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1861 History of Pedlars PDF Print E-mail


Mayhew, Henry . London Labour and the London Poor, volume 1
Published 1861
| Table of Contents for this work |



The machinery for the distribution of commodities
has, in this and in all other "progressive" coun-
tries, necessarily undergone many changes; but
whether these changes have been beneficial to the
community, or not, this is not the place for me to
inquire; all I have to do here is to set forth the order

Column 2

of such changes, and to show the position that the
hawker and pedlar formerly occupied in the state.

The "distributor" of the produce of the country
is necessarily a kind of go-between, or middleman,
introduced for the convenience of bringing together
the producer and consumer -- the seller and the
buyer of commodities. The producer of a par-
ticular commodity being generally distinct from
the consumer, it follows, that either the commodity
must be carried to the consumer, or the consumer
go to the commodity. To save time and trouble
to both parties, it seems to have been originally
arranged that producer and consumer should meet,
periodically, at appointed places. Such periodical
meetings of buyers and sellers still exist in this
and many other countries, and are termed either
fairs or markets, according as they are held at long
or short intervals -- the fair being generally an
annual meeting, and the market a weekly one.
In the olden time the peculiar characteristic of
these commercial congregations was, that the pro-
ducer and consumer came into immediate contact,
without the intervention of any middleman. The
fair or market seemed to be a compromise between
the two, as to the inconvenience of either finding
the other when wanted. The producer brought
his goods, so to speak, half way to the consumer,
while the consumer travelled half way to the
goods. "There would be a great waste of time
and trouble," says Stewart Mill, "and an incon-
venience often amounting to impracticability, if
consumers could only obtain the article they want
by treating directly with the producers. Both
producers and consumers are too much scattered,
and the latter often at too great a distance from
the former."

"To diminish this loss of time and labour,"
continues Mr. Mill, "the contrivance of fairs and
markets was early had recourse to, where con-
sumers and producers might periodically meet,
without any intermediate agency; and this plan
still answers tolerably well for many articles, espe-
cially agricultural produce -- agriculturists having
at some seasons a certain quantity of spare time on
their hands. But even in this case, attendance is
often very troublesome and inconvenient to buyers
who have other occupations, and do not live in the
immediate vicinity; while, for all articles the pro-
duction of which requires continuous attention
from the producers, these periodical markets must
be held at such considerable intervals, and the
wants of the consumers must either be provided
for so long beforehand, or must remain so long
unsupplied, that even before the resources of
society permitted the establishment of shops, the
supply of those wants fell universally into the
hands of itinerant dealers, the pedlars who
might appear once a month, being preferred to the
fair, which only returned once a year.
In country
districts, remote from towns or large villages, the
vocation of the pedlar is not yet wholly superseded.
But a dealer who has a fixed abode, and fixed
customers," continues Mr. Mill, "is so much more
to be depended on, that customers prefer resort-
ing to him, if he is conveniently accessible; and
dealers, therefore, find their advantage in esta-


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blishing themselves in every locality where there
are sufficient consumers near at hand to afford
them remuneration."

Thus we see that the pedlar was the original
distributor of the produce of the country -- the
primitive middleman, as well as the prime mover
in extending the markets of particular localities, or
for particular commodities. He was, as it were,
the first "free-trader;" increasing the facilities for
the interchange of commodities, without regard to
market dues or tolls
, and carrying the natural
advantages of particular districts to remote and
less favoured places; thus enabling each locality
to produce that special commodity for which it
had the greatest natural convenience, and ex-
changing it for the peculiar produce of other parts.

Now, this extension of the markets necessarily
involved some machinery for the conveyance of the
goods from one district to another. Hence, the ped-
lar was not only the original merchant, but the pri-
mitive carrier -- to whom, perhaps, we owe both our
turnpike-roads and railways. For, since the peculiar
characteristic of the pedlar was the carrying the
produce to the consumer, rather than troubling the
consumer to go after the produce, of course it soon
became necessary, as the practice increased, and in-
creased quantities of goods had to be conveyed
from one part of the country to another, that
increased facilities of transit should be effected.
The first change was from the pack-man to the
pack-horse: for the former a foot-way alone was re-
quired; while the latter necessitated the formation
of some kind of a road
. Some of these ancient
pack-horse roads existed till within these few
years. Hagbush-lane, which was described by
William Hone only twenty years ago, but which
has now vanished, was the ancient bridle or pack-
horse road from London to the North, and ex-
tended by the Holloway back road as far as the
City-road, near Old-street. "Some parts of Hag-
bush-lane," says Hone, "are much lower than the
meadows on either side." At one time a terraced
ridge, at another a deep rut, the pack-horse road
must have been to the unaccustomed traveller a
somewhat perilous pass. The historian of Craven,
speaking of 1609, says, "At this time the com-
munication between the north of England and the
Universities was kept up by the carriers, who pur-
sued their long but uniform route with trains of
pack-horses. To their care were consigned pack-
ages, and not unfrequently the persons of young
scholars. It was through their medium, also, that
epistolary correspondence was managed; and as
they always visited London, a letter could scarcely
be exchanged between Yorkshire and Oxford in
less time than a month." The General Post Office
was established by Act of Parliament in the year
1660, and all letters were to be sent through this
office, "except such letters as shall be sent by
coaches, common-known carriers of goods by carts,
waggons, and pack-horses, and shall be carried
along with their carts, waggons, and pack-horses

"There is no such conveyance as a waggon in
this country" (Scotland), says Roderick Random,
referring to the beginning of the last century,

Column 2

"and my finances were too weak to support the
expense of hiring a horse. I determined therefore
to set out with the carriers, who transport goods
from one place to another on horseback; and this
scheme I accordingly put in execution on the 1st
day of November, 1739, sitting on a pack-saddle
between two baskets, one of which contained my
goods in a knapsack. But by the time we arrived
at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I was so fatigued with
the tediousness of the carriage, and benumbed
with the coldness of the weather, that I resolved
to travel the rest of my journey on foot, rather
than proceed in such a disagreeable manner."

The present mode of travelling, compared with
that of the pack-horse means of conveyance as
pursued of old, forms one of the most striking
contrasts, perhaps, in all history.

Hence we see that the pedlar was originally
both carrier and seller; first conveying his pack
on his back, and then, as it increased in bulk,
transferring it to the back of "the pack-horse."
But as soon as the practice of conveying the com-
modities to the buyers, instead of compelling the
buyers to go to the commodities, was found to be
advantageous to both consumer and producer, it
was deemed expedient that the two distinct pro-
cesses of carriage and sale, which are included in
the distribution of commodities, should be conducted
by distinct persons, and hence the carrying and
selling of goods became separate vocations in the
State; and such is now the machinery by which the
commodities of different parts of this country, as
well as of others, are at present diffused over the
greater portion of this kingdom. In remote districts
however, and the poorer neighbourhoods of large
towns, where there are either too few consumers, or
too few commodities required now to support a fixed
distributor with a distinct apparatus of transit, the
pedlar still continues to be the sole means of dif-
fusing the produce of one locality among the in-
habitants of another; and it is in this light -- as
the poor man's merchant -- that we must here con-
sider him.

Among the more ancient of the trades, then,
carried on in England is that of the hawker or
pedlar. It is generally considered, as I said be-
fore, that hawking "is as ancient a mode of trade
as that carried on in fairs and markets, towns and
villages, as well as at the castles of the nobles or
the cottages of their retainers."
To fix the origin
of fairs is impossible, for, in ancient and mediæval
times, every great gathering was necessarily a fair.
Men -- whom it is no violence to language to call
"hawkers" -- resorted alike to the Olympic games
and to the festivals of the early Christian saints,
to sell or barter their wares. Of our English fairs
Mr. Jacob says, in his "Law Dictionary" --
"Various privileges have been annexed to them,
and numerous facilities afforded to the disposal of
property in them. To give them a greater degree
of solemnity, they were originally, both in the
ancient and modern world, associated with reli-
gious festivals. In most places, indeed, they are
still held on the same day with the wake or feast
of the saint to whom the church is dedicated; and
till the practice was prohibited, it was customary


Column 1

in England to hold them in churchyards. This
practice, I may add, was not fully prohibited until
the reign of Charles II., although it had long
before fallen into disuse. Thus the connection
between church and market is shown to be of ve-
nerable antiquity."

The hawker dealt, in the old times, more in
textile fabrics than in anything else. Indeed,
Shakspere has dashed off a catalogue of his
wares, in the song of Autolycus:


"Lawn as white as driven snow,
Cyprus black as e'er was crow."
In the reigns succeeding the termination of the
Wars of the Roses, and down to the Common-
wealth, the hawker's pack was often stocked with
costly goods; for great magnificence in dress was
then the custom of the wealthy, and even the
burgesses on public occasions wore velvet, fine
cambric ruffs, and furs. The hawker was thus
often a man of substance and frequently travelled
on horseback, with his wares slung in bags on his
horse's side, or fitted to the crupper or pommell of
his saddle. He was often, moreover, attended by
a man, both for help in his sales, and protection
in travelling. In process of time an established
hawker became the medium of news and of gossip,
and frequently the bearer of communications from
town to town. His profits were often great, but
no little trust seems to have been reposed in him
as to the quality and price of his goods; and, until
the present century or so, slop goods were little
manufactured, so that he could not so well prac-
tise deceptions. Neither, during the prosperity of
the trade, does it appear that any great degree of
dishonesty characterized the hawker, though to
this there were of course plenty of minor ex-
ceptions as well as one glaring contradiction.
The wreckers of our southern coasts, who some-
times became possessed of rich silks, velvets,
laces, &c. -- (not unfrequently murdering all the
mariners cast on shore, and there was a con-
venient superstition among the wreckers, that it
was unlucky to offer help to a drowning man)
-- disposed of much of their plunder to the
hawkers; and as communication was slow, even
down to Mr. Palmer's improvements in the Post
Office in 1784, the goods thus rescued from the
deep, or obtained by the murder of the mariners,
were disposed of even before the loss of the vessel
was known at her destination; for we are told
that there was generally a hawker awaiting a
wreck on the most dangerous shores of Cornwall,
Devon, Dorset, and Sussex.

During the last century, and for the first ten
years of the present, the hawker's was a profitable
calling. He usually in later times travelled with
horse and covered cart, visiting fairs, markets, and
private houses, more especially in the country. In
some parts the calling was somewhat hereditary,
son succeeding to father after having officiated as his
assistant, and so becoming known to the customers.
The most successful of the class, alike on both
sides of the border, were Scotchmen.

In 1810 the prosperity of this trade experienced
a check. In that year "every hawker, pedlar, or
petty chapman going from town to town, or to

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other men's houses, and travelling on foot, carrying
to sell or exposing for sale any goods"
was re-
quired to pay a yearly licence of 4l., with an
additional 4l. for every horse, ass, or mule, used
in the business. Nothing, however, in the Act in
question, 50 Geo. III. c. 41, as I have before in-
timated, "extended to prohibit" the hawking
for sale of "any fish, fruit, or victuals" without
licence. Neither is there any extension of the
prohibition to the unlicensed workers or makers
of any goods or wares, or their children or ser-
vants resident with them, hawking such goods,
and selling them "in every city, borough, town
corporate, or market town," but not in villages
or country places. "Tinkers, coopers, glaziers,
plumbers, and harness-menders," are likewise per-
mitted to carry about with them the proper mate-
rials necessary for their business, no licence being

The passing of this Act did not materially
check the fraudulent practices of which the haw-
kers were accused, and of which a portion of them
were doubtlessly guilty; indeed some of the
manufacturers, whose names were pirated by the
hawkers, were of opinion that the licensing for ten
or twenty years facilitated fraud, as many people,
both in London and the country, thought they
were safe in dealing with a "licensed" hawker, since
he could not procure a licence without a certifi-
cate of his good character from the clergyman of
his place of residence, and from two "reputable
inhabitants." Linen of good quality used to be
extensively hawked, but from 1820 to 1825, or
later in some parts, the hawkers got to deal in an
inferior quality, "unions" (a mixture of linen
and cotton), glazed and stiffened, and set off
with gaudy labels bearing sometimes the name of
a well-known firm, but altered in spelling or other-
wise, and expressed so as to lead to the belief that
such a firm were the manufacturers of the article.
Jews, moreover, as we have seen, travelled in all
parts with inferior watches and jewellery, and
sometimes "did well" by persuading the possessors
of old solid watches, or old seals or jewellery, that
they were ridiculously out of fashion, and so in-
ducing them to give money along with the old
watch for a watch or other article of the newest
fashion, which yet was intrinsically valueless com-
pared with the other. These and other practices,
such as selling inferior lace under pretence of its
having been smuggled from France, and of the
choicest quality, tended to bring the hawker's
trade into disrepute, and the disrepute affected the
honest men in the business. Some sank from
the possession of a good horse and cart to travelling
on foot, as of yore, forwarding goods from place to
place by the common carriers, and some relin-
quished the itinerant trade altogether. The
"cutting" and puffing shopkeepers appeared next,
and at once undersold the "slop" hawker, and
foiled him on his own ground of pushing off inferior
wares for the best.
The numbers of the hawkers
fell off considerably, but notwithstanding I find,
in the last census tables (1841), the following
returns as to the numbers of "hawkers, hucksters,
and pedlars," distributed throughout Great Bri-


Column 1

tain. The Government returns, however, admit
of no comparison being formed between these
numbers and those of any previous time.


England and Wales.

Bedford 79
Berks 160
Bucks 129
Cambridge 139
Chester 362
Cornwall 175
Cumberland 217
Derby 427
Devon 230
Dorset 97
Durham 301
Essex 339
Gloucester 437
Hereford 44
Hertford 137
Huntingdon 45
Kent 284
Lancester 1862
Leicester 292
Lincoln 435
Middlesex 1597
Monmouth 163
Norfolk 431
Northampton 214
Northumberland 426
Nottingham 267
Oxford 94
Rutland 23
Salop 240
Somerset 201
Southampton 226
Stafford 472
Suffolk 288
Surrey 609
Sussex 238
Warwick 476
Westmorland 44
Wilts 109
Worcester 247
City of York 63
East Riding of York 200
North Riding 187
West Riding 1039


Anglesey 14
Brecon 63
Cardigan 38
Carmarthen 49
Carnarvon 32
Denbigh 69
Flint 35
Glamorgan 202
Merioneth 25
Montgomery 31
Pembroke 46
Radnor 20
Islands in the British #Seas #47


Aberdeen 105
Argylll 44
Ayr 144
Blanff 33
Berwick 41
Bute 17
Caithness 4
Clackmannan 18
Dumbarton 29
Dumfries 72
Edinburgh 401
Elgin, or Moray 37
Fife 77
Forfar 108
Haddington 54
Inverness 33
Kincardine 27
Kinross 9
Kirkcudbright 46
Lanark 677
Linlithgow 33
Nairn 2
Orkney and Shetland 10
Peebles 13
Perth 119
Renfrew 107
Ross and Cromarty 11
Roxburgh 96
Selkirk 18
Stirling 95
Sutherland 5
Wigtown 36

Thus we find that, in 1841, there were of these
trades in

England 14,038
Wales 624
British Isles 47
Scotland 2,561
Total in Great Britain 17,270

The counties in which the hawkers, hucksters,
and pedlars most abound appear to be -- 1st, Lan-
caster; 2nd, Middlesex, 3rd, Yorkshire (West
Riding); 4th, Lanark; and 5th, Surrey.

What rule, if any rule, was observed in classing
these "hawkers, hucksters, and pedlars," or what
distinction was drawn between a hawker and a
huckster, I am unable to say, but it is certain
that the number of "licensed hawkers" was within
one-half of the 17,270; for, in 1841, the hawkers'
duty realized only 32,762l. gross revenue, and
waiving the amount paid for the employment of
horses, &c., the official return, reckoning so many
persons paying 4l. each, shows only 8190 licensed
hawkers in 1841.

The hawker's business has been prosecuted far
more extensively in country than in town, but he
still continues to deal in London.

London Labour and the London Poor, volume 1
Mayhew, Henry

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London Labour and the London Poor, volume 1

Henry Mayhew
Griffin, Bohn, and Company

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Published: 1861


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