Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Service Industry - street entertainers

see also Henry Mayhew's Letter 52 to the Morning Chronicle - click here

see also Henry Mayhew's Letter 53 to the Morning Chronicle - click here

see also Henry Mayhew's Letter 54 to the Morning Chronicle - click here

see also Henry Mayhew's Letter 55 to the Morning Chronicle - click here

see also Henry Mayhew's Letter 56 to the Morning Chronicle - click here

    Through all the various sounds of yells, groans, and curses, we hear at a distance the unharmonious concert of two barrel-organs, one of which is grinding out a woful caricature of the Marsellaise, while the other, addressing itself to the human family generally, informs them, with an awful screech, that “There’s a good time coming, boys,” which cheering intelligence is, in the end, qualified by the growl of “Wait a little longer.” A few yards on, a beggar-boy with naked feet and with an almost naked back, has taken up his post where the mud is deepest in the road, and sings, with a thin, small voice, “Ye banks and brass of bonnie Doon.” Nobody cares for him, for the public are attracted by two artists who are performing in the next street. They are brothers, by their looks, and work together. The younger, a tiny boy with an aged face, taxes the ingenuity of the public by conundrums, whose chief characteristic is, that they are almost always political and smutty. ‘Why is her most gracious Majesty like a notorious pickpocket ?” shouts he, in a tone which would do honour to a trained school-master. While the public are trying to find the answer, the elder brother imitates the songs of birds and the voices of beasts. They all give it up. “Because she is often confined,” says the little boy, with a most indecent wink at some females. And the songs of birds and voices of beasts are again imitated, and conundrums of a still grosser description propounded and explained; and the hat goes round and comes back with a few pence and half-pence in it.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

monkeyboy.gif (43038 bytes)

Italian boy and monkey, 1854

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - Acrobats

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life1.gif (45970 bytes)    As you pass through one of those low, densely-populated districts of London where narrow dirty streets show the openings of noisome courts, narrower and dirtier still, and these again conduct to alleys, so dark and close, that sunlight never comes lower down the houses than the parapets of their roofs, you will be struck, above all things, by the swarms of children everywhere collected. They scuffle about, and run across your path, and disappear, like rabbits in a warren, in obscure holes. They wait on the kirb until a cab approaches, and run under the very knees of the horse. They collect round the open water plug, and spend the entire day there, all returning wet through to the skin. They form the great proportion of Mr. Punch's audience, when his scream is heard in the adjacent large thoroughfare. The barrage of the Nile is rivalled by their indefatigable attempts to obstruct the gutters with rubbish, and form basins in which to launch their walnut shells.
    These children are not altogether the results of overfecundity of the inhabitants, for the families thereabouts abiding are by no means large. You occasionally see a girl of seven or eight years staggering under the weight of a baby whose sole nurse she is; but seldom find them with brothers and sisters. They are only [-2-] acquaintances. Their parents live huddled up in dirty single rooms, repelling all attempts to improve their condition - for "The People," we regret to say, are naturally fond of dirt - and whenever the rain is not actually pouring down in torrents, they turn their children out to find means of amusement and subsistence, at the same time, in the streets.
    Of all their favourite haunts, there is not one more popular than the bit of open ground where a mass of houses hare been pulled down to make room for a new street or building. If they find an old beam of timber, so much the better. They unite their pigmy forces to turn it into a see-saw, and, this accomplished, a policeman is the only power that can drive them from the spot. They build forts with brick-bats. They scuffle the mounds of rubbish perfectly smooth by running, or being dragged up and down them; they excavate eaves, and make huts; and know of nothing in the world capable of affording such delight, except it be the laying down, or taking up, of some wooden pavement.
    Picture such a bit of ground, on a fine afternoon, alive with children. Amongst the revellers there is a boy, who for the last five minutes has been hanging by his legs to a bit of temporary railing, with his hair sweeping the ground. Others would have had a fit long before, but this appears to be his natural position. On quitting it, without caring for the empty applause of the crowd, he goes to a retired corner of the plot, and, gravely putting his head and hands upon the ground, at a short distance from the wall, turns his heels up in the air, until he touches the house with his feet. This accomplished, he whistles a nigger melody, claps [-3-] his shoeless soles together, goes through certain telegraphic evolutions with his legs, and then calmly resumes his normal position, and walks away, not caring whether anybody regards him or not.
    This boy is destined to become an Acrobat - at a more advanced period of his life to perform feats of suppleness and agility in the mud of the streets, the sawdust of the circus, or the turf of a race-course. His life will pass in a marvellous series of positions, and its ordinary level course will be unknown to him. He will look upon chairs as articles of furniture only used to support people with the crown of their heads on the top back rail, or their legs on the seats of two stretched out to the utmost extent allowed by their length. Ladders, with him, will in future only be ascended by twisting in and out the rounds like a serpent; and his fellow-tumblers will be regarded merely as component parts of the living pedestal which is to elevate him, when required, to the level of the first-floor windows.
    The young Olympian gradually learns his business. He first of all runs away from home and joins a troop of these agile wanderers - these British Bedouins of the wilds and common-lands - to whom he serves an apprenticeship. It is his task, whilst sufficiently. light and slender, to be tossed about on the elevated feet of a "Professor" - to form the top figure of the living column or pyramid, or to have his heels twisted round his neck, and then to be thrown about or worn as a turban by the strongest man of the party - he with the stalwart arms and wonderful external muscles of the thigh, which are set like bands of iron when he is supporting his fellows. Next, in his hobbledehoy state of transition - when he has grown too tall for the business [-4-] just named, but not sufficiently matured in his limbs to undertake the leading tumbling - his office is to clear the ring with the large balls at the ends of a cord, and to solicit the contributions of the spectators whilst the others are preparing for some feat more frightful than any yet witnessed. And finally, he proves his fibres to be as firmly braced as those of his companions, and comes out in the ochred cotton tights, the rusty-spangled braces, and the fillet of blackened silver-cord, as the perfect Acrobat.
    Henceforth his life is one of the severest labour- unsettled, wandering, and devil-may-care as his disposition may be, he cannot be called idle. The powers of enduring physical exertion which these people acquire, by the constant exercise of their limbs, is extraordinary. In the months of the races near London - which period forms their "season" par excellence - you will see them on the road to Epsom, Moulsey, Egham, or Ascot even, long before the rush begins, in the grey morning, and whilst the dew-drops still sparkle on the blades of grass at the way-side, to be turned into pellets of mud by the dust in a few hours. They are all ready attired for the course, but their finery is concealed by the ragged great-coat and second-hand tweed-wrapper of their domestic life. One carries the drum upon his back; another has, tolled up under his arm, the old piece of stair-carpet inseparable from all street- tumblers and dancers, the parallel pattern of which is never seen anywhere else, except in the second floors of lodging-houses. Following them is a thinly-clad haggard woman, with a child at her breast, and carrying, in addition, two or three foils, or swords, which are the "properties" of one of the most daring feats [-5-] in the somersault and trampoline line. She intends likewise to ply a double line of business, for she carries some of the cards, wherewith to tempt the "noble sportsmen" of the hot noontide. Apropos of these race-course frequenters, it is difficult to conceive what are their means of existence at other seasons. Their being appears to be inseparably connected with booths, flags, bad cigars, betting-stands, parasols, and carriages That they live out the winter, is evident from their re-appearances during the next summer; but where they hybernate has never been ascertained. We expect there is some secret island to which dwarfs, giants, and gipsies; jockeys, thimble-riggers, snuff-box throwers and imperfect sailors; together with Messrs. Dorling, Lindsey, Oxley, and Wetton - first in the lists - all go off, and there abide together until the announcement of the First Spring Meeting recalls them to the world again.
    To our Acrobats, however: whom we ran away from on the road to the races at early morning. Well, they walk this distance, which would be, in itself, a fair day's exercise for a man of average health; and at eleven o'clock begin a series of extraordinary performances, which continue until six, their intervals of repose being the time between the second bell for clearing the course and the end of the race. They never show signs of weariness; their last performance is as wonderful as their first; and as long as a solitary carriage remains at the ropes, so long do they keep up their exhibition At night they are proudly independent of a tiled or slated roof. If it is fine and warm, they bivouac in the warren or on the heath, where the hurdles trimmed with fern, which helped to shelter the horses or the [-6-] tubs from the heat, make a very good shelter; if the night is dewy or cold - and their great exertions have made them very susceptible - the corner of some canvas hostel is always open to them. They sleep long and heavily. The sun is high up before they rise the next morning.
    The Acrobats are generally seen in London after the racing season, or when the metropolis lies in their way from one course to another. Some go to the sea-side - that is to say, to Thanet Tivolis and Ranelagh; and we have encountered a party of English tumblers at Boulogne. Others join travelling companies of equestrians, who go from town to town with a moveable circus - the followers of the mountebanks who visited the villages in our young days. But still the number of summer flip-flap throwers is not accounted for. Without doubt they lie by to practise fresh feats; but in what lodging they can perfect themselves in standing three high upon one another's heads - in what building even, except Westminster Hall - is puzzling to imagine.
    When the pantomimes begin, the Acrobats find a new field for employment. In the slim spangled figures introduced in festival scenes, as "The Mexican Wonders," or "The Thomsoni Family," you would hardly recognise your old acquaintances of the race-course. They do not, however, always have the good fortune to appear as principals. The majority engage as supernumeraries: and it is not until the stage-manager at rehersal wants some daring spirit to tumble from the sky-borders on to the stage; to go round on the sails of a windmill amidst fireworks; or to be knocked through a door, or out of a window, or down a trap, that a pale [-7-] man, in an old coat that you have seen before, steps forward from the crowd at the wings, and says that he will undertake it, and that he can do any tumbling business required, for he is an Acrobat.
    This is the boy who stood upon his head, on the plot of improvement ground - the youth who cleared the ring for the street performance - the man who threw his legs over his shoulders and hopped upon his hands, on the race-course. He is, perhaps, found to be a useful fellow and kept in the theatre, until he becomes a sine qua non of the pantomime, and in the decline of life, the old nobleman of a ballet. And in the constant employment of welcoming guests to village festivals, making hopeless love to the heroines, and expressing every known passion to order, upon the shortest notice, his life passes away.


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see also Charles Manby Smith in The Little World of London

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894


   Common lodging-houses in Deptford—I visit one of them—Their occu­pants—”What is a griddler?”—His haunts—”The Wandering Boy “—Episode in the north of London—Musical repertoire—Police regulation.
   My first real introduction to a common lodging-house occurred shortly after I took my magisterial seat at Greenwich. The establishment in question was in Mill Lane, Deptford.
   I was, at the time, already tolerably well acquainted with the predatory habits of the poor and criminal (though do not let me be understood as bracketing the two together, for to do so would be grossly unjust), but I was completely ignorant of the sort of life that was led in “kips “ or “ doss—houses.” I had, it is true, visited such places before, but my observation had never proceeded further than a superficial glance, ac­companied, it may be, with a shrug of the shoulders.
   The courts and alleys of Deptford abound with rotten houses and tumble-down tenements that are the abodes of thieves and unfortunates. It is hardly necessary to enter these places in order to understand their true character; what you see from the outside tells its own tale of poverty, vice, misery, and crime.
   Here and there, written in legible characters on the outside of a building, are the words, “Registered lodging-house.” As I have elsewhere remarked of these establishments, there is no adequate supervision over them, nor, let me frankly admit, do I see how matters can be mended without fresh legislation in the direction of further restraint. At present the authorities have absolutely no power over the owner of a common lodging [-39-] house. The business is sufficiently profitable to enable him to laugh at the law. For conducting his house improperly, he should, in my opinion, be liable to a fine of say, one hundred pounds. I do not doubt that the enforcement of such a penalty would have a very salutary effect.
   You get a tolerably good clue to the character of these dens even from an external scrutiny. At the windows you see some hideous human heads, male and female, with blotched, bloated, and bestial faces, matted and tangled hair, and hungry, desperate eyes.
   Some lodging-houses are for one sex only, and others for both men and women.
   On entering one of these establishments for the first time, even if you have never been astonished before, I can guarantee that you will experience the sensation.
   The visit I am about to describe was paid one foggy morning in February, on a day when I was off duty. The place was warmed by coke stoves, which are to be met with in every lodging-house. From the bent and broken gas brackets a sickly light was shed on a number of wan, pinched faces and emaciated forms that were but scantily clothed in rags.
   The gathering included many disciples of Bong, as was proved by red and pimply noses, beery breath, and sour skins. Obviously the East End brewers and publicans are thoroughly appreciated by the “dossers.”
   A sergeant of police accompanied me, and what struck me as extremely ludicrous was the way in which the poor wretches watched him. There was an unmistakeable look on their faces—a look that assumed a speaking form, and was inter­rogative—” What do you want me for?” And then, as the officer passed, it was equally amusing to note the look of delight—the gleam of sunshine. “I’m still free! It isn’t me after all ;“ these were the words you could read in their grateful eyes.
   I don’t believe any of them knew me at all; but I was regarded with the closest suspicion. They were civil, almost servile, to the sergeant; but there was a curious, puzzled look at me, accompanied by an enquiring glance from one to the other—a glance to which, so far as I could see, there was no response.
   I was at the time unused to these places, and I confess that, though it was in the daytime, I should not have felt very comfortable had I been by myself.
   [-40-] “Now, what are these fellows?” said I to the sergeant, when we had returned into the street.
   He replied:
   “Tramps of both sexes—mat-sellers, griddlers, hawkers of lace, makers of fire-screens and fly-papers, brush-makers, street flower sellers, and so on.”
   “What on earth are griddlers?” said I.
   “Well, Sir,” he replied, “if you’ve had enough of this place, I’ll tell you all you want to know while we are walking on to another.”
   But I had not had enough of that place. I don’t know what possessed me, but I was seized with a strange desire to go back to the lodging-house. We did so, and proceeded to inspect several rooms that we had omitted to enter previously. These rooms were in total darkness, save for a ray or two of light shed from the coke stove.
   “Now then, light up here,” shouted the sergeant, and the “deputy” lost no time in obeying the injunction.
   Among the poor wretches huddled together in these rooms were several shabby-genteel men in dreadfully old black clothes.
   There were also a few little children.
   The conversation carried on between the sergeant and the deputy was very amusing.
   “Where’s Billy Goff?” asked the officer.
   “Left here on Saturday, sergeant.”
   “Where’s he gone?”
   “Well, I think if you were to look for him at Notting Hill you wouldn’t be far wrong.”
   “Where’s Mog Sullivan?”
   “Not up yet. She’s in that room,” pointing to a door along the passage.
   Rout her out, then I Time she was up I It’s eleven o’clock!” and Mog’s slumbers were disturbed without more ado.
   I watched the dinner being cooked with considerable interest. The favourite article appeared to be what they termed “‘addicks.” The sergeant informed me that the principal meal in the common lodging-house is supper, of which all the inmates partake. He added that chops and steaks often figure at this meal, and that many a toothsome morsel is yielded by the “scran bag” of the professional beggar. That individual, it appears, distributes his dainties for a consideration among his comrades of the night.
   [-41-] On our regaining the street, and proceeding on our journey, I again enquired what was a “griddler.”
   A griddler?” said the sergeant. “Don’t you know that, sir? Why, he’s a chaunter—one of them as gets a living by singing in the streets. They never have any fixed home. They go about all day and sleep together in gangs—that’s my experience. The doss-house ain’t got no better customer than the griddler.”
   It must always have struck the ordinary observer as difficult to understand—it certainly has so struck me, and I consider myself an ordinary observer-—how any man or woman (a child, of course, has no option) can adopt street singing as a regular business. There are so many adverse circumstances to be taken into account—for example, the variations in our climate; the physical exhaustion and mental depression resulting from singing in the open air for any considerable time; and the degradation of such a vocation.
   Chaunting has become an actual profession, and it is fol­lowed in London alone by hundreds, not to say thousands, of individuals. Of course in some instances street singing is adopted as a temporary expedient, to tide a man over a slack period; but with such unfortunate persons I have nothing to do in this article. The real “griddlers” are men who have never worked laboriously in their lives. They form a large section of the vast army of human parasites who suck away the substance of the industrious.
   Why these people are called “griddlers,” again I say I do not know. I have made every enquiry on the point, but have hitherto failed to learn the origin of the expression. A great many “griddlers” come from Birmingham, and the word seems to have a Brummagem ring about it.
   Addressing my companion, I said
   “I suppose these people have sunk about as low as they possibly can?”
   “No, sir,” he replied, “that is wrong. The ordinary working man,” he proceeded, “never sticks to it long. There is such a dreadful sense of shame about it that few really honest men can bear it. I may tell you, sir, that it is very easy for any one experienced in the ways of the griddler to tell a new hand. It’s as easy, sir, as to tell a ha’penny from a penny. Any one not used to the game drops the thing as soon as he or she has got enough coppers to get food and a bed. With the regular hand, however, it isn’t so much board [-42-] and lodging that they think about as drink, and they often sing on and on until they’ve got enough money to get drunk on. Added to chaunting, the griddler often goes in for patter. The other day I came across a strong, able-bodied chap, a loafer every inch of him, and his hands as white as a woman’s, and he pitched a fine yarn, I can tell you;” and the sergeant indulged in a chuckle over the reminiscence. “The fellow,” continued the officer, “stopped in front of, a lot of people and said: ‘My dear friends, it is no doubt very degrading for a strong young man like me to be standing singing in the street, but it’s only the want of food for my dear wife and children which compels me to do so. Not long ago, when I was earn­ing good money, it was my greatest pleasure to sit at home of an evening with my wife and children, and the thought of this compels me to do what I am doing for them.’ Then he went on with his psalm, and several coppers were thrown to him by some old ladies, who carried on about him being a ‘poor dear man’ and I don’t know what all.”
   “And you knew as a fact, I suppose, that the fellow was an old stager?”
   “Lor’ bless you, sir, I’ve seen that same man on the streets, off and on, for six or eight years past. That sort of patter I was just speaking of is the thing to get the posh, they’ll tell you. By the way, the griddlers don’t often appear at the police court, as you must have noticed, sir.”
   Yes ; on thinking it over I decided that the sergeant was right. I can remember only a very few cases of street singers being brought before me.
   The lodging-house is the common meeting-place of the “griddlers.” There they sit after the “labours” of the day, smoking any amount of tobacco, drinking pot after pot of beer, and debating as to what neighbourhoods are, and what neighbourhoods are not, “good for money.”
   Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Holloway, the Borough, West­minster, and Notting Hill are the haunts of these gentry, who, however, occasionally vary their movements by a run out to the suburbs.
   By the virtue, or rather vice, of his calling, the “griddler” is no respecter of weather. The full glare of an August sun, the fogs of November, the snows of January—it is all one to him. In the winter people do not often ask him why he does not get work ; but the question is frequently put in the summer. He has his answer pat—” I’ve just come up from [-43-] the country, please, sir, and I’ve been travelling all day looking for work. I haven’t had the luck to find any yet, and so I’m just trying to get a few coppers to buy food, for I haven’t touched a bit of anything all day, if you’ll believe me, sir.”
   As a rule the “griddler” journeys alone, but occasionally he picks up a female companion, and the two walk and sing in company.
   The sergeant told me that at one time it was the daily custom of two old stagers to proceed to Highgate Ponds, kick the white dust all over themselves, and then sing their way back to the East End, looking for all the world as if they had just come off the road.
   A man who was once a “griddler” relates the following experience. He was singing “The Wandering Boy” in a very disconsolate condition one day, when a butcher’s wife, calling to him, said:
   “Are you ‘the wandering boy’?”
   “Yes, ma’am,” was the answer.
   “Well,’ she returned, “it’s time ‘the wandering boy’ was in bed.”
   “Yes, ma’am,” moaned the “griddler”; “but ‘the wander­ing boy’ hasn’t got the price of a bed;” and thereupon the good woman gave him a substantial sum of money.
   It is not an uncommon thing for a trio to sing the streets, and in such cases the “swag” is shared equally, that is, if the collector can be trusted to “brass up” all the earnings.
   I gained a good deal of information about these people from the missionary of one of the courts; and he told me a story about three of these gentry who were chaunting in a fairly respectable road in the north of London. They pre­sented a rather ludicrous appearance. One was very tall and remarkably thin, while his companions were short and thick­set. As trade was dull that day, they were very depressed, and so much out of heart that their joint mutterings were only just audible to the passers-by.
   While they were favouring the public with “I will Guide Thee with Mine Eye,” a lady appeared at the door of one of the villas and spoke to them. She said:
   “You men sing so nicely that I want you to come and stand on the pavement here and go on with that hymn. There’s an invalid lady upstairs, and she wants soothing. When you’ve finished you shall come into the house, and I’ll give you something to eat and some money.”
   [-44-] At this the “griddlers’” spirits rose, for they were hungry and thirsty. They came forward eagerly, stationed themselves immediately in front of the house, and went on with their dirge. They continued singing for about a quarter of an hour, and then, thinking they had imparted sufficient comfort to the poor invalid, they knocked at the door.
   The lady who had previously spoken to them answered the summons, and bade them follow her downstairs.
   The three vocalists, with their caps in their hands, and a happy, greedy look in their eyes, were making their way to the basement, when there suddenly emerged from the back parlour a stern, powerfully built man, who carried a large whip.
   “Get out of this, and look sharp about it,” he exclaimed, standing in their path, and pointing to the open door with his whip.
   They protested, remonstrated, and swore; he repeated his injunction, got very angry, and threatened to thrash them. They refused to budge, and there appeared to be every prospect of an animated quarter of an hour; but at length, perceiving that bullying would not do, the man with the whip condescended to explain.
   “There’s no invalid in the house,” said he, “and the lady who spoke to you is suffering from a fit of D.T.s. I’m in here to look after her while her husband is away at business. If you want to know anything more you had better call when he is at home, though I shouldn’t advise you to.”
   The wandering singers grasped the situation, turned on their heels, and, as soon as they had reached the pavement outside, burst into noisy laughter. The next minute a voice called to them from the house, and, on looking round, they perceived that the lady had again come to the door. She beckoned them and one of the three, with some trepidation, retraced his steps.
   “There,” she said, handing him a great pyramid of fresh— cut bread and butter, “demolish this, and, when you’ve done so, just you come back and polish off my old man. Give him a good hiding, and I’ll pay you for it.”
   The trio polished off the bread and butter, but, as my informant added, they took a little time to think about the rest of their instructions.
   The “griddler,” where he is refused money, does not hesitate to substitute a request for clothes or underlinen, for [-45-] all is grist that comes to his mill He will resort to any artifice to obtain his ends.
   One of the fraternity, who had been a compositor, prided himself on being the gentleman of the profession. He was always very clean and respectable-looking, and, being rather a. handsome fellow, he succeeded in making a very fair living. He had a great weakness for wearing white shirts, perfectly got up and scrupulously clean.
   It is very amusing to hear a discussion among members of the brotherhood as to the relative drawing powers of the various items in their musical repertoire. “There is a Home Eternal,” “Brightly Gleams,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “Shun Evil Companions,” and the perennial “Wandering Boy” all have their measured value, and where one fails another is tried.
   Saturday night sometimes brings in five or six shillings, and Sunday morning in the slums often yields a couple from seven to fifteen shillings. It must not, however, be supposed that money can be coined at this rate all the week. Monday generally finishes the “griddler’s” earning week, and he does not try again until the following Friday evening, save and except for an occasional turn to get the “price of a pot.”
   Two or three years ago street singers came out in such amazing force that a stringent police regulation was issued regarding them. The force were directed to call upon every person found singing in the street to desist, and if he refused to do so, they were empowered to arrest him on a charge of begging. Very seldom were “griddlers” interfered with by the police anterior to this. It must be remembered that in many instances they went about in large numbers singing “We’ve got no work to do,” and it would, of course, have been rather a ticklish thing even for three or four constables to tackle these gangs.
   I remember once seeing a number of these gentry carrying about a labourer’s shovel, on which were chalked the words “Rusty through idleness.” Notting Hill used to be invaded by a large gang of Lancashire men, very strong and strapping fellows, who went about with a piano organ. After spending an extremely profitable year in the metropolis, they betook themselves to pastures new.
   At some period of his life the “griddler” has, in all pro­bability, worked at some trade. A love of idleness and the want of self-respect have caused him to take up with gutter [-46-] singing. If he has children he apprentices them to the business and thereby permanently doubles and trebles our vagrant population, for in only a very few instances, un­fortunately, have the young people sufficient strength of character to raise themselves to a nobler calling.

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