The night before I work I generally wake up several times.
It is something I have always done: it suits me to watch the time move by, to celebrate the hours still to come before a day which will bring challenges.
I have discovered Felix is the same. On Sunday nights, he wakes up periodically. Not with an alarm clock, just with a yearning for more time. To watch the last grains of free time trickle though the hourglass.
To us it is a magical time, because it is ours.
But for some, in the wrong place at the wrong time, things were different.
It is possible you remember that famous street scene from the film, Oliver. A rosy representation of London’s vendor’s: it is doubtful the real street sellers had such gleaming teeth to grace their smiles.
A picture sticks in my mind: it is from a series run by the Daily Telegraph, a series of extraordinary photographs of Dickens’ London. This image is of a fresh herring vendor, selling his wares near the Seven Dials. He looks swarthy and rough-as-you-like, despite that jaunty tall bowler hat.
But before any of these got up: why, then, there was another life. A life in the darkness, whose inhabitants were familiar with the monk’s hours.
I know, because Henry Mayhew told me.
The 19th century London reporter who made a living by watching the people of London, in however flamboyant a fashion, always teaches me something new.
One morning in the freezing inhospitable hours of a morning in November 1851, he got up early to watch what happened at the Farringdon Watercress Market.
Click the link: Henry Mayhew will take you back and stand you there, in the shadows of the gaslight, to watch the comings and goings.
“The shops in the market are shut, the gas-lights over the iron gates burn brightly, and every now and then you hear the half-smothered
crowing of a cock, shut up in some shed or bird-fancier’s shop” begins Mayhew, expertly drawing you onto the London paving stones so that you feel you must stamp your feet for the cold.
The first arrival is a man with two jugs of hot coffee: and the frozen watercress collectors, makeshift containers full of the watercress they have sold, draw near and curry favour to warm their frozen fingers by his fire.
“By degrees the customers are creeping up,” Mayhew continues, “dressed in every style of rags; they shuffle up and down before the gates, stamping to warm their feet, and rubbing their hands together till they grate like sandpaper. ”
Some of the boys have brought handbaskets; others have the cress fixed in paniers to their back. And there’s a little girl in worn out boots clutching an old tea-tray.
As the clocks strike five the saleswomen appear, wrapped in thick cloaks, a degree above these little vagabonds. The customers flock to the women and by first light, the market is crowded. Children cry as their feet are stepped on, and a small group of young girls sit tying the cress, a sea of green leaves on the cobblestones nearby.
Mayhew continues: “A saleswoman, seeing me looking at the group, said to me,’Ah! you should come here of a summer’s morning, and then you’d see ’em, sitting tying up, young and old, upwards of a hundred poor things as thick as crows in a ploughed field.’ ”
The market lulls to a close. And still, the mechanics are hurrying on their way to work, and the maids beat the mats at the start of another day for the grand houses. The early hours are over for another day.