Higgler has survived in the West Indies, especially Jamaica, in the sense of a market trader, but has disappeared everywhere else. But only a century ago, most English market towns had their higglers.
They were middlemen — they went round the farms of the local area, buying up produce such as poultry, rabbits, eggs and cheese to sell in the market. In return they supplied goods the household needed. Some of the trade was done by barter rather than by money changing hands, but all of it involved haggling — which is where the name came from, as it’s just a variant spelling of haggler.
In The Surgeon’s Daughter (1827), Sir Walter Scott spoke of: “The labours of a higgler, who travels scores of miles to barter pins, ribbons, snuff and tobacco, against the housewife’s private stock of eggs, mort-skins, and tallow” [mort-skin: the skin of a sheep or lamb that has died a natural death].
In some places, higglers had a bad reputation, because they were thought to manipulate prices to their own benefit. The Times of London dated 10 June 1800 reports a small-scale consumer revolt against them:
A Meeting was held at Poole, on Friday last, to take into consideration the propriety of the Inhabitants in general refraining from the use of Butter, till the price is reduced to One Shilling a pound; when it was unanimously resolved by all present, not to purchase any till the price shall be so reduced, and even then, to use it in their families with great economy and moderation ... and proper people are appointed to keep a constant watch on the Higglers on Market-day, who are the principal cause of the great prices of many of the necessaries of life.
Page created 8 May 2004
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