9: The Jew Old Clothes Man: 19th century disruptor

Podcast Nine The Jew Old Clothes Man...
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Address: Beneath the stairwell of the large block of flats in Middlesex Street which faces the junction with Wentworth Street.

Directions from the previous stop: It is a five minute walk from the site of the Great Synagogue to Middlesex Street, but you may wish to detour to see the blue plaque marking the site of the first Spanish & Portuguese synagogue in Creechurch Lane (at this map reference). Otherwise, walk northwest past the black skyscraper up Duke’s Place only as far as the pedestrian crossing at the intersection with Creechurch Lane. Turn right up Creechurch Lane, heading northeast, then cross Houndsditch immediately, and continue straight ahead into Stoney Lane. At the T-junction with White Kennett Street, turn right and follow the road as it turns left and becomes Gravel Lane. After about 50 yards, you will reach Petticoat Lane, at which you should turn left. After 50 feet or so you should see concrete steps leading into a large block of flats. Just veer to the right so you have a good view of the street around you and Wentworth Street opposite. 

The Jew Old Clothes Man, from Henry Mayhew's 'London Labour and the London Poor', 1861

London Labour and the London Poor’ is a multi-volume compendium of information first published in the Morning Chronicle in the 1840s. This ‘cyclopaedia’ is a comprehensive, albeit slanted guide to the people at the bottom of Victorian London society. It is packed with hundreds of interviews with everyone from roadsweepers to streetsellers of everything from currant puddings to museum guidebooks and cats meat, together illustrating “the Condition and Earnings OF THOSE THAT WILL WORK, THOSE THAT CANNOT WORK, AND THOSE THAT WILL NOT WORK”.

(This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere in the United States and most other parts of the world at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org. If you are not located in the United States, you’ll have to check the laws of the country where you are located before using this eBook.)

“Of the Jew Old-Clothes Men”, an extract from London Labour and the London Poor (Vol. 2 of 4), by Henry Mayhew, first published 1851

“Fifty years ago the appearance of the street-Jews, engaged in the purchase of second-hand clothes, was different to what it is at the present time. The Jew then had far more of the distinctive garb and aspect of a foreigner. He not unfrequently wore the gabardine, which is never seen now in the streets, but some of the long loose frock coats worn by the Jew clothes’ buyers resemble it. At that period, too, the Jew’s long beard was far more distinctive than it is in this hirsute generation.

“In other respects the street-Jew is unchanged. Now, as during the last century, he traverses every street, square, and road, with the monotonous cry, sometimes like a bleat, of “Clo’! Clo’!” On this head, however, I have previously remarked, when describing the street Jew of a hundred years ago.

“In an inquiry into the condition of the old-clothes dealers a year and a half ago, a Jew gave me the following account. He told me, at the commencement of his statement, that he was of opinion that his people were far more speculative than the Gentiles, and therefore the English liked better to deal with them. “Our people,” he said, “will be out all day in the wet, and begrudge themselves a bit of anything to eat till they go home, and then, may be, they’ll gamble away their crown, just for the love of speculation.” My informant, who could write or speak several languages, and had been 50 years in the business, then said, “I am no bigot; indeed I do not care where I buy my meat, so long as I can get it. I often go into the Minories and buy some, without looking to how it has been killed, or whether it has a seal on it or not.”

“He then gave me some account of the Jewish children, and the number of men in the trade, which I have embodied under the proper heads. The itinerant Jew clothes man, he told me, was generally the son of a former old-clothes man, but some were cigar-makers, or pencil-makers, taking to the clothes business when those trades were slack; but that nineteen out of twenty had been born to it. If the parents of the Jew boy are poor, and the boy a sharp lad, he generally commences business at ten years of age, by selling lemons, or some trifle in the streets, and so, as he expressed it, the boy “gets a round,” or street-connection, by becoming known to the neighbourhoods he visits. If he sees a servant, he will, when selling his lemons, ask if she have any old shoes or old clothes, and offer to be a purchaser. If the clothes should come to more than the Jew boy has in his pocket, he leaves what silver he has as “an earnest upon them,” and then seeks some regular Jew clothes man, who will advance the purchase money. This the old Jew agrees to do upon the understanding that he is to have “half Rybeck,” that is, a moiety of the profit, and then he will accompany the boy to the house, to pass his judgment on the goods, and satisfy himself that the stripling has not made a blind bargain, an error into which he very rarely falls. After this he goes with the lad to Petticoat-lane, and there they share whatever money the clothes may bring over and above what has been paid for them. By such means the Jew boy gets his knowledge of the old-clothes business; and so quick are these lads generally, that in the course of two months they will acquire sufficient experience in connection with the trade to begin dealing on their own account. There are some, he told me, as sharp at 15 as men of 50.”

(This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere in the United States and most other parts of the world at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org. If you are not located in the United States, you’ll have to check the laws of the country where you are located before using this eBook.)