When we think of flower sellers, we often think of Eliza Doolittle, the flower seller in Covent Garden who went from rags to riches thanks to the attentions of Professor Higgins. Hers was of course just a story, but her trade was common, although her rise out of poverty was hardly in any way the norm. Flower sellers were common on the streets of London and are one of the occupations about which contemporary writers have left us a great deal of information – we are able to visit their homes, know some of their names, see the hardships they faced, know their banter, and get a chance to look behind the common thought that many were prostitutes. That this was the case is beyond doubt – there are many recorded cases, but in this post I want to focus on the women working to support their families and the hardships they faced.
The censuses reveal that most of the flower sellers were married women and widows ranging from older teens to women in their fifties, single women, mostly enumerated as ‘daughter’ are far fewer and make up a very small percentage of the total. We can see the occasional ‘flower girl’ – children put out onto the streets to sell flowers in order to help with the family income, but they are few and far between, many appearing in the sources work to help their mothers as in the case of a Mrs B who, Clementina Black records, performed all sorts of casual jobs – she would char, do laundry for neighbours, she was able to sew and made dresses, and was also a flower seller on Saturdays. Black records how Mrs B was married at 17, by the age of 32 she had six children still living and five who had died ‘two in one week of consumption’. (Black, Married Women’s Work, p.88) She was married to a consumptive rag and bone man who, through his illness, was unable to earn more than a pittance. Black writes that the family lived in a basement flat of 3 rooms, one of which they sublet, but the rooms were dark and damp – added to the fact that the husband was an obvious danger to his family (two children already having died of consumption – the other three of convulsions) Black lamented the state in which this woman and her children found themselves. Their eldest daughter, a girl of 14 would watch the younger children during the week, but on Saturdays went out with her mother flower selling.
A similar situation – also described by Black, was that of a woman who had been an artificial flower maker – both before her marriage, and when her husband fell out of regular work, but she could not earn more than 10d a day. A family used to living on a relatively decent income of 32s a week, was thrown into poverty when the husband was dismissed as a cost cutting measure by his firm. He took to the streets, and needed a helper she began to work with him selling flowers.
Flower sellers didn’t just sell cut flowers, which had to be sourced at dawn, taken home, made up into bunches and then taken out onto the streets to sell – they also sold pot plants, ‘roots’, seeds, there was a hierarchy within the occupation as described by Mayhew (London Labour and the London Poor; 1851, 1861-2; Henry Mayhew)
‘The street-sellers of whom I have now to treat comprise those who deal in trees and shrubs, in flowers (whether in pots, or merely with soil attached to the roots, or cut from the plant as it grows in the garden), and in seeds and branches (as of holly, mistletoe, ivy, yew, laurel, palm, lilac, and may). The “root-sellers” (as the dealers in flowers in pots are mostly called) rank, when in a prosperous business, with the highest “aristocracy” of the streetgreengrocers. The condition of a portion of them, may be characterised by a term which is readily understood as “comfortable,” that is to say, comparatively comfortable, when the circumstances of other street-sellers are considered. I may here remark, that though there are a great number of Scotchmen connected with horticultural labour in England, but more in the provincial than the metropolitan districts, there is not one Scotchman concerned in the metropolitan street-sale of flowers; nor, indeed, as I have good reason to believe, is there a single Scotchman earning his bread as a costermonger in London. A non-commissioned officer in an infantry regiment, a Scotchman, whom I met with a few months back, in the course of my inquiries concerning street musicians, told me that he thought any of his young countrymen, if hard pushed “to get a crust,” would enlist, rather than resort, even under favourable circumstances, to any kind of street-sale in London.
The dealers in trees and shrubs are the same as the root-sellers.
The same may be said, but with some few exceptions, of the seed-sellers.
The street-trade in holly, mistletoe, and all kinds of evergreens known as “Christmas,” is in the hands of the coster boys more than the men, while the trade in may, &c., is almost altogether confined to these lads.
The root-sellers do not reside in any particular localities, but there are more of them living in the outskirts than in the thickly populated streets.
The street-sellers of cut flowers present characteristics peculiarly their own. This trade is mostly in the hands of girls, who are of two classes. This traffic ranks with the street sale of water-cresses and congreves, that is to say, among the lowest grades of the street-trade, being pursued only by the very poor, or the very young.’
Two Orphaned Flower Girls
Mayhew’s investigation focused on the flower girls – the children aged under 20 who walked the streets selling flowers, mostly sent out by their parents, but in some cases through the necessity to make ends meet having been orphaned. One of the most poignant of Mayhew’s tales involves that of two orphaned flower girls, in this he describes in depth the room they were living in, their clothing, their work, and the amazing strength of the elder sister in ensuring her siblings had a rudimentary education and a roof over their heads – their story is both beautiful and tragic – rather than paraphrase it seems better to use Mayhew’s own words:
“Of these girls the elder was fifteen and the younger eleven. Both were clad in old, but not torn, dark print frocks, hanging so closely, and yet so loosely, about them as to show the deficiency of under-clothing; they wore old broken black chip bonnets. The older sister (or rather half-sister) had a pair of old worn-out shoes on her feet, the younger was barefoot, but trotted along, in a gait at once quick and feeble -as if the soles of her little feet were impervious, like horn, to the roughness of the road. The elder girl has a modest expression of countenance, with no pretensions to prettiness except in having tolerably good eyes. Her complexion was somewhat muddy, and her features somewhat pinched. The younger child had a round, chubby, and even rosy face, and quite a healthful look. Her portrait is here given.
They lived in one of the streets near Drury lane. They were inmates of a house, not let out as a lodging-house, in separate beds, but in rooms, and inhabited by street-sellers and street-labourers. The room they occupied was large, and one dim candle lighted it so insufficiently that it seemed to exaggerate the dimensions. The walls were bare and discoloured with damp. The furniture consisted of a crazy table and a few chairs, and in the centre of the room was an old four-post bedstead of the larger size. This bed was occupied nightly by the two sisters and their brother, a lad just turned thirteen. In a sort of recess in a corner of the room was the decency of an old curtain – or something equivalent, for I could hardly see in the dimness -and behind this was, I presume, the bed of the married couple. The three children paid 2s. a week for the room, the tenant an Irishman out of work paying 2s. 9d., but the furniture was his, and his wife aided the children in their trifle of washing, mended their clothes, where such a thing was possible, and such like. The husband was absent at the time of my visit, but the wife seemed of a better stamp, judging by her appearance, and by her refraining from any direct, or even indirect, way of begging, as well as from the “Glory be to Gods!” “the heavens be your honour’s bed!” or “it’s the thruth I’m telling of you sir,” that I so frequently meet with on similar visits.
The elder girl said, in an English accent, not at all garrulously, but merely in answer to my questions: “I sell flowers, sir; we live almost on flowers when they are to be got. I sell, and so does my sister, all kinds, but it’s very little use offering any that’s not sweet. I think it’s the sweetness as sells them. I sell primroses, when they’re in, and violets, and wall-flowers, and stocks, and roses of different sorts, and pinks, and carnations, and mixed flowers, and lilies of the valley, and green lavender, and mignonette (but that I do very seldom), and violets again at this time of the year, for we get them both in spring and winter.” [They are forced in hot-houses for winter sale, I may remark.] “The best sale of all is, I think, moss-roses, young moss-roses. We do best of all on them. Primroses are good, for people say: `Well, here’s spring again to a certainty.’ Gentlemen are our best customers. I’ve heard that they buy flowers to give to the ladies. Ladies have sometimes said: `A penny, my poor girl, here’s three-halfpence for the bunch.’ Or they’ve given me the price of two bunches for one; so have gentlemen. I never had a rude word said to me by a gentleman in my life. No, sir, neither lady nor gentleman ever gave me 6d. for a bunch of flowers. I never had a sixpence given to me in my life -never. I never go among boys, I know nobody but my brother. My father was a tradesman in Mitchelstown, in the County Cork. I don’t know what sort of a tradesman he was. I never saw him. He was a tradesman I’ve been told. I was born in London. Mother was a chairwoman, and lived very well. None of us ever saw a father.” [It was evident that they were illegitimate children, but the landlady had never seen the mother, and could give me no information.] “We don’t know anything about our fathers. We were all `mother’s children.’ Mother died seven years ago last Guy Faux day. I’ve got myself, and my brother and sister a bit of bread ever since, and never had any help but from the neighbours. I never troubled the parish. O, yes, sir, the neighbours is all poor people, very poor, some of them. We’ve lived with her” (indicating her landlady by a gesture) “these two years, and off and on before that. I can’t say how long.” “Well, I don’t know exactly,” said the landlady, “but I’ve had them with me almost all the time, for four years, as near as I can recollect; perhaps more. I’ve moved three times, and they always followed me.” In answer to my inquiries the landlady assured me that these two poor girls, were never out of doors all the time she had known them after six at night. “We’ve always good health. We can all read.” [Here the three somewhat insisted upon proving to me their proficiency in reading, and having produced a Roman Catholic book, the “Garden of Heaven,” they read very well.] “I put myself,” continued the girl, “and I put my brother and sister to a Roman Catholic school -and to Ragged schools -but I could read before mother died. My brother can write, and I pray to God that he’ll do well with it. I buy my flowers at Covent Garden; sometimes, but very seldom, at Farringdon. I pay 1s. for a dozen bunches, whatever flowers are in. Out of every two bunches I can make three, at 1d. a piece. Sometimes one or two over in the dozen, but not so often as I would like. We make the bunches up ourselves. We get the rush to tie them with for nothing. We put their own leaves round these violets (she produced a bunch). The paper for a dozen costs a penny; sometimes only a halfpenny. The two of us doesn’t make less than 6d. a day, unless it’s very ill luck. But religion teaches us that God will support us, and if we make less we say nothing. We do better on oranges in March or April, I think it is, than on flowers. Oranges keep better than flowers you see, sir. We make 1s. a day, and 9d. a day, on oranges, the two of us. I wish they was in all the year. I generally go St. John’s-wood way, and Hampstead and Highgate way with my flowers. I can get them nearly all the year, but oranges is better liked than flowers, I think. I always keep 1s. stockmoney, if I can. If it’s bad weather, so bad that we can’t sell flowers at all, and so if we’ve had to spend our stock-money for a bit of bread, she (the landlady) lends us 1s., if she has one, or she borrows one of a neighbour, if she hasn’t, of if the neighbours hasn’t it, she borrows it at a dolly-shop” (the illegal pawnshop). “There’s 2d. a week to pay for 1s. at a dolly, and perhaps an old rug left for it; if it’s very hard weather, the rug must be taken at night time, or we are starved with the cold. It sometimes has to be put into the dolly again next morning, and then there’s 2d. to pay for it for the day. We’ve had a frock in for 6d., and that’s a penny a week, and the same for a day. We never pawned anything; we have nothing they would take in at the pawnshop. We live on bread and tea, and sometimes a fresh herring of a night. Sometimes we don’t eat a bit all day when we’re out; sometimes we take a bit of bread with us, or buy a bit. My sister can’t eat taturs; they sicken her. I don’t know what emigrating means.” [I informed her and she continued]: “No, sir, I wouldn’t like to emigrate and leave brother and sister. If they went with me I don’t think I should like it, not among strangers. I think our living costs us 2s. a week for the two of us; the rest goes in rent. That’s all we make.”
Not all of the flower sellers were female – and not all flower sellers only sold flowers as seen in the story of the orphaned sisters – they could turn their hand to selling anything, but regularly would fall back on the customary costermonger produce of oranges and apples where necessary. Another story, this time given to us by Charles Manby Smith (Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis – 1853) is of a buttercup seller at Coventy Garden – an eldery man – Manby Smith states that he appeared to be well over 70 years of age. He was puzzled by this – why would someone sell buttercups, a flower that grows in such profusion just outside of the city that anybody could collect – he felt that the old man must be in his dotage to try to sell something so unsellable. He continued on his way but pondered again over the buttercup seller and came to a profound (in the way only a true Victorian can) realisation that the man was a ‘practical philospoher’.
“Buttercups!” I again mentally ejaculated, “what are the associations connected with them, and what are the images they present to the Londoner pent up in the murky wilderness of brick? Is not the buttercup the first flower plucked by infant hands from the green bosom of bountiful mother earth? Are not the sweet memories of infancy and childhood, which are the purest poetry of man’s troubled life, all floating magically in its little golden cup? Who does not remember-and who, remembering, would willingly forget?- his first ecstatic rambles in the yellow fields – yellow with buttercups, when he pulled the nodding flowers, and held the gleaming calyx beneath his little sister’s chin, enraptured at the ruddy reflection from the flower; and then, with look demure and solemn, submitted his own face to the same mysterious experiment? Who does not remember the ravage he committed in the golden meadows, while he was yet a tottering plaything hardly higher than the tall grass in which he was half-buried, when, had he had but the power, he would have culled every flower of the field, and garnered them up for treasures? And how many thousands and tens of thousands are there among the weary workers of London, to whom these associations are dearer by far than any which could be called into existence by the most rare and gorgeous products of combined art and nature which wealth could procure?
Simpleton that I was – I had set down a profound practical philosopher for a mere dotard. The old man knew the secrets of the human heart better than I did. He was well aware that to the industrious country-bred mechanic, caged, perhaps for life, in the stony prison of the metropolis, the simple flower which brought once more within his dark and smoky dwelling the scenes and memories of infancy, would present attractions to which a penny would be light indeed in the balance; and that he should therefore find patrons and purchasers, as long as he could meet with men who had hearts in their bosoms and a few penny-pieces in their pockets.’
When Manby Smith returned to the buttercup seller he had only one bunch left and we are left guessing as to whether he bought that last bunch or not. This elderly man went every morning to the outskirts of the city to collect his buttercups – bought them back, made them into bunches and sold them on the edge of the market. Unfortunately we know nothing more of him, who he was, how he lived, but that he managed to find that niche in the market, selling half a hundredweight of buttercups at a penny a bunch by 7am, outselling the hothouse flowers and pretty bouquets suggests that he hopefully made at least enough to lodge and eat.
Corduroy and the Covent Garden Flower Women
In 1877 the flower trade was still central to street selling life, and would remain so for many years. J Thomson and Adolphe Smith describe how the best flowers were sold by auction to the wealthier patrons for use in ballrooms, theatres, and to grace the homes of the wealthy – the poor flower sellers were left to pay over the odds for the remnants, the flowers that were damaged and wilting, which they used wires and paper to package into the posies they sold. Thomson and Smith chose to focus their account on a group of flower sellers who frequented the Tuscan pillars Inigo Jones designed for the church of St Paul (Covent Garden – which was destroyed by fire in 1795) accompanied by photo:
Here we can see the flower sellers and to their right Corduroy – again, Thomson and Smith’s words can evoke the scene and the situation far more eloquently than a paraphrase:
Many an interesting story is attached to this celebrated spot, honoured by the daily presence and preference of some of the brightest lights of genius England has ever produced; but it is not my purpose to trace the history of the market. I have to deal rather with the group of women who may be seen daily standing by those ugly Tuscan pillars which Inigo Jones designed to ornament the church of St. Paul. Fire, it is true, destroyed the building in 1795, but the design unfortunately remained, and it was rebuilt after the old model. The flower-women seem to follow a somewhat similar policy. When death takes one of the group away, a child has generally been reared to follow in her parents’ footsteps; and the “beat in front of the church is not merely the property of its present owners, it has been inherited from previous generations of flower-women. Now and then a stranger makes her appearance, probably during the most profitable season, but as a rule the same women may be seen standing on the spot from year’s end to year’s end, and the personages of the photograph are well known to nearly all who are connected with the market. By the side of the flower-women may be noted a familiar character, of whom it may truly be said “the tailor makes the man:” for this individual is named not after his family but after his clothes. “Corduroy” generally refused to give his real name, and at last it was conjectured that some mystery overhung his birth. I have, however, only been able to ascertain that he worked for many years in the brickfields; and, on his health giving way, came to the market in search of any little “job” that might bring him a few pence. In the early morning he stood and watched over the costermongers’ barrows, while they attended the sales; in the day-time he was assiduous in opening carriage doors, and gallantly held out his arm to prevent ladies’ dresses brushing the wheels; while the evening found him loitering about in the vicinity of public-houses always in quest of a “treat” or of “pence.” He is now, however, missing; and, as he suffered severely from asthma, it is supposed that he has sought shelter from the inclement weather in the workhouse infirmary.
His friends and associates, the flower-women, are also greatly dependent on the weather, for it not only influences the price of the flowers, but the wet reduces the number of loiterers who are their best customers. Their income therefore varies considerably according to the season. In the summer months, more than a pound net profits have been cleared in a week; but in bad weather these women have often returned home with less than a shilling as the result of twelve hours exposure to the rain. They arrive at the market before the break of day, and are still faithful to their post late in the afternoon. Those who have children teach them to take their places during the less busy hours, and thus obtain a little relaxation; but at best the life is a hard one, which is the more painful as the women are generally entirely dependent on their own exertion for their existence. The flower vendor, for instance, standing beside “Corduroy,” has to provide not only for herself, but for an invalid husband, who, when at his best, can only help her to prepare the nosegays and button flowers. She boasts, however, that in this art he excels all competitors, and certainly we have noticed many customers give preference to her flowers. Her son brings his share of grist to the mill by earning pence as an “independent boot-black.”
It would appear that the stories of these men and women are a story, as in so many cases that we’ll consider in different posts, of a fight to survive in an unforgiving world – a tenacity which, in different circumstances and a different time would have enabled them to make a success of themselves – which, even in the world in which they lived, in a way they were.