XV. THE LEATHER MARKET.
THE supremacy of leather is, and ever was, maintained by
the working Englishman almost as strenuously as Magna Charta, "An
Englishman's house is his castle," and "God save the Queen." He
regards it with the same implicit confidence as he regards his beer, and will no
more accept gutta-percha or india-rubber as a substitute for the former than
light French wines or lemonade for the latter. No matter in what shape the
material appears, it elicits an equal amount of respect; and that the passion is
deeply implanted in the Englishman is evident from the fact that it is one of
the earliest to develop itself in the youthful mind. Long before the boy is out
of pinafores and strap shoes he is anxious for a whip with a real leather thong,
or choice is divided between that and one of those oozy leathern abominations
known as a " sucker; " and if his first cap be furnished with a real
leather peak, in place of a mean affair of japanned cardboard, he holds his head
all the higher. True, we have degenerated from the ancient custom of casing our
nether limbs in buckskin, but we still show an affectionate leaning thereto by
miscalling our trouser-stuffs doeskin, and swathing our legs knee high in a
refined and dandified preparation of horse or cow skin. Even the low-minded
costermonger, to whom " wellingtons" are objects of contempt and
derision, and who laughs to scorn galligaskins and knickerbockers, evinces the
national tendency for leather by stipulating for "anklejacks" with
"tongues" ample enough to overlap the lacings by at least three
inches. There is no surer passport to the best room of an inn than a portmanteau
of the orthodox brown colour, and branded "warranted leather;" if it
should happen to bear the additional recommendation "solid," your high
respectability is at once established. That it has been from time out of mind a
material high in popular esteem is proved by that ancient but still choice stave
the "leather bottel," wherein the champion of bull-hide, after lauding
its superiority to delf and pewter, and even silver, is loth to throw it aside
after it has well served its turn: after its mouth is so agape with age that its
stopple shakes about loosely-after its sides are caved in and bulged out, and it
rocks tipsily, and finally stands all aslant when an attempt is made to set it
up-after its stout stitches have yielded to a thousand soakings of sack and
canary, and the venerable leather bottle springs a leak; still, as prays the
stave-writer, don't cast it off, don't put it away from you as a thing utterly
"Make it fast to the wall with a pin, 'Twill serve to keep hinges and odd things in." I have been writing hitherto as though it were only among the lowbred and the vulgar-among costermongers and waiters, and tavern boosers-that leather is an article to swear by. We all know different. We all know that within a little year the commercial world-the merchants, and brokers, and bankers-were panic-stricken; that, indeed, many of them were clean knocked off their commercial legs through an earthquake in the leather market. It was not the fault of leather-such an excuse was never attempted; neither did the staunch fabric fail because of a " heavy run " on it. It was simply a case of leather worked to death-of advantage being taken of leather-worship by certain folks whose only aim was, like Jeremy Diddler, to hoodwink the worshippers and fleece them of their money. After all, however, it was probably but a righteous judgment. People-even golden-eyed, mammon-hearted people-were fast sinking into leathern idiotsy. No business transaction was so sure as a transaction "with leather in it." A man might dabble in indigo, in sugar, in tallow, and, though he wore the wealth of a bank as a life-belt, sink and drown; but let him but dabble in leather, and he was as buoyant as a cork. You couldn't sink him if you tried. Did a man wish to negotiate a bill-a tremendous bill, say a ten-thousand pounder-it was cashed, and at a cheap rate, if the acceptor were only assured that there was " leather at the bottom of it." The number of bills about with leather soles at that period was wonderful, almost as wonderful-as the sequel proved-as the number of bill- discounters " sold" through trafficking in leather bills. Have men of leather yet recovered from the effects of the earthquake ? Consulting the Times lately, it was found that hides were "dull," an announcement certainly calculated to convey to the uninitiated in market slang that they had not yet recovered from the melancholy effects of the late crash. The leather-market report of the same date, however, revealed that "butts" were brisk and that " shoulders " were rising. To settle the anomaly a visit to the said market was resolved on. One would naturally suppose that the place set apart for public dealings in an article of such national importance would have been as well known as Billingsgate, and certainly as easy of access. Quite the contrary, however, is the case. You might beat about Bermondsey from morning till night, constantly led (by your nose) to imagine that it is just round the corner, and so imagining till the appearance in the streets of troops of dirty, lumbering, wooden-clouted tanners, carrying their tea-cans and wallets, and smoking their short pipes, announces that the business of the day is over. The better plan is to make inquiries as soon as you arrive in the neighbourhood. "Up the archway 'side of the warehouses at the end of the street," you are informed, but, on adopting the said direction, find the archway so very clean and quiet that you have your doubts whether you are not trespassing and will presently be asked your business there. Pursuing your way boldly, however, you presently come to a great square, and then discover that the huge range of building facing the street, and in which the archway is, is part of the leather stores. Along the whole face of the immense warehouses on their inner side -from floor to basement-loopholes and doorways present themselves; and, peeping in, here and there is seen such a wealth of tanned skins, in piles from floor to ceiling, in stacks from wall to wall, and in great rolls as tall as a bull is long, and as many of them as represent hundreds of thousands of bulls. At first sight one might safely wager that these sturdy pillars of leather were "butts;" but that they were or ever could be "brisk" seemed quite out of the question. Whether a slack day had been unluckily hit on for the visit, I don't know; but I must say that, as a British-as the British-leather market, the place was disappointing. Brisk, indeed! the head-quarters of the New River Water Company present a more lively appearance. There were the open warehouses, and there were the merchants, and there, leaning against the railings that enclosed the soddened, sad-looking green in the middle of the square, were three or four listless individuals, who might have been customers-might, indeed, have been well-known men of leather, who could by their joint weight send up the market or bring it down, exactly as it suited them. They might even have been engaged in one of these operations at the present time, or they might have been Fleet Street betting-men who had baffled the police and at last succeeded in finding a snug spot where their little game was not likely to be interrupted. So there they lounged, and about the warehouse-doors lounged the merchants -clerical-looking men, with sleek hats and speechless boots; and that was all there was to be seen. It seemed to me that the newspaper must be wrong, that "butts" were miserably dull instead of brisk, and that, if "shoulders" were rising at all, it could only be by way of a shrug at the flatness of the leather trade.
Through the leather market into the skin market. Here was another square, with a broad piazza flanking every side of it. Business was brisk enough here in all conscience. The square was chokeful of terrible-looking vehicles-terrible because not only the tires and fellows, but the very spokes of the wheels, were plastered with a red-brown substance, in which were matted scraps of hair and fragments of wool, dreadfully suggestive of slaughter and the shambles; as were the carters with their streaked hands, their speckled woollen leggings, and their oozy wooden shoes; as were the carters' whips, with the brass about their handles all lacquered red; as were the horses in the terrible carts-animals of high mettle and with sleek coats, who snorted and shook their heads as they sniffed the reek of the wet hides, much liking it.
Worming in and out among the carts was a swarm of busy men-buyers and sellers, and blue-smocked porters -while under the piazza were stacks of hides of Spanish, and Dutch, and English beasts, each to be distinguished by the length, or the breadth, or the width of the horns still attached to a bit of skull and hanging about the fronts of the stacks as though still vicious and daring you to approach. Besides these were heaps of innocent- looking calves' skins, and the skins of sheep and lambs, still so warm-looking and comfortable that one might imagine them new sheep-coats just come home, rather than cast-off garments, of no further use but to the fell- monger and the tanner. In addition to these there were several piles of hides that had been exported from foreign parts, and that had been salted that they might come to market wholesome.
But I wanted to learn something about the business of the market, who was responsible for its proper working, and how much work was done there, and I must, therefore, take especial note of the workers in this busy square. Prowling about the red hides, like so many jackals, were several little boys, in ragged blue smocks, and evidently coming of a butchering stock, but whose business (and they had a business, for every one of them carried a knife) at the skin market was not at all clear. Skipping about the roof of the piazza, and listening attentively to the price of hides as discussed below, was a gigantic raven, sleek and well-fed, but with a broken wing. What about the raven ? Nobody could tell me; nobody had time to discuss this or any other matter with me. So I came away, very ill-satisfied indeed !
So ill-satisfied that by ten of the market clock on the following morning I was once more in the hide market. Its aspect was marvellously different from that of yesterday. The square was blank and empty, save and except that some market official, with well-polished galligaskins, lounged about idly, closely attended by the broken- winged raven, who hopped sedately as the official walked, and when the latter paused so did the bird, nodding and winking, and evidentlyon thebest of terms withits reflected self in its friend's highly-polished leggings. Under the piazza was nothing but a few piles of skins uncleared from yesterday's sale, together with sundry hillocks composed of sheep's feet, and looking at a distance like some newly- invented material for paying roads. Something else, too, there was to be seen this morning under the piazza, and certainly it was the most inexplicable " something" the skin market had yet presented. I have before alluded to certain ragged little boys seen prowling through the market's crowd or dodging amongst the hide heaps with a manner that certainly betokened a sort of right to be there, but to what end was far from clear. Now, however, it was clear enough. There was the same ragged little flock, each with an ugly-stained knife in his hand, floundering knee-deep among the great moist skins, and turning them about and inside out, ever and anon darting at any hanging red scrap on the fleshy side and trimming it off. Nor was their attention solely confined to these finders of meat, for some of them might be seen manfully clutching at one of the defunct beast's great horns, while with their knives they cut the ears off. Nobody seemed to interfere with the children, not even the raven, whose perquisites market scraps of all sorts might reasonably be supposed to be. So far, indeed, from resenting the operations of the poor little grubbers as an infringement of his rights, he magnanimously hopped to a heap at which two boys were engaged, and, just pecking a morsel, passed on with a patronising glance, as though he rather admired their industry. In the midst of my perplexity there came sauntering up to where I stood an old fellow, evidently a porter in the market. Jerking his thumb in the direction the leggings and their admirer had taken, he observed- "Artful card that, Sir."
Not knowing whether the remark was intended to apply to the owner of the leggings or to the raven, I merely nodded by way of reply.
"The worstest prig out."
Again I nodded.
"Been about here, ah! Lord knows how long. Found a top of a shed hardly fledged." Feeling assured now that he was speaking of the raven, I inquired to whom it belonged.
"Belonged, eh?" replied the porter. "I'd like to catch any one belonging to him. He'd soon let 'em know. Why, bless you, when he was quite a little chap, a boy about here wanted to belong to him. They had a fight for it. That's how he got his wing broke."
The conversation started, I took the opportunity to inquire what it was the little boys were cutting off the hides, when he shortly replied-
"Meat; they gets leaf from the salesmen."
"Ah ! and what is it good for ? for dogs, I suppose ?"
"It's good for wittles," replied the porter, reproachfully. " They cuts off the little bits as is left on when the beast is skinned, likewise the ears; you may buy two-penny lots, and you may buy threepenny lots. In the hot weather you may buy penny lots. The hides it's cut off of is as fresh as a daisy-killed p'raps yesterday, or the day afore. I had threepen'orth of ears and bits on Sunday; and werry good it was."
I made inquiries respecting the heaps of sheep's feet, and was informed that they were going to the boilers: that there were only three "trotter-boilers " in London, and that the most famous of the trio was Jimmy Corderoy, of Wild's Rents, who it was that supplied every " trotter" seller in the metropolis. Jimmy Corderoy, according to my informant, employs a considerable staff of women, who, after the trotters have been scalded, take them in their laps and peel the hair off, preparatory to the final cooking process. The wholesale price of " trotters" is four a penny, but I was pleased to hear of Mr. Corderoy that he was "a genelman as wasn't particular to a trotter or so, and would quite as frequent throw in a few as not."
From trotters I endeavoured to lead my friend to the subject of skins, and all about them; but he declined to discuss the matter further than to assure me that " they went up and down, and down and up, like everything else," and with that bit of information I was obliged to leave him.