Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877    

[back to menu for this book ...]


ITALIAN boys and Savoyard children have always excited the interest and sympathy of northern peoples. It is perhaps difficult to attribute any sound reason to this fact, and we may question whether it is altogether just, that a comparatively speaking well-to-do foreigner should elicit more commiseration than the squalid and degraded fellow-countrymen who swarm in our streets. But there is an element of romance about the swarthy Italian youth to which the English poor cannot aspire. Then there is something irresistible in the bright glitter of his eyes, in his cheerful gait, and his fascinating manners; while the English mendicant is coarse, ungainly, dirty, rude of speech, unartist-like in his appearance, out of tune when he sings, vulgar in all his deeds, and often bears the stamp of a hopeless drunkard. This perhaps explains how it is that Italians, Sons of peasants, agricultural labourers, and others who might lead respectable lives in their own country, prefer to come over to England where they are sometimes treated as mere beggars. They find that a beggar in England is richer than a labourer in Italy; and if he be not equally prosperous it is because he is not equally abstemious and economical. The Italian, therefore, migrates with the knowledge that he may rely on the generosity of the English, and that, if he only receives as much as many of the English poor, he may hope to save enough to buy himself a farm in his own country. They arrive, therefore, in shoals, and seeing how their presence is appreciated, do not realize the somewhat humiliating character of their avocation. Many, on the contrary, proudly claim a right to be ranked above the mendicant class. They urge, and to a certain extent justly, that they are of use to the community; that, as a rule, their performance, whether with the barrel-organ, the piano-organ, the harp, fiddle, or other instrument, gratifies the majority of their hearers, and propagates the love for music among the poor. The only difference, so far as the political economy of the case is concerned, between them and actors and professional singers is the fact that they impose themselves on the public by performing in the street, and have to solicit, cap in hand, their reward. Otherwise, they argue, that they simply cater for the public amusement ; that if their performance is of a very inferior character to what may be heard in concert-rooms or theatres, they consequently receive very inferior pay. This is in fact but a mere question of supply and demand. The wealthy prefer to hear Italian singers instead of English vocalists at the great opera houses why should not the poor display a similar unpatriotic predilection for the merry Southener who plays the harp or grinds an organ in the street? Just as in the higher class of art the Italians excel, so also in the more modest street performances do they attract more applause.
    In this, however, as in many other circumstances which at first sight seem simple and innocent, abuses have gradually been engendered. A traffic in children has grown into a regular business which, like most trades, has entailed intense suffering on its weakest members. On this subject the Charity Organization Society published a special report, which, though certainly accurate in its main facts, insisted perhaps too exclusively on one side of the question. We are told that a band of villains, an association of modern slave-traders, purchase helpless children in the neighbourhood of Naples, promising to teach them a virtý - that is to say, how to play or sing - and to return them to their parents at the end of two years, together with a sum of money. We are left to infer, however, that these conditions are never accomplished; but, considering that this traffic has been carried on for several generations, it is curious if the Neapolitan parents have learnt nothing from experience. Probably they do not care to have the children back, in which case the children may be better off away from such parents. In any case, one-half of the contract is strictly carried out; the children are undoubtedly taught a virtý, and consequently ultimately manage to make a good position. But we are informed that in the meanwhile they are most cruelly treated. Packed in rooms, hired for the purpose by the padroni, they live in an unhealthy atmosphere, and are contaminated by vicious associations; nevertheless, I venture to doubt if they are worse off than in their own country, where they so often fall victims to a vice utterly unknown in England. From a sanitary point of view, this condition certainly requires immediate reformation, but the need of good sanitation is even more urgent in southern Italy than in England.
    The padroni, men of consummate experience in these matters, know precisely where the children are most likely to make money, and send them out in various districts, taking care that their efforts should not clash, but that each should separately cultivate good ground. In exchange, however, for this careful training and organization, they expect the child to give up all he has received; thus are the children made to pay the premium of their apprenticeship. If, at the same time, they were well fed, well clothed, well housed, and carefully trained, I fail to see that there would be any grave ground remaining for complaint. The Italian padroni should be treated in the same manner as other employers of labour; and, though undoubtedly he has at times proved himself cruel, tyrannical, exacting, and has not shrunk from the responsibility of inflicting starvation and misery on those who work for him, he has only followed the example set by innumerable manufacturers and other employers of labour both in England and abroad. We have often been compelled to legislate to protect the poor worker against the exactions of the capitalist; and, doubtless, there are still among us many manufacturers, coal-mine owners, &c., who, in their heart of hearts, complain that Acts regulating the work of women and children in mines, factories, and fields, have reduced their profits-men in fact who, but for our labour laws, would show scarcely more consideration for their dependents than that displayed by the padroni. For my part, I would welcome any measure that would protect the Italian children against the exactions of their padroni, however inquisitional and stringent such a law might be; but it is equally urgent to protect our native street arabs-to redeem from the starvation, drunkenness, degradation, and immorality of their homes those poor English children, whose care-worn, haggard faces, peering from our back courts and alleys, testify that their lot is not to be compared with that of the bright, laughing, healthy foreign children, who, for some inscrutable reason, seem to have momentarily monopolized what little human sympathy can survive the business of charity organization.
    Among the Italian colony of Saffron Hill, where I made inquiries from Italians who are totally disinterested in the matter, I found a general impression prevailing that the children were not always ill-treated. Of course there have been a great number of complaints, and measures should be taken to prevent the repetition of cruelties; but still there are some persons who do not believe that the children are especially to be pitied. They sleep, it is urged, several in a room, and are thus able to afford each other mutual protection. Living always in the centre of the Italian colony, the force of public opinion should tend to prevent cruelty. The Italians are notoriously fond of children, and nurture them with the tenderest care, and a tale of cruelty would produce far more effect among the Italian than among the English poor. It is stated that, as the children cannot speak English, they must endure tortures in silence; but this is altogether a fallacy, for they are surrounded by hundreds of fellow-countrymen, ice-sellers, organ-grinders, artisans, asphalte men, &c.who are not only Italians, but who, for the most part, come from precisely the same province, are constantly communicating and sending money over to their native homes, and would rapidly spread throughout the Calabrian mountains the news of any evil afflicting the Italian colonies in the great towns of England. The boys are for the most part intelligent and quick, would probably complain of any gross ill- treatment, and often show their sense of independence by running away altogether from their padroni when they are not comfortable, or think they have gained sufficient knowledge to carry on business alone. Nor are they likely to starve when hungry. Their pockets full of pence, what system of control can prevent them from buying food in the streets where they play? It is notorious that, apart from the food supplied by the padroni, the boys subtract a few pence from the money they obtain to buy some extras. The receipts made by the boys varies from 1s. 8d. to 4s. per day, and their healthy, hearty appearance and merry faces, testify that a portion of this is spent on food. I know at least of one padroni, living at Saffron Hill, who has the reputation of giving his boys plenty of food. Maccaroni is of course the chief dish, but it would be fortunate if our English poor knew how to enjoy so simple, nutritious, and wholesome a dinner. The padroni in question sends his own son out with the other boys. He has taught him to play the violin, and to good purpose. A harper boy, who also, I believe, came under his care, was taught how to speak English. French, and good Italian, and will probably go half round the world with his harp, and finally retire on his savings.
    Other children come over to England to join their families, or the more enterprising members of their families, who have found out how to make money in our midst. The Italian harper, whose photograph accompanies this chapter, belongs to the latter class. His parents have long been established in England, and have a regular home at Deptford. From this centre various members of the family radiate in different directions, frequenting the sea-side in summer, and the cities and large towns in winter. One of the daughters plays the fiddle admirably, and the young son is equally skilful with the harp. He has only been in England about two years, and can already speak English fluently. He is described throughout the neighbourhood, where he is known to every one, as a charming boy, whose amiable disposition, modest bearing, and musical talents ensure him success wherever he may present himself. It would be absurd to treat this youth in the light of a mendicant. His clothes are ample, neat, and clean, his purse well-filled, for his earnings almost equal those of a skilled artisan, though he is but a boy, and he has far more right to public support and sympathy, in exchange for the good and simple melodies he brings to the doors of the poor, than, for instance, the great majority of singers who lower the taste and degrade the morals of the audiences at our Music Halls. Indeed, these street minstrels have sometimes attempted to gain a hearing in Music Halls, but their songs lacked the improper inuendo which, in such places, is the secret of success; and, 
        "Io ti voglio ben assai
        Ma tu non pensi a me,"
Is at once too simple and sweet a melody to satisfy the vitiated taste engendered in these establishments. But, in the streets, many a moment of quiet enjoyment has been afforded to the tired artisan by these modest minstrels. They have repeated to the uncouth English labourer the warm melodies of the Italian opera, they have helped to spread among the poor the love for the most humanizing and innocent of enjoyments, and have nurtured in our courts and alleys echoes of purer music than could otherwise have reached these dismal abodes. In this, the piano-organs have been of special service. As a rule, their selections are excellent, and the execution far surpasses that of a number of ladies who do not hesitate to play before company. Even classical music is sometimes executed with remarkable accuracy by these instruments, and the Italian organ-man has actually ventured to render extracts from TannHäusser and Lohengrin to the startled inhabitants of our crowded thoroughfares, thus familiarizing all classes of the community with the mysteries of the "music of the future."
    Little children are, however, less useful in this respect. Their performances are as a rule very crude, and it certainly would be no loss to the community, and much gain to themselves, if they were sent to school. This, on the other hand, would not be the case if they remained in Italy, nor would they be likely to gain as much money in the long run. The traffic in very young children should be checked; the older children will continue to come over here of their own accord. The well-founded hope of gain, and the love of travel and change will suffice to attract a constant supply of street musicians. These will be obtained readily enough without any resort to kidnapping, or the creation of a white slave trade. The present evils, whether exaggerated or not, would soon disappear if the operations of the Elementary Education Act could be made to extend to foreign children, and if the padroni were brought under the Factory and Sanitary Acts which govern other employers of labour. In the meanwhile it is to be hoped that the English public will continue to welcome with their pence all who cheer with good music our dull streets.