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"PARSON," THE CROSSING-SWEEPER
IF anyone wants to realize, as the phrase goes, the little
army of crossing-sweepers we have in London, let him take a walk - say for a
mile or two - on a muddy day, and give a penny to every one who touches hat,
makes a bob, as if shutting up like a spy-glass, or trots after him, trailing
broom in one hand, and tugging at tangled forelock with the other. I remember
when it would have cost anyone, disposed to give in this way, between a shilling
and eighteen- pence to walk from the Archway Tavern, Highgate Hill, to Highbury
Cock and back. For anyone of a squeezable temperament, therefore, it was
decidedly cheaper to take the bus.
It is simply as a statistical experiment, just for once in a way, that I recommend this penny-giving. It would be a great misfortune if all crossing-sweepers had pennies given them indiscriminately. I would not make a clean sweep of the sweepers, but I should like to see their ranks thinned considerably - viz., by the elimination of the adults who are able, and the young who might be trained to do something better than what, in the most favourable instances, is little better than a make-believe of work, as a pretext for begging, either directly or by suggestion.
[-149-] Still, there are people for whom crossing-sweeping seems to have been provided as an occupation by "pre-established harmony" - cripples, and old men and women, shrivelled like dry wrinkled apples, who are just strong enough to give the public that real convenience, a clean crossing, and who at the same times tottering and shivering day after day at the same post, have a chance of attracting substantial sympathy from which they would be shut out if they burrowed all day in the holes to which they retire at night to hide. It seems to me that alms-giving, regular or occasional, to these poor people, can scarcely be called demoralising. They shrink from the degradation as well as the dreary confinement of the workhouse - try to fancy, at any rate, that they are working for their living. After all, the chance coppers and the little allowances they receive do not come to much. In bygone days, one or two crossing-sweepers may perhaps have died in possession of considerable sums. I am inclined to believe, however, that even in these cases the amount has been exaggerated. Mnemonical is very different from optical perspective. Things of the past loom larger than they were. At any rate, crossing-sweepers of the present day leave no wills. If they did, the amounts under which the personalty would have to be sworn would be comico-pathetic.
"Parson" - so called from the long, shabby, [-150-] loose, once-black frock-coat he wore, so long that the tails, which mischievous street-boys were very fond of pulling on the sly, swept the ground like a lady's train - was a short, squat old man, with a wooden leg. His hair was the colour of an unwashed frosted carrot - the little of it that could be seen peeping from the dustman's fantail, reaching almost to his waist, with which he nearly extinguished his monkey-like face. At least, it was monkey-like in its wrinkles and its fun, but there was not a trace of monkey-malice in it. A more civil obliging little fellow than Parson there could not be. He would hop off on little errands for people from whom he expected, and got, no fee. The impish street-boys were the only persons who seemed able to sour greatly Parson's milk of human kindness. The police and the omnibus-men, the newsvendors and the miscellaneous loungers hanging about the inn in front of which Parson's crossing, or rather crossings, stretched, did their best to protect the old fellow, and soundly cuffed his persecutors when they chanced to run their way; but, nevertheless, he was shamefully tormented.
"Little pot, soon hot" says the proverb. That was not the case with Parson; but even he could not always keep his wrath from boiling over, and when wrought up to that pitch of exasperation, he would proceed to [-151-] take the law into his own hands. Brandishing his broom like a broadsword, he made fierce dot-and-go-one charges on the foe. Sometimes the poor little fellow tripped, and when he had picked himself up out of the mud, was obliged to slink back discomfited to his crossing before a hostile chorus of derisive laughter. At other times, perhaps, he succeeded in. mowing down a straggler in the rear of the retreating enemy. Generally, however, they escaped scot-free. Occasionally, when the old man saw that they were getting beyond his reach, he would hurl his broom after them like a javelin; a young varlet would snatch it up, and then poor Parson had to begin another weary dot-and-go-one chase.
On a foggy night, the old man was run over, breaking three or four of his ribs. Whilst he was laid up, I heard him relate his history.
"I'm a native of Whitechapel," he said; "Goodman's Fields is where I was born an' bred - sich breedin' as I hever 'ad, an' that worn't much. Peter's my name. I s'pose I must 'ave another somewheres, but that's the on'y name I hever went by, 'cept Parson, which them howdacious boys calls me. No, I can't say whether it's surname or chris' n name. Bless your part, I was never chris'ned. Father an' mother couldn't spare time for thinx like that. Father's name worn' t Peter. I'd a uncle [-152-] lived at Barking, an' they called him Peter. In the barge line or fishin' line, he were - I can't rec'llect which on 'em it was. Mother made hout as he was a-goin' to do summut for me, on'y he didn't - 'cept give me a clout on the 'ead one day. That was the on'y time I hever see him, an' that's all I hever got from Uncle Peter. An' tworn't much I hever got from anybody helse. Father worked at the docks, when he could git work, an' worn't too drunk to do it, an' that worn't allus.
"It's 'ard work, ye see, for a woman to keep on lovin' a man when he can't give her a gownd to her back, an' blackens 'er heyes as orfen as he gits drunk. Father was a decentish sort o' man when he worn't on the drink, but anythink he'd do - beg, borrer, or steal - to git old o' drink, an when it were hinside on 'im he were jest a brute; an' mother worn't much better. There were two young uns - and that was two too many - me an' Poll. I was very fond o' Poll, and so she were o' me though you mightn't think it to look at me. I never were a beauty; I s'pose it was becos we used both on us to git drubbed. Many an' many's the time we haint 'ad a bit to heat all day, 'cept it was some rubbage we'd picked up in the markit. Sometimes a-Sundays, when it was cold, we went to church -Whitechapel Church - in the evenink, jest to git a warm. Leastways, that's what I went for, but Poll was diff'rent [-153-] from me. She liked to 'ear what the parson said. No, the parson never took no notice on us. P'raps he would if he'd a-seen us, but he didn't. They say he was good to poor folks.
" Tworn't orfen we went. The people looked as if we 'adn't any right to. Pull in their clothes, they would, as if we'd give 'em ty'pus fever. That ain't pleasant. I ought to be pretty well used to it by this time, but I ain't. An' some o'them as gives theirselves sich hairs is no sich great shakes arter all. It's them as is the wust. I've been spoke to a deal kinder by them as was real gentlefolks than by them as wasn't much better than me, excep' they'd got better clothes; an' yet they've talked as it I was the dirt beneath their feet. A swell knows he's a swell, an' don't mind who he's seen a-talkin' to, but them stuck-up people don't know what they are. They want to be summut, and can't. I s'pose they thinks, if they speaks civil to me, folks'll think I'm their father; an' p'raps he worn't no better. But there, what's the good o' makin' a fuss about sich nonsense? What do it matter? It'll be all the same a 'underd 'ears to come.
"Mostly we went to the Lane a-Sundays, Poll an' me. The shops was all hopen, an' there's sich a crowd o' people. It was livelier than where the shops was shut, an' now an' ag'in we'd git a bit o' frjed fish give us, or the [-154-] like o' that. The Jews as a name for bein' ard at a barg'in, but some on 'em is very good to poor folks, 'specially kids. They're oncommon fond o' their own, an' so I s'pose they don't like to see t'others a-starvin'. No, I never stole nuffink. I should, though, if it 'adn't a-been for Poll. When yer inside's as hempty as a drum, it's 'ard work to see thinx layin' houtside the shops as you could heat, or sell to git summut to heat, an' keep your ands off 'em. It's heasy for ye to git rid o' a'most anythink you like to steal - find's their word - down Whitechapel way. One day I'd cotched 'old of a bit o' bacon that was put out with a ticket on it at a shop in Whitechapel High Street, but Poll snatched it hout o' my ands an' put it back. There was a long feller with a apron down to his toes watchin' an' shoutin' 'Buy, buy, buy!' houtside, but his back was turned. Jest then, though, he looked round. 'Lucky for you, you did,' says he to Poll; an' he shammed as if he was a-goin' to ketch us, an' off we went like a fire-engine. But it wasn't as she was afraid o' bein' nabbed that made or put it back. It's wonderful 'owever she picked it up, for she'd never been l'arnt nuffink good, 'cept the little bit she'd eared at church; but she'd a notion as she should like to do thinx on the square, so as she might git to 'eaven; an' she wanted to keep me straight, too, for says she, 'Peter,' she says, 'I should [sic] [-155-] like, if I was to git into the good place, an' they was to shut the door in yer face.'
"She's been there, if anybody is, many an' many a 'ear, pore gal. I was oncommon cut up when she died, but I'm glad now, for she was a pretty gal, an' a pretty face is a cuss to a pore gal like her. She'd ha' been sure to come to grief, though she was so good. It was becos she 'adn't enough to heat - that's 'ow pore little Poll come to die. The parish buried 'er, in course - there worn't no welvet palls an' feathers. She was put into the coffin, an' a chap carried or under is harm jest as if she was a parcel. She worn't much to carry, for she were pretty nigh next to nuffink but skin an' bone.
"They weren't long a-buryin' of 'er but what do it matter? She didn't git to 'eaven none the slower. I'm sometimes afeared I shan't never git there, but I'm suttin sure Poll's there, jest as safe as if she was Miss Coutts, an' she's a good lady, she is. But I didn't think about 'er bein' in 'eaven when I see 'em a-buryin' of 'er. When they shovelled in the hearth, I wished it was a-top o' me as well as 'er. I 'adn't a soul left in the world as cared for me, an' I haint 'ad since-not like Poll.
"I duuno what become o' father an' mother. - Poll an' me was left to shift for ourselves. All sort o' thinx I've been. Anythink as turned [-156-] up I'd do - anyways try at - 'cos if I didn't, yer see, I must ha' starved. Beggars can't be choosers. That's the wust o' bein' poor. You can't git the right vally o' yer work when you hain't nuffink to fall back on. Folks takes 'adwantage on yer. 'Take it or leave it,' they says, free an easy, when all the time they are glad to git 'old on yer, an' ud give ye yer own axin's, if yer could on'y 'old hout - but they know yer can't, ye see. I never did nuffink as was downright bad so as I could be pulled up for 't, but some o' the thinx I've been forced to do was oncommon shady. Poll wouldn't ha' liked it if she'd seen me at 'em. It was thinkin' o' 'er kep' me from wuss. Yes, an' keeps me now, p'r'aps, It's queer the way I can't forgit 'er - 'cos I'd never no one else to care for me, I guess. I can see her as plain now as I could sixty 'ear an' more ago - it's hall that since she died. She don't never seem to ha' growed, or altered one bit.
"She was a bit proud of 'er curly 'air, an' kep' it clean an' tidy, though twas hard work, for sometimes we'd nuffink better than cinders to go to bed on. There's a field they used to shoot rubbish in out by Bow - leastways, it ain't a field now, but covered with 'ouses as thick as they can stand. Poll an' me used to go there with the other folk to see what we could pick up, an' sometimes we slept there. We'd scoop out a 'ole, so that the wind couldn't git at us, [-157-] an' pick the softest place to put our 'eads on, an' kiver ourselves hup wi' any old rotten bit o' sacking, an' sich like, we could find, and sleep like tops we would. We looked like chimbley-sweeps when we woke in the mornin', but Poll allus went down to the ditch an' give 'erself a wash, an' combed 'er air hout, if she'd on'y got 'er fingers to do it with. An oncommon pretty gal she was, though she were 'alf starved, an' dressed pretty nigh like a scarecrow. If she'd been figged hout an' dressed proper, there aint a gal I hever see as could 'old a candle to 'er - not a patch on 'er back they wouldn't be. I should like to see or jist as she used to was for once in a way, but if hever I git along wi' 'er ag'in, I shouldn't like or to keep like that. If she was a child, she wouldn't be able to git on as we used wi' an' old chap like me.
"My luck seems to be gittin' runned hover - that's ow I lost my leg. I was a-'elpin' a drover in the Mile End Road. I'd gone out lookin' arter sumfink to do as fur as Romford, an' he picked me up at the markit there, an' give me a job to 'elp drive some ship to the Cattle Markit - it was in Smiffle then. Well, I'd run on to 'ead 'em back from the Cambridge 'Eath Road, when up come some fellers in a cart, 'alf sprung. The 'oss was goin' as fast as hever it could, but the chap as was drivin' kep' on leatherin' it wi' the hend o' the reins - he 'adn't got no whip. So I shouted to 'em [-158-] not to run over the ship, an' flung up my harms - but they never took no 'eed. On they come, an' down I went, an' the cart went hover me, an' scrunched my leg like a snail. They carried me to the Lon'on 'Orspital, an' arter a bit, the doctors cut off my leg - they said they couldn't mend it - an' I've been a hippety-hop hever since. I shall be glad, though, when I'm peggin' away on my timber-toe ag'in, for it's lonesome layin' on yer back wi' nuffink to do.
"Sundays is my best days. People ain't in sich a 'urry to git to church as they are to git to their business, an' then they're kinder a-Sundays. There's a sweet-lookin' lady goes hover my crossin', as true as the clock, hevery Sunday, with or three little gals, as like their mar as little peas is to a big 'un. They takes it in turns to give me my penny, an' they speaks so pretty to me. I reg'lar look hout for seein' of em. Real gentlefolks they are, I'll go bail, though they ain't dressed nigh so smart as a good many as goes by an' never gives me nuffink."
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