London – RETAIL TRADERS – Poverty to Fortune

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 We had a ‘dig’ around in our library on the history of the retail trade of London and their origins and discovered this interesting article which we will publish in two parts – the second part which we will publish tomorrow – the article is from the book London – Volume 3 published in 1824 by Sholto and Reuben Percy – Brothers of the Benedictine Monastery

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Read other posts in the London series

London – RETAIL TRADERS – Poverty to Fortune

A foreigner, in looking over a London Directory, and finding a list of between thirty and forty thousand trading firms, will be apt to consider the assertion of Bonaparte, “that we are a nation of shop-keepers,” true to the letter; and if he is informed that this list, numerous as it seems, does not contain more than one third of the shopkeepers in the metropolis, he will suspect that there are almost as many sellers as buyers. Stiil more would a stranger be astonished at learning how lucrative a business shop-keeping is in London; where a pastry-cook has been known to die worth a hundred thousand pounds, and a dealer in shell fish, who spent the best years of his life in selling oysters in public-houses, has left to his heirs a sum of 40,000. Yet, such is the case, nor are these solitary instances of success in life. Many a Lord Mayor in London has risen from the humble office of a porter;  others have worn a livery, or served as a drawer or errand boy at a tavern. Not to enumerate living characters, and yet to refer to those who are recollected by the living, it may be mentioned that Walker, the sugar-baker, who died worth a quarter of a million of money a few years ago, was originally porter to a wax chandler, with a salary of £16 a year; that Alderman Kennet, afterwards Lord Mayor, was once a waiter at the Hoop and Bunch of Grapes public house in Hatton Garden; that Alderman Bates kept a public house, as did the late amiable Alderman Thomas Smith, after living servant with a gentleman, and officiating as an exciseman; that Crosby, the spoon maker, who died worth £60,000, was a charcoal boy to Chawner; and that a living pavior, who has amassed a fortune of a quarter of a million, and who can neither read nor, write, was once a common labourer, who added to his daily earnings by officiating as a watchman in the night. The list, of individuals, who have risen from poverty and obscurity to high rank and splendid fortunes, would “stretch to the crack o’doom,” and it is unnecessary to quote more instances, nor are these named invidiously selected, but to show that in London, the road to preferment, honour and fortune is open to the humblest aspirant.

That such fortunes are amassed in London, is the more astonishing, when it is considered the great expense with which large establishments are maintained; that the rent and taxes of many a retail trader amount to more than a thousand a year, and that the smallest house, if in a great thoroughfare, will let at the most extravagant rate. A shop, not more than three yards square, with a room above it of the same dimensions, has been known to be let as a snuff shop at a rental of £80 a year, and several other houses equally dear.

Excerpt from London Volume 3 1824 by Sholto and Reuben Percy – Brothers of the Benedictine Monastery


Further reading and external links

Cheapside and London Retail Trade in the 18th Century

Sholto and Reuben Percy