HAULING ASS with Covent Garden costermonger donkeys

Lucy Moore talks the hind legs off our readers
(Summer Issue 15 2019)
Covent Garden Costermonger Donkey

Apart from the rat-hunting mongoose that roamed the cellars of the offices of The Lady magazine in the 1920s, and the odd spiffily-collared French Bulldog on Maiden Lane, Covent Garden is not known for its animal inhabitants. Today it’s a shiny urban centre, an immaculate temple to shopping, eating and high culture; even a spider might think twice before setting up a discreet little pied-à-terre in the Piazza. But until fifty years ago, for five hundred years or more, scores of donkeys worked in Covent Garden every day, their long, patiently twitching ears like so many metronomes ticking to the melody of their masters’ songs and cries.

For costermongers, the traditional traders of Covent Garden who dealt in everything from apples and watercress to eels and whelks to roasted chestnuts and ginger beer, having their own donkey was a sign of success. It represented the final step in a succession progressing from a basket slung over an arm, on to a handbarrow, right up to their very own donkey cart. Despite their small stature, donkeys are resilient and immensely strong, “pattering along with a briskness and assurance that can only come with contentment with their work.”

There were sad exceptions, of course, but most descriptions of the costermongers from the 19th century describe them treating their donkeys as family pets: when the trader did well, his animal thrived too. At night they went home with their owners to the long rows of terraced houses that once covered London’s East End. Sociable and reliable creatures, when their masters released them from their carts they would trot home and, if the door was ajar, nudge it open and walk through to the garden. In the morning they would walk, neat-hooved, back through the house, past the babies playing in the passage.

Donkeys were so highly valued that they regularly featured in the costermongers’ outfits, the mother-of-pearl button-encrusted suits of the Pearly Kings and Queens, alongside hearts symbolising charity and the wheel – the circle of life. Mostly they were harnessed in creations fashioned from rope, strips of leather, old chains, folded sacks and bright pocket handkerchiefs; a few were resplendent in polished brass, repurposed carriage harnesses, ‘decorated with coronets in all directions’.

Famously stubborn, they would not leave their spot to carry a second load during the day unless they had been well fed (hay, chaff and oats, sometimes supplemented by a bit of their owners’ lunchtime bread) and had a nap after the first. On their last day in the Market in 1974, the police arrived at dawn to direct the first vans and lorries that would replace them. But when the donkeys were prompted to leave in the other direction, they simply lay down and refused to move. “They had trotted up to the Market one way for generations. They knew which was the right way – the way they had always gone.”