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What is a Costermonger?
If you watch any movie or drama set in the Victorian era you will not fail to spot a costermonger at some point in a street scene. Usually pushing a wagon or barrow and calling out their wares and prices. So what exactly were costermongers, are they still around today and what impact did they have on everyday Victorian life?
The Merriam Webster Dictinary Describes a Costermonger as
a hawker of fruit or vegetables
Origin of COSTERMONGER
costard + mongerFirst Known Use: 1514
It defines a monger as
a broker, dealer, peddler.
It is thought that the word coster comes from a type of apple that was sold called the costard. A native English apple that no longer exists. By the Victorian period the apple was not readily available and the label costermonger was used to describe a hawker of any fruit or vegetable.
Costermonger in the 1860's
It is estimated that in the 1840s there were around 30-40 thousand costermongers either living in London or traveling to fairs and festivals. Costermongers bought their wares, usually fruit and vegetables in bulk and sold them from barrows as they walked the streets, calling out for customers to buy their goods.
The Costermongers provided a valuable service to the poorer members of society, their wares were sold cheaply and could be bought in small amounts, unlike in the shops and stores. Competition was high so they often sold at low prices to ensure a sale.
How did they speak?
The language called back slang used by these traders was to communicate with each other and to hide what they were saying from their customers and police. The vocabulary at first look seems simple, words were spoken spelt backwards. For example, the word talk spoken backwards would be pronounced caught, but the costermonger used the spelling and the words klat was used. This type of speech was however confusing and variable. The first issue being spelling. The Costers knowledge of spelling patterns or lack of knowledge would impact their pronunciation of words. Sometimes, for harmony extra sounds were added on the end of the word. Also instead of words being pronounced completely backwards, the syllables retain their original order - the back slang for hat was 'tatch. In the word pound the letters changed position to read dunop instead of dnuop for ease of sound. Vowels were also some times added for ease of speech - cold became deloc, with an e added. Most of the vocabulary would be used when talking about money, coins, profit and goods.
Full words were often shortened and the adding of s to for a plural, further complicated the understanding of the language. For example, woman in back slang is pronounced nammow, and nammows is women. So by trying to untangle the word backwards it does not literally translate. There are more rules to follow. Added to this would be the fact that many of these Costermongers in London would speak with an accent and this would impact how words were pronounced.
Examples of Costermonger Slang
look at the police
cool the esclop
I'm going to bed
I'm on to the deb
Working Life of a Victorian Costermonger
In 1861 Henry Mayhew began printing a series of publications describing the conditions and lives of the working people in London. His hope was to produce information about this group of people who, though large in number, very little was known about their daily lives. He planed to record their labor, earnings, sufferings and daily life. His findings give us a great deal of information about the life of a Victorian costermonger.
The publication began with the London Costermongers and their Saturday night. This was the busiest time for a Coster when the working classes generally got paid and shopped for their Sunday meal.
The London Streets were packed with buyers and sellers. Carts, barrows, baskets and stalls all shouting to attract customers. The noise must have been deafening and with the lamps and candles lighting the goods a sight to see. Desperate to make the extra penny all manner of tricks and chants were employed.
The Victorian costermongers sold a wide range of prodice which varied depends g on the season. Most costers stuck to their own specific rounds and if custom was poor they worked backwards to cover the same ground. They stuck to the poorer neighborhoods where their customers were more concerned with quantity rather than quality. Good sales would depend on several factors. Wednesdays and Fridays were good days when the poorer customers had less money so were more inclined to buy less desirable goods.
Daily Life of the Costermonger
The daily life of the Costermonger included selling, drinking, gambling and the theatre. If not selling their wares the Costermonger would be found in a beer shop, dancing room or theatre. Mayhew states that there were around 400 costermonger frequented beer shops at this time and that they were big drinkers who indulged in card playing, penny games and skittles, usually playing for beer. They also enjoyed sparing and believed themselves to be great boxers.
The dances or 'two penny hops' as they were referred to were also popular and attended by both men and women. They enjoyed jigs, the clog-horn pipe and country dances. The music often comprised of a harp, fiddle and cornopean - a type of horn, usually paid for by the costermongers themselves.
As well as music and dancing they also enjoyed the theatre and penny concerts and singing along to the show. Their sporting interests included rat killing, dog fighting and pigeon fancying. A true Costermonger was tough, fighting and showing no fear was encouraged with the younger members.
The life of these hawkers was a family affair and children as young as 6 were sent out to work. Girls to sell watercress and flowers, boys to help the grown ups with the chant and cries to attract customers. They had a universal distrust of authority especially police.
Mayhew goes on to state that only one in ten Costermongers were able to read and had very little knowledge beyond their daily sphere. The video clip below show a dramatization of one of the conversations recorded by Mayhew with a costermonger about education.
Interview with a Costermonger
Costermongers had many tricks to make their produce last longer and sellable. Boiling fruits such as oranges and prunes make them swell and look juicy, apples were mixed good with bad to bulk out the volume sold, the same with cherries. Other tricks were flattening weight to make them appear larger and putting false bottoms in mesuring containers.
Religion and Cheating
In the following clip , a dramatization of one of Mayhews interviews, a Coster girl talks about her knowledge of religion and how coasters were forced to cheat to survive.
Costers were easily identified by the clothes they wore. Typicaly they wore long waistcoats of dark corduroy and brass or mother of pearl buttons. Bell bottomed trousers were also worn with boots decorated with motifs such as roses and hearts. The essential part of their dress was a silk neckerchief called a 'kings men' which they were never seen without.
Video clip of the East End in the 1900's
There are still markets functioning in London to this day. Although not in the same numbers as during Victorian times, some families still make their living in the market. Below is a video clip of a present day Costermonger working in Bridge Street, London.