Cheapside Was Not Cheap!

In fact, quite a lot of money changed hands there every day during the Regency, as it had for many centuries before. It was not the "cheapness" of Cheapside which caused most people in high society to look down their noses at the area and those who lived or worked there. It was all that appallingly exuberant commerce which was daily transacted along that thoroughfare that rankled with the most pretentious members of society. Yet the area along Cheapside was crucial to the ecomony of London and of Britain during our favorite decade. Despite the aspersions which Mr. Bingley’s sisters cast on Cheapside in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that area holds much promise as a setting for a scene, or a series of them, in an upcoming romance.

Cheapside through the Regency . . .

The area known today as the City of London comprises most of the area of the original Roman settlement of Londinium. The main reason for that settlement was commerce, and commerce continues to be the life blood of the City, even today. And Cheapside was the High Street, that is, the primary business street, of the City of London, from at least the Middle Ages. The name Cheapside is believed to have derived from two Anglo Saxon words. The word ceap, meant to buy or purchase something, but it also meant the place where things could be bought or sold. The word was pronounced in a way very similar to the modern word cheap, and was also the origin of words like chapman (meaning a merchant or trader) and chapbook (meaning an inexpensive book, often sold by chapmen). The word "side" has Germanic origins, and among its meanings is a region or place closely adjacent to something or the two parts of a busy roadway. Thus, "Cheapside" meant a roadway running alongside a market place. And this particular Cheapside ran through the most active market place in all of Britain.

Originally, the area that became Cheapside and it side streets, was an open area known as Crown-field, which was located in the West-chepe part of the City. West-chepe was so named to distinguish it from another area, farther east, near the Tower of London, named East-chepe. Probably even before the early Middle Ages, people in the London area traded goods at Crown-field in West-cheap. It was centrally located and not too far from the Thames, by which many commodities were brought into the City. Many merchants set up small sheds from which they sold their wares. Eventually, certain commodities came to be sold in specialized locations and the names of those locations became memorialized in the street names in the area. Even today, Cheapside runs into Poultry, and is intersected by Bread Street, Milk Street, Honey Lane, Wood Street and Ironmonger Lane, all of which are self-explanatory. However, fishmongers sold their wares in Friday Street, since that was the day of the religious week when the Catholics of England typically ate fish. Cobblers and curriers all had shops in Cordwainer Street. Another commercial street which intersects with Cheapside was Gutter Lane. The first recorded name of this street, in the early Middle Ages, was Godrun Lane, which became corrupted to Gutter Lane by the fifteenth century. The majority of London’s gold beaters and goldsmiths had premises along Gutter Lane.

From at least the sixteenth century, West-chepe gave part of its name to the main roadway which ran though the rapidly diminishing Crown-field. Even before the turn of the seventeenth century, this roadway was known as Cheapside and it was one of the most important and highly traveled streets in the square mile City of London. Before the middle of that century, Crown-field had been almost completely obliterated by the construction of the warehouses, shops, offices and residences which lined Cheapside. But most of those buildings were destroyed in the massive conflagration of the Great Fire of London, in 1666. Due to its crucial importance to the ecomony of London, the area of Cheapside was rebuilt after the Great Fire. In the process, some of the tiny lanes and alleys intersecting it, which had become bottlenecks to traffic and trade, were eliminated. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the new, wider, straighter roadway of Cheapside was one of the main thoroughfares through the City of London and by mid-century, it had become the most important and bustling shopping street in greater London. There were so many shops in Cheapside, most of which were open well into the evening, all illuminated by several candles, that, in 1775, one visitor, wrote ". . . the street looks as if it were illuminated for some festivity." But, in fact, it was just typical business hours along Cheapside.

St. Paul’s Cathedral was located near the western end of Cheapside, and the grand new church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was built on that same location after the Great Fire. One of the other churches located along Cheapside was St. Mary-le-Bow. It was said that anyone born within the sound of the bells of this church was known as a Cockney. That church was also destroyed in the Great Fire. However, a new church of St. Mary-le-Bow was also designed by Wren and construction was completed in 1679. Until 1739, the home of the Lord Mayor of London was located in Cheapside, as were many important shops and other businesses associated with commerce. Through the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, Cheapside was a very busy, attractive and perfectly respectable area of London.

In fact, in the years of the Regency, Cheapside was still a popular shopping area in London, even with the upper classes. Though Bond Street had been laid out in the early eighteenth century, and various shops and other businesses had begun to locate there, those shops tended to be more exclusive and upscale. The Bond Street shops, and the other shops in the very fashionable Mayfair area, did not offer the wide range of goods which could be had in Cheapside. Bond Street in the Regency might be compared to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, while Regency Cheapside could be compared to a very large mall. In Bond Street, a Regency shopper could find several exclusive high-fashion dress shops, tailors, shoe and boot makers, along with a few fine haberdashery shops, and even some elegant jewelers. However, there were many haberdashers, mercers, linen and woollen drapers, shoe- and boot-makers, watch- and clock-makers, stationers, chair and cabinet-makers, upholsterers, paper-stainers, china and glass dealers, opticians and apothecaries with premises in Cheapside, among many others. Physicians, lawyers, land and house agents, as well as other men of business, also had offices in Cheapside. Any goods or commodities which could be purchased in the shops of Bond Street during the Regency could also be purchased from shops in Cheapside, though probably at more reasonable prices.

No one in the Regency would have gone looking for any type of groceries or utilitarian household supplies along Bond Street. However, in the shops of Cheapside, one could find nearly every foodstuff, from oranges to mutton chops to caviar, and just about everything in between. Most other basic household supplies, from candles to cooking pots to laundry baskets, to name a few, could also be purchased at various shops in Cheapside, or the in the streets which ran off it. The servants of the upper and middle classes could be seen nearly any day shopping for their employers in the shops of the Cheapside area during the Regency. London families who could not afford servants were more likely to personally shop for the things they needed in the Cheapside area than they were to visit the shops along Bond Street or elsewhere in Mayfair.

In addition to the many retail shops and professional offices which were located in the area around Cheapside during the Regency, a great many residences could also be found there. More affluent businessmen had substantial and comfortable homes for their families, like the fictional home of the Gardiner family in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. There were also a plethora of apartment buildings and rooming houses which could accommodate nearly any need and budget. The majority of these homes were clean, decent and perfectly respectable. They also had the advantage that they were fairly centrally located within the greater London area, making commuting to work in the metropolis quite convenient, not to mention doing the shopping. Of course, those residences were not as elegant and sophisticated as the majority of homes in Mayfair, and few members of the beau monde would have considered living in the Cheapside area. But it was perfectly acceptable to most ordinary folk.

There were some problems in the Cheapside area over the years. Due to the many shops and businesses in the area, there were lots of tradesmen who took on apprentices. There were also a number of taverns located in Cheapside. In the eighteenth century, at least some of these apprentices were occasionally involved in excessive drinking and/or brawling in the area. However, this problem seems to have diminished as the eighteenth century came to a close and such incidents did not often occur in the nineteenth century, though the knowledge of it may have influenced some people’s view of the area. Though the area around Cheapside was in no way a slum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the fact that a great deal of commerce was transacted there nearly every day did attract some crime. The main problems were pickpockets and thieves who took an unwholesome interest in some of the more profitable businesses in the area, leading to occasional break-ins.

Despite these relatively minor problems, the area of Cheapside in Regency London was a busy, bustling commercial and residential area in the heart of the metropolis. It was quite respectable, and people walked, rode and drove through the streets of the area with no real concern for their safety, unlike the notorious areas like St. Giles and Seven Dials. The primary reason that some members of the aristocracy and the upper classes felt such disdain for the Cheapside area was that it was a hive of commerce and trade, something many of them felt was beneath them, since their income was derived from the land of their hereditary estates and did not require manual labor on their part. Few members of the upper classes would have shopped in Cheapside, primarily because they would not want to have been seen there. They would certainly have preferred to be seen shopping along Bond Street and the other shopping areas in very upscale Mayfair and West London, regardless of the higher prices they would probably have to pay.

Dear Regency Authors, though Cheapside was no Bond Street during the Regency, it was a perfectly respectable shopping and residential area during our favorite decade, regardless of the opinion of Mr. Bingley’s sisters. In fact, their creator, Jane Austen, probably did some shopping in Cheapside when she spent time in London. Certainly, few members of the beau monde would want to live there, and they probably would not want to be seen shopping there. However, ordinary middle-class folks would have found it a very convenient place to shop, since there were so many different kinds of shops, all within easy walking distance. Though goods purchased in Cheapside would not have been cheap, they would almost certainly have been more reasonably priced than similar items purchased in most of the fashionable shops of Mayfair. Which may offer some interesting plot lines. Perhaps a pretentious young woman of the aristocracy, whose family is in financial difficulties, might give her governess (the heroine), a list of items she needs so that the governess can get them for her in Cheapside, though she intends to pass them off as coming from Bond Street. What will happen if that secret comes out? Then again, perhaps an elderly matriarch of an aristocratic family prefers to do her shopping in Cheapside, just as she had done as a young girl. Ignoring her family’s objections, she takes her companion, the heroine, along on her shopping excursions. Will that be how the young woman first encounters the hero? Mayhap he saves the pair from a pick-pocket. Because Cheapside was such a busy area, from time to time, people used it as a forum to launch political tirades. Might the heroine and hero pause to listen to a political speech? Will they agree with the speaker, or will it cause them to argue the issue? Are there other ways in which Cheapside might serve for a scene or three in an upcoming Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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12 Responses to Cheapside Was Not Cheap!

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    Heaps of possibilities! The WIP is set in London, in 1819, and Draisines feature heavily in the plot. The streetchild informant of my Bow St Runner character lost a suspect she was trailing in the traffic of Cheapside, as it happens! I am assuming it would be the sort of place where delivery carts as well as the carriages of those visiting, and hackney carriages would be coming and going continuously as well as the pedestrian traffic.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Yes, you are quite right. From what I learned in my research, the street was wide enough for two-way traffic, so there would have been a fairly constant stream of horse-drawn vehicles traveling both ways along Cheapside, as well as the many side streets. There also seem to have been quite a few street vendors, many of whom had hand-carts, who were constantly hawking their wares in that area, which would also have added to the noise and congestion. Along with the constant pedestrian traffic, I think your young informant would have found it a great challenge to tail anyone in that area.

      Please do post a link to your book here once it is published.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Thank you! I could hear it in my mind’s ear as she was making her bald and laconic report, the clop of hoofs, the rumble of metal tyres on the cobbles, cries of ‘chestnuts, chestnuts hot, last o’ the season’ ‘perTAYters, ‘ot perTAYters’ [it’s a cold February] “primroses, early primroses’, and the the cries cut off by the high insistent whine of the knife grinder’s machine as he puts a sharp on the scissors for a haberdasher, and the asthmatic wheeze of a badly maintained street organ as it strikes up some popular air, followed by some choice obscenities as the knife grinder drowns out the music and the organ grinder takes offence. His dog dressed in its jacket and ruff runs away, and a woman with a barrow of oranges screeches as the dog bites her.
        London was bloody noisy.
        What I am not sure about is the surface of the streets; because I have two pictures in my head of ‘cobblestones’ both of which exist in streets I have seen which nobody has done anything to. One is a heap of rounded large pebbles, palm of the hand sized, which would definitely have played merry hell with anyone riding a draisine [and not good for horses hoofs either I wouldn’t think] and the other is flint, knapped smooth and laid in squares, treacherous in the wet or ice [I’ve fallen over on cobbles of this kind before in freezing rain]. And then again, would the main streets in the town have been macadamed? I have been unable to find much about the surfacing of the main streets, although I have found suggestions that granite cobbles or setts were used, brought down from Scotland, which would give a relatively smooth, if noisy, surface. They were replaced with wood for a while in the early Victorian period but it was found not to be suitable.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Based on research I have done in the past, I learned that each neighborhood in London had the responsibility to maintain their streets. It was up to them how the street was paved, and whether or not there would be pavements (sidewalks) on any of the streets. It was not until well into the Victorian period that a city-wide organization was incorporated to handle all street maintenance in London. So, before the middle of the nineteenth century, there was no uniform street paving type used in the city, the street surfaces varied from neighborhood to neighborhood.

          However, if it will help you, there are a couple of sites I found during my research on Cheapside which include contemporary images, both of which suggest Cheapside itself was plain dirt, probably packed down by years of traffic. The AustenOnly blog has a post on Cheapside in which she includes a view of the street which she states was published in Ackermann’s Repository in 1812. You can find it here: https://austenonly.com/2010/05/06/jane-austen-and-london-if-they-had-uncles-enough-to-fill-all-cheapside-it-would-not-make-them-one-jot-less-agreeable/.

          The Wikipedia page on Cheapside has a couple of contemporary engravings of the street, one dated 1823 and one 1837. Both appear to show a street surface of dirt, though it might be red brick. It is hard to tell, since these images are all artists’ renderings, they are not photographs. You can find the Wikipedia page here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheapside.

          Hope some of this will be helpful to you.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • Sarah Waldock says:

            Difficult to see, the 1812 Ackerman one could be showing lumpy rounded cobbles with muck between them, or be a way to show the dirt surface churned up a bit. The 1823 one is hard to figure out but I think is packed dirt. I just ran down a print of St Clement’s church and the road definitely looks like churned mud. Thanks for the links. I know nobody is likely to check, but I hate being inaccurate!

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              The main reason I think the road surface may have been dirt was that Cheapside was such a busy area that roadwork would have been a major disruption. And such a disruption could cost merchants along the road some business while the paving work went on in front of their premises, as well as the cost of the roadwork itself. Dirt was cheap and fast, which probably suited those responsible for the cost of the street surface.

              =^..^=

              • Sarah Waldock says:

                that is such a good point! we are so used nowadays to disruptions due to roadworks over time and over budget, and businesses being driven to bankruptcy by the whims of local councils that it’s easy to forget that the burgesses were more or less those who drove local politics instead of being at the mercy of them as nowadays. I suspect they heaved gravel to mix in with the dirt for a more stable surface. It would be cheap and plentiful from the river bank.

  2. Once again a completely FASCINATING article that I learned lots from reading! Thank you so much for this – it puts scenes from pride and prejudice in a new light for me!

  3. Sarah Waldock says:

    My husband and I were discussing when street vendors all but disappeared, and we came to the conclusion that a severe crimp was put in them when a generation died in WW1, and horses and carts all but vanished, and the final kybosh was put on them with the Blitz, which did some serious street modification. The increase in petrol vehicles able to carry considerable load was also increasing the amount of door-to-door delivery, especially after the war when disposable incomes rose for the general populace willing to pay a bit more for vegetables delivered to the door in electric carts like milk floats. Greater mechanisation also led to a more throwaway society [I sorely miss my knife grinder though, a French gentleman named Jean-Louis,who did lovely things with my sewing scissors] so chair-menders, scissor grinders and so on became superfluous. People no longer mended things …

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I must have been very lucky when I was growing up in Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s. We still had home milk delivery, which was great for a large household. The other great thing was a cutler/grinder who came around the neighborhood in a little Cushman three-wheeled truck thingy every few months. He could sharpen just about anything and he did a really good job on pinking shears. Of course, at the time, many of the women in our neighborhood sewed, not to mention most who cooked from scratch and had kitchen knives that needed to be kept sharp. When people stopped cooking from scratch and sewing, there was no longer enough business for the sharpening man and he stopped coming around. As children, we all loved watching him work and he enjoyed having an audience, so his visits were always fun and he was much missed.

      There is a fix-it man who still has a shop in my neighborhood here in Boston, and he is fairly busy. He does mostly lamps and small appliances, but he told me one day that most of his business is from older folks, most of whom have older things that can be fixed. He said that more and more newer items are now brought to him which have been made in such a way that they cannot be repaired. It would appear that manufacturers are deliberately building in obsolescence, so even people who want to get things fixed are not able to do so. A sad commentary on our society, for sure.

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        our fix-it man died about 20 years ago and even then, he was complaining that things were made to be thrown out … we’ve had odd traders, like the rag and bone man I recall from my early youth, but I do wonder if there was more of an embracing of a throwaway society by the younger people who grew up during the austerity years? when you have had your clothes made over so many times, the idea of having a new dress every year must be exciting. I was brought up to make do and mend, and apart from scissors, which went in a drawer to wait for the knife grinder, we sharpened our own knives on the limestone back step. I gave up on milk delivery as regulations meant it had to go on a round trip long enough to curdle it within a few hours of delivery. And now supermarkets deliver, little men with vans have vanished.
        I still dumpster-dive to mend things people have thrown away. But it’s a vanished world, and that’s one reason I want to describe it as vividly as I can for those who have never seen even a part of it and cannot imagine. Like my husband, who assumed the streets of London would be relatively quiet without cars and buses. I soon put him right on that!

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