Tag Archives: Henry Mayhew

Thirty-Two Of The Gang

What is a pig month? According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era it was any of the eight months without an R in their name when it was said to be safe to eat pork.

Pork is a common ingredient in pies. One of the first pie shops in London was established by Henry Blanchard, probably from around 1844. There all manner of pies could be purchased, ranging from fruit to meat to eel. It proved enormously popular with the paying public as pies cost just one penny. It was less well received by the itinerant pie sellers. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, noted that “the penny pie shops, the street men say, have done their trade a great deal of harm. These shops have now got mostly all the custom, as they make pies much larger for the money than those sold in the street”.

Perhaps these disgruntled pie sellers were instrumental for coining the phrase pie shop as a synonym for a dog, for the simple expedient that was what they alleged to be the main ingredient of the pies.

In street argot a pill was a dose, punishment suffering or a sentence because of being endless in its application. A pill pusher, though, was a doctor.

An objection that could be levied at Johnson’s government is that they are guilty of podsnappery. This was defined as “a wilful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient, at the same time assuming airs of superior virtue and noble resignation”. If only the latter was true.

What Is A Weed?

For the first two decades of my adult life, I neither rented nor owned a single sod of earth that was not covered either by concrete or bricks and mortar. Gardening was an abstract concept, affording me, as a Classicist, the glimpse of a world in which peppering my speech with the odd word or two of Latin would not be deemed to be too pretentious. Eventually swapping a metropolitan lifestyle for suburbia, I found, like many, considerable solace in searching for any vestige of green on the ends of my mud-stained digits.

What I found was that I had cultivated the happy knack of persuading certain types of plant to take root which more experienced gardeners derided as weeds. As I set about removing them, I wondered what is it that characterised a weed. Was it, as Ralph Waldo Emerson defined in his essay, The Fortune of the Republic, in 1878 “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered” or just a case, as the Oxford English Dictionary rather dismissively defines it, of “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted, especially among crops or garden plants”, the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Characteristics which define a weed include their ability to establish themselves quickly, popping up almost in the blink of an eye. They are prolific and adept at spreading, either reproducing vegetatively without the need to form seeds or, where they are reliant upon seeds, by producing so many that some are bound to survive and root. Weeds can grow in the more inhospitable areas that those plants we deem to be desirable would struggle to get a foothold in. Even if you think you have eradicated them, some produce seeds that lie dormant for a long time until conditions are conducive for them. Simply scratching the surface of the soil can cause them to leap into life.

Clearly, until Homo sapiens started cultivating plants in earnest in a systemised fashion, the distinction between a plant that was potentially useful and one that was to be actively discouraged was otiose. However, there is archaeological evidence to suggest that once the earth was first broken by a primitive hoe it provided an open invitation to weeds to take root, particularly those adapted to thriving in naturally disturbed habitats. Even today agricultural weeds are a leading cause of crop loss, accounting for upwards of a 10% reduction in global crop production.

Atlit-Yam, now submerged under the Mediterranean off the coast of modern Israel, was a thriving coastal settlement nine thousand years ago. Plant material from that time has been preserved by the seawater. Alongside the remains of seeds for cultivated crops, such as durum wheat, figs, chickpeas, and herbs, thirty-five weed species were found, five of which, known as obligatory weeds, could only grow in cultivated fields. Within a couple of millennia of man first sowing seeds, agricultural weeds had evolved to exploit these unique conditions, an example of what is known as fast adaptive evolution.

Even more sneakily, some obligatory weeds evolved to mimic the appearance of crop plants, thus more easily evading detection and eradication. Darnel, one of the five obligatory weeds found at Atlit-Yam, is known as “false wheat”, because of its remarkable similarity to the staple crop. Perhaps, as Kenneth Olsen noted in his paper, The Red Queen in the Corn, (Heredity, November 2012)[1], the weed’s greatest virtue is its ability to adapt.    

For millennia, the farmer’s only weapon against the incursion of weeds was the back breaking task of weeding by hand, something often delegated to children and women. Although the arrival of iron tools such as hoes made the work slightly easier, distinguishing between seedlings and weeds was problematic. Seeds were hand-scattered over the newly ploughed fields and any discernible sowing pattern was often hard to detect.

It was not until the 18th century that a solution to this problem became widely available, thanks to Jethro Tull’s grain drill, which planted the seeds in rows. Use in conjunction with a harrow which loosened the soil between the drill rows meant that anything outside the rows were weeds.

Weeds were not just an agricultural phenomenon. Their presence became increasingly unwelcome as the fashion for growing plants for pleasure took root, a pastime upon which Britons now spend over £7.5 billion a year. Gardeners would spend as much time waging war against them as tending the plants they wanted.

The urban sprawl created a new battleline. By the Louvre in Paris’ First Arrondissement, the rue des Orties-du-Louvre and the rue des Orties-Saint-Honoré bear testament to the fact that they were built on land where patches of nettles once stood. Weeding paved and open spaces by hand became a common sight in towns, as George Boughton’s painting from 1882, Weeding the Pavement, shows.

Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01539

Once the weeds were uprooted, they acquired an economic value. Henry Mayhew’s survey, London Labour and the London Poor (1851), tells of street vendors who sold nettles, chickweed, plantain, dandelions, and groundsel, gathered from the gardens of the rich or from parks or fields, as fodder for caged birds.

Although it is infra-dig to think of using chemical preparations as a quick fix to the weed problem nowadays, they have been around for almost two centuries. The Journal of usual and practical knowledge, a French monthly magazine, provided its readers in 1831 with a recipe for a mixture designed “to kill grass that grows in garden alleys and between cobblestones in courtyards”. All that was needed to “purge the soil of rebel herbs for several years” was to mix twelve pounds of lime and a couple of pounds of sulphur to 60 litres of boiling water. The recipe crossed the Channel and was promoted as a way of removing “very injurious as well as unsightly” plant growth from between pavement stones.

Readers of detective fiction will know that by the turn of the 20th century many garden sheds held a stock of arsenic-based compounds, such as Eureka weed killer, to be used to eradicate weeds and the occasional relative. The world’s most widely used herbicide, 2, 4-D, was first made available commercially in 1946, although it had been developed by W G Templeman of Imperial Chemical Industries at the start of the Second World War. Glyphosate was introduced in 1974 and soon established itself as a widely used, cheap, and popular non-selective form of weed killer. 

Environmental and sustainability concerns have led to significant resistance to the indiscriminate use of chemically based weedkillers. There is a growing recognition that weeds are not just pests but play their part in stabilising the soil, drawing up nutrients from deep in the ground, attracting pollinators and insects and, when they die, decomposing into humus, adding to the richness of the soil. In a further step towards their rehabilitation, Sandra Nock’s garden full of weeds, Weed Thriller, has just been awarded a Gold Medal at this year’s RHS Tatton Flower Show. However, if they are in the right place and valued, are they really weeds? It is a puzzle.

[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/hdy2012104

What Is The Origin Of (283)?…

Good enough for Punch

Writing comedy is a difficult and soul-destroying occupation. What one person may find funny, may pass another by. Then there are cultural differences and linguistic nuances, often themselves a cause for unintended humour, to consider. Even if you have cracked all that, the attrition rate for gags in a sustained piece of comedic writing is high. I take my hat off to the very few writers who can pull it all off with off with aplomb. The problems do not end there. What seemed an absolute rib-tickler in another age barely warrants a smile and more often is greeted with an exasperated sigh years later.

A case in point are the jokes to be found in the weekly magazine founded in 1841 by Henry Mayhew, together with a wood-engraver by the name of Ebeneezer Landells, Punch, alternatively known as The London Charivari. Charivari, possibly Italian in origin, was used by Francesco Stelluti to describe a ritual he had observed in the Umbrian town of Acquasparta in the 1620s. It was a shaming ritual carried out by villagers to show their disapproval of a second or other seemingly inappropriate marriage. Pots and pans were banged and, by extension, the word was used to describe any loud, cacophonous noise or hubbub.     

In England, these exhibitions of disapproval were also known as skimmington or skimmington ride. On some occasions the wrongdoer would be dragged from their home and paraded through the town or village, often dunked in a pond or river. Alternatively, a neighbour would impersonate the neighbour and sing ribald songs about them or an effigy was used and burned at the end of the proceedings.

The London Charivari or Punch soon made its mark as the foremost humorous magazine of its time and to have an illustrated joke, or cartoon as they became known, was the highest accolade that a humourist could achieve. If a joke or a scenario was considered to be very funny, it was said to be good enough for Punch.

Perhaps the earliest example of it in print comes from the report of the Cotswold Harriers in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle of December 21, 1872. The hunting party were celebrating a successful meet and a local asked the Master of the Hounds for a hare that had been caught to have for his supper. The Master refused, saying he wouldn’t let him have it even for fifty pounds. “Moi eyes, rejoined the rustic, oi didn’t know he were worth so much as that. It was good enough for Punch”.

By extension, the phrase was used to indicate the gold standard for other pursuits, even oratory. The Cheltenham Chronicle of October 7, 1873 was in awe of the oratory of a prospective parliamentary candidate, William Tally. It noted that “his address from first to last is good enough for Punch”.

Not surprisingly, Punch used the phrase in its own advertising copy as this rather effusive advert, which appeared in the Whitstable Times and Tankerton Press on March 31, 1928 shows; “Good enough for Punch is the highest praise of a joke. All the best jokes are in Punch. Take Punch and you will be as pleased as Punch”. As humour went in Punch, that is almost as good as it gets.        

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred and One

Royal Mint Street, E1 (Part Two)

It’s not often that I have returned to a London street in this series but Royal Mint Street, formerly known as Rosemary Lane until 1850 and the home of the Rag Fair, has such a rich and varies history that I cannot let it go.

One of its residents in the 1640s was one Richard Brandon, a ragman. His claim to fame is that he is thought to have been the man who beheaded King Charles I, the only person, so far, to have removed an English monarch’s head from his neck. He is said to have been paid £30 in half-crown coins for his work – there may be a pun or a hint of irony in the choice of denomination or the coins may just have been easier to spend – and Brandon took an orange stuffed with cloves and a handkerchief from the king’s pocket as his body was being removed from the scaffold. Offered twenty shillings for the orange by a gentleman in Whitehall but Brandon refused to sell, although he did later cash in on the orange by selling it in Rosemary Lane for ten shillings.

Two Colchester weavers, Richard Farnham and John Bull, died of the plague in a house in Rosemary Lane in January 1641. They were in London because they believed themselves to be the two great prophets who must visit Earth, as foretold in the Book of Revelations, before the world came to an end. They had spent some time in the gaols of Old and New Bridewell for their pains and although their efforts came to naught, they had planted the seed of religious dissension in the area.

Their baton was taken up a decade later by cousins and tailors, John Reeve and Lodowicke Muggleton, who not only lived in Rosemary Lane, it is tempting to think the same house, but also believed themselves to be the great prophets referred to in Revelations and set about, in public houses, proposing a new religion.

They were fervently anti-Quaker and roused the fury of the authorities, Oliver Cromwell ordering them to be whipped through the streets and, after Reeves had died in 1658, Muggleton spent some time in the stocks. But their sect, known as Muggletonians, took root and, although avoiding all forms of worship, preaching and proselytising, met for discussions and socialising. They were egalitarian, apolitical and pacifist, the latter trait, though, not precluding them from gaining some notoriety by cursing those who reviled their faith, a practice they continued up until the middle of the 19th century. One of the last to be cursed in this way was Sir Walter Scott.

Political activism is often a bedfellow of religious dissension and so it is no surprise that the area was the centre of Chartism. Some of the leaders were men of colour and two such, David Duffy and Benjamin Prophet, hailed from Rosemary Lane. Duffy was described as “a determined and powerful-looking fellow”, was known to the police for vagrancy and went around the area “without shirt, shoe or stocking”. The two men were among the ringleaders of the demonstration in Camberwell in March 1848 which developed into a riot. They were both arrested and transported, Duffy for 7 years and Prophet for 14.               

At No. 41, Royal Mint Street was to be found a warehouse for the United Sponge Company, it was demolished in the 1970s, and stored sponges and chamois leather later sold in stores on the Minories. This was an organised successor to one of the trades that Henry Mayhew described in 1851 for which Royal Mint Street was known; sponge selling “is one of the street-trades which has long been in the hands of the Jews, and, unlike the traffic in pencils, sealing wax, and other articles of which I have treated, it remains so principally still”.

The arrival of the railway in the 1860s didn’t do much to improve the area, Henry Wheatley rather sniffily commenting in his London Past and Present of 1891, “Royal Mint Street has hardly so evil a reputation as Rosemary Lane, but it is a squalid place..”   

Today, it may not be squalid, but it has lost much of its character from former times.

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred

Royal Mint Street, E1

Running from its junction with Mansell Street at its western end and merging into Cable Street in the east, Royal Mint Street was so named in 1850 in (belated) recognition of the Royal Mint which had moved into the Tower Hill area in 1810. Methinks it was a rather belated attempt to refresh the reputation which, under its previous name, Rosemary Lane, had developed a certain reputation. I may return to the Mint another time but I will focus attention on other aspects of the street’s history.

From the beginning of the 18th century Rosemary Lane hosted a Rag Fair where Alexander Pope noted in footnotes to his satirical poem, Dunciad, published in 1728, “old cloaths and frippery are sold”. A contemporary commentator added more colour to the area by noting that “much of the clothing that was sold there was stolen; the market was also the final destination of all cast-off rags, in an epoch notorious for its careless habits and for seldom or never changing its linen”. Such was its reputation that in 1733, when a draper in Great Turnstile in Holborn noticed that he had lost 43 pairs of stockings, he immediately sent a boy to Mr Hancock’s in Rosemary Lane to look for them.

Its great rival was the market in Petticoat Lane but it had some advantages, namely being a wider and airier street, with taller buildings and the added attraction of a gin house. One of the attractions of the stalls, apart from cheap second-hand clothing, was that you were never quite sure what you would find within the garments. This snippet from the Public Advertiser from February 17, 1756 makes this point as well as shedding some light on how the transactions were conducted. A woman by the name of “Mary Jenkins, a dealer in old clothes in Rag Fair, was selling a pair of breeches to a poor woman for seven pence and a pint of beer. While the two were drinking together at a public house, the purchaser unripped the clothes and found eleven gold Queen Anne guineas quilted in the waistband and a £30 bank-note, dated 1729, of which she did not learn the value until she had sold it for a gallon of twopenny purl” (warm beer flavoured with something bitter). A case of caveat venditor.    

There was some dispute amongst the authorities around the turn of the 19th century as to whether the Rag Fair was simply a marketplace for old tat. Thomas Pennant in his Of London, published in 1790, talked of tubs in which customers paid a penny to dip their hands to pull out a wig and that someone could clothe themselves for little or nothing. Joseph Nightingale, in his London and Middlesex from 1815, vehemently refuted Pennant’s account, recording that “the houses in Rosemary Lane, or the so called Rag Fair, are mostly occupied by wholesale dealers in clothes, who used to export them to our colonies, and to South America. In several Exchanges, or large covered buildings, fitted up with counters, &c. there are good shops, and the annual circulation of money in the purliens of this place, is really astonishing, considering the articles sold, although their cheapness bears no kind of proportion to Mr. Pennant’s conjectures”     

Whoever was right at the time, by the middle of the century it was characterised by disorder and tawdriness. Henry Mayhew gave us a vivid illustration of life in the street in his London Labour and London Poor, published in 1861. He reported that it was “chiefly inhabited by dredgers, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, watermen, lumpers, &c., as well as the slop-workers and “sweaters” employed in the Minories”. He went on to give a detailed description of the bric-a-brac on sale and the disorder to be found on the streets. “Some of the wares are spread on the ground, on wrappers, or pieces of matting or carpet; and some, as the pots, are occasionally placed on straw. The cotton prints are often heaped on the ground, where are also ranges or heaps of boots and shoes, and piles of old clothes, or hats or umbrellas. Other trades place their goods on stalls or barrows, or over an old chair or clothes-horse. And amidst all this motley display the buyers and sellers smoke, and shout, and doze, and bargain, and wrangle, and eat, and drink tea and coffee, and sometimes beer”.     

The fair lasted until 1911. I shall return to this street to talk about some of the colourful characters who lived on it.