Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853

WHAT HAS BECOME OF THE PIEMAN?

    A PENNY for a pie! In the records of our individual experience, this is probably the most ancient species of barter - the first gentle and welcome induction to the dry details of commerce, and one eminently calculated to impress upon the infant minds of a trading population the primary principles of exchange, of which a quid pro quo forms the universal basis. We had imagined, upon the first view of our subject, that the fabrication and consumption of pies must have been a custom as ancient as cookery itself, and have ranked among the very first achievements of the gastronomic art. Upon careful investigation, however, we find ourselves to have been mistaken in this idea. We have not been able to discover among the revelations to which the Rosetta Stone surrendered a key, any authority for supposing that among all the butlers and bakers of all the Pharaohs, there ever existed one who knew how to prepare a pie for the royal banquet. No; it was reserved for the Greeks, the masters of civilization and the demigods of art, who brought every species of refinement to its highest pitch, to add the invention of pies and pie-crust to the catalogue of their immortal triumphs. Their artokreas (the word passed unchanged into Roman use) was an aggregation of succulent meats baked in a farinaceous crust, probably somewhat resembling in form a venison pasty of the present day, and was the first combination of the kind, so far at least as we know, ever submitted to the appetite of the gourmand. We have no intention of pursuing the history of this great discovery from its first dawn in some Athenian kitchen to its present universal estimation among all civilized eaters. We must pass the pies of all nations, from the monkey-pie of Central Africa, with the head of the baked semi-homo emerging spectrally from the upper-crust, to the pate's of Strasburg, the abnormally swollen livers of whose tormented geese roam the wide world to avenge upon gluttonous man the infamous tortures inflicted upon their original proprietors we must pass, too, the thousand-and-one ingenious inventions which adorn the pages of Messrs. Glass and Rumbold, by means of which dyspepsias arc produced secundum artem, and the valetudinarian is accustomed to retard his convalescence according to the most approved and fashionable mode. The great pie of 1850, prepared by the ingenious Soyer, at the cost of a hundred guineas, for the especial delectation of municipal stomachs at York, is, likewise, altogether out of our way. Our business is with the pie that is sold for a penny, and sold in London. Let us add, moreover, that we treat only of the pie which is fairly worth a penny, leaving altogether out of our category the flimsy sophistries of your professed confectioner. From time immemorial the wandering pieman was a prominent character in the highways and byways of London. He was generally a merry dog, and was always found where merriment was going on. Furnished with a tray about a yard square, either carried upon his head or suspended by a strap in front of his breast, he scrupled not to force his way through the thickest crowd, knowing that the very centre of action was the best market for his wares. He was a gambler, both from inclination and principle, and would toss with his customers, either by the dallying shilli-shally process of "best five in nine," the tricksy manoeuvre of "best two in three," or the desperate dash of "sudden death!" in which latter case the first toss was destiny - a pie for a halfpenny, or your half-penny gone for nothing; but he invariably declined the mysterious process of "the odd man;" not being altogether free from suspicion on the subject of collusion between a couple of hungry customers. We meet with him frequently in old prints; and in Hogarth's "March to Finchley," there he stands in the very centre of the crowd, grinning with delight at the adroitness of one robbery, while he is himself the victim of another. We learn from this admirable figure by the greatest painter of English life, that the pieman of the last century perambulated the streets in professional costume; and we gather further, from the burly dimensions of his wares, that he kept his trade alive by the laudable practice of giving "a good pennyworth for a penny." Justice compels us to observe that his successors of a later generation have not been very conscientious observers of this maxim. The varying price of flour, alternating with a sliding-scale, probably drove some of them to their wit's end; and perhaps this cause more than any other operated in imparting that complexion to their productions which made them resemble the dead body of a penny pie, and which in due time lost them favour with the discerning portion of their customers. Certain it is that the perambulating pie business in London fell very much into disrepute and contempt for several years before the abolition of the corn-laws and the advent of free trade. Opprobrious epithets were hurled at the wandering merchant as he paraded the streets and alleys - epithets which were in no small degree justified by the clammy and clay-like appearance of his goods. By degrees the profession got into disfavour, and the pieman either altogether disappeared, or merged in a dealer in foreign nuts, fruits, and other edibles which barred the suspicion of sophistication.
    Still the relish for pies survived in the public taste, and the willing penny was as ready as ever to guerdon the man who, on fair grounds, would meet the general desire. No sooner, therefore, was the sliding-scale gone to the dogs, and a fair prospect of permanence offered to the speculator, in the guarantee of something like a fixed cost in the chief ingredient used, than up sprung almost simultaneously in every district of the metropolis a new description of pie-shops, which rushed at once into popularity and prosperity. Capital had recognised the leading want of the age, and brought the appliances of wealth and energy to supply it. Avoiding, on the one hand, the glitter and pretension of the confectioner, and on the other the employment of adulterating or inferior materials, they produced an article which the populace devoured with universal commendation, to the gradual but certain profit of the projectors. The peripatetic merchant was pretty generally driven out of the field by the superiority of the delicacy with which he had to compete. He could not manufacture on a small scale in a style to rival his new antagonists, and he could not purchase of them to sell again, because they would not allow him a living margin-boasting, as it would appear with perfect truth, that they sold at a small and infinitesimal profit, which would not bear division.
    These penny-pie shops now form one of the characteristic features of the London trade in comestibles. That they are an immense convenience as well as a luxury to a very large section of the population, there can be no doubt. It might be imagined, at first view, that they would naturally seek a cheap locality and a low rental. This, however, is by no means the universal practice. In some of the chief lines of route they are to be found in full operation; and it is rare indeed, unless at seasons when the weather is very unfavourable, that they are not seen well filled with customers. They abound especially in the immediate neighbourhood of omnibus and cab stations, and very much in the thoroughfares and short - cuts most frequented by the middle and lower classes. But though the window may be of plate-glass, behind which piles of the finest fruit, joints, and quarters of the best meat, a large dish of silver eels, and a portly china bowl charged with a liberal heap of minced-meat, with here and there a few pies, lie temptingly arranged upon napkins of snowy whiteness, yet there is not a chair, stool, or seat of any kind to be found within. No dallying is looked for, nor would it probably be allowed. "Pay for your pie, and go," seems the order of the day. True, you may eat it there, as thousands do; but you must eat it standing, and clear of the counter. We have more than once witnessed this interesting operation with mingled mirth and satisfaction; nay, what do we care? - take the confession for what it is worth -pars ipsi fuimus - we have eaten our pies (and paid for them too, no credit being given) - in loco, and are therefore in a condition to guarantee the truth of what we record. With few exceptions (we include ourselves among the number), there are no theoretical philosophers among the frequenters of the penny-pie shop. The philosophy of bun-eating may be very profound, and may present, as we think it does, some difficult points; but the philosophy of penny-pie eating is absolutely next to nil. The customer of the pie-shop is a man (if he is not a boy) with whom a penny is a penny, and a pie is a pie, who, when he has the former to spend or the latter to eat, goes through the ceremony like one impressed with the settled conviction that he has business in hand which it behoves him to attend to. Look at him as he stands in the centre of the floor, erect as a grenadier, turning his busy mouth full upon the living tide that rushes along Holborn! Of shame or confusion of face in connection with the enviable position in which he stands he has not the remotest conception, and could as soon be brought to comprehend the differential calculus as to entertain a thought of it. What, we ask, would philosophy do for him? Still every customer is not so happily organised, and so blissfully insensible to the attacks of false shame; and for such as are unprepared for the public gaze, or constitutionally averse from it, a benevolent provision is made by a score of old play-bills stuck against the adverse wall, or swathing the sacks of flour which stand ready for use, and which they may peruse, or affect to peruse, in silence, munching their pennyworths the while. The main body of the pie-eaters are, however, perfectly at their ease, and pass the very few minutes necessary for the discussion of their purchases in bandying compliments with three or four good- looking lasses, the very incarnations of good-temper and cleanly tidiness, who from morn to night are as busy as bees in extricating the pies from their metallic moulds, as they are demanded by the customers. These assistants lead no lazy life, but they are without exception plump and healthy- looking, and would seem (if we are to believe the report of an employer) to have an astonishing tendency to the parish church of the district in which they officiate, our informant having been bereaved of three by marriage in the short space of six months. Relays are necessary in most establishments on the main routes, as the shops are open all night long, seldom closing much before three in the morning when situated in the neighbourhood of a theatre or a cab-stand. Of the amount of business done in the course of a year it is not easy to form an estimate. Some pie-houses are known to consume as much flour as a neighbouring baker standing in the same track. The baker makes ninety quartern loaves from the sack of flour, and could hardly make a living upon less than a dozen sacks a week; but as the proportion borne by the crust of a penny-pie to a quartern loaf is a mystery which we have not yet succeeded in penetrating, we are wanting in the elements of an exact calculation. 
    The establishment of these shops has by degrees prodigiously increased the number of pie-eaters and the consumption of pies. Thousands and tens of thousands who would decline the handling of a scalding hot morsel in the public street, will yet steal to the corner of a shop, and in front of an old play-bill, delicately dandling the titbit on their fingertips till it cools to the precise temperature at which it is so delicious to swallow- "snatch a fearful joy." The tradesman, too, in the immediate vicinity, soon learns to appreciate the propinquity of the pie-shop, in the addition it furnishes to a cold dinner, and for half the sum it would have cost him if prepared in his own kitchen. Many a time and oft have we dropped in, upon the strength of a general invitation, at the dinner-table of an indulgent bibliopole, and recognised the undeniable pates of "over the way" following upon the heels of the cold sirloin. With artisans out of work, and with town-travellers of small trade, the pie-shop is a halting- place, its productions presenting a cheap substitute for a dinner. Few purchases are made before twelve o'clock in the day; in fact the shutters are rarely pulled down much before eleven; yet even then business is carried on for nearly twenty hours out of the twenty-four. About noon the current of custom sets in, and all hands are busy till four or five o'clock; after which there is a pause, or rather a relaxation, until evening, when the various bands of operatives, as they are successively released from work, again renew the tide. As these disappear, the numberless nightly exhibitions, lecture-rooms, mechanics' institutes, concerts, theatres and casinos, pour forth their motley hordes, of whom a large and hungry section find their way to the pie-house as the only available resource -the public-houses being shut up for the night, and the lobster-rooms, oyster saloons, "shades," "coal-holes,'' and "cider-cellars,'' too expensive for the means of the multitude. After these come the cab-drivers, who, having conveyed to their homes the more moneyed classes of sight-seers and playgoers, return to their stands in the vicinity of the shop, and now consider that they may conscientiously indulge in a refreshment of eel-pies, winding up with a couple of "fruiters," to the amount at least of the sum of which they may have been able to cheat their fares.
    Throughout the summer months the pie trade flourishes with unabated vigour. Each successive fruit, as it ripens and comes to market, adds a fresh impetus to the traffic. As autumn waxes, every week supplies a new attraction and a delicious variety; as it wanes into winter, good store of apples are laid up for future use; and so soon as Jack Frost sets his cold toes upon the pavement, the delicate odour of mince-meat assails the passer-by, and reminds him that Christmas is coming, and that the pieman is ready for him. It is only in the early spring that the pie-shop is under a temporary cloud. The apples of the past year are well nigh gone, and the few that remain have lost their succulence, and are dry and flavourless. This is the precise season when, as the pieman in "Pickwick" too candidly observed, "fruits is out, and cats is in." Now there is an unaccountable prejudice against cats among the pie-devouring population of the metropolis; we are superior to it ourselves, and can therefore afford to mention it dispassionately, and to express our regret that any species of commerce, much more one so grateful to the palate, and so convenient to the purse, should periodically suffer declension through the prevalence of an unfounded prejudice. Certain it is that penny-pie eating does materially decline about the early spring season; and it is certain too that, of late years, about the same season, a succession of fine Tabbies of our own have mysteriously disappeared. Attempts are made with rhubarb to combat the depression of business; but success in this matter is very partial - the generality of consumers being impressed with the popular notion that rhubarb is physic, and that physic is not fruit. But relief is at hand; the showers and sunshine of May bring the gooseberry to market; pies resume their importance; and the pieman, backed by an inexhaustible store of a fruit grateful to every English palate, commences the campaign with renewed energy, and bids defiance for the rest of the year to the mutations of fortune.
    We shall close this sketch with a legend of the day, for the truth of which, however, we do not personally vouch. It was related and received with much gusto at an annual supper lately given by a large pie proprietor to his assembled hands - Some time since, so runs the current narrative, the owner of a thriving mutton-pie concern, which, after much difficulty, he had succeeded in establishing with borrowed capital, died before he had well extricated himself from the responsibilities of debt. The widow carried on the business after his decease, and throve so well, that a speculating baker on the opposite side of the way made her the offer of his hand. The lady refused, and the enraged suitor, determined on revenge, immediately converted his baking into an opposition pie-shop; and acting on the principle universal among London bakers, of doing business for the first month or two at a loss, made his pies twice as big as he could honestly afford to make them. The consequence was that the widow lost her custom, and was hastening fast to ruin, when a friend of her late husband, who was also a small creditor, paid her a visit. She detailed her grievance to him, and lamented her lost trade and fearful prospects. "Ho, ho!" said her friend, "that ere's the move, is it? Never you mind, my dear. If I don't git your trade agin, there aint no snakes, mark me - that's all!" So saying he took his leave.
    About eight o'clock the same evening, when the baker's new pie-shop was crammed to overflowing, and the principal was below superintending the production of a new batch, in walks the widow's friend in the costume of a kennel-raker, and elbowing his way to the counter, dabs down upon it a brace of huge dead cats, vociferating at the same time to the astonished damsel in attendance; "Tell your master, my dear, as how them two makes six-and-thirty this week, and say I'll bring t'other four to-morrer arternoon!" With that he swaggered out and went his way. So powerful was the prejudice against cat-mutton among the population of that neighbourhood, that the shop was clear in an instant, and the floor was seen covered with hastily-abandoned specimens of every variety of segments of a circle. The spirit-shop at the corner of the street experienced an unusually large demand for "goes" of brandy, and interjectional ejaculations not purely grammatical were not merely audible, but visible too in the district. It is averred that the ingenious expedient of the widow's friend, founded as it was upon a profound knowledge of human prejudices, had the desired effect of restoring "the balance of trade." The widow recovered her commerce; the resentful baker was clone as brown as if he had been shut up in his own oven; and the friend who brought about this measure of justice received the hand of the lady as a reward for his interference.