Many of us will be feeling the pinch after the expenses associated with Christmas, and some will buy more things on credit cards to tide them over. But spare a thought for the Victorian working classes, paid at best on a weekly basis, and at worst, by the day. For them, the only way to make ends meet was to pledge domestic items at the local pawnbrokers to raise some cash for the week ahead. The possessions pledged could be as diverse as clothing, shoes and jewellery through to flat irons and occupational tools.
The pawnbroker’s customers were not those in abject poverty who had nothing of value to pledge, but those living close to the bread-line who were in regular, yet poorly paid work. For the majority of the working classes, pawning was simply a way of life. When in employment, they used their clothing, especially their Sunday best, as capital on which to raise cash. Clothing was often pledged on a Monday and redeemed on a Saturday after the breadwinner of the family had been paid. It was worn to chapel or church on a Sunday, and pledged again the next day. This was the reason that Saturdays and Mondays were the pawnbrokers’ busiest days.
|‘The Weekly Pledge Room’ from Living London (1901)|
‘Uncle’, as the pawnbroker was colloquially known, could always be turned to in times of need. Pawnshops were an urban phenomenon, and with the rise in population throughout the Victorian period, the number of pawnbrokers increased dramatically. Some streets had more pawnbrokers than public houses.
Pawnbrokers did not benefit greatly when people could not afford to redeem their pledges. Their profit was made from the interest charged when regular customers pledged and redeemed their belongings. The pawnbroker was entitled to keep and sell unredeemed items pledged for less than ten shillings after the redemption period of one year and seven days. Unredeemed pledges of more than ten shillings did not automatically become his property; these items had to be sold at a public auction, although he could set a reserve to avoid making a loss.
|‘Sale of Unredeemed Stock’ from Living London (1901)|
The entrance to a pawnbroker’s shop was usually up a side street. Pledging could be done at an open counter or in separate compartments known as ‘boxes’, which offered some privacy to those ashamed of their predicament. The pawnbroker would carefully examine the item pledged, offer a sum and if accepted, he would give the pledger a pawn ticket.
From 1872, for loans of ten shillings or less, the interest rate was one halfpenny per calendar month on each two shillings or part of two shillings lent. After the first calendar month, any time not exceeding fourteen days was to be reckoned as half a month only. The pawnbroker could also charge a halfpenny for the ticket, although for very small sums, he might waive this fee. Under the previous legislation, there was no charge for the ticket if the pledge was under five shillings.
On loans of between ten and forty shillings, a penny was charged for the ticket, and the interest was one halfpenny per two shillings per calendar month. Loans of more than forty shillings and less than ten pounds attracted interest of a halfpenny on every two and a half shillings per month, and a penny for the ticket. There was also an optional one penny fee for special storage, such as hanging boots and clothes to prevent creases.
|‘Saturday Night at a Pawnbroker’s’ from Living London (1901)|
The atmosphere of pawnshops on redemption days, usually Saturdays, was extremely noisy with hundreds of people redeeming their belongings. ‘Pawnbroking London’ in Living London (1901) described one such day: “It is a strangely animated scene, with nearly all the characters played by women. It is a rarity to see a man among them… They betray no sense of shame if they feel it. They talk and gossip while waiting for their bundles, and are wonderfully polite to the perspiring assistants behind the counter.” An average of 2,000 bundles were redeemed each Saturday at this particular shop.
Despite the high interest rates, pawnbrokers offered a vital service to the working classes. The writer of the article in Living London pointed out: “They mean food for the wife and children when cupboard and pocket are empty – a little money to keep things going till next pay-day; they mean to thousands shelter, warmth, and something to eat; and although many consider the pawnbroker’s shop an encouragement to improvidence and unthriftiness, every philanthropist who would abolish it admits that he would have to substitute some municipal or charitable pawnshop in its place.”
|‘Furniture in a Pawnbroker’s Warehouse’ from Living London (1901)|