One of the most prolific jobs in London in the 1800s was a street seller. Among these street sellers were costermongers — people who sold fruits, vegetables, and meats. Costermongers acquired their name from medieval costards — large ribbed pippin apples—and mongers, which means seller. In the 1860s, according to The Dictionary of Victorian London, 30,000 costermongers existed in London alone. Some of them, also nicknamed costers, sold their goods in the street, others had stationary stalls, and still others were itinerant sellers, who traveled in “rounds,” ranging from two to ten miles daily, using a wheelbarrow, a pony-cart, or a donkey-drawn wagon (often referred to as donkey-barrows).
A costermonger’s most profitable times were Saturday and early Sunday morning, as newly paid shoppers wanted to buy Sunday dinner. However, the busiest days for them were Wednesday and Fridays, as fresh fish was available on these days. On popular shopping days a boisterous festival-like atmosphere existed, which was described by Henry Mayhew in his multi-volume, 2,000-page London Labour and the London Poor. Mayhew said it was a tumultuous, “almost bewildering” scene and that the bustling Covent Garden market day was nothing but a “long rows of carts.” He claimed:
“[The carts existed at] each approach to the market … nothing is to be seen, on all sides, but vegetables; … sieves and sacks full of apples and potatoes, and bundles of broccoli and rhubarb … [with roads blocked by] mountains of cabbages and turnips.”
Besides the thousands of costers hoping to sell their goods, there were throngs of market-goers. The costermongers’ deafening and boisterous sing-song chants would rise and fall as one combined shriek that rolled over the other in a fervid attempt to entice market-goers and draw their attention. This continual screeching often resulted in them becoming hoarse or losing their voices, but this did not discourage them nor did it stop their shrieking. In fact, costermongers claimed the more uproar and noise they made, the better their trade. Hoarseness often forced them, to rely on young boys to chant simultaneously because “if … two or three [are] hallooing together, it makes more noise than one and the boys can shout better and louder than the men.” Thus, according to Mayhew, the hallooing chants of young boys and the shrieks of the costers were continual:
“‘Buy a pound crab, cheap’; ‘Pineapples, 1/2d. a slice’; ‘Mussels a penny a quart’; ‘Oysters, a penny a lot’; ‘Salmon alive, 6d. a pound’; ‘Cod alive, 2d a pound’; ‘Real Yarmouth bloaters, 2 a penny’; ‘New herrings alive, 16 a groat’…’Penny a bunch urnips’…’All new nuts, 1d. half-pint’; ‘Oranges, 2 a penny’; All large and alive-O, new sprats, O, 1d. a plate’; ‘Wi-ild Hampshire rabbits, 2 a shilling’; ‘Cherry ripe, 2d. a pound’; ‘Fire ripe plums, 1d. a pint’; ‘Ing-uns, a penny a quart’; ‘Eels, 3 lbs. a shilling—large live eels 3 lbs. a shilling.'”
Besides chanting, costers sometimes used ingenuous methods to draw crowds. For instance, a story retold from 1891 involved a clever costermonger that rigged up an arrangement of cross bars and strings from which he hung a molasses covered, “streaky-coloured halfpenny roll.” Competitors were challenged to take a bite out of the roll with their hands tied behind their backs in the hopes of winning a “pound of shag, or a concertina, or a very ‘nobby’ new hat and coat.” A huge crowd watched and many young men fruitlessly tried, but, according to the reporter, “though I stood there nearly a quarter of an hour only one person succeeded in biting a roll, and he looked remarkably like a confederate who had practised diligently before.”
Despite all the hallooing, chants, and intense competition for customers, costers were not always honest with their customers. One costermonger admitted to Mayhew that he boiled oranges so they would swell and looking bigger and finer. Unfortunately, the oranges were worthless and turned brown within forty-eight hours after purchase. Apples were also manipulated. Cheap ones, known as “gawfs” would be “rubbed hard, to look bright, and feel soft, and … [then] mixed with apples of a superior description.” Even dead eels, not fit for human consumption, would be mixed in with live eels and sold in a proportion of 20 pounds of dead eels to 5 pounds of live ones.
Of all the sights on market day, some of the more interesting involved the coster and his faithful donkey. Mayhew maintained boys were the usual custodians of these stubborn animals and that market-goers were stopped in their tracks “from their number and singularity.” There were “long rows of carts and donkey-barrows [that] seem[ed] interminable,” and Mayhew noted dozing donkeys were harnessed in unimaginable combinations with tape, string, rope, and old chains and that their saddles were just as creative, having been manufactured from old sacks or folded handkerchiefs. The variation of donkey attire was also endless. Some were gaily dressed in “bright brass” and others in suits created from an “old plated-carriage harness, decorated with coronets in all directions.”
A couple of other interesting stories about costers and their donkeys exist. The first occurred in 1898 when an aproned ecclesiastic, who was late for a confirmation, hitched a ride with a costermonger on his donkey-cart. According to the article, even the donkey entered into the humor of the situation, as he “used his four hoofs with such despatch, that his Lordship’s ride through the principal street of the town was like a triumphal procession.” Another story tells of a princess that saw a coster beating his donkey. Expostulations by the princess to stop the mistreatment did not faze the coster, which forced the princess to order her footman to disarm the fellow. The coster was outraged at her actions until he learned she was a royal princess, at which point he fell to his knees, repented of his actions, and promised never to mistreat the animal again.
Mayhew estimated that one in ten costermongers were able to read and that they had their own special language. According to Mayhew, “the root of the costermonger tongue, so to speak, is to give the words spelt backward, or rather pronounced rudely backward.” Some examples of this backwardness are “Cool the esclop,” instead of “Look at the police,” or “Cool ta the dillo nemo,” instead of “Look at the old woman,” and instead of “Be off,” they converted it to “Nommus.” They also used slang, particularly when it related to money. For example, flatch was slang for a halfpenny, yenep was the substitute for a penny, exis-yenep meant a sixpence, leven equaled elevenpence, and yenep-flatch was three half-pence.
Costermongers also tended to assume nicknames and just like Napoleon Bonaparte they had quite a few. According to Mayhew nicknames were common and often had to do with a defect, habit, appearance, dress, or “some remark that ensured costermonger applause.” Some of the more interesting of these nicknames were Spuddy (a seller of bad potatoes), Brassy (because he was a saucy person), Foreigner (a man who had served in the Foreign Legion), Gaffy (a performer at one time), and Cast-iron Poll (having been hit with a pan). Other unusual names, which do not take much imagination to figure out how they acquired them, include Rotten Herrings, Dirty Sall, Dancing Sue, Jawbreaker, and Lushy Bet.
Another interesting fact about the costermongers was their “queen.” In March of 1884 a newspaper published what they called “extraordinary proceedings” and their story was based on the London funeral held for the “Queen of the Costermongers.” The queen was a 71-year-old woman named Mary Robinson, who, it was said, amassed a fortune not only from selling goods but also from lending money to other costermongers — reportedly, borrowers paid her an extra shilling for every pound lent. Her coffin was described as “handsome polished oak, [with] … a brass plate … [and] covered with expensive wreaths and crosses.” The funeral was said to be spectacular and
“[Among the mourners] were … relatives and near friends of the deceased, who followed in the mourning carriages, a great number of pony-carts, donkey-barrows, and cabs, all being overfilled with costermongers, whilst hundreds followed on foot to the Finchley cemetery, where the deceased was buried.”
-  Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, 1865, p. 85.
-  Ibid., p. 55.
-  Ibid., p. 54.
-  “Very Funny to Look At,” in Otago Witness, Issue 1970 26 November 1891, p. 45.
-  Ibid.
-  Mayhew, Henry, Victorian London, on The Dictionary of Victorian London
-  Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, p. 85.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 96.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 25.
-  Ibid., p. 26.
-  “Funeral of the Queen of the Costermongers,” in Daily Telegraph, Issue 3995, 24 March 1884, p. 4.