Rather frustratingly, when Ernest offered his collection to the museum it appears my predecessors failed to document any further information about the collector or his collection. However, I believe his scrapbook of news cuttings detailing the plight of the ‘gutter merchants’ may offer a clue to his intentions. Casual street sellers were some of London’s poorest citizens. At Christmas their ranks were swelled by children, the disabled and elderly desperate to benefit from the growing commercialisation of Christmas. London’s poor were notoriously resourceful and wasted no opportunity to ‘turn a penny on the streets’.
Within a few years of Ernest starting his collection, the great social investigator Charles Booth issued his first survey of London’s poor that identified street sellers as being among the poorest of the capital’s workers. Classed alongside loafers, criminals and semi-criminals, the occasional street sellers lived the ‘life of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship and their only luxury is drink.’ Experiencing ‘an appalling amount of poverty and discomfort’ they were often found to be living in licensed common lodging houses and casual wards.
Not only is Ernest’s collection a great documentary of street life in the late Victorian and Edwardian period, it also represents the desperation of those who had no welfare state to depend on. As a social history curator, I hugely appreciate Ernest’s skill as a collector. But I also like to think his wonderful collection remains a legacy of his concern for the street sellers he supported for 25 years.