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


    One of the most startling spectacles to be met with in the great wilderness of London -because it is the one which comes upon the stranger most unexpectedly - is that of the Sunday Market. To the staid and sober inhabitant of a quiet country town, who has been accustomed from his youth upwards to see the Sabbath at least outwardly reverenced, the sight of one of these crowded places, the theatre of a vociferous and furious traffic on the morning of the day of rest, is generally revolting in the extreme. We had lately the curiosity to visit such a scene, with a view to forming some judgment as to what might be urged in its defence, and we shall now proceed to describe our impressions.
    It is about eight o'clock in the morning of the second Sunday in April, 1850, and we are standing at the junction of the Barbican with Chiswell-street, at the point where this line of thoroughfare is intersected by Whitecross-street, up which we have to proceed as far as Old Street-road, about a quarter of a mile, the whole extent of which is the arena of one of the most extensive markets in the metropolis.
    Although the shutters of most of the shops, nearly five- sixths of which are devoted to Sunday-trading, have been down for nearly an hour, but little business has been done or is yet doing. The few customers who have already completed their purchases, and are hastening homewards, have an aspect of decency, almost of respectability; others of similar appearance are gliding about here and there, and transacting their business with all possible celerity; and it is tolerably plain to the observer that the use of the Sunday Market is not to them a matter of choice. These are probably persons who, not having received their weekly wages until a late hour, and being compelled by poverty to live from hand to mouth, have no other means of procuring their Sunday dinner than that which this market presents. It is obvious from the expression of some countenances, that they feel the tyranny of' circumstances which compels them to break in upon the time of rest. Let us at least give them due praise for the decent feeling which induces them to come at the earliest possible hour.
    As we advance up the street, we see the shopkeepers busily engaged in displaying their goods to the best advantage for sale. Purchasers being as yet but few, opportunity is taken to make as good a show as possible against their arrival. We are astonished to find that the market is not confined to what might be considered by some a fair apology for it-the sale of necessary food. In addition to the shops of butchers, bakers, grocers, and provision dealers, not only are those of the slop and ready-made clothes' sellers wide open, but the linendrapers, hosiers, milliners, furniture-brokers, iron-mongers, and dealers in hardware and trinkets, are carefully setting out their windows and show boards. Carriers and leather-sellers, moreover, have opened their doors, and are already doing a brisk trade, their shops being crowded with working shoemakers, selecting the materials of their craft. unless these poor fellows are actually at the present time working seven days in the week, it is difficult to conceive what should bring them in such multitudes to purchase their materials on the Sunday morning.
    But an hour has passed away, and the street, now rapidly filling, presents a very different aspect from that which first struck our view. The shopkeepers have at length completed their arrangements, and now, standing at their open doors, and arrayed in aprons and shirt-sleeves, they begin with pretty general accord to bellow for custom. "Buy, buy, buy!" explodes a brawny butcher; and the note is taken up by his neighbour, and repeated by others in every direction a hundred times a minute, rapid and deafening as a running fire of musketry. It would appear as though this simultaneous appeal to the pockets of the public were a signal well known to the neighbourhood, for all the tributaries of Whitecross-street now pour forth their streams of hungry, meagre, and unwashed denizens, to swell the inharmonious concert. The shrill shriek of infant hawkers pierces through the roaring din, and the diminutive grimy urchins are discerned manfully pushing their difficult way among the throng, bent upon the sale of certain trifling articles, upon the produce of which, in all probability, their chance of a supply of food for the day is dependent. "Who'll buy my Congreves, three boxes a penny? "Blacking here! Here's your real Day and Martin, a ha'penny a skin!" "Grid-grid-gridirons! Who wants a gridiron for three-halfpence?" "Hingans - hingans here! Here's your hingans, a ha'penny the lot!" These cries, and a dozen others, from a band of young urchins scattered among the multitude, form the squeaking treble of the discordant chorus that is raging on all sides. We discover as we pass slowly along that a pretty strong staff of policemen is present, perambulating continually among the mass of people, ready to disperse the first nucleus of a mob, or to quell by prompt interference the least appearance of a quarrel. It is plainly owing to their presence that the highway is passable at all, and that some degree of order is maintained amid the furious traffic that now goes on.
    It is now drawing near to ten o'clock, and we are struck by the appearance and character of the present attendants upon the market as compared with those of an earlier hour. The males are for the most part the very lowest class of operatives, mingled with a still lower order of people, of whose probable occupation we would rather not hazard a surmise. We look in vain for a single one among them who has changed his working-day attire for a better suit; and the suspicion rises in the mind that nine-tenths of the whole tribe bear their entire wardrobe upon their backs. It is pretty plain that a good proportion of them have but recently been roused up from the heavy sleep of intoxication: half awake, and less than half sober, some crawl doggedly at the heels of their hapless wives in sullen silence, only broken at intervals by the involuntary ejaculation of an oath or a curse. Others, again, are altogether as noisy, and vie with the traders themselves in the loudness of their vociferations. Here one is chaffering for a pair of high-lows, and jokingly threatening to brain the shopkeeper with the heavy-armed heels, unless he abate his price. There another plants heavy blows with his fist in the sides of an earthenware pan, by way of trying its metal, and, paying for it the price of a few halfpence, confides it to the charge of his ragged child, with a caution that he had better break his neck than let it fall. Here comes a couple who have completed their purchases for the day: the whole toilet of the man would not fetch sixpence at Rag-fair. Beneath a hat that should have scared the crows of a vanished generation, a shock of sandy unkempt locks shades a visage dark with dirt, darker still with the unmistakeable traits of brutality; a huge brown overcoat, patched and stained in every part, endues his whole frame; his toes peep muddily forth from the fragments of what was once a pair of boots. In his bristly mouth is stuck a short and blackened pipe; both hands are firmly thrust into the side pockets of his coat; under his right arm is a loaf of bread, and under his left the half of a huge boar's head. Close behind him follows his wife, laden with a dilapidated basket, crammed with potatoes and withered turnip-tops yellow with age. Her figure is one shapeless bundle of worthless rags, stiff and nauseous with grease and defilement: bonnet she has none, but a piece of tattered muslin does duty as a cap, from beneath which her jet black hair streams in disorder. Her pale and bloated cheeks show in fearful contrast with a horribly-contused and livid black eye - the palpable handwriting of her loving lord. Her upper lip too has been recently gashed with a heavy blow. Panting with her burthen, and evidently displeased at some recent real or imaginary grievance, she is venting her wrath upon a miserable child, whom she drags by her side, and whose hand she occasionally relinquishes for the purpose of making a sudden aim at his bare head with the street-door key, which hangs upon her fore-finger; but the hapless little wretch is too well used to such endearments to be easily caught, and generally manages to parry the blow with his hands, or to elude it altogether. 
    We observe as we pass on that the gin-shops are now almost the only ones which are closed, and that the portion of the causeway upon which they abut, being free from the distractions of business, affords a space for loungers and gossips, who, having accomplished their purchases, love to while away an hour or two in conversation. Time goes on - and the bell of St. Luke's church, whose tall, ugly steeple, fashioned after the model of a factory chimney, looms dimly in the hazy atmosphere, tolls out to summon the worshippers to morning service. At the sound of the bell the shopkeepers step out and put up a shutter or two, leaving, however, light enough to carry on the traffic within. The trade in butchers' meat, vegetables, and other edibles, now sensibly decreases in amount, while at the same time it is despatched with greater rapidity. Parties late in the market are compelled to take what is to be had without the leisure or opportunity to exercise a choice. This is the very nick of time which the provident trader adopts to get rid of his old and worthless stock: it is said that many a tainted joint finds its way to the bake-house, which, but for the tardiness of these lagging customers, bad been made over to the dogs, or thrown away as useless; and full prices are obtained at the spur of the moment for viands that might have been purchased the night before at tbree-fourths of that amount.
    Before the bells have ceased tolling, the thoroughfare has become tolerably passable for those who have no objection to rub shoulders occasionally with a perambulating joint of meat or basket of vegetables; but we remark that the very few persons who, living in this district, emerge from their dwellings, prayer-book in hand, bound for church, choose rather to escape from the main thoroughfare as soon as possible, and pick their devious way through by-lanes and back streets to the sacred edifice.
    Now sets in the hebdomadal current of dish-laden individuals bound to the different bakers' shops, and carrying their Sunday's dinner with careful haste. It is amazing to note the number and variety of viands that dive consecutively into the darkened entrances; and one wonders how it comes to pass that each of the bearers manages to recover his own proper portion when the business of the oven is over. There are a prodigious number of them that appear, to an unpractised eye, so exactly alike, that the task of distinguishing them apart would seem hopeless to one unacquainted with the management of the mystery. A very favourite mode of insuring the variety of two courses at the expense of one baking prevails very extensively: it is managed in this way: the housewife provides a large earthenware dish, about twenty inches by fourteen, and three or four deep, having a division near the centre; the potatoes are crammed plentifully in the bottom of the larger compartment, and the modest joint rests upon them; the other division is appropriated to the pudding, in the manufacture of which we could perceive that a very considerable variety of talent had been displayed.
    The bell has now ceased tolling, and the tumultuous uproar of the market subsides to a moderate murmur. Still the traffic is brisk and abundant in the interior of the shops. We remark those of the grocers and tea-dealers crammed to overflowing, and all the assistants behind the counter divested of their outer garments, and reeking with heat and hurry, weighing, measuring, and packing with consummate despatch. The curriers, too, are dealing out soles and upper leathers, welts, wax, and paste, with a rapidity rarely equalled on a weekday, among the meagre and pallid crowd, who can scarcely find standing-room in front of the counter. The drapers' shops are swarming with customers of both sexes: caps, bonnets, shawls, handkerchiefs, and ribbons, change owners in a twinkling. Lads in fustian jackets are pulling about the many-coloured wares, resolved on treating their sweethearts with a morsel of finery; and smartly-dressed lasses are matching their pale faces with a strip of paler ribbon, or selecting a gaudy neck-tie for some favoured swain. The shoemakers and the marts for ready-made clothes have all a good share of encouragement, and do an amount of business in the Sunday forenoon, according to the candid confession of some of their proprietors, exceeding that of any two days in the week, Saturday excluded. This in-door traffic continues till past noonday; and the shops are seldom finally closed before one o'clock, when the religious part of the community are returning from church. The appearance of the whole street, when the market is over, resembles very closely the deserted arena of a country fair, or Covent-garden-market after business-hours - the ground being one mash of mud and decaying vegetable matter.
    We must not omit all mention of the species of literature which finds encouragement among the frequenters of the Sunday Market. Books we saw none, but good store of single sheets of all sizes, and varying in price from one halfpenny up to sixpence. All the Sunday newspapers are regularly placarded and sold; and in addition to them, there was all abundance of the blood-and-murder, ghost-and-goblin journals, embellished for the most part with melodramatic cuts, where what was wanting in truth of artistic delineation was plentifully made up in energy of action. It would seem that there is a charm in pistols, daggers, bludgeons, and deadly weapons of all sorts, with the assaults and assassinations they suggest, that is irresistible to the population of London. No matter how gross the ignorance or stupidity of a writer, so that he have but a deed of blood or violence to unfold: a murder is so delicious a morsel to the palates of a debased multitude, that it imparts a relish to the most intolerable dulness, and invests imbecility itself with the attributes of genius and talent.
    The above, though necessarily brief, is, as far as we are aware, a truthful delineation of the Sunday Market. Of such localities, differing more or less in their primary features, there are five or six in the metropolis. When we take into account the demoralisation that must unavoidably accrue from the total neglect of religious duties which the continuance of this practice necessarily entails, we cannot but concur in the sentiments of those who are striving at the present moment to obtain by legal means the power of suppressing it. It is sad to learn, that though the great majority of the parties who gain most by this ill-favoured traffic are willing, nay, desirous, that it should be put an end to at once and for ever, it is yet, through the resistance of a petty minority, continued in their despite. Four- fifths of the Sunday-traders, we know from indisputable authority, would be willing to close their shops from Saturday night to Monday morning; but they are compelled in self- defence, in order to preserve their average custom, to open on the Sunday, because a few stubborn opponents persist in so doing. The evil is great in a physical as well as a moral point of view. Many of the shopmen in the district above-described, and in other places, as we are credibly informed, are confined behind the counter from seven or eight in the morning to ten at night the whole week through: to men so situated the relaxation of the Sunday is not merely a luxury, but a necessity, but from its enjoyment they are debarred by the continuance of a practice which cannot be spoken of without regret-and loss of health is the general consequence.
    There has been no lack of legislation upon this subject; but it is a question whether legislative interference will effect much good. The law of Charles II., which would appear upon the face of it to be a good and efficient law for the purpose, has been found, in working, the next thing to a nullity. It levies a fine of five shillings upon the offender; but as the magistrates will not convict for more than one offence in one day, it is practically of no avail, as the profits upon one morning's business in some of the largest shops is from fifty to a hundred times that amount. Moreover, the trader can, and does, when he knows that informations are a-foot, reduce the five shillings to one shilling by taking out a summons against himself, which bars the issue of a second summons, and prevents the disgrace, as well as the expense of a hearing, as of course he does not appear to criminate himself.
    We would not rashly impute the whole cause of Sunday trading to shopkeepers and hucksters. Not a little of the evil arises from a practice of paying weekly wages late on Saturday night; and to remedy this every proper effort should be directed. Indeed, while such a practice prevails, all legislative interference on the subject would be worse than useless.