Watercress sellers, sometimes called cress sellers, were in the same class as a costermonger. However, costermongers thought selling watercress was beneath them, so, most watercress sellers were female and either young, old, or suffering with some infirmity. Henry Mayhew, in his multi-volume London Labour and the London Poor, maintained the first sounds of the day were the watercress sellers crying, “Fresh wo-orter-creases.” Because they were out on the streets early, the watercress seller’s first customer of the day was usually the mechanic who dined on the cresses for breakfast and appeared between five and six in the morning.
Watercress was popular because of its peppery and tangy flavor. However, it could easily be eaten or added to salads. Many people preferred to buy watercress in the spring as “they’re reckoned it good for sweetening the blood.” Supposedly, it sweetened the blood because watercress contains large stores of iron, calcium, iodine, folic acid, and vitamins A and C.
Watercress, which is related to mustard and radishes, was introduced in England by an enterprising entrepreneur named William Bradbery. Bradbery’s first crop was grown at Springhead, in Kent, in 1808. One writer noted:
“He [Bradbery] procured young plants, and placed them, with a small proportion of the wet earth in which they grew, in shallow running water; the plants soon formed large tufts; and rapidly spread over the water; and he gathered the cress regularly for the London markets.”
Bradbery claimed there were three varieties of cresses: “The green leaved … the small brown leaved … and the large brown leaved.” Apparently, the three varieties tasted the same, although each had an advantage: the green leaved was the easiest to cultivate; the small brown leaved the hardiest; and, the large browned leaved offered the best appearance, making them the most popular.
Mayhew noted the watercress sellers were some of London’s poorest and “a class so poor … their extreme want alone would almost be an excuse for theft.” Even on the bitterest and coldest days the young watercress sellers could be seen “without shoes and stockings, … their feet quite blue with the cold.” Yet, despite their poverty, Mayhew thought they were among the most honest of people and wrote:
“They can be trusted paying the few pence they owe even though they hunger for it. It must require no little energy of conscience on the part of the lads to make them resist the temptations around them, and refuse the luring advice of the young thieves … And yet they prefer the early rising — the walk to market with naked feet along the cold stones — the pinched meal — and the day’s hard labour to earn the few halfpence.”
The watercress sellers relied on the working classes as their principal customers and sold to working people such as bricklayers, carpenters, smiths, and plumbers. Their busy days and times varied, but most watercress sellers agreed the busiest days were Saturday and Sunday mornings. That was when cries for the cresses rang out between half-past six and about seven o’clock. One watercress seller claimed that in the summer the sellers were thick and noted:
“[Y]ou might bowl balls along their heads, and all fighting for the creases. There’s a regular scramble … to get at ’em … I should think in the spring mornings there’s 400 or 500 … at Farringdon-market all at one time — between four and five in the morning — … and as fast as they keep going out, others keep coming in. I think there is more than a thousand.”
When winter arrived, the Farringdon watercress market started long before daylight appeared. Watercress sellers were stationed at its principal entrance in “an open space, running the entire length of the railing in front, and extending from the iron gates at the entrance to the sheds down the centre of the large paved court before the shops.” It was in this open space that the cresses, having arrived in wicker hampers from the countryside, were cosigned to the sellers or sold. (Note the hampers in the picture of Richard Bradbery above). As daylight burst forth, so did the increase in buyers:
“Every hamper is surrounded by a black crowd, bending over till their heads nearly meet, their foreheads and cheeks lighted up by the candle in the centre. The saleswomen’s voices are heard above the noise of the mob, sharply answering all objections that may be made to the quality of their goods. ‘They’re rather spotty, mum,’ says an Irishman, as he examines one of the leaves. ‘No more spots than a newborn babe, Dennis,’ answers the lady tartly, and then turns to a new comer.”
Before the cresses were sold, they were often tied into bunches, with the unacceptable cresses thrown away. Many watercress girls went to Hatton-garden to wet the cresses at the water pumps. (That was because the cresses became dry from being packed in hampers.) Afterwards, the girls sat on the steps of St. Andrew’s Church and tied them into bunches. One watercress woman stated that during the summer months you could observe “young and old, upwards of a hundred poor things as thick as crows in a ploughed field [bundling and tying up cresses].”
Once tied, watercress girls carried their tasty bunches in one of several ways. Some used an “arm-basket, like a greengrocer’s at their side … [others] a ‘shallow’ in front of them; and plenty of them carr[ied] a small tin tray before them, slung round their neck.” These baskets, shallows, or tin trays were described in the following way:
“tattered and worn … in some shallows the holes … have been laced up or darned together with rope and string, or twigs and split lathes have been fastened across; whilst others are lined with oilcloth, or old pices [sic] of sheet-tin.”
Cresses were also regularly displayed in “an opened hamper, with a candle fixed in the centre of the bright green cresses, and … [shining] through the wicker sides of the basket.” Moreover, customers bought for a penny what one watercress girl called a “market hand,” which was equivalent to what a young girl could carry in her arms without spilling.
Mayhew estimated the amount of watercress sold wholesale in 1851 to be approximately 14,958,000 bunches, with the largest percentage of watercress sold at Farringdon-market. Of the 14,958,000 bunches, approximately 6,480,000 bunches were sold to street sellers with their approximate weekly profit equaling “3s. 3d. per individual.” Other markets where watercress was sold including Covent Garden, Borough, Spitalfields, and Portman. Besides markets, there were other popular spots to sell the cresses. These were principal thoroughfares, “the courts and mews, bye streets … squares and neighbourhoods of the more respectable houses.”
Many of the watercress girls had hard lives. One young seller was 14-year-old Mary Macdonald. Her father was a bricklayer, but his work was so spotty, to survive he sent Mary out to sell cresses. Another watercress seller was Louisa and she was 12. She took to selling cress because her mother also did and because her father died. Another unnamed 8-year-old was interviewed by Mayhew. At the time, the weather was severe and brutally cold. She “was dressed in a thin cotton gown, with a threadbare shawl wrapped round her shoulders. She wore no covering to her head, and the long rusty hair stood out in all directions. When she walked she shuffled … for fear … the large carpet slippers that served her for shoes should slip off her feet.” Despite her scarecrow appearance, however, she claimed “people never pities me in the street.”
There were, however, some people who pitied the watercress sellers. According to Ellen Barlee who wrote an article titled Our London Water-Cress Seller, there were many “missions which, emanating in love to Christ, have established themselves in some of the darkest corners of our city’s confines, and … [act] like beacon-lights amid the vast sea of misery.” One was a fund devised and managed by a Mr. Groom of Clerkenwell and supported by the well-known philanthropist, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who was also a proponent and champion against the employment of climbing boys and young chimney sweeps.
Lord Shaftesbury established the fund in memory of his late wife, whose name the fund bore. It helped watercress sellers survive during the winter months when there was snow and no work. It also gave them an opportunity to establish themselves in a new line of work. Mr. Groom purchased equipment — urns, cups, saucers — and viands — eels, coffee, potatoes — which he then loaned to watercress sellers out-of-work. Over time they repaid the loan, established a thriving business, and “[were] thus launched in a fair way of independence.”
-  Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 1, 1851, p. 150.
-  The New Monthly, Vol. 15, 1825, p. 70.
-  Ibid.
-  Mayhew, Henry, p. 149.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 150.
-  Ibid., p. 145.
-  Ibid., p. 146.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 149.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 146.
-  Ibid., p. 153.
-  Ibid., p. 150.
-  Ibid., p. 151.
-  Ibid.
-  Wood, Mrs. Henry, ed., The Argosy, Vol. 20, 1875, p. 106.
-  Ibid., p. 110.