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

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life8.gif (46027 bytes)IT is surprising how the street exploiteurs of London acquire gradually an acknowledged right of possession of any particular nook or corner wherein they exercise their calling. This enterprise is not carried to anything like the same extent in Paris. Pitches and occupation enough for Crossing-sweepers there are, every one knows, but none take advantage of them; and if they did, they would not get much from the Monsieurs. They confine their small trade chiefly to the bridges; clipping and shaving domestic dogs, or blacking shoes on the kerb, and selling cheap books on the parapets. The Champs Elysées draw the jugglers and itinerant vendors of cakes or fruit from the streets; now and then a small stall-keeper gets permission to display his humble wares under a porte-cochère; or a mendicant, such as the blind woman on the Pont des Arts, is allowed to beg for years at the same spot; but these are all. It is only in London that the chance produce of the streets is cultivated, and made of such great value - we mean with respect to stray halfpence, not to the things picked up. There are no stray halfpence in France, and the cheffoniers are a tribe in themselves. But in London we have noticed the same persons, year after year, in the same places. The pitch becomes their property; they inherit it from their pre-[-59-]decessor, and they leave it, when they give up business, to a friend or a purchaser. An instance of this has occurred since we last wrote respecting Street Music. An Italian with an organ was in the habit of playing before our windows every Monday morning, and now and then got a penny, if there chanced to be one lying about - more, however, by reason of his good-tempered looking face than his music, which was dreary enough to be classical. One day, a short time since, he came without his organ, very sprucely dressed, and accompanied by a fellow-countryman. He knocked at the door, and asked to see us. Upon being introduced, he said, with many smiles and apologies, that he was going to return to Lucca, having "made his fortune;" but that he had called to thank us for long-continued patronage, and begged to introduce his friend, Guiseppe something, who had taken his organ and his walk of him, and who would play as usual! Then they both smiled and made innumerable bows, and departed for another house.
    The first street-occupiers who appear in the early morning are the coffee-stall keepers, with their small temporary accommodation for early breakfast; and they always take up their position in the same place, most frequently near a cab-stand. We do not exactly know what time they strike their tents and depart: we have only seen them on returning, with blinking eyes and split gloves, from an evening party, when the straight smoke rising from the bakers' chimneys in the sharp, clear, morning air was catching the first beams of the sun. Next arrive the fruit-merchants, and they appear to know the very kerb-stone of which they have established the occupancy; others have [-60-] obtained leave to put up their stand between the doors and under the window of a gin-shop.
    The crossing-sweepers have not yet come out. At present the passengers are as badly off as themselves; and the hope of coin is small. The hour of their appearance, however, depends upon the quarter of town in which they exercise their calling. Thus the crossings, from the Poultry to Cornhill, the Exchange, or the Bank, must be got ready long before those in Mayfair, Belgravia, or Tyburnia. Many of them, about the squares, are, in a measure, pensioners of the families. From one house they look for their Sunday dinner  -from another, a basin of broken victuals at the end of the week - and so on; whilst most of them have regular patrons upon whom they can steadily reckon for the eleemosynary copper every morning, dry or muddy as may be the thoroughfare. That some of them have literally acquired fortunes in this way is matter of history.
    As day advances, the loquacious vendors of cheap toys, mouse-traps, china and glass cement, corn-curers, and minor marvels, take up their places. Some of these have been in St. Paul's Churchyard and Leicester Square for years, altering their wares as public taste was satiated or changed. Two or three novel speculations have lately been started. There is a fellow in Oxford Street who sells jumping - or, as he calls them, "electric"-frogs, made like the old toys, with the spring kept down by cobbler's wax. He exhibits many at once upon a tray slung before him; and the effect of ten or twelve of them flying about his head is exceedingly comical, whilst his volubility is perfectly wonderful. Another man, in Coventry Street, [-61-] sells model coins-small pieces of money varying in size from that of a shirt-button to a spangle-shut up in a bottle. Formerly he disposed of little images of Buonaparte enclosed in like manner; then he took to song-books, and long zoological or historical alphabets; but always on the same beat, between the corner of Cranbourne Street and top of the Haymarket. If a remarkable event now occurs it is immediately turned to account by him, in a saucepan-lid full of penny medals. He brings out engraved cards of Jenny Lind, Hungerford Bridge, the Chinese Junk, or the Wellington Statue, the instant they come before the public. He has a song ready for any popular excitement; and is altogether a chronicle of the time in himself.
    The "progress" of the day - the driving improving high-pressure go-a-head struggle for superiority which characterizes the actions of the present time - has extended to the Crossing-sweeper. Art is in the ascendant. Beer-jugs and shaving-mugs, milk-pots, paper- knives, and sugar-tongs - at prices so extraordinary that our reverence for such hitherto humble domestic objects is increased to a wonderful degree - become things to look at rather than to use, henceforth to be classed with the bright poker of the hearth. Nothing is as it used to be. Even the art-manufacture of bulls'-eyes gets higher and higher every day; and the brandy-balls of the nursery ages are discarded for rashers of bacon, onions, legs of mutton, oyster-shells, and candle-ends, modelled from nature in sugar. The only things, in fact, that remain as they were, are the family in the Noah's arks, the Richmond and Hampton Court steamboats, the dancing at a city ball, and the programme of entertainments at Vauxhall Gardens.
    [-62-] The Crossing-sweeper has caught the epidemic. We remember how poor John Reeve pourtrayed him in his inimitable Jack Rag - how he said that when his work was over, at his crossing, on Saturday night he shut up shop - that was to say, he swept all the dirt over it again. This very dirt is now turned to account by the sweeper of an inventive genius.
    A little time ago, one Sunday, we saw a man at the Tyburn entrance to Hyde Park, who, besides a neat barrier of mud bordering his causeway, destroyed and reconstructed as every vehicle passed, had swept the dirt into all sorts of figures-hearts, diamonds, circles, and stars, until the road was an exhibition in itself. But before this, a very elaborate crossing was made, in the winter, by a man in the new street that runs from St. Giles' into Long Acre. He had established his right of way in front of a hoarding opposite the neat church that has been erected there; and this he had hedged in entirely, with sprigs of holly stuck into the ground. It looked very gay in the day-time; but at night was perfectly brilliant, with inches of candle and small tallow lamps placed along it. You were compelled to find a halfpenny, however cold and irksome the operation of unbuttoning your coat to hunt after it might be. Before long he found as many imitators as a man always does who strikes out a new line in anything; and the whole street was a succession of swept pathways. It would have required more coppers than an able-bodied individual could have conveniently carried at the commencement of the thoroughfare to have satisfied the claimants.
    There is an old story in the spelling-books, and other répertoires for juvenile reading, called "Eyes and no [-63-] eyes; or the art of seeing;" in which two lads go out for a walk, and one, of an observant turn of mind, sees something in everything; whilst the other, like Sir Charles Coldstream in " Used up," is bored at all that meets his view, finding nothing in it. That there is always something worth looking at in a walk, however dull it may be, is true enough; but there are certain things which never fall in the way of the most observant. We have been favoured with the apparition of strange sights. We once, in a single stroll, saw a Jack in the Green tossed over by a bull, a tipsy man upon two wooden legs, and a cabman with an umbrella. But we never saw, nor did anybody else, a policeman in spectacles, a waiter in boots, or a Crossing-sweeper with a new broom. There must be some dépót at which the brooms are bought second-hand, for they are all stumps. And yet they answer their purpose very well. The only place in which we ever saw the sweepers engaged in establishing a crossing, under great difficulties, was in the new Oxford Street. Now it is being paved; but before this, in wet weather, the thoroughfare resembled a by-street in Venice, with a canal of mud instead of water flowing through it. And as often as they swept a passage the bulwarks of mud rolled slowly over it again until they met; so that at last the sweepers gave it up in despair. The two sides of the street were almost as foreign to each other, at that time, as the opposite sides of the British Channel; the inhabitants saw what their vis-d-vis was about, but knew no further.
    The new street-sweeping machine will sadly affect the interests of the Crossing-sweepers. Thoughtful boys intended to be brought up to this line of business, [-64-] are beginning to turn their brooms to account in another way, by brushing the steps of omnibuses. They foresee the arrival of a rainy day - hitherto, the time in which they collected their savings, instead of spending them - when machinery will take their labour and their rewards away from them; and they are preparing to guard against it. Indeed, what with wood, asphalte, and granite, gutta percha and Indian-rubber, with the gradual abolition of Macadamization, the Crossing-sweeper will, in time, pass away from the world of London, and be only spoken of in common with other extinct species.


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