Sunday 30 September 2007

On the street sellers of snails, frogs, worms, snakes, etc

Google Books is a treasure trove.

From Henry Mayhew's (1861) work on London labour and the London poor: Cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work and those that will not work. London street-folk; comprising street sellers, street buyers, street finders, street performers, street artisans, street labourers with numerous illustrations from photographs. Volume II.

I CLASS together these several kinds of live creatures, as they are all "gathered" and sold by the same persons—principally by the men who supply bird-food, of whom I have given accounts in my statements concerning groundsel, chickweed, plaintain, and turf-selling.

The principal snail-sellers, however, are the turf-cutters, who are young and active men, while the groundsel-sellers are often old and infirm and incapable of working all night, as the necessities of the snail-trade often require. Of turf-cutters there were, at the time of my inquiry last winter, 42 in London, and of these full one-third are regular purveyors of snails, such being the daintier diet of the caged blackbirds and thrushes. These men obtain their supply of snails in the market-gardens, the proprietors willingly granting leave to any known or duly recommended person who will rid them of these depredators. Seven-eighths of the quantity gathered are sold to the bird-dealers, to whom the price is 2l. a quart. The other eighth is sold on a street round at from 3d. to 6d. the quart. A quart contains at least 80 snails, not heaped up, their shells being measured along with them. One man told me there were "100 snails to a fair quart."

When it is moonlight at this season of the year, the snail gatherers sometimes work all night ; at other times from an hour before sunset to the decline of daylight, the work being resumed at the dawn. To gather 12 quarts in a night, or a long evening and morning, is accounted a prosperous harvest. Half that quantity is "pretty tidy." An experienced man said to me :—

"The best snail grounds, sir, you may take my word for it, is in Putney and Barnes. It's the 'greys' we go for, the fellows with the shells on 'em ; the black snails or slugs is no good to us. I think snails is the slowest got money of any. I don't suppose they gets scarcer, but there 's good seasons for snails and there's bad. Warm and wet is best. We don't take the little 'uns. They come next year. I may make 1l. a year, or a little more, in snails. In winter there's hardly anything done in them, and the snails is on the ground ; in summer they're on the walls or leaves. They'll keep six months without injury; they'll keep the winter round indeed in a proper place."

I am informed that the 14 snail gatherers on the average gather six dozen quarts each in a year, which supplies a total of 12,096 quarts, or individually, 1,189,440 snails. The labourers in the gardens, I am informed, may gather somewhat more than an equal quantity,—all being sold to the bird-shops ; so that altogether the supply of snails for the caged thrushes and blackbird» of London is about two millions and a half. Computing them at 24,000 quarts, and only at 2d. a quart, the outlay is 200l. per annum.