If you read only the title of Charlie Taverner’s book Street Food you could be forgiven for assuming it was an exploration of the stalls that line the trendier streets of our cities, offering bibimbap and bao, jerk chicken and jian bing. But the author’s focus predates brightly coloured gazebo hoardings and polystyrene packaging and looks instead at the working lives of the itinerant traders who populated London before 1900, touting everything from oysters to milk, and what their work meant for a changing capital city.
By placing these vendors at the centre of the story rather than as faintly comic support acts, Tavener provides something that goes beyond individual characters. As he puts it: ‘The history of hawkers offers a ground-level, centuries-long view on London’s expansion.’
These street sellers occupied a unique place in society. Though their work was unregulated and usually poorly remunerated, they nevertheless drove London’s social and economic change. Tavener writes:
Hawkers help us reconstruct London’s story around the basics of metropolitan life: inter-actions on the street, the exchange of essentials and the struggle with material conditions, much of which took place outside formal institutions and fixed sites and beyond the grasp of governors and magistrates.
Comprehensive regulation came later with pitch-assigned covered markets, and ultimately the advent of supermarkets. But for 300 years this ‘informal retail’ was the principal provider of fresh produce to neighbourhoods not served by wholesale markets.
It was that combination of poverty, informality and independence that placed the traders in legal limbo and on the edge of propriety, which in turn led to their vilification, reducing them to little more than public nuisances. For centuries they were captured pejoratively in song, art and literature and dismissed as nefarious characters, hucksters and fishwives becoming bywords for scurrilous behaviour.