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

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THE trade in old iron, old tools, locks, and keys, gives employment to a great number of persons who are gifted with a little ingenuity. It is first necessary to recognize what are good and useful articles, then, by an observant study of human nature, to learn which is the best means of selling. There are, for instance, several stalls devoted to this business in the Whitechapel Road, and each possesses a sufficient number of keys to open almost every lock in London. Old keys constitute a staple article in the trade. A chatty, merry-faced, energetic, little woman, her hands red with the rust of a thousand keys she had been assorting with evident pride, once observed to me that the number of keys people lose was altogether beyond conception. "We buy the lost keys," she added, "and we sometimes sell them back to the very persons who lose them! We have a uniform price, and will give you a key for anything for a shilling; and if out of this lot none fit, we just take one about the size, and my husband there with his file will soon make it open any lock you may choose to bring us." After much persuasion, I finally extracted a confession that she often sold many dozens of keys in a day. When the stock ran out, it was renewed at the dust-sifters' yard. Here innumerable articles may be bought, and notably tools, long lost, and finally carried away by the dustmen amid the house refuse.
    The owner of the stall in the accompanying photograph had, however, a different story to tell concerning keys. He possessed some keys which he would gladly sell for twopence, and he reminded me that this branch of his business was subject to certain restrictions which made him at times "lose a job or two." If keys were sold and made indiscriminately, burglars, and in fact all thieves would find easy access to other people's property. Hence certain laws were enacted with the object of preventing any one buying keys save the rightful owners of the locks they were intended to fit. A locksmith is, therefore, not allowed to make a key from an impression. Either the lock itself must be brought to him, or the locksmith must be allowed to enter the premises and fit his key into the door. Otherwise it would suffice to obtain an impression of a key on a piece of soap or wax for a thief to procure himself a similar one, and thus open the lock protecting the coveted treasure. Further, it is illegal for a locksmith to lend a bunch of his keys; and, in a word, before exercising his art to open locks he must assure himself that his services are not required for any dishonest purpose.
    Many persons not only lose their keys, but contrive to break their locks, so that there is some trade done in both locks and keys. These can be bought in the Whitechapel Road for 1s. 6d. to 1s. 9d. each; while the same article in a shop would cost 3s. 6d. It is not surprising, under these circumstances, that the poor prefer the open-air street market, even for purchases of this description. Indeed they are so convinced that second-hand ironware is cheaper and as good as what is new, that in many cases they will not buy an object which does not appear to have been used. If a tool is stained with rust they imagine a low price will be asked; but if the dealer have the imprudence to clean it, then he is less likely to find a purchaser. Some of the tools thus sold nevertheless often possess considerable value, and the dealer, who as a rule may be numbered among the skilled street artisans, is always able to repair any little imperfection. Altogether this is, therefore, a very superior phase of street life, and the street locksmith is as a rule considered to be a respectable, and, to a certain extent, a prosperous member of the industrial classes. The accompanying portrait is that, for instance, of a man of exemplary rectitude. He has abstained from drink since the age of sixteen, and is the father of no less than sixteen children. His life has been spent in the pursuit of monotonous but honest work, and the regularity of his habits, the skill he displays in his handicraft, are all qualities which afford a pleasing and forcible contrast to the characteristics of the great majority of persons who earn their living in the streets.
    A considerable export trade has been developed of late years in the old iron accumulated by dealers of this description. While in 1857, only 36,500 tons of old and broken iron were shipped from this country, no less than 139,812 tons were exported in 1871. This is generally sent out as ballast in ships bound for the Continent or the United States, and comprises such articles as frying-pans, gridirons, saucepans, candlesticks, broken pieces of chain, old boilers, tea-trays, fire-irons, and scrap iron, bolts, wire, hoop iron, old files, axes, saws, etc. All this iron, as a rule carelessly collected and sometimes carelessly sold, has a distinct market value according to its nature and quality. The most fibrous iron, such as that employed for horseshoes and horse-shoe nails, is in much demand among gunmakers, as also the scrap iron from needle-making, and other manufactures where finely-tempered steel is employed. These scraps, if ably treated, can be welded together and form the toughest gun-barrels. Old iron is also convenient in shape for piling, it is more easily manipulated, and, when worked with new iron, requires less labour. As each style of iron has, however, a different welding point, the one might be burnt and the other scarcely melted if they were all placed in the furnace together. Skilled judges must, therefore, be employed to sort this old iron, and but few persons are really able to judge the fibrous qualities of a piece of metal. Connoisseurs have, therefore, many opportunities of making excellent bargains through the ignorance of the persons with whom they deal. In this trade, therefore, as in so many other occupations, knowledge, and especially scientific knowledge, is the true means of success. Not that this knowledge should be employed for extorting at a vile price what is of considerable value, but it would enable dealers to protect themselves against the possibility of being imposed upon by the brilliant aspect of those shoddy wares which now invade every branch of commerce. So just and great is the fear entertained by artisans of shoddy tools, that those who cannot afford to buy good new implements, frequently prefer purchasing the first-class, but second-hand articles often sold at street stalls; and, if they were always certain of not being imposed upon, this would undoubtedly be the wisest course to follow.