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 WATERMAN.

UNDER this designation the reader will naturally look for an active young fellow, who plies a pair of oars upon the broad surface of the Thames. No such thing. If the "jolly young waterman" of a generation ago yet survive and feather his oars upon the bosom of the river-which we are inclined to doubt-it must be beyond the limits of the bridges and the range of the half-penny, penny, and two-penny steamers, which would peril the safety of his wherry and the lives of his fare. No; the jolly young waterman of the days when George the Third was king, has been effectually banished from the London river; and in his name an old waterman, not particularly jolly, has made his appearance in the London streets. He is the presiding genius of that unpleasant conglomeration of mud and mire, of decomposing straw and musty hay, of oats and chaff, of ruined and ruinous vehicles, of asthmatic and broken-kneed horse-flesh, of oscillating pendulous nose-bags, and of brown-coated unshaven cabmen, redolent of beer and tobacco and rotten-stone and candle-grease, which all together go to make up a cab-stand. Of all these ill-compounded and heterogeneous elements, the waterman is the solitary permanent item. The wind may scatter the hay, straw, and chaff; the sun may dry up the mire and mud, and a sudden shower may dissipate the drivers to the four points of the compass; but he, like a courageous general, remains firm and unmoved at his post, and sticks to his half- dozen tubs of water, probably for the simple reason that he has nowhere else to go. It is from these tubs, each of about a gallon capacity, and from which the miserable hacks that drag the lumbering cabs over the London stones slake their burning thirst, that he derives his designation of "waterman." He is the depository of some moist species of authority over the tubs aforesaid, and he carries a key in one of his seventy-five pockets, which admits him to a pipe in a recess in the wall, where he levies unlimited contributions upon the New River Company.
    In personal appearance, the waterman is quite an unique specimen, and not to he mistaken for a member of any other fraternity. To describe his costume would be of no avail. He wears no particular costume, but an assemblage of all the costumes of which he can get possession. He is so covered on and covered in with garments of every sort, that his individuality is not to be got at. He is an animated collection of coats and waistcoats and neck-ties of every conceivable colour and cut, and all, like himself, in a state of considerable dilapidation. It is doubted by some whether he really lives anywhere else than on the stand, because he is never observed to go home. He is noted for irregular hours, and for sleeping at any time in the day, or the night either, along with the nose-bags, in the insides of cabs, with his feet sometimes resting upon the pavement. In summer time he snores at his ease, through the sunny afternoons, when the cabs are standing still, upon the bench in front of the public-house, and starts into activity again by the time the evening parties demand the services of his friends the drivers, and his own.
    The waterman gets his living in a very fractional way. He has no settled stipend, but receives a copper from every cab-man who drives off the stand with a fare. In return for this, it his business to open the door of the vehicle, and close it after the customer has taken his seat, and while doing this he tries all lie can to levy an additional contribution from the fare, in which attempt he is for the. most part successful. Sometimes it happens, when his stand is in the suburbs, that he rears a brood of chickens, which grow up under the horses' feet, and are sold for the spit, if they escape, for a sufficient length of time, from being kicked to death by the horses, run over by the wheels, or hunted and eaten by the dogs and cats of the neighbourhood. In addition to these avocations, he cleans knives, polishes boots, and scours pots for the publican, and makes himself, as it is termed, generally useful, either in the stable or the cellar.
    Among his companions the cabmen, the waterman partakes of the character both of a butt and an oracle. He is always older than they - being invariably a man rather stricken in years. He is a good judge of horse-flesh, especially of that peculiar species which flourishes on a cab-stand, and knows what the "wettany sarjun" would do in such and such a case. His conversation with his companions is a kind of audible short-hand, not very intelligible to the uninitiated; and you may listen to it a long while, if you choose, without being much the wiser. He finds it to his interest to put up with their jokes, as well practical as verbal, without complaining, as he is mainly dependent upon them for his income. They treat him, however, upon the whole, with consideration, as he is virtually a watchman as well as a waterman, and frequently has the charge of the whole stand, while the drivers, who should be upon their boxes in readiness for customers, are amusing themselves round the tap-room fire, or in the skittle-ground of the adjoining public-house. In their merriment he is a very modest and submissive participator. When the festive cup goes round, it comes to him last, and he pledges the health of the cabmen in the dregs of the tankard. He pays no scot, and has no score chalked up on the landlord's slate; not that his credit is bad, so much as that his ready money is so scarce that he dares not venture on credit. He is always in good odour with the landlord of the tavern nearest the cab-stand, because he is so obliging and ready with his good offices. By dint of his officious services he contrives to constitute himself in a manner the waste-butt of the establishment. Stale-beer and stale-bread and fleshless joints of meat become his as if by right of inheritance, and he feasts on the fat of the land - after others have done with it. He is generally a peaceable and quiet subject, with a civil word for everybody, and a supplicatory one for himself - which, by the way, he never forgets to prefer when an opportunity offers. If he meet with a repulse, it is no more than he is used to; he can retire within himself, and, in the folds of his multitudinous garments, collect his courage with the anticipation of better success next time.
    It is thus that the waterman gets his living. Unfortunately, it is pretty much in the same way that the poor old fellow frequently gets his death. He has a foolish faith in the multiplicity of his wrappers, and in the altitude of his wooden clogs. He throws an extra sack or two over his shoulders in the foggy slushy days and nights of winter, and buries his hard fists in a cashiered pair of boxing gloves; and, if the frost is severe, he will wind a hayband round his legs, and potter about among his icy tubs, buoyed up with a vision of yet another and another copper, in the face of a storm which sends younger and stronger men than he cowering to their firesides. Then, stern and angry winter comes at last, and seizes him by the throat and prostrates him in a moment on the cold pavement; and then a brace of his old friends hoist him into the nearest cab, and give him a gratuitous ride to the nearest hospital; and then our old friend the waterman is suddenly transformed into a decided and hopeless case of some dreadful disease with an ugly dog-latin name, come in the very nick of time for the instruction of a medical class; and then - and then - and then farewell, old waterman.