Who are the women in the streets

They formed part of the daily patterns of the city but who were these women? The court records in the National Records speaks both to these women’s biographies and to the challenges they faced.

A city built on baskets 3
W. Turner de Lond, Part of the ruins of the great fire from the High Street, Edinburgh, 1824, Etching, Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries Collections. Image Copyright Courtesy of City of Edinburgh Council – Edinburgh Libraries

You probably don't notice her at first glance in this image, the subject of my research. But there amidst the rush of urban life stands a woman, a hawker. Her back turned to us, and a basket at her feet, wide open to display wares which we cannot make out. After researching these street sellers for the past two months, this image resonated with me as it seemed to reflect the nature of these women in the archives. We see her outline and the impression she leaves on the record, but she is obscured, turned away from us. It is up to us as researchers to piece history together.

These women, pedlars, hawkers and street traders formed a crucial part of daily routines for many urban Scots. For many Edinburghers, it was these hawkers with their baskets of fish or their barrows of fruit who supplied much of their food until the late 19th century. While other pedlars would travel the country selling knits, haberdashery and other items, sometimes stopping in cities to sell or replenish their stock.

Yet despite this importance to the daily routines of urban life it is often difficult to find these women within official records due to the fact the work was often seasonal or casual, leading to it frequently being under-recorded, as historians like Christopher Whatley have noted. The makeshift element of this work was clear from the results of my first trip to the National Records of Scotland to look at court records. One woman visiting her daughter in a village picked up eggs on the way before travelling to sell these in Glasgow and neighbouring villages. Another woman, fleeing her abusive spouse, seemingly stole his goods in the hope of selling them to support her and her child as they resettled in Edinburgh.

In these court records, these women's life stories start to spill out: where they were born, their marriages and their misfortunes. Some particularly stick in the mind. One individual Mary Brown, aged between 40 and 50, told of how she had turned to hawking after ill health. Travelling for the past 12 years back and forth from Scotland to Ireland, where she was born. After one nasty bout of illness, she was left in the impossible position without money to buy new stock to continue to earn her living. It is at this point in time we meet her in archives, having been arrested after robbing an elderly couple. A scheme she said she was talked into by the women who had shown her kindness offering her lodging at this low point.

Mary was far from alone in her tale, as the historian Laurence Fontaine has highlighted a great many hawkers across Europe turned to the trade as a result of ill health and hoping to avoid a future as a beggar. I hope through this project I can shed light on the experiences of some of these women.