William Powell Firth (English Painter, 1819-1909) The Flower Girl's Young Helper
One of Henry Mayhew’s (London Labour & the London Poor. 1851) investigations focused on flower girls – children aged under 20 who walked the streets selling flowers, mostly sent out by their parents, but in some cases through the necessity to make ends meet having been orphaned. Mayhew pointed out that young girls often started out by selling cut flowers & small bunches of herbs: "At about 7 years of age the girls first go into the streets to sell. A shallow-basket is given to them, with about two shillings for stock-money, & they hawk, according to the time of year, either oranges, apples, or violets; some begin their street education with the sale of water-cresses." One of the most poignant of Mayhew’s tales involves that of 2 orphaned flower girls, in this he describes in depth the room they were living in, their clothing, their work, & the amazing strength of the elder sister “Of these girls the elder was 15 & the younger 11. Both were clad in old, but not torn, dark print frocks, hanging so closely, & yet so loosely, about them as to show the deficiency of under-clothing; they wore old broken black chip bonnets. The older sister (or rather half-sister) had a pair of old worn-out shoes on her feet, the younger was barefoot, but trotted along, in a gait at once quick & feeble-as if the soles of her little feet were impervious, like horn, to the roughness of the road. The elder girl has a modest expression of countenance, with no pretensions to prettiness except in having tolerably good eyes. Her complexion was somewhat muddy, & her features somewhat pinched. The younger child had a round, chubby, & even rosy face, & quite a healthful look. Her portrait is here given. They lived in one of the streets near Drury lane. They were inmates of a house, not let out as a lodging-house, in separate beds, but in rooms, & inhabited by street-sellers & street-labourers. The room they occupied was large, & one dim candle lighted it so insufficiently that it seemed to exaggerate the dimensions. The walls were bare & discoloured with damp. The furniture consisted of a crazy table & a few chairs, & in the centre of the room was an old four-post bedstead of the larger size. This bed was occupied nightly by the two sisters & their brother, a lad just turned thirteen. In a sort of recess in a corner of the room was the decency of an old curtain – or something equivalent, for I could hardly see in the dimness -& behind this was, I presume, the bed of the married couple. The three children paid 2s. a week for the room, the tenant an Irishman out of work paying 2s. 9d., but the furniture was his, & his wife aided the children in their trifle of washing, mended their clothes, where such a thing was possible, & such like. The husband was absent at the time of my visit, but the wife seemed of a better stamp, judging by her appearance, & by her refraining from any direct, or even indirect, way of begging, as well as from the “Glory be to Gods!” “the heavens be your honour’s bed!” or “it’s the thruth I’m telling of you sir,” that I so frequently meet with on similar visits. The elder girl said, in an English accent, not at all garrulously, but merely in answer to my questions: “I sell flowers, sir; we live almost on flowers when they are to be got. I sell, & so does my sister, all kinds, but it’s very little use offering any that’s not sweet. I think it’s the sweetness as sells them. I sell primroses, when they’re in, & violets, & wall-flowers, & stocks, & roses of different sorts, & pinks, & carnations, & mixed flowers, & lilies of the valley, & green lavender, & mignonette (but that I do very seldom), & violets again at this time of the year, for we get them both in spring & winter.” [They are forced in hot-houses for winter sale, I may remark.] “The best sale of all is, I think, moss-roses, young moss-roses. We do best of all on them. Primroses are good, for people say: `Well, here’s spring again to a certainty.’ Gentlemen are our best customers. I’ve heard that they buy flowers to give to the ladies. Ladies have sometimes said: `A penny, my poor girl, here’s three-halfpence for the bunch.’ Or they’ve given me the price of two bunches for one; so have gentlemen. I never had a rude word said to me by a gentleman in my life. No, sir, neither lady nor gentleman ever gave me 6d. for a bunch of flowers. I never had a sixpence given to me in my life -never. I never go among boys, I know nobody but my brother. My father was a tradesman in Mitchelstown, in the County Cork. I don’t know what sort of a tradesman he was. I never saw him. He was a tradesman I’ve been told. I was born in London. Mother was a chairwoman, & lived very well. None of us ever saw a father.” [It was evident that they were illegitimate children, but the landlady had never seen the mother, & could give me no information.] “We don’t know anything about our fathers. We were all `mother’s children.’ Mother died seven years ago last Guy Faux day. I’ve got myself, & my brother & sister a bit of bread ever since, & never had any help but from the neighbours. I never troubled the parish. O, yes, sir, the neighbours is all poor people, very poor, some of them. We’ve lived with her” (indicating her landlady by a gesture) “these two years, & off & on before that. I can’t say how long.” “Well, I don’t know exactly,” said the landlady, “but I’ve had them with me almost all the time, for four years, as near as I can recollect; perhaps more. I’ve moved three times, & they always followed me.” In answer to my inquiries the landlady assured me that these two poor girls, were never out of doors all the time she had known them after six at night. “We’ve always good health. We can all read.” [Here the three somewhat insisted upon proving to me their proficiency in reading, & having produced a Roman Catholic book, the “Garden of Heaven,” they read very well.] “I put myself,” continued the girl, “and I put my brother & sister to a Roman Catholic school -& to Ragged schools -but I could read before mother died. My brother can write, & I pray to God that he’ll do well with it. I buy my flowers at Covent Garden; sometimes, but very seldom, at Farringdon. I pay 1s. for a dozen bunches, whatever flowers are in. Out of every two bunches I can make three, at 1d. a piece. Sometimes one or two over in the dozen, but not so often as I would like. We make the bunches up ourselves. We get the rush to tie them with for nothing. We put their own leaves round these violets (she produced a bunch). The paper for a dozen costs a penny; sometimes only a halfpenny. The two of us doesn’t make less than 6d. a day, unless it’s very ill luck. But religion teaches us that God will support us, & if we make less we say nothing. We do better on oranges in March or April, I think it is, than on flowers. Oranges keep better than flowers you see, sir. We make 1s. a day, & 9d. a day, on oranges, the two of us. I wish they was in all the year. I generally go St. John’s-wood way, & Hampstead & Highgate way with my flowers. I can get them nearly all the year, but oranges is better liked than flowers, I think. I always keep 1s. stockmoney, if I can. If it’s bad weather, so bad that we can’t sell flowers at all, & so if we’ve had to spend our stock-money for a bit of bread, she (the landlady) lends us 1s., if she has one, or she borrows one of a neighbour, if she hasn’t, of if the neighbours hasn’t it, she borrows it at a dolly-shop” (the illegal pawnshop). “There’s 2d. a week to pay for 1s. at a dolly, & perhaps an old rug left for it; if it’s very hard weather, the rug must be taken at night time, or we are starved with the cold. It sometimes has to be put into the dolly again next morning, & then there’s 2d. to pay for it for the day. We’ve had a frock in for 6d., & that’s a penny a week, & the same for a day. We never pawned anything; we have nothing they would take in at the pawnshop. We live on bread & tea, & sometimes a fresh herring of a night. Sometimes we don’t eat a bit all day when we’re out; sometimes we take a bit of bread with us, or buy a bit. My sister can’t eat taturs; they sicken her. I don’t know what emigrating means.” [I informed her & she continued]: “No, sir, I wouldn’t like to emigrate & leave brother & sister. If they went with me I don’t think I should like it, not among strangers. I think our living costs us 2s. a week for the two of us; the rest goes in rent. That’s all we make.”
Street sellers, often called costermongers in Britain, were known to have been in London from at least the 15C, & possibly much earlier. Mayhew, writing in the 1840s, called costermongering an "ancient calling" & attributed the 1st written descriptions of the street sellers' distinctive cries & sales patter appearing in a ballad, entitled London Lyckpeny by John Lydgate probably written in the late 1300s & 1st performed around 1409. Shakespeare & Marlowe mention costermongers in their writings. Initiatives to rid the city of street traders were common during the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) & Charles I (1625–1649). These attempts failed & the number of London-based street vendors surged in the 18C & 19C. On the otherhand, every employment, even down to the flower-sellers, was carefully regulated by statute in Paris, before the French Revolution, a period of far-reaching social & political upheaval in France from 1789 until 1799.
Street life & the "cries of London" was also a recurring theme in painting. In the mid 1700s, the English water-colorist, Paul Sandby created a series entitled London Cries depicting English shopkeepers, stall-holders & itinerant street vendors. The Dutch engraver, Marcellus Laroon began working in London in the mid-1700s where he produced his most famous work, the series, The Cryes of London. The Flemish engraver & printmaker, Anthony Cardon, spent time in England in the 1790s, where he produced a series of engravings of London's street sellers, known as the Cries of London. Francis Wheatley, the English painter, who had been born in Covent Garden and was well acquainted with London's street life, exhibited a series of artworks, also entitled Cries of London, between 1792 and 1795. Augustus Edwin Mulready, made his reputation by painting scenes of Victorian life which included street sellers, urchins, markets flower sellers. The French artist, Louise Moillon noted for her still-life paintings, also used market scenes, street vendors, and green-grocers as subject matter in early 17C France.