CURIOSITIES OF ROGUERY.
ALTHOUGH in the conduct of business there cannot be said to exist any debateable ground between honesty and dishonesty, inasmuch as the golden precept which commands us to do unto others as we would that they should do unto us, is ever at hand, and ever suggestive of the right rule of action, yet there is a wide field of operation for those who, rejecting the authority of this precept, and preferring the care and culture of Number One to all other considerations whatever, choose to live rather by their wits than their work. In London, and in all great towns, there are a thousand means of turning a penny, and a pound too, by practices and pursuits which, though opposed to the spirit of the law, are found in fact to be rarely punishable by it. It is hardly to be wondered at, when we take into consideration the infinite varieties of human character, that wherever men are congregated in great numbers, a certain portion of them should be found, whose pleasure and delight it is to beard, to violate, and to elude the penal statutes. Rogues of this sort abound in the metropolis, and no inconsiderable amount of skill and cunning are displayed in the pursuit of their vocation. It is a question whether with some of them profit alone, unconnected with peculation, would have any charms; their industry demands the spice and flavour of rascality to stimulate it into action: they have no wholesome appetite for an honest penny, and would starve and die out but for the excitement of roguery. The following outlines cursorily sketched from the life, may serve to introduce to the notice of the reader a few of the worthies who manage to enjoy the patronage of the public for services more than doubtful, and who, keeping for the most part out of the grasp of the law, do yet gain a living by its infraction.
THE FREE FORESTER.
This is a designation probably unknown to the majority of
readers as applicable to the denizen of a crowded city: it is
assumed, however, with no small degree of pride, by the members of a certain class well known to each other, and who are
to be found sparsely scattered through the streets of London
at all seasons of the year, with the exception of the fading
autumn and during the rigour of winter. The free forester
owes his title and his occupation to that inextinguishable love
of nature which prevails more or less in all great towns and
cities, united with his own independence of the claims of
meum and tuum, and with the right which he has established,
to his own satisfaction at least, to certain waifs and strays of
the vegetable kingdom, or rather to certain vegetable property
which he chooses to consider his lawful prey. He is a trader
without capital; a seller who neither produces nor purchases;
a gardener and arboriculturist without an inch of ground;
a dealer in game and poultry too at times, having no license
either to shoot or to sell the savoury wares, for the possession
of which he would be puzzled to account.
With the very earliest breath of spring, the free forester, quitting his winter avocation, whatever it may be, appears in the streets of London, on the edge of some wide pavement, or between the shafts of a hand-cart, in charge of a goodly stock of the first budding promises of the opening year. Imitating the perambulating gardeners, he sets up the cry of "All a-growing and a-blowing!"-and among a population notoriously fond of flowers, who, if they can have a garden nowhere else, will establish one upon their window-sills, he soon succeeds in disposing of his roots. These consist of snowdrops, primrose; polyanthuses, violets, oxlips, slips of geranium, hen-and-chicken daisies, and other early blooming flowers, or sweet-smelling herbs. As the spring advances, and warms into summer, you see him still pursuing his rounds, or standing at his accustomed corner, well supplied with the blossoming flora of the season; tulips, hyacinths, roses-red, white, or mossy-fuchsias, rhododendrons, young variegated laurel, fir and box-frees in pots, bushes of rue and London-pride, balsams, geraniums, ranunculuses - everything, in short, that will grow out of the hothouse, and which garden-loving citizens are fond of cultivating in front or rear of their suburban dwellings. As summer wanes, and autumn steps quietly on the scene, the activity of the free forester would seem somewhat to abate: his cry is not so frequently heard; his stand at the corner of the street has altogether disappeared; and though he is here and there seen pushing through the crowd his handcart, still gay with the rich hues of autumnal blossoms, he yet drives but a laggard trade, and that only by dint of the lowest possible prices, which, however, he can well afford to take for wares which have cost him nothing, or next to nothing. Long before the chrysanthemum has bared her starry face to welcome the waning year, the free forester has vanished, like the last rose of summer, to return no more till the dawn of a new spring recals him to the scene of his labours.
But the reader naturally inquires, How does the fellow come by his merchandise? We are not in a condition to give a perfectly satisfactory reply to this question. Thus much, however, we know: he is seen to start from the neighbourhood of St. Giles's, not far from what yet remains of the old Rookery, late in the afternoon, or in the early twilight of a spring or summer's evening, sometimes driving before him an empty hand-cart, at others carrying over his shoulders a large canvas sack of four or five bushel capacity. Directing his course towards the suburbs, doubtless in pursuance of a plan previously designed, he is beyond the limits of London ere night closes in; and, marvellous to say, long before the drowsy citizen has begun to dream of breakfast, he is back again to his expectant partner, at the point from whence he started. Consigning the produce of his night's industry to his chum, he turns into bed for an hour or two, while the other prepares the goods consigned to him for the inspection of the public. In this business no time is lost. We once witnessed, with perfect amazement, this apparently miraculous process, the operator dreaming of nothing so little as that his actions were under review. In the case referred to the wares were contained in a large bag, about two feet in diameter, and four or five in length, and must have weighed considerably above a hundredweight. The dresser-for so he may be appropriately called-turned them all out carefully upon the ground in the square back-yard of a twopenny lodging-house: this he did not by emptying the bag at its mouth, but by unbuttoning it at the sides, and laying open its contents. These consisted of flower-roots in full bloom for the most part, but crushed, heaped, and tumbled together in such a squashed condition, as to appear fit for nothing but the manure heap. But he very soon changed the aspect of the stock into a goodly show, of which a Covent-garden cultivator would not have been ashamed. Selecting the finest flowers from the mass, with a pair of short shears he cut away the bruised or broken leaves, and rinsing the plant in a small stream from a stopcock, set it firmly in a pot already prepared with mould, in far less time than it takes to describe the deed. Producing the mould-filled pots from an outhouse as fast as they were required, he soon had some dozens of fine blooming flowers in a condition for sale. Around the roots of each, as he set it aside as finished, he poured carefully, using a small ladle for the purpose, a few drops of a dirty-looking liquid from an earthenware pan which stood in a corner: this no doubt was some powerful vegetable stimulant, under the influence of which the excited plants would, for one day at least (long enough for his purpose), assume the appearance of extraordinary healthiness and vigour. In fact, when, in less than two hours afterwards, the whole stock, ranged on a couple of broad hand-carts, sallied out of the lane on its way to the fashionable thoroughfares of the West End, the show of tender balsams with their delicate blossoms, and gorgeous geraniums glittering in fiery redness, looked so beautiful and so healthy, such a credit to the skill of the florist, that we felt it would be madness to attempt to convince any one not an eye-witness like ourselves of what had been their actual condition three hours back. That portion of the stock not intended for potting was more summarily dealt with. It consisted of roots adapted for front gardens, chiefly of common flowers and sweet-smelling herbs, which, having suffered little from the rough usage and confinement to which they had been subjected, were merely sprinkled with a little water, and then ranged round the edges of the carts, forming a kind of inclosure for those in pots.
If the reader is not yet enlightened as to the manner in which the free forester comes by his merchandise, let him live in the suburbs of London, and try the experiment, as we have for the last seven years, of cultivating a garden in front of his parlour window. Let him note, moreover, what becomes of the contents of a garden, front or back, of a suburban house during the interval between the departure of one tenant and the arrival of another. We are loth to cast a slur upon the character of any class, more especially of one that is so eminently industrious, that lives not only laborious days, but laborious nights as well, - one, too, that loves flowers and green fields, both a passion with ourselves; but the truth must out for all that, and the plain unvarnished truth is, as Dr. Johnson would have phrased it, "The fellow's a thief, and there's an end on't."
But, as we have already hinted, this worthy does not confine his attention exclusively to botanical experiments; there is a department of natural history in which he has considerable interest, and by the cultivation of which he adds not a little to his annual income. Those Michaelmas martyrs, the geese, find their way somehow or other into his bag or his basket, and during the last week of September he drives a brisk trade with liberal-minded customers, whom he knows well where to meet with, and who, "asking no questions for conscience' sake," are content to buy a fat goose at a lean price, without troubling themselves to inquire under what circumstances the plump victim left the farmer's yard. His customers for poultry and game, it may be remarked by the way, are chiefly the well-employed workmen and operatives of the metropolis. In large establishments, where scores or hundreds of men are congregated for industrial purposes, he makes his appearance, after regular intervals, during the whole game season, generally coming an hour or two before pay-time, well laden with dainties doomed to smoke on the Sunday dinner-table of the artisan. The men banter him upon the cheapness of his wares; but his brazen self-possession is never put to the blush. He offers a couple of fowls or a hare at fifty per cent. below the selling-price in the cheapest market in London, observing, by way of recommending the bargain, "I suppose you thinks I stole em, but I'm blow'd if' you ain't wrong this here once. Them fowls was sent to me by my old gran'mother in the country, to keep my birthday with; but you see the old lady didn't send no sarce nor sassingers, and as I can't afford to buy trimmins, and it goes agin my conscience to eat 'em without, I hoffers 'em to you at two-and-twopence." "Why, how often does your birthday come round?" asks the workman. "That hare I bought of you a fortnight ago was given to you by a friend as a birthday present!" "As often as I wants it of course," replies the chapman; "that's a privilege I've got, if I harn't got ne' er another. Come, take 'em at two bob: I can't be bothering all day with them birds." As may be readily imagined, at such prices his merchandise does not remain long on hand: goose, chicken, hare, or turkey soon find new proprietors, and the free forester, shouldering his basket, disappears without loss of tine.
Occasionally he will make his appearance in the workshop in the middle of the week, bringing a couple of fresh hares or rabbits, or a basket of live fowls; "because," says he, "if you don't want to eat your Sunday's dinner on a Wednesday or Thursday, them pussies'll keep for a week, and the birds is fresh enough, I spose, if you kills 'em when you wants 'em. A shillin' a piece-ax no more, and take no less. Didn't smug em nether; if I had, they'd a been eighteenpence. Got a man to steal 'em for me, a friend o' mine, as wants to be off to Botany arter his wife, as was sent over by mistake. I gived him the job cos it went to my heart, it did, to see him a grievin' an' a takin' on so. Come, who's for the live birds, and who's for the cats? Don't all speak at once, cos I hates confusion and bother. There, if that ain't enough for the money, I'll give you the next for nothin'!" One would think, by the light-hearted hilarity of the fellow, that his conscience was pretty clear of offence; but the expression of his eye belies his rattling tongue, and tells of a lurking dread of some not improbable mischance, which he is not altogether unprepared to meet. We must remark that it is not always that the viands he offers for sale are fit for eating. He is in the habit occasionally of intercepting a cargo of fish or a "lot" of game on its way to the river, where, in the dawn of morning or the dead of night, certain dealers in those commodities are wont to consign their stale and unsaleable stock to the bosom of Father Thames. His impudence enables him to pass off such wares with unblushing effrontery; he knows that, however offensive they may have been to the olfactories for this week past, the keenest nose will detect nothing wrong after be has "taken the stink out of them;" a process which he effectually performs, and the means of doing which he guards as a profound secret. If he encounter complaint on the subject of such bargains on again making his appearance at his accustomed haunt, he flies into a violent rage with the fictitious personage who, he swears, "sold him the lot of goods," by which he declares he not only lost money, but disobliged his best customers. His career is not generally of very long duration; his constitution would seem to be colonial, with an antipodal tendency: he is apt to become the subject of compulsory emigration, and is often required to complete his botanical studies, and to consummate his natural history experience, under official surveillance in a far-distant region. Some of them, however, being their own "fences," and having the caution to keep their depredations within bounds, escape such untoward accidents; and after accumulating a sufficient fund, cease their perambulations, and settle down in some safer calling. It is rare to meet with a man of mature years leading the life of a free forester in London.
We might fill a volume with the performances of this
worthy, but must perforce despatch him summarily, as others
are waiting to be limned as soon as we have moved him out
of the way. This notable personage locates principally in the
neighbourhood of Whitechapel, though many of his kith and
kin are to be met with in or near the neighbourhood of Smithfield, and in the lowest parts of Westminster. In appearance,
the horse-maker has nothing Cockneyish or London-like about
him; even his dialect, though he be a Cockney born and bred,
is in some degree provincial both in idiom and accent. His
costume is that of the respectable agricultural yeoman or
small farmer; and is always in neat and tidy trim. He
affects a rustic gentility and simplicity of behaviour, and
disarms suspicion by his cheerful, open, loquacious, and unsophisticated manner: he makes no great parade of himself in
the markets, never attending, in fact, when his presence can
be dispensed with. By this means his simulated character
lasts him the longer, and he is saved from the disagreeable
necessity of shifting the scene of his labours. His business is
to purchase horses which, from accident, vice, disease, or even
old age, are rendered unfit for the service of man, and then,
by means best known to himself, to metamorphose the poor
beasts into quiet, plausible, serviceable-looking steeds, and to
sell them, while yet under the influence of his all-potent
incantations, to unwary customers. There is hardly a disorder horse-flesh is heir to the symptoms of which he cannot
temporarily banish, by means of drug, knife, cautery, or some
secret nostrum; while there is no animal so vicious but that
he can subdue him for a time to quiet good behaviour. By
dint of shears, singeing, currycomb, and brush, under his
direction the roughest hide assumes the radiant polish of the
turf; by the cunning application of ginger or cayenne to the
jaws, the nostrils, the ears, or elsewhere, the dullest worn-out
hack is stimulated into sprightliness and demonstrations of
blood and breeding; and the poor honest brutes are compelled
by his arts to play the hypocrite, and to assume virtues and
qualities to which they have perhaps been strangers all their
The horse-maker has an intimate connection with the knackers' yards, to the proprietors of which he is well known as a customer. Not a few of his bargains in horseflesh have been previously doomed to the dogs (or rather, in London, to the cats), and have been temporarily rescued by him from the knackers' knife. So well is this known, that respectable dealers in the metropolis, on sending a horse to be slaughtered, invariably charge their servants to see the animal slain before quitting the premises of the knacker. If this precautionary measure be omitted, it is more than possible that the owner of the beast may find himself, a few days after, mounted on the very brute which he had condemned to the knife, having bought him, re-manufactured, to supply the place of the supposed dead one. An instance actually occurred no great while ago of a farmer selling an old roadster for dog's-meat price at Barnet Fair, and buying him again two days after at Smithfield, riding home well pleased with his purchase, and only discovering the fraud through the unaccountable familiarity of what he supposed to be the stranger horse with his old quarters.
A favourite speculation of these worthies, and one that generally pays a swinging per-centage, is by clubbing together to purchase at a country fair a lot of wild colts fresh from the hills, and, by dint of doctoring and dressing, to prepare them for exhibition and sale at the West End auction- marts. We have more than once witnessed the sale of these job-lots, which very rarely result to the satisfaction of the purchasers. We have seen each separate nag, just two minutes before he was led out to exhibit his paces in view of the company; subjected to certain indescribable manipulations and applications of stimulating nostrum; intended and calculated to make him counterfeit the gait and action of thorough-breeding, or something like it; and many a hack, whose actual value must have been something between seven and ten pounds, have we seen knocked down for from twenty to thirty guineas, or even more, to heedless amateurs in horseflesh, who, before a week was over, would have been too glad to part with their bargains at a loss of fifty per cent. Still, it is possible at times to get a bargain even from a horse maker. From the intimate practical knowledge these fellows acquire of all the various diseases and vicious propensities of the race equine, it does occasionally happen, especially when the defect is a vice, and not a disease, that they will effect a thorough cure. We were once too well acquainted with a brute who possessed every quality that a horse should have, with the exception of docility, the want of which nullified all the rest. Though valued at between fifty and sixty guineas, from his fine proportions and strength of limb, he was sold, after a score of grooms had tried their skill upon him in vain, for three sovereigns to a member of this fraternity, who, a fortnight afterwards, exhibited him in harness drawing near two tons with perfect ease and willingness, though he had not heretofore in any other hands submitted to become of any use whatever. His vanquisher declared that he had taken the devil out of him by driving him from Vauxhall to Bristol in one day, allowing him one day's rest, and then back again on the third day. Be this as it may, the horse was purchased at a high price for her Majesty's service, and we saw him frequently afterwards performing the hardest work with perfect quietness and docility.
This class of deceivers seldom succeed in their attempts to get on; they are for the most part men who, seduced by the love of the saddle and whip, have deserted the occupations to which they were brought up, and have sought, without capital, to participate in the profits of the regular dealer in horses. Not a few of them are the proprietors of ricketty cabs or hackney-coaches, which, like the beasts that draw them, have been long ago fairly worn out in the service of the public. It is not unusual to encounter an equipage which, including horse, harness, and vehicle, would be a sorry purchase at five pounds. The hungry proprietor, seated on the box, crawls about the streets in the dusk of the evening in hopes of picking up another, and still another, last fare: he is afraid to halt at the regular "stand," lest his poor staggering brute should be too stiff to move off in case of a sudden call. The scoundrel has platted an iron wire into the thin end of his whip-lash, well knowing that nothing short of actual torture will goad the wretched jade he drives into anything faster than a walking-pace! One is often tempted at such a spectacle to pray for a collision with some racing van or omnibus, which shall shake the little remaining life out of the poor brute, and thus release him from the tyranny of his master, punishing the biped at the same moment for his dastardly inhumanity.
Dog-making was a craft once practised in London, though with but limited and temporary success. The business had its origin in the great demand for pet dogs of certain breeds (principally Blenheim spaniels and small terriers, both Scotch and English), taken in connection with the great mortality which marks the first year of canine existence. If there were any accurate statistics on such matters, they would show us, there is little doubt, that above one-third of the dogs bred for pets, and designed literally for the lap of fashion, die in their first year. The dog-dealers, not much relishing this great deduction from their profits, were in the habit, not many years ago, of fitting the skins of their deceased favourites to the bodies of a more hardy race. A breed of mongrels was kept on hand, doomed to be promoted in course of time to the castoff finery of the defunct elegantes. This process was so ingeniously accomplished, that the fraud could be detected only by a very minute inspection. We have seen one of these puppy masqueraders, the offspring of a bull-bitch, so cleverly indued with the hide of a King Charles's spaniel, as not merely to preclude all likelihood of suspicion, but to baffle any investigation that could be made without exciting the animal's outcries. The skin was not only cut to measure, and carefully sewed on, but was further attached by a powerful cement - and it is worthy of remark that the experiment would have resulted in the speedy death of any animal which does not, like the dog, perspire through the tongue, as the cement used must necessarily prevent perspiration through the skin. Such living manufactures were generally sold at the corners of streets, and got rid of, if possible, out of hand, for reasons too obvious to mention. Dog-making may, however, now be considered as a branch of industry that has become extinct. That spirit of improvement in the economy of manufactures which of late years has tended so much to cheapen production, has had its effect upon the dog trade as well as others, the professors of which have arrived at a conclusion, the soundness of which we have at least no logical reason to doubt-namely, that it is more remunerative to steal the animals in a genuine state, than to fabricate false ones at the cost of no small labour and ingenuity, which, after all, for want of a speedy sale, may be frequently thrown away.
The dog-stealer's establishment - and there are a considerable number of them in different parts of the metropolis -
is generally situated in the immediate neighbourhood of some
mews or livery stables, and is in fact very frequently a dilapidated stable, temporarily fitted up for the reception of the
stolen animals. A servant of the proprietor is always in
attendance on the premises, both day and night, provided
with food, and a whip, to feed the hungry, and castigate the
quarrelsome. lie receives all animals bearing a marketable
value which are brought by the dog-thieves, who continually
perambulate the streets at all hours of the twenty-four in search
of their prey - giving a check upon his employer for a certain
specified sum, according to a scale agreed upon. These kidnappers, we may observe, have no necessary connection with
any particular establishment, but generally dispose of their
plunder at the receptacle nearest at hand, or at that where
the highest price can be obtained; for in this, as well as in all other trades, there exists a strong competition. Many of these
ill-doers, it is pitiable to remark, are women, who meet with
vastly more success in the capture of the small and expensive
pets which abound in the fashionable quarters of the town
than do the men or boys.
We cannot be mistaken in our narration of the details of this nefarious traffic, because we have sat pursuing our vocation within twenty feet of one of these receptacles for a whole twelvemonth, unseen, though observing everything. During this period the whole economy of the trade became as palpable to view as it would have been had we organized it ourselves. At all hours of the day, but chiefly at dusk and early morning, the kidnappers would arrive, bringing dogs for transfer, and receiving a scrap of paper in exchange. Sometimes the animals were brought openly in arms, sometimes they were led by a string - but more frequently were concealed about the person of the thief, and only produced after entering the premises and closing the door. Pampered lap-dogs, poodles, terriers, and spaniels, came in pretty regular rotation to this den of disquiet; and occasionally pointers, setters, beagles, and retrievers, of considerable value, would make their appearance. Now and then, too, some huge, unsightly, rough-coated, half-starved cur would arrive, whom the passing of the dog-cart act, then recently enacted, had probably thrown out of occupation, and condemned to a wandering life of perpetual famine: once within the portals of this inferno, his miseries were soon terminated, he being introduced for the purpose of furnishing food for his fellow-prisoners.
A considerable per-centage of the stolen dogs find their way back to their owners - and indeed it is a disappointment to the receiver if the loss be not advertised, and a reward offered. When this is not readily done, unless the dog be of a breed for which there is a great demand, the loser will probably hear of his or her favourite, and be informed that the missing pet will be forthcoming on the payment of a certain sum. Unfortunately, however, fancy dogs, especially of what is called King Charles's breed, are in great request at the present time in Holland and Belgium, and considerable numbers are exported periodically to supply the markets in those countries. The stock in this country is not so much diminished as this continual exportation would lead us to infer, because the Dutch and Belgic dog-thieves, who are not a whit less expert than their Anglican brethren, industriously manage to ship a good proportion of them back again - so that many a bewildered poodle passes half his lifetime at sea. What becomes of those which, being unfit for exportation, are not redeemed by their owners, it is not easy to say. Great numbers, without doubt, are sacrificed for the sake of their skins; others, docked, clipped, and shorn (and sometimes dyed) out of all resemblance to their former selves, are sold to sporting gentlemen at country fairs and markets; and others, as we have good reason to know, after enduring the miseries of imprisonment and semi-starvation for weeks, or perhaps months, are emancipated by a disease which attacks the skin, upon the first appearance of which they are sent summarily about their business, less they should infect the whole stock in trade.
The dog-stealer contrives most adroitly to evade the law. The proprietor of a dozen dog-layers is never seen even in company with a dog when making his rounds. The rewards are claimed and received by agents who well understand the department of the business allotted to them; no cross-questioning will ever induce them to vary from the stereotyped statement they have to make. It is said that they are allowed by their principal a very liberal per-centage, and that to make the transaction safe to him, they have to pay over the amount of the reward before they receive it- that is, upon the reception of the missing dog for restoration to the owner. Speaking commercially, the allowance ought to bear a thumping commission for del credere, seeing that the deliverer runs a risk of never getting the reward, or at least of being put to the inconvenience of swearing a false oath to obtain it.
The ostensible profession of the dog-stealer is almost invariably that of dog-doctor, and indeed in some parts of the town he make a good income by this branch of his business, frequently getting a golden fee in payment for a prescription for some aristocratic valetudinarian pug or poodle. If his receptacles attract the notice of the police, they are described as infirmaries, and the prisoners as patients; and even if a lost dog be discovered in one of them, he has of course been deposited there for the purpose of medical treatment by a party unknown to the proprietor.
It sometimes happens that the reward offered for the recovery of a stolen dog- is not deemed of sufficient amount by the thief in possession, who will coolly negotiate for a more liberal remuneration. A friend of the writer lost a handsome spaniel, and had bills printed, offering a guinea for his recovery. Next day he received a note, informing him that if the reward were doubled he would see his favourite in the course of a few hours. A reply, acceding to the demand, was despatched to the address indicated in the note. The owner was accosted a few hours after, on his way home from office in the evening, by two men, one bearing the dog in his arms; and though he had formed an excellent plan for recovering possession of his own without paying anything, he yet found it necessary to keep to the terms of his contract, or else forego for ever the recovery of the dog - an alternative not to be thought of.
Dog-stealing would appear to be carried on with more impunity than any other species of theft, seeing that the convictions, when viewed in connection with the number of offences daily and almost hourly occurring, are astonishingly few.
THE DRINK DOCTOR
In what dark, dim, and mystical region of the metropolis
this potent and indispensable ally of the licensed victualler
and the gin-king has fixed his habitat we could never yet
succeed in discovering; but we have marked well his doings,
and have strictly noted his stealthy but undeviating appearance in the wake of the distiller's cart and the brewer's dray,
in whose track he follows as sure as night succeeds to sunset.
Come forth thou man of mystery; present thyself for once
to the eye of day; and though the sun never yet shone upon
the performance of thy secret labours, yet allow his gladsome
rays to reveal to us thy lineaments for this once only; show
thy grave face to the glare of noon, and attest if thou wilt
the truth of our delineation, while we portray thee and thy
function for the benefit of that public from whose gaze thou
modestly retirest, and whom - thyself withdrawn in diffident
obscurity-thou art content to poison in the pursuit of thy
quiet and unobtrusive profession!
Mister Quintin Quassia, D.D., as the gin-spinners and beer-druggers who require his services gravely address him, is a being of seedy garb, of saturnine aspect, and taciturn disposition. He is a member of no learned .profession, and is in possession of no degree, save a very considerable degree of quiet impudence and self-possession. Though enjoying the designation of Doctor - a title which he doubtless owes to his abundant use of drugs in the practice of his art - he would be perhaps better described as a professor of magic- multiplication, seeing that, without condescending to have recourse to a vulgar arithmetical process, he has the power of doubling, ay, and more than doubling, the quantity of certain potables as delivered per invoice into the cellar of the publican. Under his miraculous management three hogs heads of proof gin from the distillers shall in the course of a single night become transformed into seven substantial hogsheads of "Cream of the Valley." He has the assistance of a redoubtable necromancer in the person of Father Thames, whom he secretly invokes from his oozy bed at the dead of night. He has also another liquid spirit at his beck- a spirit whose touch is torture, and whose function it frequently is to burn what fire will not consume - the fiend of sulphuric acid, whose vulgar retail name is vitriol. In his pouch he carries poisons of terrible efficacy, and thirst-exciting drugs to consummate his work.
The presence of Quintin Quassia at the publican's is invariably required, as we have intimated above, after the arrival of a consignment of spirits from the distiller, and is always preceded by the advent of a number of goodly cones of loaf-sugar, without the admixture of which the gin-drinking legions of London would not tolerate a drop of the diabolical mixture concocted for them. Upon such occasions the doctor may be seen dropping in, as though accidentally, at the bar-parlour a few moments before. the hour of closing; taking a seat as a customer, he sits sipping a glass of grog until the last lingering sot has cleared out - when, presto! he and the landlord, stripping to their shirt sleeves, are off to the cellar, and plunged at once into the mysteries of that manufacture upon the success of which the prosperity and reputation. of the arena of drunkenness and demoralization mainly depend. The floods of life-destroying liquor sold in London daily under the names of "Cordial Gin," "Cream of the Valley," "Old Tom," and a dozen other popular appellations, are all so many specious mixtures, having pure unsweetened spirits as a basis, made up to suit the sophisticated taste of the London drunkard. Were the spirit retailed to the public in the same condition in which it is consigned by the distiller to the publican, the latter would soon find his customers reduced to less than a tithe of their present number. The mild though potent flavour of unmixed spirits has not sufficient zest for the dregs of the London population, who are the principal supporters of the gin-shop; they look for the fiery sting that vitriol imparts, which they relish for its fatal warmth, and consider as a proof of the genuineness of the poison they imbibe. Moreover, they require it highly sweetened, and in this they are amply indulged by the doctor, who knows that their depraved thirst is rather excited than satisfied by sweetened spirits.
The enormous fortunes realized by the proprietors of gin-shops situated in certain favourable localities are altogether due to the operations of the Drink-Doctor upon the material there so abundantly retailed over the counter, and "drunk on the premises". It is a fact that gin is often ostensibly sold at many of these palaces at a cost scarcely a fraction above that at which it can be furnished by the distillers. We once asked the proprietor of one of these thriving temples of vice how it came to pass that he could sell his "mountain dew," as he called it, at a price which barely covered the original cost of the neat spirits. "You know nothing about it," said he: "if the cost were double what it is, I should make a spanking profit out of it notwithstanding." Of course he could. We had not then had the pleasure of the doctor's acquaintance, nor obtained any insight into the nature of his nocturnal orgies.
The extravagant and plundering profit realized by the gin-spinner sufficiently accounts for the eagerness with which licenses are sought after whenever a pretext can be found or formed for opening a public-house or a gin-shop. The growth of these places is gradual, but unfortunately too certain. The plan generally pursued in the metropolis is this: a beer-shop is first started in a carefully-selected locality; every means is used to draw custom to the spot; the liquor sold is good, cheap, and unadulterated; and a reputation is speedily gamed for the house among the operative classes, whose great delight, recreation, and luxury is beer. When the trade is nursed up to its highest point, a memorial is got up, addressed to the proper magisterial authorities, and signed by every householder in the neighbourhood whose signature can be by any means obtained. This is forwarded to the magistrates, who at their next district meeting consider the claims of all applicants; and if the petitioner have any influence, or any friend among the magnates of his parish, a license is pretty sure to be granted. In a very short period the humble Tom and Jerry shop is transformed into a gin-palace - the wholesome beer is gradually changed for a loathsome physicky wash, in order that the customers may prefer spirits to beer-the manufacture of vitriol and sugar commences - and the neighbourhood, changed from "Beer Street" to "Gin Lane," is in due course of being poisoned and demoralized secundum artem - the proprietor confidently contemplating a retirement at no distant period upon a comfortable estate. Any time between ten and twenty years ago this prospect was pretty sure to be realized by any one fortunate enough to obtain a license, and (being unencumbered by moral or conscientious scruples) in the possession of moderate industry and perseverance. We knew a young man who, without a single talent, or capacity enough for a tradesman's craft, in seven years realized a clear ten thousand pounds, and retired upon that capital to the enjoyment of a country life while yet in his twenty-ninth year!
The doings of the doctor in the beer department are not of so miraculous a character as those already described, still they are worthy of note. Though the contents of a cask of beer cannot be doubled with any probability of finding a thoroughfare through the popular throat, yet they may, with cautious management, be increased some thirty or forty per cent. Quassia, liquorice, coculus Indicus, and certain other cheap ingredients, will carry a profitable quantity of water, and yet impart a flavour to the beer which, so far from being repulsive to the palate of the London sot, long trained by the publicans to the tolerance of such poisons, is rather agreeable than otherwise. But the chief aim of the doctor with regard to beer is to render it provocative of thirst, so that the fatigued workman who comes in for a glass to refresh himself, may find, upon drinking it, that a quart more at least is necessary to quench the thirst it has excited. By this means drunkards are manufactured by degrees, and thus men sit the livelong evenings through, drinking eight or ten pints consecutively, and wondering the while at their own capacities for imbibition.
It is by the aid of the doctor that the weakest wash of the brewer is transformed at times into treble X. Under his talismanic charm simple porter becomes double stout, and fetches more than double price. He knows the precise taste of all classes of customers, and readily prepares from the common staple supplied by the brewer either the full-bodied "lush," in which the swart and brawny coal-heaver luxuriates, or the thin supper beer of the sober tradesman or sedentary clerk. He is called into council invariably when a new house is opened, and pronounces learnedly upon the precise character of the beverage which will suit the neighbourhood, and which of course he undertakes to manufacture. His exploits have, however, been much limited of late years, owing to the opening of' a vast number of houses belonging to brewers, who, not cherishing any great opinion of the doctor's skill, prefer that the beer-bibbing public should have an opportunity of fairly estimating their own, and who consequently make it a rigid condition with their tenants (who are required to deal exclusively with their landlords) that the malt liquors they are supplied with shall be retailed to the public in an unsophisticated state. Still, the doctor has his laugh against the brewer; for it is a lamentable fact that his artifices have been so long and so successfully practised, that the public palate is almost universally vitiated, and pretty generally revolts against the taste of unadulterated malt liquor. As a consequence, the "brewers' houses are comparatively deserted, or else owe what degree of reputation and encouragement they enjoy to the success their owners may attain in acting as their own doctors, and counterfeiting those factitious beverages which the drinking public persist in preferring to the honest infusion of malt and hops.
One would imagine that a man whose entire occupation consisted of adulteration in one form or other would be at least so far awake to the consequence of indulgence in such villanous potions as we have described as to refrain from partaking of them himself. No such thing, however; the doctor is a doomed drunkard, and sooner or later sinks to the lowest abyss of drunken degradation, and dies the drunkard's death. Perhaps it is but justice that such a knave should perish in the pit which it has been the business of his life to prepare for his fellow-creatures.
This is an ingenious and impudent scamp, who prides himself upon being able to get a living out of those who thrive
and grow fat upon the distress and ruin of the necessitous
classes. He is not unusually a tailor out of work, having no
intention of getting in work if he can by any possibility avoid
it; because he greatly prefers his liberty in the public thoroughfares, and the companionship of tap-room associates, to
squatting eternally cross-legged upon the shop-board, engaged
in the, to him, hopeless attempt of what Beau Brummel called
achieving a collar. It would appear at first view that to
make a profit by pledging were a still more hopeless task: he
does not find it so. He knows that as in all other trades, so
among the pawnbrokers, a violent competition prevails. In
order to preserve their connection, and, if possible, to
increase it, those who lend money upon the security of
goods find themselves compelled to advance sums approximating as near as the safety of each several transaction
will allow to the actual commercial value of the goods
hypothecated. So thoroughly is this principle carried out,
that in those densely-populated neighbourhoods where pawnbrokers abound, any domestic utensil or commonly-used
article of wearing apparel would be estimated at a dozen different establishments consecutively at a price hardly varying
a fraction, and verging closely upon the value it would sell
for at an auction. It is clear, then, that if the pawner can
succeed in enhancing the apparent value of his wares, or if
he can impose upon the pawnbroker by any kind of deception,
he may procure a loan of the full value, or even sometimes
above the full value, of the pledged articles. This he knows
full well; but he knows something more - namely, that every
breathing pawnbroker would rather lend. three shillings than
five, because the law allows the same interest upon both sums;
or six shillings than ten, for the same reason. These facts
being premised, behold him walking into a pawnbroker's shop
with half-a-dozen pieces of figured waistcoatings on his arm,
and a tailor's thimble on his finger. "Here," says he, "I've
got six waistcoats to make, and I must spout one to buy the
trimmings; let's have three shillings." Now three shillings
has the smack of a bargain to the pawnbroker, who, if he
has not been "done" before, will lend the money to a tailor
thus circumstanced without much hesitation, even though the
article impounded be scarcely worth more. In this way the
plausible rascal manages to get off the raw material of coats,
waistcoats, and trousers in considerable abundance; some cut
out ready for making, though not intended ever to be made
by him; others in the shape of remnants of cloth, speciously
prepared to simulate a fine quality. It is not to be supposed
that he invariably obtains from the pawnbrokers the entire
value of his goods; that, indeed, is of no great consequence,
because he knows how to find or to make a market for the
duplicates, from which it is that be principally makes his
It is a fact pretty well known to all who have paid any continuous attention to the habits of the operative classes, that by far the major part of the working-men of London muddle away the leisure of their evenings in the tap-rooms, or purlieus of beer-shops and public-houses. As these places are free to all corners, the pawner finds himself of an evening in the company of some dozen or score of thirsty artificers, who, having drowned what little prudence and caution they had in successive pots of beer, are in the precise condition he would wish them to be. Assuming the character of a broken-down tradesman, who has been compelled by misfortune to part with everything, he humbly requests any kind-hearted gentleman present who would do him a service, and at the same time secure an advantageous bargain for himself, to look at the various duplicates of his stock in trade, and select any article that may suit him. In this manner he contrives to get rid of the greater part of his tickets, and frequently realizes, from the combined transactions with the pawnbroker and the public-house dupe, cent. per cent. upon the original cost of his curiously-managed merchandise.
It may be readily conceived that the pawner does not confine himself to any particular kind of stock. Besides clothing, and the materials for clothing, he trades in articles of jewellery, silver and gold watches, mathematical and scientific instruments, fiddles, flutes, and trumpets - everything, in short, in a portable form and of indefinite value. These he picks up at auction sales; and as he gives but one price for an article for which he is pretty sure of obtaining two prices, his profit is neither small nor uncertain, He is also sometimes known to turn his trade of tailor to good account, by turning an old coat bought for a few shillings, pledging it, and selling the duplicate to a simpleton credulous enough to pay the price of a new one.
The career of this peddling rascal is of comparatively brief duration. In a few short years at most he wears out his vocation, through want of prudence in carrying it on. The pawnbrokers in quick time get his face by heart, and his beer-drinking dupes are very apt to avenge their victimization by the exercise of a species of Lynch-law, which effectually indisposes him to further experiments upon their pockets. When debarred from the practice of his nefarious occupation, he cannot return to industrious labour, but generally takes to the road in the character of a tramp, and lives as long as he can upon the forced contributions of the industrious members of his craft. This is the lowest, as it is generally the last, stage of degradation; and it is vain to look for him further.
It would appear to an uninitiated observer that property of
any description, which has been consigned to an auctioneer
for disposal by public sale, which is submitted to public competition, and which can. be sold only with the auctioneer's
consent and complicity, is pretty sure of producing, if not
something like its actual value in the commercial market, at
least its value to the parties present at the sale, minus that
fair retailer's profit which it ought to be the effect of general
competition to reduce to its minimum amount. However
reasonable such an expectation, nothing is more uncertain
than its realisation in the numerous auction marts in the
metropolis. There exists a system of wholesale theft and
robbery so widely diffused, and so universally carried into
execution, that it is impossible to form any estimate of the
plunder, which must be enormous in its aggregate amount,
and which forms the daily and hourly booty of a set of heartless and unprincipled harpies, who grow rich and fatten upon
the domestic misfortunes of their fellow-men. By the operation of this nefarious system, the apparently fair and honest
procedure of sale by public roup is utterly vitiated; and the
auctioneer-who in a case of unreserved sale, such as that in
which the property is adjudged to the hammer under a distress
warrant, has no power either to protect the rights of the unfortunate owners, or to save himself from the degraded
position he is forced to occupy - is made the unwilling tool of
a set of scoundrels, to whom he is compelled to assign, one
after another, articles frequently of high finish and sterling
value, for sums paltry in the extreme, if not merely nominal.
Those who have noticed the rapid, almost sudden, growth and expansion of certain brokering chapmen and dealers in articles of furniture, pictures, musical instruments, curiosities, bronzes, vases, and objects of vertu, must have been often struck with surprise at their miraculously speedy prosperity. The small front shop soon bursts into the back parlour; it then creeps upstairs; then the proprietor buys out his neighbours, and overflows first on one side, then on the other, with his fast-increasing stock, till at length half the street, or the whole of it, is one huge repository of everything domestic which necessity, luxury, or vanity can demand and industry supply. The course of knavery we are about to describe may serve to moderate the surprise of the observer.
Be it understood, then, that there exists a species of federal union, never talked about, yet open to all whose trade it is to buy by auction for purposes of retailing. The primary object of this union is, to suppress and prevent that competition which it is the purpose of public sale to elicit. As a general rule it may be affirmed that of this union every broker, dealer or buyer by trade, whose principle of integrity is not sufficiently strong to resist the temptation, is, tacitly at least, a member. And indeed, however honest a dealer may be, he is often compelled in self-defence to wink at the proceedings of the gang, even though he refrain from participating in their vile gains. We must not be supposed to infer that this iniquitous confederation is organised upon any regular system - that it boasts of any rules or written documents of any kind. Such a tangible embodiment of its principles would of course be fraught with peril to the parties concerned, and is therefore avoided. The phrase "honour among thieves" expresses the sole law by which the proceedings of its numerous members are regulated; and though they often quarrel bitterly over the division of the spoil, and have been seen to fight furiously for their imagined rights, they are never known to have recourse to the law for protection. From all we can gather concerning the origin of this foul conspiracy - and we have taken some pains in the investigation - it would appear that it has been of slow and gradual growth, and that it was, in the first place, the spontaneous offspring of the cupidity and dishonesty of a very limited group of confederated rascals. It is affirmed - with what truth we know not - that it was first detected in operation among the Jews of a certain locality, and that it was immediately imitated on all sides, instead of being suppressed, as it might have been, by the strong arm of the law and the force of public rebuke, had the infernal machinations of its members been made known. However this may be, it is pretty certain that since its first rise, which might be dated at less than a score of years back, it has spread like a pestilence to every part of the metropolis; and that, at the present moment, it cannot be predicated with absolute certainty of any auction-room situated between Knightsbridge west and Mile-end east, or Highgate north and Peckham south, that on any given day in the year there shall be a fair sale of any specified kind of portable property. If the gang be present - and they are always present if the property to be disposed of offers them any considerable advantage - they will be sure to accomplish two things: in the first place, they will get most of the lots they desiderate knocked down to them at a low bidding; and, in the second place, they will prevent any stranger, who is not a professional buyer, from obtaining any article for a sum much less than double its value.
On a certain day in the year 1847 - we do not choose, for certain reasons, to be more particular as to date - we attended a sale, where, among other valuable species of property, a pretty large collection of pictures was to be sold. Our object was to purchase a clever production of Fuseli's, should it fall within the limited range of our pocket. Being pressed for time, we had not leisure to change an old office coat in which we had sat all the morning, and consequently made our appearance at the sale-room in somewhat seedy trim-to which accidental circumstance may be doubtless attributed the revelation we have to make. It should be mentioned that the property was that of a defunct dealer, and that his widow was then in the house awaiting with anxious heart the result of the sale, upon the proceeds of which her prospect of future comfort depended. We found the rostrum of the auctioneer surrounded by the auction gang, among whom, all unconscious of their honourable fraternisation, we with considerable difficulty shouldered our way, and obtained a standing position in front of the revolving easel upon which the paintings were then exhibiting to the crowd of bidders.
"Are you in ?" said a greasy, grizzly-bearded face, reeking over our shoulder.
"Yes, thank Heaven, we are in," said we, mistaking the purport of the question.
"Oh, it's all right," said the questioner, turning to those behind him: "he's in."
We need not detail the whole of the conversation we overheard - enough to say that we soon discovered something of the nature of the conspiracy, and saw its profitable but villanous operation in full swing. Most of the pictures of greatest value were knocked down at wretched prices to three or four members of the gang, and once when a stranger endeavoured to secure a piece of some merit, the biddings were run up against him to an amount far beyond its utmost value, until he ceased to bid, when the lot was knocked down to one of the gang, who immediately repudiated his bidding, and swore that he did not intend to bid more than a certain sum. After some squabbling, the lot was put up again, and bought by the gang against the stranger for far more than its worth. Once when we hazarded a bidding for the lot we came to purchase, we were stopped with, "Shut up, you fool; that's ---'s bidding: hold your mouth - you'll get it for nothing if you want it, at the knock-out."
"At the knock-out!" we mentally ejaculated; "what upon earth is that?" We had heard the expression before, though casually, and it had escaped our memory; but we resolved this time, if possible, to penetrate the mystery, and learn whether it really was what we already began to suspect it to be.
"And where," said we in as careless a tone as we could assume, "does the knock-out come off this time?"
"Oh, at the old place; at ---'s back-room up stairs."
"What! C--- Court ?" (This was a leading question, as we knew no one at C--- Court.)
"No; at W--- Street."
"To-night of course?"
"To be sure-half-past eight or nine."
We did not fail, shortly before nine o clock, to ascend the stairs to the back-room of the house indicated in W--- Street. Before the hour had struck, the whole of the gang was present, and comprehended a much larger number than we had expected to meet. Among them we recognised several owners of first-rate shops, men of property and capital-one especially, who had recently portioned his daughter with thousands, along with others of undoubted respectability. Seating ourselves near the door, and calling for grog on the principle of doing at Rome as Romans do, we awaited with interest the result of the proceedings. A number of the smaller and more valuable paintings - gems of the Italian and Flemish schools - a few English specimens, and several finely-wrought vases and bronzes, had been already "cleared," and deposited in the old-fashioned window-recesses, and upon tables in the room. As it was now past the hour, and all were supposed to be present, the door was closed upon the ejected waiter, and the "knock-out," which, as we had suspected, was nothing more or less than the real sale of the property, commenced. An individual, -whom we shall designate Smash, whose vampyre-looking physiognomy is too well known to the frequenters of certain salerooms, was the unlicensed auctioneer of the evening. Catalogues being produced, all the lots bought by the gang were gone over seriatim, and now for the first time put up to serious competition. One by one they were knocked down to eager purchasers at prices varying from double to ten times the sums for which they had been obtained but a few hours before. Cash was paid down for each lot as it was sold, and deposited in a small tray in front of the seller, the lots, or an order upon the auctioneer for such lots as had not been cleared, being delivered to the respective purchasers. When the whole of them had been disposed of, the mass of gold and silver in the tray had accumulated to a considerable size. Smash then resigning the hammer, reimbursed from the heap before him the parties who had cleared the lots present - those who had purchased lots yet in the custody of the auctioneer having of course paid to the heap the difference only between the final biddings at the sham sale and the real one. These payments concluded, a considerable sum, the produce of that day's diabolical robbery of a forlorn and widowed woman, remained to be divided among the wretches who had thus successfully combined to plunder the helpless. When the sale was over, we could - not help remarking that the whole of the property rested finally in the hands of three or four persons - Smash being one of them, as he had bid pretty freely, and consigned several good lots to himself. A few of the articles which had been run up to a high price, in opposition to parties who, not being in the gang, had presumed to bid against it, hardly realised half the sums they had cost; but the loss upon these was compensated tenfold by the gain upon the remainder. And now came the division of the spoil, which was eventually managed upon a principle too complex to be fathomed by a casual observer. We noticed, however, when Smash read over the schedule, which occupied some time in preparing, that the individuals who had paid most money were to receive the largest share; and that those who bought nothing, and most probably never intended to buy, were to be paid at a lower rate. We did not witness the final distribution of the cash. Having no desire to pollute our fingers by the touch of such ill-gotten gain, we feigned a sudden excuse for quitting the room; and requesting our grizzly-faced friend to take charge "for two minutes" of our untasted grog, we quitted in sovereign disgust this den of ill-doers, who wanted only the virtues of personal courage and outspoken sincerity, to elevate them to the level of the burglar and the highwayman.
It is some years since we became thus aware of the existence of this atrocious system of plunder, and we have since frequently detected it in operation where we little expected to meet it. At book-sales it is a perfect nuisance. There are several scores of petty scoundrels who pass their lives at book-auctions, rarely bidding, and never buying if they can avoid it, and whose sole means of subsistence is this meanest of all possible modes of plunder. From inquiries we have cautiously made-for it is not an easy matter to obtain reliable information from the parties implicated - we are induced to believe that the majority of the real buyers would be glad to abate the practice, or put it down altogether, if possible. They find that where, as is gene rally the case with regard to books, the separate purchases are rarely of any great value, the trouble and inconvenience the practice entails are not compensated by the profit it affords: but the miserable wretches to whom such stolen scraps are daily bread, stick too hard upon their skirts to be readily got rid of.
It is a melancholy thing, and one that speaks volumes upon the demoralising effect of bargain-hunting upon the character, that among these plunderers of the weak, the friendless, and the prostrate in circumstances, should be numbered names of respectable standing in commerce-names well known and trusted among connoisseurs and collectors of works of art, relics of antiquity, or objects of vertu. But there is unhappily no margin left for doubt upon the subject. It would be in our power, on any given day, in the course of a few hours' visit to some of the finest collections of the first-class dealers in such matters in the metropolis, to pitch upon a score or two of valuable specimens which have come into the possession of the present owners through the scandalous medium of the "knock-out."* (* We saw, while writing this article, a very valuable painting bought by one of these gangs at a late sale of the property of a deceased proprietor, for a sum hardly covering the cost of the frame and the materials used in painting. What it realised at the " knock-out," and what was consequently the amount of plunder shared among the gang we were not able to ascertain. One thing we can state with certainty, and that is, that the present custodier of the picture (it would be an abuse of language to call him the proprietor) demands above a thousand guineas for it; and, considering its rare quality and transcendant merit, seems not unlikely to obtain the sum he demands.) These men, be it remembered, have not the plea of necessity to advance in mitigation of their acts; they are surrounded with the materials and appliances of luxury, and have wealth at command, and might reasonably be expected to set an example of honesty in the pursuit of a profession which is sadly in want of it.
THE "ESTABLISHED BUSINESS" SWINDLE.
Just on the same principle as the American backwoodsman
locates upon a plot of savage territory, fells the forest timber,
burns the lumber, ploughs and sows the reclaimed land-
then sells the whole clearing, stock, lot, and coming crop, to some wandering emigrant in search of a
settlement - so in
London there is a class of men (and, we may add, of women
too) whose favourite occupation it is to open new shops, and
dig out, as it were, new channels for the currents of commerce,
in the yet untried neighbourhoods of the ever-increasing metropolis; selling their newly-formed establishments so soon as
they are set a-going, and in a fair way of success, either to
new-married couples, country immigrants, or other parties
whom they may suit. Against such a mode of gaining a
livelihood, however singular it may appear to some, nothing
can be justly said. These parties are often of essential service
to the community, to whom they frequently introduce the
conveniences of retail trade in localities which, without their
speculative enterprise, would long remain strangers to them.
They are the pioneers of traffic, whose mission it is to clear
the way for the commercial host which has in due time to
follow in their footsteps. They owe their success (and most
of them are successful) to the possession of a rare tact and
discrimination in reference to business matters, as well as to a
considerable amount of that constitutional energy and restlessness which so remarkably characterise their prototype of
the "far west." But as everything successful in London is
sure to give birth to its counterfeit, so in this peculiar walk of
life there are hundreds of unprincipled knaves who make a
prey of the stranger and the inexperienced by the sale, under
lying pretences, of mock establishments, whose pretended
returns have no existence save in the records of a set of plausible account-books, artfully made up for the purpose of
defrauding the unwary.
We shall more effectually expose the modus operandi of this sort of swindlers by a brief recital of what actually occurred to a friend of our own who unhappily fell into their clutches, than by any formal description that could be given.
In the year 184-, Walter S-- found himself, at the demise of his last surviving parent, under the necessity of seeking a livelihood. With youth, health, and a tolerably good education, and with £600 in his pocket, he left his native place, and came to London to prosecute his fortune. After pushing his inquiries in town for near three months, without finding anything to suit him, he began to turn his attention to the morning papers, and to con the advertisements with a degree of interest which can only be appreciated by those who have been in similar circumstances. At length, lured by the prospect of a good income in return for very moderate exertions, he applied personally at the office of a house agent in Oxford Street, who had advertised his business for sale. The office was a sort of semi-shop on the ground-floor, at the west end of the street; and though bearing a remarkably neat and genteel appearance, had withal a somewhat worn and business aspect. This he thought looked well. Having made his purpose known to the single clerk, that functionary touched a bell, which brought out the principal from an inner chamber - a sober, rather sad-visaged, well-dressed individual, of about five-and-thirty, in deep mourning. Upon making known the object of his visit, and referring to the advertisement in the "Times" of that morning, the advertiser demanded whether it was the intention of his visitor to purchase the business for himself, or was he merely making inquiries on behalf of another person? S-- replied that he was acting solely on his own account, and that, if the business bore out the terms of the advertisement, it was his intention to make him an offer.
"I could easily satisfy you," said the other, "that this business would have justified me in employing much stronger terms of recommendation; but the fact is, that although I have doubled the returns since I bought it myself, I have no wish to recover more than the money I paid for it - the death of a relative having released me from the further necessity of any business occupation at all. But I fear you are too late; I parted with a gentleman not an hour ago who has all but decided upon taking it. It is a pity you did not apply before:I cannot say anything decisive on it at present. Good- morning, sir."
"Good-morning;" and S--- had already reached the door, disappointment in his face, when the other cried, "Stop; you may give me your address. It is possible the first applicant may not conclude the affair. It strikes me, from some remarks he let drop, that he may not have the cash at hand, in which case I will let you know the day after to-morrow. By the way, we may as well understand each other - you will allow me to ask you if you are prepared to pay cash down, or at what date, supposing we should do business together ?"
"Why, said S---, "I had not resolved to offer you the exact amount you demand; but I will say this, that if, after full investigation of the business and returns, we should deal, it will be for cash.
"In that case," said the agent, "you shall have the preference if the party who has just left does not conclude the purchase. Perhaps you will look in at eleven the day after to-morrow, and thus save time?"
S--- promised he would do so punctually, and departed, not without hopes of becoming yet the proprietor of so snug a concern.
At eleven precisely on the day appointed S--- opened the office door. The principal was standing at the desk in earnest, almost angry, discussion with an elderly man of gentlemanly garb and manners. He nodded to the new-comer, and motioned to his clerk to show him into the private room, which was so situated that S--- could not avoid hearing every syllable that was uttered in the office. He soon became aware that the stranger was the first applicant whose rivalry he had so much dreaded; and he heard with secret satisfaction, that though eagerly desirous of securing the business, he was not in a condition to pay down the required sum upon taking possession. He pleaded hard to be allowed to make a deposit of part of the purchase-money, by way of binding the bargain, offering three hundred pounds in cash, and the rest in bills of short date. This the agent would by no means allow, and upbraided him with having deceived him in that particular at their former interviews. The stranger retorted, and the discussion grew almost into a quarrel, both parties becoming less ceremonious as the dispute waxed warm. It ended at last in the agent bowing out his would-be successor, who departed muttering his dissatisfaction in no measured terms.
The coast was now clear for S---, with whom, after apologising for the warmth of his language to the stranger, and remarking that it was a singular coincidence that S--- should have arrived just in time to witness their disagreement, an arrangement was entered into for examining the books and testing the present state of the business. References having been exchanged on both sides, that same afternoon the books of the last two years were gone over cursorily, but carefully, and checked with the annual audits, in a manner, and with a result, perfectly satisfactory to the incoming proprietor. During the examination two parties called and paid £5 as per-centage on houses let by the agent. Before leaving the premises, at sunset, S--- had agreed to spend the ensuing fortnight in the office, as well to test the average returns, as to learn the simple routine of management. The fortnight passed pleasantly enough. The books were left in the hands of S , who conned them carefully, and never conceived the slightest suspicion of their genuineness. The clerk proved a rollicking out-spoken fellow, fond of cigars and bottled ale, and made no scruple of. abusing his employer for not having raised his salary beyond a paltry hundred-affirmed that to his exertions and attention the success of the office was mainly due--and hoped that S , on assuming the government, would have the liberality to do him justice. There was no lack of business during the period of probation. Persons dropped in with notices of houses and premises to let, for the registry and exhibition of which on the office show-boards they paid willingly, according to a liberal scale of charges. The principal was absent for hours together every day, and once for two whole days, during which S--- had the luck to let a mansion in a neighbouring square for £180 a year - accompanied the incoming tenant in the examination of the premises, and received from the landlord S--- per cent. upon the first year's rent. In addition to this, business was transacted of a less important character, but which yet yielded a comfortable profit to the agent. As the fortnight drew to a close, it appeared plainly enough that the profits averaged altogether, after paying expenses, nearly £10 a week; and S--- began to think it was a pity that he had not struck the bargain before, and pocketed them himself. When the time was up, and the agent asked him if he was satisfied with what they were doing, and was disposed to conclude the affair, he was but too ready to do so; and the next day a lawyer was called in, an agreement drawn up in due form, and signed by both parties; £450 was paid down by S---, and bills at short dates were given for £150 more. The "agreement for a lease" of the offices, and the landlord's receipts for rents, together with all books and documents connected with the business, were made over to the new purchaser; and before starting for the north to "take possession of his newly-bequeathed property," the agent secretly advised S--- to get rid of the clerk. "You will find that you can easily manage the whole affair yourself," said he; "and you may as well save the expense of such a fellow, who is likely to prove an annoyance to any one who does not know how to manage him as I do." This recommendation proved in the result quite unnecessary. S--- took up what he now considered his permanent quarters on the ensuing day, and hired a sleeping-room close by for the better convenience of business. But no clerk made his appearance. This did not at first trouble the new proprietor, who attributed his absence to some convivial irregularity, and felt pretty sure of his speedy return. Two, three, four days-a whole week passed, and no clerk-and what, alas! was a thousand times worse, not a single customer! S---, now a prey to awful suspicions of foul play, lived upon tenterhooks. Another and another week elapsed; and though the stream of population rushed incessantly past the office door, there were hardly more signs of business in the deserted rooms within than in the silent mummy chamber of an Egyptian pyramid. At length, when nearly two months had passed away without the realization of a single shilling, and S--- had become gradually awake to the completeness of his victimisation, a stranger called with a demand for two quarters' rent, and threatened to seize if it were not paid immediately. S--- produced his receipts up to the last quarter, which proved to be mere fabrications, signed with a name the same in sound, but differing in spelling from that of the real landlord. From explanations that ensued, and from reference to neighbours, and to the inmates of the upper part of the house, the whole machinery of the abominable fraud, which had been brought to so successful an issue, was made fully apparent. The agent himself, the clerk, the "prior applicant," the customers, the gentleman who had taken the house in the square (which house, by the way, belonged to the landlord of that of which the office was a part, and was still unlet), the pretended landlord, who had paid the per-centage on letting-the very lawyer, or supposed lawyer, who had drawn up the agreement - all were partners or creatures of one swindling gang. The books were a set of documents cooked up for the purpose of delusion. Among the scores of notices exhibited on the showboards only one was genuine, and that one was in reference to the house in the square, which had been made to play so important a part in the swindle. The others, it is true, indicated houses, shops, and chambers which were actually to let; but they had been copied from similar announcements displayed in other parts of the city, without the sanction of the owners of the premises, and for the purpose of carrying out the fraud. As a termination to this villanous affair, poor S--- was fain to evacuate the theatre of his delusion, resigning the furniture and fixtures in consideration of a discharge in full of the landlord's claims for rent, and to recommence his researches in London for some career upon which he might enter with empty pockets and a little dear-bought experience.
The above is an "ower true tale," and is but one of a thousand which might be supplied from the private histories of multitudes who have fallen victims to conspiracies of the same class more or less extensive. Every recurring week brings to the metropolis adventurers from the country in search of a location in town, and desirous of investing their hardly-earned savings, or long-expected inheritance, in some established business, or fair speculation, which may offer to honest industry the prospect of competence and respectability. Such will do well to remember that the land-sharks are here on the look-out for their prey, which they will be prevented from gorging only by the exercise of the utmost vigilance and precaution on the part of their intended victims.
Charles Manby Smith Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, 1853