Victorian London - Crime - Beggars and Vagrants - Beggars
TWINS are looking up - but orphans are still below par. Blind men make but
little progress - but their dogs, when properly trained fetch a great
deal, and that, too, at a single bidding. Crossing-sweepers are firm, and still
stick to their posts, though the Lascars have lately swept everything before
them. The frozen-out gardeners are complaining bitterly of the mildness of the
weather. Congreve matches, since the rain, will not go off at all. Ballads are
largely quoted - but somehow do not sell for more than a mere song.
Begging-letters do not answer, though the chalk-writing on the pavement,
especially the running hand, goes off as rapidly as ever. Wooden legs are sent
away begging; whilst sailors, who have lost their arms, go crying about in the
streets, but find that London is not exactly the place for alms-giving. Fiddlers
continue to scrape as much as formerly; but organs are turned to no profit, and
the Scotch band, we are sorry to say, no longer pipes to the same tune that it
used to do.
Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1843
see also Henry Mayhew's Letter IV in
the Morning Chronicle - click here
see also Henry Mayhew's Letter V in
the Morning Chronicle - click here
see also Henry Mayhew's Letter XXXI in
the Morning Chronicle - click here
[ ... back to main menu for this book]
should bear in mind—what residents should know already—that the impostorship
of street-beggars is the one rule to which, as yet, there has been no known
exception. London beggardom is a close corporation, and allows of
interlopers. If you wish to relieve “distress” of any deserving—or
undeserving—object enquire, according to your personal predilections, of the
parish clergyman, the Little Sisters of the Poor, or the relieving officer, and
you may find plenty. In the streets you will find none but professional
toll-takers, levying ad valorem dues on personal weakness. To get rid
of your beggar, when wearisome, if he be English, take no notice of him at all.
He will follow you till you meet a more likely-looking person, but no farther.
If your tormenter be an Italian, lift your forefinger, knuckle upwards, to the
level of your wrist, as it hangs by your side, and wag at twice or thrice from
side to side. Your Italian, who will take no other negative, accepts that
instantly. If he has anything to sell, reply simply “Got one,” and pass on.
Charitably disposed persons, especially residents in London, who, by reason of
their public position, or even from the fact of their names being in the
“Court Guide,’ or in any of the charity subscription lists, are objects of
interest to the
great army of begging
letter writers, cannot do better than become members of the Society
Suppression of Mendicity. This institution,
which has been established upwards of 6o years, has its office in Red
Lion-square, Holborn, where the secretary may be addressed. The plan of the
society is stated in its retort to be the issue of printed tickets to be given
to street beggars instead of money; which tickets refer them to the
society’s office where their cases are investigated and disposed of according
to circumstances. Relief in money, blankets, clothing, &c., is afforded to
applicants who, upon investigation, are proved to be deserving. The society is
in constant communication with the several metropolitan parishes, hospitals,
dispensaries, &c. with a view to provide for necessitous and
afflicted persons; whilst the managers also have it in their power to offer
suitable employment at the society’s labour premises to every able-bodied
mendicant referred to the office. Governors may obtain tickets for distribution
at any time on applying by letter, or personally, at the society’s office. The
annual payment of £1 1s. constitutes the donor a governor, and the payment of
£10 10s. at one time, or within one year, a governor for life. A system of
enquiry into the merits of persons who are in the habit of begging by letter is
incorporated with the society’s proceedings. The following persons are
entitled to refer such letters to the office for investigation—it being
understood that the eventual relief rests with the subscriber sending the case:
all contributors to the general funds of the society to the amount of £21; all
contributors to the general funds of the society to the amount of £10 10s., and
who also subscribe £1 1s. annually; all subscribers of £2 2s. and upwards per
annum. The Charity Organisation Society also undertakes the investigation of
the cases of persons soliciting relief from the benevolent, but there is a
general impression, not altogether without foundation, that the business of this
association is conducted with a somewhat undue amount of harshness, and too
strict an adherence to “hard and fast” rules.
Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London,
Victorian London - Publications - Social
Investigation/Journalism - Sketches in London, by James Grant, 1838
[-SKETCHES IN LONDON
CHAPTER 1 (CONT.)
Street-begging impostors-Their probable number, and the amount of their aggregate gains-Large sums which some of them have amassed-.-Expedients resorted to by them in the prosecution of their calling-Instances of feigned distress-Blind beggars-Speculations in the business of begging - Begging copartneries-Professional rehearsals.....Meetings and carnivals of the fraternity -Crossings sweepers.-]
[-25-] I come now to speak of the other class of begging impostors. I mean those who are to be seen openly following their profession in the streets. The number of beggars is astonishing. Ten years ago it was estimated at 7,500; I am sure the number has not diminished since then; my impression is, that it has, on the contrary, considerably increased. I think it may be safely enough assumed, that the present number of beggars of this class, to be seen in the streets of London, is not under 8,000. It will startle those whose attention has never been called to the subject, when they are informed, that of the beggars who in so great a variety of ways, audibly and silently, solicit alms in the public streets, there is only one out of every twenty who is a proper object of charity; the remaining number are impostors. In a case of this kind I would not, lest I should in any instance dry up the stream of charity where it ought to flow, trust to my own calculations: the result I have mentioned, is given as one of undoubted accuracy, in a pamphlet published about two years since, by the Hon. and Rev. Baptist Noel, one of the most amiable and humane men in the metropolis. But suppose we take the proportion of street-beggars who are real objects of charity to those who are not, at nearly one in sixteen, that will give, on the above computation, the immense number of 7,500 of this class of impostors who are constantly on town. I have made inquiries of a gentleman who has been officially occupied with the subject for the last few years, as to what may be the average amount which the street-beggars annually receive from a generous but too confiding public; and he says that very few of them average less than thirty shillings a week. In order, however, that we may be under rather than above the mark, let us take the average at twenty shillings per week, and this will give the immense sum of 7,5001. per week, or 350,0001. per year, which these persons levy on a charitable public.
But though I have taken the average of the weekly individual proceeds of these impostors at twenty shillings, and though the gentleman to whom I refer estimates these proceeds at above thirty shillings, they do in many cases amount to a great deal more. I know of a boy, not yet fourteen years of age, who averages from ten to twelve shillings per day, and thus by
sim-[-26-]ply holding out a paper before him, while sitting on some door step, with the words written on it, "A poor orphan boy." This juvenile, impostor has been actually more than fifty times in Bridewell or the House of Correction, for begging in this way in the streets. He has been frequently brought before the police magistrates by his father, who is a most respectable man, and in easy circumstances, in the hope of reclaiming him from his mendicant practices; but the little rogue has proved incorrigible, and has been given up by his parents as such. It may be asked how he spends so much money. A good deal of it is spent at the theatre, to which he goes with a regularity equal to the actors themselves, and in treating other youthful rogues with whom he is in the habit of associating. It is in order that he may get money to spend in this way that he persists in here are various instances on record, so clearly authenticated as to leave no room whatever for doubting them, of London street-beggars having amassed fortunes, varying from 1,5001. to 3,000l. In one or two very rare instances they have been still more fortunate. Some years ago a woman, who had stood with a broom in her hand for about a quarter of a century in the neighbourhood of Charing Cross, died worth nearly 3,0001. She got the name, among the fraternity, of the banker, because she was in the habit of lending small sums to others, at an enormous rate of interest. She sometimes also lent considerable sums to tradesmen, but never unless she received an exorbitant rate of interest. It was proved by a bill found in her possession, after her death, that she had lent one tradesman in Westminster 50l. for three months, but at the monstrous interest of fifty per cent. per annum. But the most extraordinary instance of good fortune in this way I ever heard of, was exhibited in the case of a man, a black, who for nearly thirty years swept another crossing at Charing Cross. He actually saved in that time, by his profession, 8,0001. The case of this sable personage is alluded to in "Blackwood's Magazine" for August last, where the writer calculates the yearly average proceeds of the man's broom at nearly 300l.,-the above named 8,0001. being found at his death, in the wretched hovefin which he vegetated; so that none of it could have been the proceeds of interest on stock. Another woman, who for many years swept a crossing in the Kent road, left at her death 15001. to a clerk in the Bank of England, simply because he was in the habit of giving her a penny more frequently than any other passer by she knew. I have mentioned, in my First Series of "The Great Metropolis," the case of the black man with one eye and snow-white hair tied behind, who died some years
[-27-] ago, leaving many hundred pounds to one of the late Aldernman Waithman's daughters, all of which money he had amassed by means of his broom at the crossing, on Bridge street side, from Ludgate street to Fleet street. The reason why this old black left his money to Miss Waithman, was that she not only gave him a penny or a halfpenny more frequently than any one else, but enhanced the value of the gift by condescending to accompany it with a gracious smile. The only other instance I shall mention of crossings sweepers having amassed large fortunes, is that of a black man, who some years ago returned to his native country, the West Indies; carrying with him, as the savings of a long professional life, from 1,5001. to 1,8001.
But though a great many of our street beggars might, in the course of twenty or thirty years, save as much in the prosecution of their avocation as would enable them to retire on a handsome independency, the great majority of them are extravagant and dissipated, and consequently live up to their income. Not many years ago, one of them, a man about forty years of age, actually paid to the landlord of a public-house, in the neighbourhood of Oxford street, fifty shillings per week, for a considerable time, merely for what he ate and drank there. Thirty shillings have been frequently the result of one day's skilful prosecution of street mendicancy. It is a fact, which has been proved to the satisfaction of several persons who had the curiosity to inquire into it, that a gentleman having some years ago, in 1830 I think, accidentally met with an old schoolfellow, begging in the streets,-offered to procure him a situation which he had then at his disposal, the remuneration for which was either 80l. or 601. per annum, I forget which, and a free house; but the other at once refused it, saying he preferred his present mode of life. Begging, however, it is but right to state, is not now so profitable a business as it was thirty years ago. I am assured that two of the fraternity, a young man and an old one, having met one day accidentally in the streets, the young man inquired at the other, what -success he had met with that day:
"Ah," said the old man, fetching a deep sigh, "Ah! Tommy, very poor indeed, my boy; begging is not now what it was in my earlier days; it is 501. a-year worse than when I began the trade."
The expedients resorted to by the street-begging fraternity of impostors, are of an infinitely varied kind. Some of them must appear incredible to my readers; they did so to myself when I first heard them, and until the testimony of individuals, whose statements I could no more question than I could my own existence, established their truth beyond all possibility of doubt. All sorts of physical ailments and infirmities are assumed; but
[-28-] to be blind and lame seem to be two of the most favourite artifices. I could relate numerous anecdotes respecting the pretended want of vision, want of legs, or at least the want of the use of them, of London beggars; but I am afraid of extending the chapter to too great a length. Another expedient very generally resorted to by the impostor portion of the London beggars, is that of pretending to be quite feeble, either from want or illness; and in that assumed character, either leaning against the wall of some house, or sitting on the Steps of some door, or other place where there is a great thoroughfare. Not long since, a man, seemingly about fifty years of age, was sitting, with nothing but. rags on his back, on the steps leading to St. Andrew's Church, Holborn, which, as most of my readers know, is one of the most crowded parts of London. The day was cold, and the person not only appeared to be suffering severely from the inclemency of the weather, but looked as if he had been in the last stage of consumption, and in a state of utter debility. To produce the latter impression, and to impart as much as possible of a pale complexion to his countenance, which he could any time cause to assume a most sickly expression, he had wrapped up his head in a white napkin, which having extended over his ears, he tied under his chin. A more spectre-like appearance, I am assured by a gentleman who witnessed the scene, could not have been exhibited by a human being. The ghosts which are personated in the theatres by those who act the part of the elder Hamlet, have not a tithe of the unearthly appearance which this personage had. The thing took amazingly. You not only saw the deepest sympathy in the countenances of the spectators, but every now and then you saw pence, in one or two instances silver, finding their way into his hat, which was of course lying beside him in the position most convenient for the ready reception of whatever portion of the circulating medium should come that way. "The poor man's dying," said one.
"See how he gasps for breath !" observed another.
"Poor creature, he won't live an hour !" remarked a third.
"Why don't some one---" A lady was in the act of making some sympathetic observation, when, before she had time to finish her sentence, he started in a twinkling to his feet, and rushing through the ring formed by the spectators, darted down Holborn with a rapidity which would have bid defiance, I will venture to say, to the racing capabilities of the most nimble of the assembled spectators. Had the man actually risen from the dead, and come up from under the stones on which he sat, they could scarcely have looked more surprised at each other. The mystery was soon explained. While the
[-29-] kind and compassionating people were thus lost in amazement at what they had witnessed, an officer of the Mendicity Society made his appearance. The impostor, as they say in Scotland, had caught a glimpse of him with the tail of his eye coming down Holborn Hill, when some yards distant; and not relishing a month or six weeks in Bridewell, he thought it the best way to take to his legs at once. About two years since another begging impostor was often to be seen in Holborn, in the neighbourhood of Gray's-inn lane, who appeared, from his way of walking, or rather of crawling, to be an impersonation of weakness itself. People were afraid to touch him in passing, lest they should upset him in the street. You would' have fancied that a breath of wind would have laid him prostrate on the ground beyond all possibility of resistance. An officer of the Mendicity Society, who saw one evening in twilight with what success he was imposing his pretended infirmities on the public, took him into custody. He walked some forty or fifty yards without offering any resistance, and without giving expression to even a murmur; but having then come to a rather retired place, he suddenly wrested himself from the officer's grasp, and beat, or to use his own expression, "walloped" him so severely, that he was four months afterwards confined to his room. He is still alive, but has not entirely recovered, and never will recover, from the effects of the maltreatment he received at the hands and feet of a ruffian, who but ten minutes before one would have thought did not possess sufficient physical power to hurt even a fly. The poor fellow's injuries are so great that he has not the slightest chance of ever being able to do any thing towards his own support.
There are a great many blind beggars in the metropolis. Those who really
are blind, and are, consequently, not in that sense impostors, are, in many instances, led by dogs in their various professional peregrinations through town. Some of these dogs are so
skilfully trained up in the parts they have to perform, that they look almost as imploringly to the passers-by for alms as their masters could do, had they the use of their vision. The sagacity of some of these animals, too, also enables them, in many cases, to distinguish between those persons who are likely to give anything, and those who are not. Most of these dogs carry a small tin box, in their mouths, to receive the gifts of the charitably disposed. By far the most successful beggar, through the assistance of a dog, of whom I have ever heard was Charles Wood, a blind man, who lived upwards of twenty years ago. As that was long before I resided in the metropolis, I will give the account of this singularly dexterous and successful beggar in the words of an author already alluded to. This writer
[-30-] says, "Wood's dog, which was certainly a most extraordinary one, he declared to be 'the real learned French dog Bob,' and extolled his tricks by the following address :-' Ladies and gentlemen, this is the real learned French dog; please to encourage him: throw anything down to him, and see how nimbly he'll pick it up, and give it to his poor blind master. Look about, Bob; be sharp-see what you're about, Bob!' Money being thrown down, Bob picks it up, and puts it into his master's pocket. 'Thank ye, my good masters; should any more ladies and gentlemen wish to encourage the poor dog, he's now quite in the humour; he'll pick it up almost before you can throw it down!"' This ingenious mendicant is said to have realized a large sum with the aid of his "real learned 'French dog Bob ;" but as I have not been able to ascertain the amount, I will not indulge in any conjectures on the subject.
There was one other blind beggar whose dog displayed such extraordinary sagacity, that I cannot forbear adding a word or two regarding the mendicant and his four-footed leader. The beggar was none other than George Dyball, who was so notorious in town a good many years since, and celebrated as the favourite pupil of the mendicant whom Flaxman, the eminent sculptor, chose as his model for his admirable statue of "The Jolly Beggar." He always dressed as a sailor, though he never put foot on board a ship in his life. His dog, which went by the appropriate name of Nelson~ would lead him to any particular part of town which he named; and, incredible as it may appear, the fact has been established by personal observation, that the dog, by choosing the best road, and taking the nearest cuts, would, in many cases, conduct his master to the place in question in the same space of time that an ordinary-paced walker would have taken to go by the usual route. But Nelson could do much more than this. He was actually instructed, by his ingenious and roguish master, to make a sort of response to the latter's petition,-" Pray pity the poor blind !" This response the animal made by uttering a most impressive whine, accompanying his doleful language, if so it may be called, by raising his byes, and giving a most significant and imploring turn to his head. But if he failed to attract the attention of the spectators passing by, he would sometimes rub the tin box he carried in his mouth against their knees, by way of an additional appeal to their charitable feelings. And when successful in his solicitations, Nelson would lay down the box in the street, take out the money deposited in it with his mouth, and, putting it into the hand of his master, wag his tail in token of his happiness at his good fortune.
There was another blind mendicant, who for many years levied
[-31-] contributions on the west-end people, in Bond-street and this neighbourhood, under the guidance of a little dog he called Blucher, after, I believe, the great Prussian General of that name. The only sentence this man was ever heard to utter, was a short apostrophe addressed to his dog, whenever he supposed, from the absence of the sound of people's feet, that no one was within hearing. And what does the reader suppose the apostrophe was? Why this-" Look after the money, Blucher!" the little dog carrying in his mouth a tin box for that purpose.
The most successful of the impostors assuming the character of a dumb person, that have ever been brought under my knowledge, was that of a stout ruffian-looking fellow, who used, in the prosecution of his mendicant avocation, to perambulate the streets in the neighbourhood of Holborn-hill. He was in the habit of going up to ladies, to whom he restricted his attempts at imposition, and uttering the most unearthly and unintelligible sounds, looking at the same time most piteously in their face. One day be thrust himself in before two young ladies, who were walking along the pavement in Ely-buildings, and looking wildly yet imploringly at them, muttered out, "Hum, hum, hum," in such frightful tones, that one of the young ladies could not divest her mind either of his personal appearance or of the unearthly sounds of his voice for some days afterwards, and was very ill in consequence. A policeman, who had seen the conduct of the fellow and the alarm of the ladies, took him to the station-house, and brought him tip next day before the magistrates at Hatton-Garden. On being placed at the bar, the presiding magistrate asked the policeman the nature of the charge against the prisoner. The former having stated the circumstances under which the prisoner was taken into custody, the magistrate inquired whether he was really dumb?
"Not at all," was the answer.
"All pretended, is it ?" said the magistrate.
"It is, your worship; he can speak as well as I can," replied the policeman.
"Well, Sir !" turning to the prisoner, "we'll hear what you have to say to this."
"Hum, hum, hum," growled the fellow.
"O, you can't speak yet, eh !" said the magistrate sternly.
"Hum, hum, hum," was the only answer.
"I'll give you three months in Clerkenwell prison; perhaps you may recover your organs of speech by the end of that time," observed the magistrate.
The prisoner looked fiercely at the magistrate, but uttered not a word, not even a "hum."
"Take him away, officer."
[-32-] This injunction had a miraculous effect on the prisoner. "Please your vorship, I'm surely entitled to the eighteen shillings this 'ore policeman took from me, any how," said he, with a fullness and distinctness of enunciation which would have done credit to the most accomplished orator of modern times, and amidst convulsions of laughter from all present.
One of the most extraordinary assumptions of distress, and unquestionably one of the best sustained, which ever came under my own observation, occurred some years ago, in a street in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch. The impostor in this case affected to have been suddenly seized with a species of epileptic fits. I was not present at the commencement of the performance, but understood that he first pretended to fall with his back to the wall, and then threw himself down, without injuring himself, till he was in pretty nearly a horizontal position. He foamed at the mouth at a furious rate; his eye looked dim and glassy; and his whole body was dreadfully agitated. A number of persons were soon congregated around him, and one or two silver pieces, if I remember rightly, were put into his hat by ladies. I confess that I myself was for once completely deceived. I did believe the rogue laboured under some serious affliction. I could not suppose that any one would ever think of assuming that peculiar kind of distress, if they could; and I did not believe that they could assume it so effectually as to impose on the spectators, if they 'would. I was soon undeceived. A policeman chanced to pass that way, and coming in to see what the passengers were stopping to gaze at, he exclaimed, "Ah, Jim, my boy, is it you again ?"* (*This had reference to recent impositions of a similar kind.) at the same time seizing him in the most unceremonious manner by the breast of the coat. " Come away, my lad; a good shake from me, you know, always cures you," giving him two or three sound shakes, not, I should suppose, very unlike those which the Newcastle apothecary gave to his patient. The impostor affected to look up in the face of the policeman, just as if he had recovered from a delirium, and observed, "O yes, I'm always better after a shake or two from you."
In the winter season the most approved mode of practising deception among the street-begging impostors, is to appear in a state of almost nakedness. They calculate on their ragged appearance in inclement weather appealing more forcibly to the feelings of the passers by, than any ordinary artifice to which they could have recourse. in some cases their clothes, if such they must be called, are in so tattered a condition, that one cannot help wondering how they manage to get them to hold together. I am sure that many of my metropolitan readers
[-33-] must often have been struck with the tattered appearance of a -slender skeleton-looking woman, with the fragment of a black -straw-bonnet on her head, who is frequently to be seen in Fleet-street and the Strand, inclement weather. Her wardrobe is literally a bundle of rags, and they seem somehow or other to fit so well, as to give her the appearance of being in stays all over. This destitute-looking creature is seldom to be seen except in cold or rainy weather. 'Her Bardolphian nose and blotched face afford presumptive evidence that she expends in the gin shop whatever she receives in charity. It is not that she cannot get better clothes wherewith in some measure to protect herself from the inclemency of the weather: it is that her tattered appearance works more powerfully than any ordinary expedient would, on the sympathies of those who see her. Suppose she were to receive half a dozen gowns in a day, from persons compassionating her situation, she would never put one of them on. Her begging speculation in that case would cease to answer; all of the gowns, in the supposed instance, would forthwith find their way to the pawnbrokers, and the proceeds to the palaces whence blue ruin is vended. It is a favourite practice with begging-impostor mothers, to compel their children to remain in some gateway, or other place fronting the public street, without shoes or stockings, in the coldest days of winter; because experience has taught them, that, in addition to money, gifts of shoes and stockings are often made to them. Some time ago, it was ascertained beyond all question, that one mother who compelled her two children, of the respective ages of ten and eight, to stand shivering in the cold in the winter season, in a gateway in Broad-street, Holborn, actually averaged four shillings per day for the price of shoes given her children to wear, but every pair of which was nightly sold to a second-hand shoe dealer in Monmouth-street. One of the most skilful impostors in this way who ever came under my own observation, was a dark looking man about thirty years of age, who stood, a very considerable portion of last winter, without shoes or stockings, or anything to cover his head, in the gateway leading from Amen Corner, Paternoster Row, to Stationers' Hall Court. He was a stout healthy looking fellow, and my opinion is, that he had become so inured to the cold as to feel little inconvenience from it. He was all ears to catch the sound of any footstep coming from either side before the party made his appearance, and the moment he did hear any such footstep, he assumed, with a truth to nature I have seldom seen equalled, a fit of violent shivering. The stratagem answered well; he collected considerable sums. He was never to be seen in a mild day. In fact, all this class of impostors disappear in good weather. They are clothed in a comparatively
comfort-[-34-]able manner in summer, because a ragged aspect would not tell at that season of the year.
But of all the expedients ever resorted to for the purpose of extracting money from the pockets of the charitable, by imposing on them through fictitious cases of distress, those adopted by a fellow, a few years since, were incomparably the most extraordinary. Will it be believed that this rogue, who was an excellent swimmer, was in the habit of pretending attempts at suicide, by throwing himself into the Thames, with a view to work upon the feelings of whoever chanced to see him after being taken out of the water He always contrived. to select a part of the river near which there were a number of bye-standers, while another person, who was a party to the affair, took care to give the alarm, and call aloud for some boat in the vicinity. Whenever the fellow pretending to have attempted suicide was brought out of the water, the other, affecting to have been passing accidentally at the time addressed the spectators, and said that the unfortunate man had been induced to make the rash attempt through the greatest distress, and that this was the fourth or fifth time he had sought to put an end to his life, and that within a very short period. Every spectator who had a heart within him, believing, as all always did, the got-up tale, put his hand into his pocket, and gave something to "the poor unhappy man." The collections thus made often amounted to two or three pounds. This daring expedient, however, was only convenient in the summer season; winter was much too cold for doing the thing comfortably. It will be asked, in what way, then, did this consummate rogue manage to live in winter? Why, by affecting to commit suicide by hanging himself in some public place, in the evenings. He used to fasten a rope to some lamppost or other projection at the corner of a partially frequented lane or street, and then encircling his neck with another part of the rope, he would scale the lamp-post or other projection, as if about to throw himself down again and thereby hang himself; but always at this critical moment his partner in imposture made his appearance, and, cutting the rope, prevented the rogue from carrying his pretended purpose into effect. Of course an assemblage of people presently gathered around; the same story of distress was vamped up; the deepest sympathy was expressed for the "unhappy man;" and the shillings and sixpences were forthcoming from every pocket, accompanied with the warmest commendation of the humanity of the other rogue. But the leading performer in this drama of imposition on the benevolent public, was eventually constrained to relinquish his part. The catastrophe was one evening very nearly realised in all its horrors. In ascending a lamp-post, after the rope had been fairly round
[-35-] his neck, he slipped his foot and fell, and would actually have been hanged but for the opportune appearance of his friend, who cut him down. From that moment be ever afterwards had such a horror of a rope, that the very sight of one made him turn pale.
I may here mention, that in the summer of last year, I myself saw a woman conducted by two policemen to Bow-street, who having taken a boat at Waterloo Bridge under the pretext of wishing to cross the river, threw herself into the water when the boat had gone a few yards. She was brought out of the river, after being for several seconds fairly immersed in it. The policemen mentioned to me, that she had done the same thing, at the same place, in open day, several times before. Whether it ever was productive to her in a pecuniary point of view, I cannot tell; indeed, I do not know whether it was done with that view; but certainly when I saw her, which was in a few minutes after she was taken out, she seemed to regard the circumstance as a mere matter of course.
Among the many expedients resorted to by the female begging impostors, to excite the sympathies of the humane and charitable, that of having two children, representing them as twins, is a very common one. The usual practice in such cases is to borrow from some acquaintance a child as like their own in age and size as possible. In some cases, where the impostor has no child of her own, she procures the loan of two children from acquaintances, making a compensation to the parties out of the proceeds of her imposition.
Those in the habit of observing what is passing in the streets, can hardly fail to have been struck with the circumstance of the apparent age and size of the alleged twins remaining the same a long time. I know a lady, who was for a long time in the habit of giving, every Saturday night, a small sum to a woman she always saw on that evening sitting in Clare Market, with a couple of pretended twins. She at length began to feel surprised that the babies, as she called them, never appeared to grow bigger. This led to enquiries, and to the consequent detection of the imposition. But the most singular case of this kind of which I have ever heard, was one which was proved before a committee of the House of Commons some years ago. The case was that of a woman who had regularly, at the same hours, occupied the same spot for ten years, all the while exhibiting two children as pretended twins.
But by far the most ingenious expedient I ever heard of as being resorted to by any of the impostor sisterhood, in connection with children, was that employed about six months ago by a woman who usually restricted her efforts at imposition to the west end. This woman was, about the time I have mentioned,
[-36-] seen standing one cold winter's day, at the corner of Davies-street, Berkeley Square, shivering from the inclemency of the weather, and seemingly in a state of the greatest misery. She stated., in answer to enquiries made by some ladies, who in passing commiserated her condition, that her great concern was about her "dear baby," and not herself. "The dear infant," she said, giving something she held in her arms a gentle pressure to her breast, "the dear infant has not tasted any nourishment today, I having no milk to give it owing to the destitute condition in which I am placed."
The ladies looked at each other in a very sympathetic manner, and one of them put a trifle into the woman's hand, desiring her to go and get some food for herself, that she might be able to suckle her baby. Just at this moment a plainly dressed man advanced to the spot where the woman stood, who was now surrounded by a small crowd of persons. "What's the matter?" he enquired, as he elbowed his way past some of the spectators.
"A woman and child starving," was the answer of one of the ladies in the crowd. On getting nearer the woman, he at once recognised her as a person he had seen in similar circumstances but a few days before. ," Is the child ill? just let me see it if you please," he observed, at the same time putting out his hand, and pulling the woman's cloke forcibly aside. Down dropped something bulky on the pavement. "0 the dear child's killed !" shrieked the female bystanders, as if with one voice; and a. feeling of horror came over the minds of all the male persons present. On taking up the supposed child, what does the reader suppose it turned out to be? Why, a bundle of rags made up as the effigy of a child!
It will appear a startling statement to those who have never paid any attention to the subject, but it can be proved to be a fact by several of the police magistrates, that in street-mendicancy, as in almost every thing else, there have 'been a great deal of speculation and several co-partneries of late years. Two or three persons take a house, and receive into their keeping a number of beggars; just as certain women do those poor females who call themselves unfortunate girls. They take them on the condition of receiving every day all they collect, they providing them with bed, lodging, food, &c. and allowing them in some cases, though, not in all, a certain percentage on what they receive. One inducement to the working mendicants to accept these terms, is that they have a sort of home to remain in, at least for some time, if they are unable to ply their vocation, or if not successful in it. Another inducement is that they enjoy, in this way, the society of kindred spirits. It was proved by undeniable evidence-if I recollect rightly, or
[-37-] oath- about three years ago, in one of our police offices, that
certain parties, residing in the neighbourhood of Saffron Hill, had no fewer than about thirty beggars, chiefly Italian boys, living in one house; and that in order to insure a profitable result from the speculation the younger ones were threatened with exclusion from the house on their return at night, if they did not bring borne a certain sum. It was established at the same time on the dearest evidence, that a trade had been car ned on for some time by the same parties, in the importation of these boys, who pursued their avocation by means of a hand organ, a white mouse, or something else to afford an excuse for begging. it was stated, in April 1834, by an Italian gentleman named Lucioni, before Mr. White, one of the magistrates of Queen Square police office, that there were then no fewer than 4,000 of these boys in England, and that many of them were sent to beg through all parts of the country. The same gentleman also stated that the boys were most cruelly used by their masters. "The food of the poor lads," said he, "when they came home at night, and when the pence were taken from them by their masters, consisted of the very worst rice that could be procured, potatoes, and the rinds and scraps of bacon, bought at the cheesemongers', which are all boiled up together; they were then all huddled into a room to lay upon straw. Their masters," be added, "dress in the most fashionable style; wear gold chains, brooches, rings, &c., about their persons, and frequent the west end." I am assured that in several instances, these speculators in youthful mendicants, have made a fortune by the business and returned to their own country, where they have purchased small estates and are now living in independence in a great many other cases parents make a trade by sending out their children to the streets, threatening to beat them if they return without a certain amount of money.
Two or three cases have come to my own knowledge, of begging companies being formed on the most approved principles, and street mendicancy being carried on, on a system of the most perfect organization. The most singular instance of this kind occurred about fifteen years ago, when several rogues, all of whose names were given me, entered, with the view of plundering the lieges, into a brotherhood, so close and cordial that that of freemasons, were compared with it, unworthy of the name. They divided the metropolis into districts, each having his own "beat" duly assigned him; and availing themselves of a London Directory, they easily found out the names and occupations of such individuals as they thought the most likely subjects for being imposed on. Each of the number of the fraternity averaged
[-38-] from twelve to fifteen shillings per diem, allowing only six working hours to the day. Their head-quarters were in the Commercial Road, where they had their jollification every night. The brotherhood lasted for some years. What the causes were of its eventually breaking up, I have not been able to learn.
Most of the begging companies or co-partnenies which exist in different parts of London, hold stated meetings at the place patronized by the leading commanders of the band. Such place is always considered head-quarters. When new troops or partners are admitted, or rather when they are candidates for admission to the honour and advantages of membership, it is customary to examine, with great care, their pretensions. If they are not deemed fit for the profession; if, in other words, it is supposed they are not likely to prove profitable to the general concern, but rather, from their ignorance of their business, to be a burden upon the existing members, they are rejected at once. If a favourable opinion be entertained of their mendicant qualifications; if, in other terms, they are looked on as skilful impostors. they are received into the brotherhood with open arms
But the most amusing part of the proceedings of a begging association usually takes place at the formation of the company. A sort of rehearsal, such as takes place in a theatre when a new piece is about to be produced, is then duly gone through, in which the pretensions of each member of the fraternity to the part he assumes are put to the test by the leaders of the gang, assisted by the opinions of some of "the friends." About two years since, a young man, now, I fear, dead-for he was then in a very delicate state of health, and I have heard nothing of him since- about two years ago this young man* (*Leigh Hunt referred to this young man in one of the numbers of his "London Journal") was seized with so unconquerable a desire to make himself personally acquainted with the habits, conversation, &c., of the leading mendicants in town, that he actually put on a suit of ragged clothes, and spent a whole night with fifteen or twenty of them in a house in St. Giles's. From his account of what he saw that night, I hope to be able to convey to the mind of the reader some idea of what takes place at one of the rehearsals to which I have referred. The best way to do this will be to refer to a particular case. In the formation of a company it was lately proposed to establish, in consequence of a dissolution, caused partly by deaths and partly by differences, in an old one, there were three persons who took the lead in the matter. What was rather unusual, these three persons belonged to the different sections of the United Kingdom. The first was
[-39-] an Englishman, the second a Scotchman, and the third an Irishman. At all rehearsals it is an invariable practice to have an ample supply of gin and, if funds permit, something in the shape of boiled ham, bacon, or other butcher's meat. On the occasion to which I allude there was no lack of either of "summut" to drink or "summut" to eat.
"Now, then, Mick Ryan, my honey !" said the Irishman, whose name was Murtach O'Flannagan, to a countryman of his own, who wished to become a member: "now, then, what character would your jewel of a self be after a-takin' up."
"Och, it's meself would like to go upon a pair of sticks," answered Mick.
"A pair of sticks !" said Tom Smith, the Englishman, evidently at a loss to know Mick's meaning.
"O, he means twa stalves," observed Charlie Mackay, the Scotchman.
"Stalves !" exclaimed Tom, evidently as much in the dark as before; "stalves ! what's that?"
"Sure an' it's what you English call crutches that he manes," interposed Murtach.
"O, crutches is it?" said Tom, surprised at his own stupidity.
"And do you think, man, that ye can gae like a cripple ?" inquired the Scotchman. "Lat's see fat ye can do that way," taking two crutches from a nook of the apartment and putting them into Mick's hand.
"Aye, come let's see how you can walk on crutches," said Tom Smith.
"Do, come, Mick, my darlint, and be after showin' us what it's yourself can do in that same way," echoed O'Flannagan.
"Joe Riggs, don't you be a swallowin' that ere bakun faster nor you're a roastin' on it," said Smith, by way of parenthesis, to a hungry-looking fellow who was turning a piece of bacon with his fingers on a gridiron, which had evidently seen much service in that way.
"I vas only a lickin' o' my fingers, because as how they were burnt by this ere fat," said the personage who was presiding at the gridiron, without deigning to lift up his eye from it.
"Well, don't do it no more," observed Smith, turning towards Mick, who by this time had put the crutches in a proper position for a start.
"Noo," said Charlie Mackay, "noo, man, gae awa till we see fu' the stalves becomes you. I wish I had a drap o' Highland whiskey, the real Glenlivat. I dinna like that stuff o' gin," he added, addressing himself to Tom Smith, who at this moment was in the act of tendering him a bumper of blue ruin.
[-40-] Mick made two or three tottering steps through the room, leaning on his crutches.
"Och, thunder and hightnin' !" exclaimed O'Flannagan, "that Will never do Ned Stubbs," he continued, addressing himself to a little ragged fellow, who held in his hand a pewter pot full of gin, "Ned Stubbs, my boy, just give me a mouthful of the cratur to comfort my poor sowl wid.'
"You walk too stately like," said Tom Smith to the candidate for membership.
"Aye, you must put yoursel' a little mair twa-fall* (*two-fold), man, before you can do ony good !" observed Charlie.
Mick, obeying the instructions given him, put himself into a diagonal position, and crawled away three or four yards farther.
"By the powers !" exclaimed Mink's countryman, a gleam of joy irradiating his countenance as he gazed on Mick, "By the powers! that same's just the thing. Isn't it, my jewel?" turning to Tom Smith.
"It is to a hair; nothing could be better," answered the latter. "I say, O'Flannagan,' added Tom, winking knowingly at the Scotchman, "He'll do capital well-eh ?"
"Naething could be better: it's true to nature," replied Charlie Mackay.
"You'll make a trump of a 'un; take a glass of gin," said' Smith, addressing himself to Mick, and handing him a glass of Fearon's best, which Mink drank off with due expedition, licking his lips after it, as much as to say, "I would have no objection to another of that same."
"Fred. Jones, vot character would you like to appear in ?' inquired Smith, turning himself to a skin-and-bone-looking little Welshman, with a most demure expression of countenance, -just as if be had been made for frightening away the crows from the corn; "vot character would you prefer?"
"Voy, I don't know as how I knows myself," was the luminous and satisfactory answer.
"My opinion is," said Charlie; "my opinion is, that"-He was about to deliver his opinion, but was interrupted by Murtach exclaiming in a voice of Stentorian power-
"Och, bad luck to that spalpeen in the corner there! By my sowl he's drinkin' the last dhrop of the gin." Here Murtach pointed to a stout athletic fellow, with a face as black as the remains of the hat he had on his head, who was standing with his back to the others, with the pewter jug of gin at his mouth, and emptying it as fast as the liquid could find a passage down his throat.
[-41-] "Vy that's too bad, Harley; you ought to be ashamed of -yourself", said Mr. Smith.
"Why or wherefore this personage was called Harley, or whether that was really any part of his name, I have not been able to ascertain; but he turned about, and putting a bold face on the matter, insisted that he was not drinking the gin, but had only put it to his lips without being aware of the circumstance. -
"Mackay," said Smith, apostrophising the Scotchman, "you were a-going to say something about Fred."
"I was just going to say that I dinna think he'll need any ither character than he has by nature. I think his very awfu' looking face will be enough to get him plenty o' bawbees."
After some further discussion it was agreed that Fred Jones should, in the first instance, take the streets in his real character, and that if that was not found to answer, it should afterwards be taken into consideration what other one it would be most advisable to assume.
"Timothy Soaper, I think you said you would prefer wooden leg and an arm crutch-did you not ?"
This was addressed by Smith to a young, healthy-looking fellow, with a straw broad-brimmed hat, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the neighbourhood of the hearth-stone, munching.the remains of a quartern loaf, and a piece of bacon half raw.
"Yes," he answered in a gruff tone, assuming a perpendicular position; "yes, I thinks as how I'll try that ere."
"Come away, then, my darlint, and try on the wooden leg," said O'Flannagan.
"Ned, my boy, jest gie us a wooden leg out of that ere nook," said Charlie, pointing to a corner of the room in which there was a very large assortment of wooden legs, crutches, brooms, tattered garments, and everything necessary to equip one in any particular character which either of the mendicants might think proper to assume.
A wooden leg having been produced, Soaper advanced to have it put on. Mackay undertook the task of strapping it. The knee having been fairly inserted, he proceeded to fasten it, when pulling the strap too hard, Soaper roared out as lustily as if he had been undergoing the operation of tooth-drawing.
"Be aisy, be aisy !" said O'Flannagan to Charlie, "and don't be after killin' him quite."
The knee of Soaper was fairly fastened, and he made several steps through the place, but he did the thing so very clumsily, and the foot which protruded behind him, notwithstanding its being wrapped in rags, looked so very unlike a lame one, that the three leading personages in the company came to an
[-42-] unanimous conclusion that he would never do in that character.
"Then," said he, on hearing their decision, "I'll take up again the one vot I use to be in"; clapping his fingers on his eyes to denote that he meant the character of a blind man.
This did not altogether meet the view of Smith, Mackay, and O'Flannagan, because the candidate had not done great things in that character before. It was, however, agreed that he should appear in it for some time, until they saw whether any better one which he could sustain with effect, should suggest itself.
There was another candidate, a fat shrivelled-faced middle-aged man, deeply pitted with the small-pox, who also aspired at sustaining the character of a blind beggar. He had before "tried it on" by appearing to shiver with cold at the corners of streets, but as he had not found the thing so profitable as he expected, even in the winter season, he saw clearly, now that summer was at hand, that it would not answer at all! He had therefore thought of trying what could be done by personating the character of a blind man, and had, with the view of ensuring success in his new line, been for nine weeks trying how mournfully he could repeat the words "Pity the poor blind !" "Let us hear you," said Smith.
"Yes, sure," said O'Flannagan, "be after repating it to us."
The other did so, and drawled out the words in so touching a tone, that one would have thought it impossible for any human being to resist his appeals for a few pence.
"Charlie, my boy," whispered Smith, into the Scotchman's ear, the moment he heard the peculiar twang of theo candidate;
"Charlie, my boy, this fellow vill do; blow me tight if he don't."
"Jim Burgess, vat vould you like to be" said Smith, to a black curly-headed copper-faced, thick-lipped personage, sitting on a broken chair, who all this time had never opened his mouth.
"I vould likes to be a negro character," answered Jim.
"Och! by the mother that bore me, but that's just the thing for him-isn't it, Jim?1" said O'Flannagan, turning to Smith.
"I thinks so too," said the latter. " With a little wet soot on his ugly face he'll look the character to a hair. Bring the wet soot here, Mac."
The Scotchman brought the commodity with all expedition, and Jim lost no time in thoroughly besmearing his frontispiece with it. "Och, by the powers !" exclaimed O'Flannagan, as he gazed on the sooty - of Jim; "Och! by the powers! but he'll make the fortune o us all."
Two other candidates were admitted, who were each confident that a legible written label, with suitable words, would, with the
[-43-] advantage they possessed of a most distressed personal appearance, insure a very fair measure of success without resorting to any other expedient. The one was to hold out his label in his hands, and the other was to have it affixed to his hat. The label of the first was agreed to be "Out of Employ ;" that of the other "Great Distress." The last was to be the one which was to be affixed to the hat. Both were certainly very short and very simple.
But I must not go into further details respecting this rehearsal of the beggars. Some there were who claimed to be admitted into the society on the ground of their powers of enduring cold, and consequently being able to appear half naked in the streets; while others thought they might, without any thing of an adventitious kind, confidently trust to the power they possessed over their features, by which they could assume the most frightful conceivable expression of countenance. The scene was altogether one of ineffable richness, to which no justice can be done by mere description. The rehearsal having been completed and the arrangements for commencing operations next day been concluded, the party ordered a fresh supply of chops, ham, bacon, gin; porter, and spent one of the most jovial evenings ever witnessed even in St. Giles's,-which is by far the most jovial locality in London. Who could have believed, that next day the rogues would be seen crawling about the streets the very personification of apparent wretchedness and destitution?
I have often thought that of all modes of street begging, that of sweeping crossings is the least troublesome and the most profitable. The latter opinion will be concurred in by all who have read the statements formerly given of individual instances of fortunes having been made in this branch of the mendicant profession. Of course, then, it is an object to get possession of a good stand; for if once fairly in the possession of one of the fraternity, the tenure will remain undisputed for the party's life. The crossing sweepers are great sticklers for prescriptive rights. If any new comer were to attempt, either by physical force or otherwise to dispossess one of the brotherhood from that small portion of the metropolitan territory which he has professionally occupied before, all the. brooms in London would be uplifted against him before he knew what he was about, and he would have cause to bless his stars if he escaped being scrubbed or "broomed" to death. The crossings-sweepers never fight with any other weapons than their brooms. A scuffle between two or more of them is a rich scene; it is one of the richest which a person will see in a life-time. Whenever a crossing-sweeper dies, it is a great matter to be the first to take possession of the vacant spot. This priority of possession is to
[-44-] insure it to the party for life. Hence if the circumstance should chance to transpire that one of the brotherhood is dangerously ill, the greatest anxiety is evinced to be the first, if possible, to take possession of his vacant post, after he has breathed his last. The number of aspirants after such a productive stand, that is, one in a good part of the town, when the existing occupier is understood to be dangerously ill, is incredibly great.
In some cases, as in that, for instance, of the black formerly referred to, who retired with a fortune of fifteen hundred pounds, and returned to his native country, the West Indies; in some cases, the possessors of a good stand dispose of it just as men do other trades. It was proved, a few years since, before a select committee of the House of Commons, that begging businesses had actually been sold for considerable sums.
I have often been struck, as I am sure every one who has passed through the streets of London must have been, with the great number of black men who possess lucrative stands. How it happens that so many of these ebony personages have been so fortunate, compared with the white population of London, is one of those things which are beyond the reach of my philosophy.
I have already remarked that, with very few exceptions, all the London beggars live up to their means; and that what they earn, or rather swindle out of a benevolent and confiding public, is spent in eating and drinking. The luxuries in this way, which some of our street mendicants can often boast of, would appear incredible to those who are unacquainted with the subject. But gin is the great thing with most of them. I knew one, and only one, who spent a considerable portion of his professional proceeds in the article of dress. This man, who used to be seen daily in the neighbourhood of Holborn, decrepit in appearance, and with the most ragged wardrobe that was ever fastened about the human body, regularly gave up his avocation at six in the evening, and in about an hour afterwards, was to be seen in the parlour of a public-house in Gray's Inn Lane, where he remained till eleven at night, smoking his pipe and drinking his brandy and water, and dressed in a suit of clothes, with his legs encased in top boots, which no gentleman would be ashamed to wear. The gentleman to whom I am indebted for this interesting fact, tells me that he has missed this mendicant for some time, and has not been able to learn what has become of him. Very few of the fraternity, however, waste much of their gleanings in apparel; the belly is the great thing with the vast majority of them: they are great gourmands. Not more partial is an alderman to his turtle soup, than are these gentry to the good things of this life. There are several of them who "spit" their
[-45-] goose or duck at least three times a week. There are also numbers who bold regular convivial meetings, at which some remarkable gastronomic feats are performed. On some special occasions they regularly elect their chairman, and have their series of toasts, their speeches, and songs, as on other great public occasions. It is known to several persons, that George the Fourth, when Prince of Wales, went, on one occasion, with his friend Major Hanger, to witness the scenes which take place at these guzzling exhibitions of the mendicants. Tutored as the young prince was by Sheridan and others of his boon companions in all sorts of frolics, he enjoyed the scene for some time. At last, however, a circumstance occurred which somewhat disconcerted him. The beggar who presided on the occasion as chairman, after a temporary pause in the merriment of the evening, rose, and pointing to the Prince said, "With the permission of the company, I calls on that ere gemman with the clean shirt on, for a song." A round of applause from the rest of the "jolly beggars" showed how eagerly they responded to the appeal thus made to his Royal Highness. He winked significantly at Major Hanger, and then stammered out the expression pf a hope, that as he was no singer the company would excuse him.
"Not a bit of it," said the chairman.
"Ye'11 have no denial, young man," said another of the jovial crew.
"Perhaps, gentlemen, you'll allow the gentleman to sing by proxy," interposed Major Hanger.
"Proxy !" said several voices at once, "vat's proxy?"
"O, another person singing for him," answered the major.
"O certainly, if he 'can fin one," said the chairman, looking round for, the concurrence of the company in his sentiment.
"O, there can be no objections to that," observed a dozen voices at once.
"Come then, H-, you must do it yourself," said the prince, addressing himself to the major. The latter promptly responded to the appeal, and sung amidst great applause a well-known ballad-well-known, I mean, among the fraternity themselves-called "The Beggar's Wedding."
"Gen'l'men," said the proprietor of a little unwashed and un shaved face, and a nose of remarkable flatness, who sat opposite the chairman, "Gen'l'rnen, let us drink the health and song of the gen'l'man vot's just sung."
"Gent'l'men," shouted the chairman, drawing his own glass towards himself; "gen'l'men, fill your glasses."
Every glass was full to the brim in a moment.
[-46-] "The gen'l'man's health and song," said the chairman in Stentorian accents.
"The gen'l'man's health and song," shouted a host of voices, and in an instant every glass was emptied of its contents, except that of the Prince.
"I say, young man, vy don't you drink to your friend?" said a round faced mendicant, who sat opposite his Royal Highness, his eyes rolling in a fine frenzy through the inspiring influence of the liquid he had so copiously quaffed.
"O, I beg your pardon, Sir," answered the Prince, who had been for the moment lost in surprise at the ecstasies of uproarious merriment he witnessed every where around him; "O, I beg your pardon, Sir, for the omission, it was quite accidental, I assure you. This was addressed to the personage who had challenged him for not drinking to the major.
"Vell, vy don't you do it now ?" inquired the other, who was a very consequential personage in his own estimation.
The Prince filled up his glass, and having drunk off the contents to the health and song of Major Hanger, held it out in his hand in an inverted position.
"Bravo! you're a trump !" "Go it, clean shirt!" shouted a dozen voices.
"Three cheers for the gentleman who has favoured us with so excellent a song !" exclaimed the Prince, beginning to feel himself more at home. As he spoke he rose, and waved his hand with his empty glass in the air, as if to lead the plaudits of the others. All present were on their legs in an instant, and deafening and universal were the cheers with which the major was greeted. The scene was kept up with great spirit and eclat, until at least one half of the "jolly beggars" had drunk themselves asleep,, and lay like so many masses of inert clay on the floor, in a horizontal position. The Prince often afterwards spoke of this adventure. He never mentioned it in the hearing of Sheridan, without the latter feeling the deepest regret that he was not an actor in so rich a scene of low life.
The beggars, at all their carnivals, adhere most scrupulously to the good old custom of having their toddy made in a large bowl, usually a pewter one. They hold that there is nothing like brotherly feeling in the modern practice of every one having his toddy made in a tumbler of his own. They are great Tories as regards all ancient usages; they have a perfect horror of innovation in such cases.
They are, for the most part, early risers, and will walk any distance in the morning, before setting out professionally to visit those public-houses which are most largely patronized by the
[-47-] fraternity. There is one public-house in Oxford-street, which used to be,-and I have no doubt still is, though I cannot speak positively to the latter fact,-crowded with them by six o'clock in the morning. The landlord of this house has repeatedly mentioned that, on an average, about one hundred and fifty mendicants were in the habit of visiting his house in a day and he has always added that he would never wish to have any better customers; for it was quite a common thing for the majority of the number to have individually their half pint of gin before nine in the morning.
In those lodging-houses which were formerly open to the begging fraternity promiscuously, and where business was carried on on a large scale, it was found, from experience, necessary to take certain precautions against the abstraction of any of the articles of furniture. Mother Cummings, who died a few years since, and who for a long period kept a lodging-house in a low street in Bloomsbury, always made a point of turning the key on her customers when they went to bed, and then unlocked the door with her own hand in the morning. By this means she prevented any of them making away with any articles of furniture in the course of the night; and as she witnessed every one of them quit their hovels in the morning, the idea of felony in the case of her property was out of the question. I may here mention, that Mother Cummings, while she was alive, kept by far the most extensive lodging-house for mendicants, of any of her contemporaries. She has been known to have had, on repeated occasions, upwards of eighty lodgers in one night. And, strange as it may seem, it was proved to be a fact, that she had one round bed in which, when there was an unusual demand for accommodation, eighteen or twenty persons have been huddled together for the night. Mother Cummings made always a distinction between the better and inferior class of mendicants. With this view she had two prices for accommodation for the night. The charge for a bed in ordinary circumstances was two-pence per night; but if any one chose to indulge in the luxury of clean straw, the charge was four-pence. The choice, therefore, of the different applicants for lodgings, in the matter of their bed, enabled her at once to range her customers into two classes; and both were treated by her with a measure of attention corresponding to the place they occupied in her estimation.* (* Mother Cummings eventually retired from business, having amassed a considerable amount of money. She took a private house in Somerstown, where she died. The news of her death spread like wildfire among the fraternity, and her funeral was attended by an immense number of her former lodgers.)
It would seem as if some improvement had taken place of late in the morals of the mendicant gentry; for until about twelve
[-48-] years since, not only was it necessary to lock these personages into their hovels at night, but it was found equally necessary that the knives and forks, the tongs and poker, and every other portable article in the places they used to frequent, should be fixed by iron chains to the table, or the walls of the house, as the only means of security against their being stolen. There was a sort of low eating-house in St. Giles's, that used to be largely frequented by the brotherhood, which furnished the last instance, so far as I am aware, of this precaution being taken against theft. That house was thrown down some years ago, preparatory to improvements in the neighbourhood; and I am not aware of either the locking-in or the chaining system having been resorted to in any subsequent case. It is gratifying to hear of an improvement in morals among any class of the community; there are few classes in which there is yet room for greater improvements than among the mendicant fraternity.
[nb. grey numbers in
brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]
see also Richard Rowe in Episodes in an Obscure Life - click here
Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism
- Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877
to menu for this book ...]
HUDDLED together on the workhouse steps in Short's Gardens, those
wrecks of humanity, the Crawlers of St. Giles's, may be seen both day
and night seeking mutual warmth and mutual consolation in their
extreme misery. As a rule, they are old women reduced by vice and
poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy
to beg. They have not the strength to struggle for bread, and prefer
starvation to the activity which an ordinary mendicant must display. As a natural consequence, they cannot obtain money for a lodging or for
food. What little charity they receive is more frequently derived from the
lowest orders. They beg from beggars, and the energetic, prosperous
mendicant is in his turn called upon to give to those who are his inferiors in
the "profession." Stale bread, half-used tea-leaves, and on gala days, the
fly-blown bone of a joint, are their principal items of diet. A broken jug, or a tea-pot
without spout or handle, constitutes the domestic crockery. In this the stale tealeaves, or, perhaps, if one of the company has succeeded in begging a penny, a
halfpenny-worth of new tea is carefully placed; then one of the women rises and
crawls slowly towards Drury Lane, where there is a coffee-shop keeper and also a
publican who take compassion on these women, and supply them gratuitously with
boiling water. Warm tea is thus procured at a minimum cost, and the poor women's
lives prolonged. But old age, and want of proper food and rest, reduces them to a
lethargic condition which can scarcely be preferable to death itself. It will be noticed
that they are constantly dozing, and yet are never really asleep. Some of them are
unable to lie down for days. They sit on the hard stone step of the workhouse, their
heads reclining on the door, and here by old custom they are left undisturbed.
Indeed, the policeman of this beat displays, I am told, much commiseration for these
poor refugees, and in no way molests them. When it rains, the door offers a little
shelter if the wind is in a favourable direction, but as a rule the women are soon
drenched, and consequently experience all the tortures of ague and rheumatism in
addition to their other ailments. Under such circumstances sound sleep is an
unknown luxury, hence that drowsiness from which they are never thoroughly
exempt. This peculiarity has earned them the nick-name of "dosses," derived from
the verb to doze, by which they are sometimes recognized. The crawlers may truly
be described as persons who sleep with one eye open. Those who seem in the
soundest sleep will look up languidly on the approach of a stranger, as if they were
always anticipating interference of some sort.
Some of these crawlers are not, however, so devoid of energy as we might at first
be led to infer. A few days' good lodging and good food might operate a marvellous
transformation. The abject misery into which they are plunged is not always self-
sought and merited; but is, as often, the result of unfortunate circumstances and accident.
The crawler, for instance, whose portrait is now before the reader, is the widow of a
tailor who died some ten years ago. She had been living with her son-in-law, a
marble stone-polisher by trade, who is now in difficulties through ill-health. It
appears, however, that, at best, "he never cared much for his work," and innumerable
quarrels ensued between him, his wife, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, a
youth of fifteen. At last, after many years of wrangling, the mother, finding that her
presence aggravated her daughter's troubles, left this uncomfortable home, and with
her young son descended penniless into the street. From that day she fell lower
and lower, and now takes her seat among the crawlers of the district. Her young
son is not only helpless, but troubled with unjustifiable pride. He has pawned his
clothes, is covered with rags, but still scorns to sell matches in the street, and is
accused of giving himself airs above his station! The woman, though once able to
earn money as a tailoress, was obliged to abandon that style of work in consequence
of her weak eyesight, and now her great ambition is to "go out scrubbing." But
who will employ even for this menial purpose, a woman who has no home, no address
to give, and sleeps on the workhouse steps when she cannot gain admittance into the
casual ward? Her son, equally homeless and ragged, cannot, for the same reasons,
hope to obtain work; but, on the other hand, I convinced myself after a long
conversation, that this woman thoroughly realized her position, and had a very clear
idea as to what she should do to redeem herself. She would move heaven and earth
to obtain a few shillings, and with these would proceed to the hop-fields, where she
would earn enough to save about a pound, and one pound, she urged, would be sufficient
to start in life once more. Her son might get his clothes out of pawn, and then obtain
work. She would, on her side, rent a little room so as to have an address, and then
it would be possible for her to apply for work. Nor was this castle in the air beyond
realization. A fellow crawler, who used to doze on the same step leading to St.
Giles's workhouse, had actually obtained employment in a coffee-shop, and, while
awaiting an opportunity to follow this example, my informant was taking care of her
friend's child. This infant appears in the photograph, and is entrusted by its mother
to the tender mercies of the crawler at about ten o'clock every morning. The mother
returns from her work at four in the afternoon, but resumes her occupation at the
coffee-shop from eight to ten in the evening, when the infant is once more handed
over to the crawler, and kept out in the streets through all weathers with no extra
protection against the rain and sleet than the dirty and worn shawl which covers the
poor woman's shoulders; but, as she explained, "it pushes its little head under my
chin when it is very cold, and cuddles up to me, so that it keeps me warm as well as
itself." The child, however, cried, and wheezed, and coughed in a manner that did
not testify to the success of this expedient; but it was a wonder that, under the
conditions, the woman took care of the child at all. The only reward she receives
for the eight hours' nursing per day devoted to this little urchin, is a cup of tea and a
little bread. Even this modest remuneration is not always forthcoming, and the
crawler has often been compelled to content herself with bread without tea, or tea
without bread, so that even this, her principal and often her only meal per day, is not
always to be had.
Another well-known crawler had consented to have her portrait taken in company
with that of the woman whose circumstances I have already described, but on the
previous evening a gentleman gave her sixpence while she was strolling down
Albemarle Street. This enabled her to indulge in a night's lodging, and she was so
unaccustomed to the luxury of a bed, that she overslept herself and thus missed the
appointment! She is a tall, bony, grey-haired Scotchwoman, and wears a hideous
grey waterproof, fastened as tightly round her as is safe, considering the feeble and
worn nature of its texture. It is not known that she has any under-clothing. There
is only a muddy nondescript substance hanging loosely round the lower part of her
legs, which may be freely seen peering from under the skirt of the waterproof, while
the upper portion of her feet are covered by soleless goloshes, on the purchase of which
she actually laid out the sum of twopence. There was no certain evidence as to her
possessing anything else. "Scotty," as she is called, had recently been condemned to
pick oakum for three days in the Marylebone workhouse, as a punishment for
having sought refuge in the casual ward three times in the course of one month.
To risk what is equivalent to three days' imprisonment with hard labour, for
the sake of spending one night in a casual ward, testifies to a degree of misery and
want that beggars all description. But the horror of this picture is intensified when
we consider that it is often undeservedly endured. Scotty, for instance, is no criminal,
nor is she even a drunkard. No amount of pressure on my part could persuade her
to drink even a single glass of beer with the dinner which, of course, I found an early
opportunity of giving her. Further, she is neither stupid nor ignorant. She can
read and write well, and her language is at times even polished and refined. How,
under these circumstances, she could have become a crawler was at first an inexplicable
mystery; but gradually I discovered, one by one, the chief incidents in her career, and
it all seemed so natural that it was difficult to doubt her word.
"Scotty's" husband had been employed in a bank at Edinburgh, and, at one time,
possessed property to the value of £2000; but this was sold, and the proceeds placed
in the hands of some lawyers. I do not know whether Scotty's husband was also
born north of the Tweed, but, in any case, he was not gifted with that spirit of
economy, which, when it does not lead to the vice of meanness, is one of the chief
characteristic virtues of Scotchmen. At every moment, whenever he experienced the
least want of money, he applied to his lawyers, till at last they one day informed him
that there was none remaining. His first impression was that he had been egregiously robbed, but he had not kept any account of the sums received, and was therefore
quite helpless. The poverty-stricken couple came up to London, and Scotty soon found
herself a widow. Alone and friendless, she nevertheless bravely struggled against
adversity, and obtained work as a tailoress, but an illness almost deprived her of
her eyesight. So long as her eyes remained inflamed she was unable to work, and
consequently fell into debt, till at last she was turned out of her room and her things
seized and sold. This harshness on the part of her landlord did not, however, crush
the poor woman. She had no money to pay a week's rent in advance so as to obtain
a private room, and was therefore compelled to go to a common lodging-house; but she
determined to spend the whole of the next day searching for work, and for some more
respectable abode. During the night, however, a final catastrophe destroyed all these
hopes. A fellow-lodger stole all her clothes. Protestations and complaints were all in
vain, it was impossible to detect the thief and poor Scotty, like Cardinal
in a more literal sense, found herself left naked to her enemies. Her petticoats, under-
linen, skirt, apron, boots, all were gone, nothing but her waterproof, which fortunately
she had put over her bed, remained. In this plight it was impossible to apply for
work; no one was at hand to help or to suggest a remedy, and shiverin~ with cold
and almost naked, Scotty went out into the streets which were henceforth to become
her only home. Hunger and cold soon reduced her to still deeper gloom and
helplessness, till, at last, she gladly availed herself of the meagre shelter available on
the workhouse steps. At times the stupor that this intense suffering begets, obtains
such complete sway over her mind and body that she is unable to stand or walk, and
she has often fallen from sheer exhaustion. "But," added Scotty, "I am becoming
more accustomed to it now; I have not fallen once the whole of this week. What,
however, I cannot endure, is the awful lazy, idle life I am forced to lead; it is a
thousand times worse than the hardest labour, and I would much rather my hands
were cut, blistered, and sore with toil, than, as you see them, swollen, and red, and
smarting from the exposure to the sun, the rain, and the cold."
Gradually she seemed to recover her old energy. If she could only obtain a
decent set of clothes, she would seek employment at the army stores in Pimlico,
where she had worked in her more prosperous days. Here she could earn
seven shillings a week. An old woman whom she had met in a mission hall
had offered to share her room, a back kitchen, with her for eighteenpence a week.
Scotty had been obliged to refuse this offer, as she had no earthly prospect of being
able to pay even the eighteenpence; but, if ever she got to work again, this was the
style of arrangement she would make. Then she would spend four shillings a week
on her food, which she declared would be ample, particularly as she knew where to
get excellent porridge! There would, therefore, remain out of seven shillings per
week about eighteenpence for clothes, &c. Such was the ambition of this poor
woman, and yet, for want of the slight assistance necessary to attain this modest end,
she had been compelled to live the life of a crawler for nearly two months. Imbued
with a pride that does honour to her nationality, Scotty has stubbornly rejected all
suggestions as to her entering the workhouse, and does not, I believe, condescend to
beg. Sometimes persons take compassion on her, and seeing her forlorn appearance,
give her a few pence; but, had it been her practice to beg, she would never have
endured all the misery I have but feebly described. Perhaps, however, with the help
that will now be forthcoming, Scotty may once more resume work and leave the "dossing door."