THE very best proof that watercress-selling is a miserable
and unprofitable occupation may be gathered from the fact that, taken as a body,
they who embark in it are either very old or very young-individuals whose
shoulders are not yet broad enough, nor their muscles sufficiently developed,
for a fair stand-up fight with the world for bread; and they who have fought
through all their life's prime, and with variable success, but who finally,
finding themselves breathless and spent, and unable any longer to continue the
struggle, shrink aside out of the press, and, meekly going to the wall, seek a
crust quietly and unobtrusively. You seldom or ever see a hale and hearty man or
woman vending watercresses, or if you do, inquiry, in nine cases out of ten,
would disclose the fact that the seller had a few hours to spare each day from
some regular occupation, or else that, despite a robust appearance, some
accident or malady rendered them unable to labour.
Why it is I can't tell; but there can be no doubt that the watercress is universally regarded as the last link in the chain of independent trade. While a man maintains his footing on the watercress rail of the social ladder he may claim to be considered a worthy man trading for a living. He may be but an inch removed from lucifer-matches, and such-like goods, hawked as an excuse for begging; but the said inch is well defined and understood, and to cross it is to launch into an altogether new phase of existence.
There is our watercress-man-a disagreeable, surly-looking old curmudgeon as ever carried a basket. I know how old he is to a day. He is seventy-eight come the King's (not the Queen's) birthday, and he has been a watercress-man three-and-twenty years. I know how he came to take to watercresses. By trade he is a working jeweller, but at last his sight got so dim that he was glad to accept the commonest work-none being the alternative-at which he could not earn more than eighteenpence a day. Consequently he grew "hard up," and shifted his good lodgings to poorer, and to poorer still, till he finally took up his abode in a house where a "crease" man resided. The "crease " man was doing so well that he could afford to come down to the old working jeweller's room of evenings and smoke his pipe, and drink his pint of ale, and stand little treats for supper; while the jeweller was obliged to stick to his bench, sawing and filing, and wasting what was left of his precious sight through his magnifying-glass and the wretched light of a tallow candle. At last the well-to-do cress-man's son, who kept a greengrocer's shop at Lambeth, offered his parent a home in his house, and then says the cress-man to the jeweller, " Tell you what, Mr. Wicks, if you like to go in for it, I'll sell you my basket and business for ten and sixpence, and take it by instalments;" which offer was accepted.
Mr. Wicks told me all this himself as he sat by my kitchen fire, and I must say he made his way there in a highly creditable manner. We hadn't dealt with him very long when one evening he was called to the gate, and what was supposed to be a penny handed to him in lieu of a pen'orth of cresses. In less than five minutes, however, there came a violent ringing, and we presently heard the voice of Mr. Wicks growling like a bear, and complaining as does a man who has received some deep injury.
"Ain't it enough," asked he, "to keep a poor feller on his legs from mornin' till night to earn a bit of bread, but you must make him come back the length of your precious long street to get his right money?"
I hurried to the gate at this alarming stage of the proceedings, prepared, I must own, to find our watercress-man attempting to swindle.
"What 'wrong' money have you received, my good man ?"
"Why, 'arf-a-crown, instead of a penny," replied he, indignantly.
That transaction was the foundation of a friendship between Mr. Wicks and myself that has existed upwards of a month.
Through him I am possessed of information that would enable me to start to-morrow morning as accomplished a watercress-man as any in the trade. I am aware, for instance, that, having made my purchase, it is a good thing variably find a coffee-stall in the vicinity of a watercress market), to fortify myself for the sloppy and unenviable job of sousing my goods at the nearest pump. Then I shall have to untie my unsold stock of yesterday and mix them with the fresh ones, unless, indeed, the stale ones are very " white," when I shall find it more profitable to throw them away and stand the loss. I am to be particularly careful never to buy my cresses by gas or candle light if I can help it, for it is at such times that the dishonest dealer palms off his ill-coloured stock. I am aware that he is not personally responsible for the colour of his cresses; that they were green enough when picked down in Sussex six hours ago; but it is the nature of the watercress, when very tightly packed (and they are as tightly squeezed into the big baskets as the pickers' arms can squeeze them), that they will " heat" like new hay, and emit such a steam when they are released by the consignee that you would think they were on fire. Whether they really would "fire " in time I don't know; but this (instructed by Mr. Wicks) I really do know, that, under such circumstances, the receivers of the big hampers have them conveyed at once to the market pump and there subjected to a drenching that, as Mr. Wicks says, " sends the colour out on 'em like cheap print."
One thing I am surprised to learn-that it may chance, after all, in taking to watercresses for a livelihood, I may still be subjected to an unpleasantness attaching to my present vocation. " Sir," said Mr. Wicks at our very first interview, "I'll tell you what is the 'licking'"- (" undoing," he meant; but he seems to have altogether forgotten how to talk like a jeweller)-" I'll tell you what is the licking of me, and has been for the past three months. It's that there hobnoxious bill."
"Not your son, surely," remarked I.
"No," said he; "I mean the Parliament bill-the repeal of the paper duty."
I should as soon have expected to find Mr. Wicks affected bythe Church-rate Bill or the Bankruptcy Bill as the document he mentioned. His explanation, however, set the matter in a perfectly clear light. He had been for many years in the habit of serving with cresses, as they came oat to breakfast and tea, the "hands" employed at a wholesale and manufacturing stationer's in Bunhill-row, St. Luke's. The usual number of workpeople employed at this establishment at ordinary times exceeds five hundred. Since, however, the paper-duty abolition has been pending, the number has been reduced to nearly a tenth, the watercress-man's receipts dwindling in the same ratio.
Among other wrinkles for which I am indebted to Mr. Wicks is one concerning the peculiarities of the green and brown cress. "Always buy the latter," urged he. "They will keep in good selling condition, with a little care and soaking in clean water, for nearly a week; whereas the green ones will hardly keep through a night, though stowed in a wet sack and laid in the cellar. Besides, if they do keep green, they don't smell very peasant " (make a note of that, good reader, and smell your cresses before you buy them), " and the stems go so soft that it takes twice as many as it should to make a decent bundle." Moreover, Mr. Wicks, after inquiring if I knew what "brooklime" was when I saw it, broke up a bundle of watercresses and showed me several leaves of the weed in question. The said leaves are rather sharper than the watercress, and have a mottled appearance. People wouldn't buy the cresses if they knew there was brooklime with them, Mr. Wicks said; but that it was so harmless that I might, if so inclined, "eat a bushel "with impunity; and, moreover, that it was a capital medicine for jaundice.
Having thus far initiated me as to the sort of cresses to buy, Mr. Wicks magnanimously offered to show me where and how to buy them. Having, however, some time ago perused a detailed account of the ways and means of the watercress-sellers in " London Labour and the London Poor" (in which the writer had made known to the public the most minute particulars, even to the fact that the pace indulged in by the cressman was exactly two miles an hour), I was enabled to inform Mr. Wicks that I knew where the cresses were bought wholesale-in Farringdon Market." That's one of the places," replied he; " but there are two others-one at Hackney and one at Waterloo Station. You get better served at Hackney than anywhere, because you buy them fresh out of the water; and, if you don't mind cutting them yourself, they ain't particular to a handful. The worst of it is, it is such a precious long way from St. Luke's, where I live; and if you ain't there very early-by four o'clock, say-you may stand shivering about the wet grass till your toes are numbed."
As far as I could understand from Mr. Wicks, the cress-beds in question are in the vicinity of Hackney Marshes, and that any morning scores of decrepid men and women, and tiny, ragged-headed, shoeless children may be met, hours before daylight, trudging along, with their baskets and old teatrays, towards the inhospitable region above mentioned, for the sake of buying "first hand, and saving, perhaps, twopence in the shilling," or, as it would undoubtedly happen in at least half the cases, a penny in sixpence--the extent of the stock money. And there they stand shivering in the bleak morning air, or saunter up and down by the chilly, cheerless stream, till the cress-cutters, walking knee-deep in the water, have time to give them their "turn." Something pretty it is to read about "cresses from the brook," isn't it? Quite refreshing to know that, though the cress-seller's gains are small, his labour is light and delightfully healthsome !
"I've been up at Hackney," said Mr. Wicks, "on an early February morning, when all the water, except the running streams in which the cresses grew, was frozen as hard as iron, and when it was so dark that the cutters had to have lanterns to see by. It's no use taking a basket for your stock at them times; you must take a bit of blanket or sack. Then it ain't much use: by the time you get your cresses home they are all frozen in one lump, and you have to lay them in the fender before you can pull 'em apart and tie 'em in bunches. ' Oh, dear! ' says the people, 'what little bunches! why, it is like eating money! ' 'Pon my word, it is enough to make a man cut the business, and go into the work'us."
Mr. Wicks was particularly anxious that I should accompany him one morning to Hackney Marshes, and witness the operation above described, starting at a quarter-past three (two good hours before daybreak); but, having a bad cold, I was obliged reluctantly to decline. I, however, compromised the matter by agreeing to accompany him to Farringdon Market the next time he went there. The "next time " came in an alarmingly short period, and at a ridiculously early hour.
Two mornings after that on which the subject was broached there came a ringing at my bell, and at the same moment four o'clock came booming through the murky air in muffled tones, as though the bell in the bleak belfry spoke through the folds of a " comforter." I am afraid I did not feel very well disposed towards Mr. Wicks at that moment. I had to picture in the most forcible colours what was the old gentleman's age next birthday, with his white hair and bare throat and chest, loitering outside in the dark, chilly morning, before I could bring myself to a sense of what was his due. In a few minutes, however, I was with him, and trudging towards "Farringdon."
It was barely half-past four by the market-clock when we arrived, and still quite dark. Nevertheless, the great square and round wicker baskets had already made their appearance in the railway cars, and were unshipped and ranged in a row outside the market railings, at the Stonecutter Street entrance. The cress-sellers had not yet arrived, but the buyers had, and in considerable force; indeed, shock-headed, slovenly, and apathetic, they lounged about the posts or squatted in dreary threes and fours upon the market stones, as though, having nothing better to do, they had lodged there all night. Never was seen such a wretched lot of buyers. They were all so very old and so very young, there were so much rags and grey hair, and rags and wizened codlin'-faced poverty, and rags and bare mites of shoulder- blades, and tiny, horridly-dirty crimson feet, that it seemed that any one capable of taking from them the few halfpence they might have for watercresses, on any excuse whatever, was worthy of instant arrest and imprisonment.
Presently, laughing and chatting pleasantly, there came up the dark street the salesfolk. Evidently they had come up with their cresses by the midnight train, but had deferred business till fortified by a comfortable breakfast. What a contrast between them-they were chiefly women-and the poor wretches waiting to be served! It would be hard to find a contrast more extreme: the saleswomen warmly clad, ruddy and bright from the pure Sussex and Kentish air, and with that easy deportment that marks the well- to-do individual, on the one hand; while on the other was life in its ugliest shape-squalid, hopeless, ailing poverty.
The advent of the market women, however, and the opening of the big basket-lids, and the lighting of candles (thrust ruthlessly among the cress-stalks) at once roused the dormant loungers; and with their baskets and cold rusty tea-trays under their arms, they picked their way through the wicker avenue, shrewdly eyeing the various lots, giving here a dig with the fist to see how loosely or tightly the cresses are packed, or taking up a spray the better to judge of the colour. There seemed to be two ways of buying the cresses: by the "hand "-that is, as much as can be grasped by the forefinger and thumb-and by the "lump." By the former process the sales produced but little excitement. A penny a hand was the settled price; and either it happened that the hands of the saleswomen were much of a size, or, what was much more to the purpose, they were all equally kind-hearted and tender in their dealings with the ragged ones. The only grumbling that occurred was when the question of " blessing" came to be discussed. The " blessing" is a few cresses thrown in over and above the measured quantity, and evidently a "hand" bargain was never completed without it. I think it would conduce considerably to good understanding between the market- woman and her customers if the number of stalks of cress making a fair " blessing" could be adjusted. The wrangling on this point is incessant. "Is that me blessin' ? Shure, it will take sivin sich to fetch a penny! "
"Can't afford a bigger blessin' on threepen'orth, Kitty. Put 'em down if you don't like 'em."
Buying "in lump," however, involves considerable excitement, and just because the spirit of speculation, or, more properly, gambling, enters into the business. You may see half-a-dozen dirty faces clustered near the candle-lit cress-hamper, which is perhaps two-thirds empty; or there may be a " remnant" of just enough to pave one side of the basket.
"How much the lot ?" has already been asked, and answered, with the invariable addition, "Have 'em or leave 'em."
The owners of the dirty faces are in a painful state of perplexity about the matter; they hobble off a short distance and compare opinions.
"I'm afeard they ain't very solid."
"They're Sussex creases, and the big stalks tells up well in bundling."
"Let us stay a bit, till it grows lighter, and be sure about the colour."
You may see these important conferences going on in half a dozen different parts of the market at one time, accompanied by all the lip-biting and chin-stroking and winking and other facial contortions peculiar to extensive speculators. Mr. Wicks, however, did not go in for a "lump" of cresses. He bought ten honest handfuls with a good blessing for tenpence; and I left him going cheerfully to the pump to wash them, while I went home to breakfast.