‘Even common thieves preferred to prey on shop owners rather than costers, who were inclined to dispense street justice.’
Queen Victoria’s reign was the costermongers heyday, even though the word had been coined in the early sixteenth century. Costers were far from wealthy; there were between thirty and forty thousand of them, quite a large number in London, which was under two and a half million.
There was no mystery about what costers did; they bought fruit and vegetables wholesale and sold them retail. Strictly they were hawkers since only a minority had fixed stalls or standings. Others cried out their goods as they walked the streets with barrows and donkey carts. In the 1840s they accounted for ten percent of the cheaper produce sold in Covent Garden’s wholesale market, and a good third of Billingsgate’s fish.
Costermongers earnings averaged eight shillings a week. Saturday night and Sunday morning were their busiest. Men were paid on Saturday evening, while Sunday’s dinner had still to be bought. Three wet days in a row brought the costers close to starvation. The trade itself was highly seasonal, and January and February were their starvation months.
There were just over thirty big street markets in London where costers lived together in courtyards and alleyways. Home for a family was almost invariably a single small room. Yet, costers lived most of their lives on the streets; breakfast might be bread and butter at a coffee stall and lunch a pie from a passing pie man. Typically, a coster spent half his earnings on beer.
For many costers, gambling was common. Mostly they gambled in the beer shops, cards, three up (a game played by tossing three coins up in the air). They also boxed for beer and side bets. Bouts were short since the winner was the man who first drew blood.
In those days marriage was uncommon in the coster community; ninety percent just lived together. Men were free to do what they pleased, but women were expected to be faithful and could be beaten up for even talking to the wrong man.
They even had had their own dress code. In the late 1840s, they wore long waistcoats of sandy corduroy with brass buttons or buttons stamped with a fox or stag’s head. Mother of pearl set off the darker ones. Trousers were of corduroy, too, and bell-bottomed. Boots often had motifs of roses, hearts, and thistles. Neckerchiefs called king’s men were of green silk or red and blue.
In the 1880s, a man by the name of Henry Croft who had long admired the costers way of life and their showiness and panache smothered his worn-out suit and accessories with pearly buttons arranged in geometric patterns. Costermongers soon recognised that the public loved these shimmering outfits and began wearing more heavily decorated outfits and soon became known as the Pearly Kings and Queens.
Costers developed their own culture and in the costermonger community you could be elected as pearly kings and queens to keep the peace between rival costers. However, crimes such as theft were rare among costers, especially in an open market where they looked out for one another. Even common thieves preferred to prey on shop owners rather than costers, who were inclined to dispense street justice.
Costers also developed their own linguistic forms. In the 1800s, they spoke back slang; in which ordinary words are said backwards. They included yob for boy; ecslop for police; elbat for table and yennep for penny. Back slang was used as a secret language, a code which only other costers understood.
The costers distrusted all authority, be it banks, the law, or government. They also hated the police and would ambush them whenever they could, pelting them with bricks and stones. Cheating was widespread. They flattened weights to make them look bigger and heavier; measures were fitted with thick or false bottoms so that a quart measuring pot might hold only a pint and a half.
Half the coster population were coster born and bred. Girls could start work at six years old selling watercress in the day, nuts in the pubs at night. Boys of seven joined their fathers, often supplying a treble voice for the street cries as adults were usually hoarse from shouting. Very few went even to the cheap Ragged Schools. Two to three thousand costers were probably Irish, driven out of Ireland by the recent Famine. Twelve thousand or so were people down on their luck: labourers, mechanics, inn servants, greengrocers’ assistants. These late-comers fared poorly, generally being middle-aged and unversed in all the dodges.
The costers number declined in the second half of the 20th-century when they took up pitches in the regulated markets. But still today, both locals and tourists continue to flock to London’s street markets. Nowadays, there’s a vast range of markets across London, from farmers’ markets, fashion markets, street food and vintage and antique markets.
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