Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

The Crippled Street-Seller of Nutmeg Graters



The illustration shows the seller of nutmeg graters on his knees on the street.  He wears a sign reading "I was born a cripple" and has nutmeg graters strung on his body.  'The Street-Seller of Nutmeg Graters' from a Daguerreotype by Beard. Image courtesy Victorian London under a Creative Commons License.


Journalist Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) began publishing his vast collection of interviews and observations on London street life in the mid-century, in the newspaper the Morning Chronicle in 1849. When the newspaper collapsed in 1850, Mayhew continued his interviews, often with the help of collaborators, and bound numbers of the work in-progress were issued from 1851-1852. In 1861-62 he collected all his work in three volumes, with a fourth volume mainly written by others added later, under the title London Labour and the London Poor (A. Banjaree). Many of the London street people that Mayhew interviewed were ill or disabled; his interviews offer a rare account of how lower class people with disabilities were seen, and how they saw themselves.

In the excerpt below of his interview with the “crippled street-seller of nutmeg-graters,” Mayhew attempts to establish the nutmeg-grater seller as one of the “honest poor” rather than a begging imposter. He prefaces his account of the crippled street-seller with a disquisition on the difference between those who use street-selling as a excuse for begging, and those who are honestly trying to make a living through selling their wares, and ends it by reprinting letters from those who know him swearing to his honesty and sobriety. Most of the text is a report of the street-seller’s own account of his life, in his own words. Martha Stoddard Holmes argues that there is a tension between Mayhew’s melodramatic framing of the cripple’s story and the nutmeg-grater’s own account of himself, which is straightforward to the point of being anti-melodramatic (138). The nutmeg-grater cannot walk, and speaks of the practicalities of paying a boy to wheel him around in a barrow, and to dress and undress him. He once owned a shop but lost it through customers who did not pay for their wares, and has been in the workhouse, but avers that he would rather die on the streets than die a pauper.

Primary Source Text

I now give an example of one of the classes driven to the streets by utter inability to labour.  I have already spoken of the sterling independence of some of these men possessing the strongest claims to our sympathy and charity, and yet preferring to sell rather than beg.  As I said before, many ingrained beggars certainly use the street trade as a cloak for alms-seeking, but as certainly many more, with every title to our assistance, use it as a means of redemption from beggary.  That the nutmeg-grater seller is a noble example of the latter class, I have not the least doubt.  I have made all due inquiries to satisfy myself as to his worthiness, and I feel convinced that when the reader looks at the portrait here given, and observes how utterly helpless the poor fellow is, and then reads the following plain unvarnished tale, he will marvel like me, not only at the fortitude which could sustain him under all his heavy afflictions, but at the resignation (not to say philosophy) with which he bears them every one. His struggles to earn his own living (notwithstanding his physical incapacity even to put the victuals to his mouth after he has earned them), are instances of a nobility of pride that are I believe without a parallel.  The poor creature’s legs and arms are completely withered; indeed he is scarcely more than head and trunk.  His thigh I hardly thicker than a child’s wrist.  His hands are bent inward from contraction of the sinews, the fingers being curled up and almost as thin as the claws of a bird’s foot.  He is unable even to stand, and cannot move from place to place but on his knees, which are shod with leather caps, like the heels of a clog, strapped round the joint; the soles of his boots are on the upper leathers, that being the part always turned towards the ground while he is crawling along.  His countenance is rather handsome than otherwise; the intelligence indicated by his ample forehead is fully borne out by the testimony as to his sagcity in his business, and the mild expression of his eye by the statements as to his feeling for all others in affliction.

“I sell nutmeg-graters[1] and funnels,' said the cripple to me; “I sell them at 1d. and 1½ d. a piece.[2]  I get mine of the man in whose house I live. He is a tinman, and makes for the street trade and shops and all.  I pay 7d. a dozen for them, and I get 12d. or 18d. a dozen, if I can when I sell them, but mostly I get a penny a piece—it’s quite a chance if I have a customer at 1½ d.  Some days I sell only three—some days not one—though I’m out from ten o’clock till six.  The most I ever took was 2s. 6d. in a day.  Some weeks I hardly clear my expenses—and they’re between 7s. and 8s. a week; for not being able to dress and ondress myself, I’m obligated to pay some one to do it for me—I think I don’t clear more than 7s. a week take one week with another.  When I don’t make that much, I go without—sometimes friends who are kind to me give me a trifle, or else I should starve. […]  When I do very well I have three meals a day, but it’s oftener only two—breakfast and supper—unless of Sunday.  On a wet day when I can’t get out, I often go without food.  I may have a bit of bread and butter give me, but that’s all—then I lie a-bed.  I feel miserable enough when I see the rain come down of a week day, I can tell you.  Ah, it is very miserable indeed lying in bed all day, and in a lonely room, without perhaps a person to come near one—helpless as I am—and hear the rain beat against the windows, and all that without nothing to put in your lips.  I’ve done that over and over again where I lived before; but where I live now I’m more comfortable like.  My breakfast is mostly bread and butter and tea; and my supper, bread and butter and tea with a bit of fish, or a small bit of meat.  What my landlord and landlady has I share with them.  I never break my fast from the time I go out in the morning till I come home—unless it is a halfpenny orange I buy in the street; I do that when I feel faint.  I have only been selling in the streets since this last winter.  I was in the workhouse with a fever all the summer.  I was destitute afterwards, and obliged to begin selling in the streets. The Guardians[3] gave me 5s. to get stock.  I had always dealt in tin ware, so I knew where to go to buy my things.  It’s very hard work indeed is street-selling for such as me.  I can’t walk no distance.  I suffer a great deal of pains in my back and knees.  Sometimes I go in a barrow, when I’m traveling any great way.  When I go only a short way a crawl along on my knees and toes.  The most I’ve ever crawled is two miles.  When I get home afterwards, I’m in great pain.  My knees swell dreadfully, and they’re all covered with blisters, and my toes ache awful.  I’ve corns all on top of them.

“Often after I’ve been walking, my limbs and back ache so badly that I can get no sleep.  Across my lines it feels as if I’d got some great weight, and my knees are in a heat, and throb, and feel as if a knife was running into them.  When I go up-stairs I have to crawl upon the backs of my hands and my knees.  I can’t lift nothing to my mouth.  The sinews of my hands is all contracted.  I am obliged to have things held to my lipe for me to drink, like a child.  I can use a knife and fork by leaning my arm on the table and then stooping my head to it.  I can’t wash nor ondress myself.  Sometimes I think of my helplessness a great deal.  The thoughts of it used to throw me into fits at one time—very bad.  It’s the Almighty’s will that I am so, and I must abide by it.  People says, as they passes me in the streets, ‘Poor fellow, it’s a shocking thing;’ but very seldom they does any more than pity me; some lays out half a-penny or a penny with me, but most of ‘em goes on about their business.  Persons looks at me a good bit when I go into a strange place.  I do feel it very much, that I haven’ the power to get my living or to do a thing for myself, but I never begged for nothing.  I’d sooner starve than I ‘d do that.  I never thought that people whom God had given the power to help theirselves ought to help me.  I have thought that I’m as I am—obliged to on my hands and knees, from no fault of my own.  Often I’ve done that, and I’ve over and over again laid in bed and wondered why the Almighty should send me into this world in such a state; often I’ve done that on a wet day, with nothing to eat, and no friend to come a-nigh me.  When I’ve gone along the streets, too, and been in pain, I’ve thought, as I’ve seen the people pass straight up, with all the use of their limbs, and some of them the biggest blackguards, cussing and swearing, I’ve thought, Why should I be deprived of the use of mine?  and I’ve felt angry like, and perhaps at that moment I couldn’t ring my mind to believe the Almighty was so good and merciful as I’d heard say; but then in a minute or two afterwards I’ve prayed to Him to make me better and happier in the next world.  I’ve always been led to think He’s afflicted me as He has for some wise purpose or another that I can’t see.  I think as mine is so hard a life in this world, I shall be better off in the next.  Often when I couldn’t afford to pay a boy, I’ve not had m boots off for four or five nights and days, nor my clothes neither.  Give me the world I couldn’t take them off myself, and then my feet has swollen to that degree that I’ve been nearly mad with pain, and I’ve been shivering and faint, but still I was obliged to go out with my things; if I hadn’t I should have starved.  Such as I am can’t afford to be ill—it’s only rich folks as can lay up, not we; for us to take to our beds is to go without food altogether […]

Mother was a cook in a nobleman’s family when I were born.  They say as I was a love-child.  I was not brought up by mother, but by one of her fellow-servants.  Mother’s intellects was so weak, that she couldn’t have me with her.  She used to fret a good deal about me, so her fellow-servant took me when she got married.  After I were born, mother married a farmer in middling circumstances.  They tell me as my mother was frightened afore I was born.  I never knew my father.  He went over to Buonos Ayres, and kept a hotel there—I’ve heard mother say as much.  No mother couldn’t love a child more than mine did me, but her feelings was such she couldn’t bear to see me.  I never went to mother’s to live, but was brought up by the fellow servant as I’ve told you of.  Mother allowed her 30l a-year.  I was with her till two years back.  She was always very kind to me—treated me like one of her own.  Mother used to come and see me about once a-year—sometimes not so often; she was very kind to me then.  Oh, yes; I used to like to see her very much.  Whatever I wished for she’d let me have; if I wrote to her, she always sent me what I wanted.  I was very comfortable then.  Mother died four years ago;  when I lost her I fell into a fit—I was told  of it all of a sudden.  She and the party as I was brought up with was the only friends as I had in the world—the only persons as cared anything about a creature like me. […]

I have still some relations living, and they are well to do, but, being a cripple, they despise me.  My aunt, my mother’s sister, is married to a builder, in Petersham, near Richmond—having some houses of their own besides a good business.  I have got a boy to wheel me down on a barrow to them, and asked assistance of them, but they will have nothing to do with me.  They won’t look at me for my affliction.  Six months ago they gave me half-a-crown.  I had no lodgings nor victuals then; and that I shouldn’t have had from them had I not said I was starving and must go to the parish.  This winter I went to them, and they shut the door in my face. […]

I can, indeed, solemnly say, that there is nothing else against me, and that I strive hard and crawl about till my limbs ache enough to drive me mad, to get an honest livelihood.  With a couple of pounds I could, I think, manage to shift very well for myself.  I’d get a stock, and go into the country with a barrow, and buy old metal, and exchange tin ware for old clothes, and, with that, I’m almost sure I could get a decent living.  I’m accounted a very good dealer.”


[1] Grated nutmeg featured not only sweet dishes where one might expect it such as Christmas plum pudding, bread and butter pudding or punch, but, according to Mrs. Beeton’s recipes, grated nutmeg was essential to savoury dishes such as fowl or chicken pie, eel pie, and potted ham

[2] British currency was not decimalized until 1971.  It was divided up into pounds (£) shillings (s or l, there were twenty shillings in a pound) and pennies (d).  See Marje Bloy, “British Currency before 1971” The Victorian Web.

[3] After the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, before which relief or alms were given out at the discretion of the parish, paupers were forced to seek relief in workhouses, which meant that they had to live in an institution and work in order to gain relief.  See Peter Higganbotham, The Workhouse, <>



Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor; A Cyclopaedia of the Condition and Earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work  Vol. 1.  The London Street-Folk.  London:  Office, 16, Upper Wellington Street, Strand, 1851. Pages 329-332.  Available online at through Google Books.



Further Reading


Karen Bourrier



Mayhew, Henry, “The Crippled Street-Seller of Nutmeg Graters,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed July 22, 2024,