Costermonger
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Under the term " costermonger" is here included only such " street-sellers" as deal in fish, fruit, and vegetables, purchasing their goods at the wholesale " green" and fish markets. Of these some carry on their business at the same stationary stall or "standing" in the street, while others go on " rounds." The itinerant costermongers, as contradistinguished from the stationary street-fishmongers and greengrocers, have in many instances regular rounds, which they go daily, and which extend from two to ten miles.

London Labour and the London Poor Vol I: The Street Folk Henry Mahew

Basic Information

A costermonger is an itinerate street vendor who roams a city selling goods - usually fruit and vegetables - from a barrow or handcart. This can be both a permanent occupation or a seasonal one - the permanent traders may well vary their goods through the year, switching between fish, fruit and vegetables and game depending on the season, whereas the seasonals will drift into the trade when work in other fields dries up1 and will sell whatever is appropriate for the time of year. Neither group will traditionally sell finished foods (dressed meat, bread etc.), drink of any kind or ready-to-eat food - these trades not mixing well with their general business - nor will they sell non-comestibles (partly for the same reason, and partly because that would put them in conflict with the peddlars). Typically the full time traders are somewhat better off and consider themselves higher status than those who dip in and out but none of them should be considered well off - it's low margin work at best and a few days of rain can play hob with your cashflow.

Although these traders would seem to be competition for market traders, the reverse is very often the case - Mahew (see below) estimated in 1851 that there were 12-13000 costermongers visiting the London markets on a roughly daily basis, who were responsible for buying up roughly a third of the trade and re-selling it around the city2 - competition, if any, would be with local shops but in context these were few and far between. Presumably a significant portion of their work would involve standing orders with various domestic customers in their part of the city3. Mahew also notes that the figure for costermongers does not include those who sell on from the barrows - some of the street traders he discusses later include boys weaving and ducking through the crowds selling an onion or two in each hand - nor the bottom end of the trade who could be found hawking nuts and oranges from their bags in the parks and similar places.

The costermonger's trade was more or less done to death by retail shopping - although presumably some of the more successful settled as local greengrocers and the like - but there are still plenty of places in the world where passers by - or those stuck in traffic queues - can find themselves accosted by luckless individuals - often street children - trying to sell them fruit and similar things.

Sources

London Labour and the London Poor Vol I: The Street Folk Henry Mahew

Bibliography
1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Should be a very common encounter on the streets of any city with the appropriate retail culture.
  • They probably see a great deal as well, often in the early hours of the morning as they head for the market before it opens.
  • These are the people whose barrows get overturned during chase sequences - PCs with a social conscience should probably worry about the effect on their livelihood.
  • Presumably good cover for anyone needing to move stuff about a city - very few police are going to trouble a well known street trader making his rounds (apart from anything else, the customers are likely to complain).
  • Likewise you could even have a Fagin style character pushing his barrow about surrounded by a swarm of boys who pester people to buy fruit and veg and, sale or no sale, provide a distraction for pickpocketing (or carry out distraction burglaries when servants and householders are trading on the doorstep).
  • This will almost certainly not be guild work - except in the sort of high fantasy campaign that has guilds for everything - but may well be licenced by someone and their is likely to be some kind of organisation if only to divide territories.
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