Friday, May 27, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - Covent Garden Flowers


Now and then, in the long search into the underlying causes of effects which are plain to all men’s eyes, one pauses till the rush of impressions has ceased, and it is possible again to ignore this many-sided, demanding London, which makes a claim unknown to any other city of the earth save Rome. But there is a certain justification in lingering at points where women and children congregate, since their life also is part of the quest, and nowhere can it better be seen than in and about Covent Garden Market,–a thousand thoughts arising as the old square is entered from whatever point.

It is not alone the first days of the pilgrim’s wanderings in London that are filled with the curious sense of home coming that makes up the consciousness of many an American. It is as if an old story were told again, and the heir, stolen in childhood, returned, unrecognized by those about him, but recalling with more and more freshness and certainty the scenes of which he was once a part. The years slip away. Two hundred and more of them lie between, it is true; but not two hundred nor ten times two hundred can blot out the lines of a record in which the struggle and the hope of all English-speaking people was one. For past or present alike, London stands as the fountain-head; and thus, whatever pain may come from the oppressive sense of crowded, swarming life pent up in these dull gray walls, whatever conviction that such a monster mass of human energy and human pain needs diffusion and not concentration, London holds and will hold a fascination that is quite apart from any outward aspect.

To go to a point determined upon beforehand is good. To lose oneself in the labyrinth of lanes and alleys and come suddenly upon something quite as desirable, is even better; and this losing is as inevitable as the finding also becomes. The first perplexity arises from the fact that a London street is “everything by turns and nothing long,” and that a solitary block of buildings owns often a name as long as itself. The line of street which, on the map, appears continuous, gives a dozen changes to the mile, and the pilgrim discovers quickly that he is always somewhere else than at or on the point determined upon. Then the temptation to add to this complication by sudden excursions into shadowy courts and dark little passages is irresistible, not to mention the desire, equally pressing, of discovering at once if Violet Lane and Hop Vine Alley and Myrtle Court have really any relation to their names, or are simply the reaching out of their inhabitants for some touch of Nature’s benefactions. Violet Lane may have had its hedgerows and violets in a day long dead, precisely as hop vines may have flung their pale green bells over cottage paling, for both are far outside the old city limits; but to-day they are simply the narrowest of passages between the grimiest of buildings, given over to trade in its most sordid form, with never a green leaf even to recall the country hedgerows long since only memory.

It is a matter of no surprise, then, to find that Covent Garden holds no hint of its past save in name, though from the noisy Strand one has passed into so many sheltered, quiet nooks unknown to nine tenths of the hurrying throng in that great artery of London, that one half expects to see the green trees and the box-bordered alleys of the old garden where the monks once walked. Far back in the very beginning of the thirteenth century it was the convent garden of Westminster, and its choice fruits and flowers rejoiced the soul of the growers, who planted and pruned with small thought of what the centuries were to bring. Through all chances and changes it remained a garden up to 1621, when much of the original ground had been swallowed up by royal grants, and one duke and another had built his town-house amid the spreading trees; for this “amorous and herbivorous parish,” as Sidney Smith calls it, was one of the most fashionable quarters of London. The Stuart kings and their courts delighted in it, and the square was filled with houses designed by Inigo Jones, the north and east side of the market having an arcade called the “Portico Walk,” but soon changed to the name which it has long borne,–the “Piazza.” The market went on behind these pillars, but year by year, as London grew, pushed itself toward the centre of the square, till now not a foot of vacant space remains. At one of its stalls may still be found an ancient marketman, whose name, Anthony Piazza, is a memory of a parish custom which named after this favorite walk many of the foundling children born in the parish.

There is nothing more curious in all London than the transformations known to this once quiet spot. Drury Lane is close at hand, and Covent Garden Theatre is as well known as the market itself. The convent has become a play-house. “Monks and nuns turn actors and actresses. The garden, formal and quiet, where a salad was cut for a lady abbess, and flowers were gathered to adorn images, becomes a market, noisy and full of life, distributing its thousands of fruits and flowers to a vicious metropolis.” Two quaint old inns are still here; two great national theatres, and a churchyard full of mouldy but still famous celebrities,–the church itself, bare and big, rising above them. In the days of the Stuarts, people prayed to be buried here hardly less than in Westminster Abbey, and the lover of epitaph and monument will find occupation for many an hour. This strange, squat old building, under the shadow of the church, is the market, its hundred columns and chapel-looking fronts always knee-deep and more in baskets and fruits and vegetables, while its air still seems to breathe of old books, old painters, and old authors.

“Night and morning are at meeting,” for Covent Garden makes small distinction between the two, and whether it is a late supper or an early breakfast that the coffee-rooms and stalls are furnishing, can hardly be determined by one who has elected to know how the market receives and how it distributes its supplies. In November fog and mist, or the blackness of early winter, with snow on the ground, or cold rain falling, resolution is needed for such an expedition, and still more, if one would see all that the deep night hides, and that comes to light as the dawn struggles through. This business of feeding a city of four million people seems the simplest and most natural of occupations; but the facts involved are staggering, not alone in the mere matter of quantities and the amazement at the first sight of them, but in the thousands of lives tangled with them. Quantity is the first impression. Every cellar runs over with green stuff, mountains of which come in on enormous wagons and fill up all spaces left vacant, heaving masses of basket stumbling from other wagons and filling with instant celerity. In the great vans pour, from every market garden and outlying district of London, from all England, from the United Kingdom, from all the world, literally; for it is soon discovered that these enormous vehicles on high springs and with immense wheels, drawn by Normandy horses of size and strength to match, are chiefly from the railway stations, and that the drivers, who seem to be built on the same plan as the horses and vans, have big limbs and big voices and a high color, and that the bulging pockets of their velveteen suits show invoices and receipt books.

Not alone from railway stations and trains, from which tons of cabbages, carrots, onions, and all the vegetable tribe issue, but from the docks where steamers from Rotterdam and Antwerp and India and America, and all that lie between, come the contributions, ranged presently in due order in stall and arcade. There is no hint of anything grosser than the great cabbages, which appear to be London’s favorite vegetable. Meat has its place at Smithfield, and fish at Billingsgate, but the old garden is, in one sense, true to its name, and gives us only the kindly fruits of the earth, with their transformations into butter and cheese.

In the central arcade fruit has the honors, and no prettier picture can well be imagined. For once under these gray skies there is a sense of color and light, and there is no surprise in hearing that Turner came here to study both, and that even the artist of to-day does not disdain the same method.

It is the flower-market, however, to which one turns with a certainty gained at once that no disappointment follows intimate acquaintance with English flowers. There are exotics for those who will, but it is not with them that one lingers. It is to the hundreds upon hundreds of flower-pots, in which grow roses and geraniums and mignonette and a score with old-fashioned but forever beloved names. There are great bunches of mignonette for a penny, and lesser bunches of sweet odors for the same coin, while the violets have rows of baskets to themselves, as indeed they need, for scores of buyers flock about them,–little buyers chiefly, with tangled hair and bare feet and the purchase-money tied in some corner of their rags; for they buy to sell again, and having tramped miles it may be to this fountain-head, will tramp other miles before night comes, making their way into court and alley and under sunless doorways, crying “Violets! sweet violets!” as they were cried in Herrick’s time. A ha’penny will buy one of the tiny bunches which they have made up with swift fingers, and they are bought even by the poorest; how, heaven only knows. But, in cracked jug or battered tin, the bunch of violets sweetens the foul air, or the bit of mignonette grows and even thrives, where human kind cannot.

So, though Covent Garden has in winter “flowers at guineas apiece, pineapples at guineas a pound, and peas at guineas a quart,”–these for the rich only,–it has also its possibilities for the poor. They throng about it at all times, for there is always a chance of some stray orange or apple or rejected vegetable that will help out a meal. They throng above all in these terrible days when the “unemployed” are huddling under arches and in dark places where they lay their homeless heads, and where, in the hours between night and morning, the cocoa-rooms open for the hungry drivers of the big vans, who pour down great mugs of coffee and cocoa, and make away with mountains of bread and butter. A penny gives a small mug of cocoa and a slice of bread and butter, and the owner of a penny is rich. Often it is shared, and the sharer, half drunk still, it may be, and foul with the mud and refuse into which he crawled, can hardly be known as human, save for this one gleam of something beyond the human. Gaunt forms barely covered with rags, hollow eyes fierce with hunger, meet one at every turn in this early morning; and for many there is not even the penny, and they wait, sometimes with appeal, but as often silently, the chance gift of the buyer. Food for all the world, it would seem, and yet London is not fed; and having once looked upon these waifs that are floated against the pillars of the old market, one fancies almost a curse on the piles of food that is not for them save as charity gives it, and the flowers that even on graves will never be theirs.

Men and women huddle here, and under the arches, children skulk away like young rats, feeding on offal, lying close in dark corners for warmth, and hunted about also like rats. It is a poverty desperate and horrible beyond that that any other civilized city can show; and who shall say who is responsible, or what the end will be?

So the question lingers with one, as the market is left, and one passes on and out to the Strand and its motley stream of life, lingering through Fleet Street and the winding ways into the City, past St. Paul’s, and still on till London Bridge is reached and the Borough is near. Fare as one may, north or south, west or east, there is no escape from the sullen roar of the great city, a roar like the beat of a stormy sea against cliffs. An hour and more ago, that perplexed and baffled luminary the sun has struggled up through strange shapes and hues of morning cloud, and for a few minutes asserted his right to rule. But the gleam of gold and crimson brought with him has given way to the grays and black which make up chiefly what the Londoners call sky, and over London Bridge one passes on into the dim grayness merging into something darker and more cheerless. On the Borough Road there should be some escape,–that Borough Road on which the Canterbury Pilgrims rode out on a morning less complicated, it is certain, by fog and mist and smoke and soot than mornings that dawn for this generation. Every foot of the way is history; the old Tower at one’s back, and the past as alive as the present. “Merrie England” was at its best, they say, when the pages we know were making; but here as elsewhere, the name is a tradition, belied by every fact of the present.

The old inns along the way still hold their promise of good cheer, and the great kitchens and tap-rooms have seen wild revelry enough; but even for them has been the sight of political or other martyr done to death in their court-yards, while no foot of playground, no matter how much the people’s own, but has been steeped in blood and watered with tears of English matron and maid. If “Merrie England” deserved its name, it must have come from a determination as fixed as Mark Tapley’s, to be jolly under any and all circumstances, and certainly circumstances have done their best to favor such resolution. The peasant of the past, usually represented as dancing heavily about a Maypole, or gazing contentedly at some procession of his lords and masters as it swept by, has no counterpart to-day, nor will his like come again. For here about the old Borough, where every stone means history and the “making of the English people,” there are faces of all types that England holds, but no face yet seen carries any sense of merriment, or any good thing that might bear its name. It is the burden of living that looks from dull eyes and stolid faces, and a hopelessness, unconscious it may be but always apparent, that better things may come. The typical Englishman, as we know him, has but occasional place, and the mass, hurrying to and fro in the midst of this roar of traffic, are thin and eager and restless of countenance as any crowd of Americans in the same type of surroundings. Innumerable little streets, each dingier and more sordid than the last, open on either side. Hot coffee and cocoa cans are at every corner, their shining brass presided over by men chiefly. Here, as throughout East London, sellers of every sort of eatable and drinkable thing wander up and down.

Paris is credited with living most of its life under all men’s eyes, and London certainly may share this reputation as far as eating goes. In fact, working London, taking the poorest class both in pay and rank, has small space at home for much cookery, and finds more satisfaction in the flavor of food prepared outside. The throats, tanned and parched by much beer, are sensitive only to something with the most distinct and defined taste of its own; and so it is that whelks and winkles and mussels and all forms of fish and flesh, that are to the American uneatably strong and unpleasant, make the luxuries of the English poor. They are conservative, also, like all the poor, and prefer old acquaintances to new; and the costers and sellers of all sorts realize this, and seldom go beyond an established list.

It is always “somethin’ ‘ot” that the workman craves; and small wonder, when one has once tested London climate, and found that, nine months out of twelve, fog and mist creep chill into bones and marrow, and that a fire is comfortable even in July. November accents this fact sharply, and by November the pea-soup and eel-soup men are at their posts, and about market and dock, and in lane and alley, the trade is brisk. Near Petticoat Lane, one of the oddest of London’s odd corners, small newsboys rush up and take a cupful as critically as I have seen them take waffles from the old women purveyors of these delicacies about City Hall Park and Park Row, while hungry costers and workmen appear to find it the most satisfactory of meals.

One must have watched the eel baskets at Billingsgate, and then read the annual consumption, before it is possible to understand how street after street has its eel-pie house, and how the stacks of small pies in the windows are always disappearing and always being renewed. It would seem with eel pies as with oysters, of which Sam Weller stated his conviction that the surprising number of shops and stalls came from the fact that the moment a man found himself in difficulties he “rushed out and ate oysters in reg’lar desperation.” It is certain that some of the eaters look desperate enough; but the seller is a middle-aged, quiet-looking man, who eyes his customers sharply, but serves them with generous cupfuls. The sharpness is evidently acquired, and not native, and he has need of it, the London newsboys, who are his best patrons, being ready to drive a bargain as keen as their fellows on the other side of the sea. His stand is opposite a cat’s-meat market, a sausage shop in significant proximity, and he endures much chaffing as to the make-up of his pea soup, which he sells in its season. But it is eels for which the demand is heaviest and always certain, and the eel-soup man’s day begins early and ends late, on Saturdays lasting well into Sunday morning. He is prosperous as such business goes, and buys four “draughts” of eels on a Friday for the Saturday’s work, a “draught” being twenty pounds, while now and then he has been known to get rid of a hundred pounds.

This stall, to which the newsboys flock as being more “stylish” than most of its kind, is fitted with a cast-iron fireplace holding two large kettles of four or five gallon capacity. A dozen pint bowls, or basins as the Englishman prefers to call them, and an equal number of half-pint cups, with spoons for all, constitute the outfit; and even for the poorest establishment of the sort, a capital of not less than a pound is required. This stall has four lamps with “Hot Eels” painted on them, and one side of it is given to whelks, which are boiled at home and always eaten cold with abundance of vinegar, of which the newsboy is prodigal. At times fried fish are added to the stock, but eels lead, and mean the largest profit on the amount invested.

Dutch eels are preferred, and the large buyer likes to go directly to the eel boats at the Billingsgate Wharf and buy the squirming draughts, fresh from the tanks in which they have been brought. To dress and prepare a draught takes about three hours, and the daughter of the stall-owner stands at one side engaged in this operation, cleaning, washing, and cutting up the eels into small pieces from half an inch to an inch long. These are boiled, the liquor being made smooth and thick with flour, and flavored with chopped parsley and mixed spices, principally allspice. For half a penny, from five to seven pieces may be had, the cup being then filled up with the liquor, to which the buyer is allowed to add vinegar at discretion. There is a tradition of one customer so partial to hot eels that he used to come twice a day and take eight cupfuls a day, four at noon and four as a night-cap.

The hot-eel season ends with early autumn, and pea soup takes its place, though a small proportion of eels is always to be had. Split peas, celery, and beef bones are needed for this, and it is here that the cat’s-meat man is supposed to be an active partner. In any case the smell is savory, and the hot steam a constant invitation to the shivering passers-by. This man has no cry of “Hot Eels!” like many of the sellers.

“I touches up people’s noses; ‘t ain’t their heyes or their hears I’m hafter,” he says, though the neat stall makes its own claim on the “heyes.”

In another alley is another pea-soup man, one-legged, but not at all depressed by this or any other circumstance of fate. He makes, or his wife makes, the pea soup at home, and he keeps it hot by means of a charcoal fire in two old tin saucepans.

“Hard work?” he says. “You wouldn’t think so if you’d been on your back seven months and four days in Middlesex Orspital. I was a coal heaver, and going along easy and natural over the plank from one barge to another, and there come the swell from some steamers and throwed up the plank and chucked me off, and I broke my knee against the barge. It’s bad now. I’d ought to ‘ad it hoff, an’ so the surgeons said; but I wouldn’t, an’ me wife wouldn’t, and the bone keeps workin’ out, and I’ve ‘ad nineteen months all told in the ‘orspital, and Lord knows how me wife and the young uns got on. I was bad enough off, I was, till a neighbor o’ mine, a master butcher, told me there was a man up in Clare Market, makin’ a fortune at hot eels and pea soup, and he lent me ten shillings to start in that line. He and me wife’s the best friends I’ve ever had in the world; for I’ve no memory of a mother, and me father died at sea. My oldest daughter, she’s a good un, goes for the eels and cuts ‘em up, and she an’ me wife does all the hard work. I’ve only to sit at the stall and sell, and they do make ‘em tasty. There’s no better. But we’re hard up. I’d do better if I’d a little more money to buy with. I can’t get a draught like some of the men, and them that gets by the quantity can give more. The boys tells me there’s one man gives ‘em as much as eight pieces; that’s what they calls a lumping ha’p'worth. And the liquor’s richer when you boils up so many eels. What’s my tin pot ag’in’ his five-gallon one? There’s even some that boils the ‘eads, and sells ‘em for a farthing a cupful; but I’ve not come to that. But we’re badly off. The missus has a pair o’ shoes, and she offs with ‘em when my daughter goes to market, and my boy the youngest ’s got no shoes; but we do very well, and would do better, only the cheap pie shop takes off a lot o’ trade. I wouldn’t eat them pies. It’s the dead eels that goes into ‘em, and we that handles eels knows well enough that they’re rank poison if they ain’t cut up alive, and the flesh of ‘em squirming still when they goes into the boiling water. Them pies is uncertain, anyway, whatever kind you buy. I’ve seen a man get off a lot a week old, just with the dodge of hot spiced gravy poured out of an oil can into a hole in the lid, and that gravy no more’n a little brown flour and water; but the spice did it. The cat’s-meat men knows; oh, yes! they knows what becomes of what’s left when Saturday night comes, though I’ve naught to say ag’in’ the cat’s-meat men, for it’s a respectable business enough.

“I’ve thought of other ways. There’s the baked-potato men, but the ‘ansome can and fixin’s for keeping ‘em ‘ot is what costs, you see. Trotters is profitable, too, if you’ve a start, that is, though it’s women mostly that ‘andles trotters, blest if I know why! I’ve a cousin in the boiled pudding business–meat puddings and fruit, too;–but it’s all going out, along of the bakers that don’t give poor folks a chance. They has their big coppers, and boils up their puddings by the ‘undred; but I dare say there’s no more need o’ street-sellers, for folks go to shops for most things now. She’s in Leather Lane, this cousin o’ mine, and makes plum-duff as isn’t to be beat; but she sells Saturday nights mostly, and for Sunday dinners. Ginger nuts goes off well, but there again the shops ‘as you, and unless you can make a great show, with brass things shining to put your eyes out, and a stall that looks as well as a shop, you’re nowhere. There’s no chance for the poor anyhow, it seems to me; for even if you get a start, there’s always some one with more money to do the thing better, and so take the bread out of your mouth. But ‘better’ ’s only more show often, and me wife can’t be beat for tastiness, whether it’s hot eels or pea soup, and I’ll say that long as I stand.”

So many small trades have been ruined by the larger shops taking them up, that the street-seller’s case becomes daily a more complicated one, and the making a living by old-fashioned and time-honored methods almost impossible. It is all part of the general problem of the day, and the street-sellers, whether costers or those of lower degree, look forward apprehensively to changes which seem on the way, and puzzle their untaught minds as to why each avenue of livelihood seems more and more barred against them. For the poorest there seems only a helpless, dumb acquiescence in the order of things which they are powerless to change; but the looker-on, who watches the mass of misery crowding London streets or hiding away in attic and cellar, knows that out of such conditions sudden fury and revolt is born, and that, if the prosperous will not heed and help while they may, the time comes when help will be with no choice of theirs. It is plain that even the most conservative begin to feel this, and effort constantly takes more practical form; but this is but the beginning of what must be,–the inauguration of a social revolution in ideas, and one to which all civilization must come.
Prisoners of Poverty
Helen Campbell, 1889
I have a graduate degree in history and I love history in all it’s forms–especially women’s history. A graduate degree in women’s studies was not an option at the university where I received my MA in History so I had to make do with a more generalized degree. However, in every class I made up for the lack by researching the condition of women in each age that I studied. I have always been fascinated by women’s history, so I thought I would start sharing some of the lost treasures that I uncover. I believe that most people have curious minds and like glimpses of how the world was, and how things were perceived in the past. I firmly believe in the idea that we must remember history in order to learn from it, grow and hopefully cut down on the number of stupid mistakes that random impulse and intellectual curiosity and greed and a thousand other human motivators lead us to make.
Smiles and Good Fortune,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon

It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
– W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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