One of my relations was in the Colwick Road area about 1886, but they was costermongers back then – that meant fruit and vegetables. He’d be trading all round the area on a horse and cart, and then he’d return with furniture. He’d sell all his wares, then put furniture on and take it back the other way and sell it into the city.
We’re from a long line of barrow boys. I’ve still got family now in the town centre who stand the fruit barrows. My grandparents, Bernard Coxon and Caroline Coxon, owned their barrow. They was one of the families that pioneered the barrow game in Nottingham, along with the Burdetts and others.
My grandmother was constantly in court for standing illegally with a barrow. When the policeman came they used to have to run because they would be nicked – you’d probably shove your barrow down a side street and it would be retrieved later. If you look in the Nottingham Post, and you can go right back, it would be in the forties when she was in the court, they called it the assizes. She’d have the assizes in an uproar, because she was a proper character. The judges must have had a titter or two as well. She was up in court so many times that one of the judges recognised her and said, “Weren’t you in here earlier this week, Mrs Coxon?”
She says, “Yes, your honour.”
He says, “Why does this lady keep having to be brought into court?”
They said, “She keeps standing on the street with a barrow. It’s not allowed.”
He said, “Why do you keep doing it, Mrs Coxon.”
And she said, “I’ve got a load of kids to feed, and we’re needed.”
I think even the judges bought a head of celery a time or two. So he recognised the barrows were needed in the town, selling fresh produce. He said, “Why don’t you do something with these people, why don’t you get them to pay a small price for standing in the town, or give them licences?”
So that brought about the licences. These people was trying to bring a load of kids up, and trying to earn a living, they weren’t going out robbing people. It was providing fruit and veg, it had to be cleaned, it had to be presented – they had to earn money as best way they could. They’d probably got to pay so many shilling to the fine every week.
When my grandmother stood the barrows the Americans was here – the Yanks they called ‘em – to help us fight in Europe. The town was full of ‘em. They came up to her one day and asked her where a speakeasy was. She was trying to help ‘em, and as she looked round she could see ‘em putting heads of celery in their jackets so she went and confronted ‘em. One was a great big man, and she pulled him and said, “I want the money for the celery you just took.”
They got into a bit of an argument and eventually the American picked her up, lifted her above his head, and said, “You goddam gypsy,” because she’d got big earrings. She was a gypsy – she was from gypsy stock. He was going to throw her through a plate glass window. As she looked in the window, there was a woman draping a fur round a dummy’s shoulders, and she says she thought, “I’ve always wanted a fur coat. I’ll end up wearing it round me neck!” A policeman come up and said, “Put her down!” They were all drunk, and they went on their way. Things like that happened.
My grandfather was a barrow boy at the weekends and a rag and bone man during the week. My father and his brothers and sisters used to push the barrow from the Meadows area where they lived, up past the bowling alley – which is a steep hill – up town to go and stand the barrows. They was only kids when they had to push them, fully loaded.
The Coxons had got something called the Coxon arse. My father and his brothers, their buttocks stuck out, and that was all down to pushing that barrow up them hills. My father always regretted not having more children, because he would have had a bigger work force.
They did fruit and veg, grapes and tomatoes. Celery was very popular back then. In fact, the Coxons were known as Celery Kings of Nottingham for a while. They’d buy all the celery, then sell it at their price. All the fruit and veg people had to come to them to buy it cos they’d bought the lot.
They bought the veg down at Sneinton Market, they called it the bosh, you know, the washhouse, and all the surrounding units was fruit and veg. To bosh it was to ponch it, really. My grandmother stood in that washhouse trimming celery at four in the morning and her pinny would be frozen to her. There was no heating or anything in there. I actually rented the place for storage not long back, which brought back great memories.
The barrow game is a hard one – my cousins are in that now. One stands on Clumber Street, one stands outside the Dog and Partridge. I went with them for four months. Up at half three, down the wholesale market for four, in winter, buying whatever you needed. Dark mornings, cold mornings, and then you’d have to get it to town. It’s a lot easier now – we’ve got vehicles, vans. On the side of my van I’ve got a horse and cart which was the transport of my family back in the day. You get down to the town centre, then you’ve got to set up. And your vehicle’s got to be out of the town centre before half past nine or ten o’clock. It’s tough work.
Back in the seventies, we’d be at Sneinton Market for probably half seven. Market rules is, you’ve got to be there before eight o’clock to get your stall. But if you’re late, the toll man, who allocates the stalls and takes your money, he’s allowed to let someone else take that stall. So you’ve got to be there, otherwise you could lose your pitch.
We had to set our own tables up, and a lot of me dad’s stuff, the antique stuff, maybe on a couple of tables and the rest of it was on the floor. Back then, we was trying to sell stuff like Clarice Cliff, very gaudy looking pottery and nobody wanted it. Now everybody wants it. My father had some treasures, and his father did, some real nice antiques.
But everyone’s educated now, there’s too many Drew Pritchards on TV, buying and selling programmes on there. People are genned up now.
I think my trade is dying because of the internet. People can sit at home in their armchair, go online, look for something and buy it. You can go on the car boot and buy it for pennies. The supermarkets don’t just sell food, the garages don’t just sell petrol, they sell chocolate, toilet roll, drink. It’s a bad thing – it’s greed really. When you get people selling too many things, it destroys the shops. It’s convenience. It’s putting small shop owners out of work.
When you went on a market back in the day, they’d say, “Mr Coxon, what are you selling?” “Well, I’m selling second-hand furniture.”
“You’re OK, there’s only one other guy selling second-hand stuff.”
They wouldn’t crowd the market out with the same product because they know it’s counter-productive. If you went on there with socks and there were four sock men on there, they’d say, “We’ve already got four sock men, we don’t need any more.”
This is how it was. My father sold socks, by the way.
My dad could make money in the desert. I was only a child when I stood Sneinton Market for my dad, up until I was about fifteen. But all these years later I’ve been and stood it to say I’ve stood my grandfather’s stall. That was before Sneinton Market was revamped. We did take money, but since it’s been revamped there doesn’t seem to be anything there at all. Council’s ring-fenced it with yellow lines so people can’t pull up and shop, traffic wardens lurking on every corner. And they come along and say, “Why ain’t the market doing any good?” – because no one dares pull up.
We was brought up to work, that’s how it was. I had to work hard as a boy; I had to load the lorry, sheet and rope it. When I came home from school Friday night, we’d load the lorry from out the sheds, when we lived at Barton in Fabis. I was roping up when I was fourteen, and I could do a dolly knot. We used to dolly up and get the lorry ready, then Saturday morning early we was up, all in the lorry, kids and all, dog sometimes as well, and we’d go to market. And when we’d get there we’d have to unload it, do the trade we could, it had to be reloaded, re-sheeted and tied, come back to Barton and it had to be unloaded again. So we had to work hard.
If we was doing a house clearance, my dad would say, “Right, all the books, and all the bits and bobs and toys and stuff, that’s your wages.” So I had to stand at the side of my father and sell my bits to get my money. I might earn myself five bob, which was a lot of money back then. But I always had money in me pocket. Sometimes if we went rag and boning we’d get metals, copper, brass, zinc, stainless steel, stuff like that. We’d have to sort it all, the good from the bad, my father would say, “Strip them few bits there, that’s your wages.” And I might go and earn myself three bob or something, but that’s how he brought you on. He’d show you that you can earn something, but you’ve got to do something for it.
My mother, Sheila Coxon, wore a bowler hat on the market. When we were clearing houses we’d come across such stuff. My mum would wash it and she’d wear it back in the seventies, and the American tourists would come along and see my mum dressed like that and think it was absolutely fantastic. We’d get a lot of Londoners come up and see my dad personally because they knew he’d got a lot of good antiques, and they’d come to Barton and buy them all off him out of our sheds, and go back to London and sell it at a bigger profit. My dad took good money off ‘em, he called ‘em the London mob. He’d say, “The London mob’s coming up – we’ll have money this week.”
My grandma was a brilliant storyteller. We’d be sat there listening to her stories and she’d have us in howls of laughter because she was such a character. She was a hard woman. She must have buried over half a dozen kids. Back then, they had kids and they were born dead and stuff. She used to wrap them in linen and take them on the bus and go to Lymnies. She knew Mr Lymn, the old Mr Lymn would buy a top hat and tails off my grandfather. They’d sell him white shirts and all sorts of stuff, because back then it was hard to come by.
She’d say, “I’ve got another child here that’s passed on, I ain’t got no money, we need a Christian burial.” “OK, we’ll put it in the feet of a dead man.” And they put it in a casket with a dead man, otherwise it would have had to go in a pauper’s grave, I suppose.
My grandmother Caroline, her maiden name was Woolley – she was Romany people. They was bargees back in the day, and they was called the Woolley Backed ‘Uns from Wolverhampton. Travellers. My grandfather talked to us in slang, Romany, tic-tac talk, all that. I knew exactly what he’s saying but nobody else would know.
My dad’d say a ‘flag’ for a fiver, because if you know the old fiver, it had a flag on the back. There’s a lot of slang that was used back then. Everybody knows a nicker, two quid is a deuce or bottle, three quid’s a carpet in tic-tac terms, horseracing terms.
My grandfather used to go and do the races with chocolate and pears and fancy goods. My grandfather and grandmother used to sleep in a hedge bottom the night before to get onto the course early morning, clean themselves, get on the course. They’d sell all sorts of stuff. My grandfather made money when there was no money, just after the war, when it was really hard, and there weren’t a lot of money about.
Everyone and their dog is at it now, they’re on the internet selling stuff. Everyone is quite versed in selling. Everyone’s a dealer now. When they say dealers now, they think you mean drug dealers. We’re talking about general dealers, buyers and sellers of everything and anything. But nowadays it’s much tougher because of so much competition. The internet has ruined everything really for a trade such as ours.