Other Voices

Henry Mayhew, The Life of a Coster Girl

[Click on image to enlarge] In 1849 Henry Mayhew (1812–1887) was asked by the Morning Chronicle to be the metropolitan correspondent for its series "Labor and the Poor." The statement that Mayhew records in The Life of a Coster Girl >> note 1 (1864) was not made by the girl in his portrait, who refused to tell her story for fear of recognition. The girl Mayhew interviewed instead was eighteen years old. Mayhew describes her:

She had a habit of curtsying to every question that was put to her. Her plaid shawl was tied over the breast, and her cotton-velvet bonnet was crushed in with carrying her basket. She seemed dreadfully puzzled where to put her hands, at one time tucking them under her shawl, warming them at the fire, or measuring the length of her apron, and when she answered a question she invariably addressed the fireplace. Her voice was husky from shouting apples.


My mother has been in the streets selling all her lifetime. Her uncle learnt her the markets and she learnt me. When business grew bad, she said to me, "Now you shall take care on the stall, and I'll go and work out charing." >> note 2 The way she learnt me the markets was to judge of the weight of the baskets of apples, and then said she, "Always bate >> note 3 'em down, a'most a half." I always liked the street-life well, that was if I was selling. I have mostly kept a stall myself, but I've known gals as walk about with apples, as have told me that the weight of the baskets is sich that the neck cricks, and when the load is took off, it's just as if you'd a stiff neck, and the head feels as light as a feather. The gals begins working very early at our work; the parents makes them go out when a'most babies. There's a little gal, I'm sure she an't more than half-past seven, that stands selling water-cresses next my stall, and mother was saying, "Only look here, how that little one has to get her living afore she a'most knows what a penn'orth means."

There's six on us in family, and father and mother makes eight. Father used to do odd jobs with the gas-pipes in the streets, and when work was slack we had very hard times of it. Mother always liked being with us at home, and used to manage to keep us employed out of mischief — she'd give us an old gown to make into pinafores for children and such like! She's been very good to us, has mother, and so's father. She always liked to hear us read to her whilst she was washing or such like! And then we big ones had to learn the little ones. But when father's work got slack, if she had no employment charing, she'd say, "Now I'll go and buy a bushel of apples," and then she'd turn out and get a penny that way. I suppose by sitting in the stall from nine in the morning till the shops shuts up — say ten o-clock at night, I can earn about 1s.6d. a day.  * * *

I dare say there ain't ten out of a hundred gals what's living with men, what's been married Church of England fashion. I know plenty myself but I don't, indeed, think it right. It seems to me that the gals is fools to be 'ticed away, but, in coorse, they needn't go without they likes. This is why I don't think it's right. Perhaps a man will have a few words with his gal, and he'll say, "Oh! I ain't obligated to keep her!" and then he'll turn her out: and then where's that poor gal to go? * * *

Only last night father was talking about religion. We often talks about religion. Father has told me that God made the world, and I've heard him talk about the first man and woman as was made and lived — it must be more than a hundred years ago — but I don't like to speak on what I don't know. Father, too, has told me about our Saviour what was nailed on a cross to suffer for such people as we is. Father has told us, too, about his giving a great many poor people a penny loaf and a bit of fish each, which proves him to have been a very kind gentleman. The Ten Commandments was made by him, I've heerd say, and he performed them too among other miracles. Yes! this is part of what our Saviour tells us. We are to forgive everybody, and do nobody no injury. I don't think I could forgive an enemy if she injured me very much; I'm sure I don't know why I couldn't, unless it is that I'm poor, and learnt to do it. * * * They says in the Bible that the world was made in six days: the beasts, the birds, the fish, and all. * * * There was only one house at that time as was made, and that was the Ark for Adam and Eve and their family. It seems very wonderful indeed how all this world was done so quick. I should have thought that England alone would have took double the time; shouldn't you, sir? But then it says in the Bible, God Almighty's a just and true God, and in coorse time would be nothing to him. When a good person is dying, we says, "The Lord has called upon him, and he must go," but I can't think what it means, unless it is that an angel comes — like when we're a-dreaming — and tells the party he's wanted in heaven. I know where heaven is; it's above the clouds, and they're placed there to prevent us seeing into it. That's where all the good people go, but I'm afeerd * * * there's very few costers among the angels — 'specially those as deceives poor gals.

No, I don't think this world could well go on for ever. There's a great deal of ground in it, certainly, and it seems very strong at present; but they say there's to be a flood on the earth, and earthquakes, and that will destroy it. * * * If we cheats in the streets, I know we shan't go to Heaven; but it's very hard upon us, for if we didn't cheat we couldn't live, profits is so bad. It's the same with the shops, and I suppose the young men there won't go to Heaven neither; but if people won't give the money, both costers and tradesmen must cheat, and that's very hard. Why look at apples! Customers want them for less than they cost us, and so we are forced to shove in bad ones as well as good ones; and if we're to suffer for that, it does seem to me dreadful cruel.

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