Victorian London - Childhood - Children - 'street arabs'

    The Street-Boy is as peculiar to the metropolis, as his prototype the gamin is to Paris.  He has a shrewdness of observation, a precocious cunning, and, above all, an art of annoying, which we look for in vain amidst the youth of the rural districts. We confess, that for all our usually placid disposition, when walking in the streets we cannot stand the sarcasms of the little boys. They are like mosquitoes, who sting and buz about you, but are never to be caught; and whether they make an allusion to your white trousers, your long hair, or your peculiar hat, with observations similar to "Voudn't I have a pair o' ducks," "I never see sech a mop," or, "Oh, my! vot a lummy tile," the shaft is sure to rankle a wound much deeper than you give it credit for. He is most acutely annoying to the Foreign gentleman, when he catches him off the pavement of Regent-street (for the Street-Boy does not often venture thereon), and delights his companions by marching after him with a droll imitative gait, or drawing attention to the flower-pot on his head.
    The Street-Boy forms the most important part of the audience to all the out-of-doors exhibitions. His laugh is the loudest, his applause the most vigorous, and his remarks the most forcible; but at the same time his voluntary contribution is the worst. This principally arises from his never having any money - a circumstance which drives him to seek gratuitous amusements, in which he, nevertheless, finds far more pleasure than in those paid for by the superior orders. Where the monied idler pays a shilling to descend in the car of the Centrifugal Railway, he procures the same, excitement for nothing, by sliding down the hand-rail of the steps at the Duke of York's column. On grand occasions, when; the wealthy hire a coach to go round and see the illumination, or other spectacle, he rides on the spikes behind, gratis; and, indeed, as connected with every species of parasitical carriage exercise, he appears to be case-hardened against any mechanical invention to render the position disagreeable. He sees the balloon, when it is up, just as well from Kennington-lane as from the interior of the gardens; and the same remark applies to a cheap view of time Girandola of St. Angelo over the palings.
    If there is one amusement upon which the Street Boy does not hesitate to expend the few pence he has picked up by holding horses, going on errands, or carrying carpet-bags from the railway and steam-boats, it is the theatre; and this arises more especially from a disinclination on the part of most managers to allow people to walk into their houses for nothing. In the gallery he is in his true glory. His very elevated situation gives him a feeling of superiority, and he is aware that his cry for an encore, or pleasant remark addressed to the orchestra, will have as much weight - nay, far more - than if it proceeded from an occupant of the dress circle. Nobody but himself can give that force of expression to "Now then, you cat-gut-scrapers; strike up there!" Next to the prompter, no one like him can regulate the scene-shifters: the single word "higher," is sufficient to induce them to raise the obtrusive sky borders when they are in the way of something at the back of the stage; and the most independent actor feels called upon to display extra energy when our hero shouts the dictatorial "speak up," from his lofty position. It is through his exertions, vocal and bodily, that a seat is procured for his friend "Fluffy Jack," who comes in at half-price ; and his "order," and " turn him out, are as magisterial commands to the attendant policemen, he rewards any clever piece of mechanism, or agile leap of the harlequin (for it must be stated that the pantomime chiefly attracts him) by the appropriate exclamation, "Bravo, Rouse!" and he is one of the most animated whistle solo performers on his two fingers that you would meet with; indeed, by some extraordinary anatomical peculiarity it seems impossible for any one above time rank of a butcher's apprentice, ever to produce the peculiar shrill note in question. We, ourselves, have no hesitation in confessing that we have tried to do it for hours together, and never got beyond a noise somewhat resembling that produced by blowing a pair of bellows into an empty ginger-beer bottle.
    A singular antipathy to work of any description, is a leading characteristic of the Street-Boy. This does not depend upon a lack of perseverance, as he can play the castanets upon two pieces of slate like a Duvernay in corduroys, spin a top or hurl a stone with unerring effect, and produce tunes upon his cheeks and chin with singular precision; all which evidences of skill must have cost him much pains to acquire. Neither should we overlook the incomprehensible ingenuity he displays in putting on his clothes, in which he generally contrives to make one single button and a bit of string perform all the function, which those of a higher grade require at least a dozen to accomplish.
    When the Street-Boy gives himself up to idle for the whole day on the strength of a few accidental coppers, his favourite lounge is the vicinity of a baked potato-can-proprietors of which machine appear of late to have established certain coteriess and reunions around them. He has minutely studied the economy of these al fresco restaurateurs. He sees the advantage of keeping the butter always to leeward, and he knows the jet of steam, intended to be expressive of intense caloric reigning amongst the potatoes, has nothing at all to do with them-  no more than the furious exhibition of vapour which appears to proceed from the dog-tarts in the windows of time St Giles's confectioners.
    The consumption of pickled whelks, oysters as big as soup-plates, and immature apples or small black cherries depends chiefly upon his patronage. When the Regent-street lounger fatigued and thirsty takes an ice at Very's, or some limonade gazeuse in the Pantheon, the Street-Boy indulges in some curds and whey in Drury Lane, or a bottle of penny ginger-beer in the New Cut.
    The only individual of whom the Street-Boy stands in awe is the policeman. He looks upon all square-keepers and beadles as so many large puppets to shoot his wit at; but he is afraid of the policeman, and there is no denying it. The only place where he throws off a portion of his fear is, as we have stated, the gallery of the playhouse; and then he relies principally upon his remote situation, or the practical difficulty of being approached through the unaccommodating masses that surround him.
    Our business at present is merely with the boy. When he grows up he loses most of his attributes, and either becomes an errand carrier or a light porter - perhaps even a policeman; or, being detected in various acts of unlawful appropriation, becomes a traveller and finishes his career by a grand tour to the regions of the Pacific Ocean.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1842


Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1845


AMONG the manner and customs of the present day, there is none more startling than a practice that has lately grown up among the children in our streets - if anything can be said to be grown up which is met with nowhere but in the juvenile part of the community. The practice to which we allude is that of introducing the Bedouins into the public thoroughfares; for it is impossible to enter town by an omnibus from any suburb, without having the vehicle accompanied by a parcel of children whirling round on their hands and feet by the side of the wheels, after the pattern set by the Arabs at BATTY'S Hippodrome. It is really a lamentable thing to see so many children thrown upon their own hands at such a very tender age, and venturing so near to the wheels, that the omnibus seems threatening every instant to do the work of the car of JUGGERNAUT. We cannot think what has got into the juvenile population's heads, that they should select that very unusual portion of the body to stand upon. The stranger walking along the Westminster Road would fancy that the world had been turned upside down, so many would he meet with their heels where their heads ought to be.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1851


"Well, my little man, what do you want?"
"Wot do I want? - Vy, Guv'ner, I  thinks I wants Heverythink!"

Punch, October 27, 1860

see also Charles Davies in Mystic London - click here

street child; ragamuffin; street arab

'The Ragamuffin'

street children; ragamuffins; street arabs

'Street Arabs'

see also J. Ewing Ritchie in Days and Nights in London - click here

see also D. Rice-Jones in In the Slums - click here

see also Thomas Wright in The Great Army of London Poor - click here

    STREET ARABS.?Any one who has had occasion to visit in, or even walk through, the narrow, evil-smelling courts and alleys where lodge the lowest and most destitute of the London poor cannot help having been struck with the number of tiny, dirty, half-clothed children who run about and play on the muddy pavements. What will be their future? Abandoned perhaps at an early age by their parents, or having parents who are worse than no parents, driven by hunger to steal, will not they soon pass from ignorance to vice?
    Many people seem to think that London street arabs are naturally too bad to be reclaimed; but this is by no means the truth, as you will see when I tell you a few instances of their gratitude and affection.
    Very often the ragged-school teacher?poor enough himself?has to give a piece of bread to one of his class, to keep the child from fainting, and there are ?refuges? attached to the schools, where some of the poorest of the scholars are fed and lodged until employment can be found for them. The late Lord Shaftesbury was the leader of the philanthropists who first recognised the need of rescuing ragged children from their terrible life. Many London arabs have been sent to the colonies, and there, finding good situations, have lived a healthy life of honest hard work. A group of these emigrants, well-?behaved and fine lads, insisted on being known as ?Lord Shaftesbury?s boys,? and by their loyalty and grateful remembrance of those who had helped them induced a wealthy Australian gentleman to aid, very substantially, the London ragged schools. One youth, who emigrated to South Africa, got on in life so well that he was able to send ?12 to the refuge where he had been sheltered in his days of misfortune, and asked for a lad to be chosen from out of those in the institution, and sent to him as an apprentice. Equally good work is done by Dr. Stephenson?s Children?s Home in Bonner Road.
    But some of these poor, dirty children help those who are poorer still. The other day a teacher in a ragged school was passing through some courts surrounding his dwelling, when he came suddenly upon a group of his tattered scholars?boys who gained their livings in the streets by selling papers or sweeping crossings, and of whom many had no home. They were whispering together in eager tones, and about what do you think it was?
    They were discussing the hard case of a boy, who seemed to them to be worse off than they themselves were, and had subscribed amongst them the sum, of eighteenpence, to get him some food and lodging, telling the teacher that poor fellow, he had nothing to eat and no home.?
    Probably some of them went without anything to eat that night to enable them to help their comrade. When the teacher arrived, the children were settling how to spend the money to the greatest advantage, and how to get the boy work to do; and in the morning one of these little ?good Samaritans? walked four miles to beg an old coat for him. Do many of the children belonging to the better classes, surrounded as they are with plenty, and having perhaps pocket-money of their very own to spend as they hike?do many of these ever think of giving anything to their barefooted brothers and sisters?
    In the picture you see a little girl, who lives in Vinegar Yard, Drury Lane, near Covent Garden Market. How thin and delicate she hooks! She has been ill, and her brothers are taking her out for the first time in their rough ?go-cart,? made of a box and two pieces of wood. Though she seems so miserable that you might suppose she could scarcely think of pitying anything but herself, yet see how tenderly she holds the shaggy dog to her side! Perhaps the neglected children saved it from starvation, letting it share their crust of bread; perhaps, in spite of their bodily hunger, their heart hungered for something on which to expend their affection.
    Here is another pleasing story of a boy who was lame, who resolved that his affliction should not prevent him from attending the ragged classes, so asked another boy to carry him to school, and arrived there triumphantly on his friend?s back.
    This is another good anecdote from a book called The Romance of the Streets:
?Will you not say your prayers, mother?? asked a little girl at bed-time.
    ?It?s late and cold,? replied the woman.
    ?I will pray for you,? replied the better instructed ragged scholar; and falling on her knees, she offered her petition.

But for the teaching that she had received at school, this little girl might have been a thief!

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)