Street Food: Hawkers and the History of London by Charlie Taverner

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Reviewed by Harriet

Nowadays, when most people hear the term street food, they will be thinking about the emergence in the past ten or so years of a wonderful range of food from all round the world, now widely available on the streets of most large cities. Trucks, stalls, even some restaurants now serve a wide variety of delightful and delicious treats to pick up and take home or just enjoy outside with friends, many of whom will have sampled them on their travels. But, as the subtitle of this book makes clear, street food has been a feature of London life since at least the sixteenth century. Taverner starts with a snapshot of the life of a typical hawker, rising early, visiting the market, loading her basket or barrow, and either setting up shop by the side of the road or going from house to house selling her wares.

Wherever she went, she called a rhythmic, tuneful cry, pitched to rise above the city’s rumble and tug the ears of those indoors or passing by. Street work was full of dangers and the risks were acute for a woman alone. Her right to do business was never entirely secure. But her customers, metropolitans of every sort, were not concerned  as they peered at her produce, delighted to sample a treat to have food delivered to their door. They were well aware that roadside vendors offering mackerel, cherries, asparagus, and pies helped feed the fast growing capital.

Street sellers have featured in history and literature over the years, appearing in studies of poverty such as Charles Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1861) and books like Andrew Tuer’s 1885 Old London Street Cries and Cries of Today, both of which have been invaluable sources for Taverner’s research. This book builds on these foundations in detailed multiple approaches. The first two chapters look at the hawkers themselves: who they were, how they were viewed, and how their work was organised. The markets where the sellers bought their goods, and the goods themselves, are discussed in the next two chapters, followed by a consideration of the geography and cultural history of the street and how the hawkers fitted into this. A penultimate chapter, ‘Nuisances’ focuses on the regulation of street sellers by the city’s authority, and the book ends with ‘Voices’, looking in detail at the trading calls used by the hawkers, and the various reactions of their customers, who often complained about them but were nevertheless drawn to make their purchases by recognising who was passing and what they were selling.

The earliest representations of hawkers and street sellers can be found in the numerous prints that started appearing at the start of the seventeenth century. One of the earliest was the ‘foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking “fish-wife”’, generally a comic creation. Over the years she was joined by other types, sometimes sexualised like the ‘erotic oyster sellers, bucolic milkmaids [and] rosy-cheeked women selling new season strawberries’. Though these were stereotypes they demonstrate how much these trades dominated city life over the centuries. Taverner considers in detail where they came from (often overseas), how and where they lived. A fascinating chapter looks at what they sold and where they got it from. Frequently it was basic staples such as meat, milk and bread, but also fish, vegetables, fruit and even cooked food such as pies. Their suppliers were market gardeners, dairies, and of course the street markets such as Billingsgate, where oysters were brought in from the coast as weather and the season permitted. The hawkers’ wares were strictly seasonal, of course, depending on cycles of production on land or sea.

Chapter 7, ‘Traffic’, offers a valuable insight into the conditions in which these tradespeople worked: ‘the women and men out hawking food were constantly aware of the material environment and the strain that walking and carrying placed on their bodies’. In the early centuries, broken pavements, mud, all manner of filth and detritus thrown into the streets, soil, gravel and horse muck made daily life difficult for those whose life was spent outdoors in those conditions. Even in the nineteenth century, when some streets had begun to be paved, many were still lined with flints and gravel. Omnibuses and trams became an additional hazard, and to cap it all, street sellers were often harassed and threatened with assault, or dragged into the courts for contravening market regulations or obstructing the roads. All in all, it was a tough life, and it’s hard not to feel admiration for the equally tough individuals who survived and even thrived on it. 

Much changed in the twentieth century. Starting in 1911, street sellers were issued with badges and certificates, and from 1927 had to buy licences from their local councils. They were forced off the streets by the Blitz, and after the war faced competition from burgeoning supermarkets and improvements in the availability of fresh food and the methods of its storage and preservation. Taverner, writing during the pandemic, noted that the trade of street sellers worldwide evaporated as people were forced to stay in their homes. However, reading this book in 2023, it’s cheering to note that street food is now as lively as it ever was, despite its type and sale being radically different from the eras described here. 

This is a lively and engrossing book, full of fascinating historical facts and illustrations. As you’d expect from Oxford University Press, there’s an excellent Bibliography and many pages of notes. 

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Harriet is one of the founders and an editor of Shiny.

Charlie Taverner, Street Food: Hawkers and the History of London (Oxford University Press, 2023). 978-0192846045, 244pp, hardback.

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