STRUGGLES FOR LIFE.
AMONG two millions of inhabitants congregated within the space of a few square miles, there must exist a large class with whom the struggle for existence is a constant warfare with adversity and difficulties of every kind. Hence it follows that we are occasionally struck by the ingenuity displayed in the various expedients to which the very poor have recourse to procure the means of living - expedients which would never be practised but under the stimulus of a constant and pressing necessity; and which would be of no avail, if they were, under any other social conditions than those which an overcrowded metropolis exclusively presents. Of the myriad causes of poverty which drive men to avail themselves of any and every resource which offers itself to gain a livelihood, it were of little use to speculate. Multitudes with industrious hands and willing hearts, are either standing idle in the marketplace, or doing what no-man enjoined them to do, in the hope of winning even a bare crust to satisfy the wants of the hour. Many are from time to time thrown out of employment by new inventions and discoveries; and many more are next to destitute from an error in the choice of a profession, and their inability to attain proficiency in their craft. These last, after numberless attempts and defeats, and many and bitter mortifications, give up the matter in despair, and go to swell the ranks of the unemployable and supernumerary class. What becomes of all these, and how their wants are supplied, is a mystery not easily fathomable. "Ten men," says a German proverb, "cannot tell you how the eleventh lives." The following brief sketches may contribute in some degree to clear up a portion of the mystery.
THE DUCK-WEED HAWKER.
Walking one day by the river side, in the neighbourhood of
Battersea, sketch-book in hand, and meditating a design upon
the Red House, I was attracted by a picturesque-looking
figure, busily engaged in raking the surface of a stagnant pool.
By his side, on the bank, stood an old wine-hamper, reeking
with muddy ooze. Feeling curious to ascertain what was
going forward, I approached the operator, and civilly questioned him as to his proceeding. The following dialogue may
give the reader an idea of a branch of industry which I confess was unknown to me till then.
"My good fellow, if I may be so bold, what is it you are doing ?"
"Oh, bless your honour! no harm. I only vants the duckveed you see, sir; and they never sets no wally on it, so I gits it for nuffin."
"But of what use is that green scum, or duck-weed, as you call it ?"
"Did yer honour never keep no ducks ?" (I was compelled to confess my inexperience.) "Vy, then, I'll tell yer honour. Yer see this ere as grows on the top of the vater is duck-veed, and in course the ducks is fond on it; and them as keeps ducks is glad to git it, in course, at a low figure. So yer see, as I gits it for nuffin but my trouble, I can afford to sell it cheap."
"You don't pretend to say that people buy it ?"
"Don't I though? Ketch me givvin on it avay! I gits a penny a misure for every morsel on it; and voth the money, and no mistake."
"And where do you find customers ?"
"Vy, that's the vurst on it too. 'Taint much of a nosegay to carry about a feller; still I don't travel no great vays - hadn't need, you s'pose. Yell, then, sir, as you don't calkilate no hopposition, an' p'r'aps you'll stan' the price of a half-pint, I don't mind tellin' yer. My valk is Tuttle-street, the Hambury, and Strutton Ground, and Brewers Green, and Palmer's Willage, and York Street, vere there's lots o' courts and alleys, and ducks in course."
"Keep ducks there? Why, those are the filthiest neighbourhoods in Westminster."
"That's the werry reason, sir: there is so much mud, they vants the ducks to gobble it up. He-he !"
"But where do they find room for them? There are neither yards nor ponds."
"Oh, there's the street-door front by day, and they doos werry veil under the bed o' nights. But I'm werry dry a' talkin', yer honour; and I mustn't vaste no time, for yer see this ere sort o' green stuff vont keep not nohow, and must all be sold to-night."
"Dry! why, you are dripping wet from head to foot."
"Nothin' but vater, sir; and vater never vets Jakes, cos, d'ye see, I perfers beer."
"Is your name Jakes ?"
"No, sir, my name's Villums - Ned Villums. But they calls me Jakes cos I scums the mud-pools and ditches. But them as call names pays their pennies; so I takes their tin and their compliments together, and never minds. Yer honour's a goin' to stan' summat, I know."
Having complied with the poor fellow's demand, and helped him, as I best could, to shoulder his nauseous burden, I saw him trudge off beneath it, at a good five-mile-an-hour pace, to the sale of his moist merchandise. As he vanished with his dripping load, I could not help mentally comparing the present contents of the wine-basket to those of a past day- the sparkling juice of the grape to the reeking weed-and the different destinies of those who revelled round the bottles, and his who catered for the ducks. But the fellow was not to be pitied, and I felt that compassion would have been in his case injustice. He had health, humour, and spirits, which a wine-bibbing dyspeptic might have envied; and if his philosophy was not as elevated as that of Wordsworth's "leech-gatherer on the lonely moor," it was, to say the least of it, as practical.
GREEN FOOD FOR SINGING-BIRDS.
This is another article of perambulating merchandise peculiar to the great city, and one which
meets with a regular
and ready market, during the greater part of the year. Chickweed, groundsel, seed-grasses, and round green turfs, form the
staple of the merchant's wares, with which he threads the
streets and suburbs during the middle portion of the day; his
cry being seldom heard before ten or eleven in the morning,
and ceasing ere sundown, when his customers and consumers
go to roost. One of these verdant professionals passes my
window thrice a week during the summer months, and I have
frequently encountered him in occasional strolls for the last
ten years. Tall and erect, brawny and broad-shouldered, and
bronzed with the suns of sixty summers, he looks more like a
trooper of the Guards than a retailer of chickweed. But he
evidently delights in his way of life, which leads him to the
green fields ere the lark is yet aloft; and as he plods his dilatory way along the public thoroughfares, he sings his loud and
sonorous song to a self-taught tune. "Groundsel and chickweed for the pretty little singing-bird" is the song; and the
tune, commencing by a chant of four words on C, the first
note, runs down the scale, like the simple chime of village
bells, to the octavo below, upon which he dwells with a force
and gusto that is quite catching, ere he resumes his everlasting Da Capo.
One day, while choosing a turf from his basket, to gratify an impudent pet bird, I questioned my tall salesman as to his inducement for following such a mode of life. "Well, sir," said he, "I don't mind telling you, as you are a regular customer. The fact is, I couldn't do nothing else at the time I begun it, and wasn't fit neither for regular work. You must know, sir, I was bred a farm-labourer, and might have done well enough, for I was always fond of field-work, and cattle-tending, and such-like. But then, d'ye see, in eighteen-seven I listed - all along of a purty girl as didn't know her own mind - and main sad and sorry we both of us were when we found I couldn't be got off from serving. But that's neither here nor there. We parted, and in less than four years I went to Spain, where I had enough of sodgering. I've stood, sir, up to my breast in growing corn, and seen the ears on't cut off wi' bullets as clean as a whistle. But that's no matter. I got a bad wound at Vittoria, which was the hardest day's work I ever see in my life. So I was sent home wi' a hartificial brain-pan, and eighteen pence a day. I couldn' live very well upon that, you know, sir; so I comes up from Chatham (you know, sir, we're all sent to Chatham, up to Pitt's there, when we come from foreign parts), up to town here, to look about me. Well, sir, I couldn't get nothing as suited me, nor as didn't suit me either, for the matter o' that; and then my head did swim badly at times, though that's all right now, thank God! So, sir, I was a-standing one morning in one of them little streets by St. Paul's, when a gen'leman comes out of a countin'-house wi' green shutters and a pen in his ear, and he says to me - 'My good fellow,' says he, haven't you got nothing to do? I want a man,' says he, 'as got nothing to do.' 'No, sir,' says I, 'I han't; and I should be very much obleeged to you for a job.' 'Then,' says he, 'do you see that lark in the cage, and do you know what he wants?' 'I see him plain enough, sir,' says I; 'and it strikes me he wants to get out.' 'No he don't,' says he; 'he's not such a fool. He wants a fresh turf; and if you'll go and cut him one, I'll give you sixpence.' 'That's a bargain,' said I, and away I went; but I found it a long way to the green grass, and that sixpence was arned harder than some. But I cut half-a-score turfs while I was about it, thinking there might be more birds than one with a country taste. Well, the gen'leman gave me a shilling when he knowed how far I had been, and I sold all the tothers for a penny a-piece. Arter that I took up with the weeds and grasses, and got a regular walk (one of my customers, as thinks himself very witty, calls it Birdcage Walk); and many's the bird in this here town as knows my song as well as his own. That was my beginnin', sir, and I've kept the game alive ever since; cept in winter-time, when I sells snow and ice to the 'fectioners, and brandy-balls, and sich-like, to warm the stomach on skating-days. And let me tell you, sir, I likes feeding the little birds, and being my own master, better than shooting and sticking my fellow-creeters at another man's bidding; and between you and me and the post it pays better.'
With this the quondam grenadier departed, and in less than a minute I heard the well-known cry, "Groundsel and chickweed for the pretty little singing bird!"
Pursuing an avocation which renders me occasionally liable
to be abroad at all hours of the night, the opportunity is forced
upon me of observing the various phases of London life which
each succeeding hour reveals. Following the example of the
Vicar of Wakefield, I never refuse the challenge of any man,
whatever his apparent station, who proffers his conversation;
and I have often found the gossip of wayfarers both interesting
and profitable, while I am not aware that I ever lost anything
by giving them a hearing. Business-belated one September
night, or rather morning, for midnight had long ceased tolling
from the thousand churches of the city, I was seeking for a
short cut homewards, and stood for a moment hesitating at a hitherto unexplored turning out of Gray's Inn Lane, when I
was accosted by a man of strangely uncouth appearance, who
inquired if I had lost my way. Upon stating that I merely
wanted the shortest cut towards Holloway, he said he was
going the whole distance, and beyond, and should be happy to
show me the nearest road; adding, that he supposed I was
desirous of getting to bed, "which I," said he, "have just
left, to begin my day's work." "A strange hour," thought I,
"to begin a day's work; not yet one o'clock." And as I
walked behind him through the narrow and dirty lanes of that
neighbourhood, I availed myself of the accommodation afforded
by the gas-lamps to scrutinize his figure and costume. Of a
slim and wiry make, and of the middle size, and about thirty-five years of age, I saw from his motions that he was active,
agile, and a stranger to fatigue. His whole dress fitted his
muscular frame almost as closely as that of Harlequin himself
but was composed of the vilest materials; half leather, half
cloth, greasy, and rent, and patched and re-patched in a hundred places. A short pair of hobnailed Bluchers encased his
feet; and a skull-cap of leather, guiltless of the smallest indication of a brim, covered his head, and fastened under his chin
by a strap. At his back hung a long, shallow, wicker-basket,
with a canvas covering: this was strapped round his waist. He was accompanied by a small, black, and ugly half-breed
terrier-an old hand, evidently, for he lost no ground, but
kept uniformly before his master, and if he outran him, never
returned upon his track, but waited quietly till he came up.
"That is a prudent dog of yours," I said, as we emerged into a wider thoroughfare, and walked side by side.
"Ay, sir; he has learned prudence in the same school as his master. He was wild enough in his young days, like myself; and, like me, he has found out that if he would be of any use to-morrow, he must take care of himself to-day."
"You said you were just beginning your day's work; may I ask what is your occupation?"
"Occupation, properly speaking, I have none, sir - worse luck; I am one of a good many, driven from a thriving trade by modern machinery and improvements. You must know, sir, I was brought up to my father's trade, that of a calenderer; and a very decent property the old man left when he died. Four thousand pounds there was in the three per cents., which I, like a fool, prevailed upon my poor old mother to throw into the business, for the sake of extending it, thinking I could make five-and-twenty per cent. of it instead of three; and so I might too, but for new inventions, which threw me out of the market, and brought us in the end to ruin. I sometimes thank God the old lady didn't live to see the upshot of it all. We passed her grave, sir, two minutes ago, in the Spa Fields' burying-ground. Well, sir, when it was all over, I paid a good dividend; and the creditors, seeing how the matter was, gave me a couple of hundreds to begin again with. So, being always fond of books, and having a fancy for the trade, I thought I might do well enough- having only myself to look after-in a bookseller's shop; so I took a neat house in the New Road, and laid out all my money in books, and sat myself down behind the counter to wait for customers. Perhaps you would not think it, but there I sat from Monday morning till Saturday night without seeing a soul enter the shop except one child, who wanted change for a sixpence; and yet five or six thousand people passed the open door everyday. The second week was not much better; few people came, and those who did come wanted the books for less than they cost, and assured me - which I afterwards found was true enough - that they could get them for less elsewhere. The business never came to anything, as you may suppose. In the course of six months I found out, what I ought to have known at first, that I didn't understand it; so I closed with a man who offered to take the stock at a valuation, and relieve me of the house. A rare valuation it was! All the volumes were lumped together, at sixpence a-piece; and. I saw the major part of them a week afterwards bundled into a great box at the door, and ticketed "Ninepence each." I received something less than a fourth of the original cost of the whole, and walked out, not particularly well satisfied, to try again.
"I was afraid to venture upon any other business, and therefore looked out for a situation of some sort. If I could have written a decent hand, I might perhaps have got a berth as under clerk; but nobody could ever read my writing; and though I threw away five or six pounds to an advertising teacher, who sports a colossal fist and goose-quill on his sign- board, all my endeavours to mend it were of no use. I need not trouble you with the fifty attempts I made to gain an honest livelihood, further than to say that they were all for a long time failures. My money went by degrees. As I grew older I grew poorer, and went down of course in the social scale. I have been warden in a jail, whence I was turned out because a highwayman, whom I had compelled to good behaviour, swore I was an old associate; I have been a pedlar and robbed of my pack on Durdham Down; I have been a billiard-marker, and kicked out by the proprietor because I would not score more games than the players had played; I have been cabman and hackney-coachman, till the omnibuses cut the cabs' throats; I have kept a fruit-stall on the pavement till it wouldn't keep me; I have hawked about the street every possible commodity you could mention; I have driven cattle to Smithfield, and then on to the slaughter-house; I have sold cats' meat and dogs' meat, and dealt in bones and rags; in short, I have done everything but beg, and have lived a whole week upon sixpence, because I would not do that.
"I hope things are not so bad with you just now?' said I, desirous of hearing the conclusion of his history.
"Not quite, sir: there is truth in the old proverb, 'He that is down can fall no lower.' At first I suffered a deal of mortification from the neglect of friends of prosperous days, who were very liberal of their compassion and condolence, which are things I hate, but chary of everything else. I believe I conferred an obligation upon them all, when I resolved, as soon I did, never to trouble them again.
"One fine morning, after walking the streets all night for want of a bed, I found myself in Covent Garden market at sunrise, among a shoal of carts and waggons loaded with vegetables for the day's sale. The thought struck me at once that here I might pick up a job: I commenced the look-out in good earnest, and wasn't long of getting employment. I received threepence for pitching a couple of tons of cabbages out of a waggon, and scoring them off; but then I was only a deputy, and was paid under price. This, however, procured me a breakfast, and gave me heart to try again. I picked up three shillings altogether in the course of the day, two of which I paid in advance for a regular lodging for the following week-a luxury I had not then enjoyed for some months. The next day was not a market-day, and I did not manage so well; but I stuck by the market, and learned many modes of earning a penny. I bought vegetables at a low price, or got them in return for my labour; these I sold again, and managed to earn something, at all events, every day. Once, on taking potatoes to a baker who purchased all I could get, I was asked for mushrooms, for which the old chap had a mighty relish. I promised to get him some, but found them too dear in the market to allow any margin for me; so recollecting that I had seen a vast number the year before in a certain part of the Barnet road, during my experience as assistant drover, I set off on an exploring expedition. Having arrived at the spot, after a pretty close search, I succeeded in gathering a tidy crop, though not without a good deal of labour and inconvenience. I found that the sale of these paid me well for my trouble. I often make between three and four shillings by a trip, and sometimes more. But I soon found out that others reaped that ground as well as myself: and to keep it pretty well in my own hands, I find it necessary to be on the spot before the sun is up. By this means I get more; and, what is of greater importance, they are of better quality."
"And pray, does your dog perform any part in the business, or is he merely a companion ?"
"Why, sir, I daresay dogs might be taught to hunt mushrooms as well as truffles; but there is no occasion for that, as mushrooms grow above ground, and can't well be missed. But my dog's part is to mind the basket, and he does the business well. You see I leave the harvest to his care, while I scramble through hedges and over ditches and fences in search of more. I saw you quizzing my surtout; tis n't much to look at, but it serves my purpose better than a coat with two tails. I can ram my head, in this thick shoe-leather cap, through a quickset-hedge, where a fox would hardly follow me; and when I have got this small bag full (producing a canvas bag from his pocket), I return and deposit them in the basket till the work is done. I am back again in the market by the time the housekeepers are abroad purchasing provisions for the day. My stock never hangs long on hand; and it is very seldom that I am reduced to the necessity of lowering my price, or consuming them myself."
"This is a laborious calling," I said, "and one that cannot be very remunerative, or allow you to make much provision for the future."
"Not much, sir, it is true; but yet I do make some. I save a shilling every week at least, and sometimes, in a lucky season, as much as five; that goes into the savings'-bank, and would suffice to keep me out of the hospital in case of illness, which I don't much fear, being a teetotaller and pretty well weatherproof. I think it was Dr. Johnson, but I won't be certain, who said, 'No man ever begins to save unless he has a prospect of accumulation.' I don't think that is altogether true; at any rate, if it is, I am the exception that proves the rule. I began to save, strange as it may sound, because I did not know what to do with my money. Having learned by necessity to live upon the smallest possible amount, I was afraid, when my gains exceeded that, of again acquiring luxurious habits, which it had cost me so much to get rid of; for that reason I put the first five shillings into the bank, and have added to it weekly, with very few omissions, ever since. I will not deny that, with the gradual increase of my little hoard, a new prospect has opened for me, and that I only wait for the possession of a certain amount to begin business in the market upon a more respectable footing, which will allow me to dispense with my midnight labours."
Here he ceased; and soon after, arriving at the corner of the street in which was my own house, I bade him good morning; and wishing a speedy and prosperous result to his economic endeavours, parted with the mushroom-hunter.
THE GARRET MASTER.
This is not a title assumed by any particular class, but rather
a soubriquet bestowed upon one who cannot correctly be said to
belong to any. He is operative and manufacturer, merchant
and labourer, combined in one person; and has dealings both
wholesale and retail, after a fashion of his own. No man can
rightly accuse him of sapping, our commercial system by an
undue extension of credit, seeing that it is very rarely that he
trusts anybody, and still more rarely is anybody found who
will trust him. He works at an easy trade, and manufactures
articles of every sort or description that may be wanted, which
he has wit or ingenuity enough to turn out of hand. Two
things are essential to a man's becoming a garret master: in
the first place, he must be able to practise some occupation
which requires but little capital to set him up in business;
and, in the second place, he must be unwilling, either from a
spirit of insubordination, a love of idleness, or a feeling of independence, or else incapable, from want of average skill in
his calling, to work as a journeyman. Whatever be his
motive, it can hardly be the love of gain, since his profits, so
far at least as one can judge from his personal appearance and
domestic surroundings, must fall far short of those of an average workman. There may be some few exceptions to whom
this general character is not applicable; indeed I know there
are; but the more respectable of the number would, I have
reason to think, subscribe to the truth of this delineation of
the general body - if body they can be called - who live in
perfect isolation, and never come together.
Every one who walks the streets of London, if he ever exercise his observation at all, must have remarked, amongst the infinite variety of wares disposed for sale inside and outside of the endless array of shops that line the public thoroughfares, a prodigious number of articles which are not, properly speaking, the production of any particular or known species of handicraft; or if some of them be such ostensibly, it becomes apparent upon inspection, and upon a comparison of prices, that they are not the manufactures of well-practised hands, but are hastily and fraudulently got up, to delude the eyes of the unwary by the semblance of workmanship. Picture·-frames, looking more like gilt gingerbread than carved gold, which they should resemble; small cabinets of cedar-wood, and miniature chests of drawers, which seem to stand midway between a toy and a domestic implement; easy (to break) chairs, which a man of fifteen stone would crush to pieces; mirrors of all sizes, each one affording a new version of your astonished face; slippers and clogs of every possible material; boys' caps at half-a-crown a dozen, of every variety of shape and colour, manufactured from the tailors' clippings; whetstones of every geological formation - trap (for customers) predominating; cribbage boards, draught boards, dominoes, and chess-men, at any price you like; work-boxes, writing-desks, and music-stands, glued together from the refuse of a cabinetmaker's workshop; carpenters' tools incapable of an edge, among which figures a centre-bit, with twenty pieces, for five shillings-a bait for amateur mechanics which has astonishing success ; towel-horses, that will fall to pieces if not tenderly handled; and flights of steps, leading to a broken head, or something worse-all demand attention by their plausible appearance and astonishingly low price. But these are not all. The heedless bargain-hunter may fool away a good round sum as easily as the veriest trifle. Gaudy pianofortes, magnificent-looking instruments, labelled "Broadwood" or "Collard," may be had at "an immense sacrifice" (this is true in the buyer's case), which ought to be warranted not to stand in tune for twenty-four hours, and to become veritable tin-kettles in a twelvemonth. Horrible fiddles, by the thousand, constructed only to sell and to set the teeth on edge, lie in wait for the musical tyro; seraphines that growl like angry demons, until they become asthmatic, when they wheeze away their hateful lives in a month or two, are to be found in every broker's shop, together with every other musical instrument you could name; all uniting to prove that if the best articles are to be procured in London, so are the worst, and that too in abundance.
Nor does the evil stop here. "The world is still deceived. with ornament," and the imitators of things real know it well, and make a good market by the knowledge. Woe to the scientific student who, anxious to economise his funds, buys his necessary instruments of any other than a well-known and established maker! In no department of manufacture is there a more profitable field for humbug and plunder than in this. All descriptions of scientific instruments, surgical, optic, chemical, engineering, and others, abound in every quarter-the pawnbroker being the chief medium or middleman through whom they find their way to the luckless experimentalist. Telescopes with conveniently soiled lenses; camera-lucidas, by means of which Argus himself could see nothing; scalpels, lancets, and amputating knives, never intended to cut; surgical saws with tender teeth; air-pumps in want of sucker; pentagraphs, with rickety joints and false admeasurements; unseasoned glass retorts; crucibles sure to split on the fire; opera-glasses with twopenny lenses in tubes of specious magnificence; and a thousand other things, which are manufactured weekly in large quantities, but never for any other purpose than to pawn or to sell, are to be met with in every street, and proclaim the industry of a class of operatives whose labours are anything but a benefit to the general community.
It is not my intention to lay all these enormities upon the shoulders of the garret master; indeed many of the manufacturers of the vile wares above mentioned are men of considerable capital, those especially who fabricate and deal in the more expensive articles. But yet justice to the subject of this sketch compels me to declare that the guilty parties are mainly members of his class; though individuals are not wanting among them, the history of whose lives would present the praiseworthy struggle of industry and integrity against adverse circumstances. If the reader will accompany me to the narrow theatre of his operations, he may behold the garret master in the midst of his avocations, and then form as lenient a judgment as the somewhat singular spectacle will admit.
On a summer evening in the year 184-, having been requested by a country correspondent to make inquiries respecting the execution of a commission entrusted to one of this tribe, I set out in the direction indicated in his letter, and arrived at the door of the house in which the garret master dwelt, about half an hour before sunset. The place was a back street running nearly parallel with Holborn, in the neighbourhood of one of the inns of court, and one that, judging from the height and structure of the house, had once laid claim to a character for respectability, not to say gentility: but all such pretensions had evidently long been given up; and the lofty dwelling, fashioned originally for the abodes of easy and comfortable independence, now stood in begrimed and dingy neglect, the uncared-for tenements of the artisan and the labourer. The door of the house I entered stood fastened open; and the loose boards of the bare passage, wanting scraper, mat, and oil-cloth, bent and clattered under my feet. The walls, from the door to the summit of the topmost stair, were of a dark-brown colour, rising from the accumulated soiling of half a century, and polished by the friction of passers up and down, except where some few tatters of the original papering yet hung about them, or where the plaster had been knocked away, through the careless porterage of heavy articles. The balusters as far as the first floor were in tolerable repair, though some of the rails showed by their want of paint that they were substitutes for others which had left the rank. Higher up, they were half deficient; and near the top story had been removed altogether, probably for fuel, by some starving inmate, and replaced by a fence of rough slab deal. Of this I was rather sensible by touch than by sight; for the skylight that should have illuminated the staircase was covered over, with the exception of one small cranny, plainly to exclude the weather, which would else have found entrance through the broken panes. I should be sorry to afford the reader too accurate a notion of the villanous odour that infected the atmosphere of the house; it would have perplexed even Coleridge - who said that in Cologne he "counted two-and-seventy stenches "- to have described it. It seemed a compound of spirits, beer, and stale tobacco, of rancid oil or varnish, with a flavour of a dog a month dead. I should mention that I knocked at one of five doors on the third floor, when three of them suddenly opened, but not the one to which I had applied my knuckles. Three dirty-faced matrons in dishabille, two of them having infants at their breast, made their simultaneous appearance, and inquired what I wanted; one of them informing me that "the doctor" was not within, but would be found at the --- tap. Mentally wondering who "the doctor" thus domiciled could be, I stated that I bad business with Mr. T-, and requested to be shown his door. "It is the fifth door on the floor above," said the woman who had mentioned "the doctor," withdrawing as she spoke. Arriving at the door in question, I could bear a murmur of voices, and the whirling of a wheel in rapid motion. The door was opened immediately at my summons, and the rays of a lurid sunset streamed in upon the landing-place. The woman who answered the door seemed astonished at my unlooked-for appearance, and plainly expected a different party. As she drew back to make room for my entrance, a scene met my view, too common, I fear, in the industrial resorts of our great cities, but one calling aloud for amendment and redress in every possible particular. In a room, the dimensions of which might be about sixteen feet by eleven or twelve, were living an entire family, consisting of certainly not fewer than eight persons. Near a stove, placed about a yard from the fireplace, the funnel going into the chimney through a hole in the wall above the mantelpiece, sat the garret master, Mr. T , in the act of filling his pipe. Beyond a shirt, dirty and ragged, canvas trousers, and a pair of old slippers, cut down from older boots, he had nothing on his person, if we except a beard of a month's growth. A lad of seventeen or eighteen, similarly non-dressed, whose unwashed flesh peeped through a dozen rents in his garments, was busy at an old rickety lathe turning pill-boxes, some gross of which were scattered on the board in front of him; as he turned for a moment at my entrance, he showed a face haggard and wan, the index of bad diet and early intemperance. Seated at a carpenter's bench, which, together with the lathe, occupied the whole portion of the room next the window, was a girl of nineteen or twenty, engaged in carefully spreading gold leaf upon the word "CUPPING," previously written with varnish upon a strip of glass. Her costume, surmounted with a tattered man's jacket, would have disgraced the "black doll" usually suspended over a rag-shop; the same indication of semi-starvation and (alas that it must be said!) of intemperance was legible in a countenance that ought to have been, and indeed was once, interesting. At the end of the bench, in the corner of the room, a boy of twelve or thirteen years was occupied in French-polishing a few small and showy frames adapted for the reception of the glass labels. At the other corner, to the left of the lathe, was a still younger child - I can hardly say of which sex - busily fitting the covers to the pill-boxes, and laying them in dozens for package; while an infant of scarce three years was asleep in the shavings under the bench, where, it was evident from the presence of the brown and grimy blanket-rags, he would be joined at night by other members of the family. There was no bedstead in the room; but what was presumably the bed of the parents-a heap of filthy bundling-lay on the floor between the door and the corner of the apartment. While I was making inquiries concerning the commission of my country friend, the mother stepped between me and the father, to whom I had addressed myself, and intimated by a look of shame, alarm, and entreaty, that she was the more fit party to be questioned. The man, however, told her, with an oath, to stand aside; to which command she paid no attention, but proceeded to inform me they were on the point of completing my friend's order, and that the goods should be forwarded to my address, if I would leave it, early on the following morning. While she was speaking, I heard a light foot on the stairs; and the door opening, a little girl of about six, almost decently clad in comparison with the others, entered the room, clasping a black bottle carefully in both hands. The mother, apparently unwilling that a stranger should be aware of the nature of the burden brought by the child, was about concealing it in a cupboard; but the father, who, I now for the first time perceived, was on the high road to intoxication, swore at her angrily for pretending to be ashamed of what he proclaimed she liked as well as anybody, and loudly demanded the gin-bottle. With a sigh and a look of shame she complied with his desire, when he immediately applied himself to the contents with an air of dogged satisfaction. The child who had brought in the gin was the only one of the family that had the slightest appearance of health in the countenance; and she, it was easy to see, owed it to her fortunate position as general messenger to the whole, and to the exercise and free air this function procured her. All the rest were in a sort of etiolated condition - pale and wan frown confinement, bad air, and worse food. The dress of the whole family, with the exception of that of the little messenger, who was kept in some show of decency for the sake of appearances, would not have sold for a penny above the rag price in Monmouth Street. Neither mother, nor daughter grown up to womanhood, seemed to have preserved a relic of that graceful sentiment of personal propriety, which is the last thing that the sex generally surrenders to the "want which cometh like an armed man." But here want was not the destroyer: a fiend of more hideous aspect and deadlier purpose held undisputed sway in this wretched abode of perverted industry and precocious intemperance. As I departed down the crazy stairs, I could not help compassionating the hapless mother, whom I thought it more than probable the hateful vice of intoxication had first oppressed, and then seduced. Her bloated countenance left no room for doubt as to the truth of her tyrant's assertion; but there remained on it yet the trace of former truthfulness and kindliness, and the burning sense of shame attendant upon her present condition. On the coming doom of the family-the son, the daughter, the toiling children, the sleeping infant - it was too painful to reflect.
THE LABEL PRINTER.
The next day, my friend's commission requiring it, I paid a
visit to one of the same class in a different line of business. In
one of the small courts leading out of Drury Lane I found this
worthy, whose occupation was that of printing labels in gold
letters upon coloured paper. Fortunately for the fair sex he
was a bachelor, and being on the verge of fifty, was likely to
continue so. All the implements of his art, and they were
not few, together with his bed and his beehive-chair, were
around him in a room a dozen feet square, and which he gaily
styled the "parlour" next to the sky. His press was a contrivance such as I had never seen before, economizing both
space and labour, at the penalty - which he seemed to care
little about - of abominably bad work: the pressure was
produced by the action of a pedal near the floor under the
machine, and consequently the labour of rolling in and
rolling out, indispensable in the common printing-press, was
When I entered, he was actually printing the word "LODGINS" upon half-a-dozen strips of polished azure paper, applying powdered gold, with a pencil of camel-hair, to the varnish or size used instead of ink, as each was impressed! Upon my pointing out the liberty he had taken with the orthography of the word, he seemed not to comprehend my meaning; and remarking that he never did nor could understand any of the hographies, seriously inquired what was wrong. Being at length made aware that another G was wanting (but not before he had made careful reference to a dog's-eared dictionary), he assumed a look of strange mortification and perplexity. It was not altogether that he was ashamed of his ignorance; of that the poor fellow had been too long conscious; it was rather that he could see no remedy in the present case. "This, sir, said he, "is a noosance, and no mistake; that's my biggest fount, and there is but one alphabet of it beyond the vowels!" After a minute's consideration, however, and scratching of his grizzled pate, he brightened up, and went on with the affair as it was, with the consolatory declaration that they were no great scholars thereabout; that there were others no wiser than himself; and that the things were for people in the court, who would never find it out; to which he added, that "if anybody had a right to spell a word as he chose, it was a printer short of types." Somewhat tickled with the fellow's good-temper and accommodating philosophy, I sat down to wait for my friend's packet of labels, which he said only required taking out of the finishing-press to be ready for delivery. I learned from his conversation that he had served his time to a little bookseller and printer at a small town on the Welsh coast; but he had spent most of the seven years in running about the town as circulating librarian, or waiting in the shop, and not as many months altogether in the office, where there was generally nothing to be done. Discharged of course at the end of his term, to make room for a new apprentice with a new premium, he had come to seek his fortune in London. After considerable difficulty and disappointment, he at length succeeded in obtaining an engagement in a large office. On taking possession of his "frame," he said, at first he was so alarmed at the exploits of the numbers of clever and rapid workmen around him, that he had not the proper use of the few faculties he could boast, and could think of nothing but his own want of skill. This state of mind only made the matter worse. Nervous and excited, he endeavoured to make the same show of celerity as the others, and got through the first day in a state of complete bewilderment. The second and third passed off a little more to his satisfaction; and he was beginning to nourish some small degree of hope, when on the fourth day the first evidence of the value of his labour was put into his hands, in the form of a proof copy of his work, sent from one of the readers, whose office it is to mark the mistakes of the compositor, for the purpose of correction. Such a horrid amount of blunders he declared the world had never seen before at one view: to the sheet upon which the broad page was printed, the corrector had been compelled to join another, to afford space to mark the errors. "Upon my soul, sir," said he, "I could not stand the sight of it; moreover, the man behind me was grinning over his frame, and telegraphing the whole room. I wished myself a thousand miles away; and seizing my hat and coat, bolted down the stairs as fast as I could run. I got a letter in a few days from the party who recommended me, desiring me to return and resume my work; but I could not do it. The face of that chap grinning over my shoulder has given me the nightmare fifty times. That's six- and-twenty years ago, and I have never been near the place since." Sick of the printing, he had next tried to work as a bookbinder, which, as is usual in country towns, he had learned as well (or rather as ill) as the other; but here also he found himself equally at fault. Discharged from the bookbinder's to make room for a more expert hand, he found himself cast upon the world, with no available means of subsistence. Want of funds, speedily followed by want of food, drove him again to make application to the printing-offices; but now he avoided large houses, and was at length fortunate enough to locate himself in a suburban establishment of small pretensions, where he got board and lodging, and a nominal salary, doing what he could, for just what the proprietor, who was as poor almost as himself, could afford to give him. Here he stayed, on and off, as be said, for more than a dozen years, during which he contrived to add something to his knowledge of the business, and to save a few pounds, with which, on the demise of his employer, he purchased a part of the materials he had so long handled, and commenced printer in his own right. It appeared that the whole of his gains during all the years of his mastership had not averaged much above forty pounds a year, out of which he had to pay 3s. 6d. a week for the rent of his room. He showed me his stock of implements, consisting principally of solid brass blocks, engraved in relief for the purpose of printing gold labels attachable to the thousand-and-one wares of druggists, chemists, haberdashers, fancy stationers, and numberless other traders. The blocks were for the most part the property of his employers; and he found it his interest to keep a small stock of each on hand, to meet the demands of the proprietors. He attributed the blotchy impression which characterized all his work, mainly, to his rickety press, and sighed for a better, which he had yet no prospect of obtaining; but he observed that though his work would look very bad in ink, it was a very different thing in gold, that made even a blotch ornamental, and of which people seldom complained of having too much for their money.
This poor fellow presented the most remarkable instance of unfitness for the business he followed that I ever met with. With huge, horny, unmanageable fingers, and defective vision, he pursued a craft, to the successful prosecution of which quick, keen sight, and manual dexterity are indispensable. Requiring a knowledge of at least so much grammar as is comprised in the arts of orthography and punctuation, he was profoundly ignorant of both. Thirty years of practice as a printer had not taught him to spell the commonest words in the language, as I became aware from certain cacographic despatches on business matters subsequently received from him. Honestest of bunglers! one-half of his painstaking existence was passed in repairing the blunders of the other; and yet it is a question whether he did not enjoy his being with as much relish as any man that ever lived. His cheerfulness was without a parallel in my experience: an inexhaustible spring of hilarity seemed welling from every feature. Nature had more than compensated him, by the bestowal of such a temperament, for all the sports of fortune. Proof against calamity, he grinned instinctively in the face of adverse circumstances, and once declared to me that he did not think any mortal thing could depress his animal spirits, unless it might be a drunken wife; whether such an appendage to his fortunes might succeed in doing so he couldn't say, but he had no intention of making the experiment.
He died the death one might almost have wished him, considering his solitary lot. He was found by an early visitor one morning dead in his beehive chair, the newspaper in his hand, a half-smoked pipe broken at his feet, a pint of hardly- tasted ale on the hob of the empty grate, and the candle burnt out in the socket on the little table at his side.
Charles Manby Smith Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, 1853