Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 17 - Water Cress

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HUNDREDS of persons in London live on greenstuff - Nasturtium officinale. The statement has a startling look, and yet it is literally true [-249-] I do not mean that they eat nothing hut watercress, but that if it were not for watercress they would have nothing to eat. Its consumers think of it only as a condiment, but to its itinerant retailers it means food, and everything in the way of subsistence. When I call this fact to mind, I look with respect on the pretty cresses of the brook I see flowering white in my country rambles - on the shallow, oblong, artificial cress-ponds to be met with round. London, especially in the neighbourhood of the eastern section of the North London Railway. Watercress, speaking generally, is the support of the feeble. As a rule they are very old or very young voices one hears quavering, "Wa-atercrease, wa-atercrease  - fine fresh wa-atercreases!"
    In fine weather, in spite of the general squalor of the street-retailers, it is rather a pretty sight to see them flocking out of the great watercress market with their verdant basketfuls and armfuls, freshening their purchases under the sun-gilt water of the pump, splitting them up into bunches, and beautifying the same to the best of their ability to tempt purchasers. The fresh green, and even the litter of picked-off wilted leaves, pleasantly remind one of the country, in the midst of our dusty, dingy drab wilderness of brick and mortar; and there is something bird-like in the cress-sellers' cry as one after another raises it.
    [-250-] It cannot compete in music with the Newhaven fish-wives' "Caller ou!" as heard floating about in Edinburgh at dusk, but still there is in it something of the same character.
    But in bad weather, on keenly or damply cold mornings, when people who can afford the time snuggle between the blankets as long as possible, making to themselves all kinds of ingenious hygienic excuses for getting up later than usual, and shirking their matutinal "tub," or at any rate "taking the chill off" its cold water to an extent which converts it into warm - on mornings when even those who have fortified themselves with a meal to face the outside air, and are sufficiently clad, hurry along snappish and blue-nosed, or stop to clap their hands across their breasts, and stamp their feet to warm their tingling toes - it, is pity-moving to see the cress-sellers crawling to their markets through the raw, glimmering1y-gas-lit gloom. Some have been shivering all night, others feel the cold all the more on account of the fetid heat of the filthily-crowded lodgings from which they have just turned out. How they huddle together like numb, dumb cattle - cluster round any spark of alfresco fire - even throng the patches of the dismal gaslight on the pavement! How covetously they eye the white mugfuls of smoking-hot coffee that are being gulped - the thick slices of bread-and-butter that are being munched! How they [-251-] wheedle to make their few halfpence of stock-money go as far as possible - how they beg for ever so little stock, as a loan or gift, when they have no stock-money! Although, as Herbert sings, 
        "Most herbs that grow in brooks are hot and dry,
what hopelessly toothachy viands do their goods seem on such a morning - what chilblainy work the splitting-up and tying-up! What a doleful castenet accompaniment the poor creatures' teeth play to their cry! I know that it is rubbish to rail at a man for enjoying the wealth which he or his fathers have somehow or other earned - at any rate got - but still when, on such a morning, I think of a self- satisfied, succulent, spotlessly-appointed, well-to-do, middle-aged Englishman coming down, in fur-bound velvet slippers, a staircase kept at an "equable temperature" by double windows and warm-air pipes, from a luxurious bedroom and dressing-room to an abundant breakfast, aired newspapers, and toasting boots - and see at the same time a host of half-frozen scare-crows, young and old, scattering to try to get the barest crust by the sale of their green-stuff, I cannot help wishing that the snug gentleman referred to could, just for once in a way, be forced to change lots with a cress-seller - to open his eyes a bit - to teach him a little real human sympathy - to show him that be [-252-] is not the marvellously liberal gentleman he fancies himself, simply because he subscribes a few never-missed guineas to well-advertised charities. Perhaps he considers it a duty incumbent upon his respectability to have family prayers. No blame to him - far the opposite - if he even only tries to be sincere, and not a pompous would-be-pious parrot; but if he had had, though but for twenty-four hours, a cress-seller's experience, with what deeper earnest would he utter, "Give us this day our daily bread!"
    On a spring Sunday morning, the heat of which would have been almost tropical, had it not been for a tempering east wind, I chanced to find myself in Regent's Park just after the bells of neighbouring churches had finished tolling in to morning service. Grass and leaves were out in virgin green. Enclosed corners blazed with big golden dandelions. White and purple lilac were in almost full blossom. Chestnut-trees, too, were spired with precocious pagodas, and the blossom-buds of the famous hawthorn-trees were bursting. Dusky, heavy-fleeced sheep stood grazing, lay dozing, or moved along lazily upon the wide sunny lawns, and the shadier green sloping banks of the brown canal, in which dogs, big and little, were splashing, swimming, or whining to be pulled out by the ears, or the nape of the neck-glossily-matted masses of [-253-] moist misery. Other dogs, amongst them noble black retrievers, and fawn-coloured and brindled. black-muzzled mastiffs, were racing hither and thither across the dry warm grass, some in bewildered quest of their masters, whose shrill whistles they heard; others simply to have a scamper, a roll upon their backs, and then a headlong gallop back to their masters. The heat had excited some of the water-fowl also, for instead of gravely paddling about, the livelier ones rose from the water with a splutter, flew about calling one another, and then flopped into the water again with a splash and another "quack-quack-quack."
    A rumour was abroad that one of the elephants or a rhinoceros was taking a bath. A little rush was made to the railings of the Zoological Gardens. Little children were perched upon the top of them; small boys shinned up them; small men held on to them. Cabmen stood on the tops of their cabs,  water-cart-men on the tops of their watercarts, drivers of waiting wagonettes on the box-seats of their vehicles, and with craning necks peered into the gardens, from which the passer-by, too lazy to cross the road, could hear ever and anon an asthmatic snorting and a ponderous splash, followed by a high-mounting sun-gilt spray.  Other sight-seers "on the cheap" peered into the gardens at the turnstiles, wondering how the few neither rich nor rare personages - not [-254-] a whit better dressed than themselves - whom they saw wandering about within, got there.
    Over the gate of one of those grounds-surrounded Regent's Park villas, which make a country-loving built-in cockney break the tenth commandment - covet his neighbour's nest-like house, and no mistake about it - hung a venerable man of twenty-five-a white-headed, white-stockinged young footman, in full fig, conversing nevertheless, in his Sabbath morning condescension, most affably with a knot of acquaintances in Sunday best, but still in the footman's eyes vulgarian mufti.
    An open carriage, drawn by a pair of spanking bays-their assiduously groomed skins gleaming like horse-chestnuts fresh from the husks- drew near, and the venerable young man at once turned and fled towards the house, looking not unlike a startled white rabbit scurrying to shelter, as his head, shirt, and calves glanced through the screening shrubs.
    The friends in mufti dispersed more leisurely, and then turned to watch the dashing equipage dart in through the gateway about which they had been clustered. When they resumed their walk, there was pride in their port, as if they too, in some indefinite way, belonged to the aristocracy.
    A few carriages, for the most part hired, ground round and round. A few equestrians pounded round on their hack chargers, with [-255-] sad countenances, polishing their pantaloons.. But most of the people in the park were on foot, or seated on the benches, or lolling on the grass, gazing, meditating, smoking, reading books and newspapers, love-making, or quietly enjoying doing nothing. There was a curious medley of people present-soldiers in gay uniforms; paupers in their snuff-coloured Sunday suits; servant-girls out for a holiday; nurse-maids and patresfamilias wheeling perambulators; sisters of orders; elder sisters of families; hard-worked mothers, in charge of frolicking little ones; old bachelors moping like herons; young foreigners walking four abreast, and talking and laughing loudly; hearty groups of working men, who met other groups, and saluted one another with such affectionate greetings as "Well, old Mouldy, and how's yourself?"
    But there were scarcely any of those hateful  young roughs who do their worst to make places of popular resort in London hideous, as they roll or rush about, shouting out their obscenities and blasphemies and idiotic laughter at the very top of their harsh voices. It was too early for them, I suppose. They are as cowardly as they are unclean, and cannot pluck up courage to annoy until they have still farther muddled their confused faculties with muddy beer, or have dusk to cover their retreat when an attempt is made to make them [-256-] pay for their outrages on the commonest decency. When I hear people "high falutin'" about English civilisation, Christianity, fair-play-loving manliness, the shoals of young London roughs rise to my eyes, ring in my ears, and I preserve a non-respectful silence.
    The park, on the whole, was sunnily silent. The people in it, if they were keeping their Sabbath in no higher sense, were at any rate harmlessly enjoying a morning of rest.
    I had just taken my feet from a bench beneath a hawthorn-tree, and risen to go away, when an old basket-bearing dame, seeing the seat vacant, came up panting and placed herself and her basket upon it.
    There was no begging ad misericordiam tone in her account of herself as we entered into conversation. Deplorably poor though she manifestly was, in spite of the neatness and the cleanliness which characterised her remnants of raiment, she looked as if she would be offended by a proffer of alms, or a simulated wish to buy watercress unsaleable according to the ordinary laws of supply and demand.
    "Good mornin', sir," she said cheerily, when our little chat was over. "It does a lonely old body's heart good to have a decent word spoke to her, when there's nothing to be got out on it."
    A week or two afterwards, I noticed that the decent old body cried her green-stuff in [-257-]  the street in which I lived. Very likely she had cried it there for many a year, but I had not happened to notice her before.
    If people far more worthy of notice, according to their own conventional notions, than my poor old watercress-woman, only knew how little they are noticed by their neighbours in this everybody-for-himself London - unless some accident makes their existence interestingly  recognisable - perchance there would be a little less self-conceit in the world. 
    No extravagant outlay of capital was required to enable one to become a regular customer of old Peggy's.
    I do not know why I called her Peggy, except because she wore a very faded neckerchief-like plaid shawl, such as those the Welch milk-women in London wear; and I remembered having seen, when a boy, a Glamorganshire old Peggy milking ewes in such a shawl.
    Besides her "creases," this old Peggy sold little bunches of worm-like radishes, tiniest poses of wall-flowers and stocks which some benevolent gardener had enabled her to make up out of his refuse, and mittens and patchwork kettle-holders of her own manufacture.
    She was always neat, clean, cheery, reticently "independent," and very fond of children, who were very fond of her. She wanted to give her poses to them, instead of selling them.
    When my little ones noticed her tired look - [-258-] they always swarmed to the front door when they heard her cry - they wanted her to come in "to have something;" but a glass of water for herself and a freshening for her "creases," was all that even those little wheedlers could prevail upon her to take.
    One foggy day in November, however, when she called, she was so faint and chilled that she nearly dropped upon the doorstep. The youngsters then fairly lugged her in, and carrying her off to the kitchen, took possession of her. They could not manage to lift the kettle, but in other respects they "made tea for her all by themselves," pouring out and carrying to her the tea, making and buttering her toast, and so on. The poor old soul, who had been overcome by hunger, fatigue, and cold, recovered, and, after a time, chirped away as cheerily as ever.
    "Yes, dears," she said, "your papa is right, I am a Welshwoman, and little did I think when I came up to make my fortune in London, before ever you were born, or thought of - or your papa either, almost - that I should ever be as lonely as I am now. But God has been very good to me. I've had a good husband, and good children, and I've nursed their little children. But they're all gone now-to heaven, or else beyond the seas. But you see God is so good, He gives me kind friends yet, like you, my sweet pretty pets. I must be [-259-] goin' now. I don't know when I shall want to eat anything again, after such a tea as you've given me; but, you see, if I don't sell my creases, I shan't have any stock-money for to-morrow."
    The children would fain have cleared out her stock, paying for it "out of their own money-boxes," but this she refused to allow. She would only sell the number of bunches she had been accustomed to leave at the house, and then took her departure. Her cheery face was never seen in our street again.
    In the spring, noticing a strange cress-seller there, I asked her if she could tell me what had become of her predecessor.
    "Oh, Mrs. Griffiths, you mean," exclaimed the new watercress-woman, when I had described the old dame. "Dead an' buried afore Christmas, pore ole thing. She went to the markit one bitter cold mornin', an' the cold struck to 'er 'eart, an' she jest came 'ome an' died. Not a friend she'd left - lived 'em all hout. I mean as belonged to 'er, for hevery body as knew 'er was well disposed to 'er, pore ole thing. Though she 'adnt a penny in the world to bless 'erself with, she'd do a good turn. for anybody."

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