Property and pawnbrokers shops are intertwined in the Victorian imagination. The exchange is usually an unhappy one, the proprietor being wicked and the customer wretched. In Sketches by Boz Charles Dickens takes us inside just such an establishment on London’s Drury Lane: ‘a low, dirty-looking, dusty shop, the door of which stands doubtfully, a little way open, half inviting, half repelling the hesitating visiter…’
As managers of the household purse, and often a very empty one, many women were very well aquainted with their local pawnbrokers shop. Rather bleakly, Dickens depicts what he regarded as women’s downward spiral in pawning property. In three booths at the end of Dicken’s Drury Lane shop are three groups of women. In the furthest booth are a mother and daughter, who he tells us are well practiced in negotiating loan rates. The daughter is pawning a small gold chain and ring, lovely childhood trinkets but:
‘…parted with now without a struggle, for want has hardened the mother, and her example has hardened the girl, and the prospect of receiving money coupled with a recollection of the misery they have both endured from any of it … appears to have obliterated the consciousness of self-humiliation, which the bare idea of their present situation would once have aroused.”
In the next booth a young lady is stirred to grief by the neighbouring girl’s exchange of trinkets for needed cash and hides her face in her hands. Weaping, wearing a summer bonnet in winter and extravagantly fine but wretchedly cold clothing, her ‘daub of rouge only serves as an index to the ravages of squandered health never to be regained, and lost happiness never to be restored’. Oh dear! Dickens doesn’t do things by halves does he.
In the open shop, another woman has noticed the pawning of the tiny Forget-me-not-ring and necklace. Dickens tells us that this witness is the lowest of the low; dirty, unbonneted, flaunting and slovenly. Her half intoxicated leer momentarily displaced by sadness and nostalgia. He then unites these women in a common journey from property to wretchedness:
‘Who shall say how soon these women may change places? The last has but two more stages – the hospital and the grave. How many females situated as her two companions are, and as she may have been once, have terminated the same wretched course, in the same wretched manner. One is already tracing her footsteps with frightful rapidity. How soon may the other follow her example! How many have done the same!’
Stepping away from Dicken’s creation of part observation and part fiction, this tale is of course only part of the complex relationship between possessions, pawn and credit. Pawning items was normal for many and didn’t necessarily lead to ruin. This was a time before modern money markets and unsecured loans. Before the late nineteenth-century, individual loans were commonly secured by pawning domestic artefacts over which women did tend to exercise control. Also, informal pawnbrokers were not infrequently women, creating strong, female, local credit networks. When legal and structural changes started to close down these networks, and regulate the credit trade, this was much more problematic for women requiring small, short-term loans to balance the household budget or boost an income-raising entrepreneurial endeavour. Even so, backstreet dollyshops and moneylenders continued to function on the margins of the formal commercial sector, offering credit from front rooms or street corners. Nonetheless, there was certainly a dark side to the trading of property for ready money and valued possessions for basic survival. Having nothing left to pawn was certain ruin. Owning property, even a tiny trinket, was key to survival.
Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1839 (Penguin Classics, 1995) pp.220-229
A large exerpt of the relevant chapter is available on http://www.victorianlondon.org/shops/pawnbrokers.htm
Beverly Lemire has done some really interesting research into women, credit and lending networks:
B. Lemire, ‘Petty pawns and informal lending: Gender and the transformation of small-scale credit in England c.1600-1800′ in Bruland & O’Brien (eds.) From Family Firms to Corporate Capitalism (Oxford, 1998)
B. Lemire, The Business of Everday Life (Manchester, 2006)