Calls of Time

For centuries, the sounds of bustling city life included the cries of the many street traders advertising their wares. These ranged from dumplings and doormats to spoons and songbirds.

Today, in our crowded city, we are permanently surrounded by the noise of traffic. In the past, the streets of London sounded very different. Dominating the cacophony were the calls of the street traders who walked the pavements touting for business.

Though the lives of these hawkers were tough, and crime was rife, it’s a romantic picture. Imagine being woken in the morning by a bellman, and being shown your way home at night by a lampman. The choice of services on offer during the day, if you were a willing buyer, was endless. “Ripe, strawberries, ripe!”, “Hot eel pies!, “Quick winkles, quick, quick, quick!”.

You could have your chairs mended, wood chopped, knives sharpened, featherbeds cleaned, floors swept. You could buy oysters, writing ink, birds’ nests, clove water, food for the dog. Everything and anything, in exchange for a coin or two, or a used but wanted item. “New brooms for old shoes!”

To stand out from the crowd, the sellers would develop their individual cries. Some had voices and phrases that were loud and coarse, others were soft and lyrical. Some biddings evolved to become practically nonsensical, alluring in that very fact and meaningful to regular customers, while others were so theatrical that they verged on performance. Over and over, the pedlars would call orsing out their particular message, clashing and mingling with each other, each one a thread woven into the day’s audible blanket.

That the street cries were such apart of London life for so long is confirmed in the fact that they were often shown in illustrations, and you could even buy series to collect. Clerkenwell-born Samuel Pepys is one of the first people known to have done this, in the 1600s. Sets of “Cries”, as they were simply known, remained popular right up until the First World War.

Throughout the years they were depicted in many different styles and in many different formats (from woodcuts to watercolours), and they naturally evolved with the sellers to remain contemporary. The images ended up on plates, biscuit tins and cigarette cards.

One Londoner who has taken a particular interest in the Cries tradition is the East London blogger The Gentle Author. He recently issued a beautiful book on the subject. It’s from this book that we highlight here some of the Cries that are now lost in time. What would you buy?