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


CHARLEY POTTER is Polly Potter's biggest boy; and Polly Potter is a hard-working woman, with another boy and a baby to provide for, whose father died in the hospital the same week the baby was born. Mrs. Potter lives in one of the courts running out of St. Martin's Lane, in a central nest of struggling poverty and hardship, situated not very far from the National Gallery. Ever since Tom Potter's death, owing to a fall from a scaffolding, to say nothing of the weary weeks he lay ill, it has been work or starve - do or die - with the Potter family. The club-money luckily came in at the death and birth, and helped the widow over the double trouble; and as soon as she got upon her feet, she set about helping herself. She took Charley, who was going in thirteen, and as sharp a young fellow as need be, away from school, and told him he must now go to work instead of his father - a proposition which the boy accepted in the very spirit of a young middy unexpectedly promoted to a lieutenancy; and thus it was that the child became, in a manner, a man at once. By the recommendation of Polly's old master, a tradesman in the Strand, Charley was helped to employment from a newspaper agent, whom he serves manfully. While Polly is at home washing or ironing, or abroad charin' or nussin', little Billy meantime taking care of the baby, we shall amuse ourselves by following Charley through the routine of one day's operations. It may not be altogether time thrown away: there is many an old boy as well as a host of young ones who may learn a lesson from it.
    It is a dark, dreary, and foggy morning in January; the wind is driving from the south-east, bringing along with it a delicious mixture of snow and rain; and it yet wants two hours of daylight, when Charley, slinking from the side of his sleeping brother, turns out of bed, and dons his clothes. He has no notion of washing his face just yet- that is a luxury which must be deferred till breakfast-time, which is a good way off at present. The pelting sleet, the driving wind, and the fog are such small trifles in his category of inconveniences, that he takes no more notice of them than just to button his jacket to the chin, and lug his cloth cap down over his eyes, as he gently shuts the door after him, and steps out into the darkness. Then he digs his hands into his pockets, and bending his head towards the storm, in the attitude of a skater in a Dutch frost-piece, steers round the steps of St. Martin's Church, and then straight on through the Strand and Temple Bar, and along Fleet Street, near the end of which he disappears suddenly in the dark and narrow maw of Black. Horse Alley. This Black-Horse Alley is a place of no repute at all: among all the courts and closes which debouch into Fleet Street on either side of the way, it is almost the only one which is not celebrated for something or somebody or other in records either literary or dramatic, ghostly or convivial. By daylight it is particularly dirty, dark, and unsavoury, having no outlet but a narrow one at the centre, on the right, which lands the explorer in Farringdon Street, opposite to the ruined gateway of what a few years ago was the Fleet Prison. A black horse, or a horse of any colour, once fairly in the alley, would find it a difficult matter to turn round, and would have to back out, or else, like an eel in a water-pipe, wait till destiny chose to release him. Wretched old tenements are the tall buildings on either side, which shut out the daylight from the court, and one, the biggest of them all, belongs to an association of newsmen; being open all day, and very likely all night too, for we never saw it shut, it serves as a central depot whence whole tons of newspapers, received damp from the printing- machine, take their departure daily for all parts of the kingdom.
    Here we must follow close upon the heels of Charley. Diving into the court, and proceeding a score of yards or so, we find the old house bathed in a flood of gaslight from top to bottom. Men and boys are rushing up and down the angular stairs, some with damp loads upon their backs, and others hastening off to procure them. The morning papers have all been "put to bed," as it is termed, and their respective machines are now rolling off copies, each at the rate of several thousands an hour. As fast as they come into being, they are counted off in quires, and borne away by the agents, who undertake to supply the country districts. An enormous number of them come on the shoulders of the newsboys to Black-Horse Alley. On the top-floor of the house - and we notice, as we ascend, that all the floors are furnished and alike - we find Charley already at his work. He stands a score of other lads and men, behind a continuous flat deal-board, which runs round the whole circuit of the floor, elevated on tressels, and standing about two feet from the wall. Those next him are folding, packing, and bundling up papers in time for the morning mail, which will carry them to Bristol and to Birmingham, more than a hundred miles distant, and to a hundred places besides, in time to lay them upon the breakfast-tables of the comfortable class. Charley, with paste-brush and printed addresses, is as busy as the best. Post, Herald, Chronicle, Advertiser, and Daily News are flying - like so many mad flags amidst the clamour of voices, the stamping of feet, and the blows of hard palms upon wet paper. By and by the Times, which, on account of its omnivorous machine, can afford to sit up longer, and go to bed later than its contemporaries, pours in a fresh flood of work. All hands go at it together; but as fast as one huge pile is cleared off, another comes, and neither the noise nor the activity relents until the moment for posting draws nigh, when the well-filled bags are hoisted on young shoulders, or piled on light traps waiting close by in the street - and off they roll or run to the post-office. Charley himself staggers out of Black-Horse Alley, looking, with a huge bag upon his shoulders, like a very great bird with a very small pair of legs, and in six and a half minutes - the exact time allowed - shoots his body into the aperture at St. Martin's-le-Grand, and, catching up the emptied bag, which flies out upon him the next moment, walks leisurely away.
    Charley knows now that the immediate hurry is over, and, in spite of the rain which still continues to drizzle down, he has a game at bolstering a comrade with his empty bag, in which friendly interchange of civilities the two together make their way, not back to Black-Horse Alley, but to their master's shop, at which they arrive before it is open, and before the neighbours are up. Here they meet half-a-dozen more boys, distributors hired by the week to do a few hours' work in the morning, in the delivery of newspapers to subscribers. The post-office, which will carry a stamped newspaper 100 or 500 miles for nothing, will not carry it a short distance without payment of a penny, and therefore the newsman has to deliver by private hand all papers within the limits. For this responsible commission, there are always plenty of candidates among the London boys; and here are half a dozen of them this morning waiting the arrival of the master with his budget. Pending his advent, as the rain peppers down unceasingly, they wrap their bags round their shoulders, and, arranging themselves in a rank under the projecting eaves of the shop-window, commence the performance of an impromptu overture with their heels against the wooden framework that supports the shutters which they are polishing with their backs. The neighbours know this sort of demonstration well enough; it is as good as Bow Bells to all within hearing, and has the effect of rousing many a sleeper from his bed. Day has dawned during the performance, and, soon after, the master's little pony-cart is seen in the distance rattling over the stones. He jumps out of the trap almost before it has stopped, throwing Charley the key of the shop-door. The boy has the door open and the shutters down in an instant; the piles of newspapers are transferred from their swaddling blankets to the counter, and as rapidly as is consistent with a cautious accuracy, they are allotted, among the different distributors, each of whom, as he receives his complement, starts off upon his mission. Charley has a round to go over, the course of which has been suited to his convenience, as its termination will bring him within a short distance of his own home, where he arrives by nine o'clock.
    Before breakfast, he makes his toilet, and rubs off the residuum of London particular which has accumulated upon his skin within the last twenty-four hours. This necessary preliminary settled, he addresses himself to sundry logs of bread and butter, and a basin of scalding coffee, which has been kept simmering on the hob for him. Solid and fluid are dispatched with a relish that is to be earned only by early rising and outdoor work. He talks as he eats, and tells his mother the news which he has contrived to pick up in the course of the morning - particularly about that murder over the water, and the behaviour of "the cove what's took in custody about it." Perhaps he has an extra paper; and if so, he reads a bit of the police-reports, especially if anybody in the neighbourhood is implicated in one of the cases. Breakfast over, he gets back to his master's shop, where he finds a bundle of newspapers ready for him, which he is directed to get rid of at the railway station, if possible. For a certain reason, well known to master and servant, he has a decided fancy for this part of his business; and he loses no time in transporting himself to an arena always favourable to this branch of commerce. The bustle of trains arriving and departing excites his spirits and energies and, determined on doing business, he gives full scope to his lungs. "Times, Times - to-day's Times! Morning Chronicle! Post! Advertiser! Illustrated News! Who's for to-day's paper? Paper, gentlemen! News, news! Paper, paper, paper! Chronicle ! - Who's for Punch?" In this way, be rings the changes backwards and forwards, not even pausing while engaged with a customer, and only holding his peace while the station is vacant. Then he takes breath, and perhaps, too, takes a dose of theatrical criticism from the columns of the Chronicle, or of the last new jokes in Punch. The arrival of a new batch of passengers wakes him. up again, and he is among them in a moment, with the same incessant song and the same activity. His eyes are everywhere, and he never loses a chance; he cherishes the first-class carriages especially, and a passenger cannot pop his head out of window for a moment, without being confronted with the damp sheet of the Times, and assailed with the ringing sound of his voice. Charley generally continues this traffic till dinner-time, which with him is at one o'clock. Whether he continues it after that time, is a matter frequently left to his own discretion; and as he has a interest in exercising that upon sound principles, we may be sure he does the best he can.
    The newsboy's dinner might be described in mathematical terms as an "unknown quantity." It may consist of a warm and savoury mess, discussed at leisure beneath the eye of his mother, or it may be a crust of bread and cheese, eaten in the streets while hurrying shopwards from the station of a railway, on the deck of a steam-boat. Sometimes he has to eat dinner and supper "all under one," cheating his appetite in the interim with a hunch of bread and a cup of coffee; at other times, he will patronise the pie-shops, and dine upon eel or mutton pies. But, dinner or no dinner, he must be at the beck and bidding of his master early in the afternoon, to give in an account of his sales and stock, and to assist in the important proceedings which have to be gone through before the departure of the evening mails. Of course, it is the object of every newsman to get rid, if possible, of all the papers he buys; for if they are kept to the next day, they are worth only half price; and if a day beyond that, they are but waste-paper. The newsman, therefore, has in one sense to take stock every day - in fact, oftener; and the evening post-hour, which is six o'clock, is to be looked upon as the hour for striking a balance of profit: because, whatever is left on hand after that hour has struck, is wholly or partially a loss. Newspapers which have been lent by the hour, have to be collected in time for the evening mail, or they may some of them. be left for further hire, and go as half-pricers next morning. Charley is running about on this business for an hour or two in the afternoon; and it happens to-day that by five o'clock, or a little before, his master has discovered that he has more of one or two of the daily papers than he wants, and that he is short of others, which he must procure to supply his country customers. It would be very easy to purchase those he wants, but in that case it might be impossible to sell those he does not want, and the loss of the sum they cost would constitute an unwelcome drawback to the profits of day's business. But it happens that there are a score of other newsmen in the same awkward predicament - a predicament which is sure to recur to most of them every day the week, and which has, therefore, begotten its own as all difficulties of the sort invariably do in London. The remedy is the Newspaper Exchange, which has its locality in no recognized or established spot, though it is oftener held in Catherine Street, Strand, or at St. Martin's-le-Grand, in front of the Post-office, than elsewhere. This Exchange, it is originated with the newsboys; and though it has been in existence, to our knowledge, for a dozen years at least, boys are the only members to this hour. It consists of a meeting in the open street, very rapidly assembled - the parties appearing on the ground soon after four in the afternoon, continuing to increase in numbers until after five - and still more rapidly dispersed, under pressure of the Post-office, when the business of the hour has been transacted.
    On the present occasion, Charley is entrusted with a dozen newspapers which are of no use to his employer, and his mission is to replace them by as many others, which are wanted to go into the country by the six o'clock post. He tucks them under his arm, and, it being already upon the stroke of five, is off towards 'Change as fast as he can run. He can hear the sharp eager cries of the juvenile stock-brokers as he rounds the corner: "Ad. for Chron.," "Post for Times," "Post for Ad.," "Herald for Ad.," "Ad. for News," &c., including well nigh all the changes that can be rung upon all the London newspapers. He mingles with the throng, and listens a moment or two. At the sound of "Ad. for Chron.," he explodes suddenly with a "Here you are !" and the exchange is effected in that indefinable fraction of time known among newsboys as "two twos." "Times for Chron." is an offer that suits him again, and again the momentary transfer is effected. Then he lifts up his voice, "Post for Times, Chron. for Times," and, bestirring himself, effects half-a-dozen more exchanges in less time than we should care to mention - now and then referring to the list of his wants, and overhauling his stock, in order to be sure, amidst the excitement of the market, that he is doing a correct trade. He finds, after half-an-hour's bawling and bargaining, that he wants yet a Times and. an Advertiser, and he knows there is a boy present who has them to dispose of, but Charley has not in his stock what the other wants in exchange. So he sets about "working the oracle," as he terms it: instead of bawling Chron. for Times, which is the exchange he really desiderates, he bawls "Chron. for Post," because the boy with the Times wants a Post for it, which Charley hasn't got to give; but by dint of bawling he at length gets a Post for his Chronicle, and then he is in a condition to make the desired exchange. Sometimes he will go so far as to "work the oracle "three or four deep - that is, he will effect three or four separate exchanges before he has transmuted the newspaper he wanted to get rid of into the one he desired to possess - or changed bad stock into good: by such intricate exploits, he has obtained among his fellows the reputation of a "knowing young shaver ;" and it is to be hoped that he gets, in reward of his ingenuity, something more substantial from his employer, for which the little family at home is none the worse. 
    Before the affairs on 'Change have come to their sudden conclusion, Charley is back to the shop; and now all hands are busy in making up the big bag, which must start on its passage to the Post-office, at the very latest, by ten minutes before six, the distance being fully a nine minutes' walk. There is the same ceremony with the evening papers as there was with the morning ones, and there is the same limit as to time for its performance. But what must be done must, and of course is done; and in a well-ordered concern, like that of which young Potter is a member, it is done in good time too. Before the race against the clock commences, Charley has got the bag hoisted on his shoulders, and, with a fair couple of minutes to spare, is trudging steadily towards St. Martin's-le-Grand. We shall leave him to find his way there, which he can do well enough without us, and walk on before, to see what takes place at the post-office at this particular hour of the day.
    On ascending the steps of the huge building, which, huge as it is, is found to be all too small for the rapidly-increasing correspondence of the country, we find that we are by no means singular in harbouring a curiosity to witness the phenomena which attend upon the last closing minutes of the hour whose expiry shuts up the post for the night. The broad area between the lofty pillars that support the roof is peopled with some hundred or two of spectators, come, like ourselves, to observe the multitudinous rush of newspapers and letters which, up to the very last moment, are borne by the living tide into the many-mouthed machine which distributes them. through the length and breadth of the land - nay, of the entire globe. Policemen are in attendance to keep a clear passage, so that the very last corner shall meet no obstruction in his path. The spectators marshal themselves on the right of the entrance, leaving the left free to all who have letters or papers to deposit. These comprise every class of the community, commercial and non-commercial - clerks from counting-houses, lawyers from the Temple, messengers from warehouses, young men and maidens, old men and merchants, rich men and poor men, idlers and busybodies. As closing- time approaches, and the illuminated dial above points to five minutes to six, the crowd increases, and the patter of approaching footsteps in quick time thickens on the ear. Sacks, of all shapes and sizes, bulgy and slim, are seen walking up the stairs - some as long as bags of hops, beneath which the bearers stagger unsteadily towards the breach; others, of more moderate capacity, containing but a couple of bushels or so of damp sheets; and others, again, of hardly peck measure. All discharge their contents into the trap nearest the entrance, in which operation they are assisted by a man in a red coat, who, from long practice, has acquired the knack of emptying a bag of any size and returning it to the owner with one movement of his arm. By and by, as the lapsing minutes glide away, he is besieged in his position by the rush of bags, and looks very likely to be buried alive, until somebody comes to his assistance. The bags, as fast as they arrive, disappear through the wide orifice, and anon come flying out again empty - you don't exactly see from. whence. Here comes a monster-sack, borne by two men, which is with difficulty lugged into quarters, while others crowd after it, like a brood of chickens diving into the hole through a barn-door after the mother-hen. 
    Now is the critical moment- the clock strikes, clang ! -in go a brace of bulky bags; clang! the second - in go three more rolling one over another, and up rushes a lawyer's clerk, without his hat, which has flown off at the entrance, and darts forward to the letter-box at the further corner, fencing his way with a long packet of red-taped foolscap, with which he makes a successful lunge at the slit, and disappears; clang! the third -  another brace of sacks have jumped down the throat of the post-office, and more yet are seen and heard scrambling and puffing up the steps; clang! the fourth - and in goes another bouncing bag, followed by a little one in its rear; clang! the fifth - nothing more, a breathless pause, and a general look of inquiry, as much as to say: "Is it all over ?" No! here comes another big bag dashing head-foremost up the steps; in it rushes like mad, when, clang! the sixth - and down falls the trap-door, cutting it almost in two halves as it is shooting in, and there it lies, half in and half out, like an enormous Brobdignag rat caught in a murderous Brobdignag trap, only wanting a tail to complete the similitude. The bearer, who is in a bath of perspiration, wipes the dew from his face as he glances round with a look of triumph. He knows that if there is a doubt whether he was in legal time or not, he will, by established custom, be allowed the benefit of the doubt, and that because the post-office could not shut his bag out, they are bound to take it in. He is perfectly right: in less than a minute (minutes in this case are important), the bag is drawn in, and returned to him empty, and he joins the crowd, who, the exhibition being over, disperse about their business. It is a very rare occurrence for a bag of newspapers to arrive too late for the evening post. We have known it to take place occasionally; but when it does happen, we suspect that if the failure were traced to its source, it would be found to arise from the enterprising spirit of some defiant newsboy, who had resolved to win a race against time, and had failed in doing it. Boys have been known before now (we have seen it done) to carry their bags within very good time to what they consider a practicable distance, and then to halt, waiting for the first stroke of the bell, the signal for a headlong scamper over the remaining ground, which has to be traversed while the clock is striking. It may well happen occasionally that this daring experiment is not successful, in which case the overconfident urchin has to return with his bag unloaded, to the consternation of his employer and his own disgrace.
    Charley knows better than that. We have seen him discharge his load among the first arrivals; and now, in consideration of the early hour at which his services were required in the morning, his work is done for the day, and he strolls leisurely homeward. He is rather tired, but not knocked up, nor anything like it. There is a substantial supper waiting him, which having well earned he has a right to enjoy, as he does enjoy it, without a single feeling of dissatisfaction. After his repast, if the weather is dry, he will have a chase with young Bill round the fountains in Trafalgar Square; or if it is wet and cold, there will be a game with the baby before the fire; or if the baby should be asleep, Bill will get a lesson in pot-hooks and hangers, with slate and pencil for materials, and Charley for writing-master; or he will have to spell out a column of last week's news, subject to the corrections of his teacher. These pleasures and pursuits, however, cannot be protracted to a very late hour. Early rising necessitates early rest; and the boys are, therefore, despatehed to bed when the bell of the neighbouring church rings out nine, that the newsboy may recruit, with needful repose, the strength required for the exertions of the morrow.
    Saturday night is the bright spot in Charley's week. Then he gets his wages, which go to his mother; and then he can sit up as late as he likes, because he can get up as late as he likes on the morrow; and because he can do both, he will go to the play if he can manage to raise the necessary sixpence. He looks upon the drama, which he calls the "drawmer," as the grandest of all our institutions, and he has very original ideas on the subject of plays and acting. He knows, as he says, lots of tragic speeches, and spouts them to Billy as they lie awake in bed, sometimes dropping off to sleep in the middle of a soliloquy. He has doubts whether the pantomime is quite legitimate, but wonders, with Billy, why it isn't played all the year round-is sure it would draw. He knows of course that Hamlet is "first-rate," and Macbeth the same; but his sympathies go with that little pig-tailed tar in the shiny hat at the Victoria, who, hitching up his canvas trousers with one band, and shaking a short, dumpy cutlass in the other, hacks and hews his way through a whole regiment of red-coats, who surprise him. in the smuggler's cave, and gets clear off, leaving half of his adversaries dead on the stage. The valiant smuggler is Charley' s hero, and he admires him amazingly, never giving a thought to the why or wherefore, or suspecting for a moment that it is far more honourable to work hard, as he does, in helping to provide an honest crust for those who are dear to him, than to be the boldest smuggler that ever had a valid claim to the gallows.

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