England Occupations, Household Goods, Books, Street Sellers, Market Sellers, Rural Pedlars (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Household Goods


In early times printers were also publishers and booksellers with shops and perhaps a group of chapmen to carry their wares to rural districts. As the trade developed the booksellers subdivided into specialties such as children and education, foreign, law, medical, old, and religious books. The City of London was the early centre of the book trade and their 17th century warehouses had thousands of books as well as chapbooks, ballads, and periodicals. Many worthy volumes were sold in instalments for affordability well into the 20th century; the works of Dickens and encyclopaedias spring to mind. Hey quotes an estimate of about 200 booksellers operating in 50 towns by 1700, rising to 381 in 174 towns by the mid-1740s. Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol III. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1994) depicts the trade in 1818, and booksellers belonged to the Stationers’ Company.

Other Goods

Furniture sellers, pawnbrokers and old clothes dealers belonged to the Upholders’ Company. Selling furniture in the 20th century is recalled by Hudson (Where We Used to Work. J. Baker, London. FHL book 942 U2hk, 1980).

The ironmonger was the domestic department store of its day, predominantly the Victorian period. It made, sold, installed, modified, maintained and repaired just about every kind of metal hardware and domestic machinery, and supplied candles, oils, china, pottery, glass, wallpaper, and 1001 other necessities. Meadows was one of the last apprentices in such an establishment and has given a wonderful description of the business, profusely illustrated, and wrote another book on one important item of stock, the oil lamp. Webb (London Apprentices Volume 24. Ironmongers’ Company 1655-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1999-1) has indexed the Ironmongers’ Company apprenticeships 1655-1800.

Street Sellers

These are people for whom little documentation was made. I have divided them into the urban market and street sellers and the rural pedlars, but overlap existed.

Market and Street Sellers

London costermongers and others who held a more or less permanent stall in a daily or weekly market usually had to be licensed or hold a permit for their stand. Some records of these still exist in local archives. Faulkner has compared Mayhew’s work with the census figures and deduced that less than 5% of the perhaps 45,000 London costermongers and their families appear on the 1841 census because they were largely illiterate and suspicious of the motives of the enumerators, and many would not have had a fixed abode. Twentieth century stall holders are described in an Anonymous article (Old Occupations: 150 Years of Market Trading. Family Tree Magazine Vol 4 #8, page 4).

Perhaps one fortieth of the London population got their living on the streets (Mayhew 1861, Faulkner) and were rarely enumerated on the censuses. Mayhew, in his classic work on London Labour and the London Poor, describes and interviews dozens of kinds of London street sellers as well as those who gathered up discarded articles from streets and sewers and sold them. Apart from the costermongers there were thousands of others who walked the streets. Faulkner estimates perhaps 1,000 old clothes men, 500 watercress sellers, 200 coffee stalls, 300 cats meat men, 200 playbill sellers and a host of sellers of all kinds of ready-to-eat food and drinks, household utensils and necessities, pets, toys, and sheets of songs and last dying speeches, etc.

The street finders included 800 -1,000 bone grubbers, mudlarks, scavengers and rag and bone men. Then there were street performers, artists and showmen estimated at 1,000 musicians, 250 ballad singers, as well as gymnasts, reciters, jugglers, animal trainers and others. Street artisans included knife grinders as well as chair, umbrella and clock menders. Another large group of street labourers were the 1,000 crossing sweepers, 1,000 chimney sweeps, 1,000 turncocks and lamp-lighters, rat killers and dustmen (garbage collectors). It is highly doubtful that all of these featured on census returns so they are very difficult to trace as individuals. The family historian will need to resort to general descriptions of their character and work. Mayhew’s original work has been edited by Quennell (Mayhew’s London, [a condensation of volumes I-III of London Labour and the London Poor]. Bracken Books, London. FHL book 942.1/L1 E6m) which is readily available and cannot be too highly recommended. Morrell has a very useful selection of illustrations and descriptions of street sellers entitled Street Cries, and Felgate (A Load of Old Tosh. Greentrees (Westminster and Central Middlesex FHS) Vol 17 #3, page 64-65, 1998) delves into the life of the mudlarks and toshers (sewers hunters).

Rural Pedlars

Itinerant traders were common by the 16th century at least, bringing town goods to the rural areas when travel for average people was not easy. Some carried packs on their backs and others had a donkey or even horse to do the donkey work. Some wholesalers relied on this method of retailing their goods.

Chapmen carried an assortment of useful articles such as cloth and haberdashery goods, combs, knives, looking glasses, toys, tobacco, and knick-knacks as well as the chap books for which they were named. These were all kinds of small books, some religious, others instructional or story books, together with ballads and stationers’ wares. Chapmen displayed their license number on their pack or display tray.

Badgers, higglers, and hucksters wore a badge affirming that they were licensed and tended to specialize in food, buying it from farms and selling it further down the route. There were many variations and most would naturally seize any profitable opportunity. Lower down the scale there were casual itinerants such as tinkers who mended pots and pans, and sometimes also begged.

By the end of the 17th century there were about 10,000 pedlars of various descriptions and in order to better regulate them an act was passed in 1696/7 insisting that they be licensed. Some traded solely at fairs and markets but others did this as well as travelling on other days of the week during the better weather. Each pedlar that traded on the road, had to attend the Quarter Sessions and pay £4 for himself and £4 for each pack animal that he had. Over 2,500 were licensed in the first year and doubtless many poorer ones evaded the fee. More than 500 of these were based in London, with 134 in Bristol and most of the larger towns had over 40.


Licensed Badgers and Hucksters from Nichaelmas Quarter Sessions 1759 Canterbury, Kent

The like Licence to John SCOT of Milsted Labourer
The like Licence to Peter BANN of Linsted Labourer
The like Licence to James BEDWELL of Borden Labourer
The like Licence to Elizabeth DAWSON of Bapchild Widow

Spufford (The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century. Hambledon Press, London. {{FHL|453336|item|disp=FHL book 942 U2sm, 1984) shows from an analysis of chapmen’s probate inventories, that these pedlars were highly effective in distributing both reading material and sewing needs to the furthest corners of England and Wales. They can therefore be credited with developing reading as well as fashion amongst the rural poor. Passmore (Old Occupations: Chapman or Pedlar. Family Tree Magazine Vol 8 #2, page 44-45) has a good summary of the chapman’s trade, and the definitive work is by Spufford. Akehurst (Old Occupations: The Higgler. Family Tree Magazine. Vol 15 #9, page 19) attempted an article on higglers, but it is far too short to be useful.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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