Victorian London - Markets - Petticoat Lane


    THE "Vision of Peace," -such is the signification of the word Jerusalem; and a very visionary affair peace must have been in any city with a like excitable and restless population. Have you ever striven to realise to yourself, O gentle reader, a Hebrew mob?-to bring before you, as it were, those myriad eyes, flashing with anger, dilating with wonder, or sparkling with mirth !-the forest of beards, long and short, shaggy and sleek, waving to and fro, up and down, keeping time to the wagging of those many tongues? You have striven to do this, but failing, have given up the hope in despair. You were wrong; come with us, and together we will visit Petticoat-lane.
    Yes, the modern Jerusalem, as it is frequently called; a title singularly inappropriate, for of peace in its confines there is literally none. The Modern Babel would be better, a confusion of tongues being apparent enough; the Hebrew element, as ever in this quarter, predominating. The Lane is thronged-a perfect sea of greasy bargainers blocking up the thoroughfare ; a sea redolent of oil, which, however, has failed to smooth its troubled waters-waters which, like those of the Red Sea before the chariot of Pharaoh, separate only as some huge wagon or loaded cart comes heavily down the Lane -heavily and slowly- like some Juggernaut-car, threatening destruction to all who would impede its progress. Juggernaut line scarcely passed before the waves roll in again, and the tumult and tempest of voices recommence with a vigour and perseverance that throw Babel at once into the shade, and set even deafness at defiance. Petticoat-lane is long, narrow, and filthy,-a lane with many turnings. Let us beg our readers to glance down Hebrew-place, and retreat immediately-the look being enough; into Tripe-yard, and many others of equally euphonius title.,-the same mouldy, musty smell is about them all; the odour of the old clothes-man's bag seems to pervade the place. Petticoat-lane has no duplicate in London, though it has numerous parallels abroad. In filthiness it is surpassed by the Ghetto (the Jewish quarter in Rome), and by many of those tortuous thoroughfares in which daring travellers are lost, when wandering about the venerable and half Jewish cities of Hamburgh and Frankfort.
    The first thing that strikes you, when you have recovered your senses sufficiently to think of anything but the confusion that reigns around, is the appearance of the shops; the next, the dingy, second-hand look which everything wears, and the strange and all-powerful smell of old clothes and ancient shoeleather before alluded to, which impregnates the atmosphere, and gives a kind of character to the place. Here are brokers of all kinds-dealers in everything! hat-shops, boot- shops, fried-fish-shops, butcher's-shops, public-houses-with Hebrew Bonifaces, uncleanly to look upon, lazily lounging at their doors - coffee-shops in plenty, and a-no! yes! pork-shop- a pork-sausage shop in Petticoat-lane! What! will Levi, will Lazarus - names of weight - permit this profanation - this scandal upon the sacred ground-this interloper in the City of Refuge for their persecuted race? We look anxiously to the right and left, expecting to see horror and abhorrence written on every face; expect-but are disappointed. For the Jewish mind is acute; and, knowing the composition of London sausages, passes the shop with a smile.
    The Hebrew quarter - truly so. Turn which way we will, the same physiognomy, with its unmistakable indications, meets our gaze; the same keen eyes look sharply upon us, speculating upon our probable wants, eager to make a deal; the same persuasive tongue warbles the praises of his or her wares. And dangerous indeed are the dark-eyed Syrens of the Lane, as singing sweetly in his ears, they tempt the traveller within the Charybdis of their doors, and ruin him with costly "pargains."
    We pause for a moment, incautiously standing in front of a shop. It is enough. A dozen pair of eyes - for, like the vulture, they see their prey from afar - are upon us; we must want something. We are assailed upon all sides, and, bewildered by many voices, give ourselves up to despair. On one side a child of Moses, with a portentous squint and a dirty face, the "badge of all his tribe," presents an old blunderbuss at our head, and solicits its immediate purchase. We think of the truculent beggar who demanded charity of Gil Blas with a musket resting on his tattered hat, and hastily turn aside: turn aside to be seized upon by another of the tribe,-a Judas Maccabaeus, fierce in aspect, loud of tongue. He has large eyes and astonished eyelashes, a shock head of hair, and long ragged beard, like badly-prepared tobacco, from which the snuff is shaken in clouds, as if to give greater force to the simile.
    Maccabaeus, which signifies "he who fights," clutches at us like the bird of prey he is, and insists upon our becoming the owner of a large sea-chest and folding tent, which he has to sell, and which will be just the things for Australia. Another directs our attention to a cold, shiny-looking couch, hard and angular, like a dowager, in faded chintz, and three high-backed chairs, with weak legs and spinal complaints, like the same dowager's vinegar-visaged daughters ; when a neighbour, darting suddenly from a chaos of a shop in our rear, possesses himself of our coat-tails, while he yells into our ears the praises of an eight-day clock, that not only tells the time of day, but employs two figures to strike the hours; and various other articles of an equally ingenous construction. 
    We make an effort to proceed, when our path is blocked up by a Hebrew youth, who, bowing gracefully, produces a dilapidated concertina, and fills the air with such horrid and discordant sounds that we hurriedly become its purchaser, as the speediest and safest means of escaping the annoyance.
    A weak-minded man should never attempt the passage of Petticoat-lane excepting under good and sufficient guidance. The dangers of the North-west Passage are but trifles to those which encompass you here. A friend of ours - a man of easy nature and much excellence of heart - once lost himself in the intricacies of the Lane, when attempting a short cut from Spitalfields to Whitechapel. He emerged at last, however, the fortunate possessor of a four-post bedstead without a top, a pigeon-house without a bottom, several second-hand boots (odd ones), a filter without a tap, a basket of carpenter's tools) a stuffed parrot, and three flat-irons.
    Again we pause, as the voice of temptation meets our ears. The voice is soft; the tones subdued, as though its owner were overwhelmed with the greatness of his subject. There is music in those lisping accents, as it bids us turn and speak. What! can this be the author of that Hebrew melody ?-this withered mummy, with toothless gums, and nose and chin in dangerous propinquity? A pair of dark rimmed spectacles sits astride of a nose which stands boldly out, like the prow of a Roman galley; and a dirty nightcap, of uncertain colour, is pulled over a perfect conflagration of red hair. With one fleshless finger the Horror beckons us. We would fain retreat, but "he holds us with his glittering eye," and "we cannot choose but hear." He catches us by the sleeve, draws us within his doorway, and whispers the word "Cigars"-"direct from the Avannah." My dear, vouldn't deceive you for the vorld. Got a friend as ships em." "Grows them." Abraham, "grows them." The Minories are near at hand, and lettuce leaves are cheap; your cigars are brown, and youth is green. So the Havannah supply never fails in Petticoat-lane, where trade goes briskly on.
    As we turn our backs upon the spectre, who we leave shaking the elf-locks which hang flaming about his parchment visage, our notice is attracted to a face of a different caste, -a countenance glorious to look upon,-a head wild and noble, such as the shepherd prophet Amos might have borne upon his shoulders; and when we look at the large eye beautiful in its liquid brightness, the dark hair, and beard loosely flowing, we are reminded of those heroes of the Bible, half-madmen, all poets, who drank in inspiration from the wilderness around them, and from the stars that shone down upon them, as they sat tending their flocks. Men undaunted, standing erect in the presence of their kings, denouncing vice and prophesying ruin. We are reminded of all this as we gaze upon the head before us; but, alas! the owner looks up, speaks, and the spell has vanished. He is busily engaged picking to pieces the silk of some old umbrellas, to "make his vife a dress," as a passing Israelite jocosely remarks.
    Among the groups that now crowd the Lane, several figures arrest our attention, both from peculiarity of aspect and strangeness of apparel. This old man, with a face of a bilious-golden hue, with a cunning eye and restless avaricious mouth, as though thirsting for the Croesus drink of gold, is clad in a dingy robe, fastened round the waist by a twisted shawl. He is a pearl-merchant, from Ceylon, and walks slowly along, combing a beard of saffron hue, with nails that curve inwards like the talons of an eagle. He pauses only to haggle with a boy for one of those sticky and unpleasant-looking cakes, which he carries in a tray before him, and which seem manufactured only for the purpose of catching vagrant flies. Here, also, are merchants from Smyrna and Constantinople, dealers from Hamburgh, Frankfort, and a host of towns beside; two Russian Jews from Siberia, and one shrivelled little monkey-faced Hebrew from Morocco. They are speaking in languages of all kinds; but to us, whose acquirements are limited in that respect, their gestures are more eloquent than words ; and we look with wonder upon men who have travelled from all corners of the earth to trade, and trade in Petticoat-lane.
    Let us pass down Harrow-alley, leading to the City Clothes Exchange, - that great emporium, of which more anon, when we speak of the links which connect Petticoat-lane with the WILD TRIBES OF LONDON. Harrow-alley is the Lane over again-smaller, and, if possible, dirtier than her neighbour. Bestriding the path, like a greasy Colossus, leaning against the wall, or squatting in the mud, are men and women by the score. Beside, behind, and before them, are spread out their miscellaneous wares, to which they supplicate your notice or imperatively demand your attention. Here is a man, selling female apparel, and dilating upon the qualities of a faded silk; there a Jewess, with a face imagination would bestow upon the Witch of Endor, sitting coiled up amid a pile of old iron, expatiating upon the excellence of a hand-saw and jack-plane, which a semi-drunken carpenter is dreamily investigating, and making a hopeless endeavour to cheapen. The curb is covered with women's boots, looking jauntily enough, while myriads of Wellingtons and ankle-jacks; of clumsy make and ancient date, are very properly deposited in the kennel.
    The various public-houses in Petticoat-lane, Harrow-alley, and elsewhere, are generally crammed to excess. Through the open doorways we look into the back rooms, where some dozen men are always smoking,-their faces lost in the clouds of smoke which emanate from their lips. These men are known to the initiated as Petticoat-lane fencers, or receivers of stolen goods. Patiently they sit in these filthy rooms, waiting news from their scouts, who they throw out as antennae to "feel the way;" or for the appearance of the thief's confederate, who "gives the office," and tells where the booty may be found. The Jew asks no questions, makes his "pargain," and in a few hours the articles themselves have ceased to exist -or, rather, have been born again in a form that their original fashioner would refuse to own them.

 Watts Phillips, The Wild Tribes of London, 1855

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

see also Henry Mayhew in The Criminal Prisons of London - click here

see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps - click here

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 11 - Sunday Morning in Petticoat Lane

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In the core of the City, on a Sunday morning, there are streets as silent as sepulchres. When you disturb their bush with your echoing footfall, you do not see another human being, except, perhaps, some weary watchman or housekeeper looking down with lack-lustre eyes on the bare pavement of the deserted close-shuttered thoroughfares, or into a disused churchless churchyard, walled in, like the bottom of a well, with towering warehouses.
    It is startling to cross from that drowsy calm into the brawling bustle of the Aldgate and Whitechapel Jews' quarter.
    In and about Houndsditch shops are open and watchmakers at work, heedless of the chaff upon their screwed-up eyes shouted in at them by filthy young roughs hanging before their windows. Every now and then some one passes with a garment or hat in his hand, or a clothes-bag on his back. Phil's Buildings and Cutler Street are choked with buyers and sellers of old clothes-male and female, pouring in and out of the old-clothes exchanges like very dirty bees at the entrances of very dingy hives. The atmosphere of those densely-thronged marts does not remind one of "spicy breezes [-171-] blowing soft from Ceylon's isle "-it is redolent of oleaginous malodours, of a general dusty musty, fustiness. And yet what energetic bargaining is going on over the old garments! Though some of them look fit for little else than scarecrows, how voices are raised to sea- bird screeches, what elegancies of very composite English-Cockneyese plus Irish brogue, Jewish enunciation, and a splutter of foreign gutturals - are exchanged, how arms are pump-handled and fists are clenched, in the transfer of these fallen leaves of use and fashion. Some of the chatterers look very much as if they were going to fight. Hard by in their Meeting House the Friends are sitting, silent as sleek uncooing doves. London is rich in contrasts. By the bye, do Quaker hats, coats, and  breeches ever find their way into Rag Fair? And if so, who buys them to wear again?
    On the other side of Houndsditch street-sellers are coming with their baskets and their harrows from the fruit market in Duke's Place and Mitre Street. The busiest of the marketing is over∑ in front of one of the unglazed stores stands a chaise with a white pony, which gleams like moonlight, and a scarlet-lined rug which glows like fire, from their contrast to the dinginess of the sloppy rubbish-littered square, on which the gloomy, grimy Synagogue frowns down. The chaise is waiting, I suppose, to carry the storekeeper, with his portly gold-[-172-]chained mother in Israel and black-eyed little children of Israel into the country, but most of his fellow-tradesmen and their wives linger in somewhat slovenly undress, as if they expected to do a good bit of business yet in their papered pale-golden lemons, their brown walnuts, and Brazil nuts, their shaggy-haired cocoa-nuts, and rocky lumps of conglomerated dates. Some flashily dressed young fellows stand talking before the Jew public-houses. Their talk is of business - no mere time, and therefore money-wasting chaff. Indeed everybody in this part of the world seems to want to make a deal of some kind. "Vat do you think of it. Mosshy?" shouts a woman to her husband, who is leaning with his back against the wall on the other side of the street. Mrs. Mosshy has been redeeming a spare five minutes in bargaining for something she had not the slightest intention of buying before the would. be vendor chanced to pass her way, and wishes for time marital approval of her proposed investment.
    But Petticoat Lane on Sunday morning will give the most vivid idea of the greed of gain, or the hard struggle to make a living, there is in the neighbourhood I am writing about. 
    Petticoat Lane on Sunday morning is a very striking but by no means beautiful sight. It is not the place an Englishman proud of his country would take a foreigner to see, unless [-173-] he were simply proud of his countrymen's business energy. Cramped Middlesex Street is then crammed with, for the most part, a very frowsy throng. When two persons with clean faces and in moderately decent clothes meet there, they give one another an astonished stare. The one or two burly policemen who stand at corners - black breakwaters in the struggling tides that flow from Whitechape1 to Bishopsgate Street, and vice versa - look sulky when. a "respectably dressed" person passes them.
    "What on earth brings you here, to increase our bother? they seem to say. "Perhaps you'll get into a scrimmage, and then what can we do for you, or you do for yourself?"
    On. the whole, however, the Sunday crowds sidle, with their arms down, through the Lane without breach of the peace, and with a general display of rough good-nature; though now anti then a sturdy, stubbly-chinned denizen of the locality scowls on the "respectable intruder"  in it as if he would like to pitch into him for his impertinence. Stunted squalor, however, rather than sturdiness, is the general characteristic of those with whom you most literally rub shoulders in Petticoat Lane. Those who object to contact with the Great Unwashed should give it a wide berth; otherwise they will feel inclined, like Mr. Pendennis in his dandy days, to take a perfumed bath. Little [-174-] children, however, manage to get through the crowd without being crunched like snails. or course horseplay goes on. A favourite joke, when a jam occurs, is to seize one of the street-sellers' barrows which still further block the very narrow street, and drive it like a ploughshare with a wild " Hi ! Hi ! Hi!" through the obstructing crowd. When these crushes take place, the explorer of the Lane must not be astonished if he should be cannoned through the open doorway or window of a shop, or find a sticky seat on a confectionery barrow. The way in which both street-sellers and shopkeepers expose their goods in a place in which, if an organised dash were made at them, it seems as if it would be impossible for the owners to preserve them from plunder or wanton mischief, is one of the curiosities of London life.
    The barrows are freighted with the usual eatables and drinkables, flimsy toys and flimsier gimcracks of East- End al fresco trade. The specialties of the Oriental-looking open-fronted shops are fried fish , greasy-looking tarts and cakes, little tubs of cucumbers pickled in piccalilli mixture, second-hand tools, and all kinds of second-hand integuments for man, woman, and child. There are swaying lianas of hats and caps, ranks of "restored" boots, piles of gaily-coloured handkerchiefs - some, perchance, in Pistol's sense, " conveyed "- and, groves of dusky garments in which, here [-175-] and there, a footman's old livery, a soldier's stained coat, or a faded silk or satin gown shines faintly like a dust-dimmed king-parrot, ibis, or macaw.
    Rusty, dusty, cobwebby old metal lies upon the ground, looking more likely to secure an archaeologist as a purchaser than any one in want of something to be turned to daily use; and, indeed, some of the boots and shoes, in spite of all the care their cobblers have bestowed upon them, seem about as wearable as lumps of coal. Per contra there are some very gay heaps of women's boots, and one tray full of tiny bright-coloured. babies' shoes that have a strangely innocent look in this den of dirt and greed. A hulking bricklayer's-labourer halts before the tray. His Cap, his hair, his flannel jacket, his corduroy trousers gartered with twine, are all so powdered with dust that a cloud of it flies out, as from a beaten mat, when he jostles against any one ; his beery face is as roughly red as one of his own bricks; he has a stubbly chin, and a black, or rather a dull green, red, and lead-coloured eye; and he carries under one arm a vicious bull-terrier, dropping blood from recent bites on muzzle, paw, and ear. The bricklayer's-labourer is not a captivating being, but I have hopes of him when he stops and buys a doll's-like pair of steel-starred blue morocco shoes for his " little'un at whoam."
    Salesmen shout at the top of their voices, [-176-] "Buy, buy, buy;" "What gentleman'll stand treat next?£ &c., &c. Those who come to buy, and those who only come to look, keep themselves warm, and "enjoy company," or to wile away the time until the public-houses open, are almost all making a noise of some kind or other. And so, in two conflicting turbulent tides, little dreamt of by many a neighbouring church and chapel goer, the motley, tobacco- scented crowd forces its way up and down.

    How sweet the Sabbath thus to spend!

[--nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.--]

see also beginning of above book - click here

see also Wentworth Street - click here

Petticoat Lane, 1897 [ILN Picture Library]

      The neighbourhood of old Petticoat Lane on Sunday is one of the wonders of London, a medley of strange sights, strange sounds, and strange smells. Streets crowded so as to be thoroughfares no longer, and lined with a double or treble row of hand-barrows, set fast with empty cases, so as to assume the guise of market stalls. Here and there a cart may have been drawn in, but the horse has gone and the tilt is used as a rostrum whence the salesmen with stentorian voices cry their wares, vying with each other in introducing to the surrounding crowd their cheap garments, smart braces, sham jewellery, or patent medicines. Those who have something showy, noisily push their trade, while the modest merit of the utterly cheap makes its silent appeal from the lower stalls, on which are to be found a heterogeneous collection of such things as cotton sheeting, American cloth for furniture covers, old clothes, worn-out boots, damaged lamps, chipped china shepherdesses, rusty locks, and rubbish indescribable. Many, perhaps most, things of the silent cheap' sort are bought hi the way of business; old clothes to renovate, old boots to translate, hinges and door-handles to be furbished up again. Such things cannot look too bad, for the buyer may then persuade himself that he has a bargain unsuspected by the seller. Other stalls supply daily wants - fish is sold in large quantities - vegetables and fruit - queer cakes and outlandish bread. In nearly all cases the Jew is the seller, and the Gentile the buyer; Petticoat Lane is the exchange of the Jew, but the lounge of the Christian.

Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London, 1903