Book review: Street Food – Hawkers and the History of London by Charlie Taverner

Book review: Street Food – Hawkers and the History of London by Charlie Taverner

Street food sellers, hawkers, costermongers – familiar in the capital well into the 20th Century, affectionately caricatured in the popular prints and ballads known as the Cries of London, yet just as often marginalised as a desperate and sometimes dangerous underclass.

By contrast, Charlie Taverner’s engaging Street Food: Hawkers and the History of London puts street sellers at the centre of his narrative, convincingly arguing for their position at the “core of the city’s food system” over some three centuries.

Taverner amasses fascinating street-level detail and anecdote from contemporary court and prison records, local authority archives and parliamentary reports to present a rich picture of the hawkers’ world – and the wider city – from the 1600s to the early 1900s.

This long view reveals a perhaps surprising continuity: “At its essence, this work changed little from the late sixteenth century, when London’s expansion into a sprawling metropolis had begun to accelerate, until the years leading up to the First World War.”

The capital seemed in some ways to be on two separate tracks. On one level it was growing and modernising at pace, rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1666, adding paving and lighting streets and laying railways, including by digging the world’s first underground lines.

At the same time an older London persisted, with a large proportion of the city’s population constituting the working poor – not destitute, more diverse than often portrayed but nonetheless labouring in “unstable, ill-defined and low-skilled jobs” less touched by modernisation.

Street food sellers, far from being the “class apart” described in, for example, Henry Mayhew’s influential mid-19th Century chronicle London Labour and the London Poor, were a significant component of that labour force, relied on by Londoners of all kinds for basic commodities.

In their heyday between 1600 and 1900, Taverner writes, “they brought fresh food to neighbourhoods underserved by the slow-moving infrastructure of markets. They were main carriers of perishables like soft fruit, cheap fish, milk. And they served snacks or meals to those who could not cook at home”.

The trade persisted even as streets were improved and shops began to proliferate, increasingly congregating at street markets – 5,292 stalls in 112 markets in 1893, according to one count – and confirming their status as integral to the city’s retail systems.

There’s a parallel story about regulation and vested interests, with Taverner again revising Mayhew’s conclusion that this ragbag workforce was in “constant warfare” with the state. In reality, he maintains, regulation was restrained and pragmatic.

The beginning of his period of study saw the official markets such as Billingsgate, Smithfield and Covent Garden, along with their authorised middlemen and retailers, fighting to preserve a system inherited from medieval London under which “regrating” – unauthorised reselling at a profit – was illegal.

In 1612 the Guildhall responded, but with a licensing scheme not a ban – a flexible approach recognising that the established markets were struggling to meet growing demand.

A notable clash between street sellers and the privileged retailers of Billingsgate over fair access to stock ended in victory for the hawkers, while licensing proved difficult to enforce and was abandoned by the end of the century.

Meanwhile the trade gained in respectability and became organised. When the Metropolitan Streets Act of 1867 sought to allow goods on the street only for loading and unloading, an immediate protest saw the offending clauses amended within a few months.

There were always concerns about quality or obstructing “free passage” but the shift in attitude over the period is clearly shown in a police report of the early 1900s, which notes that complaints were more often from tradespeople than those “who depend for many of the necessities of life upon the street traders”.

Nevertheless, from the turn of the century trading was increasingly formalised into designated pitches and competition from department stores followed by supermarkets, a declining inner-city population post-World War II and more traffic crowding the streets all contributed to the demise of the trade.

Taverner provides a comprehensive narrative, debunking stereotypes and detailing everything from the tools of the hawkers’ trade, housing conditions and how many cows there were in London in the 1860s (around 20,000), to the famous cries of the street.

He is unsentimental about his subject, while noting that some of the city’s liveliness has inevitably been lost with the effective disappearance of street selling. He’s also gently cynical about the current highly-curated “street food” craze. And there are resonances for contemporary London in the continuing debate about traffic and priorities on the streets, privately-owned “public” spaces, insecure work and the “gig economy”. The city may change, but some old tensions remain.

Street Food: Hawkers and the History of London is published by Oxford University Press. Charlie Taverner will be talking about the book at the Guildhall Library at 2pm on 16 February in person and online and afterwards leading a short walk exploring “hawker hotspots” in the City.

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Categories: Books, Culture

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