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

CHAPTER IV.

Working Boys.

The London Errand Boy—His Drudgery and Privations—His Temptations.— The London Boy after Dark—The Amusements provided for him.

The law takes account of but two phases of human existence,—the child irresponsible, and the adult responsible, and overlooks as beneath its dignity the important and well-marked steps that lead from the former state to the latter.
Despite the illegality of the proceeding, it is the intention of the writer hereof to do otherwise, aware as he is, and as every thinking person may be, of how critical and all-important a period in the career of the male human creature, is “boyhood.” Amongst people of means and education, the grave responsibility of seeing their rising progeny safely through the perilous “middle passage” is fully recognized; but it is sadly different with the labouring classes, and the very poor.
    It is a lamentable fact that at that period of his existence when he needs closest watching, when he stands in need of healthful guidance, of counsel against temptation, a boy, the son of labour­ing parents, is left to himself, almost free to follow the dictates of his inclinations, be they good or bad. Nothing than this can be more injudicious, and as regards the boy’s moral culture and worldly welfare, more unjust. Not, as I would have it distinctly understood, that the boy of vulgar breeding is by nature more pregnable to temptation than his same age brother of genteel extraction; not because, fairly tested with the latter, he would be the first to succumb to a temptation, but because, poor fellow, outward circumstances press and hamper him so unfairly.    
    It has recently come to my knowledge that at the present time there is striving hard to attract public attention and patronage an institution styled the “Errand Boys’ Home.” It would be difficult, indeed, to overrate the importance of such an establishment, properly conducted. Amongst neglected children of a larger growth those of the familiar “errand boy” type figure first and foremost. It would be instructive to learn how many boys of the kind indicated are annually drafted into our great criminal army, and still more so to trace back the swift downhill strides to the original little faltering step that shuffled from the right path to the wrong.
    Anyone who has any acquaintance with the habits and customs of the labouring classes, must be aware that the “family” system is for the younger branches, as they grow up, to elbow those just above them in age out into the world; not only to make more room at the dinner-table, but to assist in its substantial adornment. The poorer the family, the earlier the boys are turned out, “to cut their own grass,” as the saying is. Take a case—one in ten thousand —to be met with to-morrow or any day in the city of London. Tom is a little lad—one of seven or eight—his father is a labourer, earning, say, a guinea a week; and from the age of seven Tom has been sent to a penny-a-week school; partly for the sake of what learning he may chance to pick up, but chiefly to keep him “out of the streets,” and to effect a simultaneous saving of his morals and of his shoe-leather. As before stated, Tom’s is essentially a working family. It is Tom’s father’s pride to relate how that he was “turned out” at eight, and had to trudge through the snow to work at six o’clock of winter mornings; and, that though on account of coughs and chilblains and other frivolous and childish ailments, he thought it very hard at the time, he rejoices that he was so put to it, since he has no doubt that it tended to harden him and make him the man he is.
    Accordingly, when Tom has reached the ripe age of ten, it is accounted high time that he “got a place,” as did his father before him; and, as there are a hundred ways in London in which a sharp little boy of ten can be made useful, very little difficulty is experienced in Tom’s launching. He becomes an “errand boy,” a news­paper or a printing boy, in all probability. The reader curious as to the employment of juvenile labour, may any morning at six or seven o’clock in the morning witness the hurried trudging to work of as many Toms as the pavement of our great highways will con­veniently accommodate, each with his small bundle of food in a little bag, to last him the day through. Something else he may see, too, that would be highly comic were it not for its pitiful side. As need not be repeated here, a boy’s estimate of earthy bliss might be conveniently contained in a dinner-plate of goodly dimensions. When he first goes out to work, his pride and glory is the parcel of food his mother makes up for the day’s consumption. There he has it—breakfast, dinner, tea! Possibly he might get as much, or very nearly, in the ordinary course of events at home, but in a piecemeal and ignoble way. He never in his life possessed such a wealth of food, all his own, to do as he pleases with. Eight—ten slices of bread and butter, and may be—especially if it happen to be Monday—a slice of meat and a lump of cold pudding, relics of that dinner of dinners, Sunday’s dinner!
    His, all his, with nobody to say nay; but still only wealth in prospective! It is now barely seven o’clock, and, by fair eating, he will not arrive at that delicious piece of cold pork ‘with the crack­ling on it until twelve! It is a keen, bracing morning; he has already walked a mile or more; and it wants yet fully an hour and a half to the factory breakfast time. It is just as broad as it is long; suppose he draws on his breakfast allowance just to the extent of one slice? Only one, and that in stern integrity: the topmost slice without fee or favour! But, ah! the cruel fragrance of that juicy cut of spare-rib! It has impregnated the whole contents of the bundle; The crust of that abstracted slice is as savoury, almost, as the crisp-baked rind of the original. Six bites—”too brief for friendship, not for fame”—have consumed it, and left him, alas! hungrier than ever. Shall he? What—taste of the sacred slice? No. It isn’t likely. The pork is for his dinner. But the pudding—that is a supplemental sort of article; a mere extravagance when added to so much perfec­tion as the luscious meat embodies. And out he hauls it; the ponderous abstraction afflicting the hitherto compact parcel with such a shambling looseness, that it is necessary to pause in one of the recesses of the bridge to readjust and tighten it. But, ah! rash boy! Since thou wert not proof against the temptation lurking in that slice of bread-and-butter, but faintly odorous of that madden­ing flavour, how canst thou hope to save thyself now that thou hast tasted of the pudding to which the pork was wedded in the baker’s oven? It were as safe to trust thee at hungry noon with a luscious apple-dumpling, and bid thee eat of the dough and leave the fruit. It is all over. Reason, discretion, the admonitions of a troubled conscience, were all gulped down with that last corner, crusty bit, so full of gravy. The bridge’s next recess is the scene of another halt, and of an utterly reckless spoliation of the dwindled bundle. And now the pork is consumed, to the veriest atom, and nought remains but four reproachful bread slices, that skulk in a Corner, and almost demand the untimely fate visited on their companions. Shall they crave in vain? No. A pretty bundle, this, to take to the factory for his mates to see. A good excuse will Serve his purpose better. He will engulf the four slices as he did the rest, and fold up his bag neatly, and hide it in his pocket, and, when dinner-time comes, he will profess that there is something nice at home, and he is going there to partake of it; while, really, he will take a dismal stroll, lamenting his early weakness, and making desperate vows for the future.
    It is not, however, with Tom as the lucky owner of a filled food-bag that we have here to deal, but with Tom who at least five days out of the six is packed off to work with just as much bread and butter as his poor mother can spare off the family loaf. Now “going out to work” is a vastly different matter from going from home to school, and innocently playing between whiles. In the first place, the real hard work he has to perform (and few people would readily believe the enormous amount of muscular exertion these little fellows are capable of enduring), develops his appetite for eating to a prodigious extent. He finds the food he brings from home as his daily ration but half sufficient. What are a couple of slices of bread, with perhaps a morsel of cheese, considered as a dinner for a hearty boy who has perhaps trudged from post to pillar a dozen miles or so since his breakfast, carrying loads more or less heavy? He hungers for more, and more is constantly in his sight if he only had the means, a penny or twopence even, to buy it. He makes the acquaintance of other boys; he is drawn towards them in hungry, envious curiosity, seeing them in the enjoyment of what he so yearns after, and they speedily inform him how easy it is to make” not only a penny or twopence, but a sixpence or a shilling, if he has a mind. And they are quite right, these young counsellors of evil. The facilities for petty pilfering afforded to the shopkeeper’s errand-boy are such as favour momentary evil impulses. He need not engage in subtle plans for the purloining of a shilling or a shilling’s worth. The opportunity is at his fingers’ ends constantly. Usually he has the range of the business premises. Few people mistrust a little boy, and he is left to mind the shop where the money-till is, and he has free access to the store-room or warehouse in which all manner of portable small goods are heaped in profusion. It is an awful temptation. It is not sufficient to urge that it should not be, and that in the case of a lad of well-regulated mind it would not be. It would perhaps be more to the purpose to substitute “well-regulated meals” for “well-regulated minds.” Nine times out of ten the confessions of a discovered juvenile pilferer go to prove that he sinned for his belly’s sake. He has no conscience above his waistband, poor little wretch; nor can much better be expected, when we consider that all his life, his experience and observation has taught him that the first grand aim of human in­genuity and industry is to place a hot baked dinner on the table of Sundays. To be sure, in the case of his hard-working father he may never have known him resort to any other than honest industry; he never found out that his parent was any other than an honest man; and so long as his father or his employer does not find him out to be any other than an honest boy, matters may run smoothly.
    It is least of all my intention to make out that every errand-boy is a petty thief; all that I maintain is that he is a human creature just budding into existence as it were in the broad furrowed field of life, and that his susceptibilities are tender, and should be pro­tected from evil influence with even extraordinary care; and that instead of which he is but too often left to grow up as maybe. In their ignorance and hard driving necessity, his parents having given him a spell of penny schooling, and maintained him until he has become a marketable article, persuade themselves that they have done for him the best they can, and nothing remains but for him to obey his master in all things, and he will grow to be as bright a man as his father before him.
    It is only necessary to point to the large number of such children, for they are no better, who annually swell our criminal lists, to prove that somewhere a screw is sadly loose, and that the sooner it is set right the better it will be for the nation. The Home for Errand Boys is the best scheme that has as yet been put forth towards meeting the difficulty. Its professed object, I believe, is to afford shelter and wholesome food and healthful and harmless recreation for boys who are virtually without a home, and who have “only a lodging.” That is to say, a place to which they may retire to sleep come bed-time, and for which they pay what appears as a paltry sum when regarded as so many pence per night, but which tells up to a considerable sum by the end of a week.
    The most important feature, however, of such a scheme as the Home for Errand Boys embraces, does not appear in the vaunted advantage of reduced cost. Its main attraction is the promise it holds out to provide its lodgers with suitable amusement after work hours and before bed-time. If this were done on an extensive scale, there is no telling how much real substantial good might be accomplished. It is after work hours that boys fall into mischief. There is no reason why these homes should not have existence in various parts of London. One such establishment indeed is of little practical use. If it were possible to establish such places (a careful avoidance of everything savouring of the “asylum” and the “re­forrnatory” would of course be necessary) in half a dozen different spots in the immediate neighbourhood of the city, they would doubtless meet with extensive patronage. They might indeed be made to serve many valuable ends that do not appear at a first glance. If these “homes” were established east, west, north, and south, they might be all under one management, and much good be effected by recommending deserving members for employment. There might even be a provident fund, formed by contributions of a penny or so a week, out of which lads unavoidably out of employ could be supported until a job of work was found for them.
    Allusion has, in a previous page, been made to that dangerous time for working boys—the time between leaving work and retiring to bed. It would be bad enough were the boy left to his own devices for squandering his idle time and his hard-earned pence. This task, however, is taken out of his hands. He has only to stroll up this street and down the next, and he will find pitfalls already dug for him; neatly and skilfully dug, and so prettily overspread with cosy carpeting, that they do not in the least appear like pit­falls. It may at first sight seem that “neglected children” are least of all likely to make it worth the while of these diggers of pits, but it should be borne in mind that the term in question is here applied in its most comprehensive sense, that there are children of all ages, and that there are many more ways than one of neglecting children. It is evident that young boys who are out at work from six till six say, and after that spend the evening pretty much how they please, are “neglected” in the most emphatic meaning of the term. Parents are not apt to think so. It is little that they have to concede him in return for his contributions to the common stock and probably they regard this laxity of supervision as the working boy’s due—as something he has earned, and which is his by right. The boy himself is nothing backward in claiming a privilege he sees accorded to so many other boys, and it is the least troublesome thing in the world for the parents to grant the favour. All that they stipulate for is that the boy shall be home and a-bed in such good time as shall enable him to be up and at work without the loss in the morning of so much as an hour; which is a loss of just as many pence as may happen.
    It may not be here out of place to make more definite allusion to the “pitfalls” above-mentioned. Pitfall broadest and deepest is the theatrical exhibition, known as the “penny gaff.” Some con­siderable time since I wrote on this subject in the columns of the “Morning Star;” and as precisely the old order of things prevails, and the arguments then used against them apply with equal force now, I will, with the reader’s permission, save myself further trouble than that which transcription involves.
    Every low district of London has its theatre, or at least an humble substitute for one, called in vulgar parlance a “gaff.” A gaff is a place in which, according to the strict interpretation of the term, stage plays may not be represented. The actors of a drama may not correspond in colloquy, only in pantomime, but the pieces brought out at the “gaff” are seldom of an intricate character, and the not over-fastidious auditory are well content with an exhibition of dumb show and gesture, that even the dullest comprehension may understand. The prices of admission to these modest temples of the tragic muse, are judiciously regula­ted to the means of the neighbourhood, and range from a penny to threepence. There is no “half-price for children,” and for the simple reason that such an arrangement would reduce the takings exactly fifty per cent. They are all children who support the gaff. Costermonger boys and girls, from eight or nine to fourteen years old, and errand boys and girls employed at factories. As before mentioned, every district has its own “gaff.” There is one near Peter Street, Westminster; a second in the New Cut, at Lambeth; a third in Whitecross Street; a fourth, fifth, and sixth between Whitechapel Church and Ratcliff Highway. It may, without fear of contradiction, be asserted, that within a circuit of five miles of St. Paul’s, at least twenty of these dangerous dens of amusement might be enumerated.
    At best of times they are dangerous. The best of times being when current topics of a highly sensational character are lacking, and the enterprising manager is compelled to fall back on some comparatively harmless stock piece. But the “gaff” proprietor has an eye to business, and is a man unlikely to allow what he regards as his chances to slip by him. He at once perceives a chance in the modern mania that pervades the juvenile population for a class of literature commonly known as “highly sensational.” He has no literature to vend, but he does not despair on that account. He is aware that not one in five of the youth who honour his establish­ment with their patronage can read. If he, the worthy gaff pro­prietor, had any doubts on the subject, he might settle them any day by listening at his door while an admiring crowd of “regular Customers” flocking thereto speculated on the pleasures of the night as foretold in glowing colours on the immense placards that adorn the exterior of his little theatre. They can understand the Pictures well enough, but the descriptive legends beneath them are mysteries to which few possess the key. If these few are malicious­ly reticent, the despair of the benighted ones is painful to witness, as with puckered mouths and knitted brows they essay to decipher the strange straight and crooked characters, and earnestly consult with each other as to when and where they had seen the like. Fail­ing in this, the gaff proprietor may have heard them exclaim in tones of but half-assured consolation, “Ah, well! it doesn’t matter what the reading is; the piece won’t be spoke, it’ll be acted, so we are sure to know all about it when we come to-night.”
    Under such circumstances, it is easy enough to understand the agonized anxiety of low-lived ignorant Master Tomkins in these stirring times of Black Highwaymen, and Spring Heel Jacks, and Boy Detectives. In the shop window of the newsvendor round the corner, he sees displayed all in a row, a long line of “penny num­bers,” the mere illustrations pertaining to which makes his heart palpitate, and his hair stir beneath his ragged cap. There he sees bold highwaymen busy at every branch of their delightful avoca­tion, stopping a lonely traveller and pressing a pistol barrel to his affrighted head, and bidding him deliver his money or his life; or impeding the way of the mail coach, the captain, hat in hand, courteously robbing the inside passengers (prominent amongst whom is a magnificent female with a low bodice, who evidently is not insensible to the captain’s fascinating manner), while members of his gang are seen in murderous conflict with the coachman and the guard, whose doom is but too surely foreshadowed. Again, here is a spirited woodcut of a booted and spurred highwayman in headlong flight from pursuing Bow Street officers who are close at his heels, and in no way daunted or hurt by the contents of the brace of pistols the fugitive has manifestly just discharged point blank at their heads.
    But fairly in the way of the bold rider is a toll-gate, and in a state of wild excitement the toll-gate keeper is seen grasping the long bar that crosses the road. The tormenting question at once arises in the mind of Master Tomkins—is he pushing it or pulling it? Is he friendly to the Black Knight of the Road or is he not? Master T. feels that his hero’s fate is in that toll-gate man’s hands; he doesn’t know if he should vastly admire him or regard him with the deadliest enmity. From the bottom of his heart he hopes that the toll-gate man may be friendly. He would cheerfully give up the only penny he has in his pocket to know that it were so. He would give a penny for a simple “yes” or “no,” and all the while there are eight good letter-press pages along with the picture that would tell him all about it if he only were able to read! There is a scowl on his young face as he reflects on this, and bitterly he thinks of his hard-hearted father who sent him out to sell fusees when he should have been at school learning his A B C. Truly, he went for a short time to a Ragged School, but there the master kept all the jolly books to himself—the “Knight of the Road” and that sort of thing, and gave him to learn out of a lot of sober dry rubbish with­out the least flavour in it. Who says that he is a dunce and won’t learn? Try him now. Buy a few numbers of the “Knight of the Road” and sit down with him, and make him spell out every word of it. Never was boy so anxious after knowledge. He never picked a pocket yet, but such is his present desperate spirit, that if he had the chance of picking the art of reading out of one, just see if he wouldn’t precious soon make himself a scholar?
    Thus it is with the neglected boy, blankly illiterate. It need not be supposed, however, that a simple and quiet perusal of the astounding adventures of his gallows heroes from the printed text would completely satisfy the boy with sufficient knowledge to enable him to spell through a “penny number.” It whets his appetite merely. It is one thing to read about the flashing and slashing of steel blades, and of the gleam of pistol barrels, and the whiz of bullets, and of the bold highwayman’s defiant “ha! ha!” as he cracks the skull of the coach-guard, preparatory to robbing the affrighted passengers; but to be satisfactory the marrow and essence of the blood-stirring tragedy can only be conveyed to him in bodily shape. There are many elements of a sanguinary drama that may not well be expressed in words. As, for instance, when Bill Bludjon, after having cut the throat of the gentleman passen­ger, proceeds to rob his daughter, and finding her in possession of a locket with some grey hair in it, he returns it to her with the observation, “Nay, fair lady, Bill Bludjon may be a thief: in stern defence of self he may occasionally shed blood, but, Perish the Liar who says of him that he respects not the grey hairs of honourable age!” There is not much in this as set down in print. To do Bill justice, you must see how his noble countenance lights as his generous bosom heaves with chivalrous sentiments; how defiantly he scowls, and grinds his indignant teeth as he hisses the word “Liar!”—how piously he turns his eyes heaven-ward as he alludes to “honourable old age.” It is in these emotional subtleties that the hero rises out of the vulgar robber with his villanous Whitechapel cast of countenance, and his great hands, hideous with murder stains, must be witnessed to be appreciated. It is the gaff proprietor’s high aim and ambition to effect this laudable object, and that he does so with a considerable amount of, at least, Pecuniary success, is proved by his “crowded houses” nightly.
    Now that the police are to be roused to increased vigilance in the suppression, as well as the arrest of criminality, it would be as well if those in authority directed their especial attention to these penny theatres. As they at present exist, they are nothing better than hot-beds of vice in its vilest forms. Girls and boys of tender age are herded together to witness the splended achievements of “dashing highwaymen,” and of sirens of the Starlight Sall school; nor is this all. But bad as this is, it is really the least part of the evil. The penny “gaff” is usually a small place, and when a specially atrocious piece produces a corresponding “run,” the “house” is incapable of containing the vast number of boys and girls who nightly flock to see it. Scores would be turned away from the doors, and their halfpence wasted, were it not for the worthy pro­prietor’s ingenuity. I am now speaking of what I was an actual witness of in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch. Beneath the pit and stage of the threatre was a sort of large kitchen, reached from the end of the passage, that was the entrance to the theatre by a flight of steep stairs. There were no seats in this kitchen, nor furniture of any kind. There was a window looking toward the street, but this was prudently boarded up. At night time all the light allowed in the kitchen proceeded from a feeble and dim gas jet by the wall over the fire-place.
    Wretched and dreary-looking as was this underground chamber, it was a source of considerable profit to the proprietor of the “gaff” overhead. As before stated, when anything peculiarly attractive was to be seen, the theatre filled within ten minutes of opening the besieged doors. Not to disappoint the late corners, however, all who pleased might pay and go downstairs until the performance just commenced (it lasted generally about an hour and a half) terminated. The prime inducement held out was, that “then they would be sure of good seats.” The inevitable result of such an arrangement may be easier guessed than described. For my part, I know no more about it than was to be derived from a hasty glance from the stair-head. There was a stench of tobacco smoke, and an uproar of mingled youthful voices—swearing, chaffing, and screaming, in boisterous mirth. This was all that was to be heard, the Babel charitably rendering distinct pronouncing of blasphemy or indecency unintelligible. Nor was it much easier to make out the source from when the hideous clamour proceeded, for the kitchen was dim as a coal cellar, and was further obscured by the foul tobacco smoke the lads were emitting from their short pipes. A few were romping about—”larking,” as it is termed—but the majority, girls and boys, were squatted on the floor, telling and listening to stories, the quality of which might but too truly be guessed from the sort of applause they elicited. A few—impatient of the frivolity that surrounded them, and really anxious for “the play”—stood apart, gazing with scowling envy up at the ceiling, on the upper side of which, at frequent intervals, there was a furious clatter of hobnailed boots, betokening the delirious delight of the happy audience in full view of Starlight Sall, in “silk tights” and Hessians, dancing a Highland fling. Goaded to desperation, one or two of the tormented ones down in the kitchen reached up with their sticks and beat on the ceiling a tattoo, responsive to the battering of the hobnailed boots before mentioned. This, however, was a breach of “gaff” rule that could not be tolerated. With hurried steps the proprietor approached the kitchen stairs, and descried me. “This ain’t the theeater; you’ve no business here, sir!” said he, in some confusion, as I imagined. “No, my friend, I have no business here, but you have a very pretty business, and one for which, when comes the Great Day of Reckoning, I would rather you answered than me.” But I only thought this; aloud, I made the gaff proprietor an apology, and thankfully got off his abominable premises.