Costermonger, coster or costard is a street seller of fruit and vegetables, in London and other British towns. They 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. Their 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) and monger; i.e., seller.
Costers met a need for rapid food distribution from the central markets (e.g., Spitalfields for fruit and vegetables, 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.
The term is now often used to describe hawkers in general; 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.
Costermongers have existed in London since at least the 16th century, when they were mentioned by Shakespeare and Marlowe. They probably were most numerous during the Victorian era, when there were said to be over 30,000 in 1860. They 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 were notoriously competitive: respected "elder statespeople" in the costermonger community were elected as pearly kings and queens to keep the peace between rival costermongers.
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, 
The activities and lifestyles of 19th century costermongers are comprehensively documented in London Labour and the London Poor, a four volume collection of erudite and well-researched 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, 
Such was London in the 1840s; but by the end of the 19th century, the costermongers were in gradual decline. They did not disappear as mobile street-sellers until about 1960, 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. The anti-hero of Look Back in Anger (1956) by playwright John Osborne is a coster who sells sweets from a stall. The film version depicts aspects of the everyday culture of street markets, such as racial prejudice, irate customers and abusive regulatory officials.
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."
The costermonger's trade in London is subject to regulation by law, under the administration of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. 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.
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References and sources
- Quinion, Michael (4 January 2003). "Costard/ˈkɒstəd/". World Wide Words. Retrieved 2012-09-16.
- Chesney, Kellow 1970. The Victorian Underworld. Penguin. p50
- Roberts, Chris, Heavy words lightly thrown: the reason behind rhyme. Thorndike Press 2006. (ISBN 0-7862-8517-6)
- Chesney, Kellow 1970. The Victorian Underworld. Penguin p43–56; 97–98.
- Chesney, Kellow 1970. The Victorian Underworld. Penguin p43
- Mayhew, Henry 1851–1861. London Labour and the London Poor. Researched and written, variously, with J. Binny, B. Hemyng and A. Halliday.
- May, Betty. (1929) Tiger Woman: My Story. (2014 reprint) London: Duckworth. ISBN 978-0715648551