Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - The Potato-Can

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life21.gif (40511 bytes)KIND or morose - urbane or surly reader! as the case may be, are you ready to accompany us in a stroll through the Strand ?"
    You shrug your shoulders doubtingly-
     "The hour!"
    "Well, it is not so late ; St. Clement's clock has only chimed nine."
    You thrust your face between the closely-drawn window-curtains of your luxuriously-appointed snuggery, and peeping out on a raw foggy November night, through which the gas-lamps shine with a sort of fuddled brilliancy upon the wet flagways, reply by a shake of the head, and an affectionate glance at the bright burning fire in your grate.
    "Pooh! never mind the night; light your cigar, and come with us; we are going character-hunting."
    "Ah! that will be interesting. I place myself in your hands."
    "Thanks, good reader. Now let us begone."
"Allons! - But where are we to seek for your characters?"
    "Have I not told you? - in the Strand. We will cast our nets at random, and trust me we shall soon bring up a curious specimen of the genus homo that will reward our trouble. Hark!"
    [-167-] "Tatoes hot!-all hot! hot! hot!"
    "There; I said we should not be long till we had caught one. Listen to that cry!"
    "Tatoes hot !-penny a-piece--all hot! hot! hot!"
    "The performer is not far distant. There he stands by the pillar, under the archway that leads from Pickett Street into Clement's Inn, the proprietor of the most popular Baked 'Tato-Can within the bills of mortality."
    "You surely do not call this fellow a character?" 
    "Why not, my friend? I anticipate your objections; he may be somewhat too vulgar to figure in a legitimate comedy or a fashionable novel, but he is nevertheless a character; and humble though he be, he fills an important position in the social stratum to which he belongs. You that have been accustomed to the piquant plats of a French cuisine may probably despise the simple fare that he offers; but let me tell you there are worse things in the world on a frosty night than a piping-hot baked potato; and many a costly whitebait dinner at Blackwall has been eaten with less relish than an unpretending murphy from a Potato-Can."
    Stand forth, then, thou "Soyer for the Million," while we sketch thy portrait, and celebrate the flavour - of thy Irish fruit, though the dignity of the subject might require a pen like his that made "The Groves of Blarney" immortal- 
        "Oh! had I janus like that bould prater
        Lord Harry Brougham, or like Masther Dan, 
        I'd surely be thy brave can-tator,
     And sing the praises of thy tator-can!
Here we can stand in the shadow of the spacious archway and observe him. The busy and eager throng that [-168-] throughout the day filled the streets are gradually receding before new multitudes, as busy and as eager as those that have passed away. And so it is with the world: centuries sweep onward, as wave follows wave, and still the ceaseless human tide swells and rolls its living billows to the illimitable Ocean of Eternity. A new race of workers and idlers have succeeded to those that flowed through the veins and arteries of the City in the morning-artisans from close workshops; clerks from dim offices or dingy warehouses; pale children of misery to whom Night offers a friendly veil; and the numerous brood of crime and shame who live in the shadow of its ebon wings, are hurrying or loitering along. Here, a serious party, returning from a Temperance Soirée, is jostled by a group. of drapers' assistants, who are making an "Early Closing Movement" in the direction of the Casino. And there, a steady citizen, hastening to the bosom of his family, is nearly overturned by a lawyer's clerk rushing to the pit of the Olympic Theatre at half-price. Then what an indescribable medley of sounds fills the air! What clattering, rolling, screaming, whistling, singing, talking, laughing, and crying on all sides, mingled and confounded into one deep roar, amidst which the quick peculiar cry of our neighbour of the Potato-Can comes at regular intervals on the ear- 
    "Tatoes hot !-all hot! hot! hot!"
    Observe with what intense admiration the group of urchins who surround his locomotive kitchen watch the slender jet of steam that issues from its diminutive safety-pipe, and wreathes its light drapery around the massive pillar against which he has established himself. We doubt whether "the Father of the Steam-[-169-]Engine" as some enthusiast in railways once called the ingenious Watt - ever excited so much interest by his monster offspring as the Baked 'Tatoe Man creates nightly in the minds and stomachs of the penniless investigators of the scientific principles of his simple cooking-machine.
    But hold! a customer approaches - a youngster, rich in the sole proprietorship of a penny, which he has determined upon investing in "a jolly mealy tator, with a shave of butter, and a shake of pepper - certingly." There is not much in the external appearance of the gamin to command respect: his cap is a deal too small for his head, and his bluchers a deal too large for his feet; the remainder of his incongruous habiliments seem to hang rather by complaisance than necessity to his body. Yet there is a certain confidence in the manner in which he thrusts his hands into a couple of wide chasms, originally intended for pocket-holes, in the garment he calls his trousers, and a saucy independence in the way he juts out his elbows, that forces a conviction of his wealth, and procures for him the deference always paid to its envied possessor. The circle opens to admit the young gourmand, who, with a knowing wink of the eye, commences a sort of preliminary skirmish with the potato-vendor before he enters upon the serious business of ordering his supper.
    "Well, guv'nor, I see you're a-keeping the steam up as usual. Vot's the lowest figure now for your werry best - takin' a quantity?"
    "Penny a-piece-all hot-hot !"
    "Penny a-piece for baked tators, and the funds a-going down like winkin! Why, I had a pine-apple [-170-] myself out of Common Garden this morning for two- pence. Trade's uncommon bad, guv'nor."
    "Penny a-piece-all hot-hot."
    "There's a hopposition can, too, started by a gentleman at the corner of the Olympic Theyatre, 'The Halbert and Wictoria,' it's called. Isn't it a spicy concern? and don't they give prime tators there - real nobby ones, and plenty of butter. Oh! not at all! And 'tis so respectable, it's a pleasure for a gentleman, coming from the hop'ra, to stop and have a bit of supper there on his road home. I des'say the pro- per-ietor is a-making of his fortune, and that he'll retire from business in a couple of years to his willa in the Regency Park."
    This picture of his rival's prosperity irritates the owner of the original "Victoria" can, and he orders his tormentor to "move on, directly."
    "Oh! werry likely. I'm a-standing here on Her Majesty's kerb-stone, expressing my opinions upon the pop'lur subject of 'tators, and consekvently shan't move on."
A murmur of applause runs through the juvenile circle for the spirited speaker.
    "I don't want money or credit, so look sharp, old fellow - open your can, and pick me out a stunner from the lot."
    The potato-baker's countenance relaxes at the sight of an ostentatiously displayed penny-piece; and while he extracts a mealy tuber from his stock, the gamin goes through a series of sleight-of-hand performances with the coin - such as shaking it out of his cap after having swallowed it, or thrusting it into his eye and [-171-] bringing it out of his ear; assuring the spectators, all the time, that he has spent two large fortunes, which have not yet come to him, in learning these tricks. Then he turns to the potato-man, and expressing his indignation at the ridiculously thin shave of butter inserted in his potato, demands to have the deficiency made up by an extra shake of the pepper-box; and having obtained it, makes his exit in one of T. P. Cooke's favourite hornpipe steps.
    The gamin has scarcely departed, when a pale, elderly man, in whose hollow cheeks want and misery have ploughed deep furrows, approaches timidly. His threadbare black coat is buttoned closely to his throat; he casts around him a quick, fearful glance to ascertain that he is not observed - hastily places his penny in the hand of the potato-baker, and receives in return me of the steaming esculents, with which, without speaking a word, he hurries away, to devour it in his fireless, lightless, solitary garret. That man - some fifteen years ago - was one of the "merchant princes" of London; his commerce extended to every quarter of the globe, and his credit was unimpeachable where- ever his name was known. Luxury and ostentation, however, went hand in hand with affluence, and the vast wealth of L- was only equalled by the princely magnificence of his mansion, his equipage, and his entertainments. But the fair wind of prosperity, which had so long filled his sails, at length shifted round - an extensive mining speculation, in which he had invested a large sum, proved a complete failure; this was followed by other heavy losses: but the credit of the house remained unshaken, and prudence and economy only were required to restore it to its former [-172-] high position, when the railway mania burst forth and spread like a contagion throughout the land. Amongst the most reckless adventurers was L-, who hoped by a brilliant coup to recover all that he had latterly lost. The sequel may be anticipated. When the monster bubble burst, L-.- found himself a ruined man. It would be painful to describe his subsequent career in the downward struggles of poverty, until, abandoned by the friends of his prosperity - family he had none - he sunk to his present miserable condition, the recipient of a niggardly allowance of a few shillings a-week from a distant relative - barely sufficient to keep him from the Workhouse door. Thus slides the world! The Amphytrion whose epicurean dinners were praised by the most fastidious gastronomes, sups to-night on a baked potato purchased with his last penny at a vulgar 'Tato-Can.
    But, while we have been engaged with the misfortunes of the ruined merchant, another customer appears : a girl, rather short than tall - rather smart than pretty - rather fine than neat - rather voluble than persuasive - the maid-of-all-work from a lodging-house in Surrey Street, who has been dispatched by Mr. Malachi Daly, the Irish law-student in the second floor, for a thundering big dish-full of his native fruit. Mr. Daly has invited his cousin, Tom Geoghegan of Ballydine, Counsellor Donnellan, Mat Burke of Kiltulla, and three or four more of the boys, to "a slight sketch" of a supper, consisting of a Wicklow ham (a present from his Aunt Moriarty in Dublin), backed by a tea-tray full of oysters and the aforesaid dish of baked potatoes, with an unlimited allowance of whisky-punch - for the judicious manufacture of which a regi-[-173-]ment of Kinahan's real LL quart bottles have been paraded on the chimney-piece, and the large metal kettle from the kitchen has been ordered to be kept perpetually boiling on Mr. Daly's own fire.
    But here come new figures upon the scene: a young working man, clad in a stout flannel jacket, accompanied by his pretty-looking wife, have mingled in the group, and are evidently undecided whether the few pence they have determined to spend on some little luxury shall be devoted to Baked 'Tatoes or to the Hot Mutton Pies of which a neighbouring professor is boasting the delicious quality. A secret misgiving, perhaps, relative to the feline character of the Pie-material, induces them to give the preference to the productions of the Potato-Can.
    A thickly-coated, short, fat man, with fine purply-tinted features, and little grey eyes twinkling beneath a pair of light bushy eyebrows, next bustles into the circle to light his cigar at the potato-vender's lamp. That is the Chairman of a Charitable Society, who, in the true spirit of the benevolence which begins at home, has been dining with the Treasurer, Secretary, and Committee at the London Tavern, at the cost of the Institution. A rich odour of charity and roast venison diffuses itself around him, and words of the warmest sympathy for human sufferings seem to hang upon his moist lip, till a poor shivering woman, who has been anxiously watching the countenances of the passers-by, ventures, in a subdued voice, to ask for a penny.
    "Penny, be d-d! Go to the Workhouse if you're hungry," replies the benevolent Chairman, puffing the [-174-] smoke of his cigar indignantly before him as he shuffles off.
    A miscellaneous crowd from the theatres now surround the Baked 'Tato Man-customers pour in, and we leave him with his hands full of business - trusting, as sermons may be found in stones, that something good may be extracted even from a Potato-Can.


[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]