see also Henry Mayhew, Letter XV - click hereVictorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853
The "Venus rising from the sea," of the ancient Greek
mythology, presents a very different picture to the imagination
from that afforded by her modern antithesis, the tide-waitress
of London descending into the bed of the Thames to forage for
the means of subsistence among the mud and filth of the
The tide-waitress has few charms to boast of. Who and what she was originally, it would be difficult to guess. She is not young, and in what scenes her youth was passed, it would be in vain to inquire. Her antecedents are a mystery, the key to which is secreted in her own breast; the romance of her life has passed away with her youth; and whether that were joyous or grievous, you may ask her if you like - but she will not satisfy your curiosity. On the other hand, she is not old; age would shrink aghast from her way of life. An avocation pursued in perpetual contact with the mud and moisture of the river, is no calling for the woman of threescore and upwards, whom poverty has already made familiar with the cramps, and rheums, and rheumatisms, which she finds more than sufficiently plentiful without the trouble of raking them out of the mud.
No; the subject of the present brief sketch is invariably a woman in the prime of life, who has seen the world, and cares little for its conventionalities or its opinions. Driven, by some cause or other - it maybe by crime, it may be by want - from the acknowledged and beaten paths of industry, she has turned aside from the current of human activities, and made a property for herself out of the rubbish and the refuse which all the world besides are content to surrender as worthless. Upon this she contrives to make a living, and to keep out of the workhouse, to remain clear of which is the utmost stretch of her ambition. Education she has none, and she never had instruction worthy the name. All her knowledge is to know the time of low water, and the value of the wrecks and waifs which each recurring tide scatters all too scantily over her peculiar domain. Her garb and garniture are in appropriate keeping with her profession and accomplishments. She is bundled up in tatters more plentiful than shapely, and to which the name of dress could hardly be applied. On her head is the ragged relict of an old bonnet, the crown of which is stuffed with a pad; an old hamper is suspended at her side by a leathern strap round the shoulders; and in front she wears an apron, containing a capacious pocket for the reception of articles susceptible of injury in the basket. She cannot indulge in the luxury of stockings, but encases her feet in a pair of cast-off Wellingtons, begged for the purpose from some charitable householder, and cut down to the ankle by her own hand for her especial use.
Thus equipped, and armed with a stout stick, she goes forth to her labour so soon as the tide is half run out, and commences her miscellaneous collection amidst the ooze and slime of the river. She walks ankle deep in the mire, and occasionally omitting to feel her way with the stick, is seen to flounder in up to her knees, when she scrambles out again, and coolly taking off her boots, will rinse them in the stream before proceeding with her work. The wealth which she rescues, half-digested, from the maw of Father Thames, is of a various and rather equivocal description, and consists of more items than we can here specify. We can, however, from actual observation, testify to a portion of them: these are, firewood in very small fragments, with now and then, by way of a prize, a stave of an old cask; broken glass, and bottles either of glass or stone unbroken; bones, principally of drowned animals, washed into skeletons; ropes, and fragments of ropes, which will pick into tow; old iron or lead, or metal of any sort which may have dropped overboard from passing vessels; and last, but by no means least, coal from the coal barges, which, as they are passing up and down all day long, and all the year round, cannot fail of dropping a pretty generous tribute to the toils of the tide-waitress. Among the coal-owners, however, this nymph of the flood, or the mud, is not in very good odour; they are known to entertain a prejudice against her profession. Her detractors do not scruple to aver that she cannot be trusted in the company of a coal-barge without being seduced by the charms of the black diamonds to fill her basket in a dishonest manner. We are loth to give credit to the accusation; at the same time we know that it is practically received by the wharfingers, who invariably warn her off when she is seen wandering too near a stranded barge.
Besides the materials above mentioned, there is no doubt that she occasionally comes upon a prize of more value. A bottle of wine from a pleasure boat may come now and then; and sometimes a coin or a purse from the same source; at least we have seen such things go overboard, and it is not impossible that the tide-waitress gets them. Some years since one of the sisterhood found one afternoon a packet of tradesmen's handbills buried in the mud under Waterloo Bridge. A waterman, who could read, advised her to take them forthwith to the owner. She did so, much to the worthy man's astonishment, who imagined that they were then in course of distribution by his two apprentices, who had left the shop in the morning with the avowed object of circulating them to the number of 3,000. The lads came home at night ostensibly wearied out with their day's work. They were astounded at the sight of the packet, which they had not even untied; and the youngest immediately confessed that, tempted by the other, he had joined in making a holiday trip to Gravesend; that they had thrown the bills into the river when off Erith, feeling certain that there was no risk of discovery. It was a lesson they were not likely soon to forget-that the path of dishonesty and deceit is always a thorny one.
This river gleaner is rather a picturesque object when viewed from a good distance. Though her eyes are ever on the soil, and though she is constantly raking and handling it, yet she never stoops, as a stoop would swamp her skirts in the mud; she bends rather in a kind of graceful arch, supported by the stick in one hand. The tide, which proverbially waits for no man, shuts her out of her moist domain with rigorous punctuality, and then she retires to sort her wares and to convert them, in different markets, into the few pence which they may realize.
We feel quite safe in affirming that, little as is to be got by it, the above is the most successful kind of fishing that can be carried on in the present day in the Thames between London Bridge and that of Vauxhall. The times, and the river, too, are altered since fishermen cast their nets in the waters off Westminster, and Londoners ate the fish caught in the shadow of their own dwellings. It is more than a hundred and sixty years ago that, one fine summer's morning, a fisherman who was dragging the water off Lambeth Palace, found his net pinned fast to the bottom by some weighty substance, which seemed very reluctant to move. On lifting it cautiously to the surface, it appeared to be a somewhat lumpy piece of metal, impressed with certain cabalistic signs, which the finder, who was guiltless of the arts of reading and writing, was at a loss to comprehend. He pitched it, therefore, into the stern of his little craft, and quietly pursued his avocation till his day's work was accomplished. In the evening, when he had disposed of his fish, his thoughts reverted to the lump of metal in his boat; and he carried it to the house of one of his patrons to ascertain whether or not it might be of value. To the amazement of the gentleman into whose hands it was thus strangely conveyed-and no less to that of the poor fisherman himself-it proved to be the great seal of the realm, which had been missing ever since the flight, in the preceding winter, of the craven and wrong-headed monarch, James the Second. There had been a rigid search made for it in all quarters, and from the evidence of Judge Jefferies it came out that James, who had always a superstitious kind of veneration for the great seal, which he regarded as a sort of talisman, had been for some time unwilling to trust it out of his sight. He had compelled his chancellor - that bloodthirsty judge - to remove from his noble mansion, and to reside in a chamber in Whitehall, in order that the object of his solicitude might be always near him. On the night of his clandestine flight, he had ordered the great seal and the writs for the new parliament to be brought to his bed-chamber. The writs he threw into the fire, and the great seal he carried off in his hand, and dropped it stealthily into the river opposite Lambeth Palace, as he traversed the space from Whitehall to Vauxhall. Whether he thought by this means to deprive the acts of his successor of the validity of legal sanction, we cannot say: the Prince of Orange managed to do very well without it; and if it had never been fished up to this day, but had been left to form part of the treasures of our present subject, the tide-waitress, and been sold for old metal at a marine-store, we imagine that government would have gone on much the same as it has done.
We have introduced the tide-waitress incidentally into royal company. It is no great matter. We leave our readers, if they choose, to settle the relative respectability of either party. What happened to the fugitive monarch may happen, and we fear is likely to happen, to the poor mud-faring woman. He died a pauper, dependent on the bounty of an alien - and she, alas! has the workhouse, or, which is perhaps more probable, the hospital in perspective, as the consummation of her career.
A short river trip at low tide, presents to the most casual observer, a sad picture of low life. Thousands, and probably scores of thousands, of poor creatures in London make their living, simtimes a comparatively comfortable one, in searching the mud, washed out from the sewers into the river, for whatever may have negligently been lost or thrown out by accident or careless servants; such as silver spoons, forks, and other small articles. These "mud larks," understand so well the tides, that often they will venture great distances up the sewers. As they are seen on the banks of the river, (which at low tide leaves a beach of fine pebbles many feet broad) the men in mud-sprinkled fancy costumes, women in short bright-colored skirts and head dresses, and children half naked, altogether appear grotesque;- but it is a picture of want and misery.
W. O'Daniel, Ins and Outs of London, 1859
see also James Payn in Lights and Shadows of London Life - click here
Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867
XX. THE GLEANERS OF THE THAMES BANK.
A RAGGED, tailless coat, minus the sleeves, buttoned over
a shirtless back, a wonderful collection of materials and colours fashioned
somewhat to the shape of trousers, and descending as low as the knees, with a
pair of brown mud hose-said hose renewed at every tide, the new pair more often
than not put on over the old-completes the costume of the mud-lark. A cap or old
hat they have-we never saw a "lark " without one or the other-but the
use of which an awfully towzled shock of hair renders quite superfluous; the
article, in fact, is invariably used as a handy receptacle for the
"lots" (bones), rags, and any other offal that falls in their way in
their wanderings from the stock-basket or kettle, and saves the toil of dragging
the whole of their findings with them in the operation of collection.
How the larks came by their appellation is a mystery; certainly no resemblance can be traced between the habits of the mud-lark, looking as he does like some extremely dirty amphibious animal, and the glorious little songster of the cornfields. No field is ever visited by the lark of the mud species; the only green thing that ever crosses his vision is the would-be antiquarian, who sometimes haunts the scene of his labour to purchase for a trifle the treasures and curiosities found in his peregrinations. Old Roman coins (shankless brass buttons-those of old Trinity men's coats preferred, on account of their size and the puzzling device on one side), ancient pipe-bowls, &c., &c., form the staple articles of trade; it always happening that the wary lark has the " luck" to turn up something curious should a party looking at all like a buyer be in his vicinity.
We recollect a friend who happened to be walking the river bank near one of these treasure hunters, just in the nick of time to see him turn up a rare old Apostles' spoon, very massive, and still bearing faint traces of the Goldsmiths' mark. He eagerly secured it at the trifling sum of three and sixpence, and long cherished it as the gem of his cabinet, till, having occasion to visit a Sheffield warehouse, he found the same article could be bought, bran new, for two and threepence per dozen. Still these are not genuine "larks," but birds of prey-the hawks of the tribe-and may be detected at once, by their extremely knowing look and comparatively decent clothing, from the stolid, almost idiotic expression of countenance, always to be found in the bond fide mudlark. No matter the weather-blazing July or bleak December-there they are to be found as sure as the retreating tide, the same old faces, in the same squalid rags, from seven to seventy, raking their daily bread from the feculent shore of the Thames from Chelsea to the Pool. Gaunt, old-fashioned children, stalwart, brawny men, tottering old women, each may be seen daily battling with the rising river for a crust.
If there is a period when their position seems bearable, it is on a scorching August afternoon, when the pavement is hot to the tardy feet and the mind wanders to shady lanes and bathing places, when dusty errand-boys lean lazily over bridge parapets and envy the "larks" as they wade, leg high, in the cool river, and wish their fathers had 'prenticed them to watermen. But it is not August all the year round; and if those same boys should look down on to the shore a few months later (which they don't, for if they stand still on the bridge for a moment to look over, the north wind comes rushing up and cuts their ears off), in spite of the biting air-in spite of the masses of ice that are piled up here and there, reminding him of Esquimaux and Captain Ross-in spite of the frost-bitten craft that look like gigantic twelfth-cake ornaments-there are his envied friends of the summer, raking and poking, with never an extra rag to protect their crimson legs and arms. There they are, and there they will be, while tides rise and fall, and there is a pennyworth of anything to be found for the seeking on the river shore.
Great storms and sudden floods are the mud-larks' harvest times. When the usually black and sluggish "Fleet ditch," converted by the accumulated water in its long journey into a swift and roaring river, bursts its bounds, it crushes and carries away, in its fierce passage through the dens that abound in Clerkenwell, the floorings of cellars and underground dwellings, engulphing the squalid furniture of the wretched dwellers. Should it happen to be night-time, it is then may be seen the exciting spectacle of clamorous men and women in boats, surrounding the mouth of the great sewer, watching for the appearance of their goods as they emerge from over the top of the massive iron door that guards the entrance. Legless tables, broken chairs, fragments of bedsteads, butchers' blocks, and beams from underground slaughterhouses, the stock-in-trade of coopers and basket makers, tubs and trays, hampers, cradles, bowls, and baskets-all crushed and broken, and heaped in pell-mell confusion in the boiling river. " That's mine." " Murther ! stop that table, good luck to yer !" " There goes me drawers and all the childer's things, ochone ! " " Stop thief! " " Arter you with that there cheer," &c., &c., are the ejaculations heard on every side as the articles recognised shoot out into the open water, not always to be picked up by the legitimate owner. Something more awkward than ordinary will occasionally choke the way entirely, and then nothing will move till poked and eased with boat-hooks and long poles; then out they whirl again, and what with the darkness and confusion of tongues, a great part is lost altogether and gains the middle of the river, floating quietly down with the tide, and becoming easy prey to our friends the larks, as it settles ashore miles from its starting place.
Nor is this the only good this ill wind blows the mudlark; for weeks after such an event he will, when he has the chance (it is not allowed, and the iron gate has been put as a preventive), drop from the top of the gate into the slush below with all the unconcern of a ditch rat, and there he will wade, feeling his way in the pitchy darkness, groping with his feet, as he proceeds, for anything that may have sunk to the bottom or still rests in the tenacious mud, following the course of the ugly sewer as it winds under the principal thoroughfares of the City.
This sewer is all that remains of the clear, rapid brook that was once dignified with the appellation of the River Fleet, running between grassy banks and crossed by wooden bridges in its pleasant course from Highgate through Islington-through rural Clerkenwell-by the Clerks'-well and the Clerks'-green, near Field-lane, by the side of the Fleet-market, which extended the whole length of what is now known as Farringdon-street, and thus into the Thames. The many places named after it-Fleet-street, Fleet-market, Fleet-lane, and the old Fleet debtors' prison-will give an idea of its ancient importance. From various causes, its limits gradually narrowed until it became a mere sluggish ditch, occasionally overflowing its banks, thus being for many years a great source of disease to the citizens. It is now covered in from end to end; and it is only on the special occasions already mentioned that it bursts its bounds and asserts its claim still to the ancient title of river.
Mud-larks are of two kinds: the coal-finder and the bone-grubber. The coal-finder comes with his basket at each tide, and generally finds enough for a load; and as he can readily dispose of them in the very poor neighbourhoods, at the rate of sevenpence a load, he reduces his earnings, scanty though they be, to a kind of certainty. Not so the bone-grubber or "lot-picker," as he is technically known. The river bones, black as ebony, are quite useless for any other purpose than that of being ground for manure, and consequently are not worth more than half the article will fetch when fresh and containing fatty matter for the soap-maker; so that, although bones are his staple commodity, old rags, bits of iron, old rope, &c., in fact, anything that the marine store-keeper will buy, may be found in the "lot-grubber's" basket.
Their most favourite resorts are the neighbourhoods of shipbreakers, to pick up the old copper nails and bolts; these are among the most valuable of their findings. They now and then pick up small treasures-old coins, ancient relics, &c., especially if it happen to be a very low tide; but taking the average earnings of the bonegrubber, his business may be said to be the most precarious and wretched of any. Certainly their wants are few: their clothing costs nothing, and their lodgings are the dry arches of the bridges or in the foundation of new buildings. The arches under the Adelphi are a favourite resort, on account of the advantages offered by the dry floors of the carts and vans which are to be found there. Sometimes-but this is a treat-a little straw will be left in them. The luxury of a bed is as little dreamt of as combs and brushes or soap, and it is only when he happens (happily for his health) to " sweep " (steal from) a barge, a practice he is addicted to when opportunity serves, that he has the advantage for a time of prison comforts-a warm bath, clean shirt, clean clothes, and a clean bed. "He didn't so much mind all the fuss," a mud-lark lately informed us who had spent the previous six weeks in the salubrious atmosphere of Coldbath fields, " only when you come to pull off the warm linsey togs, and put on your own ragged duds before you come out, it's wery cold and wretched, wery !"
When the grubber's trade is slack on the banks, he will venture up the mouth of the open sewers; and this branch, though more lucrative than any other to an experienced hand, is attended with much difficulty and sometimes peril, as the following story, current among the fraternity as having happened to an old grubber some years ago, will testify.
It was a bleak January afternoon, and the grubber's searching having been unsatisfactory along the shore, he groped his way into a sewer that emptied itself between London-bridge and Blackfriars; now through such low-arched passages that he was obliged to go on his hands and knees, and now through places so narrow that his sides brushed the slime from the wall, all in the thick, murky darkness, and feeling with the toes of his naked feet the useful from the rubbish that lay at the bottom under the mud. It was bitter out on the river bank, and the warmth of the place induced him to stop longer than he should. Evening came on, and with it so dense a fog as to deprive him of the little light he had from the few gratings above, or, should he get near the outlet, from the light of the fires aboard the coal barges at the wharves. He lost his way; in vain, in his terror, he tried every opening he could feel up and down, bruising and tearing himself. He at last came to a standstill, breathless and exhausted; and to add to the horror of his position, he felt the semi-liquid mud moving about his legs, and he knew the tide was setting in. The place he was in was not more than four feet high, constraining him to keep in a stooping position, his hands resting on his knees. To move one way or another would have been useless, and if it would have helped him he could not have done it-the dreadful thought that, for aught he knew, the water would rise to the very roof, benumbed and paralysed him. Up rose the tide, slow but certain, till it was above his knees, and laved his hands; his legs shook under him, and he would undoubtedly have sunk down had not another enemy besides the rising river at that moment assailed him. A sudden squeal and a sharp pain at the back of his neck told him the rats had found him. A sudden writhe freed him from his tormentor; but as the water rose (it was now nigh up to his body) they, finding him helpless and defenceless, attacked him at all points. His ragged clothes were but a poor protection, and he had no way of killing them but rubbing their heads against the roof as they came squealing and scratching at his throat, and biting his hands through as he pulled them from him. But worse than all was their attacks on his naked legs and feet, compelling him to keep up a kind of dance, hopping from one leg to the other, and scraping them off as well as he was able.
He could distinctly hear the rumbling of the vehicles along the roads, and the church clocks strike out the hours, and had screamed himself hoarse in a vain endeavour to make himself heard. The place now became awfully close, and the stench dreadful, with the sewer water within a few inches of his face; he was very weak from loss of blood, and if his tormentors had ceased their sharp biting for one moment, down he would have sunk; as it was, pain kept him up.
At this moment a quarter chime rang from the church; in an instant he recollected the last hour they had struck, and he knew that in three minutes the water would subside-three minutes, and there was not more than nine inches of space between him and drowning. If he had been a mathematician he could have computed his chance of escape from the rate at which the water had rose during the last hour; but being only an uneducated " lark," he did his best to recollect a prayer or two that was stowed away in his memory years before, and so beguiled the long, long three minutes, and the great danger was over. With the turning tide the rats left him, and if he had not their biting to keep life in him, he had the strong hope of escape, which sustained him while the water fell, and the sewer was reduced to its ordinary low-water level, and then he sank to a sitting posture. He fainted clean away; and there he would have remained till the tide rose again, and he had become an easy prey for the monstrous rats, had not a friendly " lark," who had seen him enter and knew that he had not come out again, groped his way in with a light and dragged him out to the river side.
He had not been twenty yards from the entrance the whole time; he was frightfully maimed and bitten, and was taken to the hospital and cured of his wounds and his "larking" propensities for ever. He took to the crossing-sweeping-the mere mention of a drain (that is, a sewer) bringing his fearful night with the rats rather too vividly back to his memory.
Old and New London, c.1880
see also Richard Rowe in Episodes in an Obscure Life - click here 
see also Richard Rowe in Episodes in an Obscure Life - click here 
Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 20 - A Pair of Mudlarks
[-back to main for this book-]
A PAIR. OF MUDLARKS.
THE river no longer lapped against the lower stairs; the
raised stone causeway, that sloped from their foot to the water, rose bare above
the pebbly hard, and green-brown mud. One wherry had been dragged down to the
foot of the causeway, in readiness for almost despaired of passengers;
half-a-dozen others were huddled high and dry at the foot of the stairs; another
lay, bottom upwards, at the top. By it stood an old waterman, in a glazed round
hat, sleeved brass-buttoned waistcoat, and brown pair of breeches patched in
places with canvas. Occasionally he removed his hands from his pockets, in order
to take his pipe from his mouth and adjust the tobacco. On these occasions he
growled down a word or two to another smoking ancient mariner; attired in a
chapped sou'-wester, a faded comforter, a pea-jacket with only two of its big
horn-buttons on it, and a pair of blue breeches patched with green cloth at the
knees, who sat upon the gunwale of one of the boats, kicking his heels against
its side. When ad-[-285-]dressed, the second
waterman, without taking his pipe from his mouth, growled a few words in reply,
and then went on kicking his heels; whilst the first, having replaced his pipe,
began again to stamp his feet in a "Bruin-dance" to warm his numb toes
- for a biting north-east wind, threatening frost, was blowing across the river.
"L'âge d'or, qu'une aveugle tradition a placé jusqu'ici dans le passé,"
says St. Simon, "est devant nous ;" but London watermen are no St.
Simonians. The old fellows were lamenting their lost golden age, when watermen
took more in a day than now they earn in a fortnight. "Might jist as well
be a mudlark," growled one old boy.
"Poor beggars!" answered his comrade, with a mingled contempt and pity in his tone which showed that he thought that, after all, watermen had not sunk quite so low as that. Some baker's dozen of mudlarks could be seen from the stairs: an old man dressed in what seemed to have been once a woman's caped cloak, the black stripes and the green ground of the pattern equally almost obliterated by grease; an old woman with a nut-cracker nose and chin, which almost dipped into the filthy slush into which she peered, and dirty flesh as well as a scrap or two of dirty linen showing through the slashes of her burst gown, over which, for "warmth's sake," she wore a tippet of ragged sack-cloth; and a flock of frowsy, touzled-headed youngsters [-286-] - a good many with no covering to the touzled heads - of every variety of grimy tatteredness: some with their petticoats kilted or their trousers tucked up mid-thigh high, but most with petticoats and trousers which saved their owners trouble in that way, through being normally abbreviated to the regulation wading-measure. With their bags and their baskets - both, but for scraps of miscellaneous material put in loose to stop the leaks, very much like Danaidian buckets - with their old hats, and kettles, and pots and pans - the mudlarks, young and old, groped backwards and forwards along the hard, which plum-pudding-stoned their bare feet with little pebbles, paddled in the chilly slush, or splashed like shrimpers in the margin of the water.
Everything almost seemed fish that came to their very miserable nets. If any one wants to know the value of seeming rubbish, the straits to which people are put sometimes to procure a subsistence in this vast "London" - whose very vastness, however, through the multitude of paltry waifs which it furnishes, enables a little army of human strays to live after a fashion: a miserable fashion, but nowhere else could such a multitude of such people live in any fashion - let him take his seat in one of those queer beer-and-tobacco-scented, many-angled, notched-tabled rooms of public-houses, often weather-boarded, whose backs give on the river, [-287-] and watch mudlarks at work. They pounce on little knobs of coal as if they were "real Whitby jet" brooches; lovingly coil up limp lengths of sodden rope that look like drowned, putrefying snakes; wrangle over broken bones which starving dogs would relinquish to one another without a snarl; make prize of bits of wood which seem about as valuable; exult over a rusty iron bolt or lock, and can scarce believe their delighted eyes when their grubby hands have fished up half a dozen verdigrised copper nails.
Watch the poor creatures clustering about that heeled-over schooner, out of which coal is being whipped; see them clambering up the stranded black-coal lighters, which, though "empty," may still hold coal that will be worth their taking; feeling in the muddy channel meandering in front of the shipwrights' closed dock, and reproachfully eyeing the shut gates which bar them out from precious spoil; creeping as near as the indignantly barking dogs on board will permit, to the high-piled hay-and-straw and other craft beached stern on in ranks upon the hards, lying broadside and lobside beneath the dangling crane-chains of many-floored warehouses and mills, flush with the water when the tide is in, or jammed into dark clefts between those towering piles. And what do the poor creatures get for their dismal groping in all weathers? If a mudlark clears six-[-288-]pence in a day, he thinks himself a most lucky mudlark - often he gets far less than that- sometimes he gets nothing.
The incoming tide gradually drives the mudlarks ashore. They tramp in file up the stairs, printing fresh muddy footprints on the stones, and sprinkling them with unfragrant drippings from their drenched garments.
"What luck, old gal?", asks a waterman of the nut-cracker-visaged old woman.
"Same's ever," she answers at once, without looking round, in a tone almost too sleepy to be peevish.
Her bag looks full, but if her luck to-day has only been her usual fortune, the bulky find under which she bends cannot be very valuable - if one may judge by her appearance.
She slinks off to her lair, followed by an imp bearing a rusty crumpled colander, piled with its find. Its sex is indistinguishable. It has long mud-hued hair hanging down in a mat over its shoulders. Through the hair one gets a glimpse of a never-washed little face, whose only sign of intelligence is an occasional glance of wicked knowingness. The imp is clad in a corduroy waistcoat, sleeved like the round-hatted old waterman's; the sleeves are turned back at the wrists, to enable the grubby little hands at the end of stick-like little arms to find their way out. What other clothes, if any, the imp has on, it is impossible to say, since [-289-] the waistcoat comes down to its kibed little heels - bare of everything except ingrained dirt, thickly lacquered with a fresh layer of malodorous slime - like the Ulster great-coats in which men make Noah's-ark guys of themselves now-a-days; and though some of the bone buttons are off, the capacious overlapping double breast quite hides the no doubt skinny little frame within.
"Poor ole Sue!" said the round-hatted old waterman; "an' yet she worn't a bad-looking young 'ooman once upon a time."
"Well, you ain't a chicken, but that must ha' been long afore your time, Sam," interjected a younger comrade who had joined Sam on the stairs-head.
"No, tain't," answered Sam. "I don't mean as I can remember her so's to 've kep' company wi'er, or the like o' that; but when I was about 'alf way through my 'prenticeship, she come to live 'ere. She were fresh from the country, jist married, an' an unkimmon pretty young wife she were, though she do look a deal more like a guy now, or a Punch-and-Judy show."
"Boat, sir-boat?" the waterman had greeted me with, when I first made my appearance on the stairs, and they had naturally looked rather grumpy when they found that I did not want one, especially since they could not make out what I did want-except to stare at the river, [-290-] and perhaps listen to them. The round-hatted old fellow answered me civilly enough however when, interested by what he had said, I tried to get into conversation with him.
"About ole Sue? Oh, yes, I can tell ye all I know about her, sir, if you want to know it, but I can do talkin' as well walkin' as standin'. I was jist thinkin' o'goin' 'ome to git a bit of a warm, for it's, no good waitin' about 'ere any longer sich a day as this."
I proposed that, instead of going home for his "warm," he should have a drop of hot spiced beer in the river-side room from which I had recently issued.
He accepted my invitation nothing loth, and thus discoursed over his steaming pewter -
"As I was a-sayin', sir, I remember poor old Sue when she was fust married. From the country she come. The chap she was married to was a ship's butcher, leastways, the son o' one, and went down into the country to look arter beasts an' so on, an' that's 'ow he fell in wi' 'er. There was a good many young, chaps enwied him his luck when they saw the wife he'd got, but there was never a word said agin 'er - not that way. They was like a pair o' turtle-doves or two young pigeons, as the Scriptur' says, when they was fust married, and a nice little family they ad - most on 'em gals, as took arter their mother in their looks. The young chap went pardners wi' his father, an' [-291-] they was goin' ahead like steam, when all of a suddint they blew up, jist like one o' them precious kittles that's sp'ilt our trade. The ole feller never 'eld his 'ead hup agin. The young chap 'ired hisself as journeyman to another butcher, but he'd 'ad one for 'isself too. To keep his sperrits up he took to drinkin', an' beat his wife an' starved his children. At last he went downright to the bad - ran away an' was never heerd on arterwards; an' nobody missed him, 'cept twas Sue. His youngsters had got to 'ate him, an' make game on him when. he were too far gone to drab 'em; but she'd stuck to him through all, an' kep' fond on him, some'ow, for all his drubbin's. They're queer cattle, is women. There's my ole 'ooman, now, as I never laid a finger on, or crossed 'er - not to speak on - in a single thing she wished; an' yet she hain't 'alf the respec' for me as them as has cotched Tartars has for them. She wouldn't order me about as she do, if I'd given 'er every now and then a jolly good beatin'.
" 'A 'ooman, a dog, and a walnut-tree,
The more you hit 'em, the better they be.'
"I don't old, though, with them as is for ever thrashin' their missises. They gits used to it, and so it loses its effec' - but now and again it's as well to let a 'ooman feel the weight o' your and, jist to show 'er who's master.
I quoted the well-known sentiment, "The man who lays," etc
[-292-] "Oh, yes," continued the old man, at first in a tone of contemptuous offendedness, "I've heerd the sailor chap a-spoutin' that at the theaytur. That's all ~very well in a play, but sailors is as free wi' their fists as other folks when a 'ooman riles 'em, an' if you was to know 'ow haggerawatin' our wives sometimes is - I don't know 'ow 't may be wi' ladies - you'd wonder they didn't git wolloped horfener than they does. It's all wery fine to talk about not layin' yer 'and on a 'ooman, but what are you to do, if you can't keep the 'ooman from layin' of 'er 'ands on you? But I was a-talkin' about Sue, poor ole gal. There she were left wi' all them bairns to look arter, an' 'ard she tried. Work her fingers off, she would, but as they growed hup they was no comfort to 'er. She'd no time to look arter 'em, you see, when she was a-slavin' at the wash-tub. They run about the streets, an' did as they liked. There was on'y two boys. One on 'em went to sea, an we never heerd no more on him. I don't know what become o' t'other. There was 'alf a dozen gals or so. None on 'em come to no good. Some on 'em married, an' some on 'em didn't, but there worn't much to choose betwixt 'em. 'Tain't to be wondered at that Sue got to be a bit too fond o' drink, when she could git it, poor ole girl. You see, they give it 'er at the 'ouses where she went washin' an' sich, an' so she got to know the comfort on it. Folks [-293-] said as she drank when she was fust married, but it's my belief as twas all a fib. It was the women as said it, as was enwious of the colour she 'ad. A fine 'igh colour it were, but not a bit more like drinkin' nor a rose is like a radish. She were fair druv to drinking, was poor ole Sue, by her 'ard life, an' then the wery folks as 'ad give her the gin at their 'ouses wouldn't give her no more work. She couldn't git no more washin', nor charin', nor nuffink. Down she sunk, poor ole gal, till she come to mudlarkin', and that she've been starvin' at this ten year. 'Ow she olds hout's a myst'ry to me - a frost'll finish her hoff some night, I expec'- but she must ha' 'ad a rare constitooshun to stand all she's stood - sorrer, an' slavin', an' drinkin', an' starvin'. A gran' thing is a fine constitooshun, sir; but them as has got 'em is mostly fools - they takes liberties with theirselves. If they didn't, it's my belief as they'd live pretty nigh for ever, if they didn't git drownded, or killed by axedint some'ow.
"Oh, that young limb," my informant proceeded, when I asked about the old woman's young companion. "That's poor ole Sue's youngest daughter's youngest. A reg'lar character he is, the owdacious young toad! I guess he's forgotten more wickedness than you ever knowed, sir. He 'on't be a mudlark long arter poor old Sue's gone. A thief, an' wuss, that's what he'll he. He's tried his and at it a'ready, [-294-] the sarcy young rascal! Poor old Sue might be comfor'bler if she'd let him steal, but that she won't, an' the on'y good thing about the young scamp is that he minds his granny.
"If you'd like to see where the ole 'ooman lives, there it is," said my waterman, pointing up the lane, when we were parting at the door of the hostelry.
What he pointed at was the dilapidated, pigsty-like, built-out back-kitchen of a tumbledown house, which could find no paying tenants even in that densely-populated neighbourhood, and had been appropriated accordingly by squatters.
"An' if the ole 'ooman's in as you go by, an' you've a shillin' to spare, you might do wuss than if you give it to her, sir," the old man, who had grown sentimental over his spiced beer, remarked in conclusion. "She were a wery fine young 'ooman once upon a time."
[--nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.--]
see also Thomas Wright in The Great Army of London Poor
see also D. Rice-Jones in In the Slums - click here
see also James Greenwood in Toilers in London - click here