Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Watercress Sellers

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THE old man who supplies us with watercresses called at the house as usual the other morning, but not with a tempting array of crisp green bunches in his flat basket. That receptacle for his stock-in-trade was slung empty at his back, and great concern was depicted on his wrinkled visage.
    "Sir," said he, "I've had a sad misfortune, and, being anxious to keep my little connection when there's so many ready to snatch it away, I thought it best to make haste and let my regular customers know about it. I got to Farringdon Market this morning a bit earlier than I generally do - before daylight in fact, and while the candles was still alight. Well, I bought my creases, but before I got 'em home, and when there was daylight to see 'em by, I found they were the colour of whitey-brown paper, and not worth a ha'penny to me. They'd got heated, I s'pose, in the baskets, being brought up by rail. And so my trade for the day is chucked clean out, and I've lost my money as well. Why do I get to market so early? Well, you see, it s as nigh a toucher three miles from my lodgings to Farringdon, and if a man has got a early round like I have, it don't do to be there later than five or a little after. But I ain't the only one. There's dozens there before me, and scores and scores atop of that atween six and seven. You see, sir, there's a lot to do to the creases before they're fit for sale. They are terribly weedy as we get 'em, and they've got to be stalked and picked and brushed, and in that way three or four hours soon slips away, before you can set out to sell 'em."
    "And what may be your loss to-day on account of your misfortune?"
    "Well, as I'll tell you honest I had fifteen pen'orth of creases, and I reckoned to make on that one and ninepence profit. But then you must understand that's my morning's trade, and my afternoon's as well, and you see I've got a tidy connection."
    [-34-] "Then those in your line of business who have not got a tidy connection don't do as well as you do? Bless your art, sir, there's hundreds of 'em that don't make more than eightpence or ninepence a day."
    "I did not think," I remarked, "that the watercress sellers throughout London might be reckoned by hundreds."
    "You'd think different, sir," returned the old cress-seller, "if you was to see the Pickford's wan loads that are brought to Farringdon every morning."
    Thus it happened that, in conscientious discharge of my duties as an inquirer into the habits, ways, and means of the toilers of London, a day afterwards I found myself at the market gates in Stonecutter Street, as the market clock was striking six.
    It had been daylight for at least an hour, and any one who now bought cresses would not be liable to such a disastrous speculation as had befallen my old man, but that dealings by candle-light were practised was evident from the half-burnt candles in their tin sockets that were still stuck in some of the baskets. It was a busy if not a particularly pretty scene.
    Farringdon Market during the later hours of the day is not a lively place. A few melancholy greengrocery and fruit shops do a languid business within a few yards of the entrance; but, penetrate the arcade beyond, and there are nothing but gloomy and decayed looking shut-up shops and a milldewed atmosphere suggestive of roots and vegetables stowed away in the vaults beneath and there rotting, no demand existing for them-a dismal and ghostly place, that might be haunted with the spirits of ruined fruiterers who rashly speculated on the chance of making Farringdon Market a formidable rival to Covent Garden.
    But business was brisk enough at this early hour - in the watercress department at any rate. Any one-man, woman, or child - with sixpence by way of capital and an old basket or tray to carry "stock" in, can go to market, buy direct from the wholesale dealer, and set up as an itinerant watercress-seller. This, doubtless, accounts for the fact that the majority present, and making their purchases, belonged evidently to the very lowest grade of the poverty stricken. It seemed as though it were a means of earning an honest crust resorted to when every other way had been tried and miscarried, a something by means of which those who were unfit for anything else might earn the bread of independence-bare and butterless, maybe, but none the less sweet on that account- and stave off that haunting horror the workhouse. Not but that there were exceptions.
    Amongst the bargaining batches that crowded about the merchants' big hampers were not a few brawny Irishmen and lads, tattered as scarecrows, it is true, but to all appearance hale and hearty people who might, except for some secret reason, be better and more profitably employed carrying hods of bricks up a ladder, than in retailing little bunches of watercresses. The majority, however, were either very old folk or very young ones - young to set up on their own account as buyers and sellers, that is. Little girls of not more than ten or twelve, but with the worldly wisdom of middle-age women imprinted on their wizened faces and in their eyes that so shrewdly sought for good investments, elbowed their way among the able-[-35-]bodied, the aged, and the cripples who leant on their crutches, while little boys of an age to claim for years to come the fostering care of the Board School went in for stock, buying with an air that would have become the fathers of heavy families.
    There was one little old man of decentish appearance, who, though he had a basket with him, and had evidently come there to buy, was unused to the business. He caught my eye, and remarked,-
    "It don't seem much of a game, judging from the looks of 'em, do it, sir ?"
    His voice was the gruffest I ever heard, and so hoarse that it was scarcely intelligible, though I stood within a couple of yards of him.
    "You are not used to it ?" I asked him.
    "No; and I'm jiggered if I knows how I ever shall get to be," he replied, gruffer and hoarser than ever. "I'm in the muffin and crumpet line myself. Least-ways, I used to be before the blessed law stepped in and stopped my bell for a nuisance. It comes wery hard on me. P'raps you might notice a pecoolyerlarity about my voice, sir ?"
    I intimated that I certainly had noticed it.
    "That was the horigin of my takin' to muffins and crumpets, sir. I had to get my livin' in the streets somehow, and I took to 'em because the bell attached answered all as one with the voice. Now I'm done. Nat'rally enough, people don't like their muffins growled at 'em. I tried it, and somehow it seemed to take off the hedge of their appetite for 'em. I've been advised to go in for creases instead, and this is my first try, and on'y I hope you'll see me here to-morrow morning buying some more - but I wery much doubt it."
    Not the least remarkable features of the watercress market, are the free and easy familiarity that prevails between the wholesale vendors and the majority of their customers, and the contrast between the rags and penury of the one, and the comfortable and cheery aspect of the other. This attracted my attention as soon as I got amongst them. There was a wretched old woman in rags, with her bare toes blue with cold, her shoes being mere soles of under-leather tied sandal-wise to her ancles with string. She had no basket, only a battered old iron tea-try to arrange her stock on, and the few halfpence she was so painfully cautious over laying out, were in a corner of the flimsy make-shift neckerchief she wore round her neck, tucked into her bosom, and held outside the gown in her bony fist. She stopped at the stand of an elderly farmerish-looking man and regarded his goods wistfully.
    "You ain't bought yet then, Peggy ?" he remarked to her.
    "No, I ain't bought yet, Jimmy," she replied coaxingly; "you might give us a blessin' with fourpen'orth. Do now, that's a good soul, and let me go."
    It was such an extraordinary request that I stood still to listen for more. What virtue was there in a cress-vendor's blessing that she should beg so hard for it, and why should he withhold it?
    "You can have your worth for your money, Peggy, as I told you afore," he replied, "but you can't have what you expect for a blessin' on four pen'orth, so don't ask it."
    "I s'pose I ain't greedier arter blessins than anybody else?" retorted old Peggy, tartly. "There's them as will gi'me a blessin' if you won't Jimmy."
    "Let 'em, Peggy," returned the [-36-] cress merchant, with smiling good humour, "and good to luck to them and you too."
    The poor pinched-up old dame tucked her rusty tea-tray under her arm and hobbled oft; her blue toes slushing on the miry market stones.
    "What made you so anxious for his blessing, old lady?" I asked her.
    "Well, if you must know," she replied, evidently more than half inclined to resent my question as a liberty, "if you must know, because it's worth a pen'orth of gin to me."
    "How can that be? What is it he says to you that does you as much good as a pen'orth of gin?"
    This was too much for the irate old creature.
    "It is worth your while, ain't it, togged up and with money in your pockets, to chaff the likes of me?" she remarked angrily, "as if you didn't know what a crease-sellers's blessin' is ?"
    It was only with some amount of trouble that I made her believe in my ignorance, and then she explained to me that the "blessin'" was "a half-hand thrown in." The cresses are measured out to the small buyers by the "handful." The seller takes up a piece of the tightly-comprised green bulk and spans his thumb and forefinger about the stalks, and the tops of thumb and finger touching constitute the "measure."
    "Well, it doesn't much matter, I suppose," I remarked to poor Peggy; "it can't make much difference whom you get the blessing from, or if you don't get it at all, for that matter."
    "It makes all the difference," said she, "because his are the best creases in the market; but unless there's a glut of 'em he never will give a blessin' on fourpen'orth - nothing under sixpen'orth. And there it is I'm floored, you see, because I've never got sixpence," she added, ruefully.
    "How is it you've never got sixpence?"
    "Cos the profits won't run to it. I get fourpen'orth-that's four 'market-hands,' and that breaks up into four- and-twenty ha'penny bunches, which is a shillin', and gives eightpence profit. And that's a penny for my breakfast, or threeha'pence when it's werry cold and I goes in for the 'dulgence of coffee, and twopence for my dinner, and the same for my supper, which leaves threepence for my lodgings in Wentworth Street, Whitechapel."
    "And what do you do for clothes ? "
    "Ah what do I do for 'em?" and she glanced down at her rags, with a shrug of her sharp shoulders. "Why, I whistles for em; but they won't come, and so I haves to do without 'em. That's been my way ever so many months now. I take my fourpence to market every morning - never any more - and I make my eightpence selling 'em, and I lives on it; and a miserable life it is without the blessin'."
    "That gives you a penny more to buy extra food with, you mean?"
    "No, I don't; I mean it is a pen'orth of gin to me. You might be a preachin' teetotaler, for all I care," she continued recklessly; "I ain't afeared or ashamed to own to it. That's what makes me hunt up a blessin' so sharp. I sells it and gets a pen'orth of gin, and then I've got heart in me to go my rounds. Don't I think, since money is so scarce with me that I might lay out a penny to better advantage? You wait till you turn out a little arter five, [-37-] which p'raps it's raining or blowing cuttin' cold, and you've on'y got on what you slep' in and turn out in; you wait till then before you ask can't I do better. Nobody knows what a comfort a pen'orth of gin is, unless they're drove to craving for it by being hard up like, I say. It stops the cold tremblings in your inside, and warms you right down to your toes. I often wonder I don't break into my eightpence, but I battle agin it and keep off it somehow. I trust to luck. My first thoughts when I wake in the morning is, Lord send that there's plenty of creases, and Jimmy is in a good temper and gives me a blessin', so that I may get my drop of gin.'"
    And she had it, blessing or no blessing. I won't go as far as wretched old Peggy and say that I don't care what "preaching teetotalers" may think or say on the matter. In moderation, I have the greatest respect for the principals they advocate, but I am "neither ashamed nor afeared" to acknowledge that if that wretched Peggy did not have her precious pen'orth that morning it was no fault of mine.
    I should think that the crowd of cress-buyers was at least a hundred and fifty strong, distributed in dozens or so about the stands of the wholesale dealers. The one system prevailed-the encircling thumb-and-finger measurement, thirteen such pieces and a "blessing" being a shillingsworth. The vendors seemed to deal fairly, but it was curious to watch how suspiciously the poor buyers seized on each handful as it was delivered to them, and measured it in the same way for themselves, with grimly sarcastic remarks on its size.
    "Don't squeeze the stalks so bard, George; you'll bruise 'em."
    "Don't be afraid of spraining your wrist, Mrs. --- ; you will if you go on tryin' to span such whacking pen'orths."
    "Good luck to you, Sam, if you didn't hold your money tighter than them you're bunching for me, you'd be in the work'us afore I shall after all."
    But, as already mentioned, the sellers seem to know their customers, and accept all that is said with good humour, and the great baskets in which the cresses are closely packed are emptied with astonishing rapidity. The only real wrangling that took place had its rise from the vexed question as to what quantity represented a "fair blessing." If it was less than a good half-handfull it was stubbornly objected to.
    "You hands 'em out square enough," remarked one gaunt young man, whose ragged coat, longer than that of the Artful Dodger, charitably covered a much more dilapidated pair of trousers, "but you're the most close-fisted old blesser as ever I set eyes on."
    In some instances the blessing was bestowed with a more generous hand.
    "There's your lot, Jenny Wren, and a lumping lot over for luck. I won't keep you waiting, because I 'spuse, as usual, you've got your carriage outside."
    Jenny Wren was a white-faced mite of a girl, about thirteen, wretchedly clad, but conspicuous by her cleanliness amid the tag-rag company generally. Nine pen'orth of cresses was her purchase, and as no one else offered to see her to her carriage, I did myself that honour. Jenny Wren's carriage was a dreadfully old and shabby perambulator, with one of its wheels so shattered that some of the spokes were strengthened by having slips of wood raw from [-38-] the "bundle" bound round them. The carriage was not unoccupied. Reclining in it, in an attitude that betokened something amiss with his back, was a child - a boy small enough to be no more than three years old, but with a face that challenged contradiction if its owner choose to proclaim himself thirteen. From the likeness they were sister and brother, and though, perhaps, some allowance was fair for him on account of his infirmity, I could not help feeling a little angry with his language.
    "You've been a beastly long time," the big-headed poor little creature snapped at her as she approached his carriage with her green load. "You're always a beastly long while; you do it on purpose."
    "All right, I say, don't be cross, Joe," Jenny Wren replied, with a patient smile, " stop till I've tied the basket on the front, and we'll be home in no time."
    "Have you far to go?" I asked her.
    "Only over the water, sir, near the New Cut."
    "But wouldn't it have been better to have, left your little brother at home at this early hour?"
    "Well, it isn't quite like a home where we live," returned Jenny Wren, "it's a lodging house."
    And after a little conversation she told me that her father and mother as well, were both in trouble (in prison), and that her crippled little brother, who had something the matter with his hip joints, had no one else but to look after him.
    "Leastways, when I say that, I mean there's no one to pay for his being looked after but me. He sleeps along of me at the lodging house, and they don't charge anything for him-he's five next birthday - and I'm 'bliged to bring him to market with me, c'os there's nobody to mind him so early. But by the time we get back the woman that always looks after him will be ready to take him. She's got a stall in the Cut, where she sits all day, and Joey sits in a basket aside of her, under the board on trussels, so as he can't get wet when it rains, which leaves me free, don't you see, sir, to go about with my creases, and earn the bit o' money that keeps us both."
    "And how much do you earn, take one day with the other?"
    "Well, I reckon to clear fourteen or fifteen pence out of my ninepence, sir, which carries us on nicely. But that's only at this time o'year, when creases are at their heigth. Slack times it isn't more than about ninepence I earn, which makes it come hard, there being two of us."
    It is while on voyages such as these that one is enabled, now and again, to plumb the unsuspected depths of poverty and learn how charitable one to the other are those who have nothing wherewith to help their neighbours but goodness of heart. In proof call Jenny Wren, call the kind soul who stands all day with her stall in the New Cut. Call small Joe, with his ricketty hips and his big head, seemingly so heavy and unmanageable on his lean little throat, as he sits in his basket under the stall-board contemplating the feet and the skirts - for he can see no more - of those who pass by, and perhaps hoping against hope, day after day, that his weary eyes will presently be gladdened with a glimpse of mother's gown - the one she wore when he last saw her and before she got into trouble and so mysteriously vanished.