A traditional Coster Mongers Barrow
Im sure many of us have used the long winter nights to stop and consider what improvement can be made in your life, in my case what I can do better to promote my wheelwrights business. Last year I took a stall at several country fairs, which turned out to be great. I didn’t get any wheel work out of it, but I met a lot of folk, heard a lot of very funny stories, and sold several of my other bits and pieces, and slowly my name as a wheelwright gets about. Building on that for this year I have decided I need to make a market cart to take with me. It would be an easy to transport example of my work, which I can then use to display some of my other goods, and you never know I might sell some.
So with the decision made I needed to do some research to establish the design, and this is where the story starts.
I have never given market carts any thought before, I knew they existed but had never come across them. What I discovered was what I have to describe as a secret world of the market trader and market carts.
Imagine if you can Inner City Victorian London in the 1850s, slightly before Jack the Ripper, but with the same famous Place names such as Whitechapel, and Bethnal Green, before the days of a supermarket on every corner, and amazon prime. Food Distribution was centred on a series of Wholesale Markets, Smithfield for Meat, Billingsgate for Fish, and Covent Garden for Fruit. The food then came down to a series of retail markets many of which remain today.
A Ginger Beer Seller
A major part of the food distribution system was mobile food sellers, called Coster Mongers. A coster is a derivation of costard an ancient variety of apple. Originally selling their wares from a basket or trestle table, they would buy their goods from the wholesale markets, & then go off to sell them, shouting out their wares at the top of their voice as they go. Think of the film Oliver just not as squeaky clean. The need to transport larger quantities meant Baskets and trestle tables were replaced with what developed into the Coster Mongers Barrow a traditional style 2 wheel cart with a sloped front. From these carts the coster would sell all manner of goods walking many miles in a day. These were plain utilitarian carts, 1.5 – 2mts in length with a sloping front. Usually painted green with red wheels. I have seen some very ornate versions of these carts but these tended to be later not everyday carts.
Inevitably the coster mongers would find themselves congregating in certain areas which became the great markets of London, many of which remain albeit a shadow of their former self. As the markets became more established a four wheel market cart emerged.
Market trader was always a hand to mouth existence, it probably hasn’t changed, however some traders do better than others. A few saved their money and moved up into bricks and mortar shops, several of our major retail chains can trace their roots to market carts, and a few became for the want of a better term barrow masters. It would appear that each market would have a supplier of stalls that could be rented by the day from a local yard, pulled out into the market, and dragged back to the yard at the end of the day. As some markets could have 100 stalls this was big business, but as I suspect due to the market traders natural inclination to avoid scrutiny this was a secret world.
Each yard would be run by a family, who would build and maintain their own carts, including the wheels. For example Spitalfields market was supplied by “Hilliers” Bethnal Green Market was and still is supplied by the “Baker Family” The Hillier’s appear to have gone and there is a very sad article on www.spitalfieldslife.com entitled the last days at Hillier Bros 25/10/16 which documents their demise.
The design of the barrows appears to be consistent from one market to another. About 2mts in length x 1mt wide complete with a removable canvas cover, Most were painted green with red wheels and to differentiate between hirers they would carve the family name on the wheels. All the wheels were iron shod supported by substantial leaf springs, designed to take a load, and amazingly many still exist. All were designed to be hand pulled. Whilst I have read about the use of donkeys, I can’t find any pictorial evidence or examples of horse/donkey drawn.
I recently went to visit the both Bethnal Green and Roman Road Markets in East London, and you can still see in use plenty of the traditional four wheeled stalls, admittedly some of which are past their best, interspersed with modern metal frame stalls.
Throughout history there have been a number of attempts to eradicate the Market traders & Costermongers from London. Highly visible Colourful characters with popular support, I suspect the term “Loveable rogue” would best sum them up. Markets became noisy lively places with displays of drunkenness so not much has changed. The stallholders frequently fell out with authority and the church which came to a head in the 1870s in Bethnal Green where a Street Regulation Committee was formed by the local church to enforce a set of rules, governing opening hours. A paid inspector enforced these rules leading to much unrest with stalls beings confiscated or destroyed. The stall holders organised and in 1888 the Bethnall Green Costermonger’s and stall keepers society was formed whose primary aim was to fight these prosecutions. This culminated with them seeking support of a noted philanthropist The Earl of Shaftesbury who supported them and managed to persuade the church to rescind the orders. I have seen a picture of a Costermongers Cart some say purchased by, others say presented to :The Earl
They wore a traditional unofficial uniform, a long waistcoat of sandy coloured corduroy with buttons of Brass or Mother of pearl, often in swirly patterns Bell bottom trousers, and a silk neckchief. In 1880 a man called Henry Croft took this a step further and declared himself the first Pearly King, the start of the famous cockney character known around the world.
After much consideration I have decided to build a costermongers barrow. Originally I had decided on a Market Cart but in discussion with other wheelwrights I am assured the ornate version of costermongers cart is far more desirable with the modern addition of a rubber tyre for the wheel, apparently shopping centres won’t accept steel rims. You never know I might even sell a few.
You can follow how I get on by looking on instragram at tom_green_craft or a may put some videos up on youtube – heritagecraft