Below is an article which demystifies the cry, “One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot-cross buns”, a cry fondly remembered from childhood, and illustrating just how much of a treat these buns were to the young.
‘Chambers Journal’ By William Chambers, Robert Chambers, Published 1855
Hot Cross Buns
In our own youth, the basket-bearing man who chanted these words every Easter was a species of troubadour in our infant fancy, a palmer bringing from the Holy Land a store of buns instead of scallops. And the buns had this advantage over the shells—they were good to eat. Nice as they were, it somehow appeared a species of penance to breakfast on them— a semi religious duty that we should have thought ourselves the wickedest of children to have omitted. The buns were dimly connected with the Crusades, and with that grand old illustrated copy of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, at whose pictures of knights and Saracens we loved to peep furtively. We had little doubt that the minstrel who came ‘singing from Palestine,’ was a hot cross bun seller; and we mixed up the faithful Blondel with the same fraternity, fancying that he must have been crying hot cross-buns through Germany when he accidentally discovered the prison of King Richard.
Then the commercial part of the dealer’s cry was of a vagueness fitted to puzzle an infant mind. ‘One a penny, two a penny!’ what was one to think of such a double-faced announcement? Could there be any mortal buyer silly or prodigal enough to give a penny for a single bun, when two such dainties had been so brazenly offered in exchange for the same coin a moment before? Or was the sale of buns a kind of Dutch auction—a sliding-scale, according to which the vender raised and lowered his price alternately? If so, what rash being could ever have responded to the appeal to purchase at ‘one a penny,’ when ‘two a penny’ was trembling on the merchant’s lips? The idea that some buns were twice as big as others, never suggested itself to us in those days—never! That was a solution of the mystery reserved for after-years.
Below are some observations on the cries and transactions of the street sellers of Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday, published in 1788 and 1838, (with some poetry in celebration of them from 1867). Note: in 1838 it mentions that Hot Cross Buns were sometimes sold on the day before Good Friday, to anticipate the market, but this was met with little or no interest.
Much like Christmas, this is an all too familiar modern commercial pattern, given that Hot Cross Buns are now sold in some shops all year round, and in most shops many weeks beforehand, leading to the dilution of what was once a special and much looked forward to treat, and indeed the Christian message behind it. So no longer do we hear the cry one-a-penny on Good Friday, or even, moving with inflation, one-a-pound …
‘The Country Magazine’ Published 1788
Observations On The London Cries
Hot Cross-Buns—although they occur but once a-year, are cried to a tune which has nothing of that majesty which would accompany sacred music —There is a slur upon hot which destroys the effect; and, indeed, gives the whole a very irreverent sound.
The Everyday Book And Table Book, Published 1838
The dawn is awakened by a cry in the streets of “Hot-cross-buns; one-a-penny buns, two-a-penny buns; one-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot-cross-buns!” This proceeds from some little “peep-o’-day boy”, willing to take the “top of the morning” before the rest of his peers. He carries his covered buns in a basket hanging on one arm, while his other hand is straightened like an open door, at the side of his mouth, to let forth his childish voice, and he “pipes and trebles out the sound” to the extremity of his lungs. Scarcely has he departed before others come; “another and another still succeeds”, and at last the whole street is in one “common cry of bun“.
Old men and young men, young women and old women, big children and little children, are engaged in this occupation, and “some cry now who never cried before”. The bun-vendors who eclipse the rest in voice and activity, are young women who drive fruit-barrows—barrows, by the bye, are no more, but of them by and bye. A couple of these ex-barrow-women trip along, carrying a wicker clothes-basket between them, in which the “hot-cross buns” are covered, first by a clean flannel or green baize, and outwardly by a clean white cloth, which coverings are slowly and partially removed, for fear of letting the buns cool, when a customer stops to buy, or calls them to the door.
They continue their lengthened cry, with a volume of concerted sound, unequalled by other rivals in the ephemeral Good Friday trade. These scenes and sounds continue till church-time, and resume in the afternoon. It partially commences on the evening before Good Friday, but with little success.
‘Once A Week’, By Eneas Sweetland Dallas, Published 1867
Hot Cross Buns By Julia Goddard 1867
Of goodly buns in tins in a plenteous store—
Sweet buns, hot buns, slight flavoured with allspice
And passing cheap, a penny each the price.
No; later still, our pæans will we raise
And give to modern hot cross buns due praise:
Sing of the baker’s triumph and the host
Of ragged urchins in amazement lost.
As buns in hundreds through the glass
appear,— They scarce restrain th’ involuntary cheer.
Their pence throw down, snatch up
the smoking bun, Heed not the begging dog, but homeward run.
Even the baby in its mother’s arms Has early learned that hot cross buns
have charms. The little girl that cries them in the street,
Loud rings her bell and promises a treat;
Nor old nor young but listens to the cry.
The young with longing, whilst he
elders sigh In that their hot cross bun days have passed by.
It is perhaps fitting to close this article with the musings of another article …
‘The Leisure Hour’ By William Haig Miller, James Macaulay, and William Stevens, Published 1856
And so, awaking in the early morning, we hear the streets ringing with the cry, “Hot Cross Buns.” And perhaps when all that we have wrought shall be forgotten, when our name shall be as though it had been written on water, and many institutions great and noble shall have perished, this little bun will live on unharmed. Others, as well as ourselves, will, it may be, lie awake upon their beds, and listen to the murmurs going to and fro within the great heart of London, and, thinking on the half-forgotten days of the nineteenth century, wonder perhaps whether, in these olden times, we too heard the sound of “Hot Cross Buns.”