It has been stated that 70 per cent of all people would experience part of their lives in absolute or relative poverty in the nineteenth- century. (King & Payne, 2002, p.3) That is a substantial amount of people suffering with financial limitations and all that entails. This fact stimulated an interest as to how people managed to obtain the bare necessities of life, combined with a love of clothes and a growing awareness with the contemporary concern amongst Victorians with the poor and how they lived, I chose to walk around a place I had read so frequently about.
Starting on Monmouth Street (present day Shaftesbury Avenue and not to be confused with actual Monmouth Street which runs almost parallel) I opted to first consider a work that came about as a result of the same activity I was completing; that of Charles Dickens in 1836. One of his most riveting journalistic essays, as part of ‘Sketches By Boz,’ was ‘Meditations in Monmouth-Street.’ In which a fictional character named ‘Boz’ walks the street I am concerned with observing the details and customs of the people and places in tremendous detail. In this case he observed perhaps some of the very worse off poor of London’s population.
Vivienne Richmond highlighted, ‘the simple fact was that the poor could rarely afford to buy new clothes,’ and taking this further expresses, ‘the poor, therefore, remained greatly reliant on second-hand garments.’(Richmond, 2013, p. 75) From my reading it became clear to me that in London, in Monmouth Street in particular and the area surrounding Covent Garden was the hub of second hand trade of anything and everything. However, as I stand here now at one end of the street I can tell already that the street I am on is a million worlds away from what I have read. My mood is sombre anyway, because of the cold and my surroundings are doing nothing to spur my imagination.
Dickens said of Monmouth Street, that it was the ‘burial-place of the fashions,’ by this I have come to conclude he mainly meant that the clothes of the deceased came here to be resold. The illustration that accompanied this work gave me reason to hope that some lasting marker of what once lined this street would exist – of which there was minimal. The street is now predominantly back doors of shops and private offices with their blinds shut, nothing in comparison to what Dickens saw, he imagined whole lives in the clothes that hung in the shop fronts, ‘from the shape and fashion of the garment itself, to bring its former owner before our mind’s eye.’ (Dickens, 1836.) The street is wide and the buildings are mostly old, most probably identical to back then as they are formidable and dark – the street is still busy too. At the time that Dickens wrote – the city had become a very different place to the one that Londoner’s were familiar with, its demographic had grown from 1 million residents in 1811 to 1.65 million in 1837, it is therefore no surprise that this very street would have been bustling with people given the percentage of the country as a whole who found themselves in poverty. However, the crowd that surrounds me is much different to that of Dickens, mostly men and women looking busy in their work attire and more than likely rushing to a job that they hate but pays well. Hence the smart looking clothes. This raised a question in my mind, I know that this was the hub of second-hand trade and although there is little evidence of this here, what articles exactly could the poor purchase here? Dickens talks of many different articles of clothing such as, ‘pilot great-coats with wooden buttons, have usurped the place of the ponderous laced coats with full skirts; embroidered waistcoats with large flaps, have yielded to double-breasted checks with roll-collars; and three-cornered hats of quaint appearance.’ (Dickens, 1836.) This list in itself is impressive and I am sure that despite some exaggeration, it is mostly truthful. In contrast, the articles of clothing hung in the shops today are almost identical to those found next door. The choices do not rival those included in Dickens’ description.
Vivienne Richmond expressed that, ‘industrialised production lowered the cost of new clothes in the nineteenth century, and the second-hand trade declined and became associated with poverty,’ (that is the trade itself – not those who it provided for) she also expresses that Monmouth Street had, ‘much reduced in size and quality by the mid-1800s’. (Richmond, 2013, p. 76) As I continue my stroll I take this in to consideration and come to ponder the very nature of the street itself and how such a large area in width and length could ‘reduce in size,’ whilst it did not physically change in size, a diminishing trade contributed to a reduction in significance of this area and undoubtedly the closing of many second hand ‘shops.’ It is interesting to think about the many purposes and periodical importance a place can have and will have in the future – I am, to an extent, impressed by the ambiguity of this city street. Her statement is confirmed in a contemporary source written a decade after Dickens visited by Henry Mayhew, he expressed, ‘now Monmouth Street… has no finery’ and ‘its second hand wares are almost wholly confined to old boots and shoes which are vamped up with a great deal of trickery.’ (Mayhew, 1848, p. 26) With this in mind I continued my walk, capturing the essence of a depressed trade here is not difficult.
With knowledge that the second-hand trade here waned and became associated with poverty, I was curious now with, not those purchasing the articles but those who lived and worked on this very street – essentially the second-hand sellers – who would have no doubt, made up a significant part of the historical significance of this street . Henry Mayhew reported, ‘there were a few Jews and a few cockneys in this well-known street a year or two back, but now this branch of the second-hand trade is really in the hands of what may be called a clan… Almost every master in Monmouth Street now is, I am told, an Irishman.’ (Mayhew, 1848, p. 26) Chapman demonstrated this stating that, ‘whereas in 1825 there had been around one thousand, predominantly Jewish, used clothes dealer in London, by mid-century their number had almost halved.’ (Chapman, 1993, p. 10) Therefore an intrinsic part of London’s trading history can be exemplified on this very street. The movement of the Jewish trade to another part of London meant that Irish work men replaced them and dominated this area. Within the nineteenth-century prejudice against immigrants was rife. It is no surprise then that the new Irish workmen on Monmouth Street, in a trade that was poverty stricken, were to face common blame and association to poor working and living conditions within the local society of London.
Dickens description does resemble city life as we know it in some ways, but perhaps not the Monmouth Street that exists today. Having said that, all in all, my walk down this street – despite its disappointing presentation and partial resemblance to its own past – did allow me to become successfully inquisitive with regards to many aspects of the nineteenth- century that interest me. Most importantly it permitted me to make interesting links with the chronological changes that took place in this period’s history. Such as the influence of a contraction of trade on poverty; what second hand articles could be purchased here; the size and significance of the street over several decades and finally revealed an interesting glimpse in to one reason why Irish immigrants faced prejudice in the nineteenth century – even before the mass immigration from Ireland at the time of the potato famine.
- Steven King and Christiana Payne (eds)’’The Dress of the Poor’, special edition of Textile History, 33 (2002)
- Vivienne Richmond, ‘Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-century England’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
- Charles Dickens, ‘Meditations in Monmouth Street,’ Sketches By Boz (1836)
- Henry Mayhew, ‘London Labour and the London Poor’, John Rosenburg. (New York, 1968)
- Stanley Chapman, ‘The innovating entrepreneurs in the British ready-made clothing industry’, Textile History, 24:1 (1993)