Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853


    CURLED up under the shelter of one of the numerous dead walls to be met with in the line of the Kew Road, from Paddington to King's Cross, there is to be occasionally seen a lump of unwashed and unkempt shivering juvenility and tattered raggedness. A coarse canvas suit, which would not fetch two-pence at the rag shop, and which is full of holes and rents, does not more than half cover the naked limbs; the unclean skin, "goose-fleshed" with the wintry blast of February, looks pallidly through a dozen patchwork apertures. His bare head is protected from the sun and rain only by a mass of tangled and dishevelled hair, which drips like thatch when the rain beats over it. The owner of the miserable garments, which barely serve the purposes of decency, can boast of neither shirt, nor stockings, nor shoes. lie has huddled himself up almost to the form of a crouching cur that shrinks from the assaults of the storm, and he half hides his face in his hands as he cowers ruefully from the cold. On the shin of one leg, too, a little above the ankle, there is a bad, unsightly wound. On a smooth pavement stone at his side, first industriously cleaned and polished with the palm of his hand, he has written in white chalk, shaded with a black Italian crayon, and in characters to the beauty and flourishing fluency of which the italics we are compelled to make use of have no pretensions, the following expressive appeal: - 

    "I will not steal-
     I must not beg- 
     I cannot work- 
     Will you allow me to starve?"

    A crowd of gaping boys and compassionating females have gathered round him. The boys are unanimous and loud in their praise of the marvellous writing, which in a measure justifies their assertion that it is "better than copper-plate;" the women, with sundry ejaculations of pity and condolence, mingled with violent indignation against the world of wealth for not stepping forth in a body to the rescue, are searching in their pockets for an alms for the suffering creature. Now and then a passing pedestrian throws him a coin and hurries on; and now, the poor women, having succeeded in extracting a few half-pence from the recesses of their pockets and clubbed them together, one of them stoops down tenderly, and, with a sigh and a blessing, confers upon the starving wretch their united contribution. The grateful creature turns a tearful eye to the clouds, and, impressed with the burden of thankfulness, invokes a thousand benedictions upon their charitable hearts. Sober citizens, not altogether free from suspicion, walk past quietly, and take no notice of the appeal to their sympathies; while the man of the world, conversant with the whole economy of the business, hurls him an admonition or a reproach, instead of a coin, by which proceeding the deplorable object in all probability profits more than he would have done by their pence, through the generosity of the ignorant and the charitable, which is always stimulated by the appearance of inhumanity or oppression.
    This unfortunate outcast crouches all day in the eye of the public; and if his wants be still unsatisfied, he lights a candle so soon as it is dark, and then presents quite a picturesque object. By the light of his guttering tallow, those who pass may read his lithographic performance; and he will remain at his post till seven o'clock at least, to catch the commercial gentlemen on their return home after the labours of the counting-house. So soon as that daily current has subsided, considering his business done for the day, he rises from his lair, and, treading out his ornamental inscription with his foot, limps away with the gait of a confirmed and incurable cripple from the scene of his labours - if labours they are to be called.
    The subject whom we have been rapidly contemplating is well known in certain localities as an arrant impostor. We have seen him in the exercise of his daily profession, or we should say one of his professions - that of "The Deplorable Object," in the pursuit of which he enjoys a reputation, and a profit, too, equal to those of any of his tribe. It may be as well, perhaps, to look at the other side of the picture, and see how he indemnifies himself at night for his couch of cold stone during eight or nine hours of the day. Let us follow him home. He has blown out his candle and hidden it in a hole in. the wall above his head, where he will find it again whenever it may be convenient to repeat his performance. He hobbles on painfully for a few hundred yards, when, turning suddenly southwards, he sets his face towards Westminster, and breaks into a strapping pace, which will carry him thither in five-and-thirty minutes. He stops, after a smart walk of a few hundred yards, under the shadow of a doorway, and putting his wounded foot upon the step, carefully detaches the wound - which is a clever work of art-from his leg, and as it cost him three-and-sixpence, he folds it up for future use. He now resumes his pace, nor stops again till, after threading numberless windings and short cuts, he pulls up at a favourite wine-vaults in Seven Dials. Here he compensates himself for the hardships of his peculiar craft, with libations of some favourite beverage, and afterwards dines as luxuriously as a lord, and at the same hour - as he is wont to boast-at some "ken" in the immediate neighbourhood, in the company of a congenial crew of impostors who, like himself, make a living by preying on the misdirected sympathies of the humane.
    What he does with himself after dinner depends entirely upon the state of trade during the day. On this occasion he has been rather successful, and having six or seven shillings in his pocket after his dinner is paid for, he resolves upon a little relaxation. He walks leisurely home to his lodgings, not a very great distance from the Broadway at Westminster, where, doffing his professional garb, he dons one of good serviceable fustian, and, having given· a peremptory order for supper at twelve o'clock, makes one in a party for some low theatre in the neighbourhood, where he makes amends for the taciturnity of his performance in the daytime by the volubility of his criticisms. After the performance is over, he and his companions resort to the populous beggars' lodging-house where they all reside, to a midnight supper, made up of the most heterogeneous materials - from charity crusts and potatoes for those who can pay for nothing better, to roast beef, or fowls, or rump steaks and oyster sauce, for those who during the day have reaped the favours of fortune. Supper over, the weary and the penniless slink off to bed, and the rest prolong the repast, in which our hero cuts a conspicuous figure, from the excellence of his voice, the vigour of his lungs, and the comic humour he brings into play, when he favours the company with a specimen of the peculiar class of minstrelsy in which they delight. The doors are closed, and no intrusive policeman presumes to interrupt their harmony, which generally endures so long as anything remains to be spent. If half of the wretched objects finish by disgusting intoxication, they are but so much the more fitted for business next day, seeing that the tremor and pallor superinduced by debauch may be looked upon as the legitimate qualifications for their line of occupation.
    The subject of our notice is really a clever fellow, and his boast, that he "knows a thing or two," is by no means void of truth; but there is one thing which he does not know, and of which at present it would be very difficult to convince him - and that is, that of all the victims of his imposture, he is himself the one most deplorably deluded.

Charles Manby Smith Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, 1853