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Music, Please

By the middle of the nineteenth century the pleasure gardens were outmoded, and their legacy lay in the concert rooms which sprang up within the city. In 1763 it was advertised that in the “great room” of Spring Gardens the seven-year-old Mozart would be seen “playing the Harpsichord in a Perfection it surmounts all … Imagination.” But formal music-making was not the only music of London. London’s arias and laments began with the first street trader and have continued ever since. It has often been noted that the “low” culture of the native Londoner can revitalise and refashion the forces of traditional culture. The spectacle of the infant Mozart playing in a music room is complemented by Handel’s remark that “hints of his very best songs have several of them been owing to the sounds in his ears of cries in the streets.” In the city, “high” and “low” are inextricably mingled.

We hear the merchants of medieval Cheapside, singing out in London Lickpenny with “Strabery ripe” and “Cherryes in the ryse.” “Here is Parys thred, finest in the land … Hot shepe’s feete … Makerell … ryshes grene!” The costermonger sold “Costards!,” which were big apples, but in later centuries the “coster,” with his horse and cart, cried out, “Soles, oh! … Live haddick … Ee-ee-eels alive, oh! … Mackareel! mack-mack-mackareel!” So it continued, down other streets and other centuries. “Pretty Maids Pretty Pins Pretty Women … Buy My Great Eeels … Diddle Diddle Diddle Dumplens Ho … Any Card Matches or Savealls … Buy any Wax or Wafers … Old Shoes for Some Brooms … Buy a Rabbit a Rabbet … Buy a Fork or Fire Shovel … Crab Crab Crab any Crab … Buy my fat Chickens … Old Chairs to mend … Any Kitchen Stuff Have You Maids … 4 Pair For A Shilling Holland Socks … Buy My 4 Ropes of Hard Onyons … Any Work for John Cooper … New River Water.”

Volumes have been written about these London cries, and we also have images of the tradespeople who uttered them. This identification was another way of deciphering the chaos of the city and of creating out of the poor or “lower order” a gallery of characters. The seller of cod, for example, wears an old apron, while the vendor of shoes sports a cape. The seller of dried hake carries the basket of that commodity upon her head, but the vendor of oranges and lemons carries her bounty at her waist. The Irish were known to sell rabbits and milk, the Jews old clothes and hare-skins, the Italians looking-glasses and pictures. The old woman selling fire-shovels dresses herself in an old-fashioned cone-shaped hat as a representation of the wintry months. Countrywomen entering the metropolis to sell their wares characteristically wore red cloaks and straw hats, while the countrymen wove flowers in their hair. Those who sold fish were generally the poorest, while women selling clothes were the most smartly dressed.

Yet the clothing of most street vendors bears the unmistakable mark of destitution, with worn and tattered dresses or coats. Many of these tradespeople were crippled or deformed and, as the editor of Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life, Sean Shesgreen, has noted, “If they give one impression more than any other, it is a care-worn melancholy.” Laroon’s portraits are distinctly individual, unlike “types” or categories, and in his art we can see the lineaments of specific fate and circumstance. The distinctive features he depicted in the 1680s remain the silent token of many generations who have walked crying through the streets of the city.

Even as the poor trader died—or left some scanty stock to another—his or her cry was taken up like an echo. It was certainly true that, as Addison wrote in 1711, “People know the Wares they deal in rather by their Tunes than by their Words.” The words were often indistinct or indistinguishable: the mender of old chairs was recognised by his low and melancholy note, while the retailer of broken glass specialised in a sort of plaintive shriek quite appropriate to his goods. But even the music itself might become confused and confusing. The vendor of shrimps could adopt the same tune as the vendor of watercress, and potatoes were sold with the same cry as that of cherries.

There was also in the passage of years, or centuries, the steady clipping or abbreviation of jargon. “Will you buy any milk today, mistress” became “Milk maids below,” then “Milk below,” then “Milk-o” and, finally, “Mieu” or “Mee-o.” “Old clothes” became “Ogh clo” or “owld clo.” “Salted hake” became “Poor Jake” or “Poor Jack”; then “Poor John” became the recognisable phrase for the vendors of dried cod. The chimney-sweep’s cry became “’we-ep” or “’e-ep” and Pierce Egan, author of Life in London, recalled “one man from whom I could never make out more than happy happy happy now.”

As London grew larger and noisier, the cries became louder—perhaps, even, more desperate and more hysterical. From a distance of half a mile, they were a low, steady and continuous roar much like a fall of water; they became a Niagara of voices. But in the middle of the city, they were a great turmoil of notes. London to foreign observers was “a distracted City” and Samuel Johnson noted that “The attention of a new-comer is generally first struck by the multiplicity of the cries that stun him in the street.” Stun, stunner, stunning—it is a true London word. As the print salesman said of his wares placed in an upturned umbrella—“It’ll show stunnin’, and sell as yer goes.”

The cries of the street-seller were joined by those of the “common criers” who announced such items of public news as “If any man or woman can tell any tydyngs of a grey mare, with a long mane and a short tayle …” There were the shopkeepers of Cheapside, Paternoster Row, East Cheap and a hundred other localities calling out continually “What do you lack … Will you buy …” The cry of the “mercury-women,” “Londons Gazette here,” was eventually superseded by that of the newsboy with his “Pa-a-par! ainy of the mornin’ pipers.” The horn of the sow-gelder plying his trade mingled with the bell of the dustman and the sound of the “Twancking of a brass Kettle or a Frying-pan” together with the myriad and unending sounds of the London traffic.

Today, street markets are still alive with chatter and patter; most of the cries have vanished, although even in the twenty-first century you might still hear the bell of the muffin-man or the horn of the knife-grinder and see the pony-and-trap of the “any-old-iron” or rag-and-bone man. There were also the barrow man with “Shrimps and winkles all alive-o,” the lavender seller, and the “lilywhite” celery and watercress man who cried out, “’Ere’s yer salory and watercreases.”

In the past there were also the ballad-singers and the street patterers and the peripatetic vocalists and the almanac vendors and the “flying stationers” who would take up their pitch on any corner and sell single sheets on juicy murders or fashionable songs.

Perhaps the oldest form was the broadside, a sheet printed on one side which bore the latest news and the newest sensations. From the earliest years of the sixteenth century this was the language of the street—“Sir Walter Raleigh His Lamentations! … Strange News from Sussex … No Natural Mother But a Monster …” Alongside these “headlines,” as they might appropriately be called, were such broadside ballads as “A Maydens Lamentation For A Bedfellow Or I Can Nor Will No Longer Lye Alone … The Mans Comfortable Answer To The Mayden … This Maid Would Give Ten Shillings For A Kiss.” These were the songs which were shouted down the streets and pasted on the walls. Their vendors did not expect to get paid for their voices but, instead, drew a crowd and then sold their wares for a halfpenny a sheet. There was of course an especial delight in “Last Dying Speeches” sold to the crowd at the very moment of execution by “flying patterers” otherwise known as “death hunters.” In a city which lived upon rumour, sensation and sudden alterations of mass feeling, the crying out of news and the singing of popular ballads were the perfect forms of communication. The politic John Dryden was not able to compete with the political ballad, “Lillibullero,” which outsold him in every sense, and another balladeer wrote: “Dryden thy Wit has catterwauld too long,/Now Lero Lero is the only song.” Songs, like slogans and catchphrases, could sweep through the streets for days or weeks before being utterly forgotten.

Then new songs, together with an old ballad for company, would in turn become part of a “long song” which comprised several ballads printed together on a roll of paper. They might also come into the hands of the “pinner up” who fastened many hundreds of ballads on iron railings or an area of “dead wall.” In the 1830s some eight hundred yards of wall on the south side of Oxford Street were used to display these song-sheets, until the arrival of shops and shop-fronts transformed the thoroughfare.

Yet some ballads retained their individual popularity for many years. “Willikins and his Dinah,” “Billy Barlow” and “The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter” remained great favourites with the London crowd—the pretty daughter of the rat-catcher herself having “such a sweet loud voice, sir,/You could hear her all down Parliament Street/And as far as Charing Cross, sir.” She was representative of those itinerant street-performers whose lives were often as pathetic and terrible as the ballads they sang. They performed mainly in the evening, sometimes accompanied by a flute or a cracked guitar, and were to be found upon every corner from the Strand to Whitechapel. Charles Dickens recalled his encounter with one such “itinerant singer” by the Upper Marsh on the south side of the river—“Singing! How few of those who pass such a miserable creature as this, think of the anguish of heart, the sinking of soul and spirit, which the very effort of singing produces!”

The ballad-singer had as a counterpart in the London streets the “running patterer” who cried out the romances and tragedies of the day. Henry Mayhew described their activities in his usual laconic style: “It is … a ‘mob’ or ‘school’ of the running patterers (for both these words are used) and consists of two, three or four men. All these men state that the greater the noise they make, the better the chance of sale.” They would often take up positions in different parts of the street and pretend to vie with each other for attention, thus heightening interest in the latest crime, murder, elopement or execution. Once again, the requisite in the city is sheer volume of noise.

Commotion and rumour are certainly more important than “truth,” if that commodity can ever actually be found in London, and the patterer often supplied his auditors with “cock”—politely described as a “pleasing fiction”—which was then sold as a “catchpenny.” The offender was known as a “cock-crower” and sometimes advertised his false wares with a lurid picture, often incorporating the London motifs of blood and flame mounted upon a pole.

It would be unfair to scorn these products of native art. Joshua Reynolds confessed that he borrowed a motif from a woodcut he had found pinned to a dead wall; Walter Scott studied street literature, chapbooks and ballads to stimulate his interest in folk myth and history. It is important to emphasise once again how Cockney taste can enter and animate a more “refined” cultural tradition.

The voices of the running patterers and the itinerant singers were invariably joined by the often discordant airs of the street musicians. Hector Berlioz, visiting London in the mid-nineteenth century, wrote that “no city in the world” was consumed so much by music; despite his profession, he was concerned less with the melodies of the concert hall than with those of the barrel-organ, the barrel-piano, the bagpipes and the drums which filled the streets. As Charles Booth noted in his survey of the East End, “let a barrel organ strike up a valse at any corner and at once the girls who may be walking past, and the children out of the gutter, begin to foot it merrily. Men join in sometimes, two young men together as likely as not,” while an appreciative crowd watched the dancing.

There were German bands, as well as Indian drummers and blacked-up “Abyssians” who played violin, guitar, tambourine and castanets; there were glee singers, and minstrels (generally a couple) who could be heard crooning “Oh where is my boy tonight?” and “Will you meet me at the Fountain?” In the 1840s there was a blind musician who played the violoncello with his feet, and a crippled trumpeter who drove around in a dog-cart.

The cacophony was immense and yet, in one of those gradual but necessary transitions of London life, most of it has passed away leaving only buskers to entertain cinema queues and inventive players of illegal music in the underpasses of London’s transport system.

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