The Victorian watercress girl

In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published  London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London’s working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations describing their lives from the people themselves. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London’s forgotten underclass. One of the most famous and heart-wrenching profiles is of an eight-year-old watercress seller from the East End. She is unkempt and emaciated when Mayhew interviews her, and wears nothing more than a thin dress, a ragged shawl and carpet slippers even in the severest weather.
Idealised depiction of a young watercress seller ~ Frederick Ifold, 1867
Idealised depiction of a young watercress seller ~ Frederick Ifold, 1867

Here is what the ‘ watercress girl’ had to say about her life:

“I go about the streets with water-creases, crying, ‘Four bunches a penny, water-creases’. I am just eight years old – that’s all, and I’ve a big sister, and a brother and a sister younger than I am. On and off, I’ve been very near a twelvemonth in the streets. Before that, I had to take care of a baby for my aunt. No, it wasn’t heavy – it was only two months old; but I minded it for ever such a time – till it could walk. It was a very nice little baby, not a very pretty one; but, if I touched it under the chin, it would laugh.

“Before I had the baby, I used to help mother, who was in the fur trade; and, if there was any slits in the fur, I’d sew them up. My mother learned me to needle-work and to knit when I was about five. I used to go to school, too; but I wasn’t there long. I’ve forgot all about it now, it’s such a time ago; and mother took me away because the master whacked me, though the missus use’n’t to never touch me. I didn’t like him at all. What do you think? he hit me three times, ever so hard, across the face with his cane, and made me go dancing down stairs; and when mother saw the marks on my cheek, she went to blow him up, but she couldn’t see him – he was afraid. That’s why I left school.

“The creases [watercress] is so bad now, that I haven’t been out with ’em for three days. They’re so cold, people won’t buy ’em; for when I goes up to them, they say, ‘They’ll freeze our bellies.’ Besides, in the market, they won’t sell a ha’penny handful now – they’re ris to a penny and tuppence. In summer there’s lots, and ‘most as cheap as dirt; but I have to be down at Farringdon market between four and five, or else I can’t get any creases, because everyone almost – especially the Irish – is selling them, and they’re picked up so quick. Some of the saleswomen – we never calls ’em ladies – is very kind to us children, and some of them altogether spiteful. The good one will give you a bunch for nothing, when they’re cheap; but the others, cruel ones, if you try to bate them a farden less than they ask you, will say, ‘Go along with you, you’re no good.’

Fleet Market, the predecessor to Farringdon Market where Mayhew's watercress girl plied her trade
Fleet Market, the predecessor to Farringdon Market where Mayhew’s watercress girl plied her trade

“I used to go down to market along with another girl, as must be about fourteen, ‘cos she does her back hair up. When we’ve bought a lot, we sits down on a door-step, and ties up the bunches. We never goes home to breakfast till we’ve sold out; but, if it’s very late, then I buys a penn’orth of pudden, which is very nice with gravy. I don’t know hardly one of the people, as goes to Farringdon, to talk to; they never speaks to me, so I don’t speak to them. We children never play down there, ‘cos we’re thinking of our living. No; people never pities me in the street – excepting one gentleman, and he says, says he, ‘What do you do out so soon in the morning?’ but he gave me nothink – he only walked away.

“It’s very cold before winter comes on reg’lar – specially getting up of a morning. I gets up in the dark by the light of the lamp in the court. When the snow is on the ground, there’s no creases. I bears the cold – you must; so I puts my hands under my shawl, though it hurts ’em to take hold of the creases, especially when we takes ’em to the pump to wash ’em. No; I never see any children crying – it’s no use.

Devil's Acre, Westminster: a typical London slum with its crowded courts
Devil’s Acre, Westminster: a typical London slum with its crowded courts

“Sometimes I make a great deal of money. One day I took 1s. 6d., and the creases cost 6d.; but it isn’t often I get such luck as that. I oftener makes 3d. or 4d. than 1s.; and then I’m at work, crying, ‘Creases, four bunches a penny, creases!’ from six in the morning to about ten. What do you mean by mechanics? – I don’t know what they are. The shops buys most of me. Some of ’em says, ‘Oh! I ain’t a-goin’ to give a penny for these;’ and they want ’em at the same price as I buys ’em at.

“I always give mother my money, she’s so very good to me. She don’t often beat me; but, when she do, she don’t play with me. She’s very poor, and goes out cleaning rooms sometimes, now she don’t work at the fur. I ain’t got no father, he’s a father-in-law. No; mother ain’t married again – he’s a father-in-law. He grinds scissors, and he’s very good to me. No; I dont mean by that that he says kind things to me, for he never hardly speaks. When I gets home, after selling creases, I stops at home. I puts the room to rights: mother don’t make me do it, I does it myself. I cleans the chairs, though there’s only two to clean. I takes a tub and scrubbing-brush and flannel, and scrubs the floor – that’s what I do three or four times a week.

“I don’t have no dinner. Mother gives me two slices of bread-and-butter and a cup of tea for breakfast, and then I go till tea, and has the same. We has meat of a Sunday, and, of course, I should like to have it every day. Mother has just the same to eat as we has, but she takes more tea – three cups, sometimes. No; I never has no sweet-stuff; I never buy none – I don’t like it. Sometimes we has a game of ‘honeypots’ with the girls in the court, but not often. Me and Carry H. carries the little ‘uns. We plays, too, at ‘kiss-in-the-ring.’ I knows a good many games, but I don’t play at ’em, ‘cos going out with creases tires me.

Girl in a slum room, from George Robert Sims' How the Poor Live (1883)
Girl in a slum room, from George Robert Sims’ How the Poor Live (1883)

“On a Friday night, too, I goes to a Jew’s house till eleven o’clock on Saturday night. All I has to do is to snuff the candles and poke the fire. You see they keep their Sabbath then, and they won’t touch anything; so they gives me my wittals and 1½d., and I does it for ’em. I have a reg’lar good lot to eat. Supper of Friday night, and tea after that, and fried fish of a Saturday morning, and meat for dinner, and tea, and supper, and I like it very well.

“Oh, yes; I’ve got some toys at home. I’ve a fire-place, and a box of toys, and a knife and fork, and two little chairs. The Jews gave ’em to me where I go to on a Friday, and that’s why I said they was very kind to me. I never had no doll; but I misses little sister – she’s only two years old. We don’t sleep in the same room; for father and mother sleeps with little sister in the one pair, and me and brother and other sister sleeps in the top room. I always goes to bed at seven, ‘cos I has to be up so early.

“I can’t read or write, but I knows how many pennies goes to a shilling, why, twelve, of course, but I don’t know how many ha’pence there is, though there’s two to a penny. When I’ve bought 3d. of creases, I ties ’em up into as many little bundles as I can. They must look biggish, or the people won’t buy them, some puffs them out as much as they’ll go. All my money I earns I puts in a club and draws it out to buy clothes with. It’s better than spending it in sweet-stuff, for them as has a living to earn. Besides it’s like a child to care for sugar-sticks, and not like one who’s got a living and vittals to earn. I ain’t a child, and I shan’t be a woman till I’m twenty, but I’m past eight, I am. I don’t know nothing about what I earns during the year, I only know how many pennies goes to a shilling, and two ha’pence goes to a penny, and four fardens goes to a penny. I knows, too, how many fardens goes to tuppence – eight. That’s as much as I wants to know for the markets.”

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See more from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor:
Volume I
Volume II
Volume III

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2 thoughts on “The Victorian watercress girl

    1. I imagine that she stayed poor and lived a miserable and not very prolonged life. The Mr Brownlows of Dickens’ world were sadly few and far between.

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