Open main menu

Wikipedia β

The Coster's Mansion, 1899 sheet music.

Costermonger, coster, or costard is a street seller of fruit and vegetables, in London and other British towns. Costermongers were ubiquitous in mid-Victorian England, and some are still found in markets. As usual with street-sellers, they would use a loud sing-song cry or chant to attract attention. The costermonger's cart might be stationary at a market stall, or mobile (horse-drawn or wheelbarrow). The term is derived from the words costard (a now extinct medieval variety of large, ribbed apple[1]) and monger (seller).

Costers met a need for rapid food distribution from the central markets (e.g., Smithfield for meat, Spitalfields for fruit and vegetables or Billingsgate for fish). Their membership as a coster was signalled by their large neckerchief, known as a kingsman, tied round their necks. Their hostility towards the police was legendary.[2]

The term is now often used to describe hawkers in general;[3] sometimes a distinction is made between the two: a costermonger sells from a handcart or animal-drawn cart, while a hawker carries his wares in a basket.[1]



The term, costermonger, was coined during the early sixteenth century. It first appeared in the English language in around 1510. The term, 'coster' is a corruption of costard, a kind of apple and the term 'monger' meaning a trader or broker. Although the literal meaning refers to an itinerant apple-seller, the term was used more generally to refer to anyone who sold fresh fruit or vegetables from a hand cart.[4][5]


The Fruit and Vegetable Costermonger (1631) by Louise Moillon.

Technically, costermongers were hawkers since they rarely traded from fixed stalls. They purchased produce from the wholesale markets and sold it at retail. Their fruit and vegetables were placed in baskets, barrows or carts and the costermonger walked the streets crying out to sell their produce. Although the term, 'costermonger', was used to describe any hawker of fresh produce, the term became strongly associated with London-based street vendors. Costermongers were known to have been in London from at least the 16th century. Both Shakespeare and Marlowe mention costermongers in their writings. They probably were most numerous during the Victorian era, when there were said to be over 30,000 in 1860.

Costermongers gained a fairly unsavoury reputation for their "low habits, general improvidence, love of gambling, total want of education, disregard for lawful marriage ceremonies, and their use of a peculiar slang language" (John Camden Hotten, The Slang Dictionary, 1859). Costers developed their own culture; were notoriously competitive, respected "elder statespeople" in the costermonger community could be elected as pearly kings and queens to keep the peace between rival costermongers.[6]

Mayhew described them as usurers. Cheating was widespread. Weights were flattened to make them look bigger and heavier, measures were fitted with thick or false bottoms, in order to give false readings. However, crimes such as theft were actually rare among costermongers themselves, especially in an open market where they tended to look out for one another. Even common thieves preferred to prey on shop owners rather than costers, who were inclined to dispense street justice. The costers' animosity towards the police was extreme:

With the navvies a state of permanent warfare with civil authority was common, but not inevitable; with the London costermongers it was axiomatic.

— Chesney, [7]

The activities and lifestyles of 19th century costermongers are among the subjects documented in London Labour and the London Poor, a four volume collection of articles by Henry Mayhew. Mayhew describes a Saturday night in the New Cut, a street in Lambeth, south of the river:

Lit by a host of lights… the Cut was packed from wall to wall… The hubbub was deafening, the traders all crying their wares with the full force of their lungs against the background din of a horde of street musicians.

— Mayhew, [8]

By the end of the 19th century, the costermongers were in gradual decline. They did not disappear as mobile street-sellers until the 1960s, when the few that remained took pitches in local markets. They were portrayed in the music halls by vocal comedians such as Albert Chevalier, Bessie Bellwood and Gus Elen. In The Forsyte Saga, Swithin Forsyte is driving Irene Forsyte in his carriage through the streets of London in 1886 and a costermonger (the "ruffian") and his girlfriend are riding alongside in their donkey cart, which is overturned in traffic.

Coster styleEdit

Costermongers had their own dress code. In the mid nineteenth century, men wore long waistcoats of sandy coloured corduroy with buttons of brass or shiny mother of pearl. Trousers, also made of corduroy, had the distinctive bell-bottomed leg. Footwear was often decorated with a motif of roses, hearts and thistles. Neckerchiefs — called king's men — were of green silk or red and blue. [9]

Betty May spoke of the "coster" style and atmosphere in London around 1900 in her autobiography Tiger Woman: My Story in 1929: "I am often caught with a sudden longing regret for the streets of Limehouse as I knew them, for the girls with their gaudy shawls and heads of ostrich feathers, like clouds in a wind, and the men in their caps, silk neckerchiefs and bright yellow pointed boots in which they took such pride. I adored the swagger and the showiness of it all."[10]

Legal standingEdit

The costermonger's trade in London is subject to regulation by law, under the administration of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. If the pitch is stationary, by-laws of local councils also apply. Legislation exists under clause six of the Metropolitan Streets Act 1867, which deals with obstruction by goods to pavements (sidewalks) and streets. There are various modern amendments.

See alsoEdit

References and sourcesEdit

  1. ^ a b Quinion, Michael (4 January 2003). "Costard/ˈkɒstəd/". World Wide Words. Retrieved 2012-09-16. 
  2. ^ Chesney, Kellow 1970. The Victorian Underworld. Penguin. p50
  3. ^ Roberts, Chris, Heavy words lightly thrown: the reason behind rhyme. Thorndike Press 2006. (ISBN 0-7862-8517-6)
  4. ^ "Definition of costermonger". Oxford English Dictionaries. Retrieved 12 March 2017. 
  5. ^ Etymology Dictionary Online, and also see, Sullivan, D., "A Penny Profit out of the Poor Man's Dinner," Victorian Web, Victorian Costermongers Page, <Online:>
  6. ^ Chesney, Kellow, The Victorian Underworld, Penguin, 1970, pp 43–56; 97–98.
  7. ^ Chesney, Kellow 1970. The Victorian Underworld. Penguin p. 43.
  8. ^ Mayhew, Henry 1851–1861. London Labour and the London Poor. Researched and written, variously, with J. Binny, B. Hemyng and A. Halliday.
  9. ^ Sullivan, D, "A Penny Profit out of the Poor Man's Dinner," Victorian Web, Victorian Costermongers Page, <Online:>
  10. ^ May, Betty. (1929) Tiger Woman: My Story. (2014 reprint) London: Duckworth. ISBN 978-0715648551