In nineteenth-century England, workers in the growing factory system fought their bosses over money, time, and power. Meanwhile, as historian Stephen Jankiewicz writes, a different kind of class politics played out on the street, where self-employed vendors insisted on their right to make an independent living beholden to no employer.
Jankiewicz writes that street sellers—particularly costermongers, who sold fresh fruits and vegetables—were a longstanding target for middle- and upper-class reformers. In 1831, one pamphlet identified costermongers, along with chimney-sweeps, scavengers, and others at the economic margins, as potentially dangerous due to their “barbarous ignorance” and connections with thieves, conmen, sex workers, and beggars.
But vegetable sellers were clearly hard workers. By contemporary accounts, many left their homes at four or five o’clock in the morning to buy their wares in the markets and continued lugging them around the streets until around nine at night. Their work provided London’s poor with cheaper products than they could have bought at a store.
The ranks of street sellers included men who had lost or quit jobs at factories and shops, women married to laborers, and children contributing to the family income. While most were very poor, Jankiewicz writes, many were happy to “be their own master.” As one bookseller put it, “I like the air; the street, the crowd; I like to speak and be heard.”
The ability to be heard was part of what made street sellers a political force. Their livelihood depended on being willing and able to draw attention to themselves, and a knack for assembling a crowd. Jankiewicz describes one 1859 case that became a media sensation, in which police removed an Irish woman named Mary Ann Donovan from the spot where she was selling combs. Donovan reportedly “tried to excite public sympathy, and collected a great crowd around her.” At her trial, Donovan boldly stood up to the presiding authority, Lord Mayor David Wire, denying insinuations she was a sex worker and attacking the city government for preventing her from making an honest living.
“Donovan is significant because she exhibits how even the most socially marginal sellers could have a powerful impact on public discourse,” Jankiewicz writes.
Donovan’s experience was not isolated. London’s fledgling Metropolitan Police often drove costermongers from one place to another, denying them a regular spot where customers could find them. Many sellers developed a political analysis that linked this harassment with broader issues of exploitation of the poor by business owners and political leaders.
Many joined the Chartist movement, which called for extending political power to the working classes. In 1848, one paper reported that a 2,000- to 3,000-person Chartist rally in Trafalgar Square was “composed chiefly of the costermonger class.” Later, in 1869, an article about a demonstration in support of Irish political prisoners noted the presence of an “officiating costermonger.”
Opponents of Chartist reforms also identified street sellers as a political force. One warned that a proposed 1860 bill would “hand over the balance of parliamentary power of the kingdom to the costermonger class of people.”