Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Seven Curses of London, by James Greenwood, 1869

CHAPTER XIV.

Begging “Dodges”.

The Variety and Quality of the Imposture —Superior Accomplishments of the Modern Practitioner—The Recipe for Success—The Power of “Cheek”— “Chanting” and the “Shallow Lay”—Estimates of their Paying Value—The Art of touching Women’s Hearts—The Half-resentful Trick—The London “Cadger”—The Height of “The Famine Season.”

    The “dodges” to which an individual resolved on a vagrant life will resort are almost past reckoning; and, as a natural consequence, the quality of the imposture in modern practice is superior to that which served to delude our grandfathers.
    It can be no other. As civilisation advances, and our machinery for the suppression and detection of fraud improves, so, if he would live at all, must the professional impostor exert all the skill and cunning he is endowed with to adjust the balance at his end of the beam. It is with vagrancy as with thieving. If our present system of police had no more formidable adversaries to deal with than lived and robbed in the days of those famous fellows, Richard Turpin and Master Blueskin, Newgate might, in the course of a few years, be converted into a temperance hotel, and our various con­vict establishments into vast industrial homes for the helplessly indigent. So, if the well-trained staff under the captaincy of that shrewd scenter of make-believe and humbug—Mr. Horsford—was called on to rout an old-fashioned army of sham blindness, and cripples whose stumps were fictitious; and of clumsy whining cadgers, who made filthy rags do duty for poverty, who painted horrid sores on their arms and legs, and employed a mild sort of whitewash to represent on their impudent faces the bloodless pallor of consumption,—we might reasonably hope to be rid of the whole community in a month.
    It is scarcely too much to say, that the active and intelligent opposition brought to bear of late years against beggars has caused the trade to be taken up by a class of persons of quite superior accomplishments. I well recollect, on the memorable occasion of my passing a night in the society of tramps and beggars, hearing the matter discussed seriously and at length, and that by persons who, from their position in life, undoubtedly were those to whose opinion considerable weight attached. The conversation began by one young fellow, as he reclined on his hay-bed and puffed com­placently at his short pipe, relating how he had “kidded” the workhouse authorities into the belief that he had not applied for relief at that casual-ward for at least a month previously, whereas he had been there for three successive nights. Of course this was a joke mightily enjoyed by his audience; and a friend, wagging his head in high admiration, expressed his wonder as to how the feat could be successfully accomplished. “How!” replied the audacious one; “why, with cheek, to be sure. Anything can be done if you’ve only got cheek enough. It’s no use puttin’ on a spurt of it, and knocking under soon as you’re tackled. Go in for it up to the heads of your soul bolts. Put it on your face so gallus thick that the devil himself won’t see through it. Put it into your eyes and set the tears a-rollin’. Swear God’s truth; stop at nothing. They’re bound to believe you. There ain’t nothing else left for ‘em. They think that there’s an end somewhere to lyin’ and cheekin’, and they’re fools enough to think that they can tell when that end shows itself. Don’t let your cheek have any end to it. That’s where you’re right, my lads.”
    I have, at the risk of shocking the reader of delicate sensibilities, quoted at full the terms in which my ruffianly “casual” chamber-fellow delivered himself of his opinion as to the power of “cheek” illimitable, because from the same experienced source presently proceeded as handsome a tribute to the efficiency of the officers of the Mendicity Society as they could desire.
    “What shall you do with yerself to-morrow?” one asked of another, who, weary of song and anecdote and blasphemy, pre­paratory to curling down for the night was yawning curses on the parochial authorities for supplying him with no warmer rug. “It ain’t much you can do anyhows atween the time when you finish at the crank and go out, till when you wants to come in agin. It feels like frost; if it is, I shall do a bit of chanting, I think.” (“Chanting” is vagrant phraseology for street singing.)
    “I’m with you,” replied his friend; “unless it’s cold enough to work the shaller; that’s the best game. ‘Taint no use, though, with­out its perishin’ cold; that’s the wust on it.”
    (It may be here mentioned that the “shaller,” or more properly “shallow” dodge, is for a beggar to make capital of his rags and a disgusting condition of semi-nudity; to expose his shoulders and his knees and his shirtless chest, pinched and blue with cold. A pouncing of the exposed parts with common powder-blue is found to heighten the frost-bitten effect, and to excite the compassion of the charitable.)
    “There you are wrong,” broke in the advocate of “cheek;” “that isn’t the wust of it. The wust of it is, that there’s no best of it. It don’t matter what you try; all games is a-growing stale as last week’s tommy” (bread).
    “It’s ‘cos people get so ‘gallus ‘ard-’arted, that’s wot it is,” remarked with a grin a young gentleman who shared the bed of the ‘cheeky’ one.
    “No, that ain’t it, either; people are as soft-’arted and as green as ever they was; and so they would shell-out like they used to do, only for them —“ (something too dreadful for printing) “lurchers of the S’ciety. It’s all them. It ain’t the reg’lar p’lice. They’re above beggars, ‘cept when they’re set on. It’s them Mendikent coves, wot gets their livin’ by pokin’ and pryin’ arter every cove like us whenever they sees him in the street. They gives the public the ‘office’” (information), “and the public believes ‘em, bust ‘em!”
    These observations evidently set the “cheeky” one thinking on times past; for he presently took up the subject again.
    “Things ain’t wot they was one time. Talkin’ about the shallow lay; Lor’ bless yer, you should have knowed what it was no longer ago than when I was a kid, and used to go out with my old woman. Ah, it was summat to have winter then! I’ve heerd my old woman say often that she’d warrant to make enough to live on all the rest of the year, if she only had three months’ good stiff frost. I recol­lect the time when you couldn’t go a dozen yards without hearing the flying up of a window or the opening of a door, and there was somebody a-beckoning of you to give you grub or coppers. It was the grub that beat us.
    “How d’ye mean? Didn’t you get enough of it?”
    “Hark at him! enough of it! We got a thunderin’ sight too much of it. A little of it was all very well, ‘specially if it was a handy-sized meaty bone, wot you could relish with a pint of beer when you felt peckish; but, bust ‘em, they used to overdo it. It don’t look well, don’t you know, to carry a bag or anythink, when you are on the shallow lay. It looks as though you was a ‘reg’lar,’ and that don’t ‘act.’ The old gal used to stow a whacking lot in a big pocket she had in her petticut, and I used to put away a ‘dollop’ in the busum of my shirt, which it was tied round the waist-bag hid underneath my trousers for the purpose. But, Lor’ bless yer, sometimes the blessed trade would go that aggravatin’ that we would both find ourselves loaded-up in no time. Lor, how my old woman would swear about the grub sometimes! It used to make me larf; it was a reg’lar pantermime. She’d be reg’lar weighed down, and me stuffed so jolly full that I daren’t so much as shiver even, lest a lump of tommy or meat should tumble out in front, and all the while we’d be pattering about us not having eat a mouthful since the day afore yesterday. Then somebody ‘ud beckon us; and p’r’aps it was a servant-gal, with enough in a dish for a man and his dawg. And the old woman ‘bliged to curtchy and look pleased! They ought to have heard her! ‘D— and b— ‘em!’ my old gal used to say between her teeth, ‘I wish they had them broken wittles stuffed down their busted throats; why the can’t they give us it in coppers!’ But she couldn’t say that to them, don’t yer know; she had to put on a grateful mug, and say, ‘Gord bless yer, my dear!’ to the gal, as though, if it hadn’t been for that lot of grub turning up that blessed minute, she must have dropped down dead of starvation.”
    “But scran fetched its price in them times, didn’t it, Billy? There was drums where you might sell it long afore your time, don’t you know, Billy?”
    “Course I know. It fetched its price, cert’inly, when you could get away to sell it; but what I’m speaking of is the inconwenience of it. We didn’t want no grub, don’t you see; it was the sp’iling of us. S’pose now we was served like what I just told you; got reg’lar loaded-up when we was a couple of miles away. What was we to do? We couldn’t go on a swearin’ as how we was starvin’ with wittles bustin’ out of us all round. We was ‘bliged to shoot the load afore we could begin ag’in. Sometimes we had to do the ‘long trot’” (go home) “with it, and so sp’iled a whole arternoon. If we got a chance, we shot it down a gully, or in a dunghole in a mews. Anythink to get rid of it, don’t you see. I should like to have just now the rattlin’ lot of grub we’ve been ‘bliged to get rid of in that there way.”
   Despite the decline of the trade of “shallowing,” however, as the reader must have observed, it is one that is regarded as worth resorting to in “season.” A more favourite “dodge” at the present is to appear before the public not in rags and tatters and with patches of naked flesh disgustingly visible, but in sound thorough labour-stained attire, and affect the style either of the ashamed unaccustomed beggar or that of the honest working mechanic, who, desperately driven by stress of poverty, shapes his loud­mouthed appeal in tones of indignant remonstrance that rich and prosperous England should permit a man such as he is to be reduced to the uncomfortable plight in which you now behold him. He is a solitary cadger, and gets himself up in a manner so artful, that it is only when you pay attention to his “speech,” and find that he repeats precisely the same words over and over again, that you begin to have a suspicion that he is not exactly what he seems. Like the “shallow cove,” he prefers a very cold or a very wet and miserable day. He does not enter a Street walking in the middle of the road, as the common “chanting” or “pattering” beggar does; he walks on the pavement with slow and hesitating gait, and at frequent intervals casts hasty and nervous glances behind him, as though fearful that he is watched or followed. Possibly he is so afraid. At all events, should a policeman by rare chance steal round the corner, his steps will increase in length, and he will pass out of the street just as an ordinary pedestrian might; but should he be free to play his “little game,” he will set about it as follows.
   After looking about him several times, he proceeds to make himself remarkable to any person or persons who may happen to be gazing streetward from the window. He will stand suddenly still, and button-up his coat as though determined on some desperate action. With a loud-sounding “hem!” he clears his throat and advances towards the roadway; but, alas, before his feet touch the pavement’s boundary his courage falters, and he dashes his hand across his eyes and shakes his head, in a manner that at once conveys to beholders the impression that, much as he desires it, he is unequal to the performance of what a moment ago he contem­plated and thought himself strong enough to perform. At least, if this is not made manifest to the beholder, the actor has missed his object. On he goes again just a few faltering steps—a very few—and then he cries “hem!” again, louder and fiercer than before, and dashes into the middle of the road.
    If you had pushed him there, or set your dog at him and he had bounded there to escape its fangs, the injured look he casts up at you could not be surpassed. He says not a word for a full minute; he simply folds his arms sternly and glares at you up at the win­dow, as though he would say not so much “What do you think of me standing here?” as “What do you think of yourself, after having driven me to do a thing so ignominious and shameful?” These necessary preliminaries accomplished, in a loud impassioned voice he opens:
    “WHAT !“—(a pause for some seconds’ duration)—”WHAT! will a man not do to drive away from his door the WOLF that assails the wife of his bosom and his innocent horf spring?”
   He appears to await an answer to this, as though it were a solemn conundrum; though from the moody contraction of his eyebrows and the momentary scorn that wrinkles the corners of his mouth as he still gazes all round at the windows, he seems to be aware that it is one which on account of your complete ignor­ance of such matters you will never guess.
    “Doubtless, my friends, you are astonished to see me in this humiliating attitude, addressing you like a common beggar. But what else am I? What is the man who implores you to spare him from your plenty—ay, and your luxury—a penny to save from starving those that are dearer to him than his HEART’S blood, but a beggar? But, my friends, a man may be a beggar, and still be not ashamed. I am not ashamed. I might be, if it was for myself that I asked your charity; but I would not do so. I would die sooner than I would stoop to do it; but what is a HUSBAND to do, when he has a wife weak and ill from her confinement; who is dying by HINCHES for that nourishment that I have not to give her?” (Here a violent blowing of his nose on a clean cotton pocket-handkerchief.) “What, my dear friends, is a FATHER to do, when his little ones cry to him for BREAD? Should he feel ashamed to beg for them? Ask yourselves that question, you who have good warm fires and all that the heart can desire. I am not ashamed. It is a desperate man’s last resource; and I ask you again, as my fellow-creatures, will you turn away from me and deny me the small assistance I beg of you?”
    Generally he is successful. Women—young mothers and old mothers alike—find it hard to resist the artless allusion to the wife, “weak and ill from her confinement,” and the amazingly well-acted sudden outburst of emotion that the actor is so anxious to conceal under cover of blowing his nose. To be sure he is not a prepossessing person, and his style of appeal is somewhat coarse and violent; but that stamps it, in the eyes of the unwary, as genuine. If he “knew the trade,” he would know that he should be meek and insinuating, not loud-mouthed and peremptory. In short, his behaviour is exactly that of a man—a hard-working fellow when he has it to do—driven to desperation, and with a determination to raise enough to buy a loaf somehow. It would be a monstrous thing to refuse such a poor fellow because of his blunt inapt way of asking; and so the halfpence come showering down. It is several months ago since I last saw this worthy; but I have no doubt that his wife has not yet recovered from her con­finement, that his children are yet crying for bread, and that he is still not ashamed to solicit public charity to save them from starving. 
    There are other types of the shy, blunt-spoken beggar, who affect almost to resent the charity they solicit. These abound, as indeed do all street-beggars, chiefly in the severest months of winter. As long as one can remember, gangs of men have per­ambulated the highways in the frosty months, but until recently they were invariably “chanters,” with a legend of coming “all the way from Manchester.” But song is eschewed in modern times. It is found better to avoid old-fashioned forms, and appear as men destitute and down-trodden perhaps, but still with self-respect remaining in them. There is no occasion for them to give you a song for your money; they are not called on to give a lengthy and humiliating explanation as to how they came there; you know all about it. You must have read in the newspapers, “that, owing to the many stoppages of public and private works, there are at the present time hundreds of able-bodied and deserving labouring men wandering the streets of London, driven to the hard necessity of begging their bread.” Well, these are of the number. Observe the unmistakable token of their having laboured on a “public work,” to wit, a railway-cutting, in the clay baked on their “ankle-jacks” and fustian trousers. Regard that able-bodied individual, the leader of the gang, with his grimy great fists and the smut still on his face, and for a moment doubt that he is a deserving labouring man. He is an engineer, out of work since last Christmas, and ever since so hard-up that he has been unable to spare a penny to buy soap with. If you don’t believe it, ask him. But to this or any other detail himself or his mates will not condescend in a general way. All that they do, is to spread across the street, and saunter along with their hands in their pockets, ejaculating only, “Out of work!” “Willin’ to work, and got no work to do!” If you followed them all day, you would find no change in their method of operation, excepting the interval of an hour or so at midday spent in the tap­room of a public-house. If you followed them after that, your steps in all probability would be directed towards Keate-street, Spitalfields, or Mint-street in the Borough, in both of which delightful localities common lodging-houses abound; and if you were bold enough to cross the threshold and descend into the kitchen, there you would discover the jolly crew sitting round a table, and dividing the handsome spoil of the day, while they drank “long lasting to the frost” in glasses of neat rum.
    At the same time, I should be very sorry for the reader to mis­understand me, as wishing to convey to him the impression that in every instance the gangs of men to be met with in the streets in winter-time are vagrants and impostors. It is not difficult to imagine a company of hard-up poor fellows genuinely destitute; mates, perhaps, on the same kind of work, resorting to this method of raising a shilling rather than apply at the workhouse for it. An out-o’-work navvy or a bricklayer would never think of going out to beg alone, whereas he would see no great amount of degradation in joining a “gang.” He thus sinks his individuality, and becomes merely a representative item of a depressed branch of industry. There can be no doubt that a sixpence given to such a man is well bestowed for the time being; but it would be much better, even though it cost many sixpences, if the labourer were never permitted to adopt this method of supplying his needs. In the majority of cases, it may be, the out-o’-work men who resor­ted to the streets to beg for money would, when trade improved, hurry back to work, and be heartily glad to forget to what mis­fortune had driven him; but there are a very large number of labourers who, at the best of times, can live but from hand to mouth as the saying is, and from whom it is desirable to keep secret how much easier money may be got by begging than work­ing. To a man who has to drudge at the docks, for instance, for threepence an hour—and there are thousands in London who do so—it is a dangerous experience for him to discover that as much may be made on an average by sauntering the ordinary length of a street, occasionally raising his hand to his cap. Or he may know beforehand, by rumour, what a capital day’s work may be done at “cadging,” and in bitter sweat of underpaid labour complain that he is worse off than a cadger. It is as well to provide against giving such a man an excuse for breaking the ice.
   There are, however, other impostors amongst the begging fraternity besides those who adopt the professional dress of vag­rancy, and impudently endeavour publicly to proclaim their sham distress and privation. The terrible condition of want into which thousands of the working population of London were plunged the winter before last developed the “cadger” in question in a very remarkable degree. This personage is not a demonstrative cheat. His existence is due entirely to the growing belief in decent poverty, and in the conviction that in frosty “hard-up” times much more of real destitution is endured by those whose honest pride will not permit them to clamour of their wants, and so make them known. There can be no doubt but that this is perfectly true, and, despite all that horridly blunt philanthropists say to the con­trary, it is a quality to be nurtured rather than despised. As every­body knows, of late years it has been nurtured to a very large extent. At the East-end of the town, in Poplar and Shadwell, where, owing to the slackness in the trade pertaining to the build­ing of ships, poverty was specially prevalent, quite a small army of benevolently-disposed private individuals were daily employed going from house to house, and by personal inquiry and investiga­tion applying the funds at their disposal quietly and delicately, and to the best of their ability judiciously. There can be no ques­tion that by these means a vast amount of good was done, and many a really decent family provided with a meal that otherwise would have gone hungry; but an alarming percentage of evil clung to the skirts of the good. It is a positive fact that in the most squalid regions—those, indeed, that were most notorious for their poverty—the value of house-property increased considerably. The occupants of apartments, who during the previous summer-time were unable to meet the weekly exactions of the collector, now not only met current demands, but by substantial instalments rapidly paid-up arrears of rent. Landlords who for months past had been glad to take what they could get, now became inexor­able, and would insist on one week being paid before the next was due. They could afford to indulge in this arbitrary line of be­haviour towards their tenants. Rents were “going up;” rooms that at ordinary times would realise not more than 2s. or 2s. 3d. each, now were worth 3s. 6d. Ragman’s-alley and Squalor’s-court and Great and Little Grime’s-street were at a premium. They were localities famous in the newspapers. Everybody had read about them; everybody had heard the story of the appalling heart-rend­ing misery that pervaded these celebrated places. Day after day gentle-folks flocked thereto, and speedily following these visita­tions came tradesmen’s porters bearing meat and bread and groceries. To be a Squalor’s-alleyite was to be a person with un­doubted and indisputable claims on the public purse, and to be comfortably provided for. To be a denizen of Great Grime’s-street was to reside in an almshouse more fatly endowed than the Printers’ or the Drapers’ or the Fishmongers
    It was impossible for such a paradise to exist without its fame being blown to the most distant and out-of-the-way nooks of the town. North, west, and south the cadgers and impostors heard of it, and enviously itched to participate in the good things. And no wonder! Here was bread and meat and coals being furnished to all who asked for them, at the rate of twenty shillingsworth a-week at the least; nay, they were provided without even the asking for. It was unnecessary to cross the threshold of your door to look after them, for those whose happy task it was to distribute the prizes came knocking, and in the tenderest terms made offer of their assistance. All that was needful was to secure a lodging in Rag­man’s-court or Little Grime’s-street, and pay your rent regularly, and sit down and await the result. And lodgings were so secured. It is positively true that at the height of the “famine season” at the East-end of London, when day after day saw the columns of the daily newspapers heavily laden with the announced subscriptions of the charitable, hundreds of questionable characters, “working men” in appearance, quitted other parts of the metropolis, and cheerfully paid much more rent than they had been accustomed to pay, for the privilege of squatting down in the midst of what was loudly and incessantly proclaimed to be “a colony of helpless out­o’-works, famine-stricken, and kept from downright starvation only by the daily and hourly efforts of the charitable.”
   This much might of course be expected of the professed beggar and the cadger by education and breeding; but it would be inter­esting to learn how many shiftless ones—those semi-vagabonds who labour under the delusion that they are idle men only because work is denied them, and who are continually engaged in the vague occupation of “looking for a job”—gave way before the great temptation, and became downright cadgers from that time. With such folk the barrier to be broken down is of the flimsiest texture, and once overcome, it is difficult indeed to erect it again. Not sweeter to the industrious is the bread of their labour than to the idle and dissolute the loaf unearned, and the free gift of tobacco to be smoked at ease in working hours. It is terribly hard to struggle out of a slough of laziness in which a man has lain for a length of time, with nothing to do but open his mouth and permit other people to feed him. It is extremely unlikely that such a man would make the struggle while there remained but half a chance of his maintaining his comfortable position. Having grown so far used to the contamination of mire, he would be more likely to struggle a little deeper into it, if he saw what he deemed his advantage in doing so, and by swift degrees he would speedily be engulfed in that hopeless bog of confirmed beggary from which there is no return save those of the prison statician.