Is there a word more redolent of the bustle and hustle of a Victorian London street than “costermonger?” In the popular imagination, these barrow-sellers of fruits and vegetables (among other items) are “cheery chirpy Cockney chappie” figures, best known for singing and dancing about in colorful rags and scenic grime in films like Mary Poppins and Oliver. But the truth is that this was a hardscrabble life for the working poor of London—and it spawned a culture of surprising complexity and violence.
The resplendent four-volume sociological volume London Labor and the Working Poor by the 19th century journalist Henry Mayhew begins with a 50-page study of costermongers, detailing not just their work routines but their living conditions, entertainments, culture and customs. A coster-boy’s life would begin in summer before dawn, calling wares for his father after washing and dressing the barrow. When most of the goods were sold by noon, the boy would be sent with the fruit to hawk on the streets. Without schooling most were illiterate, and by 13 would have graduated to their own barrow and the same marginal existence as their dads. Their main entertainments were drinking, gambling and the “penny gaffs,” small ramshackle theaters presenting variety shows that shocked middle-class Londoners and delighted the patrons.
While honor amongst costermongers was a deeply-held custom (it was said that they could leave a barrow alone for an entire day, so long as another costermonger had it in sight), they were known as a tough crew, given to fistfights. “A good pugilist is looked up to with great admiration by the costers, and fighting is considered to be a necessary part of a boy’s education,” says Mayhew. They were sworn enemies of the police (the main impediment to their livelihood), and getting a solid hit on a constable by any means, including the occasional sucker-punch, was a point of pride in the community. “I am assured that in case of a political riot every ‘coster’ would seize his policeman.”
Now that’s an interesting thought: what if the violence of the Costermongers was honed into a “Costermob?” How would a squadron of bobbies do against a crowd of barrow boys? To find out what that might sound like, Listen to Episode 18, “Apples and Coppers,” where things get even more unpleasant for the Brass Family and their friends!