William Morris

The Hammersmith Costermongers

The case of the Hammersmith costermongers has already been briefly alluded to in JUSTICE: it is what is commonly called a 'hard case;' a phrase however which means very different things according to the position of those to whom it is applied, meaning to some people the loss of a hundred pounds or so, which everybody can see they ought not to lose, but which loss will only inconvenience them; while to others it means the loss of livelihood; which latter loss is to be dreaded by the Hammersmith costermongers, especially if the other local boards imitate the conduct of the Hammersmith magnates. The facts if the readers have not noticed them are briefly these: the costermongers have been used from time immemorial to hold a curb-stone market in King Street on Saturday evenings, obviously to the convenience of the mass of the people about, who are quite poor enough to be forced to follow out one part of a maxim of bourgeois political economy and buy in the cheapest market. The Hammersmith Board of Works has in its wisdom deemed that the general public is seriously damaged by the busy, but as a rule quite orderly, crowd which this curb-stone market attracts, and has taken the opportunity of the recent opening of the tram-line to order the costermongers to clear their barrows away, and after some preliminary skirmishing in which they pressed the Kensington magistrates (in vain) to impose serious fines or imprisonment on the one or two cases tried, have instructed our old acquaintance Mr. Besley to take out 16 summonses in the Hammersmith Court against these poor men as a beginning of the serious attack on them. Meanwhile defenceless as the costermongers might seem to be, they have bestirred themselves, and our friend Mr. Applebee has canvassed the whole of the shopkeepers in King Street for their opinion as to this so-called nuisance of curb-stone market: the result of which has been that while scarcely any one has ventured to declare openly for the tyranny of the Board, a few have to be reckoned as neutrals, and by far the greater number have declared that they at least are not inconvenienced by the 'nuisance' aforesaid. It is needless to say that the Board does not 'trouble its head' about all that, and a body of useful, industrious and orderly men are in a fair way to be taught by ruin the meaning of the word 'freedom' as applied to the lives of those who have not by birth, or by force and fraud, acquired the privilege of making other people do their work for them.

The Hammersmith Board have distinguished themselves as tyrants in a small way; and I must say that it is with special shame and indignation that one protests against this notable piece of Bumbledom, when one considers how poor the prize is for which the costermongers are striving the privilege of being allowed to pick up the crumbs of the crumbs that fall from the children's table: in truth Hammersmith High Street is a sad enough sight on a Saturday evening, both buyers and sellers; and 'tis not to be wondered at that Bumble and Co. want to get rid of it; "Sweep it away into the back streets, and let us forget it! Who is responsible? Not we!"

Fellow workers, if we could only instil some hope of getting out of this dismal skinflint poverty into such men as these who are intelligent and energetic enough, if they, could but see the hope; if we could only first raise their discontent and then organize it, Bumble might have a rough awakening one of these days.


Justice, 20th September 1884, p. 3.