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

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life3.gif (46257 bytes)WITH haggard, unshorn face - with shrunk, lean limbs, the brown skin seen through the rents in his ragged garments - the Street Beggar crouches beneath the railings of a square, grasps a morsel of chalk between his long shaky fingers, traces the words "I am starving" upon the flag-stones, and then waits patiently for the charity of the public. Hurrying pedestrians pass unheedingly by - dainty ladies trip past with a shudder - nursery-maids with children will not allow the little masters or misses to stop and gaze at the suppliant - and only a couple of shrill-whistling street urchins favour him with a few moments of their patronising company. But whether th[-unclear, ed.-]enger walks briskly past, or whether an unwonted copper falls with a tingling ring upon the pavement, the beggar appears to take little heed; only in the latter case he languidly stirs to deposit the coin in some mysterious corner of his rags. Idlers may gather round him, pitying or gibing words may fall upon his ear, but he gives no token that he has heard them. Either hunger has benumbed and frozen up his faculties and sensations, or he is acting a part, and acting it very well.
    Which of these alternatives is the true one? We do not hesitate to say, in nineteen cases out of twenty, the latter. It is not people who come out into the streets, [-18-] and who beg melodramatically, who die of starvation. Famine hides itself in nooks and chinks, in the bare garrets and straw-littered dens of low lodging-houses. The victim dies, and makes no sign. Too proud to seek relief, he is too proud to parade his need of it. It is when the week's rent is unpaid - when no footfall or motion is heard in the room of the solitary lodger - when the landlord becomes alarmed - and when the door is forced, that the catastrophe of starvation stands revealed. A coroner's inquest makes it public; the newspapers teem with the particulars. Perhaps a Sunday print lies upon the unpainted tap-table of a public-house in a low neighbourhood. A vagrant-looking man is spelling it over. He comes to the paragraph headed "Death from Starvation." He reads the account - how the respectable jurors were horrified at the emaciated appearance of the body - how a fellow-lodger of the deceased had supplied him with a crust of bread and a morsel of cheese a week ago - how no article of sustenance had been found in the room - how the parish officers proved with officious zeal that no application for relief had been made to them - and how, after an affecting' address from the coroner, the jury returned a verdict of "Died from want of the ordinary necessaries of life." All this the vagrant-looking man reads, and presently turns to his pint of porter and plate of grimy a-la-mode beef. He is the mendicant of the square - the chalker upon flag-stones. Starvation may be death to others but it is subsistence to him.
    If you want to prove this, the means are simple. The man is starving - he says so. Give him a penny. There is a baker's shop round the corner, and the steamy odour of new bread comes forth from the hot [-19-] loaves. But our vagrant never thinks of proceeding in quest of the staff of life. No: there he sits with that touching expression of mute anguish, and there he will sit-it is his trade - until close of day; when, shuffling to his feet, he crosses his hands upon his breast, bends his lean body forward, and at length moves limpingly off - for his legs are cramped, and no wonder - to some place of resort frequented by others of his craft, where they can compare notes over beer and pipes, secure from the dreaded interruption of the myrmidons of the Mendicity Society.
    There is no man acquainted with London streets and London beggars who will not acknowledge the art with which these gentlemen make themselves up for their several parts. To undertake the starving "dodge" with advantage a man must have physical requisites for the character. He must be lean - thin is not the word - raw-boned, and skinny; a stout, portly fellow would only be laughed at. He must also have a sombre cast of features. But other qualifications are needful as well - he must have patience to angle unweariedly for his coppers; to preserve, hour after hour, an uncomfortable attitude, in order to convey the idea of his being too weak and languid to stir his pithless limbs; and last, not least, he must be able to write. Indeed, in most cases he forms the letters of his pitiful inscription with an ease and boldness of stroke which show how familiarly they come to his hand. He has been "starving" a very long time.
    Sometimes the Street Beggar varies his appeal. Occasionally you see chalked "Hunger is a sharp thorn;" but this maxim is not greatly in favour. It is hardly pithy enough, and does not strike home. "I am [-20-] hungry" is far better; better indeed, we think, upon the whole, than "I am starving." More people are likely to understand the force of the former appeal than the latter. There is something in it modest - touching - simple; only to be equalled by one other form, which consists of a single homely word, "Hunger."
    The Street Beggar is in rags they are the symbol of his trade; but, if he knows his business, he is not unprovided with rainment more utterly and comfortlessly squalid than that in which he appears when the air is warm, the shrubs in squares and gardens rich with their greenest leaves, and the summer sun hot upon the flags. It is in rainy weather that he dons his most pitiful attire. When the cold clammy fog hangs over London streets - when the north-east wind drives pelting volleys of sleety rain along the drenched and muddy pavements, then does he wander shiveringly forth, daring the weather, and weighing the chill pang which every gust shoots through him with the augmented chances of pity and coin being both evoked by his appearance. If the day be comfortless and forlorn, the night will be proportionably pleasant - the blaze of the tap-room fire in the great lowering public-house in Whitechapel, or the Almonry, or the Mint, proportionably cozy and snug; and the greater the hardship suffered through the long dreary hours of light, the greater the number of halfpence probably gained, and the greater the number of pots of frothing liquor to console him through the hours of darkness.
    If the Street Beggar be naturally a plump subject, it is evident that chalk and flag-stones will not prove the raw materials of his income. He must look out for some other expedient. The ruined operative is one of [-21-] the most common characters in the sad and vicious masquerade of beggary. How often, reader, have you heard that doleful twanging voice chanting, with a loud nasal drone, the woes of' its possessor? It is the dim twilight ; lights are upon the table, and you are munching the slice of bread laid beside your plate, in anxious anticipation of dinner. You hear the eleemosynary oration, gradually increasing in distinctness as the speaker slowly walks down the middle of your quiet street. At length you begin to catch the words. You have frequently heard them before; for somehow these distressed mechanics have a wonderfully similar story to tell. It goes in this vein:-
    "My dear and Christian friends - We are truly sorry to be obliged to make this humiliating appeal to you, but it is want and hunger which drives us to it, having tasted nothing since last night, and not having hardly a rag to our backs or a shoe to our feet. My dear and Christian friends, I was a stocking-weaver in good business in Macclesfield, until the introduction of machinery threw me and my poor family upon the world, and gradually reduced us to this truly painful and humiliating position. My dear and Christian friends, whom Heaven has blessed with affluence, spare us a small portion of your stores, and you will be rewarded hereafter."
    And then, after a short pauses the appeal is repeated. Go to the window, and you will observe that the suppliants form, or pretend to form, a family party. The man carries a child in his arms. The woman, with a threadbare shawl swathed tightly round her scant form, probably bears another; and some two or three sobbing and shivering urchins cling to the skirts of both parents.
    [-22-] Does the suppliant speak truth? We fear not, in fully as great a proportion of cases as his confrere lies with chalk upon the pavement. Distressed workmen there are - destitute wretches pushed by competition, or the iron arms of faster toiling, unwearying mechanism, from their stools; but these are not the men, with very, very few exceptions, who beg loudly in the public ways. If the suppliants be, as they pretend, a decent honest family deprived of bread, there are still other resources than the hard streets and the incredulous public. The union has an ugly name. Many a man and woman, poor and not proud, have stifled a pang of hunger, and borne under scanty covering the keenness of a winter's night, rather than apply at that sombre portal. But hard and stinted as is parish fare - stern and heart-crushing as are workhouse walls, the honest manly heart will prefer them to raising the doleful cry of hunger and nakedness in the public streets.
    Let us see the Street Beggar in another character. it is night. Gas-light is streaming upon the trampled pavement through costly panes of plate-glass. The unending stream of vehicles flows crashing, and rattling, and roaring by. The swarms of pedestrians hurry, and jostle, and flit to and fro. All is brisk, busy motion. All but where stands one group - a group of beggars. They neither move nor speak. They display no tatters. They exhibit their poverty, but they wish to make it appear decent, unobtrusive. They are not importunate beggars, they are mute suppliants. They crave in silence with an air which seems to say, "How meek we are in our adversity - what a sad sight is respectability in ruins."
    Look at them. They are scrupulously neat and [-23-] clean. Not a speck of dust lingers upon the threadbare garments of the man. They have been brushed and brushed, and fastened with buttons and pins, until the cloth shines, as if in triumph at its own seediness. The trowsers are carefully strapped down, and the morsel of linen displayed is scrupulously white. The man bears a child in his arms ; observe the artistic way in which the one scanty faded riband is attached to the infant's cap. Using his hands as well as his arms, the beggar holds beneath the child a very limp hat - the light falls full upon his unprotected head, and you can see the clean-shaven chin and the carefully-brushed, unstraggling hair. By his side stands the wife - her attire scrupulously poor, and as scrupulously clean. She holds a lucifer-match box or a few combs in one hand, and, in the other, that of a little boy, with a well-washed, shiny face, curly ringlets, and very conspicuously-arranged turn-over shirt collar. And so they stand, hour after hour: a tableau vivant of decent unmerited poverty. It is one of those dramas of which the attraction lies not in the dialogue but in the getting-up. The thing is a little spectacle. You think more of the stage-manager and the property-man than of the author. The chalk-writer is good in his way - the orator who can no longer weave stockings is good in his way; but here no one writes, no one speaks - the dumb-show beats it all. And as you think of it in a dramatic point of view, you come naturally to consider the rehearsals which must have taken place of the unspoken drama. How carefully it must have been got up. How a button would be snipped off the old coat for the insertion of that seedy substitute, a pin - how a rent would be artfully practised in order to [-24-] exhibit the decent darn - how the limp straw-bonnet would be carefully tricked out with a sort of humble, make-the-best-of-it riband - how the little show bits of white linen would have been washed and ironed, and got up, and superadded to the worn, patched, clean clothing - until the whole must seem to cry aloud to alt beholders, "Look how poor, how very poor we are- but how decent! Look! we are struggling after respectability. Indeed, indeed, we would if we could. We are no ordinary, vulgar, blackguard beggars; we are no window-breaking vagrants; we are decent, stricken-down people. Our poverty is our misfortune, not our fault.''
    Trickery - trickery all; no more real than the Bowers of Bliss in a pantomime. Honest poverty is not shamefaced, but it does not parade its woes in the crowded street, nor "make up" to excite compassion. It does riot batten upon the very symbols of its distress, and point them out and make them the more obvious by contrast, in order to reap the richer harvest. No: honest poverty will be seeking for work, while dishonest poverty is pocketing alms. 
    And thus, among many other ways, more or less ingenious, are our streets exploite'd by these professors. surely some horrible indefinable charm must pervade their wandering and degraded existence. Vagabondism must have its attractions. It braves mendicity societies, and policemen, and tread-mills. It show's itself in a hundred shapes. It grinds organs - it sings ballads - it blackens its face and plays on bones - it crouches in corners of streets, and exhibits deformities - it bawls aloud for charity in quiet places - it stands in silent supplication in great roaring thoroughfares. And beg-[-24-]gary is seldom the resource of a temporary pinch. We have seen the same man year after year go his rounds - always collecting broken victuals, always looking hungry - always getting old clothes, always wearing tatters. The man who writes " Starving" upon the pavement to-day, you may encounter a year hence in the same plight, and chalking the same motto on the same flag-stone. Starvation seems to be his normal condition. He is always "starving," but the process is slow - very slow. Rest assured, in the ordinary course of things, hunger is not what will kill him. He knows the rascalities of the world too well for that. Rogues don't starve so often as honest men, the more's the pity. There are many poor and many hungry amongst us; but the poorest are not those who beg, nor the hungriest those who proclaim that they are "starving."


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