The Word on The Street

Blog post by Louise Guthrie



Every cigarette card tells a story

Once Upon a Time, a long time ago – and yet perhaps it wasn’t such a very long time ago –
there was no world-wide web, for the internet had not yet been invented. The parallel universe of social media was still to be discovered. This was an age when no-one could bare their soul (even fleetingly) on Snapchat. And as for posting your most revealing insights on Instagram, or re-tweeting pearls of wisdom gleaned, well, forget it. Good and honest folk couldn’t even promote themselves on Facebook. More primitive communication devices like radio and television weren’t so much as specks on the horizon.

So how did decent working citizens in times gone by market themselves, ply their trades and tout their wares in a place as relentlessly competitive as good old London Town?

Back in the pre-digital day, your best advertising tool was a sound pair of lungs coupled with a healthy enough lack of inhibition. You had to literally ‘put yourself out there’ – onto the streets – and not only get hollering (or singing) but keep it up all day, because nobody was ever going to put you up on YouTube.

It is appropriate then, that a well-established online presence and keeper of Spitalfields Life, (a daily blog about the lives and times of East London inhabitants), The Gentle Author, has agreed to step away from the electronic wires to appear in person at Borough Belles’ October meeting and relay to us what ‘the word on the street’ was back then. (And, for the record, no, we won’t be live-tweeting this event!)

Fortunately, the spoken word comes as easily as the written one to Gentle Author, who brings us face-to-face with a selection of rather old, but still very lively, portraits of street-criers of yore, as solicitously assembled in Spitalfields Life Books’ elegant hardback CRIES! OF LONDON.


Gentle Author deftly captures our collective imagination and swiftly transports us back a few centuries to our capital’s teeming thoroughfares at time when everything was somehow much more real (and if you think Brick Lane is edgy now, well, you ain’t seen nothing….!)

Hawkers and peddlers abound, tradesmen proffer skills, musicians and beggars vie for the limelight, while preachers rub shoulders with prostitutes, and, while we’re at it, does anyone need anything mending?


How will we survive out here? Because if you have no other means of income or support, you have to not just work these streets but own them. But there’s a lot of competition and it’s loud. How do you pitch your verbal dexterity against the seasoned refrains of criers who have been around the block a fair few times?

Try casting your vocal net widely to pull in potential purchasers from right around that far corner. Don’t worry if you sound less than harmonious. Keep working on a subtler resonance (something a bit more tuneful) to keep would-be customers already under your spell close-by. They’ll soon succumb. But let’s start by taking a closer look at some of your rivals:

Hark! There’s a street-musician producing bird-song by rubbing two tobacco pipes together (who cares if he’s actually using a folded bit of tin which he’s holding between his teeth?) How do we compete with that for attention? If you can’t beat them, then at least join in:

Buy my Herrings, fresh Herrings O!
Three a Groat O!

There, that should do it, who doesn’t get hungry for a lovely piece of fish? But if it’s carpeting you’re offering, you’d do worse than to sandwich yourself between a few good thick pieces of your own livelihood, and cruise the streets in your current incarnation as a massive pile of rugs on legs. No-one can fail to see you coming, and everyone needs a new bit of floor-covering once in a while. (So you won’t have to wear it forever.)


Wearing your Livelihood

Who will buy this wonderful morning, some pickled cucumber, ripe asparagus, China oranges, fair cherries, scarlet strawberries or a nice fat chicken? All of these are made to make your mouth water. You just need to make your food sound more like poetry than anyone else’s.

Didn’t that Michael Marks feller kick off his – not entirely unnoticed – career with a single market stall?

“This is not just food, this might one day be M&S Food…”

Hey you, stop fantasizing and get back to work! Go sell your mops, mackerel, brooms, brushes, bowls, sieves, or cat and dog meat. You vendors selling specialized assets in the form of bird’s nests, do you trade them in hedge funds with (hatching) stock options, or (twig) bundles and derivatives? If not, you can surely convince someone that while these mini-snugs of tiny sticks and feathers might not have 101 uses indoors, this one here is very well-constructed.


Every household needs one

If it’s second-hand clothes you’re flogging, please wear at least 3 hats. What do you mean, that’s not a good look? This is London, where trends are set, not followed.


Cutting-edge trend-setter?

You don’t know it now, but not only are you the life and soul of London, you’re also the embodiment of social history. Famous diarist Samuel Pepys will avidly collect depictions of you for future generations’ viewing. You’ll have to wait a while for Pinterest, but in the meantime you’ll be commemorated on dinner-sets, cigarette cards, biscuit tins and silk scarves. That lady over there – the one selling primroses – will be immortalized on countless tins of talcum powder, for decades to come, courtesy of Yardley. She has no idea how fragrant she is….

Sweet-scented for Decades

If ticket touts, chuggers, hummus samples, free protein shakes, gym-vouchers, and (dodgy?) DVDs are still a couple of hundred years off, it’s just the substance of the game that will change, not the essence.

But back in the here and now, no-one needs to peddle these scrumptious-looking editions of Gentle Author’s CRIES! OF LONDON. We are already sold on them. The books go like hot potatoes as eager Borough Belles bag their own delicious volumes fresh from the speaker’s table.

And the next time we hear the words “Get-cha free Standard!” reverberating through a secluded Spitalfields alley, who knows, we might even glance up from our smartphones, to check out where this real London call is coming from…