Do you know the muffin man?
The muffin man, the muffin man.
Do you know the muffin man
Who lives in Drury Lane?
Are you familiar with this old nursery rhyme? It was probably first written down in the early 1800s but it reminds of us of a time when many people bought their food and household goods and services from street vendors or door-to-door salesmen.
These were men and women like the ‘muffin man’ in the illustration above (from Punch in 1890). They attracted the attention of the householders by ‘crying’ their goods in songs and making a noise (by, for example, ringing a bell). I remember the ‘rag and bone’ man’s bell in Finchley in the 1970s, and we still have ice cream vans with their familiar tunes.
It was vital for the tradesmen to be able to advertise their wares because they how else would you know they were there? There were plenty of advertisements in the 1800s (just look at any photograph of a street scene and you will see the buildings and buses literally covered in promotional material) but there was no television or radio to promote yourself on.
Increasingly it seems however that street sellers were coming into conflict with the very people they wanted to sell too, because not everyone appreciated the disturbance they caused. The police, who had tried to regulate the streets since the 1830s, often chose to turn a blind eye unless local residents complained. In December 1879 some householders in Lambeth did complain, and the problem reached the Police Courts.
Mrs Hart, and other residents of Brunswick Terrace in Camberwell Road, south London appeared before the magistrate at Lambeth to lodge a complaint against a muffin man and other tradesmen for disturbing their peace. Mrs Hart’s daughter was ‘very seriously ill’ she told the justice, ‘and the noises on Sundays as well as on other days from muffin bells were most annoying and unpleasant’.
Sunday had become a ‘day of torment and misery instead of rest’, she said and added that whenever she remonstrated with the man he ignored her, and went off laughing and ringing his bells without any consideration for her or her daughter.
Thomas Pitten, who lived in Peckham, came into to add his voice in support. He said the muffin man was bad but so were ‘the vendors of coal and other articles, whose noises were terrible’. His wife was also sick and he had complained to the salesmen but to no avail.
The justice, Mr Ellison, turned to the muffin man (who was not named in the report) and told him he was guilty, under the terms of the Police Act, of making a disturbance. He said that on this occasion he would be lenient and simply charge him the cost of the summons but that the noise and nuisance must cease herewith; if he was to come before him again he would ‘heavily fined’.
I’m not sure what the muffin man could do about that except to take his business elsewhere. Most likely if he did desist then his trade would suffer and the other residents would lose the convenience of a delivery service unless they booked him. Complaints such as this probably helped move the retail trade away from this sort of business and into the more fixed premises we recognise in our high streets today. Is this a good thing?
Personally I’d quite like a warm muffin right now, without having to find my nearest bakery or supermarket.
[from The Standard, Friday, December 19, 1879]