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Street traders, hawkers and buskers

Street vendors, selling goods in the street from baskets and trays or from hand carts and small horse drawn vans were a common feature of British life into the 1950's. As recently as 1861 there were 500 water cress sellers and 300 cat meat sellers trading on the streets of London. Children selling matches (mainly girls) or bootlaces (mainly boys) in the streets were seen into the 1920's (although the 1870 Education Act required children between the ages of five and ten to attend school). Even today in many cities one will encounter Romany ladies selling small sprigs of 'lucky heather', people selling small items from a suitcase and wheeled 'hot dog' carts and small caravan cafe's. They are a useful adjunct to a model railway layout as they provide an excuse for having numbers of people standing still in the streets.

Technically if all you have is a tray or suitcase full of wares you are a 'peddler' but if you have a hand cart of horse drawn cart you are a 'hawker'. People selling fruit and veg from either were always known as 'costermongers' but those with a shop were 'green grocers' to distinguish them from grocers who seemed to sell just about anything for household use.

There were large numbers of horse drawn vehicles used by traders and some of these continued in use into the 1980's. These would either tour an area, stopping occasionally to ply their trade (usually from the rear of the vehicle), or (mainly on market days) they would park in the street and open the side of the cart to form a kiosk. Some of these vans or waggons simply had poles to push up and hold the canvass top as an awning, others had folding doors which could be opened to produce a tidy 'shop front'. One occasionally sees photographs of these vehicles with the side facing the road opened, however I suspect this was done purely for the photo as by the early 1930s standing in the street was a dangerous proposition. All the photographs I have seen of these vans and carts actually trading have only the pavement side opened.

Fig ___ Horse drawn 'mobile shops'
Horse drawn mobile shops

Mobile vegetable shops in panel sided lorries with a pale yellow translucent fibreglass roof were still seen into the early 1980's in some rural areas and even in 2004 I have a local fish merchant who sells fresh fish from the back of his van outside the local library on certain days of the week. Incidentally the translucent fibreglass roof was developed in the mid 1960s, by the early 1970s they were common on larger motor vans.

In the 1950s (possibly earlier but I haven't traced any references) firms operating motor lorries would tour the area selling stoneware jugs of ginger beer and bottles of other 'mineral waters' (more widely known as 'fizzy pop'). The jugs were glazed on the lower part of the outside but unglazed inside and at the top, this allowed water to filter into the stone and evaporate keeping the contents cool. In the mid 1950s the British discovered they could make their own ginger beer and this fad lasted several years, during which time the lorries selling the ready made stuff faded away and the demand for ginger from British homes distorted the economies of entire third world nations. The sale of 'frizzy pop' from lorries continued into the early 1960s although in later years the stoneware jugs disappeared and everything was sold in glass bottles. A common brand of the time (in England and Wales) was Tizer whilst in Scotland Irn Bru was (and remains) popular. Several firms such as Barrs produced a range of drinks, many based on traditional soft drinks such as Ginger Beer and Dandelion and Burdock. The standard screw topped 'pop bottle' was about ten inches tall and tapered toward the top, each one had a deposit, a penny in the 1950s rising to perhaps three pence (one and a half new pence in decimal currency) in the 1960s.

In the colder months men selling hot chestnuts or baked potatoes were seen in the towns. The chestnuts were cooked on a simple brasier (a metal tube with small holes in it standing on end and supported on short metal legs) filled with coke and fitted with a metal grill. This was usually mounted on a simple two wheeled cart and there would often be a sack of chestnuts ready to roast sitting on the ground beside the cart. Baked potatoes required a bit more sophistication in the form of a covered oven, with a chimney, and these were often large enough to require a simple four wheeled vehicle, often horse drawn. The sketch below shows a hot chestnut man, the arm band is a metal 'licence' issued by the local council to allow him to trade. The clothing is typical of the first decade of the 20th century. The baked potato vendor is dressed in typical fashion for the 1930s, he has a sack as an apron, with cord for a belt. The oven seems to have been fairly standard although variable in size, larger types had more of the silver lids on top and were transported on a four-wheeled horse drawn cart. The only decent photo I was able to find showed a two-horse pole laying under the cart, the hand cart as shown can be modeled using a kit of a costermongers or flat barrow with an oven fashioned from Plastruct tube built up with Milliput or similar filler. The silver tops can be represented (in N) by pin heads. Note the sack of potatoes on the front of the cart.

Hot Chestnut Man and Baked Potato Man
Sketch of hot chestnot man and hot potato seller

From about 1830 up to the later 1980s French farmers wearing berets riding bicycles laden with strings of Breton pink onions (technically ‘oignons rosés de Roscoff’) would cycle round built up areas selling door to door (mainly to resteraunts). They were known as 'Onion Johnnies' and there is even a museum (Maison des Johnnies et de l'Oignon Rosé) in their home town of Roscoff in France. Their numbers peaked in the later 1920s when over fifteen hundred men with their bicycles arrived in various ports around the country. They arrived after the July onion harvest, bringing a substantial supply of onions with them and often stayed until the following Easter (or until their stock was all sold). They were seen as far north as Scotland but the most recent northern sighting I have traced was in Manchester in 1954. The caricature of these chaps usually has them wearing a horizontally striped jersey, neck scarf and black beret but the chap in Manchester was wearing a light cotton jacket over an collarless shirt with the traditional Breton beret. Most of these chaps would rent a storage space, in which they would make up the strings of onions, each string weighing about seven pounds, setting off early each morning on their rounds. Generally they would hang about 20 strings over the handlebars of the bike. They sometimes had a couple of strings hanging round their neck and occasionally some strings were hung on the rear carrier of the bike.

Fig___ Onion seller

Sketch of a French Onion seller

The earliest references I have found to ice cream sellers date from the early 1890's but ice cream was made in homes using brine as a coolant throughout the Victorian era. Small hand carts were used by most ice cream men (it was an almost exclusively male trade at the time) and they sold their wares wrapped in paper or in small bowls. Ice cream cones appeared in America in 1904 at a trade fair in St Louis. A Syrian emigrant by the name of Hamwi was selling thin hard Zabalia pastry when the ice cream stall next door ran out of dishes. Mr. Hamwi rolled some of his pastries into cones and sold them to the ice cream stall and they proved a great success. The earliest references to ice cream cones and wafers in Britain seem to date from just after the First World War, possibly they were introduced by American troops. Regarding the drawings you should omit the biscuit tins containing the cones on layouts set before that time.

Fig___ Ice cream vendor with hand cart

Ice cream vendor with hand cart

I believe it was shortly after the First Word War that a company called Walls started selling the stuff commercially and in 1922 they purchased a tricycle with an insulated box on the front and started selling on the streets. This proved to be highly successful and by the time of the Second World War the Walls 'trike' with its Stop me and buy one logo, had become a familiar sight operating from over a hundred depots round the country (Walls built the worlds biggest ice cream factory in Gloucester). I found a picture of a Walls trike which I believe dates from the early 1930s however it is worth noting that no mention of cones or wafers is made on the price list. I believe the colours used on the walls bike were - Dark (Oxford) blue box, the inside of the top frame and the top of the box being white or light cream with two circular silver metal covers arranged fore and aft (one near the front the other to the rear). The lettering panels on the box are white or light cream and the lettering is all light (Cambridge) blue. The bike frame and mudguards are black and the saddle bag is dark brown.

It is worth noting that other ice cream vendors also operated similar trikes, the left hand sketch was made from a photograph of a preserved trike however I would assume the owner would have put their name on the side of the box when it was in commercial use. The cream and red colouring fits with my Mums memories of her childhood in the mid 1930s.

Fig___ Stop me and buy one trike

Walls stop me and buy one trike

Not all the trikes resembled the two-container Walls type, the sketch below is based on a photograph, undated, which claims to show the ten trike fleet of the first firm to use these machines in London. This had a distinct taper toward the front end and three silver tops to the tubs (the rearmost having a hole for the serving spoon).

Fig___ Lavericks Ice Cream Trike

Lavericks trike

The ice cream trike also proved popular abroad and remains common today in some countries, notably Sri Lanka. British firms such as Pashley of Stratford - upon - Avon and Whitby Morrison based in Crewe, Cheshire, offer a range of ice cream trikes, so these may once more become a feature of our streets.

During the Second World War ice cream was a rare commodity due to milk shortages and the Walls trikes were requisitioned for use on military installations. In 1981 Walls merged with Birds Eye Foods but I believe the trikes had been phased out in the early 1950s, replaced by motorised 'ice cream vans'. These were 'of a type' and the design changed little for the next fifty years. Essentially they were any tall roofed van with siding windows set into the sides of the rear. White was the principal colour, two-toned with either red or blue and often with some colourful sign writing. Fortunately some were less ornate, making a model less daunting, however a standard feature was always brightly coloured posters on the inside of the serving windows, adding these would instantly serve to identify the vehicle as an ice cream van. The sketch is taken from a Corgi model of a later 1950s van but the livery shown is from a local firm operating in Stockport from the 1960s to the present day.

Fig___ Ice Cream Van

Motor Ice Cream Van

Ice cream selling became associated with the Italian population in the 1940s, to the extent that firms operated by non Italian families actually adopted Italian names simply because the public trusted the quality of 'Italian' ice cream.

Rag and bone men made a living collecting rags for paper making or to be re-cycled to produce cotton waste for industry and bones (left over from peoples cooking) for use in glue making, bone china manufacture and fertiliser. They also bought anything they thought they could sell, rabbit skins from the kitchen or scrap metal. By the late nineteenth century they were better described as 'general traders, buying anything they thought they could sell, from old clothes to wash tubs. By the 1930's their main interest was in scrap metal, there was money to be made in this trade and by the 1940's many rag and bone men were using horse drawn four wheeled 'trolleys' for their collections (as depicted in the television series Steptoe & Son). These vehicles resembled the horse drawn coal carts available in kit form and they were seen in British streets into the 1970's. By the end of the Second World War the bone trade had petered out as synthetic alternatives had been found but the trade in rags continued and the trade in scrap metal had evolved (many former rag and bone men became scrap metal merchants at this time). He would offer money for some things but often offered a goldfish, a rubbing stone (used for cleaning the front step) or a balloon (the items of exchange varied depending on what they could find, I have heard of day old chicks and bone china cups (seconds of course) being offered). The introduction of municipal refuse disposal sites in the 1970's and 1980's saw the end of the rag and bone street collections although I have been told that in 2003 at least one 'rag and bone man' has started operating again, complete with a horse and cart. In towns the rag and bone men (also known as 'totters' or 'tatters' or in Liverpool 'the ragman') often used a hand cart but the better off used a horse and cart. From a model railway perspective a parked cart with a few people doing business with the rag and bone man adds interest to a street scene without requiring movement.

Fig ___ Rag and Bone Dealer

Rag and Bone Dealer

Men selling newspapers from small tables have been a feature of British streets since the beginning of the twentieth century. Up to the late 1970's all newspapers were white with black writing (aside from the Financial Times and (in the North West at least) the Sporting Pink, both of which used pink tinted recycled paper). The first colour magazine for women (Woman) appeared in 1937 and newspapers only changed to colour in the later 1970's.

After the First World War some wounded old soldiers made a meagre living selling matches from a tray slung round their neck with string. These gentlemen would usually wear their uniform coat and their medals. Ladies, usually elderly, selling flowers from large wicker baskets (often sitting on the kerb, perhaps with an umbrella to protect them from sun and rain) were a regular sight on many town streets up to the 1930's and lavender sellers lasted rather longer.

Men selling things from small suitcases appeared in some numbers in the 1920s (the suitcase itself having been developed in the 1890s), these men might be selling anything and were often accosted by the local constabulary. In the office ghettos of larger towns and cities the 'tie man' was a regular trader, his case contained a dozen or so cheap ties but had a false bottom from which he sold condoms.

In Liverpool there was the 'tea man', who called out Tea, Tea as he walked the street but didn't actually sell tea. He wore a leather 'tinkers tray' and sold just about anything.

The 'Muffin Man' carried a tray on his head full of hot muffins (a kind of small flat bun) with a pot of butter or margarine, usually selling these in the pubs in the evenings. They usually appeared in the later afternoon and in one hand they carried a hand bell to attract attention. They managed to carry the tray without having to hold it when walking along the pavements. During the Second World War rationing curtailed their activities and as far as I am aware they did not resume their trade when the war ended.

Fig ___ Street Hawkers

Street Hawkers

the butter and egg man.

The paraffin oil man

Buskers and street entertainers

Gramophones were on the market by the 1890s (His Masters Voice, with the picture of Nipper the dog, was introduced as a trade name by the Gramophone Company in 1899 but it was not registered as a trade mark until 1911) but most people could not afford them. Music was therefore in the main confined to live performances and on the streets musicians 'busking' were a regular sight on city streets from the earliest days of the railways. The instruments used could be almost anything although they tended to be at the smaller end of the scale such as violin of fiddle or a banjo (guitars do not seem to have become common until the mid 20th century).

The violin and fiddle are the same instrument played in different ways, as a violin it is pressed up under the chin but fiddle players press it against their shoulder (making it easier to sing for one thing). Buskers would be more likely to be Irish fiddle players but the hard up violinist was occasionally seen.

The original banjo (with only three or four strings) was played in early 17th century America by Africans in slavery, who had apparently developed it from African instruments, and it developed in to the modern five stringed instrument in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Only four strings are played, the fifth acts as a 'drone'. The American blacks developed a range of musical styles which proved popular and to tap into this the American white performers developed the 'Minstrel show', in which white performers applied caricature black make up and performed 'black' music. It was probably a touring minstrel show from America that introduced the banjo to Europe in the mid 19th century and it caught on in Ireland. Hence you may have seen a banjo player on the streets on Britain from the later 19th century. The frets were added to the instrument in the late 19th century but it was the early 20th century before these became accepted. At about the time of the First World War the Tango became a craze in the USA and a shorter necked 'tenor' banjo was developed, this instrument became the most popular form.

The Ukulele originated in Hawaii (the name means 'flea dance')as a small (violin sized) guitar shaped four string instrument, but it was too quiet for busking. In about 1918 a chap called Alvin D. Keech invented a cross between the ukulele and the banjo he called the Banjulele (as he copyrighted the name other manufacturers had to call similar instruments by other names, ukelele-banjo or banjo-ukelele). This provided the much needed volume and by the early 1930s this small instrument had arrived in Britain (for those old enough to remember him George Formby played a banjulele) and might have been seen on the streets. They look similar but whereas the banjo might typically be 30 inches long the banjulele would be closer to 20 inches.

By the mid 19th century the 'one man band' had arrived with a bass drum strapped to their back with the stick on their elbow and a set of cymbals on top operated using a string attached to their foot or strapped to the inside of their knees. They might have a mouth organ or a set of 'pan pipes' mounted on a frame round their neck and a common instrument to play with their hands would be a banjo or ukelele (a kind of small guitar shaped instrument) although eastern Europeans often played the Hurdy Gurdy (see below).



For the non-musician there was the 'barrel organ' or 'barrel piano', a box containing a drum which either operates a set of metal strips (the barrel piano) or a bellows and a set of pipes (the barrel organ). To 'play' the instrument you wound a handle fixed to one end, the music was coded onto the drum or barrel and they have been around since the 18th century, possibly earlier. The metal strip type sounded a bit like a piano and were usually portable, some were small enough to carry although they had a single fold out leg to support them when playing, others were as big as an upright piano and had wheels. The tube type were usually fixed installations, they were popular in churches as they avoided having someone able to play a conventional organ. The 'organ grinder' was a fairly common sight in town streets from the mid Victorian era up to the 1930s. These gentlemen, often of Italian extraction, commonly wore a long frock coat and a common accessory was a monkey wearing a small read waistcoat and pill box hat attached to the organ by a light chain. The man made his money from coins thrown into his hat, sometimes the monkey carried a small silver cup to collect pennies from passers by.

The barrel organ was often referred to as a 'hurdy gurdy' but that is actually an entirely different instrument that does require skill to play. It has a revolving wheel running on a set of three strings and a strip of metal mounted inside a sound box and is played using keys which press on the strings. The sound has been described as a cross between bagpipes and a Kazoo but I remember it as being rather gentle and melodic. It is usually played on the lap but for busking purposes a single folding leg was added to the under side. They were invented in about the 10th century but early types required two men to operate them, by about the 15th century they were a one man instrument and were common throughout Europe. In the 18th Century the French royal court adopted the instrument and established what is now the 'standard' type (although the older Hungarian design remains popular in that neck of the woods. Hurdy gurdy men were often eastern Europeans but some British French and Spanish buskers were seen however given the small size of the instrument you are probably better off with a barrel organ in N.

Hurdy-Gurdy player and Barrel Organ

The Hurdy Gurdy and the barrel organ

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