Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894


The flower hawkers—Counter attractions to bed—Short history of “Convent Garden”—Distinguished residents —Reminiscences—Murder of Martha Ray—Hackman hanged—Ceaseless Stream of traffic—Din of voices—Scene in the market—The man in blue—Flower sellers— Plant sellers—A hard case—I am able to assist.
   “ALL a-growing and a-blowing “. Of all the sounds that reach my ears during the year, none gives me greater pleasure than this, the cry of the flower sellers. It brings glad tidings of  sunshine, it is an assurance that fogs are a thing of the past, and it bids you watch for the coming of the swallow.
   To the hard-working professional man the advent of spring brings new life, and its first pulsations are often induced by the sight of the daffodils on the street barrows.
   It may not be generally known that the flower hawkers are an extremely industrious class. Their day commences at the earliest dawn, or even before, in Covent Garden Market, or one of the other centres whither the grower consigns his produce.
   In my early days it was no uncommon thing for young gentlemen, after passing the night in a somewhat dissipated manner, to wend their way, in the small hours of the morning, to Covent Garden Market in order to have a cup of coffee at the stall by the church, and, as they expressed it, “to see life with the costers.”
   There were many counter attractions to bed in those days. Among the popular resorts that kept open almost all night were Jessop’s, at the bottom of Catherine Street, Strand; the “Coal Hole,” down the dark arches of the Adelphi; the Cider Cellars in the immediate neighbourhood; the “Garrick’s head,” [-182-] opposite Covent Garden Theatre, where Baron Nicholson sat with his jury; and, last but not least, Evans’s.
   It has been said, and with a good deal of truth, that the district known as Covent Garden has more literary, and, in­deed, human interest than any other spot in modern or ancient London.
   “Covent Garden” is, as every one knows, a corruption of “Convent Garden.” Some six hundred years ago the ground covered by the present market and the surrounding buildings was an enclosure belonging to the Abbots of Westminster. One part of the area was used by them as a kitchen garden, and another part as a place of burial. At the dissolution of the religious houses—so we learn from Thornbury—the property passed into the hands of the Duke of Somerset, on whose attainder in 1552 it was given by the Crown to John Russell, Earl of Bedford, under the description of “Covent Garden, lying in the parish of St. Martin’s in the Fields, next Charing Cross, with seven acres called Long Acre, of the yearly value of six pounds six shillings and eightpence.” The value of the land, I am informed, has since increased.
   In 1630, or thereabouts, the large square was laid out, from the designs of Inigo Jones, by Francis, fourth Earl of Bedford. On the north was the Piazza that still exists, on the east another that has long since been destroyed by fire, on the south the blank wall bounding the garden of Bedford House, and on the vest the church of St. Paul, which was also designed by Inigo Jones, and which is a familiar building in the present day. Along the southern wall stood a number of trees, and it was beneath their foliage that the fruit and vegetable market had its first beginnings. In 1689 Strype wrote: “The south side of Covent Garden Square lieth open to Bedford Garden, where there is a small grotto of trees, most pleasant in the summer season; and on this side there is kept a market for fruits, herbs, roots, and flowers every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday which is grown to a considerable account—and well served with choice goods, which makes it much resorted to.”
   I may be forgiven for quoting another writer in reference to the change that time wrought on this spot. Walter Savage Landor put the matter thus: “The garden formal and quiet, where a salad was cut for a lady abbess, and flowers were gathered to adorn images, became a market, noisy and full of life, distributing thousands of fruits and flowers to a vicious population.”
   [-183-] The market gradually developed, and in 1671 it was formally established under a charter granted by the King to the Earl of Bedford. Wooden stalls and sheds, and other make­shift erections, met the requirements of the salesmen and women for a long time, and it was not until 1830 that the present market was erected. It was built by John, sixth Duke of Bedford, the architect being Mr. William Fowler; and an interesting circumstance in connection with its construction was that, while excavating for the foundations, some navvies came upon a quantity of human remains, which no doubt dated from the time when the Abbots used the ground as their place of burial.
   In days gone by, Covent Garden was a very fashionable quarter. We read that, between 1666 and 1700, the following, among other distinguished persons, resided in the Piazzas:
   Lord Hollis, Lord Brownlow, the Bishop of Durham, Lord Newport, the Duke of Richmond, Lord Lucas, the Earl of Oxford, Sir Godfrey Kneller, Sir Kenelm Digby, the Marquis of Winchester, Benjamin West, and Sir Peter Lely. King Street, Henrietta Street, and other thoroughfares in the immediate neighbourhood, were also crowded with “persons of quality,” as the phrase runs.
   Many and various are the memories that cling to Covent Garden. Looking back through a long vista of years, one can see, with the mind’s eye, two monster conflagrations, separated by an interval of some five decades, in which former Covent Garden Theatres were totally destroyed. Again, to go still further back in the distance of time, it was on the Piazzas that Powell set up his famous peep-show, to which, a wit of the period declared, large congregations were attracted by the ringing of the hell at the neighbouring church.
   At one end of the existing Piazza stood the Bedford Coffee Tavern, an establishment with which are intimately associated the names of Garrick, Foote, Quin, and many other notabilities; and in the immediate vicinity was Sheridan’s resort, the “Piazza Hotel.” Then, too, at the north-west corner of Covent Garden was Evans’s, that famous meeting-place for men of wit and fashion, where, before clubs were known, it is stated that as many as nine dukes have dined on one evening.
   Passing from gay to grave, I cannot help referring to a most remarkable murder of which this locality was the scene.
   Over a hundred years ago the Earl of Sandwich, a member of Lord North’s Administration, was one day passing through [-184-] Covent Garden when, in the window of No 4, a house standing at the corner of Tavistock Street, he caught sight of a very beautiful girl. Her name was Martha Ray, and she was a milliner by trade; her parents being, it is believed, staymakers of Holywell Street. She excited the nobleman’s interest to such a degree that he had her removed from the shop, made arrangements for the completion of her education, and became her guardian.
   A few years later, Martha made the acquaintance of a Captain in the army named Hackman, who fell passionately in love with her and asked her to become his wife. She refused, observing that she would never “marry a knapsack.” This remark the Captain took very much to heart, and, in order to remove the disability to which it pointed, he resolved to change his profession. Hoping that a black coat would succeed where a red one had failed, he entered the Church, and, as Vicar of Wyverton, in Norfolk, once more offered his hand where he had already given his heart. This time. Martha seemed more disposed to yield; but she raised some question of a settlement, and misunderstandings appear to have resulted.
   The sequence of events in this sad story is a little difficult to trace and I may pass at once to the tragic episode with which they culminated.
   In the evening of the seventh of April, 1779, Martha Ray, after having refused, earlier in the day to inform Hackrnan of her intended movements, proceeded, with a female attendant, to Covent Garden Theatre, there to witness “Love in a Village.” Her lover, it appears, followed her thither, and we learn that, during the performance, he was seen drinking a glass of brandy and water in the Bedford Coffee Tavern.
   Hackman posted himself in the roadway when the audience began to stream out of the theatre, and, as Martha was being handed by a gentleman to her carriage, he rushed forward, Crew a pistol and shot her dead. He pointed another pistol to his own head and fired, but the bullet merely grazed the skin. Next he tried to beat out his brains with the butt-end of the weapon; but, before he could effect his desperate purpose, he was seized and handed over to two Bow Street runners, who conveyed him to the Bridewell on Tothill Fields.
   In due course Hackman was tried for the murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Tyburn, and-it is recorded that he was accompanied in the coach to the scaffold by Lord Carlisle and Mr. James Boswell.
   [-185-] But I must turn from the past to the present.
   The Strand and its environments never seem to go to bed. The stream of traffic flows on without intermission throughout every hour in the twenty-four, and it would be very difficult to say when the work of the night ends and the work of the day commences. The omnibuses of course stop running at a given hour ; but before all the other passenger conveyances have vanished from the streets, vans laden with fruit, vegetables, hay, and other spoils from the country, come lumbering along. Early rising is the rule with labouring London.
   Any of my readers who may visit Covent Garden Market in the small hours of the morning will see very much the same sights as those that were to be witnessed twenty or thirty years ago. On entering Wellington Street from the Strand you find the roadway choked with vans, carts of all shapes and sizes, and harrows. Every other street leading to the market is in the same congested condition. Who would have thought the world contained so many cabbages and potatoes as are to be seen here? Men bearing baskets and cases on their heads pass hither and thither, dodging each other with a dexterity born of long experience.
   The shouts and oaths so freely exchanged are responsible for a deal of the prevailing din; but other than human throats contribute to it largely. I refer to those of ‘the costers’ donkeys. One of these animals, elated it may be by meeting so many fellow-creatures, gives utterance to a prolonged and well-executed bray. Others at once raise their voices in response, and in a moment all the donkeys in all the streets are exercising those vocal powers with which Providence, in its inscrutable wisdom, has seen fit to endow them. One cannot help feeling very sorry for such of the occupants of the neighbouring houses as desire to sleep.
   The manner in which the vegetables are packed in the huge market carts is extraordinary. You see loads of lettuces and cabbages ten feet high, roped and netted down so tightly that, when unloosened, you marvel how so many could have been pressed into the space.
   The market itself is, of course, the scene of scenes. For incessant industry it is a veritable bee hive. If you are disposed to stand about and watch what is going on, you must have a care for your head and your shins. The buyers, salesmen, and porters are no respecters of persons. With them, it is work first and politeness afterwards.
   [-186-] If it is summer-time, the air is loaded with the fragrance of flowers, and the market is made beautiful with their colours.
   “Now then for your dollars,” shouts the eager seller; “we come here to sell, so make your choice and be sharp about it.”
   You turn to see by whom these words are spoken, when thump! you are nearly knocked off your feet by a burly, perspiring porter bending under a load of cauliflowers. “Why don’t yer git out of the blooming way?” is his substitute for an apology.
   There are plenty of beggars and loafers standing about, and, oddly enough, a little group of Sisters of Mercy and hospital nurses. What on earth are they doing here at such an hour? The answer is very simple—they are buying flowers, at market prices, to gladden the hearts of poor sufferers laid on beds of sickness.
   Who is that individual in blue, standing in the middle avenue? He looks like a butcher—but no; what could a butcher be doing there? Well, absurd as it may seem at first sight, the supposition is correct. There he stands, steel on belt, with a basket of steaks and other pieces of meat. He shouts: “Buy! buy! buy !” On drawing closer you will find that the good man is doing a very brisk trade, and rapidly disposing of his stock. The market habitués, it appears, buy his meat, and take it to neighbouring coffee-shops and public-houses, where they either have it cooked for them or perform the operation themselves.
   Not the least interesting among those who every morning flock to Covent Garden are the women who sell buttonholes and nosegays in the street. Theirs is a most laborious life. They have to rise in time to attend the early morning market, and it sometimes takes them the whole of the day to dispose of their stock. While they are laying out their few shillings on roses, carnations, geraniums, and maidenhair, they have to beware of the market,-thieves, who are always ready to pounce down upon goods that are left unguarded. Quite recently, I am informed, a poor woman, on bringing the last of her pur­chases from the salesman to the spot where she had left her barrow, found that the vehicle and its contents had been spirited away.
   There are any number of costers who post themselves in various parts of the metropolis with barrows laden with plants, seedlings, roots, and bulbs purchased at Covent Garden. A remarkable characteristic of these individuals is the con-[-187-]scientious manner in which they safeguard their “stock money.” It may be that, after the toils of the day, they will pass a good deal of the evening in public-houses, treating themselves and their pals to pots of beer; but, even when under the influence of drink, they may be trusted not to spend any part of the sum that has been set apart for the purchase of the following day’s stock.
   A few weeks ago a case came before me in which one plant coster charged another with assault. It appeared that they had had a disagreement, which had led to blows, and that one of the combatants, finding himself getting the worst of the conflict, ran forward and overturned his antagonist’s barrow, thereby destroying its contents.
   After dealing with the case of assault, I turned to the man who had lost his goods, and said:
   “Are you married?”
   “Yes,” he replied.
   “Have you any children?”
   “Six,” said he with a grin.
   “Have you anything in the world to support them with, now that your stock is destroyed?”
   “No, nothing.”
   “Then you stand there a pauper?”
   “Yes, sir,” he said, “that’s quite right.”
   “What do you propose to do?”
   “That’s just what I don’t know,” he returned, scratching his head.
   I thought the case so hard that I resolved to assist the man out of a little fund that had been placed at my disposal by private friends for the relief of those whose needs I might find to be pressing.
   I observed:
   “Well, I fancy you are an honest fellow, and I don’t think you ought to go to ruin because of this misfortune. I’m there­fore going to give you money to get a fresh stock. What was your stock worth?”
   “Well, sir, a matter of three pound or three pound ten.”
   “Very well. I’ll let you have it—that is, you shan’t have it, but an officer shall. I’ll let him off his duty, or rather, I’ll see that the authorities at Scotland Yard do so, in order that he may proceed with you in the morning for the purpose of buying a stock equivalent to the one you have lost.”
   When the women and girl flower sellers return to their [-188-] lodgings after attending the market, they proceed to sort their stock and make up their buttonholes. It is extraordinary with what quickness and ability the latter operation is performed. A few flowers are placed together so as to form a dainty little spray, and they are then nimbly bound together with wire.
   Strangely enough, the flower seller, as a rule, has no love —for flowers. She knows that her customers like them, and appreciate a well-arranged buttonhole, but where the great attraction lies she herself cannot understand. How seldom you see a flower girl wearing a flower! That her male asso­ciates should be insensible to the charm of their goods is less surprising. Probably the only personal use a coster ever made of a flower was to put the stalk in his mouth and chew it.
   The number of male and female Street flower sellers in London is very large. Several will often congregate together at a street corner, competing for the patronage of the public with great good nature. The women are nearly all dressed alike, with the same sort of hat and feathers, the same tartan —shawls, short cotton dresses, and high-heeled lace-up boors, -and the same kind of gold ear-rings.
   Taking them as a whole, the flower sellers—men and women alike—are a very worthy class.

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