Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London : A pilgrimage, by Gustave Dore and Blanchard Jerrold, 1872



    The Lady Bountiful of our time, at once wise and gentle and charitable: the Lady of the open hand; among her countless benefactions to her poor brothers and sisters, gave them Columbia Market, which she reared in the thickest of London squalor, on the site of Nova Scotia Gardens of unsavoury memory. Her design was to bring cheap and good food within the reach of those who could least afford to be cheated of a farthing's worth. And so in 1868, under liberal regulations unknown in the old markets, the spacious avenues of a fine architectural edifice were given up to the marketing of the ragged, the unfortunate, and the guilty. It was a merciful and provident idea, most liberally  carried out: yet so sunk were those for whom the good was intended in ignorance and the wantonness of vice, that they would not use the gift. The costermonger drove his barrow past the gates to the byeways of Covent Garden or the alleys about overcrowded Billingsgate, as of old; the hosts of  half-fed creatures massed far and wide around the building would not take the comfort and economy the new market offered, butwent to the street shambles and road-side barrows as of old. Columbia Market, like many other places disposed by Charity for the improvement of the unfortunate, was a failure. 
    In 1870 the general market was turned into a fish market; and in 1871 Lady Burdett- Coutts handed it over to the keeping of the City authorities, in the hope  that they would use it to bring increased stores of fish within the reach of the poorer population of London, and hereby put an end to the shame that lies upon all men in power, while the crowds go hungry in poor London, and fish is used for manure by our Eastern shores, in tons, because metropolitan marketing machinery is defective. 
    To what extent defective he may see in a morning who will rise betimes and imitate our pilgrimages to the market places of Cockayne. The opening of Billingsgate Market is one of those picturesque tumults which delight the artist's eye. The grey chilly morning; the river background with masts packed close as arrows in a quiver; the lapping of the tide; the thuds of the paddles of hardly perceptible steamers; the tiers of fishing boats rich in outline and in accidental shades and tints; and then the varieties of shouting, whistling, singing and swearing men, who are landing insatiable London's first course (first and last to many thousands); the deafening vociferation, where the fish auctions are going on in the steamy open shops of the salesmen; the superb confusion and glistening of the mounds which the porters are casting into the market from the boats! It is well worth the chilly journey through the silent streets, to see. A little peppering of fish scales; plentiful elbow thrusts; a running fire of goodnatured chaff, the more galling because of its incomprehensibility to the uninitiated; and a shallow lake of mud to walk in, are desagrements, for which even a dive into the old fish ordinary establishment in quest of coffee and character will not compensate the merely curious man. But he who wants to know how the greatest city in the world is fed with fish, and meat, and vegetables; or he who delights in the study of the varieties of his kind and the infinite vicissitudes of their lives, will not tire till he has made the round. 
    Market mornings in London present to the observer, classes or sections of the metropolitan community, who are only observable while the day is very young indeed. They vary with each market. There is nothing in common between the market-gardeners who dine about ten in the morning at an ordinary buried almost to its chimney pots in vegetables, opposite Southampton Street; and the salesmen, the bummarees-who hasten along Dark House Lane before cock crow, and are gentlemen at ease before our baker has called with the morning rolls.  
    For sharpness and impressiveness of contrast, the best route is from busy Billingsgate, over London Bridge, to the Borough fruit and vegetable market: a commodious structure, almost choked even now with surrounding streets, of the poor, red-tiled houses that may be reckoned by the league, from the eminence of the railway between the City and the West End. It is a repetition of Covent Garden, as to the system. It is choked with market carts and costers' barrows, and crowded with unclassable poor, who seem to linger about in the hope that something out of the mighty cupboard may fall to their share. The ancient Borough, with the wonderful old Inn yards in which the market-folk put up their vehicles, and breakfast, the time-worn Tabard being chief of these by its classic story and its quaintness, makes an attractive study; showing us (for the hundredth time) that on which I insisted when first we set forth on this pilgrimage, viz., that London is full of pictures. 
    Covent Garden Market, however, is the most famous place of barter in England:, it has been said, by people who forget the historical Halle of Paris, in the world. A stroll through it, and around it, when the market is opening on a summer morning, between four and five, affords the visitor a score of points of interest, and some matter for reflection. As at Billingsgate and in the Borough, the surrounding streets are choked with waggons and barrows. The street vendors are of all kinds, and of the poorest of each kind, if the coffee stall keepers be excepted. The porters amble in all directions under loads of prodigious bulk. Lifted upon stalwart shoulders, towers of baskets travel about. From the tails of carts producers or "higglers" are selling off mountainous loads of cabbages. The air is fragrant with fruit to the north, and redolent of stale vegetables to the south. The piazzas, of pleasant memory and where a few noteworthy social clubs still linger, are alive with stalls, scattered sieves, market-gardeners, greengrocers, poor women and children in troops (these are everywhere on our way), and hawkers old and young eagerly on the look out for an advantageous transaction with a higgler, or direct from the producer. Within the market enclosure the stacks of vegetables, and the piles of fruit baskets and boxes, are of startling extent. The scene is not so brilliant as that we used to see about the old fountain at the Paris Halle, where the water seemed to spring from a monster horn of plenty; but these Irish women, these fresh-coloured Saxon girls, these brawny Scotch lasses, in their untidy clothes and tilted bonnets, who shell the peas, and carry the purchaser's loads, and are ready for any of the hundred-and-one jobs of a great market; fall into groups wonderfully tempting to the artist's pencil. 
    We lingered long one morning, watching a group of women shelling peas. They were a picture perfect in all its details, with the majestic old woman, who  commanded the company, for central figure. 
    "It would be nothing without colour, and more space than any page affords," was my fellow pilgrim's remark. "It's a pity, but so it is." 
    It was in the poor markets, it need hardly be said, that we found our most striking subjects; and ever as we neared the poorest, we saw the buyer at a fresh disadvantage. In Covent Garden, there is the higgler, or middle-man, who buys
from the producer to sell to the retailer, who will, in his turn, sell to the humble customer. The rich man buys first-hand; the poor man, fifth-hand.      
    If we pass from the great markets to the small ; from the West-End shops to Phil's Gardens, by St. Mary Axe, and Petticoat Lane, and the New Cut, and Somers Town; we come upon immense woe-begone communities, who are without knowledge or skill, and can consequently command only the lowest wage. Still, these tatterdemalions are eagerly sought for as customers. Behold them keenly testing and examining the huge bunches of rags that are temptingly hung from old clothesmen's doors and windows; and how their eyes run along the rows of old boots and shoes upon the pavement! The eagerness of the vendors is as remarkable as the anxiety painted on the faces of the customers. There is a hard battle over every rag and trinket: and the noise of the strife is deafening. Here is no trust, no reliance on truth and honour. He who cheats is the best seller: he who holds out longest is the best buyer. But all who buy, are purchasing with their few pence, in the dearest market in all London. The consumers for whom good Lady Burdett-Coutts built a beautiful market up in the very eye of London's misery, are those who are now forced to deal along the kerb-stones in their respective neighbourhoods, and whose tradesmen are the costermongers. In London there are nearly forty street markets ; and from these markets the main body of Cockneys are fed, and provided with household gods. These street-fairs are held chiefly on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, when the workman has his week's wages in his pocket. The buyers tumble out of attics and cellars on winter nights, in cold and rain, and on the chilly Sunday mornings, to make the best of their money for the coming week. They can understand no bartering that is not done in the rain and snow; and they have not the least knowledge of the actual value of a single article they purchase. They are so rooted to custom, so spiritless through long suffering, so hopeless of amendment in their lot; that they have not been able yet to set up stores of their own, even on the humblest footing, and save the five or six profits which they now pay on every article. They have been used to buy pots and pans, and knives and forks of the hawker on the kerb-stone; and they will not listen to a new plan, cost price, and the rest of it. 
    The New Cut and Clare Market are, perhaps, the most remarkable street markets in all London: for here the observer may see the poorest and lowest of  our populations most densely massed. The squalor of Drury Lane is not exceeded by that of Bluegate Fields or Ratcliff Highway. It is of a more hideous, of a severer kind than that of the New Cut; which is perhaps outwardly improved by the presence of young thieves and their companions from the infamous bye-streets of Southwar k. You can drive through the New Cut, and watch the uproarious marketing from your cab. The light of day shines upon the  great fight for the cheap pennyworth. Moreover there are important works round about; and the honest toilers in them show conspicuously in the throng. In the street market  of Drury Lane the mark of misery seems to be upon every man, woman, and
child. Seven Dials is the nearest approach to Drury Lane in the hopelessness of its general aspect.
     "What! you have no district markets in London. People buy their meat and vegetables in these horrible little shops!" one of my companions exclaimed, as we pushed our way along the crowded pavement of the New Cut, on Sunday morning, when the police and the costermongers were at loggerheads. "And pray why are the police hustling these wretched fellows who are trying to sell a few more oranges, or another knife, or comb? Remark that tottering old woman with the laces-driven into the road! Look at the customers of that hard-faced street butcher." 
    I explained that hawking on Sundays was illegal. 
    "But these men, whose faces tell how hard they work, have no other time, or their wives haven't. It cannot be for their pleasure they take part of their only holiday, to go to market." 
    I answered that they mostly left off work early on Saturdays. 
    "Yes, yes," my argumentative friend went on, "but where are they to amuse them selves, since you shut everything up on Sundays? They have, you say, Sunday for rest: consequently they have just half a day in the week for amusement. Leave them alone then here, poor fellows: or build twenty district markets for them, all over your city, like our arrondissement markets. C'est logique."
     It may be; but this is not the place for an opinion on the subject. 
    On the other hand it may be "logique" to let these things shift for themselves. Perhaps Lady Coutts is wrong after all, and marketing of the lowest kind is best done in the rain, on the kerb-stone. Perhaps it is best to leave the street-sellers to the mercy of the shopkeepers, their competitors. The policeman walks between. He is judge between the two; and keeps their anger within bounds. The stern air of command with which he tells an orange girl who has overstepped the boundary, 
to move on, is worthy of a better cause. It surprises the foreign observer of our manners; who adds it inevitably to his bundle of evidence against us as a bizarre people.
     Bizarre, I suppose we are, being so very careful where we might with advantage be careless; and so careless where we might with singular benefit to the poorer sections of our community, be careful.