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Going to Market in Edwardian London


Fruit Auctions at Covent Garden

London goes to market at Covent Garden, the one district which is astir early. Six o’clock is late and at eight the bargain hunters begin to be seen. At ten the garbage is being swept up and picked over by street combers, and before noon this heart of old London is deserted.

The actual area of Covent Garden seems small to encompass the central food supply of the world’s biggest city until one notices that it really trickles through the ramifications of a maze of neighbouring streets. Stalls, push-carts, wagons, costers and their donkeys, and barrows with peddlers of all ranks link up Holborn and the Strand by a livid stream of humanity and its paraphernalia in a most amazing fashion. All the stall owners pay a tax for the privilege of selling produce in London streets hereabouts as a ground rental to the Duke of Bedford, London’s largest landowner. Covent Garden and the surrounding streets are his property, as well as the houses which line them, and the enormous rentals pay a truly royal tribute to the wealthiest of Britain’s peers.

London markets in general are perhaps the dearest in Europe. Continental Europe and North Africa are Britain’s market gardens, though the English housekeeper still clings fondly to the belief that whatever is grown in her own country is the best, the shopkeeper encouraging her in this delusion. The catch phrase in the English shop is, “Best English, ma’am,” though the produce may be asparagus from Provence, little potatoes from Brittany, tomatoes from Algeria or eggs and butter from Denmark and Norway. In spite of all this the English housekeeper will readily pay more for produce grown at home than for that which comes from across the Channel, the North Sea or the Mediterranean. This is not because the quality is actually superior, but because it is home-grown, though this may be prejudice quite as much as patriotism.

Covent Garden market has its chief picturesque element in its costers and their environment. The coster in his velveteens with many rows of “pearlies” heaps up his tiny barrow, drawn by his faithful “moke,” and perambulates green stuff through London’s East End, accompanied by his “Harriet,” the couple forming the typical ‘Arry and ‘Arriet of the comic papers. Like most picturesque survivals, modern life is ironing him down to the flat ugliness of the average London type, and his be-buttoned costume is fast changing into the commonplace garb of the British workingman, though his partner still flaunts her hat of bedraggled plumes, which is always in fashion among her kind. She buys these plumes through a “feather club” by paying a weekly instalment. No more unsuitable feminine head adornment for one of her class could be conceived than an ostrich plume, which, by the very order of things, is most unsuitable for the misty, moisty climate of the banks of London’s river.

The coster barrow-vendor buys cheap stuff to begin with, and sells cheaply too, so that his margin of profit is slight, but he will go hungry before his “moke” will, and he treats the little animal better by far than he does his own family when it comes to distributing favours amongst them.

Weights and measures with the English small shopkeeper are queer and untrustworthy. Not long ago a bitter discussion was carried on through the press on the subject, and the defence of the marketman was not a denial so much as an excuse that he had to make up somewhere for the long credit system that prevails among the clientele of all classes of traders. This made for losses which could not otherwise be met.

The cost of living is a factor here which is being discussed in its higher reaches. A scarcity of food of certain kinds accounts for some of this, an extravagant attitude towards life for more, and the actual conditions of luxury and convenience under which the food supply is purveyed in this twentieth century for much more. The thing is noticeable in England, in Germany, in France and even in Italy. There is no monopoly of this state of affairs in America; all classes all over the world are feeling it, but are doing very little that might really combat it successfully.

In England one buys fowls and fish in the same shop. Ice is a luxury that can often only be had of the fishmonger, and as a favour on the part of that usually high-handed individual. Such a small lump as one may get for a few cents melts into a mere spot of dampness by the time it is delivered and seems hardly worth the while. If one buys anything of an exotic nature in England it costs money. To depend upon a purely British home-market bill of fare, on the other hand, is monotonous, for the supply is exceedingly limited as well as to variety as to quantity.

The American Woman Abroad by Blanche McManus

London’s Fashionable Amusements


High society playing ping pong

The average foreigner who visits London must indeed be of opinion that we take our pleasures sadly. The loneliness which a chance traveller must almost inevitably experience in a great city is proverbial; but if a foreigner be duly armed with letters of introduction to members of fashionable Society he will speedily discover that the pursuit of the business of pleasure is waged more industriously in London than in any other European capital.

He will find every kind of sport ready to his hand. If he is fond of polo, there are clubs where the game is played at Hurlingharn, Ranelagh, and Roehampton. The most beautiful grounds arc those of the Club House —an early Georgian building—at Ranelagh. At Ranelagh, too, there are driving competitions for ladies, horse and dog shows, balloon ascents, meets of stage coaches, and motor-car races. Automobile gymkhanas are arranged, and a band of one of the Guards regiments makes music merry or sentimental the while. Then, if you have no engagement for dinner, or are not obliged to put in an appearance at Covent Garden Opera House, you may dine in the club’s new dining-room, and smoke your cigarette on the lawn afterwards what time the daylight gives place to the mysterious shadows and fragrances of an English twilight.

At Hurlingham the game of croquet flourishes exceedingly. But croquet has become an exact science—almost a duty, instead of a diversion. Yet it is a boon to the occupants of many London houses which have attached to them small gardens. A gardener who will construct a good lawn is never far to seek.

Another form of amusement, this time ostensibly for the benefit of children, is the sailing of model yachts upon the water of the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. Embryo challengers for the America Cup direct their mimic yachts with considerable skill, although the fathers—many of them sea-dogs who have retired from the Service—stand by to assist in cases of emergency. On a fine Sunday morning, when the clouds fly high and there is a brisk breeze blowing, there will be found a crowd of spectators admiring the expert manner in which the smartly dressed children adjust the rudders and sails of their toys so that when the craft is once adrift it shall eventually find a harbour in some part of the pond.

Private theatricals have not at present the vogue which they enjoyed at the end of the nineteenth century. This is because the tendency of the age is all for specialisation, and unless an amateur actor can really act people do not want to be bothered by sitting through a performance which is not efficient. Nevertheless, from time to time entertainments are arranged in private houses by leaders of Society which are often of astonishing excellence. Sometimes a theatrical manager is present, and finds talent of such calibre that he is emboldened to make an offer of a professional engagement. This in many cases has been accepted with successful results. The old-fashioned prejudice against acting or singing as a profession no longer exists. For sweet Charity’s sake tableaux vivants are also arranged, and various funds in connection with the wants of the widows and orphans who have to suffer for the benefit of the Empire have been materially helped by those who have made a fashionable amusement a means of well-doing for others.

During the winter months Prince’s Skating Rink is a favourite rendezvous at tea-time or thereabouts. The artificially manufactured ice on the rink is invariably crowded by skaters; those members who prefer to watch and wait are accommodated with chairs and tables on raised platforms which flank either side of the interior of the building. The cult of the motor-car has had a belated growth in London. The writers who foresaw that, apart from utilitarian reasons, steam or electric traction on the King’s highway was a potential amusement were for a time as voices crying vainly in the wilderness. But London has become converted, and even in Hyde Park the drivers of the automobiles speed merrily on the macadam road which skirts the Row that is sacred to equestrians. Many ladies drive their own machines, whether these latter be of English, French, or American make.

As an amusement “motoring” is incomparable; the mechanism nowadays is so exact that complete control is almost absolutely assured to the driver. But the horse is still with us, despite the prophecies of the quidnuncs, and, although the equipages and horses in Hyde Park cannot compare favourably with those to be seen in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris on a fashionable afternoon, there is a certain quality of solid magnificence which is always impressive.

In the early morning, in Rotten Row on a June day, you may see a Prince of the Royal blood cantering side by side in earnest converse with a Cabinet Minister. Passing them comes a popular actor or a King’s Counsel; a young stockbroker gallops along at full speed, hoping that he shall ride off the effects of a late supper at one of the Society or sporting clubs which he has left but a few hours previously.

In Regent’s Park the game of hockey is very popular. There are several ladies’ clubs, and pupils from fashionable boarding schools and colleges for girls can be seen playing the game with a zest only comparable with that with which a Rugby boy plays football. The sport of archery, which was almost the sole outdoor amusement indulged in by ladies towards the middle of the nineteenth century, is not so popular as it used to be. Nevertheless, the Royal Toxopholite Society holds meetings from time to time in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Regent’s Park, and it is a very picturesque sight on a ladies’ day to watch the fair, up-to-date Amazons drawing the bow, not at a venture, but with nice and exact precision. Some of the shooting is of exceptional merit; the colours of the targets themselves have an Imperial note, which is only fitting when one remembers what a great part the English bow has taken in the formation of our “rough island story.”

Tennis—real tennis, the Royal game, as opposed to lawn tennis and its variants—still has its vogue among those who are able to afford the luxury of membership in the pleasant club, the Queen’s, which is situated in Kensington. Here, watching from the gallery of the building, spectators, guarded from the fearsome effect of blows from the hard ball used by the players by an iron net, may see this glorious game played by enthusiasts in the great spacious court below. At Queen’s, too, members may play rackets—cousin-german of real tennis—-if they be so inclined. Both these games, from the expensive environment which the rules demand, are solely available for the well-to-do strata of Society. Still, they form two facets in the elaborately cut diamond which may be symbolised as London’s fashionable amusements.

Lawn tennis is played in the gardens of houses of the more outlying districts, and wherever space permits. Of indoor games billiards still must be accorded a certain standard of authority. Most large houses contain a billiard room, and nearly all clubs. Fashionable Londoners are whimsical in their adherence to any particular game, and for the moment billiards is somewhat neglected. Nevertheless, every evening you shall see hotly contested games in club or mansion.

In a few houses the billiard table has been sacrificed to a game which bears the sufficiently inane title of “ping-pong.” This is practically lawn tennis played upon a table with a wooden or parchment racket and celluloid balls. It was invented by an Army officer who thought it would be an amusing toy; but the toy soon became a tyrant. “Ping-pong” took the suburbs by storm, and finally even laid successful siege to Belgravia. But the wild enthusiasm with which the game was first greeted cooled after a time, for—as you will notice if you are interested in games—over-proficiency of the few destroys the zeal of the average or amateur many.

Lastly, we come to the all-pervading tyranny of “bridge.” This game, which is a form of whist, has (to use a dear old journalistic phrase) shaken Society to its very foundations. Man, who plays it, cannot resist its fascinations; but Heaven knows the havoc it has wrought among us! This is the average day in the life of a Society woman. At noon a few friends arrive for luncheon—ostensibly. Select parties play bridge until two o’clock, when luncheon is actually served. Bridge again from four to six. Then a drive in the Park, followed by dinner, and—bridge until the small hours of the morning. As a natural corollary—since games of cards are rarely played unless the element of gambling in actual specie enters into the matter—the results of this mania will be apparent to everybody. At clubs the card rooms are filled with quartettes of gamblers; nominal points are exacted by the committees, but this is a matter which is easily evaded by very obvious subterfuge.

For the rest, fashionable London has concerts, theatres, cricket matches, balls and cotillons, and many other of the raree shows of civilisation. The restless, soul-harassing pursuit of pleasure goes merrily apace— or tragically, which you will. The matter is interesting when one realises how limited fashionable amusements were a hundred years ago. Who shall say what they will be a hundred years hence?

Living London v3 (1902)

Charles Booth’s Inquiry of London


Between 1886 and 1902, Charles Booth, a successful businessman and social activist, worked on creating the first real study on the social life of London. Booth wished to discover how many people in London were living in poverty and to expose the problem as a real issue, instead of just an estimate by the politicians of the times, which they used to further their own personal agenda.


(Charles Booth, from

London of the 19th century was a strange mix of poverty and extravagant wealth. By reading Booth’s detailed notes as he walked the streets, you get to see the social divide expressed in the landscape of London City. Color coded maps break down the city into the rich playground, and the poor slums. Each color signified a different poverty level.

These were:

Black: Do not go there. You are likely to robbed and taken advantage of by the
extremely poor people who live there.

Dark Blue- The people who live here, live in poor housing, constantly have no
money and generally go without the basic necessities of life.

Light Blue- People who live in this area are poor but have a wage coming in;
about 18-21s a week.

Purple- The people who live here are a mix of the very poor, the moderately
poor, and the well off.

Pink- These people earn enough to live comfortably and do not usually have to
do without.

Red- The people who live in these areas are middle-class. Made up of shop
owners and merchants, they have money to spend on the luxuries of life.

Yellow- The people who live in these areas are upper class and lucky from


(Color coded map of London, from Wikicommons)

These maps show a living, breathing London, and the various notes taken by
Booth, adds to the emerging picture. There were the dirty, unsafe streets,
filled with vagabonds, thieves and prostitutes, while at the other end of town,
there were stately homes, restaurants, shops and well dressed men and women, with money to spend.

Occasionally the outward signs of poverty spilled into these areas in the form
of beggars, hoping to take away a small piece of the wealth around them, or in
houses of ill-repute, which serviced the young lords with wild oats to sow. To
create his map of London’s poverty, Charles Booth followed policemen around on their usual routes. These policemen were familiar with the characters on their beat, and pointed out the trouble areas, where various illegal activities took place. Booth took copious notes, and to read them is like stepping back into a time capsule, allowing you to walk the streets as they once were, and experience  the good and the bad.

Using excerpts from these notebooks, I hope to introduce you to a good area of London and then the bad side of town, to experience the social and economic differences of London of the 19th century from the words of those who actually experienced it as it was.

Wealthy Side

Tragel to Bridge Park
“…Practically all yellow, quite new. White, no signs of grey…modern type of
architecture, bricks, low window, green doors, ornamental brass knocker ect.”

The Poor Side
Old Street
“As to the changes in the neighborhood, Machel said that warehouses had
encroached upon dwellings to such an extent in the past ten years that the poor working class who used to live in the district had been driven elsewhere to Toltenham and Walthamstow. Some motel dwellings had been put up but the class that came to them was different to which had left…Of the working classes that remain there is a considerable mixture of criminals, principally pickpocket and housebreakers who worked in either the east of the city or west London. It is also a centre of the receiving of stolen goods. This and Clarkenwell adjoining may be called the `melting pot,’ of London. Practically all silver and jewels that are stolen come here for disposal and are either broken up and melted or dismantled….The housebreaker or ware-housebreaker is a higher class of man than a pickpocket. Pickpockets `do’ a little every day but a housebreaker is often a respectable citizen for a month or two while he makes his plans…”

If you are interested in finding out more about Charles Booth, or reading more
of his notebooks, the Charles Booth Online Archives can be found here: