About a month before his 15th birthday, Robert Price left his family in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England for London. He was to become an apprentice pawnbroker under Henry Ashman.
The 1851 census finds him in St. Martins, Middlesex, England, 65 Long Acre street, living in the household of Henry Ashman listed as a 15 year old servant pawnbroker.
Robert was released from Mr. Ashman's employ after 3 years. While he started as a stock boy, he must have had a few dealings with customers; maybe just enough to influence his decision to leave the trade. After all, pawnbrokers weren't a very much liked 'lot'.
The following is an excerpt from his biography written by Ezra J. Poulsen:
"...One has but to reflect on the nature of the pawnbroking business to clarify his mind on some of Robert's probable reactions during those years. The banks of that day had not developed to their present status in the small loan field; nor was credit used as widely in a constructive sense as it is today in America. the pawnshop, therefor, was the main contact for those in financial distress; the poor, the improvident, those involved in sudden crises, such as sickness or death. This type of clientele could have had a depressing effect on a sensitive youth like Robert Price.
Pawn brokers were not a popular class. They were probably looked upon as a sort of necessary evil, and often hated by the very people who came to them for help. the risks they took were great; consequently, their rates were high, and their methods sometimes extortionist. The debtor's prison was still a grim reality..."
Ezra claims in his book that Robert eventually went to work for a silversmith, but according to the 1855 passenger list to New York he was still a pawnbroker. The 1860 census of Connecticut however, finds him as a painter.
pawnbroker's symbol? It is three golden balls. I had no idea.
The illustration on the left is the cover of a book written by George Robert Sims. This story is a narration of some of the customers of pawnbrokers.
Coincidentally, George Sims is the name of another pawnbroker who was an apprentice with Robert under Henry Ashman.
And did you know that the nursery rhyme "Pop Goes the Weasel" comes from pawnbroking?
If you have pawnbrokers in your ancestry, don't forget to check newspaper archives. Pawnbrokers often found themselves in legal situations for receiving stolen property, most of the time innocently of course. The Old Bailey even found Mr. Ashman as witness to such thievery.
Many victorian writers wrote detailed accounts about pawnbrokers. GoogleBooks would be a good place to start.
Thanks to Denise Spurlock for suggesting for suggesting this prompt.
- Robert Price, by Ezra J. Poulsen
- Ancestry.com. 1851 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.Original data: Census Returns of England and Wales, 1851. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1851. - Class: HO107; Piece: 1482; Folio: 264; Page: 21; GSU roll: 87807.
- Ancestry.com. New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 - 1855; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237; Microfilm Roll: 159; Line: 21; List Number: 1256.