Paul Sandby (1730 or 1731-1809) Title page of Twelve London Cries (via Wikimedia Commons)
An unlikely internet sensation of 2012 was the success of Mohammed Shahid Nazir a seller of fish in Queens market, Upton Park in East London. Having been told after his first day on the fish stall that he was not shouting loudly enough, he developed his own sing-song street cry:
- Come on ladies, come on ladies
- One pound fish, one pound fish
- Have-a, have-a look
- One pound fish
- Very, very good, very, very cheap
- One pound fish
- Six for five pound one pound each
Passers by filmed him on their mobile phones and his song went viral, resulting in the TV appearances and a recording contract.
Whether Mohammed was aware of it or not, he was part of a long tradition of London Street sellers, whose distinctive cries were developed for exactly the same reason – to make themselves heard above the din of London’s streets.
We think of pre-industrial streets as being quieter that modern traffic noise, however imagine for a moment the area around London’s main meat market at West Smithfield.
London’s food arrived on the hoof. Cattle, pigs, sheep and flocks of geese were driven in from as far afield as Wales and East Anglia along the drove roads. If they arrived from the west they came in along Oxford Street, from Kent they passed over London Bridge and through the City itself. The area around Smithfield would have been constantly noisy with the bellowing of cattle, the squeals of pigs, the shouts of traders and the sounds of slaughter. Iron shod cart wheels rumbled over uneven cobbled streets and the clatter of horses hooves added to the din. Anyone trying to sell something to make a living had to have some way of standing out from the background noise, and anyone who regularly plied the same streets would want to be recognised as the person you usually dealt with – thus personalised cries would evolve, such as the woman selling fish who cried Rare Mackerel, three a groat or four for sixpence. Incidentally mackerel were far from rare – her cry meant that they were of rare (excellent) quality.
In 2011 the Museum of London ran an exhibition on Images of London’s poor from the 17th to the 19th century and many of the prints displayed can be viewed on line. You can even purchase copies. The eighteenth century was a great age for prints with a huge expansion in their production and the market for them. They could be purchased plain or, for extra cost, hand coloured. Some were relatively literal renderings, others such as those of Hogarth and Rowlandson closer to caricatures.
In the case of street vendors the picture was often accompanied by a caption of the street cry, or perhaps a rhyme such as Old chairs to mend! Old chairs to mend! If I had the money that I could spend, I never would cry Old chairs to mend!
Sometimes a vendor sold more than one kind of item, and the well-dressed young lady who cried Will your honour buy a sweet nosegay or a memorandum book may have plied a different trade for her male customers. Street selling could provide a convenient cover and advertisement for prostitution.
The street cries provide a snapshot of what the eighteenth century housewife might need to buy Do you want any spoons, any hard-mettle spoons; All a growing, a growing, heres Flowers for your Gardens; Buy a trap, a rat-trap, buy my trap and curiously there is an image of a man scooping ‘brick dust’ into a large bowl for a young servant girl, probably for use as an abrasive cleaner cheaper than the silver sand used in some households.
A more romantic view of London street selling was provided in the musical Oliver with the song Who Will Buy? and interest in the nineteenth century was such that books were produced collecting the cries together. You can find reference to several of them here.
I’m not aware of any equivalent collections of Jamaica street cries, but I suspect that just as street markets and street sellers have existed ever since people came together in towns and cities, so Jamaicans must have had, and perhaps still have their own street cries. I’d love to know.