Built on baskets – selling in the streets

When you go out to get your weekly shop, what do you do? Perhaps you shop at the local supermarket or have it delivered to your doorstep. It would have been a different experience in early nineteenth century Edinburgh where hawkers and weekly markets remained an important source of food for many residents. Their presence recorded in both songs, stories and images created in their wake forming a part of Edinburgh’s streets-life. The lives and work of these women are crucial to the daily routines of Edinburgh as described in a new story for Our Town Stories.

One such artist whose work frequently featured such characters was the London artist Samuel Dunkinfield Swarbreck. While not achieving wide fame, Swarbeck achieved moderate success with his watercolours and lithographic prints, exhibiting in the art societies and galleries of Norfolk, Liverpool and eight times at the National Academy and 14 times at the British Institution. His success lay in his architectural artwork, with the Morning Advertiser in 1856 describing that he “has much talent” in this particular genre. Yet his most enduring work was arguably his earlier collection of 26 lithographs of Edinburgh originally published at £4 4s in 1839, around £250 in today’s money. 

Edinburgh Castle from the Grassmarket by Samuel Dunkinfield Swarbreck

Despite Swarbeck’s focus on architecture, hawkers, fishwives and figures such as Highland soldiers abound in his works, depicted walking the streets of Edinburgh. With interest in romantic prints and images of Scotland fed by Queen Victoria’s love of the country and her almost annual trips, the presence of these figures acted as a clear indication of which city was being represented. The Newhaven fishwives known for their distinctive dress and their creel, ubiquitous and specific to Scotland and parts of northern Ireland, visually ground the images in Scotland.

The High Street, Edinburgh by Samuel Dunkinfield Swarbreck

Yet these works were exactly that, a romantic ideal. The hawkers with rosy cheeks and full lace bonnets and fishwives in their gala best were not a wholly accurate picture. They present a tidy, picturesque image of these workers glossing over the harder aspects of their labour. Women such as those recorded in the Edinburgh List of Poor Relief, namely Elizabeth Weatherley at 40, widowed with 5 children, hawked fruit to support her family. Or Margaret Davie who was also widowed at 50 with ill health and bad legs still hawked her wares in the street. These were the real women who fed Edinburgh. While Swarbreck’s work shows in many ways how crucial sellers were to Edinburgh’s streets, it does so very firmly through rose-coloured glasses.

We’re grateful to Freya Purcell who has kindly contributed this blog post and the brilliant Built on baskets – selling in the streets story on Our Town Stories.

Freya Purcell is a historian of design interested in researching social history through material culture. She is currently a researcher in residence for the Archival Network Women Make Cities which looks to examine how women worked to shape urban spaces in Scotland.