Two Flower Sellers, Poison, and a Mean Old Man

London flower sellers, courtesy New York Public Library

Having been a flower seller of sorts myself in years past, I was curious about Victorian-era flower sellers. A rough world, really, despite the beautiful and fragrant wares. In his 1851 work London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew wrote that many of the flower girls on the streets of London were of “an immoral character,” and worked as prostitutes as well; but others were young children, “very persevering, … who will run along, barefooted, with their ‘Please, gentleman, do buy my flowers. Poor little girl!’ — ‘Please, kind lady, buy my violets. O, do!'” He estimated there were between 400 and 800 flower sellers on the streets, but said it was impossible to be certain of a number, because when oranges were cheap and tasty, the flower girls sold those instead — or they sold watercress, or onions.

By 1889, the publication Toilers in London put the number of city flower sellers at 2,000. They had not been a fixture on London streets for long, but had become plentiful so quickly that it was hard to imagine the metropolis without them. They stood in the main thoroughfares, and at the entrances to hospitals and cemeteries, and they sold to people of all classes, even “the poorest and the lowest. … The love of flowers is one of the most hopeful symptoms in the condition of the very poor in London.”

Flower sellers in Covent Garden, from the 1877 book Street Life in London, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. Courtesy LSE Digital Library.

With so many sellers on the streets, competition was fierce. Newspapers through the late 1800s carry mentions of flower sellers getting in drunken brawls with their rivals, blocking roadways with their laden baskets, and pushing flowers into people’s faces to urge them to buy. It would seem there were too many sellers and not enough buyers, which perhaps had something to do with the bizarre story that unfolded in Hackney in June of 1891.

One Friday, late in the afternoon, a man approached a young girl named Ethel Roundtree. He was carrying a small paper bag and asked, “Will you give these two buns to that woman standing on the corner selling flowers?” Presumably Ethel thought nothing of the request, and brought the bag to flower seller Jane Bass, who was standing outside the Railway Tavern. The treats inside looked like Bath buns — normally sweet, sticky and delicious — but when Bass broke one open to have a taste, “some yellow stuff come out of it. … It smelt nasty.” She asked the girl to tell her who had given her the bag, but the man was gone now, and Ethel could only describe him.

Bass brought the buns to the Hackney police station, and an inspector had them analyzed by Dr. Henry Gould, who confirmed they contained phosphorus paste. The police sought out Ethel Roundtree, and she accompanied two constables to the local pub where she pointed out the man who’d given her the bag. She had no trouble finding him, for he was what the papers called “a repulsive-looking elderly man” named Patrick Costello (elsewhere Costella), whose wife sold flowers in the same area as Bass.

“We are police officers,” one of the men told Costello, “and are going to take you into custody for attempting to kill a woman named Jane Bass by administering to her a quantity of phosphorus paste in two bath buns.” In response, Costello claimed, “I never bought no buns.” But on his person police discovered “a box of zinc ointment, some blue stone, and [a] little box containing phosphorus paste marked ‘poison.'”

At the trial, Dr. Gould stated the buns contained enough phosphorus to “destroy life,” and said he could see that a hole had been made in the bottom of each bun and the paste pushed into it.  Though Costello denied the act, and claimed the phosphorus found on him was something he used for his bad leg, the doctor retorted that phosphorus was used to kill vermin — “it is not recommended for bad legs.” Had Bass eaten the buns, she would have experienced a burning sensation in her throat and abdomen, severe abdominal pain, luminescent vomit and diarrhea, shock, jaundice, hemorrhage, renal damage — the list goes on — and if not death then serious, irreversible health problems.

If the case against him wasn’t bad enough, a police officer testified that just days before the buns incident, Costello had approached him and complained about Bass, who was standing outside the Railway Tavern. “He came to me and asked me to remove Bass, as she was stopping his customers, and taking his trade away—I refused to do it, and told him she had the same privilege as he had to stand here—he said he and his wife had stood there for a number of years, and the other had only just come, occasionally on a Saturday—next evening, Sunday, he came to me about seven, there were several on the opposite side selling flowers, and he asked me to remove them, and keep them further from him, and if I did so he would make it all right—I refused.”

The Flower Sellers of London by Gustave Dore, 1875.

Once again, poverty is at the core of this story. Costello was no doubt desperate for the money his wife could earn in the vicinity Bass shared. He did indeed have a bad leg — workhouse records show him entering with such a condition years before the poisoning took place, so perhaps there was little work available to him; he was in pain; he was in dire straits. But he was nasty too, whatever had made him so. Newspapers reporting on the case claimed he’d attempted the same poisoning trick before, and that he’d often been in trouble with the law for drunk and disorderly conduct. In fact, just one year before the buns incident, he was convicted for beating his wife:

“Patrick Costello, … a flower seller, of Compton street, Soho, was charged with a brutal assault on his wife, an aged woman. The prosecutrix, who sells flowers at the Hackney Railway Station, spoke of a lengthened experience of brutality at the hands of her husband, adding that he had kicked and stabbed her and already suffered imprisonment in consequence. On the present occasion he struck her a violent blow in the face, and threatened to murder her. The Magistrate said it was an aggravated assault, and sent the prisoner to gaol for six months’ hard labour.”

One wonders about “Mrs. Costello,” who never gets mentioned by name. It is so often difficult to trace women’s stories because their identity disappears in the shadows of their husbands. What did she make of her husband’s crimes, against others but also herself? Patrick Costello was sentenced to nine months for this latest act, so she would be free of him for a time, if that was how it felt to her. Did she quarrel with Jane Bass for the best spot near the railway station? Or did they sell in peaceful proximity, baskets brimming with lavender and roses, enjoying the respite until he returned?

Sources

4 thoughts on “Two Flower Sellers, Poison, and a Mean Old Man

  1. I wish there were more flower sellers on all of our street corners! But not in the circumstances of those we read here. Reminds me of the hauntingly beautiful words of the flower seller in the film Oliver singing “Who will buy my sweet red roses? Two blooms for a penny”. Great posts. Thank you for the words and a chance to pause and reflect.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marilyn Charbonneau

    Being a flower seller seems like a lovely occupation but in reality, in those days, it was a thankless job of the extremely poor, standing on the street in rain or snow to make a few pennies.

    Liked by 1 person

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