Looking the other day at the brief record of the bankruptcy of Christian Schindler, who may have been the ‘Honest Man’ commemorated by his friends at St Martin within Ludgate in 1830, I was struck by how many of the unfortunate businessmen from all over the country in the same straits (and in the same announcement in the London Gazette) were described as ‘X, Y and chapman’. I had believed that ‘chapman’ was a synonym for ‘pedlar’, an itinerant seller of goods, usually at a fairly low level in society – that is, not having the wherewithal to set up a shop.

But on looking more closely at the page on which Schindler’s case is reported, I saw that all the traders involved in fact had ‘dealer and chapman’ after their actual business. So, Thomas Hewson of Bishopsgate Street, London, Merchant, Dealer and Chapman; Joseph Brooks late of Liverpool, Porter-Brewer, Dealer and Chapman; Walter Post of Bristol, Carver, Gilder, Glass-seller, Dealer and Chapman, Peter Martinnant of St James’s, Warehouseman, Dealer and Chapman; Andrew Hunter of Little Portman Street, Coach-Maker, Dealer and Chapman; William Kinsey of Oxford Street, Coach-Maker, Dealer and Chapman; Watkin John Charlton of Edgeware Road, Builder, Stone-Mason, Dealer and Chapman; Adam Morton of Ham Common, Corn-Dealer, Dealer and Chapman; Charles Stuart, of St James’s, Taylor, Dealer and Chapman; Thomas Dawson of Sherburn, Yorkshire, Shopkeeper, Dealer and Chapman; John Carter of West Lynn, Norfolk, Vintner, Dealer and Chapman.

I assumed that ‘dealer and chapman’ is/was a catch-all term of the legal art or science, and the internet helpfully produced this almost contemporary explanation:

This comes from a marvellous work of 1804, The Trader’s and Manufacturer’s Compendium; Containing the Laws, Customs, and Regulations Relative to Trade; Intended for the Use of Wholesale and Retail Dealers, by Joshua Montefiore, Esq. (‘Author of the Commercial Dictionary, Commercial Precedents, etc. etc.’).

Montefiore (1762–1843) was educated at Oxford, and admitted to the bar; but he also took part in an attempt to colonise the then uninhabited island of Bolama, off the coast of present-day Guinea-Bissau, which failed; he then entered the British army, being according to the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906, ‘the first Jew to hold a military commission in England’. After service in the West Indies, he resigned, and settled as a journalist in New York and later in Vermont, where he died.

The Compendium, ‘Entered at Stationers-Hall, in Terms of the Act of Parliament’, and ‘Price 18s. Extra Boards’ (i.e. pay for your own binding) begins with ‘Abandonment’ (in marine insurance) and ends with ‘Yorkshire’.

Montefiore’s intention is declared in his preface:

He covers the exports of Africa, the standard measures in ale-houses, the rules of apprenticeship, the restrictions on English artificers working abroad, and the definition of and penalties for the crime of assault and battery – and that’s only in the ‘A’s.

Getting back to ‘chapman’, it is a Germanic word, cognate with ‘Kaufmann’, ‘merchant, businessman, trader’: ceap means ‘barter’, ‘trading’, but originally ‘cattle’ – the latter being presumably the earliest trading commodity. London street names such as Eastcheap and Cheapside (which was formerly Westcheap) indicate the area of the main meat markets of the medieval city.

Eastcheap market in 1598. (Credit: the Folger Shakespeare Library)

But the meaning which has lasted is that of the lowest level of dealing, more or less synonymous with ‘pedlar’ or ‘packman’, or, bizarrely, ‘badger’, i.e. someone who carries goods from door to door and community to community, rather than trading from his (it almost always was ‘his’) own establishment.

I am old enough to remember door-to-door salesmen being a regular feature of life: in fact, my parents bought our first vacuum cleaner from one. (I was very impressed with the trick he did involving a clean handkerchief, which demonstrated how dirty our living room carpet was.) Along with encyclopaedias, the main trade of such itinerants in the twentieth century appears indeed to have been brushes and cleaning materials, and it’s with a weird sense of history repeating itself that I open the door these days to a young ex-offender with a licence to peddle dusters, dishcloths and suchlike as part of his rehabilitation process. (Note to the people who organise these things – don’t send quite so many to one small area over the same few days: there are only so many fluffy cloths I need in my life.)

The Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket holds a certificate issued at Spalding in May 1950 to one Eva Hewett, licensing her to act as a pedlar for one year: this was a requirement of the Pedlars Acts of 1871 and 1881. She described herself as ‘pedlar and palmist’.  The 1871 Act, still in force, states that: ‘The term “pedlar” means any hawker, pedlar, petty chapman, tinker, caster of metals, … or other person who, without any horse or other beast bearing or drawing burden, travels and trades on foot and goes from town to town or to other men’s [sic!!!] houses, carrying to sell or exposing for sale any goods, wares, or merchandise, or procuring orders for goods, wares, or merchandise immediately to be delivered.’ And another part of the GOV.UK website helpfully explains how to apply for a licence.

Since I was brought up in a south-coast port town, we also got (this was the 1950s) French onion men with berets, on massively heavy black bicycles draped with strings of enormous, smooth, round onions.

The Onion Johnny of my distant youth.

These ‘Onion Johnnies’ were so called because of the ‘Jean François’ nickname, dating from Napoleonic times, if not before, but they were actually Bretons from the Roscoff area, and adopted the name into their own language as ar Johnniged. Apparently, the trade began in the 1820s, because it was easier to come across to England with your harvest on a boat in July, store it in a rented barn and peddle the onions across southern England and Wales over the autumn than to get the onions from Brittany to Paris – an early form of the ‘food air miles’ dilemma. (There is now an Onion Johnny Museum in Roscoff.)

As with so many communities on the margins of society, pedlars seem to have been regarded with a certain amount of mistrust, as outsiders and sometimes even foreigners; on the other had, there was also, in the nineteenth century, a romantic, or rather sentimental view, exemplified in a song, which I learned at school (why???) and like so many unnecessary things, has stuck: ‘From the far Lavinian shore, Comes the pedlar with his store …’.  I couldn’t find it online: the closest I came was a much more cynical poem in The Original of 1832. The attribution there to Shakespeare is – needless to say – false.

Pedlars of all sorts appear regularly in the various sets of ‘Cries of London’, for reference to which I can do no better than send you to the superlative blog of the Gentle Author. But below are a few images (some more grotesque than others) of the pedlar as seen by artists at various periods … and before I finish, I must recommend the website of The Woolly Pedlar – it’s a tenuous connection, admittedly, but look at her gorgeous Stuff!


The Pedlar, by Hieronymus Bosch. The picture gets its name from the pack on the man’s back, but he can also be interpreted as Everyman the pilgrim, attempting to leave behind earthly pleasures. (Note the snarling dog, one of the many hazards the pedlar had to face.) (Credit: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)

Another hazard: the pedlar’s progress is interrupted by the Dance of Death. 1561 engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–77) after Holbein. Did Thomas Bewick see this image before he engraved the fiend holding on to the thief’s pack of swag?

The bizarre Sleeping Pedlar, engraving by Hieronymus Cock after Pieter Breugel the Elder, 1562. Monkeys plunder the pedlar’s baskets while he sleeps (as well as combing his hair for lice). Spectacles feature (see below), while there are plenty of allegorical meanings: the monkey admiring its reflection in the mirror, others riding hobby-horses, or attempting to dress in human clothes …

A spectacle pedlar lets an old woman select the appropriate lenses. Engraving after Adriaen von Ostade (1610–85). (Credit: the Wellcome Library, London)

A pedlar with an assorted tray. Are the spectacles his own or part of his stock-in-trade? By Marcellus Mauron (1711), for the English, French and Italian markets. (Credit: the Wellcome Library, London)

A pedlar selling cloth, 1871. Engraving from an original watercolour. Note the bare feet of the women from this coastal village, and the sou’wester, boots and oilskin jacket of the man on the right, who at the moment stands aloof from the bargaining, though his wife (?) appears to be trying to coax him into a purchase.

The Pedlar, by Frederick Morgan (1847(?)–1927). This is the very much at the sentimental end of the spectrum: is the woman on the right choosing cloth for her wedding dress? (Credit: the Walker Art Gallery)


This entry was posted in Art, France, History, London, Museums and Galleries, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Chapmen

  1. Andrew Chapman says:

    Thanks, so it looks like there were grades of chapmen – some had their own shop/established business, in contrast to the travelling peddlars, corresponding I guess to ‘petty chapmen’.

    About half the chapmen and peddlers in 18th century Portsmouth were Jewish according to this article:


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