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Trading Streets and Trading Parishes

The London milkmaid, as portrayed by Marcellus Laroon in the mid-seventeenth century; milkmaids were generally Welsh and seldom merry. The silver plate on her head was part of Mayday festivities.

CHAPTER 11

Where Is the Cheese of Thames Street?

In the nineteenth century, old clothes were sold by male Jews. The largest number of bakers, in the same century, came from Scotland, while London barbers were characteristically city-born. Brick-makers were of London, too, while their labourers were “almost exclusively Irish.” “Navvies” sprang from Yorkshire and Lancashire, while a large proportion of shoe-makers arrived from Northampton. Sugar-refining and the trade in toys were once almost entirely in the hands of Germans, who confined themselves to Whitechapel and its environs. Most butchers and fishmongers, of Smithfield and Billingsgate respectively, were London-born but cheesemongers characteristically arrived from Hampshire and dairymen from Wales; the Welsh “milk-maid” was once a regular sight of the capital. Linen drapers came from Manchester, and only a small proportion of their assistants were Londoners; most came from the counties of Devon and Somerset. In each case members of the same profession tended to form distinct enclaves of habitation and employment.

The same segregation has always been part of London’s trade. Thus in the seventeenth century opticians tended to congregate in Ludgate Street, pawn-brokers in Long Lane, booksellers in St. Paul’s Churchyard. In the eighteenth century cheese was to be found in Thames Street, and playing cards along the Strand. Signs for shops and taverns were on sale in Hoop Alley, Shoe Lane, where the sign-painters kept large stocks ranging from teapots to white harts and red lions. Bird-sellers were located in Seven Dials, coach-makers in Long Acre, statuaries in Euston Road, clothiers in Tottenham Court Road and dentists along St. Martin’s Lane.

Yet sometimes a street will shake off old associations and change its trade. Catherine Street was once known as the quarter for pornographic book-dealers, despite the fact that the saint’s name is derived from the Greek for “purity,” but then in the early decades of the nineteenth century it changed its trade to eating-houses, newsvendors and advertising agents. The Strand was notable for its publication of newspapers before that industry moved eastwards to Fleet Street, and then eastwards again to the newly resurgent Docklands.

Certain parishes were identified by the trades which were continued within them; there were poulterers in St. George’s, lace-men in St. Martin’s, artists in Holy Sepulchre without Newgate and timber merchants in Lambeth. Wheelwrights were to be found in Deptford, millers in Stratford and saddlers at Charing Cross.

Trades sometimes delayed their departure even when the streets themselves were pulled down. “Very curious it is to mark,” Walford wrote in Old and New London, “how old trades and old types of inhabitants linger about localities.” He gave the example of the silversmiths in Cranbourn Street; the street was demolished, together with the adjacent Cranbourn Alley, when suddenly shops in the recently created New Cranbourn Street were “overflowing with plates, jewellery and trinkets.”

The segregation of districts, within London, is also reflected in the curious fact that “the London artisan rarely understands more than one department of the trade to which he serves his apprenticeship,” while country workmen tend to know all the aspects of their profession. It is another token of the “specialisation” of London. By the nineteenth century the divisions and distinctions manifested themselves in the smallest place and in the smallest trade. In Hoxton there grew up the industry of fur- and feather-dressing, for example, and in East London Walter Besant observed that “the number of their branches and subdivisions is simply bewildering”; “a man will go through life in comfort knowing but one infinitesimal piece of work … a man or woman generally knows how to do one thing and one thing only, and if that one piece of work cannot be obtained the man is lost for he can do nothing else.”

So these workers become a small component of the intricate and gigantic mechanism which is London and London trade. A map of the “industrial quarters of north-east London, 1948” shows well-defined patches of light blue for “Camden Town instruments” and the “Hackney clothing quarter” as well as the “South Hackney shoe area.” A dark blue area shows the “Aldersgate clothing quarter” close to the “Shoreditch printing quarter” which is bordered on the north by “furniture quarter” and on the south by “East End clothing quarter.” These areas, comprising many small industries and businesses, were described in The Times London History Atlas as “the successors of long-established crafts which originated in the medieval city.” Then, as if in imitation of the conditions of the city’s medieval origin, other more outlying areas began to specialise in certain trades. Hammersmith and Woolwich were known for engineering and metals, Holborn and Hackney for their textiles.

Certain other professions migrate together, flocking over the centuries to new territories as if by instinct or impulse. It is well known that doctors and surgeons now cluster in Harley Street. But in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries notable medical practitioners inhabited Finsbury Square, Finsbury Pavement, Finsbury Place and Finsbury Circus, while the younger or less affluent doctors took lodgings in the immediate vicinity. They all migrated in the 1840s and 1850s, and Finsbury became a “socially deserted district.” There was a similar movement in the manufacture of hats. They were made in an area of Bermondsey known as “the Maze,” between Bermondsey Street and Borough High Street, together with Tooley Street, but then some unknown migratory instinct pushed “the grand centre of hat manufacture” further westward until it came to reside by the Blackfriars Road; why Bermondsey should thus be abandoned is unknown although it would be fair to guess that it was the result of some hidden mechanism involved in commerce. By some similar process the business of furniture-making removed from Curtain Road, Shoreditch, to Camden Town.

The phenomenon of trading streets and trading parishes can also be recognised on a larger urban scale, with the employment of “land use” maps; these demonstrate that the whole area was once divided into regions marked “built up area,” “clay pits (unproductive),” “market garden,” “pasture,” “mixed farming” and “grain rotations” in a remarkably fluent pattern of organisation. A map of eighteenth-century food markets shows a similar natural pattern, as if the very topography of London was determined by silent and invisible lines of commerce.

Why have the furniture dealers of Tottenham Court Road, still operating in that street after 150 years, in recent times been joined by shops selling electronic apparatus? Why have the clock-makers of Clerkenwell been supplemented by design consultancies and advertising companies? Why has Wardour Street, the home of antique bric-à-brac, now become the centre of the film industry? An intervening period in the late nineteenth century, when Soho became the centre of music publishing, may help to account for the transition but it does not explain it. Like much else in London there is no surviving rhyme or reason to elucidate its secret and mysterious changes.

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