XX. THE GLEANERS OF THE THAMES BANK.
A RAGGED, tailless coat, minus the sleeves, buttoned over
a shirtless back, a wonderful collection of materials and colours fashioned
somewhat to the shape of trousers, and descending as low as the knees, with a
pair of brown mud hose-said hose renewed at every tide, the new pair more often
than not put on over the old-completes the costume of the mud-lark. A cap or old
hat they have-we never saw a "lark " without one or the other-but the
use of which an awfully towzled shock of hair renders quite superfluous; the
article, in fact, is invariably used as a handy receptacle for the
"lots" (bones), rags, and any other offal that falls in their way in
their wanderings from the stock-basket or kettle, and saves the toil of dragging
the whole of their findings with them in the operation of collection.
How the larks came by their appellation is a mystery; certainly no resemblance can be traced between the habits of the mud-lark, looking as he does like some extremely dirty amphibious animal, and the glorious little songster of the cornfields. No field is ever visited by the lark of the mud species; the only green thing that ever crosses his vision is the would-be antiquarian, who sometimes haunts the scene of his labour to purchase for a trifle the treasures and curiosities found in his peregrinations. Old Roman coins (shankless brass buttons-those of old Trinity men's coats preferred, on account of their size and the puzzling device on one side), ancient pipe-bowls, &c., &c., form the staple articles of trade; it always happening that the wary lark has the " luck" to turn up something curious should a party looking at all like a buyer be in his vicinity.
We recollect a friend who happened to be walking the river bank near one of these treasure hunters, just in the nick of time to see him turn up a rare old Apostles' spoon, very massive, and still bearing faint traces of the Goldsmiths' mark. He eagerly secured it at the trifling sum of three and sixpence, and long cherished it as the gem of his cabinet, till, having occasion to visit a Sheffield warehouse, he found the same article could be bought, bran new, for two and threepence per dozen. Still these are not genuine "larks," but birds of prey-the hawks of the tribe-and may be detected at once, by their extremely knowing look and comparatively decent clothing, from the stolid, almost idiotic expression of countenance, always to be found in the bond fide mudlark. No matter the weather-blazing July or bleak December-there they are to be found as sure as the retreating tide, the same old faces, in the same squalid rags, from seven to seventy, raking their daily bread from the feculent shore of the Thames from Chelsea to the Pool. Gaunt, old-fashioned children, stalwart, brawny men, tottering old women, each may be seen daily battling with the rising river for a crust.
If there is a period when their position seems bearable, it is on a scorching August afternoon, when the pavement is hot to the tardy feet and the mind wanders to shady lanes and bathing places, when dusty errand-boys lean lazily over bridge parapets and envy the "larks" as they wade, leg high, in the cool river, and wish their fathers had 'prenticed them to watermen. But it is not August all the year round; and if those same boys should look down on to the shore a few months later (which they don't, for if they stand still on the bridge for a moment to look over, the north wind comes rushing up and cuts their ears off), in spite of the biting air-in spite of the masses of ice that are piled up here and there, reminding him of Esquimaux and Captain Ross-in spite of the frost-bitten craft that look like gigantic twelfth-cake ornaments-there are his envied friends of the summer, raking and poking, with never an extra rag to protect their crimson legs and arms. There they are, and there they will be, while tides rise and fall, and there is a pennyworth of anything to be found for the seeking on the river shore.
Great storms and sudden floods are the mud-larks' harvest times. When the usually black and sluggish "Fleet ditch," converted by the accumulated water in its long journey into a swift and roaring river, bursts its bounds, it crushes and carries away, in its fierce passage through the dens that abound in Clerkenwell, the floorings of cellars and underground dwellings, engulphing the squalid furniture of the wretched dwellers. Should it happen to be night-time, it is then may be seen the exciting spectacle of clamorous men and women in boats, surrounding the mouth of the great sewer, watching for the appearance of their goods as they emerge from over the top of the massive iron door that guards the entrance. Legless tables, broken chairs, fragments of bedsteads, butchers' blocks, and beams from underground slaughterhouses, the stock-in-trade of coopers and basket makers, tubs and trays, hampers, cradles, bowls, and baskets-all crushed and broken, and heaped in pell-mell confusion in the boiling river. " That's mine." " Murther ! stop that table, good luck to yer !" " There goes me drawers and all the childer's things, ochone ! " " Stop thief! " " Arter you with that there cheer," &c., &c., are the ejaculations heard on every side as the articles recognised shoot out into the open water, not always to be picked up by the legitimate owner. Something more awkward than ordinary will occasionally choke the way entirely, and then nothing will move till poked and eased with boat-hooks and long poles; then out they whirl again, and what with the darkness and confusion of tongues, a great part is lost altogether and gains the middle of the river, floating quietly down with the tide, and becoming easy prey to our friends the larks, as it settles ashore miles from its starting place.
Nor is this the only good this ill wind blows the mudlark; for weeks after such an event he will, when he has the chance (it is not allowed, and the iron gate has been put as a preventive), drop from the top of the gate into the slush below with all the unconcern of a ditch rat, and there he will wade, feeling his way in the pitchy darkness, groping with his feet, as he proceeds, for anything that may have sunk to the bottom or still rests in the tenacious mud, following the course of the ugly sewer as it winds under the principal thoroughfares of the City.
This sewer is all that remains of the clear, rapid brook that was once dignified with the appellation of the River Fleet, running between grassy banks and crossed by wooden bridges in its pleasant course from Highgate through Islington-through rural Clerkenwell-by the Clerks'-well and the Clerks'-green, near Field-lane, by the side of the Fleet-market, which extended the whole length of what is now known as Farringdon-street, and thus into the Thames. The many places named after it-Fleet-street, Fleet-market, Fleet-lane, and the old Fleet debtors' prison-will give an idea of its ancient importance. From various causes, its limits gradually narrowed until it became a mere sluggish ditch, occasionally overflowing its banks, thus being for many years a great source of disease to the citizens. It is now covered in from end to end; and it is only on the special occasions already mentioned that it bursts its bounds and asserts its claim still to the ancient title of river.
Mud-larks are of two kinds: the coal-finder and the bone-grubber. The coal-finder comes with his basket at each tide, and generally finds enough for a load; and as he can readily dispose of them in the very poor neighbourhoods, at the rate of sevenpence a load, he reduces his earnings, scanty though they be, to a kind of certainty. Not so the bone-grubber or "lot-picker," as he is technically known. The river bones, black as ebony, are quite useless for any other purpose than that of being ground for manure, and consequently are not worth more than half the article will fetch when fresh and containing fatty matter for the soap-maker; so that, although bones are his staple commodity, old rags, bits of iron, old rope, &c., in fact, anything that the marine store-keeper will buy, may be found in the "lot-grubber's" basket.
Their most favourite resorts are the neighbourhoods of shipbreakers, to pick up the old copper nails and bolts; these are among the most valuable of their findings. They now and then pick up small treasures-old coins, ancient relics, &c., especially if it happen to be a very low tide; but taking the average earnings of the bonegrubber, his business may be said to be the most precarious and wretched of any. Certainly their wants are few: their clothing costs nothing, and their lodgings are the dry arches of the bridges or in the foundation of new buildings. The arches under the Adelphi are a favourite resort, on account of the advantages offered by the dry floors of the carts and vans which are to be found there. Sometimes-but this is a treat-a little straw will be left in them. The luxury of a bed is as little dreamt of as combs and brushes or soap, and it is only when he happens (happily for his health) to " sweep " (steal from) a barge, a practice he is addicted to when opportunity serves, that he has the advantage for a time of prison comforts-a warm bath, clean shirt, clean clothes, and a clean bed. "He didn't so much mind all the fuss," a mud-lark lately informed us who had spent the previous six weeks in the salubrious atmosphere of Coldbath fields, " only when you come to pull off the warm linsey togs, and put on your own ragged duds before you come out, it's wery cold and wretched, wery !"
When the grubber's trade is slack on the banks, he will venture up the mouth of the open sewers; and this branch, though more lucrative than any other to an experienced hand, is attended with much difficulty and sometimes peril, as the following story, current among the fraternity as having happened to an old grubber some years ago, will testify.
It was a bleak January afternoon, and the grubber's searching having been unsatisfactory along the shore, he groped his way into a sewer that emptied itself between London-bridge and Blackfriars; now through such low-arched passages that he was obliged to go on his hands and knees, and now through places so narrow that his sides brushed the slime from the wall, all in the thick, murky darkness, and feeling with the toes of his naked feet the useful from the rubbish that lay at the bottom under the mud. It was bitter out on the river bank, and the warmth of the place induced him to stop longer than he should. Evening came on, and with it so dense a fog as to deprive him of the little light he had from the few gratings above, or, should he get near the outlet, from the light of the fires aboard the coal barges at the wharves. He lost his way; in vain, in his terror, he tried every opening he could feel up and down, bruising and tearing himself. He at last came to a standstill, breathless and exhausted; and to add to the horror of his position, he felt the semi-liquid mud moving about his legs, and he knew the tide was setting in. The place he was in was not more than four feet high, constraining him to keep in a stooping position, his hands resting on his knees. To move one way or another would have been useless, and if it would have helped him he could not have done it-the dreadful thought that, for aught he knew, the water would rise to the very roof, benumbed and paralysed him. Up rose the tide, slow but certain, till it was above his knees, and laved his hands; his legs shook under him, and he would undoubtedly have sunk down had not another enemy besides the rising river at that moment assailed him. A sudden squeal and a sharp pain at the back of his neck told him the rats had found him. A sudden writhe freed him from his tormentor; but as the water rose (it was now nigh up to his body) they, finding him helpless and defenceless, attacked him at all points. His ragged clothes were but a poor protection, and he had no way of killing them but rubbing their heads against the roof as they came squealing and scratching at his throat, and biting his hands through as he pulled them from him. But worse than all was their attacks on his naked legs and feet, compelling him to keep up a kind of dance, hopping from one leg to the other, and scraping them off as well as he was able.
He could distinctly hear the rumbling of the vehicles along the roads, and the church clocks strike out the hours, and had screamed himself hoarse in a vain endeavour to make himself heard. The place now became awfully close, and the stench dreadful, with the sewer water within a few inches of his face; he was very weak from loss of blood, and if his tormentors had ceased their sharp biting for one moment, down he would have sunk; as it was, pain kept him up.
At this moment a quarter chime rang from the church; in an instant he recollected the last hour they had struck, and he knew that in three minutes the water would subside-three minutes, and there was not more than nine inches of space between him and drowning. If he had been a mathematician he could have computed his chance of escape from the rate at which the water had rose during the last hour; but being only an uneducated " lark," he did his best to recollect a prayer or two that was stowed away in his memory years before, and so beguiled the long, long three minutes, and the great danger was over. With the turning tide the rats left him, and if he had not their biting to keep life in him, he had the strong hope of escape, which sustained him while the water fell, and the sewer was reduced to its ordinary low-water level, and then he sank to a sitting posture. He fainted clean away; and there he would have remained till the tide rose again, and he had become an easy prey for the monstrous rats, had not a friendly " lark," who had seen him enter and knew that he had not come out again, groped his way in with a light and dragged him out to the river side.
He had not been twenty yards from the entrance the whole time; he was frightfully maimed and bitten, and was taken to the hospital and cured of his wounds and his "larking" propensities for ever. He took to the crossing-sweeping-the mere mention of a drain (that is, a sewer) bringing his fearful night with the rats rather too vividly back to his memory.