Multireligiosity as a Rallying Call: The Petticoat Lane Street Market in the 1850s

By Ole Münch

Today, urban street markets are often places where migrants from different origins meet and mingle. This was the case in the past as well. By the middle of the nineteenth century the East End of London already hosted such a hotspot of multicultural interaction called Rag Fair. It was a world-famous market for old clothes situated in the heart of the city’s Jewish quarter. Among well-off Londoners the locality had a dubious reputation. It was known above all for its Jewish traders as well as pickpockets and fences – three terms regarded as synonymous. Contemporary journalists and hack writers branded this part of the metropolis an exotic and dangerous place with an almost other-worldly feel to it, full of foreign traders and clochards who were exciting to look at.


Dealers in the Rag Fair drawn by A. Van Assen, 1793


Seen from below, however, the market was simply a place for professional rag merchants, a shrinking percentage of which identified as Jewish. They traded in second-hand apparel collected by so-called Old Clothesmen, who wandered the streets of London during the morning hours shouting their characteristic refrain “Old Clo.” Around midday, they converged on the Rag Fair to sell their wares to shopkeepers and long-distance traders, many of whom came from Ireland or places as far away as North America, South Africa, Sri Lanka, or Australia. On Sundays, the crowd was even more diverse as the professional rag merchants were joined by artisans and male and female workers from all over London who used their day off for shopping. Indeed, “the famous Sunday fair was an event of metropolitan importance,” Israel Zangwill wrote in his novel Children of the Ghetto, “and thither came buyers of every sect.” Rag Fair, however, was not only a place of trade. While going about their business its diverse participants developed notions about themselves as a multireligious collective. These self-conceptions became especially important when the market came under threat, as was the case in the 1850s.

In 1855, Lord Grosvenor introduced a bill into Parliament which proposed heavily restricting Sunday markets. It was under these circumstances that stirrings of a multireligious movement to defend Rag Fair could be seen. One witness of that movement was Ker Seymer, the Conservative MP for Dorset. He had paid a visit to the infamous street market to see for himself whether any measures to combat Sunday trading were required. However, when he arrived at the scene he witnessed signs of political agitation – “a placard with the inscription ‘Liberty of the subject in danger”’ and a man collecting signatures for a petition in favor of Sunday trading. However, for Seymer,the greatest scandal was a speaker “addressing [a] knot of persons, and protesting amidst many disgusting and blasphemous expressions, that he made no distinction between religions, and that he was only anxious to do good for his fellowmen.” Obviously, the political speaker knew how to address a Rag Fair audience effectively by downplaying religious divides and deploying rough humour.

The Rag Fair merchants and buyers were not the only ones protesting against Lord Grosvenor’s bill. In the summer of 1855, the Chartists called upon the London working classes to convene in Hyde Park for a demonstration. Eventually, riots involving some 150,000 people broke out on three successive Sundays. Karl Marx was present at the first, reporting with great enthusiasm, “We . . . do not think we are exaggerating in saying that the English Revolution began yesterday in Hyde Park.” Lord Grosvenor’s bill had to be withdrawn on 9 August 1855; however, the conflict over Rag Fair did not end that day.


Rag Fair, the Old Clothes Market in Houndsditch on Sunday Morning,
by Charles Paul Renouard

Three years later, the Sunday market once again came under public attack. One journalist who was particularly appalled by it published an article in the City Presson June 12, 1858. He called Rag Fair a “hell upon earth” because of its “low and filthy Jews, with mouths full of obscenity, blasphemy, lying and nasal slang,” its “unwashed idlers,” its “flying cohorts of thieves.” Furthermore, he claimed to have seen large quantities of disgusting and dirty wares, such as fried fish served by “fat little women” and bakeries “with windows full of queer looking bread.

The article sparked considerable protest. A Petticoat Lane baker with the surname Samuel responded in a letter to the Jewish Chronicle, which was published on June 25, 1858. His text was marked by a sarcastic wit: “The fried fish of the Jews,” he claimed, “has a London-wide renown” and was especially liked by their “Christian friends” whom the Jews often invited for dinner. As for the “queer looking bread” and the “fat little women,” Samuel stated, he employed several Christian journeymen bakers as well as a “highly respectable” Christian shop woman. He emphatically pointed out that there were no interreligious animosities in his shop.

Samuel was part of a new protest movement. Two months later, on August 16, 1858, he chaired a so-called “indignation meeting.” Traders and inhabitants of the Petticoat Lane and its surrounding areas had come together in Sussex Hall to defend themselves against the accusations voiced in the press. The meeting caused quite a stir and was reported in the Jewish Chronicle and the City Press. Most of the discussion revolved around the character of Jews in general, with many of the speakers vouching for their integrity. A Christian named Corrigan addressed the Hall to explicitly call for multireligious cooperation. His words were reported in the Jewish Chronicle on August 20, 1858: “the purport of the meeting,” he stated, “had nothing to do at all with Sunday trading; in fact it was no religious question at all. They were here assembled to vindicate their characters from the cruel aspersions cast upon them as inhabitants of the lane, whether Jews or Christians.” Having lived in Petticoat Lane for twenty-five years, he also claimed to know its inhabitants very well, and “wished to God that all his Christian co-religionists were as sober and industrious as these slandered Jews were.’” To prove that his testimony was unbiased, he added that “he was in no way dependent upon the Jews, although he kept up with them neighbourly relations.”


From a Daguerreotype by Richard Beard,
printed in Henry Mayhew: London Labour and the
 London Poor, Vol. 2, London 1861.

The inhabitants and traders of Petticoat Lane knew how to present their district as an example of harmonious multireligious coexistence. However, this should not lead us to assume that this coexistence was always peaceful. The journalist Henry Mayhew, for example, reported that Jewish and Irish rag traders often came to blows during dealings within the market.Instead of taking proclamations of social harmony at face value, we might instead interpret them through the framework suggested by the sociological interactionist Thomas Theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Put differently, being a harmonious multireligious community was part of these people’s situational self-understanding. The traders and inhabitants of the Rag Fair area understood and responded to this language. This was remarkable enough. While the notions advanced by some activists may have been too harmonious to be true in a strict sense, they were effective. One could refer to them in order to rally the neighborhood to a common cause, creating it as the multireligious community it claimed to be – at least for the time being.

Against this background one could argue that the struggle around Rag Fair developed an integrationist dynamic. It is also true, however, that the old clothes business facilitated religious segregation: One of the few historians working on the subject has recently pointed out just how much the market depended on Jewish global trading networks. Long-distance traders preferred to export rags from London to partners abroad whom they trusted because they were family or coreligionists. Without this kind of security international trade would have been a hazardous undertaking. This is one of the reasons why travelling contemporaries found places like Rag Fair in the Jewish quarters not only of London, but of other cities such as New York or Sydney. These markets were connected and, indeed, thrived on their global connectedness. On the spot, however, Jews working in the rag trade, or other businesses associated with the markets, inevitably came into contact with people from other religions. Just how close these contacts turned out to depend less on global than local dynamics – as the story of the London Rag Fair demonstrates.

Ole Münch has just submitted his PhD thesis at the University of Constance, Germany. In his research Ole attempts to overcome the ‘ethnic lens’ – the tendency to automatically assign people to bounded ethnic groups. Focusing on the Rag Fair, he raises the question of which social categories mattered at this locality and which ones remained latent.




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