Profit from animals – Dale Thompson

The street dog-seller

The Street Dog-seller, featured in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor in 1862, is the starting point for discussion of how ‘slum-dwellers’ in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain used animals for profit. Many types of occupation could be found within the slum and street sellers were common. However sellers of animals were certainly not common, and arguably only a few took up the position full time. Within a wider context, animal sellers brought a certain charm to the slum life, one which other street sellers could not achieve. This will be discussed, along with the darker side of profiting from animals, including illegal fighting rings.

In Mayhew’s section on the street sellers of dogs, he makes a number of comments which help to create an impression of them. Certainly by featuring this engraving of the seller, Mayhew intended this impression to be relatively positive. The smart nature of the man pictured, as well as the two characters in the background, suggests that the dog seller profession is of a higher standard compared to other street sellers.Mayhew was interviewed a dog-seller and remarked that “an intelligent man (…) expressed a positive opinion that no dog stealer was now a street-hawker” (‘hawker’ being the existing word used for the sellers).[1] Again, this reflects the higher class of dog-sellers, by disassociating the profession from criminals.

The crippled street sellerHowever it is arguable that this view of the slum-dwellers is not entirely correct.Other sources suggest that those that lived and worked within the slum were of the very poorest classes of society, quite contrary to what Mayhew’s image of the dog-seller suggests. The image of ‘The Crippled Street Bird-Seller’ (right), also from Mayhew’s study, is more reflective of this contrasting view.[2] This second image portrays almost an entirely different view of the street seller life to the first. Here, the crippled man offers the animals for sale in a far more desperate fashionand, as a result, will gain much lower profit from his sales than that of the dog-seller. The image certainly gives off the perception of the seller using live animals as a ‘last resort’, far from the dog-seller, who holds a more professional air. With profit clearly being the objective for these street sellers, it is interesting then to note the difference in the animals being sold. In his study, Mayhew lists a number of different animals sold by different members of the working class, in certain cases people who ‘specialise’ in their particular animal: birds, foreign birds (which Mayhew clearly separates), squirrels, rabbits, fish, tortoises, snails, frogs, worms, hedgehogs and snakes.[3] As Richard Maxwell remarks, it is important to envision Mayhew creating these lists against a previously ‘blank background’ of research into the slum, “estimating thirty four thousand costermonger families”.[4]

With such a large number of costermonger families, and therefore animal sellers, it is easy then to imagine a sense of relationship and community forming between the groups. Mayhew himself references this, noting the ‘code of honesty’ within the group of dog-sellers he encounters, along with a sense of fairness and decency, especially when dealing with customers: “It’s not cheating, it’s outwitting.”[5] The street sellers of animals were cunning, and, due to the amount of care needed within their line of work, would find any way to make a profit. Historian Tim Hitchcock agrees with this statement, writing that “what all the beggars (…) had in common was their ability to use one or another well-established narrative strategy to ensure that their begging was seen. They were the local poor, and hence deserving, or hardworking street sellers”.[6] Therefore, as is evident, the nature of the work of these street sellers meant that a type of group mentality, one of perseverance, was found within these sellers. Perhaps the fact that the animals had to be cared for and could not be sold on as quickly and easily as other items commonly sold on the streets of the slum created a sense of community spirit between these slum dwellers.

However, there was also a much darker side to profiteering from animals. Though much more common in the early nineteenth century, animals were pitted against one another for simple enjoyment and moneymaking schemes, in dog fights, for instance: “[The dogs] will fight on till they go down, and then (…) they fight again”, “If they fight on, why to settle it, one must be killed.”[7] This harsh sport, popular across many of the industrial centres of Britain was eventually criminalised mid-century, but this arguably only increased the popularity of the pastime: “SuccessfuA ferret matchl strains of dogs were renowned (…), and enjoyed the protection of the populace when the authorities raided homes and pubs, looking for evidence
of dog fighting.”[8] However the criminalization of the ‘sport’ did bring about the reduction of large animal baiting, resulting in only smaller animals such as dogs, rats and ferrets being used in the underground pits.[9] In the early years of the century, badgers, bulls and even bears toured the country in a fighting troupe, creating a morally wrong yet healthy income for all those involved.[10]

Though not always recognised as a large part of slum life, animals certainly had a role to play. Other sections of this blog explore the differing roles animals had, but from this section it is clear that animals had the potential to make profit. As the end of the century grew closer, and the slum itself evolved into a larger and more understood problem across the nation, the use of animals for moneymaking changed too. What can be seen, however, is the continuation of this community spirit, in which the role of animals cannot be overemphasised.

Dale Thompson


[1] Mayhew, H., London Labour and the London Poor: The Classical Study of the Culture of Poverty and the Criminal Classes in the 19th-Century, Volume II (London: Constable and Company, Ltd., 1968), p. 52.

[2] Engraving based on Richard Beard’s ‘The Crippled Street Bird-Seller’, in Mayhew, London Labour, p. 53.

[3] Mayhew, London Labour, pp. 58-80

[4] Maxwell, R., ‘Henry Mayhew and the Life of the Streets’, Journal of British Studies, 17:2 (1978), p. 91.

[5] Mayhew, London Labour, p. 47.

[6] Hitchcock, T., ‘Begging on the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of British Studies, 44:3 (2005), p. 492.

[7] Cummins, B. D., Our Debt to the Dog: How the Domestic Dog Helped Shape Human Societies (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2013).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Anon, an advert for a ferret match, May 27 1862, in Mayhew, London Labour, p. 56.

[10] Mayhew, London Labour, p. 47.


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