Report for July Meeting 2013

The Orton & Tebay Local History Society welcomed Barry McKay to talk to them about “Chapmen, Pedlars and Hawkers”.

Mr. McKay gave us a fascinating description of their lives which showed the value of their trade in remote areas where shops were scarce.

Chapman is an Old English word for a trader or dealer; the word pedlar dates back to 1510 and possibly meant “Cheap”man; and the word hawker, in a non-sporting context, was used in the 14th Century. A late 19th Century licensing act defined the hawker as one with a horse and cart; the other terms were used for those who carried their own loads.

Although many of these people were beggars, some, with careful handling of resources, did become shopkeepers. Beginning perhaps with scraping together a few pennies to buy some cheap ballad sheets for resale, they aimed at becoming secure enough to be given credit by their suppliers. Later, it might be possible to buy a horse, and, better still, a cart, before settling down in a shop which could supply other packmen.

A chapman could therefore become a highly respected trader of the twenty three working out of Kendal in 1575 - eight were freemen of the town. At the end of the 17th Century, the cost of a licence was 4 for a walking chapman and 8 for one using a horse, both considerable sums of money. A successful chapman was John Smith, of Kirkoswald. He became a grocer and mercer and then, around 1720, became the owner of a paper mill, the first recorded in Cumberland.

The typical chapman travelled on foot, with his goods on his back. Many of them had regular routes, using not only main roads from town to town but also the small packhorse and farm tracks. Their routes were determined by the fairs and market days as listed in the yearly almanacs. They sold anywhere and everywhere: at inns and at remote farms. They had regular picking up points along the way where they could renew their packs. Penrith was particularly important as its printers could supply the broadsheets and songs popular in Newcastle and Glasgow and suitable for the northern market.


In the late 18th Century there were at least two printers in Penrith, Ann Bell and Anthony Soulby who produced a variety of broadsheets and books of songs. These contained popular folk tales (such as Robin Hood), and religious tracts, all of which were suitable for a chapman's pack.

Some chapmen travelled great distances. John Magee between 1806 and 1808 moved from Paisley, via Dumfries to Longtown, then eastwards across northern England, and southwards to London. By then he had visited 43 towns. He returned by sea to Newcastle, then went via Durham to Barnard Castle and along the highway to Carlisle and home. He had travelled more than 1,000 miles.

The men carried a great variety of small goods. For the housewife there were essentials like pins, buckles, combs, cloth and scissors, but also small-wares like ribbons and laces to add interest to home-made clothes. They carried the popular songs of the day, as well as Bibles and chapbooks. These items suggests that literacy was quite high in Westmorland, especially where Quaker and Methodist schools were available.

Chapmen therefore provided a much-needed service to rural communities where consumer goods were difficult to come by where today we use the internet.

An interesting and intriguing talk which gave us all much to think about.