The Early Hours

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.

Tomorrow morning, when I wake at three, I shall remember what the early hours have brought others in different ages.
And I shall celebrate the fact that I am born in a time when the early hours are mine to count.
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44 thoughts on “The Early Hours

  1. That series of Telegraph photographs reminds me what an amazing man Dickens was – his insights and convictions made such a difference over time

  2. *shudders delicately* Being a night-owl, I hardly ever see that time of day.
    A vivid, but depressing word-picture, that. In many parts of the world, the particulars may be different but the general scene is still the same.

  3. I have always enjoyed being an early riser, seems that I get more done in those early hours as I am focused and all is quiet. I also like to go to the gym at 3:45 am so I can get it done with and then have time back at the house for a little TV, newspaper and catching up with my cyber friends.

    1. Thanks JG, I shall go and read him- I’ve not come across him before. I think you’re right” country life was hard but in the town the sheer weight of human competition is overwhelming.

  4. This brought to mind, back in the early part of the 80’s your fellow countryman Brian Eno had set up a video camera at his window and taped the comings and going on’s of the street life below 24hrs 7 days a week in Manhattan and called them Video Paintings, They to were interesting.

  5. Dear Kate, thank you for sharing this poignant story about the Farringdon watercress market. I was struck by the following in the link: “As
    Douglas Jerrold has beautifully said, ‘there is goodness, like wild honey, hived in strange nooks and corners of the earth.’ These poor cress-sellers belong to a class so poor that their extreme want alone would almost be an excuse for theft, and they can be trusted paying the few pence they owe even though they hunger for it.”
    Goodness “like a wild honey” so vivid. Is water-cress still a favorite vegetable in England? Here not many people eat it except perhaps for the springs that are served with some entrees at restaurant. Thank you for this posting. It puts so much of my life in perspective. Peace.

    1. Watercress is still eaten but not as a staple vegetable, Dee. It’s seen as part of our heritage. We have an old steam train line which runs through the watercress farming country. It’s called The Watercress LIne.

  6. I’m a night owl and I loathe getting up early in the morning to make my way to The Grind. This post is a reminder that I’m very glad I was born almost 60% through the 20th century — and well into the era of central heating during the cold weather months.

  7. Kate, Mumbai is still like this. It never sleeps. And there’s always someone up and about, working. A vendor selling hard-eggs at midnight, a vendor selling tea at 5 am, the vegetable wallahs, the flower sellers.

    I always find waking up early restful, getting those few hours to myself before the bustle begins. I was surprised Felix does the same. Haven’t really known any child to do that. 🙂

    1. hi Banno 🙂 One day I want to come to India and tour. Mumbai sounds incredible: bustling. Yes, Felix and I are alike: he often surprises me, all the same. Hope things are good with you and the film is going well.

  8. Beautiful sentiment, Kate. I read a lot of books about the 19th century, and whenever I read about the folks who had to slog through work in those early hours—whether at the Farringdon Watercress Market, or Covent Garden or Spitalfields, or their counterparts in any other city or country, it really does drive home how much different and better we have it now.

  9. Interesting to learn this about you! I have to rise so early to get to work on time, and staying up late is now my only blogging time. So there are no conscious in-between times. But I am aware of the rhythms going on around me even as I enter my day, and there’s a comfort in that somehow. I find it interesting that you notice Felix with the same tendency. D

    1. I suppose its an inherited trait, Debra. Did you ever catch the post I did about second sleep? I think I might repost it on Thursday. Very enlightening about the early hours and the time we claim as ours.

  10. I lived in farm country where my neighbors who had livestock, chickens, or acres of crops, did get up early. They worked hard. So it’s frustrating when I hear someone say that they go to the farmers’ market near the end of the day and take advantage of the vastly-reduced prices because the farmers want to sell their goods and go home. Everyone enjoys a good sale, but the farmer should also get value for his hard work.

    End of rant. Enjoyed your story.

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