the Britons, and, appropriately enough, retired from the ship business by launching its Druid. The old brick terraces that served as offices, quarters, and shops, are still there. The old building sheds, wide and lofty and patched with skylights, still stand by the riverside. The clock still marks the time, as it did when the dockyard was in its glory, and that famous three-decker, the Queen Charlotte, the biggest ship it ever built, "took the water gracefully, and was with difficulty restrained from grounding on the opposite shore." But the dull red buildings are now bank branches; the naval officers have given place to market clerks; the licensed drover is there, and not the blue-jacket, and, instead of the ring of the shipwright's hammer, we hear the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cattle.
Enter one of the old sheds, now floored with granite, and cut up into a wilderness of post and rail. Here are scores of oxen from the prairies of the North-west. They have travelled four thousand miles, and been fifteen days at sea on their passage, and yet look presentable. These are quiet enough; sometimes the "ranches" are much more lively, and indulge in a Wild West performance of somewhat alarming vigour. Here is a long line of beasts from Spain, beautiful chestnut brown in colour, sleek and well-built, though rather depressed in look, as Spanish cattle always are - even at a bull-fight. Next to them is a score of Dutchmen-piebald, black, and white, coarser in limb, and livelier in bearing. Opposite to them is a herd of more solid, sturdier animals, that have come here from Schleswig-Holstein, and seem rather to have enjoyed the trip.
The cattle trade, like all trades, has its seasons. From July to December the imports are greatest from the Northern Dutch and Baltic ports; from January to June the trade is briskest from Flushing and the Belgian ports; all the year round Germany sends us sheep from Bremen and Hamburg, and Spain and Portugal send cattle from Vigo and Oporto; and all the year round come in the American supplies. In 1887, of the 53,000 head of cattle that came to Deptford, 33,600 were American, but this was not all the American contribution to the London trade, for Canadian cattle enter by the western ports and come by rail to Islington. In 1887 there were 21,400 live Canadian beasts so sold, and the American share of our metropolitan cattle herd was thus brought up to 55,000 head. At Islington there were also sold 15,200 Canadian sheep; but no transatlantic sheep at all came to Deptford.
Of the 53,000 beasts landed at Deptford, over 4,200 hailed from Spain and Portugal, and over 10,000 from Tonning, the port of Schleswig-Holstein. The remainder of the beasts, and all the calves - 26,405 - came from Holland. And from Holland came a mighty flock of 495,585 sheep. Antwerp sent us 5,000 sheep; Hamburg and Bremen sent us nearly 170,000; and Tonning over 48,000. And the pigs - over 18,000 - came from the Dutch ports, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Harlingen in almost equal quantities, Harlingen sending the greatest share.
Market days are Mondays and Thursdays, and the cattle-boats come up the Thames chiefly on Sundays and Wednesdays. The Deptford figures, when worked out, show that on the average 500 tons of meat are received for each market. The stoppage of one of these deliveries at the mouth of the river, by fog or blockade, would mean the loss. of a dinner to two and a quarter millions of people. Luckily that has not yet happened, but such considerations are useful as bringing home to us the magnitude of the figures. with which we are dealing. Every year over 1,100 steamers discharge their living cargoes on the Deptford jetties, many of them little boats of 500 tons, some of them nine times as large. Some of the larger vessels tranship their cattle at Gravesend into the Corporation's own steamer, the Racoon, and 27,000 beasts came to market in that fashion in 1887.
It does not take long to clear out a cattle-boat. The sheep are all in pens, so as to keep together when the ship rolls; the cattle are all haltered and hitched to rails, so that they cannot get loose. The boat comes alongside the strongly-built jetty; the steam crane lifts high in the air a substantial gangway, which it gently lowers until it bridges the gap between the pier and the ship. The first sheep-pen is opened, and the first sheep "persuaded" to come ashore; the other sheep follow, pen after pen is opened, and faster and faster run the sheep up the slope and along the road to the sheds. Soon the sheep are out, and the calves are set loose and follow; then the oxen are liberated and clumsily rush ashore; and in a quarter of an hour from the time she stopped the steamer is off again up the river to deliver whatever other cargo she may have. She had not arrived unexpected, a telegram from the cattle agent at Gravesend had informed the market authorities that she was on her way.
Driven into lairs in one of the old building-sheds, every animal that arrives has to be examined by the Government Inspector to be certified if free from disease; and then begins a sorting out into the different hands or marks as given on the ship's mainfest. So many sheep marked with a blue diamond have to be found for one consignee, so many with a cross for another, so many with an A for a third, and so on, the marks of every sheep being recorded. But when the consignee takes possession he disregards the marks and sorts the sheep out into qualities only, so that the market authorities have no further trouble with marks, and take over for safe custody only such-and-such a number. And these sheep thus ready for the market - 23,000 have been here in one day - are, in another of the sheds, in beautifully clean pens, with a cradle of hay hung into each pen from above, up to which they have to stretch their heads to get at their first meal since leaving the Continent, for during the short trips no food is given, and often hours elapse before the victim has recovered sufficiently from the sea voyage to care to eat. Some, however, are better sailors than others. As we pass we see a young calf just come ashore kicking his legs about and dancing with joy at having again got on firm ground, and evidently ready for anything in the fodder line that may come along.
Though all the cattle come into Deptford alive, nothing alive ever leaves it. All round the lairs are long streets of slaughter-houses, wherein the killing goes on as required. But a slaughter-house is at its best but a chamber of horrors, and we need but glance at the last scene, in which oxen and sheep become beef and mutton under the hands of the brawny, half-naked, pole-axing men. A wonderful sight is the long avenue of huge sides of beef, being trimmed and divided to hang here for half a dozen hour before they are distributed; and even more remarkable is the display of the carcasses of the sheep, skinned and cleaned, and thrown smoking into the carts, to be carried away immediately. In these economical days nothing is wasted that can be saved. A stroller round Deptford Market discovers this under many fragrant conditions. In one place he will come upon a wholesale manufacture of tripe, in another a gigantic boiling of offal, in another a peculiarly unattractive conversion of alimentary canals into sausage-skins. Curious are the intricacies of trade. The ox of the Wild West is borne by railway to New York, and crosses the ocean to Deptford; he dies, and his interior, cleaned and made ready, is exported to Germany, and as the covering of the humble sausage that interior finds its way back again to London, where so many things end.
Islington, however, is the great live cattle-market of the metropolis. There as many as 10,000 beasts have been on sale in one day, and 38,500 head of sheep have been gathered for one market. In 1887 there were sold at Islington, for London consumption, 235,762 beasts, 809,914 sheep. 13,349 calves, and 1,119 pigs. Of the beasts, 21,400, as we have before said, came from Canada, and 11,450 from foreign ports; and of the sheep, 15,200 came from Canada, and 13,700 from elsewhere beyond sea. Great as is the inland trade at Islington, it is only now recovering from a period of depression ; in 1864, 346,000 beasts were sold, and in 1868 the sheep that paid toll amounted to 1,786,000. On Mondays and Thursdays, about seven o'clock in the morning, there is such a scene of life and movement as is worth going miles to see. From the roof of the ring of offices that cluster round the central tower the eye ranges on one side over rows upon rows of orderly cattle, each firmly secured to the rail that marks the gangway, and oh the other are pens after pens of sheep huddled within the gates. The mist is thick enough to shut in the view all round, and the sea of ovines and bovines seems to be limitless. It is a heaving, restless, noisy sea, with the booing and bleating in irregular bursts, now in one grand diapason, now in a distant solo, but always continuous. Dogs bark and men shout as down the crowded gangways, between the long lines of writhing horns, there hurry the twos and threes and dozens and half-dozens chosen by the purchasers, many to journey off to the private slaughter-houses, the rest to meet their fate in the public abattoirs close by. In the past the cattle used to come to the metropolis by road, and it was a curious phenomenon of the highway that all the footmarks pointed to London. Now we have changed all that, and the market is fed by the lines of railway that run into it from all parts.
And so it is with the great Central Meat Market in Smithfield, that stands on the site of the old cattle-market that was transferred to Islington in 1855. Into it there came by rail in 1887 over 123,000 tons of country-killed meat, nearly 25,000 tons of American-killed meat, 15,100 tons of meat killed in Australia and New Zealand, and brought across the sea in cold storage chambers, and over 18,000 tons of "general foreign meat and produce." To th:s was added nearly 75,000 tons of "town-killed meat," most of it from Deptford and Islington, and this we shall be safest in not taking into account. The year's total distributed from Smithfield is thus 181,000 tons, or, say, an average delivery of 500 tons every day.
It is interesting to note the proportions brought in by the chief railways. The London and North Western delivered not less than 58,000 tons, the Great Northern about 26,000, the Great Western about 20,000, the South-Western about 15,000, the Great Eastern over 13,000, the Midland over 10,000. Altogether the railways sent to Smithfield in 1887, 154,540 tons, the shipping companies supplied 7,778 tons; salesmen and slaughtermen brought in 59,114 tons; and miscellaneous carriers were responsible for 37,950.
The scene at Smithfield in Christmas week and at other times has been so often described that we need not linger on it here. There is, in truth, little that is picturesque in sides of beef and carcasses of mutton, even in such overpowering quantities as are there displayed. But the Meat Market is one of the sights of London nevertheless; there is a charm about its general atmosphere of prosperity which is irresistible! Every shop is occupied, and is loaded as heavily as it can be, and the Market has even overflowed into the poultry branch adjoining. Not long ago the Cold Air Stores were opened, and these have already been found too small during the summer months. In them is such a collection of English, Scotch, Irish, Continental, Icelandic, American, and Australian carcasses mixed together, that it is no wonder the retail , butcher fails to separate them, and dubs everything "home-fed" that Smithfield supplies him with.
There are other markets at which meat is sold that has not been taken account of in the figures we have given. There is Leadenhall, which is mainly a retail market, and of which no statistics are available; there is the Jews' Market in Whitechapel; and a large amount of killed meat finds its way to London direct to the suburban retailer. We shall be well within the mark in allowing 10,000 tons for such odds and ends.
It is time, however, to " combine our information" and come to totals. Averaging oxen at two to the ton, calves at twelve to the ton, pigs at thirty to the ton, and sheep at forty to the ton, we find that London in 1887 received from foreign and colonial sources 130,216 tons of meat. Of this Deptford received 48,446 tons, Islington 23,650 tons, and Smithfield 58,120 tons. Of home-bred live-stock, Islington received 115,675 tons, and of home-bred dead-stock - that is, meat fed and killed in Great Britain and Ireland- Smithfield distributed 122,880 tons - to which we should add our extra 10,000. This makes for the year's meat 378,771 tons, which means 1,038 tons per day, or less than half a pound of uncooked meat and bone per head for the five millions of people.
LONDON requires other meat to feed it besides
the live cattle and cold carcases of which
we have heard so much; and a large proportion
of this comes from across the seas. Even
in minor matters, mere sundries as it were,
generally thought to be of home production
exclusively, it is astonishing to what an extent
we are indebted to the colonist and the foreigner.
As an example, we have in the newspaper on the
morning this is written, an announcement that a
steamer has just arrived from the River Plate with
14,334 carcases of mutton; 1,051 half carcases;
26,110 tongues; 27,390 hearts; 119,050 kidneys;
50 tails; and 10 casks of tripe. Do not let this
typical cargo be pooh-poohed as mere "frozen;"
the cold-air storage chambers in which it made
its voyage are on exactly the same principle as
the huge larders of the Metropolitan :Meat
Market, in which meat, home grown and foreign
grown, is kept side by side, and not one person
in a thousand could tell the native place of the
mutton when it comes to table, except perhaps
that the meat that came farthest might be the
best flavoured, owing to its having been fed on
Let us give as briefly as possible - for we have other food to interest us - London's share of imported meat sundries. Of salted beef, reaching us chiefly from the United States, London claims nearly 1,700 tons a year; of tinned meats, 84,000 cases; of hams, nearly 6,000 tons; of bacon, 18,150 tons; of salt pork, over 1,700 tons. The hams, bacon, and pork, like the salted beef, come chiefly from the United States. To them we may appropriately add the rabbits, chiefly from Belgium, of which London, in 1887, consumed 60,000; and with these rabbits, which weighed nearly 750 tons, we may as well mention the poultry and game, amounting to 2,550 tons. In short, to the live cattle, and meat imported, we shall be well within the mark in adding 33,000 tons of poultry and odds and ends. One item of meat that we have forgotten - vegetarian meat let us call it - runs into even larger figures. How many foreign eggs does the reader suppose come into the kingdom in a year? In 1887 the return presented to the House of Commons gives the number at 1,088,380,440! Taking London's share of this at an eighth, and that is a very low estimate, the metropolis consumed, in 1887, over 136,000,000 foreign eggs, of which Germany supplied more than a third, France about a third, and Belgium a sixth.
But we must say more about the poultry and game than this, for the London consumption runs into much larger quantities than would be suspected. One railway company alone, the Great Eastern - whose goods manager has very kindly supplied us with a detailed statement of the line's food traffic for the last ten years -brought into London in 1888, 2,587 tons of poultry! Let the Londoner visit the Central Poultry Market, and see for himself the quantities that that are being handled, and let him consider that unlike butcher's meat, the amount of poultry that passes through Smithfield is a mere fraction of what London eats. Let him go to Leadenhall, and add what he sees there to what he has seen at Smithfield, and still he will be far off the gross total. Leadenhall likes not statistics, and is somewhat of a mystery as a market, but it is the most interesting of lounges under Corporation control. It is a grand miscellaneous show of the living and the dead. All alive-o! - and noisily alive - are cocks and hens, and pigeons and turkeys, and peafowl and guineafowl, and ducks and geese, all tempting the amateur as ornaments for the back yard, and all meaning roast or boiled in the immediate future. And huddled with them are more unprofitable pets - hawks and canaries, larks and linnets, parrots and owls, rabbits and ferrets, dogs and cats, hedgehogs and goldfish, foxes ("that had been best unmentioned! ") and "water-snails for the aquarium!" And close by are lofty displays of New Zealand mutton; and bins-ful of "frozen kidneys," and joints from the Plate, all doomed to the dish; and game innumerable, all hanging dead in plumes; and venison, skinned and unskinned, such as this market distributes in London alone to the tune of 350 tons a year.
Where does the game come from? Scandinavia and Russia, Germany and Italy, :Manitoba and Wisconsin all contribute. Even "the quails of the desert" come to Leadenhall. The grouse come from Yorkshire and the Highlands of Scotland; the pheasants and partridges from Norfolk and Suffolk; the teal, the widgeon, and the wild fowl from Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire and the lowlands of Holland. A well-known salesman estimated that there are supplied in one year 100,000 grouse, 125,000 partridges, 70,000 pheasants, 80,000 snipe, 150,000 Irish plover, 30 ,000 Egyptian quail, 70,000 widgeon, 30,000 teal, 200,000 wild duck, 150,000 small wild birds, and 400,000 larks. And to this he added 400,000 pigeons, mostly from France; 100,000 geese, mostly from Holland; 350,000 ducks, a good many from Buckinghamshire; 104,000 turkeys, mostly from East Anglia; 100,000 hares, 1,300,000 rabbits, and 2,000,000 domestic fowls, mostly from Surrey and Sussex. This was some years ago, and we shall be within limits now if we add to these all that we have already mentioned as reaching us by sea. When we consider that fifty years since the sale of game was illegal, what a "development of commerce" have we here! And yet how small a matter it is after all! Add all the quantities together and it will be found that reckoning them all as equal, from the lark to the turkey, all as so many head, we have not allowed two birds a piece per year for the people of London, But how many of the Londoners we may be reminded taste not bird-flesh from year's end to year's end. Full well we know it. But take "the upper ten thousand," not as a figure of speech but as a figure of arithmetic, and allow each of the ten thousand a bird a day and you have accounted for 3,650,000 of the mighty flock!
In our salesman's estimate the large supplies from Ireland are included. Other provisions come from Ireland besides poultry - pork and bacon, for example, in large quantities - but no means exist of arriving at the amount of Irish produce consumed in London, and we must leave it as a margin for our other estimates. Large, though the quantity is, it is small in proportion to the numbers it has to feed. Butter, too, comes in large consignments from Ireland, but it is now having a hard fight against the importations from across the other Channel. Of home-made butter London is said to take 10,000 tons; its yearly share of foreign butter is about the same, and of margarine, the imitation, it receives nearly 9,000 tons. The margarine reaches us chiefly from Holland, but it also comes from Norway and Belgium. Butter comes to us mainly from Den mark, France yielding the next largest supply, and Holland and Germany the next.
Of milk, all of it produced in England and excluding all Lac dubium and the yield of Vacca ferrocaudata, London, at a moderate estimate, drinks 125,000 gallons a day or 875,000 gallons a week; and as a cow can be safely set down to yield ten gallons a week, we are faced with the formidable herd of 87,500 cows required to furnish the metropolitan milk supply. Of these some 14,000 are kept within the London boundary. The milk from the rest is brought in "churns" from almost every railway-station. Familiar objects are these churns to the railway traveller. In the early morning about four o'clock they are delivered full in hundreds, and again about one o' clock in the afternoon they are loaded out from the trains wholesale, and all day long the empty churns go back in the brakes and special vans. The farmer realises about as much per gallon as the retailer does per quart, the difference going chiefly in carriage. Of late there has been a great increase in London milkmen owing to a greatly increased consumption of milk. And there has been a great increase of business among the larger firms, one company, for instance, making as many as 11,000 calls a day at customers' houses.
In addition to the fresh milk there should be mentioned the condensed milk sold in tins, of which the London yearly consumption is 80,000 cases. And from milk we are easily led to cheese, of which the United Kingdom annually imports over 90,000 tons, and London uses 11,465 tons. Twothirds of the cheese come from Canada and the United States in about equal proportions. And a sixth comes from Holland. Adding the home produce, we can put the consumption of cheese in London at 50 tons a day. With these "provisions" we may as well take lard, of which America supplies the Londoners every year with 5,000 tons. What home-made lard is used we know not, for of the home-bred pig and all connected with him we frankly confess we can make nothing, although we have tried our hardest. One astounding fact we have gathered, and that is that the London cookshops annually sell over 600 tons of black puddings, polonies, and saveloys.
Having disposed of the meat and provisions, we can now attack the fish, with which we might more fashionably have begun. And first for the oysters, which are not strictly fish but are certainly fishy. Forty years ago a calculation was published showing that the London consumption of oysters was in round numbers 500,000,000. There can be no doubt that more oysters are eaten now than then, but as 500,000,000 would give us even now a hundred per head of the population, we may perhaps quarter the amount with advantage and be satisfied with two dozen each. The British oyster is of course in a minority, but in his competition with his Dutch, French, Portuguese, and American cousins it is emphatically a case of quality against quantity.
Billingsgate is the great centre of London fish distribution. There are other markets, but Billingsgate laughs them to scorn. Shadwell still exists, and the new Smithfield market has opened hopefully, but the confidence of Lower Thames Street is unshaken. Last year Billingsgate received toll on over 136,000 tons of land-borne and water-borne fish for the Metropolitan dealers. We put land-borne first, owing to its greater importance, for the river no longer brings in the bulk. From the road came 79,000; from the Thames only 57,000. The bulk of the water-borne fish is brought in by four fishing companies; the Great Northern Steam Fish Company brought in 14,000 tons, the Steam Fish and Ice Company 12,000 tons, the Grimsby Ice Company 10,000 tons, the Great Yarmouth Steam Carrying Company 9,000 tons. Of the land-borne fish, the Great Northern Railway are the largest carriers; they were accountable for nearly 19,000 tons out of the 79,000. Next came the London and North Western, and Great Western, each with 9,000 then the Midland with 7,000, then the Great Eastern with 5,000, the London and South-Western with 3,500, the South-Eastern with 2,500. the Chatham and Dover with 2300, and the Brighton with 1,300.
The chief characteristic of Billingsgate on a market morning is perpetual motion. An eager, bustling crowd, struggling and beckoning and bidding, is pierced in half a dozen directions by single files of hurrying white-frocked porter. Tracing back the files to the quay, we find them starting from the "steam carrier" moored in the river. A double gangway lead from the steamers into the market. Up one side come the white porters, one by one in close order, swiftly and regularly, each with a "trunk" of fish on his head; down the other passes a less regular file of porters returning empty-handed - or rather headed - to dive into the ship's hold and join the laden stream. At the end of the pontoon are a couple of lighters, and down to them lopes a line of slippery boards; on to these boards the empty trunks are thrown, and down they slide toboggan-fashion till they are safe below.
From London Bridge to Water Lane, or say Lower Thames Street generally, there is a block of carts and railway-vans; the market has overflowed into the street. As an example of the long line, let us take one of the Great Northern waggons which stands opposite the main door of the Custom House. On it is a fish-tank the size of a railway-truck, which was loaded at Grimsby last night. and slung off the truck on to this London waggon this morning. On the tank is a small crowd peering down into two hatchways in the top, the lids of which are thrown back; and a white-frocked man amongst them is shouting at the top of his voice, "There's no better in the market this morning; now then, what do you say ?- what do you say?" And a lazy. leisurely sort of bidding is going on: the bidders stooping down into the mass of fish and picking up first one and then another, and throwing them back again with a flop. On the off-side of the waggon is a crowd of hucksters' barrows and spring-carts, and these extend right up Arthur Street and round the Monument and beyond.
The railway-van is one of many; the shouting group is one of many groups; and under cover in the market the uproar is deafening. There the salesmen, "bummarees," or what not, stand among heaps of fish and stacks of laden boxes. "Gigantic salmon, fresh caught from the firths and bays of Scotland, or from the productive Irish seas, flounder about, as the boxes in which they have travelled disgorge them upon the board; quantities of delicate red mullet, that have been hurried up by the Great Western all the way from Cornwall, for the purpose of being furnished fresh to the fastidious palates at the West End; smelts brought by the Dutch boats, their delicate skins varying in hue like an opal as you pass; pyramids of lobsters, a moving mass of spiteful claws and restless feelers, savage at their late abduction from some Norwegian fiord; great heaps of pinky shrimps; turbots, that lately fattened upon the Doggerbank, with their white bellies bent as for some tremendous leap; and humbler plaice and dabs, from our own craft; all this bountiful accumulation forms a mingled scene of strange forms and weird colours, that no one with an eye for the picturesque can contemplate "without interest" - set off as it is by the bustling throng, the grey misty light. and the slippery, sloppy, filthy, greasy flags.
At five o'clock the big bell tolls, and the market opens; by six the West End mongers have taken the pick of the supply; by seven the costermongers have come on the scene and begun their bargaining; by nine the distribution is complete; and, after a feeble haggling with the late comers, lingering on into retail, there comes the close with a grand clean down at three in the afternoon.
Above the market are galleries of offices. Below it are "the shellfish vaults," where the curious explorer will find among piles of empty baskets, sundry unappetising-looking mounds of mussels, whelks, and cockles; and in one corner a steaming kitchen, from whose wide bubbling vats the once blue lobster comes a brilliant scarlet corpse. On the river front is a broad floating pontoon, alongside which are not only the steamers that have collected the takes of the North Sea smacks, but the little open barges in which the fish has been lightered from the docks; and out in the stream are three deep-welled Dutch galliots, quaint and clumsy, varnished and green-limed, in which most of the morning's eels have come to town.
And what is the year's fish bill? We have seen its weight, 136,251 tons; but what does that mean in quantities? Official figures there are none, but the following proportions are vouched for as being near the mark, and the quantities will total up to the tonnage required. 400,000 each of salmon and live cod; 60,000,000 soles; 12,000,000 whiting; 2,000,000 haddock; 22,000,000 plaice; 16,000,000 mackerel; 800,000,000 herrings; an eighth as many sprats; 6,000,000 eels; 300,000 dabs and flounders; and a million sundries. Add for the "dry" fish, 50,000 barrelled cod, and 1,000,000 salt cod; 15,000,000 haddocks; 100,000,000 bloaters; 30,000,000 red herrings - the "Billingsgate pheasant" - 10,000,000 kippers; and 300,000 sprats. Add for the "shell-fish," over 125,000,000 oysters; 1,000,000 lobsters; 500,000 crabs; 300,000,000 shrimps; 3,000,000 whelks; 30,000,000 mussels; 40,000,000 cockles; and 100,000,000 "littorinas of the pin," the "wink-wink-winkety-winks," that curl out from their convolutions on so many Sunday tea plates, east and south of Paternoster Row.
"What an exaggeration! " says the incredulous reader, for a moment. Let him add together all the "wet," and the "dry," and the "shell;" let him reckon the sprat as the equal of the salmon, and count the cod, the shrimp, the bloater, and the periwinkle as each an "ego," and therefore entitled to an equal vote in the democracy of the seas; and he will find his total fall short of 1,800,000,000. Let him divide that by the days in the year and the number of London's people, and he will find that in our case, to speak within the limit, we have given the Londoners less than a single fish a day to feed on. To give the people of London only a periwinkle apiece, you would require so many bushels that the baskets containing them, placed one over the other, would overtop the cross of St. Paul's.
As with the meat
so with the fruit
and vegetables. We
could not feed our
people without our
imports. Last year
there came into this
worth of miscellaneous
2,000,000 bushels of
bushels of oranges
of fruit "unenumerated,"
bushels of onions,
and 140,000 tons of
potatoes. The last
is but an insignificant
the consumption, it is true, for the United Kingdom
produces 5,000,000 tons of potatoes in a
year; but still it is noteworthy. The Great
Eastern Railway brought into London in 1888
78,600 tons; the other railways together brought
in about five times as much, and the potatoes
we find among the imports are nearly all early
varieties that come to Covent Garden.
Covent Garden is the great vegetable market of the metropolis. Columbia sells from 300 to 400 tons of potatoes and roots in a week; Farringdon sells chiefly watercresses; Spitalfields does a much larger and more miscellaneous trade; the Borough deals in larger quantities than Spitalfields; but taking all four together, and adding the Great Northern potato market - the main source of the London supply of that vegetable - the united trade would not be a third of what is done at "the Garden."
As Billingsgate extends into the streets so does the great vegetable market. Garrick Street, James Street, Long Acre, Great Russell Street, Bow Street, are thick. with carts and vans on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. About seven o'clock the sight is at its best. The towering waggons that have been crawling to the centre all through the night are half unloaded, and the dealers are bearing away the spoil. Flowers there used to be many, but now there are few; those who wish to see the flowers must be up at three in the morning to see the new Flower Market in full glory.
Under a clear sky, with the early sun beaming down on the cool deep green of the vegetables, the warm reds and rich yellows of the fruits, and the clean white and brown of the baskets, heaped among the crowd, there is a freshness and fragrance about that few can help enjoying, and a pleasant out-in-the-air feeling characteristic of no other market. All round the waggons are being unloaded by the salesmen's men, and the content carried into the crowd, and from the salesmen' desks the green stuff is being borne outwards again by the buyers' porters - a constant stream in and out from the waggon to the cart.
The gardeners' waggons are loaded ten or a dozen feet high with a hundred and fifty dozen each of cabbages or cauliflowers, the sides as level and true in angle as the cells of a honeycomb; the railway waggons are loaded almost as high, but with boxes, barrels, baskets, and crates, held firm by visible cords. The cabbage waggons have no cords, and how their contents are kept wedged together is a mystery; but not so great a mystery as the number of cabbages the many waggons bring to market in a year, for no one seems to know what the consumption really is.
Combining our information from many sources - much of it vague and evidently misleading, although appearing in type - we shall not be very wide of the mark in the following figures: Potatoes for the whole of London, 400,000 tons, being about half a pound per head per day; cabbages of all descriptions, 110,000 tons; turnips, 60,000 tons; onions, 50,000 tons; cauliflowers and brocoli, 30,000 tons; Brussels sprouts, 15,000 tons; carrots and parsnips, together, about the same; green peas, 20,000 tons (the Great Eastern alone brings in over 4,000 tons); beans, 13,000 tons; lettuces, 2,000 tons; vegetable marrows, 2,000 tons; cucumbers, 300 tons - 200,000 gherkins have been cut in one morning by one gardener; rhubarb, 900 tons - rhubarb first appeared at Covent Garden in Waterloo year, Mr. Miatt after much trouble managed to sell three sticks the second day he sent it to market! - celery, 800 tons; asparagus, 300 tons; radishes, 200 tons; turnip-tops, herbs, and unspecified items, say 500 tons, which amounts, duly cast and divided, yield an average of about six ounces a day of green vegetable food for each inhabitant of the metropolis. Give them each another ounce and you would require another 50,000 tons.
Dealing with such large numbers we can afford to throw into the bargain the thousand tons of watercresses for tea, which we may as well confess we forgot, but which we are glad have a sentence to themselves so as to include a note as to the quite remarkable speed at which they are cut. The quickest harvesting imaginable is watercress cutting; it is quicker than even walnut shelling and pea shelling as practised by the scores of women who are huddled together at work in the thick of the crowd on market morning at Covent Garden.
A good deal of the vegetable supply is grown within the London area on the flats that every year are encroached upon by the ever-unsatisfied builder. One grower will sometimes send to one salesman in one day five or six thousand pecks of peas and twelve hundred dozen cabbages. Lowly as the crop may be, the cultivation is the highest of the high. Take one market garden as a sample. "Towards the close of October cabbages are planted out; in November, when these are off, the land is trenched and cropped with early celery, rows of lettuce or colewort being interposed between the rows of celery; when the celery is removed, the ground is cropped with winter greens, which form a speedy and profitable crop for the London market; by the beginning of March the colewort is cleared off, and is speedily replaced by onions; when the onions are gathered, more cabbage or colewort is put in; and then come cauliflowers, gherkin cucumbers, French beans, or scarlet runners. So the gardener proceeds, never allowing his ground to remain idle for a single day, and acting upon the well-assured maxim that the enormous expense of manure and labour will be more than repaid by the enormous returns per acre per annum. It is said that in November this garden contains more than twenty acres of London greens; every hole and comer under trees, and every bit of spare space being filled with them. There are fifty acres of apple, pear, and plum plantations; the trees are pruned after the manner of currant bushes; and the ground under them is cropped with rhubarb, currants, and gooseberries in summer, and with colewort and cabbages in winter."
But the bulk of the produce comes from beyond the London district, from every part of the kingdom, in fact, even from Cornwall and Cheshire, and Norfolk and Northumberland. And from beyond the sea, from France and Holland and Germany, from Spain and Italy and Algiers do many of the London vegetables come. And the fruit comes even farther. Australia is sending us an ever-increasing supply of all sorts; America is swamping us with apples; Spain and Portugal, the Azores, the Madeiras, the Ionians, Italy and Sicily pour in their lemons and oranges; grapes, nuts, chestnuts. pineapples, cocoanuts come in from the Mediterranean and the West Indies; even South Africa, the Mauritius, India, and China add their quota to the feeding of London. In one year alone over £300,000 has been paid to the shippers for foreign fruit sent to Covent Garden.
The centre of the foreign fruit trade is, however, the square round the Monument. There the apples, the oranges, and the lemons in their millions of bushels mentioned at the outset are chiefly distributed. But of what does the "unenumerated fruit" consist? Pears, cherries, grapes, pineapples, cocoanuts, plums, currants, tomatoes, pomegranates, melons, bananas, mulberries, and samples of every commercial fruit that grows. But wearisome is the repetition of numbers. The fruit, homegrown and imported, consumed in London is not far short of a hundred thousand tons a year.
But then there is the canned fruit; and what of the dried fruit and the groceries? The canned fruit we can disregard; the dried fruit for London only can be set down very closely at 50,000 tons of currants and 30,000 tons of raisins. Tea is an important item, say 10,000 tons; coffee, 1,700 tons; cocoa, 880 tons. It is not so long ago that in this magazine we dealt rather fully with the grocery trade and noted the stocks in the docks; we need not travel again over the same ground; a list of leading quantities will suffice us. Here is the list for London only: cinnamon, 62 tons: ginger, 470 tons; pepper, 1,600 tons; rice, raw and manufactured, 22,000 tons. Rice takes us into the grain, which need not trouble us much, for a convenient statistic enables us to estimate all the flour and meal yearly consumed in the London limits as equal to 827,520,000 half-quartern loaves of two pounds each.
Of the flour of which these loaves were made less than a third was ground from wheat grown in this country. The most serious item in the hole of our food question is this of imported grain. Out of every three loaves we eat, two have to come to us from over the seas. Bread is not eaten in waste; among our people, as a rule, bread is kept from being wasted with almost superstitious care, and only enough is provided to satisfy necessity. Think what it would mean, then, to cut off two thirds of that supply. In London alone there would be over three millions by whom bread would not be procurable.
It is an old cry, but we can never try to drive the lesson home too often. Our country has to be fed from its rivals or its dependencies. In 1887 there were imported into the United Kingdom 55,784,685 cwt. of wheat, and 18,056,545 cwt. of wheat meal and flour; of barley we received 14,277,180 cwt.; of oats, 14,468,733 cwt.; of peas, 2,990,296 cwt.; of beans, 2,477,293 cwt.; of Indian com or maize and Indian corn meal we had 31,128,923 cwt. Of the eighteen million hundredweights of flour, nearly fifteen came from the United States, a million and a third from Austria, a million from Canada, and half a million from Germany. Of the fifty-five million hundredweights of wheat twenty millions and a half came from the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, and ten millions from the Pacific seaboard, eight millions and a half came from India, five millions and a half from Russia, four millions from Canada, two millions and a quarter from Chili, a million and a half from Germany, a little less from Australasia, over half a million from Roumania, and nearly two hundred thousand from Egypt. The other grain supplies we need not trace; sufficient has been said to show how dependent we are for our existence on our keeping clear the highways of the ocean.
Of sugar in all its forms, all from abroad, the Londoners would require for a year's supply 150,000 tons. Sugar naturally leads us on to beer, of which a thousand million pints is the annual metropolitan consumption. Add to these thousand million pints, equal to 125,000,000 gallons, 4,700,000 gallons of spirits, and 1,800,000 gallons of wine, and you have a drink bill to make a tea-totaler shudder. To comfort him a little we may mention the 45,625,000,000 gallons of a less harmful liquid supplied yearly by the metropolitan water companies, the proportion of which used as food we will leave him to estimate for himself. As a curiosity we may as well end in smoke, and add the 2,630 tons of tobacco that floated in clouds from London's lips in 1888.
Taking all London's food together, the fish, the meat, the poultry, the provisions, the vegetables, the fruit, the groceries, and the bread, we get an annual consumption of close on a million and a half tons a year. Add to this the drink-excluding the water-and dividing by 365, we have a daily consumption of 5,800 tons.
Clear Trafalgar Square of its fountains and its monuments, pack it with one day's supply of the great city's food, as solid and straight as the cabbages are packed on a market gardener's waggon, and you will have a mass higher than Nelson's column. Even the half-quartern loaves eaten in London in a single day would, if placed side by side in single line, extend from London to Leeds.
W. J. GORDON
articles from The Leisure Hour, 1889