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

CHAPTER XV.

Genteel Advertising Beggars.

The Newspaper Plan and the delicate Process—Forms of Petition—Novel Applications of Photography—Personal Attractions of the Distressed— Help, or I perish!

    Besides those I have enumerated, there are at least two other speci­mens of the beggar tribe that deserve mention. They are genteel impostors both. One avails himself of the advertising columns of the newspaper to apprise the benevolent of his modest desires, while the other prefers the more private and delicate process in­sured by our modern postal system. Both affect the “reduced gentleman,” and display in their appeals an amount of artlessness and simple confidence in the charity of their fellow-creatures that tells unmistakably of their ample possession of that Christian virtue, while at the same time it conveys to the reader an idea of the select and highly-exclusive position they should properly occupy, and from which they have so disastrously descended. It is evident at a glance that they know nothing of the rough-and-ready ways of the world, or of its close-fistedness or proneness to suspicion. We know this, and pity them; otherwise we might be inclined to class them with those “cheeky” ones in whose praise the young gentleman before mentioned, of “shallow” extraction, was so hearty, and to treat their impudent attempts as they deserve. But the touching simplicity of the unfortunate creatures at once disarms us of suspicion. For instance, who could refrain from immediately responding to the subjoined “petition,” which is copied strictly from the original? It was delivered through the post, and was attached as a fly-leaf to a card on which was affixed the portraits of six young children, each of whom had evidently been “got up” with extreme care, as regards hair-curling and arrangements of dress and ribbons, for the photographic process.
   “Children to save. —Advertisement sent to a few taken from the London Directory. The father of these British-born Protestant children is an elderly gentleman, ruined by competition in business, and past beginning life again; and the mother is in a very pre­carious state of health. To seek for adopters is against parental instinct; and besides it might ultimately come to that, as by the time their schooling is over, in ten or fifteen years, they would most likely be orphans, and their willing adopters would be quite welcome to it (sic). At present the father, in his alarm for the fate of these creatures, seeks for some that would pay, not to the father, but to good boarding-schools, for their clothing, keeping, and tuition, and after school-time to see that they should not want. Willing benefactors are therefore requested to state what they would feel inclined to do for each child, by one of the num­bers given at foot, to ‘Alphabet, till called for, at the Post-office, No. 1 Liverpool-street, Moorfields, E.C.,’ enclosing card or addres­sed envelope to insure correct address, if a reply should be wished.”
    Another method of applying the photographic art to the bol­stering-up of a spurious begging petition takes a form even more outrageous than that which was adopted to exhibit the personal attractions of the distressed six British-born Protestant children. In the second case it is the portrait of a handsome young lady, aged about twenty, with a profusion of lovely hair, and an expres­sion of countenance strikingly artless and captivating. Accom­panying the portrait was a note, as follows:
    “Dear Sir,—I am sure, when you learn the cause, that you will pardon the liberty I take in addressing myself to you. I am impel­led to do so, not only on account of your known humanity, but because I have seen you and read in your face that you will not turn a deaf ear to an appeal frankly and trustingly made to you. The fact is, my dear sir, I am absolutely in want of a sixpence to procure a meal. I am the only child of a father whom misfortune has reduced to a condition of abject beggary. Mother I have none. One day I may have an opportunity of narrating to you the peculiar causes of our present embarrassment. I should feel it in­cumbent on me to do so, were I so fortunate as to make you our creditor for a small sum. Pray spare me the pain of detailing more minutely the purport of this letter. I am aware of the boldness of the step I am taking, but the misery of my wretched father must plead for me in excuse. I enclose my likeness (taken, alas, in happier times, though scarcely six months since), so that you may see that I am not a common beggar. Should my appeal move your compassion towards me, will you kindly send a note addressed, Adelaide F. T., Post-office, —?“
    The gentleman to whom the above artful concoction was ad­dressed is well known for his philanthropy, and his name appears frequently in the newspapers. He is an elderly gentleman, and has grown-up sons and daughters, consequently he was not a likely person to be trapped by the lovely Adelaide, who would “feel it incumbent on her to seek out and personally thank her bene­factor,” in the event of his forwarding to her a pound or so. But it might have been different, if, instead of a plain-sailing shrewd man of the world, he had been a person afflicted with vanity. Here was this poor young handsome creature, who had seen him and read in his face that which induced her to make to him such a pitiful avowal of her poverty—her peculiar poverty! Why, the story of the ‘‘peculiar cause’’ that led to the sudden downfall of such a family must be worth a pound to listen to! Was it justifiable to dishonour the promise his face had assured to the poor young woman? These or similar reflections might have betrayed the better judgment of a less experienced person than Mr. L—. As it was, the artful note served but to ponder over as one of the latest curiosities in the begging-letter line; while as for the portrait, it furnished ample food for moralising on how marvellously deceptive appearances were—especially female appearances.
    And if this were the end of the story, the good reader, with all his honest British inclination for giving the accused the benefit of a doubt, might be tempted to exclaim, “And, after all, who knows but that the appeal to this known philanthropist might have been genuine? To be sure, the shape it assumed was one that might well excite the suspicion of an individual alive to the surpassing clever­ness and cunning of begging impostors; but at the same time there was sufficient of probability in the application to protect it from the stigma of impudent fraud.” Such readers will be glad to hear that all doubts on the matter were set at rest, and in the following singular, and for one party concerned somewhat unpleasant, man­ner. The portrait in question fell into the hands of a relative of Mr. L—, a gentleman with a hard heart for begging impostors, and sturdy resolution to put them down and punish them whenever he encountered them. He was particularly set against mendicants of the genteel class, and was very severe in his strictures on the abominable cheat attempted by “Adelaide F. I.” One afternoon, while walking along Oxford-street, lo, the original of the pictured culprit appeared before him, artlessly and innocently gazing into a linendraper’s window, and accompanied by another lady. The resemblance between the first lady and the photograph was so striking as to place her identity beyond a doubt; yet in order to make quite sure, our friend withdrew the latter from his pocket­book, and covertly compared it with the original. It was as certain as that he had eyes in his head. There was the hair of golden hue massed behind and raised from the temples; there was the straight nose, the small winning mouth, and the delicately-rounded chin. The stern exposer of imposture, however, was not to be moved to mercy by a pretty face; his course of duty was plain before him, and stepping up to the lady, he addressed with undisguised sever­ity, “Miss Adelaide I., I believe?” “You are mistaken, sir.” “Not at all, madam; a friend of mine was lately favoured with a letter from you enclosing your likeness.” It was scarcely to be wondered at, that an expression of terror took possession of the lady’s face, though it was misinterpreted by the gentleman. Thinking that she was addressed by a drunken man or a maniac, the lady prudently retreated into the shop the window of which she had been regard­ing. More than ever convinced that he was not mistaken, L—’s friend followed her; and goodness knows what serious conse­quences might have ensued, had not the lady been a known cus­tomer of the draper as the daughter of a gentleman of wealth and station. This, of course, led to an explanation, and to the most earnest and humble apologies on the part of the pursuer of im­posture. The photograph was produced, and undoubtedly it was a likeness of the lady. How it had got into the hands of the design­ing “Adelaide F. T.” no one could tell, but doubtless it was selec­ted on account of its beauty and prepossessing artlessness. An endeavour was made to secure the cheats; but from some cause or another they took alarm, and the decoy letter, addressed “Post-office —,“ remained there until it was returned through the Dead-letter Office.
    By the bye, the idea of begging “not for myself, but for another,” is a dodge not confined to the epistolary impostor. In the neighbourhood in which I reside, some little time since there made her appearance a very fine specimen of disinterested gen­erosity of the kind in question: a little old lady dressed in black, with kid-gloves on her hands, and a cloak soberly trimmed with black crape. She knocked the knock of a person used to the gen­teel fingering of a knocker, and might she be permitted to speak with the lady of the house? It happened that, at that moment, the gentleman of the house was going out, and he, hearing the applica­tion, suggested that possibly he might do as well. Undoubtedly, though it was a trivial matter with which to occupy the attention of a gentleman. The simple fact was, that the little old lady was bound on a mission of charity for a poor soul recently left desti­tute with nine small children: her aim being the purchase of a mangle and a few washing-tubs, that the widow might earn an honourable livelihood for her numerous brood. “I am too poor to supply her with all the money out of my own slender little purse,” said the old lady, “but I have plenty of leisure, and I think that you will agree with me, sir, it cannot be employed more worthily. I do not ask for any large sum on the poor creature’s behalf; I only ask one single penny. I will not take more than a penny. I put the pence in this little bag, you see, and by perseverance I trust that I shall soon accomplish my aim.” As the little old lady spoke, she cheerfully produced from the folds of her cloak a stout linen bag heavy with copper money, and containing, I should say, at least twelve shillings. The little old lady’s manner was plausible and smooth, and well calculated to impose on the “lady of the house” nine times out of ten. But unfortunately for her it had been my lot to make the acquaintance of many strange little old ladies as well as of gentlemen, and I had my suspicions. I closed the outer door and confronted her on the mat. “I beg your pardon, but have we not met before?” I asked her. She looked up suddenly and sharply, with no little alarm on her wizened old face. “I—I think not, sir,” she faltered. “Do you happen to know a gentleman named Horsford?” was my next inquiry. The little old lady looked still more embarrassed. “I did not come here to discuss my own affairs, sir,” said she with a sorry affectation of indignation, “nor to answer questions that bear no relation to my charitable object. I wish you a good-morning, sir!” And with that she opened the door, and let herself out; and descending the steps quickly, trotted up the street with guilty speed, and turned the corner, and was out of sight before I could make up my mind what to do with her.
    Of advertising beggars there is a large variety. A great many of them breathe a pious spirit, or rather gasp ;—for it is seldom that these distressed ones muster courage to cry out until they have endured their distress even to death’s-door. Not unfrequently the headings or “catch-lines” of these printed appeals are culled from the Bible. Here is one, for example:
    “‘HELP, OR I PERISH!’—The advertiser (in his sixty-seventh birthday) was once blessed with a handsome fortune. Drink—he confesses it—has been the cause of his ruin. He still drinks; nOt now for pleasure and in luxury, but to benumb the gnawing of an aroused conscience. Unless this horrid propensity is checked, the advertiser feels that he must perish body and soul! Who will save him? He has two sons in Canada, who are striving men and total abstainers, and who would receive him with open arms, could he but raise money enough to purchase some poor outfit, and to pay for the voyage. —Address, X., Prescott-street, Whitechapel.”
    One cannot help reflecting, that, before contributing towards a fund to assist the emigration of the aged toper—who appears only to have awoke to a sense of his abasement now that he is stinted of his gin—he would like to have the opinion of those striving men, his sons, the total abstainers in Canada. Possibly they would prefer to honour him at a distance. According to the ingenious old gentleman’s own showing, he only regards his sons as possible props to keep him out of a drunkard’s grave; and if, fettered under the weight imposed on them, they sank with their father into the same dishonourable sepulchre, it would turn out to be money decidedly ill invested. All this, supposing the appeal to be genuine, which in all probability it is not. Were it investigated, the only truthful bit in the appeal would very likely be found to consist in the three words, “he still drinks.”
    Here is another of more recent date, in the emigration line:
    “A lady has an opportunity of going to America, where she could obtain a good situation as governess, but has not the means of procuring an outfit. She would be very thankful to anyone who would lend her 101., which she would promise to return with interest at the end of the year.
    This is cool, but almost feverish compared with the annexed:
    “‘MONEY WITHOUT SECURITY!’—Doubtless these mocking words have struck many readers besides the advertiser. In his desperate situation he has often put to himself the question, Is there to be found in this cruel world a good Samaritan who would confer on a fellow-creature a boon so precious? Is there one who, blessed with means, can find delight in raising from the slough of despond a poor wretch stranded on the bank of the black river of despair? Is there one who will account it cheap by lending ten pounds, for three months, at twenty-five per cent interest, to elevate to manly altitude a human creature who, for want of such a sum, is groaning in the dust? If so, let him send a Beam of Sun­shine to G. S. R., No. 17 Model Lodging Houses, —.
One cannot but ask the question, is G. S. R. a madman, or simply an idiot, who can regard it as a “joke” to waste five shil­lings for the privilege of seeing so many lines of empty rubbish in print? Or, again, are there really any grounds of five shillingsworth for supposing that amongst the fifty thousand readers of a daily newspaper one may be met with silly or eccentric or whimsical enough to entertain G. S. R.’s proposition? It is hard to believe in such a possibility. Still, there are strange people in the world; every day furnishes evidence of this fact. Not more than a month ago it came to light that an ‘old lady residing at Clapham has for years past been in the habit of paying an organ-grinder thirty shillings a-week—a half-sovereign on the evening of every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday—to come and play for half-an-hour under her window. Supposing a rupture between the lady and her musi­cian, and she had put an advertisement in the Times—”A lady, a resident in a quiet suburb, is desirous of engaging with an organ-grinder. Terms of service, three half-hours per week, 751. a-year”— who would have regarded it but as a silly joke?
    There is another begging advertisement of the simple and affect­ing type:
    “A WIDOW’S ONLY COMFORT.—The advertiser begs the kind assistance of the kind-hearted and benevolent to rescue her piano­forte from the hands of the broker. It is but a poor old affair (valued only at 121.), but it has been her only consolation and solace since the death of a darling only daughter, whose instru­ment it was, and it would break her heart to part with it. Its music and her prayers should combine to thank anyone who was gen­erous enough to restore it to her. Address — Colebrook-row.”
    One more instance, and we will have done with the advertising beggar:
    TO THE AGED AND UNPROTECTED.—A young man, aged twenty-two, well-built, good-looking, and of a frank and affec­tionate disposition, is desirous of acting the part of a son towards any aged person or persons who would regard his companionship and constant devotion as an equivalent for his maintenance and clothes and support generally. The parents of the advertiser are both dead, and he has not a relative in the wide world. Affluence is not aimed at, no more than that degree of comfort that moder­ate means insure. Address, 0. D., —.“
    Although it is difficult without a struggle to feel an interest in this young gentleman’s welfare, we cannot help feeling curious to know what success his advertisement brought him. Is he still a for­lorn orphan, wasting his many virtues and manly attributes on a world that to him is a wilderness; or has he happily succeeded in captivating “some aged person or persons,” and is he at the present time acting the part of a son towards them, and growing sleek and fat “on that degree of comfort that moderate means insure ? Were his initials J. D. instead of 0. D., we might imagine that it was our ancient friend Jeremiah Diddler turned up once more. 0. D. stand for Old Diddler, but Jeremiah the ancient must be aged considerably more than twenty-two. We may rest assured, however, that the advertiser is an offshoot of that venerable family.