The Cries of London.

The Gentle Author posts about a once inescapable urban phenomenon:

The dispossessed and those with no other income were always able to cry their wares for sale in London. By turning their presence into performance with their Cries, they claimed the streets as their theatre – winning the lasting affections of generations of Londoners and embodying the soul of the city in the popular imagination. Thus, through time, the culture of the capital’s street Cries became integral to the distinctive identity of London.

Undertaking interviews with stallholders in Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Columbia Road and other East End markets in recent years led me to consider the cultural legacy of urban street trading. While this phenomenon might appear transitory and fleeting, I discovered a venerable tradition in the Cries of London. Yet even this genre of popular illustrated prints, which began in the seventeenth century, was itself preceded by verse such as London Lackpenny attributed to the fifteenth century poet John Lydgate that drew upon an earlier oral culture of hawkers’ Cries. From medieval times, the great number of Cries in London became recognised by travellers throughout Europe as indicative of the infinite variety of life in the British capital.

Given the former ubiquity of the Cries of London, the sophistication of many of the images, their significance as social history, and their existence as almost the only portraits of working people in London through four centuries, it astonishes me that there has been little attention paid to this subject and so I have set out to reclaim this devalued cultural tradition. […]

Through the narrow urban thoroughfares and byways, hawkers announced their wares by calling out a repeated phrase that grew familiar to their customers, who learned to recognise the Cries of those from whom they bought regularly. By nature of repetition, these Cries acquired a musical quality as hawkers improvised upon the sounds of the words, evolving phrases into songs. Commonly, Cries also became unintelligible to those who did not already know what was being sold. Sometimes the outcome was melodic and lyrical, drawing the appreciation of bystanders, and at other times discordant and raucous as hawkers strained their voices to be heard across the longest distance. […]

In the twentieth century, the Cries of London found their way onto cigarette cards, chocolate boxes, biscuit tins, tea towels, silk scarves, dinner services and, famously, tins of Yardley talcum powder from 1912 onwards, becoming divorced from the reality they once represented as time went by, copied and recopied by different artists. […]

In the densely-populated neighbourhoods, it was the itinerants’ cries that marked the times of day and announced the changing seasons of the year. Before the motorcar, their calls were a constant of street life in London. Before advertising, their songs were the jingles that announced of the latest, freshest produce or appealing gimcrack. Before radio, television and internet, they were the harbingers of news, and gossip, and novelty ballads.

Martin, who sent me the link, says “Apparently beginning in Medieval times, if not earlier, the Cries evolved into a set of words/phrases/melodies that announced specific vendors. Not exactly a language but certainly a set of unique sounds with meaning. […] Maybe some of your Hatters can come up with recordings or transcriptions; I’m not finding any. Even without that, thought, the phrases and jingles recorded at the Gutenberg link about are a fabulous collection of lost bits of vernacular English.” Thanks, Martin!


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    In Moore St. Market in Dublin, I remember the cries as being more functional, along the lines of “five for fifty the oranges”, but some of them could be more elaborate, like “Get your nice fresh X, only Y for ten”. The actual freshness depended on many factors, not only supply and season, but on how the seller felt about you and what sort of day they had had. I can confirm “Cries also became unintelligible to those who did not already know what was being sold.’

  2. Christopher Culver says

    A number of traditional cries were set to music by Luciano Berio in 1974–5 in his work Cries of London for eight voices a cappella. The Danish composer Vagn Holmboe even wrote a musicological study of some cries in Copenhagen collected before 1960, which eventually was found worth of publishing in English translation as Danish Street Cries.

  3. Newspaper cries went beyond the proverbial “extra! extra! read all about it!” There is one remaining Echo boy in Cork.

  4. Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) composed The Cries Of London for five voices and instrumental accompaniment.

    There were other composers of that era who produced similar works, for example Thomas Weelkes.

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Now I think about it, I don’t know when the newpaper sellers went.

    Edinburgh ones usually shouted ‘eveningnewsscotsMUN!’. Glasgow ones shouted… something. Presumably intelligible to Glaswegians. But you could tell it was papers even if you couldn’t tell the words.

    See also about 00:01:29 here

  6. The criers on the Hamburg fish market are a tourist attraction.

  7. We discussed alte zakhn cries.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    (Apologies for the Link of Evil; the BBC have blocked it on YouTube, at least in the UK.

  9. One of the best parts of Porgy and Bess is the food vendors singing about their wares.

    And @David Eddyshaw: The other side of that xkcd is this SMBC comic.

  10. The poem Cherry Ripe, set to music later and more in recent times performed by Julie Andrews, among others, derives from peddlers’ cries.

    There’s also Molly Malone (“cockles and mussels alive, alive-o”) but that’s a Dublin song.

    When I was young, a rag-and-bone man would very occasionally come by riding a cart pulled by a horse. But he would just yell “rag-and-bone man, rags and bones!” in a not very musical way, as I recall.

  11. In Egyptian Arabic, the word for “peddler” is rubabikya, from the Italian peddlers’ cry of ropa vecchia “old clothes!” (As I apparently already mentioned on the alte zakhn thread.)

    I’ve heard peddlers’ cries in Algeria sometimes, but I could never really make out the words properly.

  12. within a few days in istanbul, i could tell the neighborhood ayran-seller by the second note of his call.

    you still do get some patter from street vendors in nyc, but much less than i remember from even twenty years ago (on canal street, say) – but much of that is about the increased criminalization of informal work. the true last refuge of Calls in this town, though, is the ice-cream truck: each company with its melody, and the independents doing all kinds of other things.

    the knife-grinder who (as of ten years or so ago) worked the upper west side of manhattan with a van, however, used a bell. so do some of the helado and mango carts.

  13. There’s also Molly Malone (“cockles and mussels alive, alive-o”) but that’s a Dublin song.

    Well, perhaps. It’s certainly about Dublin, but it was first published in Boston as far as the record goes. The Hiberno-English rhyme fever / save her could be found in either place. There are some indications tof an earlier publication in Scotland, but no copies survive, raising the possibility that it was a different song of the same name (such a song, with different lyrics, is known to exist).

  14. Kate Bunting says

    In 1969-70 I frequently passed through Derby (UK) bus station at lunchtime. There was a newspaper seller with the midday edition of the Derby Evening Telegraph (which has since dropped the ‘Evening’ from its title). He used to call “Midday Tele”, but with a strong emphasis on DAY and hardly any on the last two syllables.

  15. In Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood there was a knife sharpener who cried CHUP!!-aw-aw-aaaa as recently as 15 years ago. The first time I heard it I thought someone was in extreme pain.

    My part of the hood had been Puerto Rican for years. I never looked into who the knife sharpener was so I don’t know if that was relevant.

    I bet air conditioning and a lower tolerance for cooler indoor temps affected the market for itinerant criers over the last fifty years.

  16. the knife-grinder who (as of ten years or so ago) worked the upper west side of manhattan with a van, however, used a bell.

    By magic coincidence, I read today a blog post with a 1901 cartoon (top center) referencing this very thing.

  17. Deborah Moss says

    Comical too. I recently heard a stall holder crying his (false) DKNY products as NYPD,

  18. In York in the 90’s I remember one remaining, a fixture in St Helen’s Square, with a hoarse but carrying “prEEEeeeesss!” for the Yorkshire Evening Press. More recently I’ve only heard them in Bangalore — “Peeeee-paaaah!” on the morning paper round.

  19. A few years ago, on the streets of Nikko, Japan, which attracts heavy tourist traffic, a street vendor passed playing a recorded cry of yaki imo (“roasted sweet-potato”). That cry has lots of nostalgia value in Japan, and I couldn’t resist buying one of his potatoes to eat.

  20. Ah Joel, you evoke for me those scalding roasted di gua on sale in the snow-cloaked streetscapes of Nanjing. Weighed out with milligram precision by a conscientious vendor. Something like this but with a simple mechanical scale in the scene also. Hmm … I’m pretty sure it was winter. But then, I always like to remember Nanjing as snowy.

  21. The musical Oliver! uses vendors’ cries including “Ripe strawberries, ripe” to set the scene for the number “Who Will Buy.” I believe they are close to the traditional, stereotyped cries as noted and played with by the early modern composers, as mentioned above (though I am prepared to be corrected on that).

    I would also note that the cries of Paris were composed upon (by Clement Janequin) in the middle of the 16th century, half a century or more before Weelkes and Gibbons set the London cries. So it was a prolonged and an international fashion.

  22. the cries of Paris were composed upon (by Clement Janequin)

    Thank you! I tried to remember who that was. They are of course nicely polished into four-part harmony.

    French WP has a nice collection of Parisian and other French street cries.

  23. yaki imo (“roasted sweet-potato”)

    I miss the cry of the sweet potato vendor from the neighborhood in Kyoto where I once lived—it broke the silence of snowy winter nights with the voice of one laboring in the cold and dark for small money. My local seller’s cry was like this, but more drawn out and mournful.

  24. There’s an early-this-century CD including performances of both the Gibbons and Weelkes settings of “The Cries of London” together with something called “The City Cries” by Richard Dering (1580?-1630) which I’m guessing is another entry in the same genre.

  25. An episode of the podcast 99% Invisible from June of this year concerned the cries, or pregones, of present-day Mexico City. “The Siren of Scrap Metal”. (The linked page provides a summary; there are links to a full transcript and the original audio.)

  26. One of John Wells’s blog posts looked at an article from 1910 in Le Maître Phonétique on London street cries, with phonetic analysis and some phonetic and musical transcriptions. Already in 1910, the author was lamenting the decline of street cries! (Original article: sʌm iːst lʌndən striːt kraiz.)

  27. Well, well. It turns out that at least in the near northern suburbs of Chicago, there are still itinerant knife sharpeners. But instead of crying from the street, they politely knock on doors. Maybe work-from-home has reinvigorated a profession that would have simply found empty homes 4 years ago.


    He needs a better presentation than the muddy xerox of his handwritten price sheet. His truck looks to be a fairly recent Dodge Ram — not one of those scrap metal guys whose trucks look like they’re ready to be tipped into the foundry with their loads. So I’d think he could afford it. Maybe even a magnetic sign for the doors of the truck.

    I’m fine, but I suspect women home alone may need a bit more reassurance to open their door to a guy talking about knives.

  28. @Ryan: I suspect that there is a lot of inertia in how people get their knives sharpened (or their carpets cleaned, or other similar infrequent but recurring domestic tasks done). Sixty years ago, the people doing those jobs relied a lot on repeat business and word of mouth between housewives (probably through largely different social networks for different ethnic groups), but my then-teenaged father concluded that the knife sharpeners circulating in the Jewish community of the North Shore suburbs were pretty much all gonifs whose sharpening work was never better than what he could do himself. As I think about this now, however, I suspect that Dad may have been somewhat unfair in his judgement, making unrealistic assumptions about what was common knowledge. My grandmother had grown up hanging around the factory run by her father and uncle, where they designed, manufactured, and operated metal grinders and buffs, but most mid-century homemakers had not.

  29. David Marjanović says

    There’s a sedentary knife- and scissors-sharpener in walking distance.

  30. Stu Clayton says

    It’s sitting in a kitchen drawer ?

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