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

WILD SPORTS OF THE EAST.

    THE love of sport, as it is complaisantly termed, displayed by all ranks and classes among all the nations and tribes of the genus homo, is hardly less manifest among the dwellers in close and crowded cities, than among the nomadic lords of the forest and the plain. Whether it be that there is something in the sudden death-dealing vindication of man's authority over the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, and the dumb denizens of the deep, that is gratifying to his vanity and egoism, or whether there be a pleasure independent of that in circumventing the wise instincts which nature has so variously implanted in the whole animal mind to ensure the due preservation of their several races, we are not going at this moment to inquire. It is enough for our present purpose that, irrespective of the demands of necessity, which we leave out of the question, wherever the human biped can find the two elements that go to constitute the savage recreation of sporting - to wit, the animal to be hunted or slain, and the means of hunting slaying it there he is sure to be found asserting his cruel prerogative, and rejoicing in the sport. 
    Nay more - if the game be not forthcoming, so strong is the instinct to hunt and slay, that he will purchase vermin for the sake of worrying it - or start from his winter fireside or his warm bed to go in search of the meanest quarry that runs or burrows, swims or flies. 
    The sportsmen of the metropolis may be divided into two very separate and distinct classes: the professionals and the amateurs - the former being the aristocracy, the latter the profanum vulgus of the species. With the first, comprising in its catalogues of great names, all, or nearly all, the "crack shots" of the day - slayers of thousands of pigeons and pluckers of thousands more - as we do not pretend to be initiated into the manifold mysteries of their hidden craft - have never been admitted to the secret conclave at the "Red House" - shot sparrows from the trap in Bill Grimes's meadow- or won a pig or lost a pound at a pigeon match in the whole course of our lives, we cannot pretend any intimate acquaintance, - and must, therefore, leave them alone in their glory - a glory by the way which few of them would be willing to exchange for a reputation, however well deserved, established upon any other basis. We must confine our attention in this brief paper to that large section of the middle and lower orders with whom the pursuit of sport would seem to be a sort of governing instinct, impelling them to assume the angle in summer and the gun in winter, and to plod thousands of miles through the dust and swelter of one season, and the rain, snow, and drizzle of the other, in the pursuit of what they rarely by any chance come up with - game.
    The angling season begins in London with the very first disappearance of frost and the first blush of blue sky in the heavens; and, with comparatively few exceptions, Sundays and holidays are the only days of sport. The young angler begins his career in the Surrey Canal, the Grand Junction Canal, or the New River, which ever happens to be nearest to the place of his abode. His first apparatus is a willow-wand, bought at the basketmaker's for a penny, and a roach-line for fivepence more. A. sixpenny outfit satisfies his modest ambition; and thus equipped he sallies forth to feed - not the fishes - them he invariably frightens away - but himself, with the delusive hope of catching them. The blue- bottles have not yet left their winter quarters, and "gentles" or maggots are not yet to be had; so he has recourse to kneaded bread or paste, hoping to beguile his prey with a vegetable diet. In order that the fishes may be duly apprised of the entertainment prepared for them, he crams his trousers-pockets with gravel, which he industriously scatters upon his float as it sails down the stream, doubtless impressed with the notion that the whole finny tribe within hearing will swarm beneath the stony shower to take their choice of the descending blessings, and finding his bait among them, give it the preference, and swallow it as a matter of course. The theory seems a very plausible one; but we cannot say that in practice, though witnessing it a thousand times, we ever saw it succeed. For the sake of something like an estimate of the amount of success among the juvenile anglers of this class, we lately watched the operations of a group of nearly thirty of them for two hours, but failed in deriving any data for a calculation, as not a fin appeared above water the whole time. With the exception of a few "stunnin' bites," and one "rippin' wallopper," which was proclaimed to have carried off a boy's hook, there was no indication of sport beyond that afforded by the party themselves.
    When the sun, bountiful to sportsmen, begins, as Shakspeare has it, "to breed maggots in a dead dog," a new and superior race of anglers appears upon the margin of the waters. The dead dogs then have their day, and are now carefully collected from holes and corners by the makers and venders of fishing- tackle, and comfortably swaddled in bran, where they lie till their bones are white, originating "gentles" through the live- long summer for the use of the devotees of angling. Now we see something like tackle deserving the name: capitalists who think nothing of a crown, aye, or a pound either, by way of outfit; rods of real bamboo, straight as an arrow, and fifteen or twenty feet long; floats of porcupine quill, and lines of China twist; bait boxes, fish-cans, and belted baskets, and all the paraphernalia of the contemplative recreation appear upon the banks; but still no fish, or nothing larger than what a half-pound trout would gobble up in his prowlings through some country stream for breakfast. All these mighty preparations are made against a generation among which a full-sized sprat would rank as a triton among the minnows. Not one Cockney sportsman in ten thousand has ever seen a trout alive, and would perhaps be as likely to be pulled into the water by one of a couple of pounds' weight as to pull the fish out, were he by any miracle doomed to the terrible alternative.
    The oriental's enthusiasm for the sport has no sort of relation to his success. We met Charley Braggs in our last Sunday evening's walk returning from his day's amusement. Now Charley is a machine-man in the Printing-office, and having put the Sunday paper to bed at about two o'clock, instead of going home to his own after a week of unremitting toil, he had set off for Hornsey by moonlight, where, perching himself upon a bank, he had sat from three in the morning till seven at night, bobbing for small fry at a bend in the New River. His basket was well stuffed with grass; among which he pointed exultingly to four or five little silvery victims, whose united weight would have kicked the beam against a quarter of a pound. And yet Charley thought himself successful; and so lie was in comparison with the average of New River anglers.
    But we must ascend in the scale in order to do fair justice to our subject, and take a glance at the angling establishments in the neighbourhood of London, where good-sized fish are really caught, or, as the phrase is, "killed;" and where, in order that there may be no doubt about it, their skins are plentifully varnished and preserved as evidence of the fact. Upon the banks of the several rivers that empty themselves into the Thames at various points in the vicinity of London there are numerous establishments of this kind. We shall sketch one where we have before now passed a delicious day in the enjoyment of the dolce far niente, and which will serve very well as a sample of the whole.
    We mount upon an omnibus, and driving four or five miles through the suburbs in a north-easterly direction, are set down at a turnpike-gate in a neat, tree-sprinkled village. Leaving the village to the west, we take the turnpike-road, which leads in a direct line to the river, where, at the distance of half a mile from the village, it is crossed by a substantial and handsome bridge. Traversing the bridge, we turn to the right after a passage of a few score paces, and enter, through neatly- trimmed walks, upon the grounds and gardens of a country inn. Covered seats and rustic alcoves - arbours, and quiet, snug, leafy retreats, abound in the gardens and grounds which abut upon the river's brink. The water foams and dashes with the unceasing noise of a cataract over a series of wooden dams, erected to divert the main current into a new channel for the purposes of navigation - the old bed of the river being that rented by the proprietor of the inn, and by him strictly preserved for the delectation of his patrons, the amateur anglers of the metropolis. Let us enter the house, and proceeding upstairs to the piscatory sanctum, look around us while we impinge upon a bottle of the landlord's unexceptionable ale. Here we are in the very paradise of the London anglers, and surrounded with the trophies of their cunning and patience, ranged in glass-cases, and labelled with the weight of the immortalised victims and the names of their fortunate captors. Here it is recorded, for the instruction of future generations, that a gudgeon of seven inches three-eighths in length, and five ounces and a half in weight, was captured by the redoubtable Dubbs of Tooley Street, on the 6th of August, 1839; and though Dubbs himself for aught we know, may long since have been gathered to his fathers, the wide-mouthed witness of the fact, the gudgeon himself, still hangs in the centre of his glass-case, suspended like Mohammed's coffin between heaven and earth, to bear perpetual testimony to his prowess. Yonder is a perch of three pounds, caught by Stubbs of Little Britain; and above it a mavellously chubby chub, caught by Bubb of the street called Grub. These memorials of past achievements no doubt have their due influence, and urge the rising heroes of the angle to emulate their great forerunners. One whole side of the dining-room, you see, is parcelled out in lockers large enough to contain the necessary tackle and apparatus; and each locker is neatly painted, and bears the name of the amateur to whom the contents belong. These - and their number is not small - are the regular subscribing members of the angling fraternity; and here on every Sunday throughout the summer, unless the weather be very bad indeed, they muster strong, often arriving while the dew is yet on the grass, and pursue their silent pleasures till dinner, steaming on the table at two o'clock, calls them together to report progress and recruit their strength.
    The conversation on these occasions is characteristic and technical, and altogether fishy. 
    "Ha, Bubbs !" says Stubbs; "shake a fin, old trout. What's the cheese? You don't look very fresh about the gills to-day."
    "Why," responds Bubbs, "you see I started afore light, and had but a scaly breakfast - not quite the thing in the ground-bait, you see. I'll be all right as a roach after I've nibbled a bit, I daresay."
    Happy the man who at the dinner-table can display to the view of his admiring comrades some fish of mark - some roach of ten, or chub of twenty ounces. Old exploits are gone over for the hundredth time, with added particulars at every repetition. Baits are overhauled and discussed along with the brandy and water. Moss-crammed bags, where blood-worms, dung-worms, lobs, and lance-tails are kept to scour, are ransacked for specimens, and notes and maggots are compared, and much finny and vermic lore is elicited from the veterans of the silent art. The dinner and grog being duly honoured, the rod is again resumed beneath the shadowy shelter of the trees on the river's brink; and long after the gloom of night has descended upon the gurgling stream, the brethren of the angle in populous silence pursue their labours. It is now seven years since friend iBubb caught his big chub: the monster fish rose at his fly full sixty feet off; on the opposite side of the stream, where there is an eddy of the current rebounding from you projecting piles. It was the work of an hour - the hour of Bubb's life - to bring the "wallopping gentleman" safe to land; and ever since, throughout every Sunday and holiday of the fishing season, has Bubbs been lashing away at the water with his whipping-rod and fifty yards of line, in the fond expectation of catching another to match him. "Good-luck to your fishing !" say we. We cannot wait for the next bite, but must be off to see what the punters are about in the Thames.
    "Patience in a Punt" is the title of an old caricature, representing the "elderly gentleman" of hat-and-wig notoriety seated on a dilapidated chair in a fiat-bottomed boat during the pelting of a pitiless storm, from which he is but partially sheltered by the skeleton of an umbrella, and, with eyes intent on his float, waiting for a bite. The picture is as applicable at the present hour to the class for whom it was intended, as it was when published forty years ago. The punt is a nondescript kind of boat, with perpendicular sides and square ends. The fishing-houses on the banks of the Thames - of which there are plenty on both sides of the river, from Putney to Kingston, and beyond - are abundantly provided with these boats, in which the angler sits upon a chair, and generally baits for barbel, the only fish in the waters near London, with the exception of the pike, which, from the unwillingness he manifests to leave his native element, can be said to yield anything like sport in the catching. In some parts of the river near Twickenham they are exceedingly plentiful at times, and thirty or forty pounds' weight of them are not unfrequently caught in a day by a single rod. There is one thing against them, however, and that is, that they are worse than good for nothing. They hardly deserve the name of fish, being a species of mud vermin armed with snouts, and they taste of earth to a degree perfectly nauseous. People every season die through eating them, yet they are eagerly sought after, and an immense amount of time and expense is annually thrown away in their capture. The virtue of patience in connection with punt-fishing is exemplified in waiting day after day half the season through before you make acquaintance with a single barbel. These unsavoury creatures herd together in swarms, and migrate from place to place, seeking a new feeding-ground when the old one is exhausted, and seldom staying long in one spot. As it is never possible to tell where these herds of river swine are lying with their snouts in the mud, you may plant your punt fifty times before you light upon a swarm, and thus cultivate your patience to the highest pitch of perfection.
    In conjunction with the barbel-fishing in the Thames, we may notice the bream-fishing in the different docks. It seems an odd thing that there should be any connection between the corn-laws and fishing for bream; yet a connection there certainly is. Some of the docks appropriated for the reception and unlading of vessels freighted with grain became gradually well-stocked with this particular fish, which thrives well upon a bread diet. Corn that from long hoarding under a high duty had become weaviled and worthless, was frequently thrown overboard, and that in vast quantities; and the consequence was, that enormous specimens of full-fed, aldermanic-looking bream were occasionally lugged forth to the light by the amateur anglers of the docks. We have seen them hauled up to the surface from a depth of twenty feet, looming through the green water like the broad, white waistcoat of an alderman through the reek of a civic feast. Apparently too fat to wag their tails, they dangled supine upon the treacherous hook, and only winking a bleared eye under the unwelcome light of day, "gave up their quiet being" without an attempt at a struggle.
    In walking about the streets of London one is struck with the singularly great proportion of fishing-tackle shops, taken in connection with the actual requirements of the population. There are some districts literally crammed with them-quiet, retired spots generally, where the traffic in other things is small, and the passers-by comparatively few. The key to this apparent riddle will be found in the fact, that the London makers supply the greater part of the kingdom - that nearly the whole of the fresh-water fishing-tickle of England is the produce of London manufactories. The harvest of these tradesmen is of course the summer season, and they spare no pains to make it as profitable as may be. At any of these shops you may purchase liberty to fish in private ponds or streams, situated, some of them, in distant counties, and contract for board and lodging at a moderate rate, or at any rate you choose, during your stay.
    But we must proceed summarily to notice the winter field- sports of the indigenous Cockney with dog and gun, or with gun and no dog, as it may happen. Of this class of sportsmen there is no variety: the species is one and the same, and you might almost fancy it is the same individual you meet with everywhere, turn your face in what direction you will out of town on a Sunday in winter. He is a sort of hybrid specimen, half-artizan, hall-mendicant, with a dash of the area sneak. Unwashed, untrimmed, and you may be sure unlicensed, he saunters forth with his hands in his pockets; his gun, a long iron-barrelled, rusty old flint, balanced under his arm; while his unctuous rags flutter in the wind. He is followed at a little distance by a half-starved, unwilling whelp, which is too well acquainted with the vigour of his master's toe to venture his lean and lank anatomy within kicking distance, and which cannot always be seduced by the combined allurements of oaths, whistlings, end peltings, to participate in the day's sport. He carries his powder and shot in his pocket, and measures the charge with the bowl of a tobacco-pipe; and his game is anything that flies or runs, from a crow to a water-rat. His impatience for sport seldom allows him to straggle farther than the brick-fields, which on all sides of London constitute the line of demarcation between the country and the town. Here he loads his piece and his short pipe, and with the latter firmly gripped by his teeth, prowls among the half-baked bricks, waging war among the sparrows and wagtails unfortunate enough to come in his way. Tie is the terror of the cottagers and gardeners of the suburbs, and the admiration of a cluster of ragged urchins, who gather round him and do his despotic bidding with alacrity. He never aims at a bin on the wing; and never, if he can help it, pulls the trigger without first securing a convenient resting-place for his long barrel. With all these precautions he considers himself fortunate if he kills once out of three times; and all the dead sparrows he carries home cost him at least ten times their weight in lead. We have met him more than once in the custody of the policeman, marching off to the station for sending shot through cottage windows, or leaping garden-fences after maimed sparrows. It is fortunate for the public that his recreation is generally over early in the day. By one o'clock the public-house is open, and even though his ammunition be not by that time all shot away, as is generally the case, he cannot resist the vision of the pewter-pot, which rises before his imagination as the destined hour draws near. Sometimes a wild ambition seizes him; he will learn to shoot flying, and then you may perchance come upon him in some retired field under Highgate Hill, in company with some congenial spirit, furnished with a luckless pigeon tied by the leg, at which these considerate sportsmen fire by turns, as the miserable bird rises in the air to the length of the string. The last time we witnessed this delectable sport, the string was severed by the twentieth discharge, and the unwounded bird got clear off, to the mortal chagrin of the pair of brutes.
    The purlieus of Whitechapel and some other districts of London are yet disgraced by the disgustingly-cruel and sense - less exhibitions of dog-fights, badger-baitings, and rat- slaughters; in which latter spectacle of barbarity certain wretches in human shape, envious of the reputation of the celebrated dog Billy, have aspired to emulate his exploits, and arc actually seen to enter the arena with a hundred or more live rats, which they are backed, or back themselves, to kill with their teeth alone in a given time! The cockpit, too, yet survives, and mains are fought in secret and out of ear-shot of the Society for the Suppression of Cruelty to Animals. These and similar brutalities, however, - thanks to the dawn of a better feeling and a more enlightened self-respect among the lower orders - are very much on the wane, and it may be fairly hoped will hardly survive the present generation of Cockney sportsmen.