The itinerant pedlar (or peddler) carrying their bulky packs of “smallwares” on their back or with a horse or donkey was once a common sight on the tracks and paths of rural Westmorland.
The pedlar played a very important economic role in early modern Europe, connecting remote rural communities with wider trade networks as well as bringing in news from the outside world before the days of the cheap newspaper. The travelling chapman was a type of pedlar who developed a specific job selling chapbooks and broadside ballads – cheaply printed booklets and song sheets sold to working people. We’ll look at them in a later blog post.
Images of pedlars appear in art and literature from as early as the twelfth century, so it seems that as long as there were settled traders selling goods at town markets and fairs then there were also travelling pedlars supplying those unable to get to these places and also filling any gaps in the market.
“…many pedlars and chapmen, that from fair to fair, from markett to
markett, carieth it to sell in horspakks and fote pakks, in basketts
and budgelts, sitting on holydays and sondais in chirche porchis
and abbeys dayly to sell all such trifells.” Sixteenth century source quoted in Peddler: Wikipedia
The work of the early pedlar was appreciated by the rural communities they served, as shown by Worsdworth’s poem, even if it does view the past through rose-tinted spectacles:
“An irksome drudgery seems it to plod on
Through hot and dusty ways or pelting storm,
A vagrant merchant under a heavy load
Bent as he moves, and needing frequent rest:
Yet do such travellers find their own delight;
And their hard service, deemed debasing now,
Gained merited respect in simpler times;
When squire and priest, and they who round them dwelt
In rustic sequestration – all dependent
Upon the pedlar’s toil – supplied their wants,
Or pleased their fancies with the wares he brought.”
From ‘The Excursion’ (1814) William Wordsworth
The life of a pedlar was certainly tough. They travelled long distances in all weathers, often carrying heavy loads. If they’d sold well then they were carrying money too and were liable to be targetted by robbers.
If the worst happened, identifying a dead pedlar could be a problem for the authorities as they were often far from home and maybe known locally just by their surname or a nickname.
By the nineteenth century, their itinerant nature and the fact that they competed with settled and ‘respectable’ traders meant that pedlars and their urban counterparts, hawkers, were often painted as little better than vagrants and beggars. Kendal’s shopkeepers and traders sent a strongly worded petition to the House of Commons in 1823 accusing local hawkers and pedlars of handling stolen goods and circulating ‘base’ coinage i.e. debased or counterfeit money.
The 1871 Pedlar’s Act is still in force today, requiring pedlars to be officially licensed by the Chief Constable of their county, but pedlars were subject to licencing long before that legislation.
The police were obviously put under pressure to control pedlars by their communities. Here we see Lancashire’s Chief Constable complaining about the quality of the Pedlar Act.
The large numbers of certificates being granted in some counties seemed to be a cause for concern and we see local magistrates sometimes complaining that there simply couldn’t be enough work for all of them. This probably underestimated the distances that pedlars travelled on their regular circuits.
In 1871 for instance we see that 104 Pedlar’s Licences were issued in the Borough of Kendal (‘A Year’s Crime in Kendal’ The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 01 February 1890 p5). A pedlar with a horse was charged more Stamp Duty for his certificate than a pedlar who travelled on foot (‘The Westmorland Gazette Almanack for 1868’ The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 28 December 1867.)
Removing someone’s pedlar certificate was a common punishment for misbehaviour. Drunkenness and/or fighting were often the cause.
“DRUNKENNESS – Thomas Murray, a labourer on the Waterworks, was charged with having been drunk and disorderly in Stricklandgate [Kendal] on Saturday evening, Constable Kitcham proved the case, remarking that defendant was causing a disturbance in White Lion Yard, about half-past eleven o’clock – defendant was fined 5s and costs, and a pedlar’s certificate he possessed was ordered to be forfeited.”
The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 14 September 1889
Peddling without a licence could also land you in trouble, especially as it appears that there were people paid to catch pedlars out in this way. This tragic (and possibly apocryphal) tale was reprinted in The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 08 October 1831
We referred to the contents of the pedlar’s pack as being ‘smallwares’ but this covered a multitude of sins. We pick up hints of what that might include from various nineteenth century newspaper reports.
“HAWKING WITHOUT A LICENCE John Sinnott was charged with having acted as a pedlar without a licence. The defendant said it was time he had a licence, but it was not signed. The Chief Constable said that on Saturday the defendant was hawking spectacles at different places. He had a licence, but it was not endorsed, which was the same as having no licence at all. He was fined 5s. and costs.”
The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 14 July 1877
“AN UNCERTIFIED PEDLAR. – John Gilmour (47), a spinner, of no fixed abode, pleaded guilty to a charge of acting as a pedlar without a certificate. – P.C. Dobson said he saw prisoner accosting people in Highgate [Kendal] on Saturday night and offering sweet lavender for sale. He was drunk, and causing a great deal of annoyance, and witness took him into custody. – Prisoner said he belonged to Oldham, and if the magistrates would discharge him he would leave town at once and would go to Preston where he could get work. – He was fines 2s 6d and 5s 6d costs, or seven days hard labour.”
The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 06 February 1909
So, we have spectacles; boot laces; sweet lavender and cheap silk shawls in these four examples spanning the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In earlier times, a pedlar’s pack might contain a much wider variety of small wares such as pins; needles; ribbons and lace or watches; cheap jewellery, pots, pans and cotton wool. Any little thing that couldn’t be got easily locally or that might just tempt the mistress of the house to treat herself.
The Kendal pedlar selling cheap silk shawls in the newspaper article above was Irish. This isn’t unusual. Researchers studying the history of pedlars in Northern Europe have found that many pedlars were migrants, see for instance the 2012 article ‘Selling in the shadows: peddlers and hawkers in early modern Europe’ by Danielle van den Heuvel.
There were also a considerable number of Jewish pedlars in England. We find the occasional record of them in local newspapers.
Census records give us a snapshot of the origins of pedlars passing through the area in the second half of the nineteenth century. They also show us that there were both male and female pedlars working in the area.
In the earliest census (1841), we find just two pedlars/hawkers recorded in the Westmorland Dales, both in Kendal. 50 year old Paul Hollywell is one of them, the census only records that he was not born in Westmorland. He is living in a lodging house on Stricklandgate.
In 1871, a common lodging house in Kirkland in Kendal has two Irish-born women pedlars staying. Ellen Dobson, aged 30, seems to be there with her labourer husband, a Yorkshireman born in Bradford. 83-year-old Bridget Campbell however is a widow. One wonders how she managed to tramp the roads at such a great age. She is the oldest pedlar we’ve found so far, though 72-year-old Dublin-born widow Margaret Burns living in a lodging house in Shap in 1881 runs her a close second.
The youngest pedlar we’ve found is 15-year-old James Broadbent. In 1861 he lived on Stricklandgate in Kendal with his family. His father Richard was an umbrella maker so we might speculate that his son worked as pedlar selling these umbrellas locally. In 1871 we find a husband and wife team, Robert and Ann Archer living on Low Fell Side in Kendal. He was born in Cartmel in Lancashire, she came from Dublin. It seems to be more usual for the wife to be a pedlar while the husband is otherwise employed.
It’s clear that not all pedlars were living on the margins of society. In 1881 we find a 65-year-old Scottish pedlar, James Buchanan, running a lodging house in Brough. The extent of his travels is shown by the fact that his wife was born in Oxfordshire while the two grandchildren living with him were born in Darlington and Sunny Bank respectively, both Co Durham.
In 1901, a lodging house on Mellbecks in Kirkby Stephen is stuffed full of pedlars. It’s interesting to note that there seems to be some confusion among the census recorders as to whether they should be classified as hawkers or pedlars or both. They come from far and wide, from Skipton in Yorkshire, to Lincoln, Manchester and Ireland.
The railway must have offered far greater opportunities for pedlars to get about than Shanks’s pony ever did and Tebay with its station accessing routes in all directions must have been a particularly useful place to stop off in. It’s no surprise that we find lodging houses there. There were two pedlars staying with common lodging house keeper 72-year-old Elizabeth Hunter on Woodend Terrace in 1901. There can’t have been a lot of room in these terraced houses.
We are still finding people listed as pedlars in the 1911 census returns for the area. From one we actually learn what was being peddled – 65-year-old George Jameson, a widower living in Kendal on Entry Lane, is selling jewellery.
There seems to be a gradual change in the late nineteenth century from the pedlar who bought stock, selling it door-to-door on a regular circuit and replenishing it regularly so as not to have too much cash on them at any one time, to pedlars who bought stock on tick from a wholesaler/manufacturer, paying them back when they refilled their packs. There were also ‘canvassers,’ commercial travellers who carried and sold stock on behalf of a manufacturer.
A local court case showed that the lines sometimes became blurred between who was pedlar on their own account and who was a commercial traveller in the employ of a manufacturer. Mr Sergeant also lost his later appeal.
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