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


    The reader must suppose it to be the dull time of the London year. London is, in fact, gone out of town, all but those unfortunates who, lacking the sinews of locomotion - surplus cash - have nothing to go with, and therefore nowhere to go to. The west end stands in stately silence; the tall rows of lordly residences blink darkly at each other through closed window-shutters; the broad pavements, glittering in the autumn sun, yield not an echo save to the plodding footfall of the milkman or the pot-boy.

    "No trampling of horses, no rumbling of wheels,
    No noise on the pavement of gentlemen's heels,"

disturbs the cogitations of the dreamy porter, who, having forsaken his cavern of buckram in the hall, ruminates cosily by the kitchen fire upon the two things which are inseparable in his catalogue of human vicissitudes - the sea-side and board-wages.
    With the absence of fashion in the west the tradesman's function in the east correspondingly declines. In the Strand business has run aground, and desperate attempts are making to get it afloat again. Holborn is lipped, and stands at its front door, rubbing its brows, and pulling melancholy faces. Cheapside is now cheaper than ever, and strains with agonizing puffs to swell the canvas of traffic, and get the bark of commerce again under weigh. The less-frequented resorts of trade are still worse off: in the second and third-rate thoroughfares the forlorn dealers are at their wits' end. They publish desperate announcements, and cry aloud through the press, though in less candid phrase, "Take my goods, oh take my goods, at any price you will-twenty, thirty, forty, fifty per cent. under prime cost-no matter what the fearful sacrifice - ruin me, or ruin my creditors, but grant me your custom, or I die. It is all of no use. The crowds that hurry past are of the wrong sort-money-seekers, not money-spenders: retail trade is at its last gasp. There is nothing for it but a "Rig," and a Rig is resolved upon.
    Some fine morning Higgins the broker, telling the boy to take charge of the shop during his absence, jams his crumpled beaver over his unkempt locks, and thrusting his hands into his breeches' pockets, strolls out in a mood half melancholy, half savage, and looks in upon Wiggins the house-agent.
    "How are you, Wiggins, says he, "and how's business with you?"
    "No call to ask anybody that there question these here times, Mr. Higgins," says Wiggins; "most dreadful slack it is surely. Anything up?"
    "Why, there is summut in the wind - leastways if you're agreeable, else I spose it aint no go."
    "The old dodge I expect?"
    "Why, not 'xactly; I seen Crossbar, and Pops, and Daubins, and Brittle last night, and all on us come to a noo plan. We means to have the Rig complete this time-least- ways if you're agreeable, as I said afore."
    "Well, I shan't hinder business, if you mean business; so let's hear?"
    "Well, then, harn't you got a willar to let in St. John's Wood?"
    "To be sure I have; what then?"
    "Harn't it got stables in the back as opens in a mooze?"
    "That's just it; what more?"
    "Why, then, the question is, will you let us have that there willar for a few weeks, and what's your figger?"
    As Wiggins has taken an oath against hindering business of any sort, and as the proprietor of the villa in requisition is an old lady at present retrenching in the south of France, it may be easily imagined that there are no insurmountable impediments to the conclusion of the bargain. Higgins having settled thus much, and obtained the key of the premises, proceeds to call upon his coadjutors in the Rig to play their several parts. Crossbar is an ironmonger, cutler, and hardwareman, and sends in fenders, fire-irons, kitchen-ware, cutlery, and bronze ornaments, &c. &c. Higgins himself carpets the rooms with second-hand Brussels, and crowds every chamber with a plethora of showy furniture-taking good care to prevent the ingress of too much light by a full depth of cornice, and abundance of damask drapery to the windows. Brittle, who is a chinaman, inundates the cupboards and sideboards with a flood of china and glass, made expressly for sale by auction, or for emigrants' uses. Pops, who is a pawnbroker in a large way of business, contributes the linen, an exuberant quantity of which is generally one of the characteristics of the Rig Sale. He happens to have on hand, on the present occasion, a good stock of plate of all descriptions, run out at old silver price, marked with an engraved crest, and the initials A. F. F. Epergnes, candelabras, tea and coffee services, spoons, and forks, with salvers and waiters to match, all are packed off to the "willar;" and a goodly show they make, spread forth upon Higgins's telescope dining-tables. Daubins, who is a picture-dealer in Wardour Street, takes the measure of the walls, and fills every available space with some "exquisite gem of art," manufactured in Brompton or Newman Street scarce a twelvemonth since, but figuring in the catalogue of the Rig Sale as the "choicest productions of the Italian, Spanish, Flemish, and English schools."
    In three days the house is stuffed full from top to bottom with everything that the most pampered selfishness could suggest, or wealth procure, all brought in under cover of the night, through the stables in the back, to prevent the suspicion of observant neighbours. Now appears a pompous advertisement in the daily papers, announcing the choicest effects (among which are included a thousand ounces of plate, and an unequalled collection of cabinet gems of art) of the Honourable Augustus Fitz-Flighaway, deceased, whose unimpeachable judgment, and liberal expenditure in amassing them are, it is added, well known in the world of fashion. The auctioneer, if not a member of the Rig, as is frequently the case, is at most a man of third-rate respectability in his profession, and receives a stated sum for his day's labour, in lieu of a percentage on the amount sold, which is generally charged. A large-type quarto catalogue is industriously circulated in the neighbourhood, and a few are despatched to Brighton, Hastings, and other marine resorts, whence the senders frequently receive commissions to purchase at the sale, at an exaggerated price, articles which had lain for years in their shops unsold.
    At length the day of sale has arrived. Fathoms of stair-carpeting, studded with placards, hang trailing from the windows from an early hour in the morning, as an indication to all concerned that the day of business has dawned. The auctioneer on the present occasion is Mr. Snuffins of Seven Dials. Elevated on a chair placed on one end of the long dining-tables in the front parlour, the folding-doors of which have been removed from their hinges to throw the whole floor into one, the dark-muzzled orator, first treating the assembled public to a full view of his Blucher-booted heels through the legs of the little table in front of him, prepares to open the business. But before reciting his address, let us take a brief glance at the company. Higgins, Daubins, Crossbar, Pops, and Brittle, occupy five chairs in the first row, immediately under the eye of the auctioneer at his left. Wiggins, and an agent or two besides, are stationed at the other end of the room; so that the assembly of bond-fide bidders are enclosed between them. Seated on chairs originally placed in rows, but now jostled in characteristic confusion, are thirty or forty respectable persons of both sexes, who have come with the praiseworthy intention of profiting by the decease of the Honourable Augustus Fitz-Flighaway. Upon the sofas, ranged on either side of the long tables in front of the auctioneer, are a still more select party, whose fashionable garb and demeanour have aroused the watchful politeness of the auctioneer's clerk, who has escorted them to seats at the table. Lounging about the doorway, and chattering occasionally with Wiggins, or one of his gang of touters, are some half-dozen furniture-brokers of the neighbourhood, not come with the view of purchasing- the Rig is as palpable to them as the sea is to a sailor-but induced by curiosity to see how it will go off, or to calculate the chance of profit from a similar experiment on their own account.
    But the voice of Snuffins in alt is now heard above the murmur of conversation. "Now, then, gentlemen, yonder at that end of the room, silence, if you please: we are agoing to begin. Silence, let me beg, if you please (three bangs with his hammer). Ladies and gentlemen, these here heffects of the Horrible Augustus Fitz-Flighaway is, I spose, perfeckly well known to you, seein' the time they've abin on view. Many on you, I have no doubt (the rascal), who was hintimate with that celebrated person afore he deceased hisself, now reckonizes for the last time many a moniment of his indispensible taste and hexpensive disposition." (Here the orator attempts to draw up his right leg to the usual sitting-posture, and in so doing raises one side of the little table, and upsets his inkstand, the contents of which trickle down in a stream upon the head of his clerk, who is occupied for the next halfhour in conveying it by means of his middle finger to the back of his waistcoat.) "But, ladies and gentlemen, there aint no reason that this should be the last time that your eyes should look on what's here. Every blessed lot on it is to be sold for just whot you chooses to give for it: there aint no reserve, and no favour. I needn't say that this is a hopportunity as don't happen every day, and aint likely to come again in a hurry. All I know is, that I should think it a good hundred pounds in my pocket if I could be a buyer to-day instead of a seller. These here remarks said and done, we will, if you please, proceed to the first lot."
    With that up goes a wooden rocking-horse, which had been in Higgins's garret for the last three years; and after galloping up from ten shillings to three pound ten, is knocked down to Miss Clementina Botherbeau - a spinster of fifty-four, who has not a relation in the world under the age of twenty, but who would have it as a relic of the Hon. A. F. F., whom she has an idea she must have known and admired, though she cannot exactly recal his image to her mind.
    As the lots are successively put up, they are started at moderate sums by the disinterested worthies in the front row of chairs; helped onwards towards the figure at which they stand doomed in the auctioneer's catalogue by the clique at the other end of the room; and, the limits agreed on once passed, are left to the competition of the public, who are not in the secret. Those which cannot by any means be pushed up to the price fixed, are bought in by their several owners, or their agents, to be removed at the end of the sale "back to the place from whence they came." The commissions are managed in a summary manner. The lots are rapidly run up to the price the absent principal will give : if they fetch more, they go to the person bidding more; if they are knocked down to the commissioned agent, who is often the owner, he gets for the articles the price at which they are sold, plus the commission, which, by a somewhat anomalous regulation, is generally a per- centage upon the amount paid for the lots.
    But let us listen again to Snuffins. The furniture, we will suppose, is all sold, and the pictures come next. Half-a-dozen time-tinted connoisseurs have entered the room within the last quarter of an hour, and found seats near the table, the ladies having departed.
Snuffins loquitur. The first work of hart, ladies and gentlemen, which I shall submit to your attention, is a reg'lar hex-quiz-it jim of Ten-years, a real shoved-over (meaning to say chef-d'oeuvre), as the catalogue properly expresses it I'm give to understand private that it was bought by the Horrible A. F. F. agin Louis-Philippe, at the great sale in Paris as come off nine year ago. What do you say for this unparalleled production of Ten-years? Fifty guineas, shall I say, ladies and gentlemen? I beg your pardon, gentlemen - gentlemen only - the ladies is all gone-bless their liberal arts! - we shall have them again to-morrow, when the plate, and the linen, and the cheyny comes on. What shall I say, gentlemen, for the sperlative Ten-years? Forty guineas, shall I say?
    A Voice. Two pounds.
    "Two pounds did you say? Very well, thank you, sir; anything to begin with - Two pounds."
Daubins. Three pounds.
Wiggins. Three ten.
    Daubins nods.
Snuffins. Four pounds.
An Old Gentleman. Five pounds. (The settled price: a dead silence.)
Second Old Gentleman. Let me see the picture -(Takes off spectacles, and peers at it closely) - Guineas.
Snuffins. Five guineas; selling at five-dead cheap at fifty. The picture is ultimately knocked down at ten guineas to the first real bidder, having been painted from a print under Daubins's direction six months before, at a cost of not more than forty shillings. Had it been the picture it pretended to be, it would have fetched at a genuine sale, or at the "knock-out" which customarily follows a genuine sale, at least from two to three hundred pounds. The Teniers is succeeded by a Hobbima, that by a Correggio, that by a Wilson, and that again by a Murillo, and so on till the catalogue is gone through, there being not one specimen in the whole batch which would answer any end better than that of showing the total want of judgment or knowledge of art in the purchaser.
    The confederates are well pleased with the result of the first day's exploits. Daubins and Higgins are in high spirits. Crossbar shows his metal by proposing an extemporaneous supper on the premises, and a jollification is got up in the kitchen. Pops, whose profit is yet in perspective, is not quite so elate, and takes care to be temperate in his libations, that the morrow may not find him off his guard. Brittle, too, remains sober as a judge, and compares notes with Pops, and they arrange plans of mutual co-operation for the morrow. Daubins and Higgins get "drunk on the premises," to the great scandal of the other three, and especially of Crossbar, who, being proof against any quantity of "heavy," wonders what such fellows can be made of. An admonition from the policeman, who is attracted to the house by their noise, at length reminds the party that they are in a different region from Broker Row; and after "one glass more," or rather one more "pull" at the pewter-pot (for Brittle is too good a judge to allow his glass to be made use of), they break up, and betake themselves to their several homes.
    The second day's sale is even as the first, and still more productive. The experienced Snu ffins had not miscalculated the "liberal arts" of the ladies. The china and glass, the linen and the plate of the Honourable Augustus Fitz-Flighaway becomes a perfect rage among the housekeepers of the neighbourhood. "As every lady, says the presiding orator, "is by nater a judge of these are harticles, there aint no necessity for any remarks about 'em on my part. I puts 'em up and knocks 'em down; you, ladies, gives what you likes for 'em, and has 'em. That's the long and the short of it." With this elegant exordium the business of the day commences. Under the patronage of the fair it goes on prosperously and well. Pops's second-hand linen brings him almost the price of new: the plate upon which he lent a fraction under five shillings an ounce, runs up to seven or eight, or even more. Now and then a lot is bought by a gentleman, and even a few are bought in by the owners, but the bulk of the articles find female purchasers, and either go to swell the list of bargains for which the buyers have no mortal use, or, being subjected to wear and tear, to prove the fallacious judgment of the excited bidders. The "real china" of Brittle, which all came overland from the home potteries, is bought up as a rarity; and the glass-which to be kept at all must be kept cool, as the ceremony of tempering has been omitted in its manufacture - is an object of strong competition among the fair householders, it being just the one thing of which no lady that we ever yet heard of was known to possess enough.
    The effects of the supposititious deceased honourable are at length all disposed of, to the no small delectation of the concoctors of the Rig. A profit, varying from twenty to fifty per cent., has been realised by each of them, and they all unanimously declare that this time it was a "decent go, and no mistake." But it is not always that the Rig runs so prosperous a course. Though often highly productive, it is yet looked upon as a desperate measure. Sometimes, if the promoters are in bad odour among their brethren of the trade, an angry rival, or an excluded would-be participator, will expose the trick before half-a-dozen lots are sold, and he has either to be bribed to silence, or the thing becomes a failure. The Rig occasionally fails too from want of judgment in the selection of a proper locality for the experiment; not unfrequently less than ten per cent. of the lots are sold to real bidders; and in some instances, for which we could vouch, the amount of goods sold has not paid the auctioneer's charge for selling, to say nothing of other unavoidable expenses.
    Sometimes the Rig is only partial - that is, it is confined to one or two rooms, or to a certain species of goods. In these cases it is curious to witness the perplexity of the brokers who happen not to be in the secret. That the Rig is being worked they know well enough from certain unmistakeable symptoms; that the whole is not a Rig they also know, from the number of knockers-out who are present, and they never venture upon a bidding until the desired information is obtained. Sometimes the first-floor front is a Rig; sometimes the two-pair back. Frequently the plate is rigged; more frequently the pictures. The watchful observer at a sale may detect the Rig portion of it from the demeanour of the regular buyers during its course. No sooner does the disposal of the Rig plant commence, than the whole fraternity of dealers contemptuously and manifestly ignore it altogether, those personally interested only excepted, and the lots are left to the competition of the unsuspecting public, whose courage receives an occasional fillip from the owners of the property or their agents; and it is not till the last Rig lot is knocked down, that the men of business condescend to bestow a glance at the auctioneer, or to listen to his repeated calls for silence, as the noise from their gossipping groups interrupts his proceedings.
    It is hardly necessary to state that from respectable auctioneers, men of character and integrity, the Rig receives no countenance. If, indeed, the choice collections of valuables of every description, gathered together by men of wealth and taste, who have devoted their lives to the task, were allowed to be tampered with and adulterated by the addition of any trumpery from the stocks of ignorant and peculant dealers, the public would have no guarantee for the genuineness of anything they bought. The Rig is born of stagnation of trade, and dies a natural death when commerce becomes brisk, and the demand for things saleable returns to its accustomed level.

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