XXI. THE HALFPENNY BARBER.
ONE of the most prominent of my early recollections is of
a barber and a barber's shop. Who he was, or where his premises were situated, I
have now not the least idea; I only know that, at my earnest persuasion, my
uncle Peter (who was a seafaring man) took me with him one day when he went to
be shaved, and that, during the forty years I have since lived, nothing has made
such a terrible impression on me. I know I must have been very young at the
time, because I have a distinct recollection of uncle Peter lifting me over the
puddles, and purchasing on the route a broad sheet of bachelor's buttons in my
It was a queer little place, that barber's shop. Round the walls were fixed seats, and the floor was thickly strewn with red sand, which blinked and winked strangely in the ruddy glow of the charcoal in the brazier, over which was kept hot the shaving-water. In the centre of the room were two chairs, and about the legs of one of them, and matted in the red sand, were shreds of human hair-auburn, and black, and grey.
The shop was untenanted when we entered, but uncle Peter made himself pretty much at home, and seatedme on one of the side benches, while he himself took possession of the chair that didn't have the hair about its legs. Presently, and with startling abruptness, the barber made his entry by a side-door, of the existence of which I had not previously the least suspicion. He carried a towel in his hand, which trailed behind; and he wore two long combs in his hair, which stuck out like horns.
Suddenly going behind my uncle, he flung the towel round his neck, and secured it at the back. I began to be alarmed. Arming himself with a stout brush, the barber next advanced to the pot containing the bubbling water, turned his back for a moment, faced round again, and then dashed the brush, all reeking with scalding water, at my poor uncle's mouth, and among his whiskers, in the most savage way, till the poor fellow looked as though he were in a violent fit. I slipped from my seat, and advanced timidly to the spot where these horrors were being perpetrated, just in time-Heaven above us !-to see the horrid barber seize my relative by the nose with one hand, whilst in the other he flourished a gleaming, wedge-shaped knife ! He tilted my uncle's chin till his head fell back, and the peculiar little lump in his throat shone again!
Not a moment was to be lost. I flung myself on my knees, and offered the assassin the entire contents of the little pocket in my frock-twopence farthing, and four pieces of pencil-to spare my uncle's life. He laughed mockingly. I turned to my relative, and entreated him to exert himself-to burst his linen bonds and fly !
Nay, I volunteered, despite the dreadful wedge-shaped knife, to cling to the barber's legs, and hold him, so as to prevent pursuit. Finally, the barber yielded to my entreaty, and released uncle Peter, who wiped his mouth, and came out of the shop unshaven, as he had gone in. Oh, the rapture of finding ourselves safe in the open air again ! How I congratulated my uncle on his miraculous escape, and comforted him with my few remaining bachelor's buttons !
I have laughed over this myself many and many a time, but it was some years before I could overcome my deeply-rooted horror of a razor. It was with feelings quite unnatural to a young man that I first noted the appearance of down upon my face.
Twice a week, after I had made the alarming discovery, did I stealthily abstract the scissors from my sister's work-box, and, in the secrecy of my chamber, shear my tender countenance, till my strong young beard, arriving at maturity, rebelled against such feminine treatment, and insisted on being mown, and not snipped. Then, to stave off as long as possible the horrid wedge-backed thing that was hanging always before my eyes, I purchased pumice-stone, and "flatted" my visage till it looked as though it had been recently scalded. I bought new penknives, for the sake of their first edge, till one day my mother was surprised to find seventeen of those instruments stowed away in my hat-box. In fact, it was not till I had committed matrimony that I was shamed out of my dislike for a razor. By-the-bye, I fancy that, had my newly-made wife heard the key stealthily turn in the lock, and had then, by applying her eye to the keyhole, obtained a fair view of me, pale-faced and haggard-my hand nervously gripping the razor-handle- it's very likely she would have been tempted to knock at the door.
At the happy period above alluded to I was also cured of my prejudice against barbers-not that I had, through my early life, avoided them as I had the principal tool of their craft. I don't know how it was, unless I was guided by the same infatuation that leads people to skate on wafer-ice, and to crawl to the edge of dangerous chasms for the morbid pleasure of imagining what a pretty kettle of fish it would be if the brink were to give way and precipitate them to the bottom; but so it was. As a boy-nay, as a grown-up youth-I could never pass a barber's shop without feeling an itching to peep in. At that time o' day barbers used to extract teeth. There was a celebrated barber-dentist in Wormwood Street, Bishopsgate Street; and many a time, on Wednesday half-holidays, have I strolled to that neighbourhood and gazed on the decayed relics-molar and incisor - till the nerves of my own grinders have vibrated again.
My curiosity concerning barbers' shops, and things thereunto appertaining, has led to my discovering some rather curious facts connected with those individuals who exist by scraping a living from the faces of their fellow-creatures. I've talked with the man whose father it was who opened the first "three-halfpenny" shop in Lambeth Butts. I have had an opportunity of reading the handbill that was issued on that important occasion, and which, I've no doubt, created a considerable panic amongst the shavers of the period. The following is a copy of it:-
"Shaving! Shaving!! Shaving!!! Timothy Weevil begs to announce that, on Sunday, the seventeenth inst., he will, at his hair-dressing and shaving establishment, Lambeth Butts, reduce his price for shaving from two-pence to three-halfpence, and for hair-cutting from four-pence to threepence. J. W. warrants to do his work with his usual skill at the reduced prices, and hopes he shall be none the poorer for the reduction."
T. W., junior, confidently informed me that his father was no poorer through the adoption of his liberal measure, but that business increased to such an extent that it was one man's work to strop razors. But, alas! such piping times were not to last. Mr. Weevil had set the ball rolling, and in a short time another shaver pitched his tent in the Butts, shaving chins at three-halfpence each, and trusting to the public that he "mightn't be any poorer for the reduction."
But Timothy was an enterprising man, and not to be daunted by a little competition; so he caused to be printed, and at the end of his pole published, an announcement, that "On and after Sunday morning next, every customer of his should be presented with a glass of gin or rum."
That was a hit. Every drunkard in the neighbourhood, whom Sunday morning had hitherto found in the aggravating position of having money to buy gin, and no gin to be bought till after church-time, flocked to Weevil's. But the glass was very small, and the barber staunch to his resolution that for customers only should it be filled. Many, therefore, were the schemes to procure a double, or even a treble, dose. Never were men so whimsical as those drunken customers of Weevil's. They would just have it off the upper lip-never mind the lower-they thought about cultivating a 'perial. Customer gets his glass, pays his three-halfpence, and sits down a few minutes.
"Hi, mister! I likes a clean chin, arter all. Let's have another scrape."
Another glass, another three-halfpence, and another pause,
"Well, I d'know! S'pose you just tittywates my whiskers a bit! "
And so on; leaving little doubt that the public-houses had only to keep closed all day long for Mr. Weevil to make his fortune, and his customers to go bald as pumpkins.
Weevil, junior, reveals to me these little episodes in his father's life as we sit together in the little parlour behind his shop at Wapping Wall. The reason I am there, and the reason the poor fellow is so obligingly communicative, is that, that same morning, I had had the good fortune to pass his premises just as a broker's man was unscrewing the tricoloured arm from his door-post. I had the pleasure of standing over him while he screwed it on again.
My eyes, wandering from the table whereon still lay the discharged "distraint for rent," encountered the words "Shaving One Halfpenny," painted in big red letters, the full length of his shop-window. I thought I had discovered a solution to the whole business. Here was a man who had ruined himself through working at a rate that could not possibly be remunerative. I told him so.
" Lord bless you, sir," replied he, " shaving for a half-penny ain't the cause of my misfortune-the halfpenny pays well enough. Why, I know a man who gave three hundred pounds for a halfpenny business, in Whitecross Street, St. Luke's, and who don't repent of his bargain either. It ain't the price, nor it ain't the lack of business -it's the sort of customers that ruins me."
I was at a loss to know what difference this would make. Was not one chin as good to operate on as another ?
" Certainly not," replied he. " You see, sir, this neighbourhood is just made up of coalheavers and whippers, and they are the very worst kind of men to shave. In the first place, taking the throat and the big chin, you have got about three times the ground to go over to what you have on an ordinary face; and, in the second, the grit and coal-dust they carry in their beards never fails to take the edge clean off a razor at one using. I' 'most as soon go and shave a man sick a-bed as a coal-whipper."
I remarked that shaving a sick man in his bed must be a very distasteful job-one of the worst that ever fell in his way.
"With the exception of shaving a dead man ! " said he, shaking his head gravely. "Ah! nobody knows what that is but those who have tried it. The beard seems to have gone dead, too-it loses its crispness, and goes as soft and as tough as whipcord. It falls before the edge of the razor, and you glide over it without cutting a hair. The coldness is the worst, though-it ain't the coldness of ice, nor of anything but what it is. To find that creeping into your fingers and up your arms !-ugh " The barber took a turn or two across the little parlour, whistling. After half an hour's further conversation with him (in the course of which he munificently offered to cut and curl me gratis, to the end of my days), I took my leave of the face-reaper, understanding that he intended to shift his quarters to a less stony soil.
I was determined to see for myself if it were possible for a man to make his fortune by shaving his fellow-men at a halfpenny each; so, having carefully treasured the address of him whom my friend of Wapping Wall asserted to be the most flourishing barber in London, I set out on Saturday evening-as likely to be the busiest time in the week-and about six o'clock found myself in a dismal little street in Walworth, and ascending the well-worn steps of "Flight's Halfpenny Shaving-shop."
As soon as I put my head inside the door (which was kept on the swing by a strap), I had misgivings as to the truth of the information derived from Wapping Wall. It was such a little place! Evidently it had, at one time, been an ordinary front-parlour. The sitting accommodation consisted of three forms, four chairs, and the three bottom stairs of a flight that led to an upper apartment: certainly not more than twenty persons could possibly have found seats.
The secret, however, was that they were always occupied. I sat there for at least an hour (under pretence of waiting for a party), and I can safely say that no one seat was ever empty for the space of half a minute.
Mr. Flight's establishment consisted of himself, two young men, and an apprentice-boy. Only one of the two young men, however, was available for shaving purposes; the other one undertook the hair-cutting, and passed from poll to poll with amazing rapidity. About the centre of the room were placed five chairs, all in a row; and the labour of shaving was divided amongst Mr. Flight and his three helpers in the following very methodical manner.
As soon as one of the five chairs became vacant, and a fresh customer sat down, the young man, leaving for an instant his occupation of stropping, rushed forward, pinned a cloth round the neck of the unshaven one, and immediately returned to his corner. Then the "soapboy" (who has just finished lathering the last man) takes him in hand.
Armed with a dirty soap-bowl and a big brush, he crosses over to the hob, and plunges the brush into an indescribable brew that simmers there in a saucepan. Then, having dabbed it (the brush) two or three times on the soap, he commences scrubbing away with it at the man's face, much as though it had been dirty wainscot, and he was under orders to renovate the paint. Backwards and forwards, and round and round, darting fiercely at his victim's nostrils, twirling amongst his whiskers, changing the brush deftly from the right hand to the left, working about the man's lips and chin with his fingers, and finishing off by scooping the unnecessary suds from between the man's lips with his thumb-nail-it was certainly a nasty and a most barbarous exhibition.
It seemed to be the boy's special business to keep the individual whom Mr. Flight intended to operate on next "moist" till he was wanted; and, being a sharp boy, he generally managed to keep at least two in reserve-so that Mr. Flight always found a customer ready napkined and lathered to his hand. In nine strokes Mr. Flight finished him. During the time I sat there, I counted at the rate of thirteen shaven faces pass out every ten minutes !