Tiddy Diddy Doll, or: The History of London Street Cries

Old London Street Cries, And the Cries of To-day, with Heaps of Quaint Cuts Including Hand-coloured Frontispiece: By Andrew W. Tuer, Author of “Bartolozzi and his Works,” &c.

Published by Field & Tuer in London, 1885.

“You want my sausages? I want your dough!,” or something along these lines cries German street vendor “Wurst-Achim” – let’s just call him Sausage-Simon in English. Sausage-Simon is known throughout the country, what’s more, he won the German championship in street crying in 2013. I’m not even joking. The book we want to present you today deals with the very special tradition of English street cries, which – I can assure you – is a little less crude than German Wurst-Achim.

But let’s start at the beginning. Travelling merchants and hawkers that offer their goods in the streets of large cities have obviously been around since time immemorial. In England, however, people became increasingly interested in so-called street cries, i.e. verses shouted by the merchants to advertise their goods. The merchants began to compose short poems for this purpose and to create melodies for them. These, in turn, were taken up with growing enthusiasm by musicians and poets, who turned them into actual ditties such as the cry of the milkmaid or the fishwife. Thus, advertisements became real songs, the street became a stage and promoting goods a theatre performance.

To this day, the London cries are a treasured cultural good and a valuable testimony to the everyday life of the time. In this article, we present a printed collection of selected London cries.

 “With Heaps of Quaint Cuts”

Due to the increasing popularity of the cries, people started to collect them and write them down in medieval times. The first print edition from Paris was created around 1500, the first one in London around 1600. The MoneyMuseum’s edition is from 1885, which is relatively late. Accordingly, it is not an original collection but rather an annotated compilation of the best-known old and new cries. The title page announces that the book contains a “heap of quaint cuts”. This was quite usual for the format of such collections, which were often made in the style of picture books and showed illustrations with short verses below.

Turnips and Cabbages

On the left we see a knife grinder, on the right a greengrocer. The verses of the cry “Knives to Grind!” goes as follows:

“Young gentlemen attend my cry,
And bring forth all your Knives;
The barbers Razors too I grind;
Bring out your Sciffars [=scissors], wives.”

Next to him, another merchant offers turnips and cabbages, including free recipe recommendations:

“With mutton we nice turnips eat;
Beet and carrots never cloy;
Cabbage comes up with Summer meat,
With winter nice favoy [= savoy cabbage].”

A glance at the table of contents of London cries provides insights into the historical everyday life in London.

Not only are the verses entertaining, they are also a wonderful testimony to historical everyday life in London. For example, think of the list of cries here as a kind of shopping list! What did people buy back then? Bread and meat, sausages, figs, garters, shoes, purses, candles – so far we are still familiar with the items. But what is a “tosting iron” or “a dish a flounders”? The toasting iron is actually the historical predecessor of the toaster. Imagine an iron holder for slices of bread that could be manoeuvred near the fire by means of a long handle. “A dish a flounders” is somewhat colloquial: “a” is a short form for the word “of”. This means, a fish dish was offered for sale.

William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician, 1741.


Stop the noise, I can’t sleep!

Today, the English are very proud of their long and colourful tradition of London cries. Criers are re-enacted in videos, printed on playing cards and appear in musical hits. However, contemporaries didn’t appreciate the singing merchants as much as we do today. The English poet and journalist John Addison wrote in 1711: “There is nothing which more astonishes a foreigner, and frightens a country squire, than the cries of London. My good friend Sir Roger often declares that he cannot get them out of his head, or go to sleep for them, the first week that he is in town.”

Artistic adaptations of the noisy city life can be found, for example, in plays or in the satirical engraving by William Hogarth shown above. An enraged musician complains about the people in the street who disturb him while he’s practicing.  Beneath the window we can see a ballad monger with her screaming baby and a girl with a rattle on the left; at the centre a milkmaid with a pot on her head; and on the right a paver pounding the street.

I have to admit: although the history of the London cries is fascinating from a safe distance, I probably wouldn’t have slept a wink with such a crowd underneath my window either…


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

If you want to see “Wurst-Achim” in action, here’s the video.

In Victorian novels such as Oliver Twist, street cries play an important role, too. Here you can listen to the song “Who will buy?” from the musical Oliver!.

This article in the Guardian deals extensively with the fascinating tradition of street cries.

Or listen to the street cries in this video.