Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Those who study family history frequently come across the description of costermonger as a job description. A forerunner of the market trader, they sold produce displayed on a two-wheeled cart which was either pulled by donkey or by hand to a location that would attract customers. In mid nineteenth century Walworth, this would probably have been along the Walworth Road spilling out into East Lane (Street). The costermongers formed a distinct group within a wider society and the following is a description of costermongers living in Walworth in the middle of the nineteenth century. The source is The Book of Walworth published in 1925, the result of a scheme of study undertaken by the Browning Hall Adult School.
"Apart from the City worker there has always been a class apart though still with sufficient of their old characteristics to make them recognisable in the bulk and with their centre in Hard Street and Townley Street.** They owned barrows and small carts and sold the fruit and vegetables grown in the neighbourhood. Long ago, such folk were known as “costard-mongers” or “apple sellers” whence costermongers or in everyday language, costers, pronounced cawsters. By living together by community of interest and the inherent conservativeness of such associations, the costers, until quite recently,*** retained a closer link in dress, customs and speech with the past then did their neighbours. The coats of the men were nearer the fashion of Queen Anne’s time than those of polite society while the women wore dresses of startling blues and mauves and purples. Add to these pearly buttons (not pearl buttons), bell bottoms and feathers, and the distinctiveness of the costume was assured. [This was the beginnings of the costume made famous by the later Pearly Kings and Queens]
"To the undiscerning onlooker they were a noisy, quarrelsome crowd. To those who knew them more intimately they were decent hardworking folk, with every grade of success and non success among them, some being sufficiently well off to own houses, other doing little more than casual work to keep from starving. In cases of misfortune the sufferers were sure to receive help from neighbours but laziness and malingering were diagnosed with unerring accuracy. Children were well fed and cared for to the extent of being spoilt, and the pride of every father was the small boy in bell bottoms and pearlie on Sunday, and the small girl in mauve or blue with feathers, both seated probably in a gaudy goat cart in imitation of a full size carriage and pair. Emotion was but little restrained, a funeral was a great event in which the whole neighbourhood took part, and in the case of a much respected member there was a long procession of light carts to the cemetery.
"A wedding was a time of uproarious festival: dancing began in the font room, overflowed into the passage, and spread to the pavement outside.
"As in all close corporations, a stranger was suspect and it is said that no top hat ever came out of Hard Street, though an aside says a number went in whose unsuspecting owners provided the inhabitants with a jolly ten minutes.
"Their corporateness gave them a position in local politics far more powerful than they perhaps realised. In a constituency where red and blue were fairly evenly balanced, they were the largest and most compact body of one mind. Consequently the candidate who could enlist the sympathy of their leaders was well on the way to being elected.
"The coster and his barrow may still be seen in the two streets or so already mentioned but his numbers are dwindling and his aloofness is disappearing. The “march of civilisation”, the elementary school, suits of standard cut for the men and attractive fashions for the women, have made him almost one with the rest of us and the sturdy separatism that was maintained for half a century after local produce was no longer forthcoming so that he had to draw supplies from the Borough Market or Covent Garden like an ordinary shop-keeper shows signs of disappearing."
**These streets were where the southern end of Brandon Street meets East Street.
*** Written in 1925