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Thursday, 20 October 2011

“Picks, Spades, Fire-Irons, Musical Instruments, Cabmens' Whips, Umbrellas — Yes, Even a Tiny Pair of Child's Shoes — Everything.” Or: The Victorian Pawnbroking Trade.

There was a lot of poverty in the nineteenth century, and people in the working classes could easily fall into a desperate cycle involving one of the most curious, and yet popular establishments of the Victorian city. For a struggling man or woman with a partner and / or children to keep, there was always one option open if some fast and relatively easy money was required to tide you over until payday – as long as you didn’t mind losing a possession for a short while – and in these cases, relief came by way of the pawnbroker.

Pawnbroker’s shops could be found in most poor districts of London and other major cities. The idea was that the person or family in want of cash would take one of their possessions to the pawnbrokers, and the pawnbroker himself would assess the article – whether it be a ring, a brooch, a watch, or, more likely in the cases of the poor, a pair of boots or a shawl – and give the owner a small amount of money for it, along with a ticket (a kind of receipt). When the owner had been paid – or found some money by another means – he could return to the pawnbroker with his ticket and buy his item back.

If the owner of the item did not return to ‘buy back’ his item, it became the legal property of the pawnbroker, depending on the item’s value. By law, an item pawned for fifty pence or less and not bought back in the time allowed would belong to the pawnbroker.
An item worth more than fifty pence which was not bought back in time would be sold to the public by the pawnbroker.
The pawnbrokers did a great trade, and made their money not only by selling the items back to their owners or the public, but they also charged a halfpenny for the pawn ticket, and could also charge interest, starting at a halfpenny per month on every 2s lent.

This means that if a man took an item into a pawnbroker and was given 2s for it, he would actually pay 2s and halfpence. (halfpence being the price of the ticket)
If he did not return for his item for twelve months, he then owed the pawnbroker a further sixpence (half a penny per month interest) and so would be paying 2s 6d, or half a crown.

I wont go into Victorian currency and money – it’s too confusing, but to give some idea of the amount of interest, sixpence was roughly enough money to feed a family of between four and six people. The pawnbroker worked in a similar way to today’s bank loans, what with the interest and such.

 The Pawnbrokers were governed by certain restrictions set out by law to stop them ripping people off or taking advantage of people. These restrictions included:

-          A Pawnbroker must not take in pawn any article from a person under the age of twelve, or intoxicated.

-          Must not take in pawn any linen or apparel or unfinished goods or materials entrusted to wash, make up, etc.

-          A new pawnbroker must produce a magistrate's certificate before he can receive a licence.

-          The permit cannot be refused if the applicant gives sufficient evidence that he is a person of good character.

-          The word "pawnbroker" must always be inscribed in large letters over the door of the shop.

I’ve found two articles – one from the year before the start of Victoria’s reign, and one from the year after, which give more details about the pawnbrokers, and how little they seem to have changed over the entire Victorian period.

The first is from Charles Dickens’ ‘Sketches by Boz’ from 1836:

The Pawnbrokers Shop
Of the numerous receptacles for misery and distress with which the streets of London unhappily abound, there are, perhaps, none which present such striking scenes as the pawnbrokers’ shops. The very nature and description of these places occasions their being but little known, except to the unfortunate beings whose profligacy or misfortune drives them to seek the temporary relief they offer. The subject may appear, at first sight, to be anything but an inviting one, but we venture on it nevertheless, in the hope that, as far as the limits of our present paper are concerned, it will present nothing to disgust even the most fastidious reader.

There are some pawnbrokers’ shops of a very superior description. There are grades in pawning as in everything else, and distinctions must be observed even in poverty. The aristocratic Spanish cloak and the plebeian calico shirt, the silver fork and the flat iron, the muslin cravat and the Belcher neckerchief, would but ill assort together; so, the better sort of pawnbroker calls himself a silver-smith, and decorates his shop with handsome trinkets and expensive jewellery, while the more humble money-lender boldly advertises his calling, and invites observation. It is with pawnbrokers’ shops of the latter class, that we have to do. We have selected one for our purpose, and will endeavour to describe it.

The pawnbroker’s shop is situated near Drury-Lane, at the corner of a court, which affords a side entrance for the accommodation of such customers as may be desirous of avoiding the observation of the passers-by, or the chance of recognition in the public street. It is a low, dirty-looking, dusty shop, the door of which stands always doubtfully, a little way open: half inviting, half repelling the hesitating visitor, who, if he be as yet uninitiated, examines one of the old garnet brooches in the window for a minute or two with affected eagerness, as if he contemplated making a purchase; and then looking cautiously round to ascertain that no one watches him, hastily slinks in: the door closing of itself after him, to just its former width.
The shop front and the window-frames bear evident marks of having been once painted; but, what the colour was originally, or at what date it was probably laid on, are at this remote period questions which may be asked, but cannot be answered. Tradition states that the transparency in the front door, which displays at night three red balls on a blue ground, once bore also, inscribed in graceful waves, the words ‘Money advanced on plate, jewels, wearing apparel, and every description of property,’ but a few illegible hieroglyphics are all that now remain to attest the fact.

The plate and jewels would seem to have disappeared, together with the announcement, for the articles of stock, which are displayed in some profusion in the window, do not include any very valuable luxuries of either kind. A few old china cups; some modern vases, adorned with paltry paintings of three Spanish cavaliers playing three Spanish guitars; or a party of boors carousing: each boor with one leg painfully elevated in the air, by way of expressing his perfect freedom and gaiety; several sets of chessmen, two or three flutes, a few fiddles, a round-eyed portrait staring in astonishment from a very dark ground; some gaudily-bound prayer-books and testaments, two rows of silver watches quite as clumsy and almost as large as Ferguson’s first; numerous old-fashioned table and tea spoons, displayed, fan-like, in half-dozens; strings of coral with great broad gilt snaps; cards of rings and brooches, fastened and labelled separately, like the insects in the British Museum; cheap silver penholders and snuff-boxes, with a masonic star, complete the jewellery department; while five or six beds in smeary clouded ticks, strings of blankets and sheets, silk and cotton handkerchiefs, and wearing apparel of every description, form the more useful, though even less ornamental, part, of the articles exposed for sale.

An extensive collection of planes, chisels, saws, and other carpenters’ tools, which have been pledged, and never redeemed, form the foreground of the picture; while the large frames full of ticketed bundles, which are dimly seen through the dirty casement up-stairs—the squalid neighbourhood—the adjoining houses, straggling, shrunken, and rotten, with one or two filthy, unwholesome-looking heads thrust out of every window, and old red pans and stunted plants exposed on the tottering parapets, to the manifest hazard of the heads of the passers-by—the noisy men loitering under the archway at the corner of the court, or about the gin-shop next door—and their wives patiently standing on the curb-stone, with large baskets of cheap vegetables slung round them for sale, are its immediate auxiliaries.

If the outside of the pawnbroker’s shop be calculated to attract the attention, or excite the interest, of the speculative pedestrian, its interior cannot fail to produce the same effect in an increased degree. The front door, which we have before noticed, opens into the common shop, which is the resort of all those customers whose habitual acquaintance with such scenes renders them indifferent to the observation of their companions in poverty. The side door opens into a small passage from which some half-dozen doors (which may be secured on the inside by bolts) open into a corresponding number of little dens, or closets, which face the counter. Here, the more timid or respectable portion of the crowd shroud themselves from the notice of the remainder, and patiently wait until the gentleman behind the counter, with the curly black hair, diamond ring, and double silver watch-guard, shall feel disposed to favour them with his notice—a consummation which depends considerably on the temper of the aforesaid gentleman for the time being.

At the present moment, this elegantly-attired individual is in the act of entering the duplicate he has just made out, in a thick book: a process from which he is diverted occasionally, by a conversation he is carrying on with another young man similarly employed at a little distance from him, whose allusions to ‘that last bottle of soda-water last night,’ and ‘how regularly round my hat he felt himself when the young ’ooman gave ’em in charge,’ would appear to refer to the consequences of some stolen joviality of the preceding evening. The customers generally, however, seem unable to participate in the amusement derivable from this source, for an old sallow-looking woman, who has been leaning with both arms on the counter with a small bundle before her, for half an hour previously, suddenly interrupts the conversation by addressing the jewelled shopman—

 ‘Now, Mr. Henry, do make haste, there’s a good soul, for my two grandchildren’s locked up at home, and I’m afeer’d of the fire.’ The shopman slightly raises his head, with an air of deep abstraction, and resumes his entry with as much deliberation as if he were engraving.
‘You’re in a hurry, Mrs. Tatham, this ev’nin’, an’t you?’ is the only notice he deigns to take, after the lapse of five minutes or so.
‘Yes, I am indeed, Mr. Henry; now, do serve me next, there’s a good creetur. I wouldn’t worry you, only it’s all along o’ them botherin’ children.’
‘What have you got here?’ inquires the shopman, unpinning the bundle—‘old concern, I suppose—pair o’ stays and a petticut. You must look up somethin’ else, old ’ooman; I can’t lend you anything more upon them; they’re completely worn out by this time, if it’s only by putting in, and taking out again, three times a week.’
‘Oh! you’re a rum un, you are,’ replies the old woman, laughing extremely, as in duty bound; ‘I wish I’d got the gift of the gab like you; see if I’d be up the spout so often then! No, no; it an’t the petticut; it’s a child’s frock and a beautiful silk ankecher, as belongs to my husband. He gave four shillin’ for it, the werry same blessed day as he broke his arm.’—
‘What do you want upon these?’ inquires Mr. Henry, slightly glancing at the articles, which in all probability are old acquaintances. ‘What do you want upon these?’—
‘Lend you ninepence.’—
‘Oh, make it a shillin’; there’s a dear—do now?’—
‘Not another farden.’—
‘Well, I suppose I must take it.’ The duplicate is made out, one ticket pinned on the parcel, the other given to the old woman; the parcel is flung carelessly down into a corner, and some other customer prefers his claim to be served without further delay.

The choice falls on an unshaven, dirty, sottish-looking fellow, whose tarnished paper-cap, stuck negligently over one eye, communicates an additionally repulsive expression to his very uninviting countenance. He was enjoying a little relaxation from his sedentary pursuits a quarter of an hour ago, in kicking his wife up the court. He has come to redeem some tools:- probably to complete a job with, on account of which he has already received some money, if his inflamed countenance and drunken staggers may be taken as evidence of the fact. Having waited some little time, he makes his presence known by venting his ill-humour on a ragged urchin, who, being unable to bring his face on a level with the counter by any other process, has employed himself in climbing up, and then hooking himself on with his elbows—an uneasy perch, from which he has fallen at intervals, generally alighting on the toes of the person in his immediate vicinity. In the present case, the unfortunate little wretch has received a cuff which sends him reeling to this door; and the donor of the blow is immediately the object of general indignation.

‘What do you strike the boy for, you brute?’ exclaims a slipshod woman, with two flat irons in a little basket. ‘Do you think he’s your wife, you willin?’
‘Go and hang yourself!’ replies the gentleman addressed, with a drunken look of savage stupidity, aiming at the same time a blow at the woman which fortunately misses its object. ‘Go and hang yourself; and wait till I come and cut you down.’—
‘Cut you down,’ rejoins the woman, ‘I wish I had the cutting of you up, you wagabond! (loud.) Oh! you precious wagabond! (rather louder.) Where’s your wife, you willin? (louder still; women of this class are always sympathetic, and work themselves into a tremendous passion on the shortest notice.) Your poor dear wife as you uses worser nor a dog—strike a woman—you a man! (very shrill;) I wish I had you—I’d murder you, I would, if I died for it!’—
‘Now be civil,’ retorts the man fiercely.
‘Be civil, you wiper!’ ejaculates the woman contemptuously. ‘An’t it shocking?’ she continues, turning round, and appealing to an old woman who is peeping out of one of the little closets we have before described, and who has not the slightest objection to join in the attack, possessing, as she does, the comfortable conviction that she is bolted in. ‘Ain’t it shocking, ma’am? (Dreadful! says the old woman in a parenthesis, not exactly knowing what the question refers to.) He’s got a wife, ma’am, as takes in mangling, and is as ’dustrious and hard-working a young ’ooman as can be, (very fast) as lives in the back parlour of our ’ous, which my husband and me lives in the front one (with great rapidity)—and we hears him a beaten’ on her sometimes when he comes home drunk, the whole night through, and not only a beaten’ her, but beaten’ his own child too, to make her more miserable—ugh, you beast! and she, poor creater, won’t swear the peace agin him, nor do nothin’, because she likes the wretch arter all—worse luck!’ Here, as the woman has completely run herself out of breath, the pawnbroker himself, who has just appeared behind the counter in a gray dressing-gown, embraces the favourable opportunity of putting in a word:-

‘Now I won’t have none of this sort of thing on my premises!’ he interposes with an air of authority. ‘Mrs. Mackin, keep yourself to yourself, or you don’t get fourpence for a flat iron here; and Jinkins, you leave your ticket here till you’re sober, and send your wife for them two planes, for I won’t have you in my shop at no price; so make yourself scarce, before I make you scarcer.’

This eloquent address produces anything but the effect desired; the women rail in concert; the man hits about him in all directions, and is in the act of establishing an indisputable claim to gratuitous lodgings for the night, when the entrance of his wife, a wretched, worn-out woman, apparently in the last stage of consumption, whose face bears evident marks of recent ill-usage, and whose strength seems hardly equal to the burden—light enough, God knows!—of the thin, sickly child she carries in her arms, turns his cowardly rage in a safer direction.
‘Come home, dear,’ cries the miserable creature, in an imploring tone; ‘do come home, there’s a good fellow, and go to bed.’—
‘Go home yourself,’ rejoins the furious ruffian.
‘Do come home quietly,’ repeats the wife, bursting into tears.
‘Go home yourself,’ retorts the husband again, enforcing his argument by a blow which sends the poor creature flying out of the shop. Her ‘natural protector’ follows her up the court, alternately venting his rage in accelerating her progress, and in knocking the little scanty blue bonnet of the unfortunate child over its still more scanty and faded-looking face.

In the last box, which is situated in the darkest and most obscure corner of the shop, considerably removed from either of the gas-lights, are a young delicate girl of about twenty, and an elderly female, evidently her mother from the resemblance between them, who stand at some distance back, as if to avoid the observation even of the shopman. It is not their first visit to a pawnbroker’s shop, for they answer without a moment’s hesitation the usual questions, put in a rather respectful manner, and in a much lower tone than usual, of ‘What name shall I say?—Your own property, of course?—Where do you live?—Housekeeper or lodger?’ They bargain, too, for a higher loan than the shopman is at first inclined to offer, which a perfect stranger would be little disposed to do; and the elder female urges her daughter on, in scarcely audible whispers, to exert her utmost powers of persuasion to obtain an advance of the sum, and expatiate on the value of the articles they have brought to raise a present supply upon. They are a small gold chain and a ‘Forget me not’ ring: the girl’s property, for they are both too small for the mother; given her in better times; prized, perhaps, once, for the giver’s sake, but parted with now without a struggle; for want has hardened the mother, and her example has hardened the girl, and the prospect of receiving money, coupled with a recollection of the misery they have both endured from the want of it—the coldness of old friends—the stern refusal of some, and the still more galling compassion of others—appears to have obliterated the consciousness of self-humiliation, which the idea of their present situation would once have aroused.

In the next box, is a young female, whose attire, miserably poor, but extremely gaudy, wretchedly cold, but extravagantly fine, too plainly bespeaks her station. The rich satin gown with its faded trimmings, the worn-out thin shoes, and pink silk stockings, the summer bonnet in winter, and the sunken face, where a daub of rouge only serves as an index to the ravages of squandered health never to be regained, and lost happiness never to be restored, and where the practised smile is a wretched mockery of the misery of the heart, cannot be mistaken. There is something in the glimpse she has just caught of her young neighbour, and in the sight of the little trinkets she has offered in pawn, that seems to have awakened in this woman’s mind some slumbering recollection, and to have changed, for an instant, her whole demeanour. Her first hasty impulse was to bend forward as if to scan more minutely the appearance of her half-concealed companions; her next, on seeing them involuntarily shrink from her, to retreat to the back of the box, cover her face with her hands, and burst into tears.

There are strange chords in the human heart, which will lie dormant through years of depravity and wickedness, but which will vibrate at last to some slight circumstance apparently trivial in itself, but connected by some undefined and indistinct association, with past days that can never be recalled, and with bitter recollections from which the most degraded creature in existence cannot escape.
There has been another spectator, in the person of a woman in the common shop; the lowest of the low; dirty, unbonneted, flaunting, and slovenly. Her curiosity was at first attracted by the little she could see of the group; then her attention. The half-intoxicated leer changed to an expression of something like interest, and a feeling similar to that we have described, appeared for a moment, and only a moment, to extend itself even to her bosom.

Who shall say how soon these women may change places? The last has but two more stages—the hospital and the grave. How many females situated as her two companions are, and as she may have been once, have terminated the same wretched course, in the same wretched manner! One is already tracing her footsteps with frightful rapidity. How soon may the other follow her example! How many have done the same!
            - Charles Dickens, Sketches By Boz, 1836

The second example, from 1902, is from George R. Sims’ ‘Living London’ Volume 2. The second of a three volume set of many aspects of London life, published between 1901 and 1903. The articles are written by many different people and edited by Sims.

The following article, entitled ‘Pawnbroking London’ is written by C.A Cuthbert Keeson, who, from what I can see, only published one book of his own; ‘History and Records of Queen Victoria's Rifles 1792-1922’

Back to pawnbroking:

‘Pawnbroking London’
 LONG before the inhabitants of London were blessed with a County Council the at one time universal practice of attracting customers to a shop by means of a sign had fallen into almost complete disuse; but even in this twentieth century no enterprising pawnbroker would think of opening a shop without there hung over it, conspicuous from every point of view, "The Three Brass Balls," " The Swinging Dumplings," "The Sign of the Two to One."

It is the fashion in the trade to speak of these emblems as the insignia of the
old Lombard Merchants, and the arms of the Medici. What, however, do those three bright globes mean to thousands of people who walk the streets of London?
Some perhaps may pass them unnoticed, but to the poor — the working man who finds it difficult to properly apportion his weekly wage, the clerk out of a berth, the racing man who has had a spell of bad luck, to the small shopkeeper and the costermonger in want of ready money to replenish their stock, to the actor and actress not "in the bill"—they mean a great deal.
They mean food for the wife and children when cupboard and pocket are empty — a little money to keep things going till next payday; they mean to thousands shelter, warmth, and something to eat; and although many may consider the pawnbroker's shop an encouragement to improvidence and unthriftiness, every philanthropist who would abolish it admits that he would have to substitute some municipal or charitable pawnshop in its place.

It has been asserted that "to one in every two persons in London the pawnbroker has been in some period of his or her life a stern and unavoidable reality." This estimate may appear to be somewhat exaggerated, but investigations into the amount of business done in the pawnshops of London show that the statement is not very wide of the mark. Within a radius of ten miles from the Royal Exchange are 692 pawnbrokers shops. From figures obtained from a trustworthy source it appears that the average number of pledges taken in per month at each shop is 5000, making an aggregate for all the shops of 3,460,000, or 41,520,000 pledges per year, or rather more than six to each head of the population. In these figures pledges of more than £10 in amount are not taken into account, and a very large proportion of the London pawnbrokers do a big business of this kind.

Inquiries made at some seventeen shops in different parts of the Metropolis show that out of a million and a-quarter pledges extending over a period of twelve months 66,700 only were for amounts above ten shillings. In the trade these are known as "Auctions," having, if left unredeemed at the end of twelve months and seven days, to be disposed of at public auction. All pledges for sums under ten shillings at a like period become the absolute property of the pawnbroker.
In the seventeen shops referred to the average amount lent upon each pledge worked out at four shillings — 250,000 in all. Taking the total number of pledges made annually in London upon the same basis, viz. 41,520,000 at four shillings each, it will be seen that the pawnbrokers supply the "hard-ups" of London annually with the very large sum of £8,304,000.

There are few things in the ordinary way of life more calculated to unnerve a man than a first visit to the pawnshop. Hence most pawnbrokers, to put their customers as much at ease as possible, have their shops divided into separate compartments known as "the boxes," with the entrance up a side street, or rendered as inconspicuous as the character of the house will permit. For the better class customers the modern pawnbroker provides a comfortable "private office."

The nervous pledger, dreading he knows not what, surveys for some minutes the
contents of the window, and only after much hesitation and many false starts finds himself within the shop of that mysterious "Uncle" of whom his companions have talked so glibly. What his business was is known only to that "Uncle" and himself, and as he walks triumphantly down the street, relieved in mind and circumstance, he asks himself why he made all that fuss about so simple a matter. Yet it takes a good many visits before he feels quite at his ease.
The interview usually lasts less than a couple of minutes, and as a memorandum of it the obliging pawnbroker hands his customer a neat little square-shaped envelope containing a piece of paste board bearing upon its face a description of the article deposited and on the back an abridged version of the Pawnbrokers' Act.

Very differently does it pawner of stolen property, broker in what way his
aroused. He will tell you that he does not know.
"There is generally something," he says, "about the pawner's manner or in his replies to questions that sets the pawnbroker on his guard." He cannot define precisely what that "something" is, but he plies the would-be pledger with more pertinent queries, sets a junior hand to run over the "Police List," looks again at the article offered and at the offerer. Experience may not have made him infallible, but his daily dealings have made him wary. If the man is a "wrong 'un" the long delay makes him fidgety, and then "Uncle," confirmed in his suspicions, secretly sends for the man in blue.
Sometimes a thief will stay and try to brave the matter out, at others he makes a dash for liberty, frequently only to run into the arms of an officer waiting at the shop door.
If the article be not in the "Police List," or if the pawnbroker be not satisfied in his own mind that the goods have been dishonestly come by, he may decline the goods and let the man depart, for it is a dangerous thing to be too hasty in delivering anyone into custody.

Pawnbrokers know that if they take in a stolen article they will have to restore it to the owner, lose the money lent upon it, and attend the courts. That knowledge makes them cautious. Many magistrates and public officials contend that a considerable portion of the property stolen in the Metropolis finds its way into the hands of the pawnbrokers.
Every day reports appear in the papers in which stolen goods have been pawned, and there are a still larger number of cases which are not reported. Unquestionably quantities of stolen articles find their way to the pawnbroker, and it is generally a good thing for their owners when they do, for by means of that "automatic detective," the pawn-ticket, they are generally traced and restored.
A pawnbroker has to keep a pledge by him for twelve months and give a ticket, which many thieves seem to have a peculiar fondness for preserving. Stolen articles, however, form but an infinitesimal item in the forty one millions of pledges made yearly.
Statistics prepared for the House of Commons show that they fall far short of one per month for each of the 692 pawnbrokers in London.

To redeem a watch or an article of jewellery is an easy matter, and for even the nervous man it has usually no terrors. There are times, however, when the act of redemption is not so easy. Come with me to a busy working neighbourhood like Walworth, where pawnbrokers' shops abound and thousands of homes are dependent upon them. It is Saturday night, and the shop and stall keepers are doing a roaring trade. We turn down a side street, where the lamps do not burn so brightly, and meet a continuous procession of women hurrying away with bundles of all sorts and sizes. Some carry but one, others, assisted by children, have as many as half-a-dozen. They all come from that little door by the side of a pawnbroker's.
Standing in the background of the shop, we are confronted by a row of faces peering over the counter, the shop is one that, possibly for the convenience of so large a throng, dispenses with the boxes, and the customers all mingle together. It is a strangely animated scene, with nearly all the characters played by women. It is a rarity to see a man among them, though children are too many for our liking. Girls and even boys are there, all ready with their money, for they may redeem pledges, though the law forbids the pawnbroker to receive a pledge from anyone under the age of sixteen.

The women are mostly bare-armed, and look as though they had just come from the wash-tub. They betray no sense of shame if they feel it. They talk and gossip while waiting for their bundles, and are wonderfully polite to the perspiring assistants behind the counter. Though everybody is in a hurry there is little noise or unseemly jostling. An assistant seizes a battered tin bowl, and the front rank of pledgers toss their tickets therein. He then rapidly sorts them out, and gives .some to a boy, who darts away to the far end of the counter. The remainder he places in a canvas bag which we have noticed dangling at the end of a string at the back of the shop; he shakes the rope, and immediately the bag is whisked out of sight up the well of the lift used for conveying pledges from the shop to the warehouse above. In a minute it begins to rain bundles until the floor is thickly strewn with them.

In a conspicuous spot on the wall is a notice that no furniture or heavy goods will be delivered after 4 p.m. From that time the rapid delivery of bundles has been
proceeding; and so it goes on, hour after hour, Saturday after Saturday, year after year; every pledge produced systematically; no disputes, no haggling about change; unexamined bundles exchanged for money; money swept into a huge till; the whole accompanied with a running fire of bundles from the unseen regions above, hurled down what the pawnbroker calls the "well," but what is more familiarly known as the "spout" — that Spout up which so many things have mysteriously disappeared.

The year round there is an average of 2,000 bundles delivered each Saturday night from this shop, and if we chance that way on the following Monday and Tuesday we shall meet that same procession of women, though this time trooping towards that little side door. Occasionally a man comes on the same errand, shamefacedly trying to conceal his bundle beneath his coat. It is undoubtedly a sad scene for the moralist, but these people know no other way of living, have no place where their Sunday clothes will be safe, have no one but the pawnbroker to apply to when they feel the pinch of hunger. He is their banker and their safe-deposit, and although they know they pay dearly for it in the long run, they are thankful that they have him to turn to in their need.

They might easily be worse off, might have no other resource but to sell their sticks and clothes, or, what is as bad, take them to a "Dolly" or "Leaving" shop, so named after the "Black Doll," the conventional sign of the small brokers and rag shops, where articles that a pawnbroker will not receive may be "left" for a short term at high interest. Thanks to the provisions of the Pawnbrokers' Act, the police, so far as London is concerned, have stamped these latter pests out of existence.

The nature of a pawnbroker's business can, perhaps, be best estimated by a visit to his warehouse and an inspection of the heterogeneous collection of pledged articles. This differs, however, with the character of the shop. There are the chief pawnbrokers of London, who lend only on plate, jewellery, and property of the highest description. By the courtesy of Mr. Henry Arthur Attenborough, we were permitted to inspect the well-known premises of Messrs. George Attenborough and Son, at the junction of Chancery Lane with Fleet Street. As in most pawnbrokers', there are the boxes for the general pledger, and in addition there are two or three small offices for the reception of persons who wish to transact their business private.

All sorts and descriptions of men, and women too, come to Messrs. Attenborough. They have lent £7,000 upon a diamond necklet, a present from a royal personage to a celebrated member of the demi-monde, the said necklet being redeemed and deposited again time after time. The coronet of an Austrian nobleman remained in their custody for several years with a loan of £15,000 upon it. A savant pawned the fore-arm and hand of a mummy wearing a fine turquoise scarabaeus ring on one of the fingers. Upon the day of our visit we saw that an advance of 6d. had been made on a ring, and we were shown an application for a loan of £40,000 upon jewellery.
The seamy side of the picture is presented by the warehouse of the pawnbroker, whose chief business consists of pledges of "soft" goods. The whole house from basement to roof is built up in skeleton frames or "stacks" in which the pledges, each carefully done up in a wrapper, are neatly packed, the tickets to the front. On the first floor the weekly pledges are usually stored, that they may be ready at hand for Saturday night. There is one room devoted to the storage of furniture; in another are rows and rows of pictures, looking-glasses and overmantels. There are shelves for china and glass, ornaments and clocks; tools of every kind, sufficient to start many workshops. In odd corners we come across odd sights — sea boots and the huge boots of a sewerman; a bundle of sweeps' brooms, apparently not very long retired from active employment, picks, spades, fire-irons, musical instruments, cabmens' whips, umbrellas — yes, even a tiny pair of child's shoes — everything.

Of the thousands of pledges stored in a pawnbroker's warehouse the majority are redeemed, but there are many, variously estimated at from 20 to 33 per cent, of the whole, which remain unredeemed at the expiration of the twelve months and seven days' grace. These are known in the trade as "forfeits," and are disposed of in diverse ways. Forfeited pledges, upon which sums of less than 10s. have been advanced, become, as already stated, the pawnbroker's property. Some are placed in the sale stock; occasionally the whole bulk of two or three months' forfeits are sold to a dealer at a discount of 15 or 20 per cent off the price marked upon the tickets, the pawnbroker being anxious to get rid of them at almost any price. The remainder are sent to public auction.

Of the auctioneers who make a speciality of this business the rooms of Messrs. Debenham, Storr and Sons, King Street, Covent Garden, are, perhaps, best known to the public. On the first floor a sale of "fashionable jewellery," silver plate, watches, plated ware, etc., is proceeding. Suspended upon hooks at the far end of the room near the auctioneer's rostrum are watches too numerous to count. You may buy a bundle of them for little more than a sovereign. An irregular horseshoe of glass-topped cases, in which the more important lots are stored, form the boundary of an inner ring, into which the privileged and well-known buyers are alone allowed to enter; wooden desks or tables form the outer boundary for the smaller dealers and that peculiar class of people who haunt the auction-rooms — people who display an interest in every lot, yet have never been known to buy.

Simultaneously a miscellaneous sale of "sporting goods" is taking place on the
ground floor. People of quite a different type attend this sale: men of sporting
tendencies and horsey appearance take the place of the Jews, who form a large proportion of the buyers at the jewellery sales. Here are sportsmen's knives and bicycles, guns by the score, walking sticks, shooting boots, billiard cues and fishing rods, boxes of cigars, and bottles of champagne or burgundy; all things which no true sportsman should be without.

Incredible as it may seem to the uninitiated, there are thousands of persons in London alone who are making a comfortable living out of "Uncle" by buying or manufacturing and pledging goods. There are regular manufactories where clothing can be purchased at a price which the unwary pawnbroker will advance upon, and several pledges in the course of a day will bring a handsome profit.
Plate and jewellery are manufactured for the same purpose. Now it is a gold charm for the watch chain; again it is a silver cigarette box, the weight of which has been considerably increased by the insertion of a piece of base metal between the cedar wood lining and the silver exterior. Everything that the pawnbroker will lend money upon — that is to say everything that has any market value whatever — is manufactured for the sole purpose of deceiving him, while sometimes even the natural beauties of goods are artificially enhanced by the aid of scientific knowledge.

To please his clients, to be careful without giving offence, to prevent fraud, and to detain the guilty while trying to make a little for himself, is no light task. If "Uncle" does not give satisfaction all round it is scarcely to be wondered at. He does his best under difficult and often disagreeable circumstances, and those who are too prone to blame him for a mistake are generally quite ignorant of the nature and extent of his business.
-          C.A Cuthbert Keeson, 1902

Pawn shops are still around now, but not in anything near the same density as in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Looking upon them and their customers as an outsider it can be easy to see them as somehow taking advantage of the poor who used them, especially when you read that a little pair of child’s shoes had been pawned, and can picture in your mind the little tot running about the streets barefoot so that the family could have a meal, or pay the rent – whatever the money was for.

But, if you try and see it from the point of view of the poor, it would be interesting to know how many lives were saved by the pawnbrokers. How many empty stomachs were filled by money given out by him for an old shawl or a broom? How many roofs were kept over little heads after he paid poor mothers for their petticoats?

Besides, if faced with the choice of either selling an item we owned for a little money or turning up at the gates of a workhouse, how many of us today would throw ourselves upon the mercy of the parish and spend our days separate from our loved ones and eating gruel in between working tirelessly for no reward? 


  1. What an extraordinary picture of Saturday at the pawnbrokers. Yes, there are still a few around. I suspect they wouldn't do well now because people are generally so much richer, so there wouldn't any demand for an old shawl, even from the poorest people. Can't help feeling they're better than the loan sharks which make such big business out of the poor, in such a ruthless and impersonal way.

  2. You're right about people being richer now.

    Poverty is often pleaded in the UK in this day and age, but the people who used to use the pawnbroker in the nineteenth century would consider modern 'poverty' luxury, one suspects.

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  3. Insightful post as usual. There is a popular show on U.S. telly called Pawn Stars, which demonstrates the brisk trade and big money that still goes on at these shops.

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  6. The idea was that the person or family in want of cash would take one of their possessions to the pawnbrokers, and the pawnbroker himself would assess the article. This blog can bring a bit of the nineteenth century to the modern age. Loan against gold

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