Dickensian London: Everyday Life in the Victorian City

Posted on December 4, 2015

by Judith Flanders

Chapter 1: Easy to Rise – Coffee in Covent Garden Market

It is 2.30 in the morning. It is still night, but it is also ‘tomorrow’. By this hour at Covent Garden market, in the center of Dickensian London, the streets are alive. Long lines of carts and vans and costermongers‘ barrows are forming in the surrounding streets. Lights are being lit ‘in the upper windows of public houses – not the inhabitants retiring to rest, but of active proprietors preparing … for the new day … The roadway is already blocked up, and the by-streets are rapidly filling.’

By dawn, the streets leading into Dickensian London were regularly filled with carriages, with carts laden with goods, and with long lines of men and women (mostly women), plodding down Piccadilly, along Green Park, on their way to Covent Garden, carrying heavy baskets of fruit on their heads as they walked from the market gardens in Fulham several miles away. More approached Covent Garden from the south, from the market gardens that lined the south-west side of the river.

Covent Garden; Dickensian London

“Covent Garden Market, Birds Eye View, from Ackermanns Microcosm of London, 1811” oil on Canvas. By Pugin, A.C. Rowlandson, T.
Image is in the public domain via wikigallery.org

Interspersed with these suppliers and produce sellers were many more who made their living around and in the markets. The coffee-stall keepers appeared carrying cans of coffee from yokes on their shoulders, the little smudge-pot charcoal fires already lit underneath, winking in the diminishing darkness. Then ‘a butcher’s light chaise-cart rattled past … with the men huddled in the bottom of the vehicle, behind the driver … dozing as they drove along’, followed by ‘some tall and stalwart brewer’s drayman … (for these men are among the first in the streets), in his dirty, drab, flushing jacket, red night-cap, and leathern leggings’.

These early risers had woken long before daybreak with the aide of various stratagems. Alarm clocks had not yet been invented (wind-up alarm clocks did not appear until 1876), and even clocks were beyond the reach of most workers. In the first three decades of the century, the watch patrolled the streets nightly, dressed in long, drab greatcoats and slouch hats, carrying rattles and calling out the half-hours. For a small fee, these men stopped at houses along their routes, to waken anyone who needed to be up at a specific time. Later this job of knocking up, as it became known, was taken on by the police – a useful way to earn a little extra cash, as well as an aid to good community relations. As the constables walked their beats, they tapped on the window with a long stick, or banged the knocker as they passed, waiting for an ‘All right!’ to be shouted from indoors in acknowledgement. The very poor, who could not afford the requisite penny or two a week, paid a halfpenny or so to an equally poor fellow worker who woke his friends on his way home from nightwork.

John Augustus Atkinson; Dickensian London

“A Watchman in a Square” by John Augustus Atkinson, late 18th century.
Image is in the public domain via Austenonly.com/

Among the first people out on the street each morning were the coffee-stall keepers. Today, eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, but in the nineteenth century the situation was reversed. Most of the working class lived in rooms, not houses. They might have had access to a communal kitchen, but more often they cooked in their own fireplace: to boil a kettle before going to work, leaving the fire to burn when there was no one home, was costly, time-consuming and wasteful. Water was a rare and precious commodity in working-class housing, which did not begin to see piped water (usually just to the basement kitchens) until late in the century. The nearest running water might be a street pump, which functioned for just a few hours a week. Several factors – the lack of storage space, routine infestations of vermin and being able, because of the cost, to buy food only in tiny quantities – meant that storing any foodstuff, even tea, overnight was unusual. Workers therefore expected to purchase their breakfast on their way to work.

After getting up in the dark and the cold, wrote Thomas Wright, an ex-laboring man, ‘the gleam from the hot-coffee stall comes like a guiding star … Here you get warmth to your hands on the outside of the cup, and for the inner man from the liquid, which you get piping hot, for the proprietors of the stalls are aware that that quality is regarded by their morning customers before strength or sweetness.’ These stalls mostly appeared at the edges of the city and in the center, with fewer in the suburbs: in Camberwell, in the late 1850s, one memoirist says that there were ‘street refreshment stalls at night in some localities, but I never saw one’. On the major routes, however, these stalls were everywhere, ranging from the simplest makeshifts to elaborate structures. Some consisted of a board laid over a pair of sawhorses, a can of coffee kept hot by a charcoal burner, and a few plates of bread and butter; if the owner could manage a blanket over a clothes horse to protect a bench from the wind, all the better. Others were more robust. The journalist George Augustus Sala described one Covent Garden stall as ‘something between a gypsy’s tent and a watchman’s box’. At Islington, a regular coffee stall by a pub was erected nightly: out of a hand-barrow came benches, a table and ‘a great bright tin boiler with a brass tap’, heated by a coke fire, and all enclosed in a cosy canvas tent. A lamp was lit, the table was covered with a cloth and laid with cups, saucers, a loaf and a cake, and in fifteen minutes a snug little booth was ready for customers.

Who the customers were, and which the busy times, varied by location and cost. A cup of coffee and ‘two thin’ – two thin pieces of bread and butter – was a penny in the West End and City; around the docks, where the customers were entirely working class, it was half that. Street sellers of food, walking to the markets to get their supplies for the day from about 3 a.m., were early visitors; later the night-workers heading home crossed with the day-workers, and at working-class stalls there was generally ‘some thinly clad, delicate-looking factory boy or girl’ standing by hopefully. The ‘popular belief among working men’, said Wright, is that ‘a fellow is never any poorer’ for buying something hot for those even worse off than themselves.

JUDITH FLANDERS is a New York Times bestselling author and one of the foremost social historians of the Victorian era. The Victorian City was a finalist for the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Judith is also the author of a crime fiction series, beginning with A Murder of Magpies. She lives in London.

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