Walking the streets, or visiting public bars with his charcoal-fueled mobile oven, the English Pieman of the Georgian (1714−1837) and Victorian (1837−1901) eras would call out “penny for a pie” to entice customers for a meat, fruit or perhaps eel-filled pastry pie. If business was slow, the Pieman would engage in gamesmanship to attract customers by inviting them to “toss the pieman”. This involved a member of the public tossing a penny coin in the air, and calling “heads or tails”. If the Pieman won, the penny would be his − if he lost − he gave away a pie.
The pies were often of dubious quality, and the low-quality sausage meat’s flavour was hidden by large amounts of pepper. Eels were often purchased that had been dead for some time. Food poisoning was not uncommon.
By the 1850s pastry shops began to sell pies, and of better quality than the pieman. The era of the pieman then came to a close. At one point it was estimated London had 600 piemen.
In Napier during the 1880s, two men operated businesses as itinerant piemen. One was called John Ross, and the other was a Spaniard called Joe de Basquez, more commonly known as “Joe the Pieman”. The first we hear of their existence is when the Daily Telegraph reported a scuffle between them in November 1886. Both men walked the streets of Napier, and had apparently marked out their respective territories, but one night they came in close contact with each other. Joe the Pieman apparently kicked John Ross, whose wife Florence leapt to his defence by grabbing Joe’s pie bell (a bell used to attract custom), and hit him on the head with it. In court, Dr Caro gave evidence of the hole that was created on Joe’s head from the “unmerciful whack”.
Joe was found guilty for assaulting John Ross, and fined 27 shillings and 7 pence (around $550 today), and seven days imprisonment with hard labour. Florence was fined about the same as Joe, and served four days imprisonment with hard labour. The judge warned both Joe and John to sell their pies in their “proper places, and not quarrel”.
Joe made himself popular with Napier’s Fire Brigade when the well-known itinerant dealer in refreshments” gave a free pie to each firemen in June 1889 in appreciation of the fine work they do.
The next we hear of Joe is when a notice from H P Cohen, a Napier auctioneer, appeared in the Hawke’s Bay Herald in April 1890 selling Joe’s items. From the list of plant for sale we learn of what was involved in the business of a street pieman. The list included: steam kettle; charcoal oven; kerosene stove; pieman’s cart; piecans; pie tins; kettles and boilers.
Just where Joe ended up next is unknown. An article appeared in the Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser in December 1890, in which “Joe the Pieman” criticized a correspondent’s racing tips, and offered his own. While we cannot be sure it was “our” Joe, it may well have been.
At some point-in-time Joe returned to Hawke’s Bay, and from a newspaper report, this appeared to be around 1894-5, and he settled in Hastings.
While most of the information about Joe has been found from newspapers, a book published in 1961 by the pupils of Room 22 from Heretaunga Intermediate mentioned some information about Joe. This would have been provided by one of the interviews the pupils conducted with old Hastings identities. This stated Joe de Voscous (a name he went by as well) was “a small dark-haired Spaniard, who walked the town at night ringing a bell and carrying a basket of pies on his arm”. They stated he lived in a small shop on the corner of King and Heretaunga Streets. All the windows were apparently boarded up. They said Joe had a wife, who he kept locked up since his arrival in Hastings.
Joe, it appears, was very enterprising, and in 1898 appeared before the Hastings Borough Council requesting permission to operate a hot coffee and pie stall after 11pm at night. The hotels’ closing time was 11pm, and one councilor suggested the pie and coffee cart should also close at 11pm. Future mayor, W Y Dennett, however, closed the argument by humorously saying “If a man was refused a beer it would be hard lines if he couldn’t solace himself with a cup of coffee”.
Joe the Pieman passed away on 19 June, 1900 at his home. The pupils of Room 22, Heretaunga Intermediate wrote that when his wife discovered him, she “did not know where to find a doctor”.
The newspaper reported that two doctors, Tosswill and Linney examined Joe on the morning of 20 June. They conducted an autopsy on Joe at his house, with a blot clot in the brain being the cause of death.
News of Joe’s death was greeted with sadness – the man who was born in Spain, and travelled to America to seek his fortune, but spent his remaining days in New Zealand. The Hawke’s Bay Herald said of him: “In a humble walk of life he earned the character of being an industrious and honourable man”. His wife had reported Joe was feeling ill and tired weeks before his death, and trade was very slow.
The business was taken over by Elijah Luke, but when Cafés began to sell pastry, the pieman’s bell and calls would no longer be heard on the streets of Hastings.
© Michael Fowler 2012Tags: Untagged