Cheap Street: markets and cabbages


Dr Victoria Kelley, University for the Creative Arts


Cheap Street tells the story of London’s street markets: Petticoat Lane, Berwick Street, Lambeth Walk and many others. From the 1850s, anything that could be bought in a shop could also be bought in the street markets – they were the butcher, baker, greengrocer, provision merchant, haberdasher, tailor and furnisher of the working-class city. Street markets sat uncomfortably on the edge of the law, barely tolerated by authorities that did not quite know whether to admire them for their efficient circulation of goods or despise them for their unregulated, ‘low’ character. They were the first recourse of immigrants looking to earn a living, and of privileged observers seeking a voyeuristic glimpse of street life.

‘Saturday Night in the East End’, Good Words magazine, November 1868

I came to the street markets through the many references to them in social exploration accounts and autobiographies. They have often been overlooked in historical analysis, viewed as anomalous among the sophisticated consumer institutions of the modern city. Cheap Street shows how they spread and flourished in the interstices of urban life, adapting nimbly to urban growth and consumer modernity. In contrast to London’s authorised markets (Covent Garden, Billingsgate etc), the street markets’ legal status was precarious and they functioned outside more ordered and regulated institutions of exchange and the bureaucratic processes that documented them—in other words, they were informal. I use informality to lead my analysis of the market’s sites, the things sold, and the people who did the buying and selling, and I follow the markets’ people onto the stage, where performed representations of costermongers propagated myths about London and Londoners.

Early in the process of drafting the book I met the term ‘cabbage’, used in dressmaking to describe the scraps remaining when garment pieces are cut from a length of cloth. As my research and writing process involves lots of snipping (research, write, trim, repeat) I adopted the word to denote fragments of text and ideas pared away as I shaped each chapter around the essentials of my argument. I kept these fragments—stubs of ideas that might (perhaps?) have a future use—and as the draft developed I found that I had a file for each chapter and another containing each chapter’s ‘cabbage’. The term appealed to me for its parallels with the actual cabbage leaves left behind by the notoriously messy street markets.

I think this experience is a common one for historians: the standard 80–90,000 word academic monograph requires focus, and it’s probably a good thing that we are made to edit out the side-stories and tangents that are not quite central to the argument, and the proliferating examples of similar evidence. Yet these fragments remain precious, so here is a list of some of my literary out-takes, things I would like to have included, but didn’t manage to integrate or accommodate—my ‘cabbage’.

1) I filled many pages with the voices of the markets’ people, but numerous quotes went in only to be taken out again, so here to make amends are three, from a journalistic observer, a buyer and a seller (the last, fittingly, a costermonger selling cabbages):

‘With your stall-holder every sale is an occasion for an outburst, and a hoop-la! of delight. He rejoices at his business, and tells the street about it; where your shopkeeper goes about his trading darkly, with hushed voice.’

‘The stalls would be lit with naphtha flame lamps, the shops by naked gas jets. The noise was deafening with each stall holder and shopkeeper bellowing to the crowd . . . and the itinerant hawkers cried about their wares.’

‘If I lay out 7s. in a nice lot of cabbages, I may sell them for 10s. 6d., or if it isn’t a lucky day with me for 8s., or less. Sometimes people won’t buy, as if the cholera was in the cabbages.’

London street market, c.1900 (lantern slide, author’s own collection)

2) I planned an appendix containing a definitive list of London’s street markets for the nine-decade period of my study. Early attempts were confounded by mismatches between key source lists and unexpected discoveries of markets not even mentioned in these ostensibly reliable documents. I realised that the informal nature of the markets fosters documentary inconsistency, and while I could confidently manage a solid overview of their numbers and growth, an exhaustive list correct in every particular was beyond my scope or my sanity.

3) I would have loved to get to grips with the back slang which was associated with the costermongers, in which, according to social observer Henry Mayhew, ‘cool the namesclop’ meant ‘look at the policeman’ and ‘on doog’ was ‘no good’. I reluctantly decided that this was a subject for a linguist and not one I could do justice to.

4) Likewise I sacrificed a planned chapter on market streets as described in the sensation journalism that was a corollary of Victorian sensation fiction. Senses (the markets’ appeal to/assault upon the eye, ear and nose) get plenty of attention in the final draft, as do journalistic accounts, but sensation slipped away so that a literary analysis of ‘sensation accounts of street markets on a Saturday night’ was abandoned.

5) I spent quite some time on an account of the 1867 Clerkenwell Explosion, when Fenian terrorists used a costermonger’s barrow to transport a barrel of gunpowder which they exploded against the walls of Clerkenwell prison, killing several people. The barrow was featured prominently in newspaper illustrations: did this have any effect on the public reputation of the costermongers, many of whom were Irish or of Irish descent? This will have to wait for a future article.

6) As will a detailed account of the extent to which street stalls complied with or defied developing legislation on food hygiene and public health. Rhetorical description of dirt and mess features heavily in many sources, and I would have liked to dig deeper into the real and symbolic implications of the markets’ leftovers—including their discarded cabbage leaves—but this too will have to wait, for further cycles of research, write, trim.


Cheap Street: London’s Street Markets and the Culture of Informality, c. 1850-1939
is published by Manchester University Press

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About the author: Victoria Kelley is Director of Research and Education at University for the Creative Arts. When she is not wrestling with REF, she sometimes finds time to research in the history of design and material culture, with a particular interest in the material culture of the urban working classes in Britain from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. Recently her research has focused on London’s street markets, but previous work includes books, chapters and articles on cleanliness and dirt, the hidden work of the domestic interior, and the surfaces of objects as the site of material interactions of wear, maintenance, anxiety and delight.

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