H is for Hawker

‘Napoleon called us “a nation of shopkeepers.” The remark would have been infinitely more degrading if he had called us a nation of hawkers, but certainly quite as true, for there is not one portion or spot of this island but is overrun with them.’[1]


The Coster-Girl

Throughout the nineteenth-century, hawkers, street-sellers and costermongers were a common sight in towns and villages throughout Great Britain. In London the streets were filled with stalls, barrows and women and children carrying baskets selling items as diverse as cat meat, second-hand clothing and coffee.  Hawkers and costermongers were as much a part of life as Tesco and Sainsburys are today. The number of people involved in hawking was extremely high;  in the years 1849-1851 Henry Mayhew estimated that there were between 30,000-40,000 relying for their income on street selling, an occupation which frequently involved the entire family, from the eldest to very young children. He calculated these figures by first acquiring figures relating to the amount of street sellers frequenting the major fruit, vegetable and meat markets in the capital per day, and then:

‘a survey was made as to the number of stalls in the streets of London – forty-six miles of the principal thorough fares were travelled over, and an account taken of the “standings”. Thus it was found that there were upon an average upwards of fourteen stalls to the mile, of which five-sixths were fish and fruit stalls. Now, according to the Metropolitan Police Returns, there are 2,000 miles of street throughout London, and calculating that the stalls through the whole of the metropolis run upon an average only four to the mile, we shall thus find that there are 8,000 stalls altogether in London… I am informed, on the best authority, that twice as many costers ‘go rounds’ as have standings; hence we come to the conclusion that there are 18,000 itinerant and stationary street sellers… in the metropolis; and reckoning the same proportion of wives and children as before, we have thus 45,000 men, women and children obtaining a living in this manner.’[2]

Of these, a significant number were registered hawkers, each paying up to £2 a year (by the late nineteenth century) for their licence – but it is thought that a large minority were unlicenced, casual sellers, working illegally and constantly in fear of the police.


Mayhew interviews a number of hawkers and through this we have a window into their lives, what caused them to resort to making a living this way, and we see a way of live that is perhaps surprising to us with our modern notions of Victorian propriety, for Mayhew’s investigations bring to light the fact that very few couples who made their living as costermongers were married.

‘The costermongers, taken as a body, entertain the most imperfect idea of the sanctity of marriage. To their undeveloped minds it merely consists in the fact of a man and woman living together, and sharing the gains they may each earn by selling in the street. The father and mother of the girl look upon it as a convenient means of shifting the support of their child over to another’s exertions; and so thoroughly do they believe this to be the end and aim of matrimony, that the expense of a church ceremony is considered as a useless waste of money, and the new pair are received by their companions as cordially as if every form of law and religion had been complied with.’[3]

Mayhew suggests that only a small proportion of hawkers and costermongers were married in the legal sense, however, in their society this, he argues, was the norm. During an interview with an eighteen year old girl working the streets as an apple seller, she told him, ‘I dare say there ain’t ten out of a hundred gals what’s living with men, what’s been married Church of England fashion.’[4]


The women most certainly don’t appear from the records to have had an easy life – he discusses how the men would beat their wives and children for any minor misdemeanour, including talking to another man, or not bringing home enough money, their working day running from four or five in the morning, often until very late at night.  Income was sparse and unreliable, and the children working from the age of seven, alone on the streets, could make the difference between the family surviving, or being forced to enter the workhouse. ‘The gals begins working very early in our work; the parents makes them go out when a’most babies. There’s a little gal, I’m sure she an’t more than half-past seven, that stands selling water-cresses next my stall, and mother was saying, “Only look there, how that little one has to get her living afore she a’most knows what a penn’orth means.”’[5] 


Alongside the forcing of children to work the streets there is, in pamphlets, and in Mayhew’s work, the insinuation that a number of girls apparently working as hawkers were, in fact, working primarily as prostitutes.  In 1858 Felix Folio discussed how, ‘prostitution is also carried on, in our large manufacturing towns, under the cloak of hawking. Good looking young girls, coquettishly dressed, carry a basket of fruit, generally oranges, when in season, and call at public-house and other places during the day, and at night they visit the vicinities of theatres and casinoes.’[6] Flower-sellers were also notorious, particularly in London, for being associated with prostitution. Mayhew interviewed a nineteen year old girl who had been in and out of prison since she was thirteen and who’s father would refuse to feed her unless she bought home ‘a good bit of money’. She admitted that she had fallen in with a group of ‘loose’ flower sellers, and she supposed that her parents were well aware of how she made her income. Certainly flower selling was still involved, but she was a prostitute rather than purely a street-seller.  Of course, we cannot and should not assume that all hawkers and costermongers were criminals or that all of the girls were prostitutes – far from it. Many were decent people trying to make a living, some very successfully, but the under-classes, those who had no regular employment and lived hand to mouth, day to day, would see street-selling as a way to gain some type of income, no matter how small, needing no skill or training unlike so many of the other occupations open to women.


At the end of the nineteenth century the Women’s Industrial Council again looked at the problem of hawking, and the reasons why women took to the streets with their barrows and baskets, and their interviews with a number of women of different ages, with different incomes, highlights the problems faced, and the dire wages hawkers could hope to bring home. One, a widow with five children, only two of them in work, sold in the streets from 10-1 daily, buying fresh goods in the afternoon and mending and cleaning them which would suggest that she was dealing in second-hand goods, possibly clothing; she stated that most days she earned nothing at all. A second woman who gave her age as between 40 and 50 years, and was a mother of seven children, six of whom were still in school, had spent her whole life as a fish hawker, her husband and her son both being involved in the family trade. Her story shows how precarious hawking could be in that some weeks the family would make £1, whilst others they would lose £1. Another married woman typified those who had fallen on hard times and been forced to take to the streets to sell. Her husband who had held down a steady job through much of their marriage had been made redundant and, there being no further work available, had set up a barrow which she helped to run. Similarly a young widow found herself in a position where she was forced to work the streets selling flowers to make ends meet – however, this was no longer possible, her wages were dropping quickly as her customers bought seeds and grew their own flowers, and she was frequently bringing home less than 6d a day – totally insufficient for a widow with two small children.[7]


Hawking was, for many, what might be considered a fluid occupation. Some were born to it, raised from very young (there is evidence that babies were suckled while their mothers manned the barrow) to work the streets, but for others it was a last resort – a way of making a few pence that might make the difference between paying the rent and putting bread on the table (literally bread – many of the interviews show that anything else was a rare treat) and having to enter the workhouse. At its best, when sales were high, it was possible to make a decent living, particularly for the ‘professional’ hawker, and the women involved seemed pleased with their lot and proud of their work. When times were tough, however, it was a thankless task, dodging the local police, frequently not having enough income to purchase more stock, and, if Mayhew is to be believed, being beaten senseless by an angry partner on a regular basis.



[1] Felix Folio, ‘The hawkers and street dealers of Manchester and the North of England manufacturing districts generally… being some account of their dealings, dodings and doings’, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection, 1858.

[2] H.Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, (Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Ware, 2008), p. 9

[3] Mayhew, p. 56

[4] Mayhew, p. 62

[5] Mayhew, p. 61

[6] Folio , ‘The hawkers and street dealers of Manchester and the North of England manufacturing districts generally… being some account of their dealings, dodings and doings’, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection, 1858. p.32

[7] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), pp. 48-51

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