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

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I HAD noted of late that several persons more or less competent to discuss the matter have been complaining in print of the outrageous profit said to be derived from the sale of greengrocery and fruit at Covent Garden. It therefore occurred to me that a few hours of early morning might be usefully spent in making a personal visit to the market in question, with a view if possible to ascertain at what price ordinary table vegetables were disposed of by the market gardener's consignee and agent to the retailer also to discover whether the greengrocer whose premises were situate in a superior or in a semi-genteel locality had to pay for his goods so much more than the lower-class shopkeeper and the hardworking costermonger or street stallkeeper as to account for the extraordinary difference existing in the prices charged the consumer.
    When a few mornings since I reached the market I saw at a glance that it was somewhat late in the season for such an enquiry as mine. There is no longer a glut of green stuff and market gardeners have now leisure to reckon their gains or bemoan their losses. I wished it was walnuts I had to write about. The whole market seemed given up to walnuts, or rather to scores, I may say hundreds, of old women and young women, who, gaunt and wretched-looking, black to the wrists, and every one armed with a knife, were slashing and hacking away against time, denuding the nut of its tough green hide.
    I counted in one ring (they work in rings) a hundred and ten individuals so employed (it was then only half-past six by the market clock), and there at least half-a- dozen other rings, though this [-73-] seemed the largest. I had not seen such a motley crew since I was in the midst of the hop gardens at East Farleigh. If I had nothing better to do I would rather go hopping.
    Walnut-shelling stains the hands to the complexion of a black-a- moor, and that it is a tough job is shown by the fact that most of those engaged in it have a thickness of rag bound about their hands, the better to press against the knife. Besides, it must be back-breaking work indeed to stand (they all stand) on the sloppy cobble-stones of the open marketplace from six in the morning until perhaps four or five in the afternoon for a matter of eighteen- pence; and the spectacle of so many poor creatures glad to be so engaged and on such terms, was not calculated to impress one's mind with a picture pleasant to recall at after-dinner nut-cracker time.
    But walnuts were not my present business. What I wanted was a respectable greengrocer and fruiterer, or his representative, and presently I descried the very man. His smart van and well harnessed horse stood a short distance away, and an inscription on the panels made known that its owner hailed from the highly genteel neighbourhood of Kensington. One can overhear, without appearing to be rudely prying, in a marketplace, and it was without difficulty that I made out what was being asked and offered for the different kind of vegetables the Kensington greengrocer was desirous of buying. He certainly did not go in for scarlet-runners at ninepence a bushel. He "priced" some, and was asked one and eightpence, and bidding eightpence secured five bushels of them.
    I was likewise an unsuspected witness of his purchasing cucumbers. Cavilling at insufficient profits on this article, growers have been revealing the secrets of their trade, and publishing as a fact that they were very glad to be able to get above five shillings for a "pad" of cucumbers containing fifteen dozen. They must have been of a different kind from those my Kensington tradesman sought. I saw him buy and pay for a basket containing four dozen at the rate of fourpence each, and he did not in the least wince at the price demanded. He bought cauliflowers, too. These were in foreign-looking crates, and the vegetables in question were undoubtedly very large and fine. They realised five and sixpence a dozen, or fivepence halfpenny each.
    My greengrocer likewise inquired as to potatoes, at the same time turning over with a business hand a sample of the bulk exhibited in a bushel. The price asked - and the sellor solemnly declared they were "the best as ever was growed" - was 4 a ton, and without doubt, assuming that the potatoes were of a good quality, they were the cheapest which I had seen offered. Four pounds the ton represents considerably less than one halfpenny per pound, and the retail price at any ordinary decent greengrocer's is one penny, which, of course, affords a handsome profit.
    But take the Kensington shopkeeper's purchases all round, his gains on them could not be enormous, judging from the price charged for similar goods by one's own local tradesman. Assuming that the "runners" realised three-halfpence a pound-after they had been "sized" and sorted, and the inferior ones thrown aside or next to given away to customers who [-74-] were not over-fastidious - the gain on them was not outrageous. The cauliflowers that cost him fivepence halfpenny each no thrifty housekeeper would think of giving more than sevenpence or eight- pence for; while as for the cucumbers, evidently they were not of the kind referred to by the newspaper writers as realising only five shillings per "pad" of fifteen dozen, or the article had amazingly increased its size in the course of a few days. Indeed, I think I afterwards saw the cheap kind that was meant-a distorted, dwarf sort, yellow as a bullock horn, and much afflicted with vegetable warts and other excrescences. The cucumbers that were bought at the rate of fourpence each would probably be sold for six- pence.
    There were others besides the Kensington greengrocer buying the same class of goods seemingly at a similar rate as the one I particularly observed, and my impression was that all things considered, the profit provided by the purchases was just about the same as that expected and provided for by our butcher and our baker.
    Aware, however, that a Kensington tradesman would by no means be regarded as a fair representative of the great greengrocer class, on whom the growers as well as the market men depend for clearance, I resolved to pursue my enquiry in another direction. The individual to whom I was recommended as being one who was able to provide me with full information respecting the difference between the wholesale and retail, amongst third and fourth- rate greengrocers, did not at first sight appear to be occupying an elevated position in the sphere of life to which he was devoted. I was informed, however, that he was a man who at any time cou1d lay his hands on and take legitimate hold of a thousand pounds sterling, and that he was the owner of half-a-dozen flourishing greengrocery and fruit-selling establishments, in as many poor neighbourhoods and market-places.
    Any one, however, who knew the significance of; and took into consideration the extraordinary number of mother-o'-pearl buttons that adorned the waistcoat and well-worn fustian jacket of the gentleman in question, would have been at once aware that he was somebody of consequence in costerdom, at all events. Barkis himself; who, it will be remembered,. hoarded amongst the jealously guarded treasures contained in his bedside box, an oyster shell of large size, the inner side of which he had polished in secret, evidently with a vague idea that it was a pearl of great price, did not manifest greater veneration for the material in question than does the British costermonger. The pearl button is with him a symbol of position and standing, and by the number of glistening rows that rather for ornament than use, decorate his vestment, his importance amongst his own class may be measured.
    He whom I was advised to consult as to the vegetable trade had pearl buttons on either side his jacket, and if his waistcoat had been smeared with some tenacious matter, and then hung out while a smart shower of the perforated discs of a smaller size was falling, it could scarcely have exhibited a more profuse display of them. Otherwise he was, as regards attire, as unremarkable as any common barrow-man or market porter. I found him affable, and rather anxious than otherwise to display his knowledge of the subject I was curious about.
   [-75-] To my inquiry as to what was his opinion as regards the vegetable and fruit trade of the past summer, his reply was that it was "nothing to make a song about," but, on the whole, fairish. He spoke for himself and for them he knew about-those who served the lower and working classes. He had no idea how the West End shopkeepers had found things, but was open to lay odds that, if his sort had done pretty well, their sort hadn't got much to grumble about. It was what he might call the common run of greengrocers that did really the great trade of Covent Garden, the same as it did at every other market, and to his own knowledge they - the common-run men - had been pulling the right string - doing well, he meant - ever since the strawberries came in in the spring. And not only them that that had shops, but them - and there were scores and hundreds - who cried their goods in the streets, or had stalls in the market places. The former generally possessed a donkey or pony and a barrow, or "half-cart," bought at the commencement of the season for the purpose, and in nine cases in ten disposed of in the early autumn, when there was no further use for it.
    `"And I'll tell you one sign, sir," said my obliging informant, "that will prove to you that I know what I am talking about, when I tell you that the class that we'er a-speaking of has done well. At this time of year, to'rds the end of September, in general, if you go to the Cattle Market at Islington on a Friday you find the place crowded with barrows and 'shallows' and half-carts, with the animals attached to 'em, brought there for sale. The season is over; it is the fruit season the men depend on to get a bit of a harvest, out o' plums especially. O, yes, this has been a wonderful season for stone fruit; but that ain't half so much consequence, from a business point of view, as it's having been a healthy season. When I say healthy season, I mean one free from anything in the shape of cholera. You can't have any idea the difference that makes. Sure as ever rumours of such kind of illness gets in the newspapers the first thing poor people funk on is plums. They won't have 'em at any price, no matter how good and sound they are. Of course, it's all foolishness, but so it is. How do I make it out to be foolishness? Well, there's your answer for you - why don't it hurt them?"
    And as he spoke he directed my attention to a juvenile family group busy at a corner where some one had emptied a heap of fruit refuse, consisting chiefly of green-gages in such an advanced stage of decay that some were "furred" with blue mould.
    There were two little girls, a little boy, and a baby, whose carriage was a starch box with four crochet-cotton reels ingeniously affixed to its bottom as wheels, and there they were, sorting the best from among the worst of the rotten fruit, and devouring it with a relish, taking no other precaution except to wipe off as much of the mould as might be removed with a rub on the skirts of their deplorably dirty and ragged little frocks. The baby, that was perhaps six months old, was neither forgotten nor neglected. In some previous forage the party had found a decayed pear, and, with this in both hands, the poor child was placidly sucking itself to sleep. One's natural impulse was to interfere and take the poisonous stuff away from them.
    [-76-] "What's the use of doing that?" remarked the market-street greengrocer ; " they'll pick up a lot more as soon as your back's turned. They're the sort that's used to it, and it'll never hurt 'em."
    "Well, as I was saying," he presently resumed, "the moneymaking season of them we're speaking of begins with the strawberries and finishes with plums, and damsons as the last of 'em. When damsons come in it's about all over with fruit, and not much better with vegetables of the summer sort; and a man don't want to keep a cob, or even a donkey, in the stable, with nothing for it to do but to eat its own head off; so off they goes to the market to sell for what they'll fetch. Who buys 'em ? Blest if I know - or what line they are used in; but they all go at a price. They must be sold. You see a good many men borrow the bit of money to make a fair start at the spring, and they haven't paid it all off by September. They have to sell out to get clear. But this year you won't find at at his time a half or a quarter the number of ponies and donkeys and barrows, and that, at the Friday's market as yet, which shows that business has been better this year than many. What would a man who had a vegetable stall in a market street, say Whitecross Street or the New Cut, call a good day's profits? Well, if the pitch was double-handed, worked by two, himself and his wife say, he would expect to make twelve or fourteen shillings a day at the height of the season."
    "More than that, I should think," I remarked, quoting from the market gardening controversy as published in the newspapers, "when scarlet  runners are eight-pence and ninepence a bushel, and cucumbers may be purchased wholesale at about sixpence a score. Suppose he sells his scarlet runners at only a penny a pound, and his cucumbers at no more than twopence each, he need not make a large sale to realise a handsome profit."
    The man of buttons laughed.
    "You know a lot about it," he replied contemptuously. "Cowcumbers tuppence each! You try it. That's where people who read the papers get misled. Why them cowcumbers you're a-speaking of - which I own there's been a plenty to be bought at a lower figure than you have put it at - when they're sold in the street markets don't fetch half tuppence each - hardly a quarter the money. Go down Brick Lane, or Lambeth Walk, or Whitecross Street, tomorrow, and if there's a glut of 'em I'll wager you can buy a cart-load if you want 'em at a ha'penny each. The people that buy cowcumbers at them places buy 'em to eat not to amoose themselves. If there's a family there's one each all round as a relish with their slice of bread, and they have a bason with winegar in it among 'em and dip their cowcumber in it at every bite, and scrunch it up like you would apples. When poor people give their minds to cucumbers, they do it as a harticle of food, not to tiddywate their appetite. Scarlet beans, again. A penny a pound, indeed! Why, for the last three weeks I aint got a shop where I dare charge more than three pound tuppence for them, and many a hundred sieve I've had sold out at a ha'penny a pound. I could afford to do it, since they they did'nt cost me more'n a farthing a pound. I've bought hundreds of bushels of them this season at from nine-pence to a shilling the bushel, of about thirty-six pounds. But [-77-] then I can go into the market and buy a two-horse wagon-load of two hundred bushels just as it stands. Did I ever buy 'em cheaper? Yes; I've bought 'em as low as sixpence, and the same beans have cost the growers two-pence a bushel to pick. They're glad at times to sell stuff at what is a turn of the scale, better than letting 'em stand in the fields and rot. Lettuce the same. I've bought lettuces large and prime at a price that has allowed me to sell again at four a-penny, and at the same time the 'spectable shops have been getting a penny each for 'em. It's the same with everything at the 'spectable shops. They daren't offer things at our prices. The people who deal with them never go to the poor markets to see the difference, and if the 'spectable greengrocer offered 'em as he was able to, his class of customers would turn their noses up at 'em as common rubbish. Do I think the 'spectable shopkeeper invariably buys the same quality of goods as my sort buy? No, I don't. Tain't like fish at Billingsgate. There is nearly always 'rough stuff' to be bought at Covent Garden and all the other markets, and those who want the choicest goods of course take their pick. By rough stuff I mean getting a bit stale or past its prime in growing. It's the same with taters or anything else. You can't buy 'em anything like quality for less than three pun ten or four pounds a ton; but I bought a lot at the Borough Market a bit since for thirty-five shillings a ton. Course they wasn't up to much. 'Scorchers,' we call 'em. They won't keep. They're 'touched' when they're dug, and would go altogether if they we're kept for a month. As it is they are only 'specky,' and poor people don't mind that if they can buy 'em at five pounds for tuppence. Oh, yes, now you come to speak of it, I have heerd of there being something in the papers about the tremenjus price people have been paying for their vegetables compared with what they cost. Don't you believe it. Them that have got shops in the swell parts of London stick it on, no doubt, and I don't blame 'em; but them that can least afford to pay they're sure to be right. Competition and close cutting 'mongst men like me and hundreds more who are always on the look-out to buy and sell and 'turn in a few shillings' is their security; and they can't have a better.