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

SAM SUNDRIES AND HIS CONGENERS.

SAM SUNDRIES - to give him the name by which he is universally known among his neighbours-lives in the Bagnigge Wells Road. He keeps a shop, the physiognomy of which, being of a very unpretentious, bottle-blue colour, is anything but prepossessing. Bottles of every known form of configuration, with their concave bottoms uniformly ranged against every pane, fill up the entire window; and the very little light which can succeed in struggling through the prostrate files, reveals to you within a succession of shelves, range above range, still covered with bottles, among which, however, you may discern whole rows of pickling-jars, preserve and jelly-pots, and every species of crockery and corkable glass applicable to the business of the dispensing-room or the kitchen. Bottles, however, are but a small part of his wares - the ostensible head and front of his commercial speculations. The whole domain of Sam Sundries is a warehouse or store-yard, crammed to excess with the disjecta membra of past realities. Bricks, pantiles, slates, chimney. pots, wainscottings, doors, windows, shop-fronts, sashes, counters, blocks of stone, bars of metal, rolls of lead, iron railings, gateways, stoves, knockers, scrapers, pipes and funnels, copper pots, pans, and boilers, and everything which has a name or a use, and many things which have neither, are stored in rich and rusty abundance in the ample yards and sheds in the rear of his residence.
    He will buy anything and everything which the regular dealers have rejected-from the roof of an old house to its rotten kitchen-floor, and from the wardrobe of the master to the perquisite bones and grease of the scullion-wench. Besides a good connection among the medical practitioners of his district, whom he supplies with phials at a fraction under the market-price, he has intimate relations with Monmouth Street and Rag Fair - the denizens of which localities clear off his collections of "toggery" at their periodical visits. His depot is the daily resort of little speculating builders and repairers; and he reaps a considerable profit by the ready sale to cheap contractors of an infinite variety of materials which it is possible to work up again in the construction of a new edifice. He has a standing agreement with the artists' colourmen, to whom he scrupulously transfers all the old and well seasoned oak and mahogany panelling that comes in his way, and by whom it is scientifically primed and prepared for the artists' use.
    He is, moreover, a builder in a small way himself. In this department he is what the Americans would call a smart man. Raving a sharp eye for prospective advantages, he is often unexpectedly discovered to be the proprietor of a little square patch of land lying directly in the track of a new suburban street, where he has run up a wooden hut, tenanted by an Irish labourer, and which has to be purchased at a swingeing price before the new buildings can be completed. He has a dozen or two of nondescript cottages-queer-looking compilations of old bricks and older timber, perched upon "spec." in the precise path of the advancing improvements in the different quarters. He constitutes himself not the pioneer, but the stumbling-block in the march of civilisation. He is part and parcel of the rubbish which has to be moved out of the way. His erections are built up to be pulled down - the sooner the better for him; but his speculations of this nature have a disastrous effect upon the public, through the introduction of vermin not to be named into new buildings - his colonised old bricks being invariably worked up in the party walls, probably to save the trouble and expense of carting them away.
    Though possessed of a vast amount of a rather equivocal description of property, Sam has but little ready money at his command; and the reason is, that much of what is refuse in-other men's eyes is treasure in his, and he constantly converts his cash into stock, being tempted by the famous bargains which in his line of business are always to be had. With a floating capital of some "seven pun' ten," he considers himself well furnished for the market; and if any sudden emergency necessitates a greater outlay; he gives his bill, and honours it duly when presented.
    Arrived at your dwelling in the pursuit of his vocation- on the eve of the removal-day, we shall say, when you are in a hopeless smotherment with rubbish of all kinds - it is astonishing to witness the ease and celerity with which he sorts, arranges, and values the heterogeneous mass you are anxious to get rid of. He gets through a gross of bottles in a few minutes, rejecting the starred culprits almost instinctively, and ranking the sound ones in rows, ticks them off at so much per dozen. Boots, shoes, boxes, hampers, old hats, old clothes, old hooks and papers, deal-boards, and abandoned utensils of every sort, are all despatched with equal celerity; and having informed you that " thirty bob is his money for the whole bilin' -take em or leave em" -a sentence, by the way, from which you could no more move him than you could transplant Niagara to Spitalfields - he politely insinuates that he will, if it is any accommodation to you, remove the broken glass into the bargain, which, as he is known to deal very largely in that material, is not greatly to be wondered at.
    Sam Sundries is considered a substantial tradesman, and warm man by his compeers in his immediate neighbourhood, and piques himself not a little upon that respectability, which, having achieved for himself, he proudly regards as his most valuable possession. Though he and his whole family live up to the eyes in lumber of every imaginable sort, and may be seen of a hot summer day dining together from a pound of apocryphal sausages, forked out of the frying-pan, and caught upon a hunch of bread, yet the pride of independence gleams in every eye, from the young bottle-imp who rattles shot in oily phials the livelong day, to the indefatigable mother of the seven Sundries, who to the care of her numerous family adds the service of the shop.
    Sam has a host of imitators in the various districts in and around London, of the majority of whom it may be said that, lacking his spirit of speculation and his command of a species of natural arithmetic, which together have been the foundation of his success - for he is utterly devoid of education- they cut but a sorry figure upon small and uncertain gains. Their shops abound in the neighbourhood of Saffron hill and the Cowgate, and in the whole of the back-way track that leads from Liquorpond Street westward, and in a hundred similar localities besides. Many of them are professedly brokers; but the last page of the auctioneers's catalogue is their vade-mecum; and they may be seen straggling into the sale-room at the termination of the day's business, when the regular professional brokers are leaving, with the view of monopolising the few last lots of sundries at their own price. In this laudable purpose, however, they are often defeated by the presence of one or more sturdy old dowager cook or housekeeper, or owner of a lodging-house, who having sat doggedly through the whole sale without bidding, elevates her sonorous voice at last in favour of the entire shoal of pots, pipkins, spans, and pickle-jars, which are knocked down to her at their full value, to the rage and consternation of her grim and aggravated rivals.
    As the current of business does not flow very briskly in the narrow, tortuous, and poverty-stricken thoroughfares, where necessity has compelled these dealers in odds-and-ends to locate their shops, they find themselves compelled to sally forth in pursuit of that traffic which in some shape or other is indispensable to their existence. Having no very profound or scrupulous convictions on the score of morality to contend with, their invention and ingenuity have free scope; and many and various are the machinations and contrivances by which they manage to recommend their services to certain sections of the public. A small hand-bill, not four inches square- both paper and print being of the last-dying-speech-and-confession quality - is lying upon our desk as we write. It was picked up in the area, where it had been dropped for the special information of the servant-girl; and it instructs all whom it may concern, and female domestics in particular, that John G --, of -- Lane, Clerkenwell, "gives the best price for bones, bottles, rags, and kitchen-stuff, all sorts of wearing apparel, china, glass, and every description of property whatever, without trouble or inconvenience ;" and further, that the said John G- "may be relied upon in all circumstances." Another, issued by a member of the same fraternity, copies of which are plentifully circulated at the approach of every recurring quarter-day, and which is palpably intended for the grave consideration of "heads of houses, who may be contemplating a march by moonlight, enlarges upon the immense convenience proffered by Ezra L--, "who has money at command to any amount for the especial accommodation of his friends, and who will take charge of their securities, of whatever kind, at any hour-advancing the needful sum before removal." These disinterested announcements, there can be little doubt, procure them favour and encouragement from certain sections of the community, and may go far to account for the abnormal increase in the amount of tradesmen's bills, so mysterious to unsophisticated housekeepers; and also for the sudden abandonment and dismantling of many a well furnished house, to the alarm and consternation of the defrauded landlord. But these are bold speculations, contrived and carried into execution by the choice spirits of the class - the underhand Napoleons of industry- and are far above the genius and enterprise of the great majority. Honesty is a policy with some, who to their profession as general dealers add the exercise of some useful craft, which, when there is no demand for it at home, they carry forth into the suburbs, lifting up their voices in the streets, or making application at the doors and areas. Thus if your parlour window has a broken pane, and you do not immediately send for the glazier, it is odds but one of these travelling professionals knocks at your door, and offers to do the necessary repairs at five-and-twenty per cent. less than the trade price; which, having consented to, you find, from the quality of the glass he has inserted, is no bargain after all. Others mend cane-chairs, and will weave a new seat in the course of an hour and a half, at the charge of ninepence, including the materials. Some are unlicensed hawkers of china and glass; but they evade the penalty pronounced by the act of parliament by refusing to take money for their goods, which they barter for any species of domestic refuse, or cast-off apparel. Of these there are a very numerous class who perambulate periodically a regular beat, and who keep up an extensive connection in the prosecution of this kind of barter. Not a few of them are assisted by their wives, who divide the labour with them, taking alternate journeys. The co-operation of the wife is found of considerable advantage in this department of trade, as by her means a greater degree of familiarity with the patrons of this kind of commerce, who are invariably females, is established than could ever be accomplished by the cajoleries of the husband alone. When he starts out upon his expedition, he carries a large basket on his head and a capacious sack slung upon his shoulders. He takes his silent way along the accustomed track, never opening his lips in public, but calling privately upon his several patrons. "Anything in my way, to-day, rnarm ?" is his modest appeal. If a negative is returned, he loses no time, but vanishes at once. Should, however, the slightest symptom of hesitation be manifested, down drops the basket upon the door-step, and the glittering display of glasses, cruets, bowls, basins, jugs, and dishes, soon operates a decisive effect. The contents of his basket are gradually exchanged for the exuviae of the various members of the several families on his list, or for such household requisites of a portable description, which with him comprises a wide range, as long service has divested of their original integrity and respectability of appearance- all of which go into the bag, very much, there is scarcely reason to remark, to the advantage of the peripatetic dealer, who, in reverting to the elementary practices of commerce, becomes necessarily from his position his own appraiser and umpire. The wares he carries about with him for disposal are uniformly the defective and rejected productions of the potteries and glass-houses, and are purchased in large quantities, at a very low rate, for this peculiar description of trade.
    Sometimes a brace of speculators in sundries will sally forth together on what is technically termed the "pick up." Their object is to buy - no matter what - with a view to a round profit. One of their favourite plans is to call at every open door, professing to give a high price for bottles and old clothes. The farther they get from Bow Bells the more liberal become their offers, until when fairly out in the country, they boldly offer three shillings a dozen for bottles which your wine-merchant sells you for two. But, in fact, bottles they don't want; and, what is more than that, bottles they won't have. The following scene, detailed by an eye-witness, exemplifies their modus operandi
   
SCENE-A Wayside Farm. Enter Two Tramps, with Sacks on their Shoulders.
   
First Tramp. Yah, yah! Now, ladies, bring out your bottles and old clo'es! Three shilling a dozen for bottles; nows your time! Bring out your old clo'es! Three shillins a dozen-bottles, ho! bottles! bottle - ottle - ottle - ottle -ottles. [With a gurgling noise like the eruption of double-stout from an uncorked bottle of Guinness.]
   
Second Tramp. Yah-ah-ah! Now for the old hats and bonnets! Never mind the dust! Now for the old coats and gownds, pangtyloons and gayters - hainythink! Rummage em out -now's your time, ladies!
   
Farmer's Wife. (calling from the casement.) Here, come in, my good man; I've got a mort o bottles.
    Scene changes to Farm-house Kitchen. The Goodwife drags forth a couple of dozen of Black Bottles, and ranks them on the floor.
    First Tramp. Now, look alive, Ned. Go over them there bottles while I looks at the toggery. Where's the old clo'es, marm?
   
Farmer's Wife. Clothes! I got no clothes to sell as I know of: I haven't a sed nothin' about no clothes.
   
First Tramp. I daresay you can look up a few, marm. Can't buy all bottles and no clo'es: must be some o' both sorts, marm. Bottles is very well, but must be some clo'es.
   
Farmer's Wife. Well, let me see; there be an old coat I do think my maister ha' done wi': I'll go and see. Setty down a minnit. [Exit, and returns in a few minutes with a coat and pair of pantaloons.] Here be a coat and trousers; what be e gwain to gimmy for they ? -they baint very hard done by you see.
   
First Tramp. Let's have a look at em. Come, I'll give you a shillin for the two - eightpence for the coat, and four- pence for the pants.
   
Farmer's Wife. Eightpence for theas coat! Whoy, a's wuth a half-crown, anybody's money!
   
First Tramp. Lor' love your 'ansome face! How d'ye think I can give half-a-crown for that there coat when I'm a goin to give three shillin a dozen for bottles ? - taint in reason!
   
Second Tramp. (In an audible whisper.) These is thunderin' good bottles, Bill!
   
Farmer's Wife. Well, let me see; that'll make seven shillings altogether. Well, well, I s'pose you must have em.
    First Tramp. Here, Ned, clap them togs in the bag. I may as well pay you for em at once, marm. [Pays her a shilling, while Ned sacks the clothes.]
   
Farmer's Wife. But the bottles! B'aint ee gwain to pay for the bottles?
   
First Tramp. Oh, sartinly, marm. But you see, lor' love you! we don't car bottles in a bag: we must go and fetch a hamper for them. We'll pay of course, when we fetches em away. [Exeunt Tramps - manet Farmer's Wife in a cloud.]
   
The good woman keeps the bottles waiting for the hamper so long as she has any faith in its arrival, but as that consummation is delayed from hour to hour, she at length comes by degrees to appreciate the true nature of the transaction.
    The modes of cheating are as various as those of getting a livelihood. The above is but one sample out of thousands of the manner in which the simple are daily mystified by the sharp-witted knaves of the metropolis.
    With the exception of some few successful examples who, like Sam Sundries, have got the world under their feet, the dealers of this class occupy a position midway between the keepers of rag-shops, who beneath the auspices of a black doll suspended aloft over the doorway, keep open-house for the reception of bones, rags, and grease, and those connoisseurs in mahogany and French polish-the furniture brokers. They carry on a branch of commerce which the necessities of a numerous section of society have called into being. In their dark and dingy shops and sheds the poor labourer and scantily- paid artisan finds, at a price commensurate with his means, the various utensils and appliances of such humble housekeeping as he can afford to maintain; and but for some such a market as their obscure depositories supply, thousands of our fellow-creatures would be reduced to shift without the domestic conveniences of life. It is their task to rescue from the fire and the axe, and from the very jaws of destruction, the worn-out and abandoned implements of housewifery and comfort, contemptuously cast forth from the dwellings of the upper and middle classes, and to refit and re-establish them for the accommodation of the very poor. In the exercise of this vocation they are found to manifest a degree of ingenuity and perseverance worthy of a better reward than it sometimes obtains, seeing that the parties with whom they have mostly to do are even more indigent than themselves. That as a class they are frequently brought into very intimate relations with the police force, and find their wanderings confined for a season to the limited area of a prison cell, does not invalidate the fact, that there are among them many honest and worthy individuals, to whom the world is indebted for much painstaking and ill-requited labour.