Victorian Street-Traders: Greenwich,1880

In the year 1880, a leading South London churchman commissioned a photographer to take photographs of street traders in the district of Greenwich. He used the photos for lectures on the condition of the poor working classes in London at that time.

Weighing scales. This boy is having his weight measured. For a penny or two, he would be able to be weighed. Nobody had the money to buy personal scales, so this was the only way to know your weight.

A rabbit-seller. The man would have either bred rabbits to sell as meat, or trapped and shot them in the countryside before bringing them into London to sell them.

This glazier has no vehicle of any kind. So he carries glass panes on his back and walks around hoping to be hired to fix broken windows.

Victorian milkmen were categorised in three classes. This man is a ‘Third Class’ milkman, as he carries the milk cans around the streets using a yoke.

A ‘Second Class’ milkman. He has a handcart, so can do more deliveries.

The ‘First Class’ milkman has a horse and cart, so can cover a bigger delivery area.

A Muffin Man. Muffins were a very popular snack, and even gave rise to a childrens’song, in 1820. (These are bread muffins, not the cakes called Muffins by Americans.)
Do you know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man.
Do you know the muffin man,
Who lives on Drury Lane?

Yes I know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man,
Yes, I know the muffin man,
Who lives on Drury Lane.

A family of ice-cream sellers. Ice cream had been brought to England by Italian immigrants, and soon became popular with Victorians.

Selling bricks from a cart. There were no DIY shops then of course, so if you needed to make repairs on your house, you had to buy from street traders.

A Kentish herb-seller. This lady would travel from her home in Kent by train, to sell home-grown herbs.

This lady is selling ‘Sherbet’ drinks. This was a sweet fizzy yellow powder that was added to water to make a refreshing drink. Every customer would use the same glasses!

A Pie-Man. The pies would be made in his shop, then he would also walk around selling them from his basket to increase trade.

Shrimp-Sellers. These men would buy shrimps from Billingsate Fish Market in London, then sell them cooked on the streets as a snack.

A child road-sweeper. Children were expected to work from as young as the age of 5 or 6. This boy is about 11 years old, and had a full-time job sweeping the streets of Greenwich.

This woman is selling toys from her cart. With few specialist toy-shops at the time, working people would buy toys from street traders.

A chair-mender. With people unable to afford to replace broken furniture, he would travel around hoping to find work repairing chairs.

This man is selling refurbished top hats that he has cleaned and repaired. He is carrying all his available stock.

33 thoughts on “Victorian Street-Traders: Greenwich,1880

  1. (1) Personal scales are boring. But that 1880 method looks weigh cool. Sign me up, even it costs me a few pounds!
    (2) The rabbit-seller got tired of trying to trap “wascally wabbits” in the countryside. When checking on his traps, a rabbit would be nearby, chomping on a carrot. “Eh, what’s up doc?”
    (3) Was there a pain reliever back then for back panes?
    (4) How many children has that milkman fathered?
    (5) Lord Raleigh would have kept the whole amount of the retail price for himself if the milkman hadn’t found a way to skim the profits, thereby keeping 2% for himself.
    (6) Were the folks in Devonshire aware that they were drinking horse milk?
    (7) These are bread muffins, not the muffins that Lady Gaga sings about.
    (8) Pinocchio Capaldi was sent to England by Freddo Gelato. (I wonder if he’s telling the truth about his ice cream being famous.)
    (9) Thanks to the popularity of brick salesmen, no glass houses were being built in 1880.
    (10) The herb seller eventually began growing tobacco. She found selling Kent cigarettes a lot more lucrative.
    (11) “Every customer would use the same glasses!” I don’t see any kids wearing spectacles.
    (12) Somewhere I read that…
    Simple Simon met a pie-man,
    Going to the fair;
    Said Simple Simon to the pie-man,
    “Let me taste your ware.”
    (13) To ensure freshness, the shrimp were stored in shrimp cellars.
    (14) Road-sweeper: “Maybe I can collect horse manure and sell it as fertilizer?”
    (15) “Ma’am, I’d like to buy a toy. Do you have a Rubik’s Cube? No? What about a fidget spinner?”
    (16) The chair-mender’s best client wasn’t the Elephant Man, but rather a man who weighed as much as an elephant.
    (17) Overheard at the London Society of Magicians:
    Mr. Bertram, at the door: “Who goes there?”
    Don Topper: “The hat-seller!”
    Mr. Bertram: “Who’s that with you?”
    Don Topper: “The rabbit-seller!”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting photos. These people must’ve been very strong to have pulled those carts and carried their wares around all day. They must’ve been exhausted at the end of their day. The ice cream seller photograph looks 1920s to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The ice cream seller photo was in the same collection, dated 1880. I went with that date, though I agree they look to be dressed differently. The surname Capaldi is on the 1881 Census, so they could have been around long before the 1920s.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. These are such great photos. I find myself very much reminded of South East Asia in the 50’s-60’s and even later where many similar trades still existed. I can’t imagine living day-to-day especially if you had children, but I suppose if it’s what you were born into, you just got on with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pete, in my post about my giant New York City crab feast, I started with a picture from Chinatown, where there are street vendors just like this – selling fake designer handbags – New York is filled with street vendors who keep this proud tradition live!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Those are fascinating, Pete. I love the three classes of milkmen, and how resourceful people were in order to make a living. And I have to wonder if the Capaldi selling ice-creams might be related to Peter Capaldi of Dr Who’s fame! Thanks, Pete!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peter Capaldi is from Scotland, as is Lewis Capaldi, the singer/songwriter. I found this reference to the surname online.
      ‘The Capaldi family name was found in the USA, the UK, and Scotland between 1881 and 1920. The most Capaldi families were found in USA in 1920.’
      The 1881 reference to the UK would be from the census of that year, so they could easily have been here in 1880.
      Glad you enjoyed the photos, Olga.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  6. I wonder how many blokes bought a refurbished topper? Maybe it wasn’t only toffs who wore them! I pity the poor glazier, carrying that glass on his back: glass is heavy! As well as being fragile, of course. Cheers, Jon.

    Liked by 1 person

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