Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Government and Officialdom - Beadles

a Beadle
taken from George Cruikshank's London Characters (1829)

    The parish beadle is one of the most, perhaps THE most, important member of the local administration. He is not so well off as the churchwardens, certainly, nor is he so learned as the vestry-clerk, nor does he order things quite so much his own way as either of them. But his power is very great, notwithstanding; and the dignity of his office is never impaired by the absence of efforts on his part to maintain it. The beadle of our parish is a splendid fellow. It is quite delightful to hear him, as he explains the state of the existing poor laws to the deaf old women in the board-room passage on business nights; and to hear what he said to the senior churchwarden, and what the senior churchwarden said to him; and what 'we' (the beadle and the other gentlemen) came to the determination of doing. A miserable-looking woman is called into the boardroom, and represents a case of extreme destitution, affecting herself - a widow, with six small children. 'Where do you live?' inquires one of the overseers. 'I rents a two-pair back, gentlemen, at Mrs. Brown's, Number 3, Little King William's alley, which has lived there this fifteen year, and knows me to be very hard-working and industrious, and when my poor husband was alive, gentlemen, as died in the hospital' - 'Well, well,'interrupts the overseer, taking a note of the address, 'I'll send Simmons, the beadle, to-morrow morning, to ascertain whether your story is correct; and if so, I suppose you must have an order into the House - Simmons, go to this woman's the first thing to-morrow morning, will you?' Simmons bows assent, and ushers the woman out. Her previous admiration of 'the board' (who all sit behind great books, and with their hats on) fades into nothing before her respect for her lace-trimmed conductor; and her account of what has passed inside, increases - if that be possible - the marks of respect, shown by the assembled crowd, to that solemn functionary. As to taking out a summons, it's quite a hopeless case if Simmons attends it, on behalf of the parish. He knows all the titles of the Lord Mayor by heart; states the case without a single stammer: and it is even reported that on one occasion he ventured to make a joke, which the Lord Mayor's head footman (who happened to be present) afterwards told an intimate friend, confidentially, was almost equal to one of Mr. Hobler's.
    See him again on Sunday in his state-coat and cocked-hat, with a large-headed staff for show in his left hand, and a small cane for use in his right. How pompously he marshals the children into their places! and how demurely the little urchins look at him askance as he surveys them when they are all seated, with a glare of the eye peculiar to beadles! The churchwardens and overseers being duly installed in their curtained pews, he seats himself on a mahogany bracket, erected expressly for him at the top of the aisle, and divides his attention between his prayer-book and the boys. Suddenly, just at the commencement of the communion service, when the whole congregation is hushed into a profound silence, broken only by the voice of the officiating clergyman, a penny is heard to ring on the stone floor of the aisle with astounding clearness. Observe the generalship of the beadle. His involuntary look of horror is instantly changed into one of perfect indifference, as if he were the only person present who had not heard the noise. The artifice succeeds. After putting forth his right leg now and then, as a feeler, the victim who dropped the money ventures to make one or two distinct dives after it; and the beadle, gliding softly round, salutes his little round head, when it again appears above the seat, with divers double knocks, administered with the cane before noticed, to the intense delight of three young men in an adjacent pew, who cough violently at intervals until the conclusion of the sermon.
    Such are a few traits of the importance and gravity of a parish beadle - a gravity which has never been disturbed in any case that has come under our observation, except when the services of that particularly useful machine, a parish fire-engine, are required: then indeed all is bustle. Two little boys run to the beadle as fast as their legs will carry them, and report from their own personal observation that some neighbouring chimney is on fire; the engine is hastily got out, and a plentiful supply of boys being obtained, and harnessed to it with ropes, away they rattle over the pavement, the beadle, running - we do not exaggerate - running at the side, until they arrive at some house, smelling strongly of soot, at the door of which the beadle knocks with considerable gravity for half-an-hour. No attention being paid to these manual applications, and the turn-cock having turned on the water, the engine turns off amidst the shouts of the boys; it pulls up once more at the work-house, and the beadle 'pulls up' the unfortunate householder next day, for the amount of his legal reward. We never saw a parish engine at a regular fire but once. It came up in gallant style - three miles and a half an hour, at least; there was a capital supply of water, and it was first on the spot. Bang went the pumps - the people cheered - the beadle perspired profusely; but it was unfortunately discovered, just as they were going to put the fire out, that nobody understood the process by which the engine was filled with water; and that eighteen boys, and a man, had exhausted themselves in pumping for twenty minutes, without producing the slightest effect!

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1839



    THE Government of the Burlington Arcade is vested in a mixed Beadlery, which is very distinct from the pure parochial Beadlery prevailing in certain portions of the metropolis. There is what may be termed the reigning Beadle, who wields the actual sceptre and has first choice of the easy-chair at the end of the Arcade; the secondary Beadle, or Beadle apparent - if we may be allowed the term - being only permitted to take a seat when there is a vacancy. The subject of our present sketch succeeded to the bludgeon of office in the maturity of manhood, and brought to bear on the destinies of the Arcade a mind stored by experience and a forehead furrowed by imposing wrinkles. In the discharge of his very important duties, I always tries to preserve a just medium, by strutting along the very middle of the Arcade, and he shows an anxiety to maintain equitable balance, for he often poises the bludgeon over his shoulder with remarkable nicety. It is a curious fact that, even in the midst of the most trying junctures - such as a lady refusing to take off her pattens on entering the Arcade, - the Beadle has never been known to forget the dignity of his station. The manner in which he repels any attempt to desecrate the Arcade by the smuggling of bundles on the part of those who are improperly attempting to make the passage of the frontier, is truly admirable. He never descends from his high position to parley with a delinquent, but he goes through a piece of impressive pantomime that is sufficient to turn back the sturdiest of bundle-bearers. In such cases as these, the Beadle first moves majestically towards the man or boy, as the case may be, who carries the parcel. The second motion is a tap on the shoulder. The third consists of pointing significantly to the bundle. The fourth comprises an almost imperceptible brandishing of the bludgeon ; while the fifth and last is a series of flashing glances from the offender to, the gate, and from the gate back again to the offender, until the delinquent and his bundle are fairly ejected by ocular force from the sacred locality.
    It has been finely said by somebody, in some passage of some book, that was, some time ago, printed somewhere, that "Beadles are but men;" and even the Beadle of the Burlington Arcade has some of the weaknesses of that clay which is the "raw material" of all humanity. SHAKESPEARE was not wrong in observing that "A little flattery sometimes does well"; and we have seen even the Burlington Beadle occasionally "come over," by an indirect feeding of his vanity. For instance, we have seen a boy with a bundle permitted to pass through, if the words "Please Sir, may I go through the 'cade?" constituted the form of the petition. We think that is behoves the Beadle to be just before he is generous; but, on the whole, we think he executes the duties of a very invidious office with considerable temper and discretion.

Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1844