DOWN EAST - CHAPTER III
SCLATER STREET BIRDS
"Thank God for. Sunday "—Fisher, of Eton—Summer Sunday morning in Hyde Park—Commercial Street, Shoreditch—Sclater Street— Remarks overheard — Singing matches — Love in humble life —"Julks"—Winning a "gate"—Sunday morning marketing—Michael Angelo Taylor's Act.
I AM very fond of bed, and always have been. How delightful it is to enter one's sleeping apartment on a Saturday night, after a long week of hard work, and to catch sight of the brass or iron resting-place, with the sheets and blankets neatly folded back! Often on such occasions I have exclaimed:
"Thank God there is such a thing as bed, and, to-morrow, that glorious institution called Sunday !"
One particular Saturday night is especially imprinted on my memory. After returning from the club, where I had dined, I had sat smoking alone for several hours in my sitting-room. My thoughts had been running at large on the subject of birds, to which, from my earliest youth, I have always been much attached. Seldom have I been without some winged pet or another.
While at Eton I was a constant visitor to Fisher's shop, in the High Street, where one could purchase almost every sort of animal, from an armadillo to a dormouse. Now that I am older, the parrot-house at the Zoo, and the cages of those cruel divers who annihilate so rapidly the dace and minnows, possess for me a strong fascination.
But it was not of divers, vultures, eagles, macaws, or other varieties from abroad to be met with at the before-mentioned establishment that I had been musing; my thoughts had been occupied with our birds—our little English birds— and [-21-] I had been mentally comparing their condition when in captivity with their habits when at liberty.
The explanation of this train of thought is a very simple one. I had often heard of the East End bird-fanciers, and, as most of their business is transacted on a Sunday morning, I had resolved to set off, immediately after breakfast on the following day, to visit their haunts, namely, Sclater Street, Shoreditch, and the neighbouring courts and alleys.
It will be observed that I was not going to spend my Sunday in the most orthodox way. I never have been orthodox, and I am afraid I never shall be.
The date of which I am writing was in the eighties, at the beginning of the leafy month of June. The weather was very sultry, and though I did not retire to rest until the small hours, I got very little sleep. At about eight o'clock in the morning I was wandering with my dog in Hyde Park, which is a stone's throw from my door.
The morning was a glorious one. This was an ideal summer Sunday, and the church bells seemed to say, as they chimed, "Thank God for life I thank God for life! thank God for life !" There was scarcely a foot passenger to be seen in Park Lane, and no vehicles save an omnibus or two, almost passengerless, journeying from Victoria to Kilburn, Edgware, or some other remote suburb. Within the Park all was solitude, the gravel walks and green sward being alike deserted. It was a good season for vegetation, and the beds and borders were bright with blossoms and full of fragrance. Those croakers who say you cannot grow flowers in towns can never have seen Hyde Park in June. Who could desire better geraniums, fuchsias, marguerites, and-calceolarias than are to be found there?
Sitting down on one of the Park seats, I could not help comparing the beautiful scene around me with the hideous, squalid locality I was shortly to visit. There were no songbirds about, though there were many self-asserting, impudent, well-to-do West End sparrows.
I took my dog home, and set forth on my journey. On looking at my watch I found that I had plenty of time to spare. The hours I wished to spend in Shoreditch were from half-past ten to one. Hailing a hansom, I drove to Baker Street Station, and took a ticket to Aldgate. On my arrival there, I strolled leisurely up Commercial Street by Spitalfields Market, crossing the streets that intersect the main thoroughfare.
[-22-] Here on this Sunday morning every kind of marketing, huckstering, and bargaining was going briskly on. The pavement was crowded, and the roadway almost impassable. I saw an endless array of costers' barrows, loaded with meat, fish, vegetables, and other articles of food. Jews and Jewesses, in charge of truck-loads of old clothes, boots, hats, and other wearing apparel, swore themselves hoarse in praise of their wares. The din was awful, and the stench sickening.
I stopped, leant on my stick, and pondered. How different to the peaceful and beautiful scene I had quitted a few short hours before! There was no sunshine, there were no birds, and there were no church bells. Pulling myself together, I walked on briskly towards Shoreditch.
Sclater Street was soon reached, and at once I felt that the interest of the place had been in no way overstated. Here was to be seen the East End bird-fancier in all his glory, surrounded by his pets and his pals. This little Street in Shoreditch forms the common meeting-ground for buyer and seller, chopper and changer, and I can safely say that nowhere in London is there to be seen so interesting a concourse of people. They are all absorbed in birds and bird-life. If you stand at one end of the narrow street and cast your eyes towards the other extremity, the scene presented is one long line of commotion and bustle. You hear remarks such as these: "Don't desert the old firm, guvnor;" "Come, now, that's a deal ;" and "Wet the bargain, Bill."
One side of the crowded thoroughfare is entirely taken up with shops, in the windows of which are to be seen all manner of wicker and fancy cages—from the largest "breeder" to the tiniest "carrying cage "—and birds of every description dear to the fancy—linnets, mules, canaries, chaffinches, bullfinches, starlings, and "furriners." The cages are ranged in rows all round the wall.
Each vendor is busy shouting out invitations to the crowd to come and buy or "do a deal," which, in most cases, means a "swop," with a bit thrown in on one side or the other just to balance the bargain. The wares are not confined to the inside and outside of the shops. In the gutter and roadway are crates and boxes tenanted by fowls, pigeons, guinea-pigs,. and hedgehogs.
An incessant chatter goes-on. Jews and Gentiles squabble and bandy words over the respective merits of their possessions. Nearly every one in the crowd has something under [-23-] his arm, tied up in a handkerchief—his own dinner, some dainty provender for his dickies, or what not. While Jack is showing to his intimates and admirers the linnet he has matched to sing against Tom Cooper's at the Well and Fountain, Jim is vehemently, and in no very choice language, exclaiming against his bird for losing his last match "by a note."
There are all sorts and conditions of men here—the rough, the coster, the Seven Dials fancier, and the "bricky" from Edgware or Tottenham, with his Sunday shaved chin and his best bright moleskins. The last-named is very busy arranging a trial with a greengrocer from the Hornsey Road. Hard by stands a well-dressed mechanic who is enquiring for a cock linnet of a docker, whose reply is that he is looking for a "chop."
Time runs on, and so dense does the crowd become that one can scarcely elbow one's way through it.
Jack D— is a well-known dealer, and as I went up to his shop I discovered him leaning against the doorway, with a straw in his mouth and his arms crossed. He stood about five feet ten, was tough and lissom, wore cords and gaiters, appeared happy and well-to-do, and had, fastened somewhat tightly about his windpipe, a red handkerchief. And what a handkerchief! What colour, and what a pattern!
Jack's next-door neighbour suddenly appeared upon the scene in his shirt-sleeves and with a pipe in his mouth. The new-corner enquired laconically:
"Oh, very rough," was the reply; "no people about. Always the same at this part of the year, and things don't improve as time goes on."
The two neighbours wagged their heads and exchanged a few friendly grunts. Jack resumed:
"They haven't got any mopusses, Jim; that's what's the matter. They're all stone broke."
"Got any monkeys?" asked Jim inconsequentially.
"No the monkeys is sold -out. Have plenty of ‘em in next week- more than I want."
"Well, a couple of piebald squirrels. ‘Ad a third, but he's gone to Manchester. Got a good price for ‘im."
Looking up at a row of cages over Jim's door, the speaker continued:
[-24-] "That's a nice canary on the offside. What's the figure for him ?"
"Oh, ‘im ?" pointing backwards with his thumb. "Six bob, and dirt cheap. He's a real genuine Yorkshire, and no mistake. Got some first-class Germans cheap, and blow me if they ain't swine to sing."
"You'll do a stroke or two this morning yet, Jim."
"No; there ain't what you may call any competition, Jack. Maybe we'll ‘ave a rush for ‘arf an hour or so presently, but then trade ‘ll clean take its hook and ewaperate again."
Leaving these two worthies to further deliberation and discussion, I pushed onwards, and the next minute came into collision with a girl of about ten, with long, fair hair and a dirty face, and having a dainty little shawl neatly twined round her slim body.
"Scrapers, sir, scrapers?" she cried in my ear.
I told her7 I didn't want any scrapers. Of course I didn't, for I hadn't the remotest idea what they were.
The public-houses were closed, but there was a temperance bar open. Men kept passing in and out, and several stood gossiping in the doorway. I overheard an interesting conversation there.
"Good morning, Boxer."
"Good morning, old Raspberry Nose."
"What do you want for that collie of yourn?"
" Oh, I'll make it a gift to you—that is, next door to it."
"None of your hanky panky with me. You just tell me what you want for him, and if he's cheap and it's on the square, the dawg's mine."
"Well, he cost me thirty bob, and there's tuppence a week for his grub for ten weeks. Let me see," after a pause, Łseeing it's you, you shall have him for half a quid."
"All right," said the other with a complacent smile; "but I must see my customer first, you know."
"Raspberry Nose" took his departure, and Boxer remained lolling against the door of the shop, quite unconcerned. He was a knowing-looking card, for all his sang-froid, and he wore an ugly leer on his newly-shaven face.
I walked on, and the next thing that arrested my attention was an article that hung on the wall outside a shop. It looked like a cross between a doll's house and a bird-cage. In the centre was a linnet standing on a perch, to which he was attached by a tiny chain fastened to his leg. On the [-25-] right-hand side, separated from the bird by a door, was a string suspending a water glass, and working on little pulleys. The linnet had to exercise a good deal of ingenuity in order to slake his thirst. He had to hop forward, push open the door, pull up the string with his bill, and, when the water vessel came within reach, steady it with his claws while he drank.
Further on I came to a very large establishment where hundreds of cages and birds were exhibited for sale. I was informed that the proprietor, one Brown, designed all his cages himself, and certainly he was to be complimented on his handiwork. As I was passing by, Mr. Brown said:
"Can I do anything for you to-day?"
"All right," he answered, with a grin; "better luck next time."
Strange to say, three of the largest bird-dealers in "the Row" are teetotalers, and have been so for many years. They bear excellent characters, and are liberal and fair in all their dealings with the other fanciers. Naturally they are not very polished in their manner or choice in their language. They could not sign their names if you paid them fifty pounds, yet when they receive a telegram in Spanish or French—a not infrequent occurrence-—they can usually interpret its meaning. When the words completely fog them, they get their message translated at the free school in Bell Lane.
Upon the day of my visit the trafficking continued until one o'clock, and then the crowd rapidly melted away. This is the usual hour for the market to close.
Where do all the fanciers go to? it may be asked. To no locality in particular; they come from all parts of the metropolis.
During the week a considerable portion of the fancier's time is spent in listening to the birds that are matched to warble against one another. The places of venue for these Contests are various coffee-shops and public-houses. Very often a large concourse of people will assemble to listen to the competitions.
A word or two about these singing matches may be of interest. A long course of preparatory training is essential. To induce a young bird to sing, he is brought into the presence of a tried songster, the cages being placed side by side. In the case of some beershops in Shoreditch, Westminster, and Seven Dials, the bar-parlour is used so frequently for [-26-] matches that it wears all the appearance of a bird-dealer's shop, being crowded with cages and other paraphernalia of the fancier.
But I shall have more to say in reference to these contest~ further on. In the meantime I will describe a further incident that occurred on the occasion of my visit to Sclater Street.
I was about to take my departure from the neighbourhood when I perceived a number of persons entering a public-house which had just thrown open its doors. I could not resist the temptation to follow them. There were a number of people in the bar. They were not bird-fanciers, but loafers who had-either been playing pitch and toss and banco on the waste ground adjoining the railway, or otherwise whiling away their time until the welcome hour when the "public" could legally open its doors. The language I heard was fearful.
Among the crowd stood a young girl of about sixteen years of age. Her face was terrible to behold. Both eyes were blackened, and her cheeks resembled swollen pulp.
"Why, Poll," said one of her pals, "how the — did you get in that state? What cheer, lass? Why, who did that for you?. Have a drink, my gal," and he handed her a pint pot half full of porter.
The girl, after taking a pretty long pull at the pewter, replied carelessly:
"Why, my young man, of course. He couldn't have done much more if he'd been my ‘usband, could he?"
"I shouldn't call ‘im much of a young man," rejoined her companion.
"Ah, well," she said, "if you loves ‘em, Jim, you know, you can take, anything from ‘em."
And this, thought I, is love in humble life!
At the other end of the bar stood several coarse, bloated, blear eyed women who had apparently not yet quite recovered from their Saturday night's debauch. One of them turned to a man who stood close by, and said:
"Pay for a pot for me, Jack, for I'm stony broke."
I turned my eyes towards the gentleman addressed, and saw that he was a slim specimen of the London prig. He was eating a hot sausage which had just been served him from a hissing utensil standing on the counter.
"You be —," he replied; "I'm nothing more than blooming bankrupt myself. Go and tout young Bill there," pointing to a man who stood hard by. "He has got the [-27-] pieces to-day. He and Darky did a bust* (*a slang expression signifying a burglary) last night-, and he is flush of coin."
She crossed over to Bill, but I did not wait to see the result. I thought I had heard quite enough.
But to return to the birds.
The fancier's love for his pets is truly astonishing. He will sit for hours in his favourite " public" listening to their trills and encouraging them to further effort. Birds are trained not only by the example of other birds but by the whistle of the fancier himself. Some birds can warble as many as seven or eight "julks," as each change of trill is called. At a singing match the victory goes to that bird which, in a given time, trills the greater number of "julks." The cages containing the little competitors are hung on the wall, and needless to say no other birds are permitted to remain In the room while the "race" is going on. It sometimes happens that one of the competitors will refuse to utter a note. It is against the rules, and a most serious offence, to coax a bird to sing. Absolute silence, indeed, has to be maintained by all present.
The way in which the scores are kept is most interesting. As a bird calls off with a trill, he is scored "I " on the table with a piece of chalk, and a fresh mark is put down for each change of trill. When five chalks stand to the credit of a bird he is said to have won a "gate" The origin of this term is at once apparent, for the fifth mark is made to run transversely across the preceding four—thus:
A match will sometimes fail owing to one of the competitors being out of sorts, or because they have been matched together before and know one another, in which case it is no uncommon thing for the little creatures to sulk and remain dumb.
The language which the fanciers use to denote the different "julks" sounds very strange to unfamiliar ears. Such expressions as these are used : "Tollick-tollick," "tug-whizzy," and "tollick, tollick ikki qua." So far as orthography is concerned, I have rendered these words about as correctly as is possible; but where it becomes a matter of pronunciation, I can assure my readers that only a genuine bird-fancier, can properly interpret the language of his pets.
In the neighbourhood to which I am referring hundreds of costers with their barrows are to be seen every Sunday morning. It they are an evil, I am convinced they are a [-28-] necessary one. It is practically impossible for a great many of the East End poor to do all their marketing on a Saturday night. Many a toiler does not leave the workshop of the sweater until after the shops have closed, and of course the Wages are not paid until the last stitch has been put in. Again, those who do their work at home are frequently unable to deliver it until the last thing at night. Then it must not be forgotten that the barrow-men, having no rent or taxes to pay, can sell their meat, fish, vegetables, and other commodities at a lower price than the shopkeepers. Moreover, the costers, with their wives and families, form no small portion of the community, and if their occupation were gone, they would go to still further flood the already overflooded labour market.
I am aware that, according to the strict letter of the law, this trading is illegal. It was made so by an Act (known as Michael Angelo Taylor's Act) passed in the reign of George the Third. The sixth section empowers the local authorities -and their street keepers, utterly irrespective of the police, to summarily, and, if necessary, forcibly remove the barrows and their contents after notice has been given; to confiscate the latter and impound the former; and to take police-court proceedings against the offenders.
Shortly after my visit to Sclater Street, proceedings were taken before me against a number of barrow-men who traded in that locality; but I am happy to say that an amicable arrangement was come to. I paid a special visit to the locality—on the 9th of March, 1889—to ascertain how far it was correct to say that these costermongers caused an obstruction. I found them quiet and orderly, and it seemed to me that there was very little ground for complaint.
When the cases came on for hearing, I ordered each defendant to pay the cost of his summons—two shillings—and I informed those who appeared for the prosecution, of the results of the personal inspection I had made in the locality. The Vestry and the street inspector behaved with great forbearance. They suffered the law to fall practically into abeyance, and up to last March not more than a dozen more summonses had been taken out.
Thus the East End poor are still able to purchase their necessaries cheaply, and the East End coster is still permitted to ply his trade, and maintain his wife and ofttimes numerous family.
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