What Food was Commercially Available in East London between 1848 – 1913? – Chapter 4: Piemen.

Chapter Four: Piemen from 1850 – 1913

The story of pedlars runs concurrently with the story of the pie, mash, and eel houses, and the two do begin to merge into one another throughout the era. The pieman trade began around the 1840s, exploded in popularity before dying out at the end of the nineteenth century. This was because pie houses would employ the vendors. One of the main selling points for commercial food at this point was fitting around a worker’s schedule. Instead of something that was needed to sit down and eat with cutlery, it needed to be something you can consume while on their feet. This convenience became a selling point for the pedlars. To that end, individual people would roam the streets selling prepared food directly on the street.[133] The main bonus of this is those who could afford a shop or land to create a place for their customer to go. This mobility and cheapness made them a far more lucrative venture for people wanting to work.

One of the main foods they would sell would be pies, so much so that these became known as ‘piemen’. These people would especially prep pies themselves, placing them in tin dishes,[134] then carry them around freshly made in portable ovens, to be sold immediately to the general public. However, the pedlars would usually tell fresh pies. They were initially called the ‘piemen’, employing anyone of any age. Their stock would typically be sold for a penny with pedlars yelling their produce out loud, such as ‘a penny for a pie!’ in the streets.[135] The penny-pie would later become a standard of commercial food of this era, with plenty of literary mentions of them.[136] This included one Charles Manby Smith, another journalist that spent his time documenting times in East London, recording in 1853:

‘Furnished with a tray about a yard square, either carried upon his head or suspended by a strap in front of his breast, he scrupled not to force his way through the thickest crowd, knowing that the very centre of action was [. . . ] either by the dallying shilli-shally process of “best five in nine,” the tricksy manoeuvre of “best two in three,” [. . . ] a pie for a halfpenny, or your half-penny gone for nothing.’[137]

This anecdote tells us how direct and accessible these piemen must have been to the working masses, who would be desperate for a hot, well-made meal that fitted into their lives and schedules, which could sometimes be more alluring than having to fix a meal at home when exhausted from work with limited resources. Manby Smith spent a lot of time detailing the piemen in his Curiosities of London Life (1853), where he clearly felt passionate enough to dedicate several chapters to the life and times of these sellers. These vendors were centred around East London workhouses like the ones in Poplar high street or Aldgate but would also target around the Greenwich shoreline, for its proximity to markets such as Billingsgate.[138] This ensured that they would find people coming and going from work and their lodgings. Meaning that soon enough East London was reportedly rife with street vendors peddling them, as well as pies and mash.[139]

One of the benefits of these pedlars was the cheapness, which invited the working class to buy out, rather than be intimidated by highbrow shops and their prices.[140] Considering how well these walkers would know the area, their skill in selling food and their various knowhow with their customers, most of these vendors got hired by shops to sell food they were previously selling. It was safer, especially in the summer months with more daylight hours. Henry Mayhew estimated that a Billingsgate Market centred pieman in 1852 could sell up to ‘240’ pies in a single day. But one distinction from pie shops is that these sellers would also sell desserts such as fruit pies, or plum duffs and dumplings.[141]

However, these piemen also sold many other items, relying on supply and demand. Fried potatoes had been a common street food for centuries in England.[142] In this era, vendors sold baked potatoes in the streets and were popular at public events like fairs.[143] There are reports from various newspapers and writers of the day, Henry Mayhew among them, documenting these vendors selling fried slices of potatoes, or jacket potatoes filled with things like bacon, or with butter and salt shellfish, pease pudding, trotters and tripe, savoy sausage and faggots, but also smaller commodities such as bread rolls, freshly made sandwiches and fruit and nut.[144] Pea soup, usually sold in an empty pie container; with celery, mint, and beef bones, would also be a common commodity in this area, sometimes including ham as well, this would also be known as ‘a London Particular’ because of its synecdoche of London food.[145]

But naturally, this would rely on supply and demand, counting on the ongoing trade. These sellers would start by cooking a small batch of food and call out in the street, advertising what they had. Instead of shops drawing customers in, vendors would deliberately move around on foot selling food on the streets. Mostly they would follow where the money was; events such as fairs and markets or going into public houses and taverns with a large bag, tray, or ‘pie-can’ selling what they had directly to buyers on the street.[146] Morrison wrote in his semi-fictional memoir A Child of Jango (1896): ‘for dinner, or tripe, or what you fancied: [. . . ] baked potatoes from the can on cold nights. . . ‘ which hints at just how ubiquitous and essential piemen were to the people living in East London.[147]

Despite the priority and popularity of pies, these people would also sell other items, depending on supply and demand, on what could be sold, what could be handheld and what was popular. With a reporter from the Charter describing: ‘The foot-paths of the street themselves are also embellished with little portable shops, belonging to the purveyors of fried fish, [and] baked potatoes.’[148] What this reporter was remarking on was the image of piemen travelling through the streets selling this food was extremely common. Almost like a stock character, reliable for the local population needing to find something to eat at any hour of the day.

Once the predominance of these pedlars was established, the neighbouring food shops started to employ them in their pie shops, such as fish and chips to sell (and advertise) stock from the surrounding area.[149] To the piemen, they were given more security, not having to risk harassment from police or the general public.[150] For the pie houses they were employing an experienced cook, who knew the local area and how to sell.[151] George Dowd laments the lack of ‘the pieman’, telling his readers that they have been ‘replaced by the normal shopkeeper’ in the Food of London.[152] Later on in the era, as these piemen knew how to cook other staples of food, shops would add on other items and start selling what their staff could cook. The menu and roster of what pie, mash, and eel houses expanded in parallel with how often the piemen were hired. With their knowhow, they could utilize their skills in a kitchen more predominantly. Throughout this era, we can trace the slow merging of the two stories into one.

By 1890, the pie mash and eels’ shops had effectively killed off the pieman street trade, to the point the last of them were local celebrities, such as one William Thompson, the ‘champion pieman of the last fifty years’, who then went on to open his own pie shop in Church Passage, Greenwich.[153] This did have the knock-on effect of creating a sort of ‘monopoly’, with pie and mash and eels coming up the strongest meal commercially in the region. Jewish bakeries stayed a niche in the area, and fish and chips spread out further into the country, but pie, mash, and eels became the most prominent, indigenous meal of East London.

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