Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Groundsel Man

Keeping singing and fancy-birds was very popular in mid-Victorian London. People of all classes shared their front-parlours with caged live birds, such as canaries or linnets or bullfinches. They may also have kept stuffed specimens, perched on idealised undergrowth beneath glass domes. The better-off might have invested in a colourful cockatoo or parrot, or some more exotic breed, to decorate their living quarters and enliven their lives with its song. Fabulous paintings of rare birds, in their natural environments, were also much prized. But, as is the case with much respectable Victorian social phenomena, the matter was not without a darker underside.

Martin_Johnson_Heade-Cattleya_Orchid_and_Three_Brazilian_Hummingbirds

 “Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds”, by M.J. Heade, 1871, (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

Live birds could be seen, and bought from what were described as the prettiest young girl shop-assistants, at places like the Portland Bazaar on Langham Place, or the Pantheon Bazaar, a rather grand former theatre on Oxford Street (on the site now occupied by Marks & Spencer). The latter sold a variety of fancy goods of an ornamental character, and its aviary adjoined fountains and floral displays. The prosperous West-End dweller could venture further afield in search of desirable avian acquisitions, perhaps to the Sunday morning bird-market off Brick Lane in the East End. And there were many street-sellers of birds, bird-seed, and turf for lining the cages.

Henry Mayhew, the Victorian journalist and social campaigner, was a great observer of the street-traders of mid-Victorian London. In his classic social survey, London Labour and the London Poor, he interviewed and described a multitude of pitifully poor people who tried to grub a marginal living from hawking diverse wares in the open. There were those established costermongers who, sometimes profitably enough, sold the conventional fare of fruit, vegetables, and fish, usually from a barrow pulled by a donkey. But hordes of others took their chance by offering such goods as needles, spoons, matches, fly-papers, walking-sticks, wash-leathers, laces, nutmeg-graters, combs, dog-collars, umbrellas, and many more esoteric items.

Whilst some of these supposed trades were simple covers for beggary, Mayhew stresses that most participants were genuinely striving to make an honest living in this manner. One striking example is “The Groundsel Man”.

Groundsel Man 

This near-destitute individual was one of the many who went door-to-door with groundsel (which he calls “grunsell”), a yellow weed containing bird-seed found on waste ground. He also sold bird-feed in the form of chickweed, turf for dressing the cages, and nettles for ladies’ tea. Mayhew interviewed him in the wretched courtyard room off Saffron Hill (near where Dickens sited Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist) that he shared with his wife and their son and daughter. Appropriately enough, they had a stuffed linnet on the mantelpiece.

Although paralysed down his right side the man estimates that he shuffles a full fifteen miles daily (except Sunday), out from seven in the morning to five p.m. in all weathers, without pausing to eat. First he goes to fields outside London to harvest his stock-in-trade, and then he returns to town to offer it around well-to-do streets in the West End. Charging a half-penny a bunch, he makes at most a few shillings a week. Even still, “the ladies are very hard with a body. They tries to beat me down…”.

After rent, the family have about three shillings a week to live on. They seldom have meat, can afford only a pittance in fuel to keep the room warm, and those articles of apparel they are not wearing are in pawn, as is all their bedding. Mayhew quotes the man’s wife as saying, “We strive and do the best we can, and may as well be contented over it. I think it’s God’s will we should be as we are. Providence is kind to me, even badly off as we are. I know it’s for the best.”

Such extreme poverty is virtually unknown these days, and probably so is the degree of stoicism the groundsel man’s wife displays. If people still kept house-birds in large numbers, groundsel cultivated in special beds would no doubt be touted as the latest word in avian-food technology. No doubt organic varieties would be on the market, available in sealed packages for delivery by little vans from special shops. Perplexing days for a time-travelling groundsel man.