I’ve written before about pawnbrokers but they were such an integral part of life for the Victorian working classes that I thought they deserved another post. Colloquially known as ‘Uncle’, the pawnbroker offered a vital service for people living close to the bread-line who were in regular, yet poorly paid work. He was always there in times of need and provided loans secured on domestic items as diverse as clothing, shoes and jewellery through to flat irons and occupational tools.
For the majority of the working classes, pawning was simply a way of life. The only way to make ends meet was to pledge their belongings to raise cash for the week ahead. When in work, they used their clothing, especially their Sunday best, as capital. This was why Saturdays and Mondays were the pawnbrokers’ busiest days. Clothing was frequently 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 cycle of pledging and redeeming, week in, week out, might continue for years, and pawnbrokers made their profits on the interest charged.
Pawnshops, with their distinctive symbol of three golden balls, were an urban phenomenon and the number of pawnbrokers increased dramatically with the rising population; some streets even had more pawnbrokers than public houses. In Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens described a pawnshop near Drury Lane, London as being situated at the corner of a court, ‘which affords a side entrance for the accommodation of such customers as may be desirous of avoiding the observation of the passers-by, or the chance of recognition in the public street’. The door of the ‘low, dirty-looking, dusty shop’ always stood halfway open, ‘half inviting, half repelling the hesitating visitor, who, if he be as yet uninitiated, examines one of the old garnet brooches in the window for a minute or two with affected eagerness, as if he contemplated making a purchase; and then cautiously looking round to ascertain that no one watches him, hastily slinks in…’
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. It was not just the working classes who went to ‘Uncle’ for help; any member of the middle or upper classes who had experienced a change in fortunes might find themselves needing to pledge personal belongings for instant cash. The pawnbroker would carefully examine the item to be 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.
On redemption days, usually Saturdays, pawnshops were 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 provided 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.”
The pawnshops’ dusty window displays featured unredeemed items pledged for less than ten shillings, which the pawnbroker was entitled to keep and sell after the redemption period of one year and seven days. According to Dickens, this sad collection of once-cherished belongings included ‘several sets of chessmen, two or three flutes, a few fiddles…some gaudily-bound prayer books and testaments, two rows of silver watches…numerous old-fashioned table and tea spoons….cards of rings and brooches….cheap silver penholders and snuff-boxes…silk and cotton handkerchiefs, and wearing apparel of every description…’ Unredeemed pledges of more than ten shillings did not automatically become the pawnbroker’s property; these items had to be sold at a public auction, although he could set a reserve to avoid making a loss.