Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


    IT is often my fate to ride home from Fleet-street by the last Islington omnibus. At about thirty minutes before midnight this vehicle arrives at the "Angel," and at that point it is my custom to alight. I need not mention that sometimes the night is fine, sometimes otherwise-very much otherwise-foggy, snowy, rainy, windy; so that the street lamps rattle and waver, and even the accustomed policeman holds his hat on; or so bitterly cold that the night cabmen on the ranks shut themselves within their carriages and have to be knocked up before they may be hired.
   Hail, blow, shine, or snow, however, there is one spectacle I rarely miss as I step from the omnibus, and that is a large hand-barrow laden high with some poles and some sailcloth, and some forms and a table, and a big wicker-basket, and a great bright tin boiler with a brass tap, while from the bows of the barrow there swings a cylindrical and perforated firegrate and a jolly, glowing coke-fire. A very decent-looking old fellow pushes at the shafts; and walking at his side, and lending a friendly hand at up-hill and stony places, is a tidy, buxom little woman, with a pippin face, snugly tucked up in a shawl and a woollen comforter.
   The nature of their avocation was evident-they were the proprietors of a night coffee-stall--a common enough nocturnal feature of the London highway; still, like most folks, I had been so accustomed to associate all that pertained to night life in London with the raffish, the sharkish, the blackguardly, and the idiotic, that to see such decent people embarked in it seemed not a little singular and worthy some little inquiry.
   So I kept the barrow in sight from under the lee of my umbrella (it was raining and blowing pretty hard) till it stopped near a piece of waste ground in front of a tavern, the gaslights pertaining to which were by this time all but extinguished, and the barmen busy hustling out into the rain and the mire the most pertinacious of their customers (who implored "another quartern" with all the eloquence of paupers at the door of a relieving overseer, and were, it is but just to add, as gruffly refused), and the potman was hoisting up the broad shutters. With marvellous expedition the old people relieved the barrow of its load, rigged up the tent, arranged the forms, lit the bright swinging lamp, perched the tin boiler on the fire, and spread the table with a white cloth; the table they quickly adorned with cups and saucers and a big loaf and a cake withdrawn from the basket; so that, within a quarter of an hour, the little cabin was built and invitingly furnished; and when the old lady had cut up a stack of bread and butter and another of cake, and the coffee- boiler began to steam, I experienced much less embarrassment than I had anticipated in crossing the road and requesting to be served with a cup of coffee.
   "Is there anything else I can do for you before I go, Sam ?" asked the old woman of her husband as I began to sip his really excellent mocha.
   " No, my dear, thanky; I shall be pretty comfortable now, I think," replied he, looking round the cabin critically; "good-night, missus, I shall be home soon after light."
   I believe he would have kissed her had I not been present; but he compromised the matter by adjusting the comforter about her neck in the most solicitous manner, and then she, returning his "Good-night," and bidding him take care of himself, toddled off.
   "Your wife does not stay here with you ?" I observed. I'd be werry sorry to see her," replied the proprietor; "it might be all right in general, which it is, even with the worst of them-the unfortnight ones-civil, bless you, sir, as can be; still, now and then we have a orkard customer, much more orkard than I should like a missus of mine to be a witness to. Besides, it's better for her to be abed than a breezin' and a blowin' out here."
   Having complimented my coffee-man on his good sense, and ordered another cup of coffee, which I likewise praised, we fell into a very interesting conversation, which, however, was unfortunately more than once interrupted by the occurrence of a customer, and, as coffee-stall customers were the topic of our conversation, it was convenient to drop the subject whenever one appeared. Still, those I had at present seen were of a most ordinary sort, as I took opportunity to remark to him.
   "Well, you see, it's early yet," replied he; "the curious sort don't drop in till about two, and then they keep dropping in till about five; then the reg'lar working trade begins, men and lads who are obliged to be at shop, and make a quarter before breakfast-time. Ah, I have often thought what a remarkable book it would make if I was to write down all the queer customers I serve."
   I, myself, could not help reflecting on the exceedingly remarkable volume my friend was capable of producing under the circumstances. Still, the notion, in a limited sense, was not without its attractions, and before I bade the coffee-man adieu I had arranged a little plan with him. With a pencil with which I provided him, and on some leaves torn from my pocket-book, he was, on the following night, to make note of his customers and what they were like, together with such brief comments on them as he thought necessary. In the course of the day following he was to leave his notes at my house. He brought them. Here they are:-
   "Half-past Eleven, at which time we began to put up the stall.-Had a customer (if you could call him such, poor fellow) waiting till it was ready. It was the blind man as you might have seen on the canal-bridge reading the New Testament, with cockled-up letters, by the touch of his fingers. He had only took threepence-halfpenny since tea, which was four o'clock, cold weather being bad for him, on account of people not stopping to listen. The missus was ready to go when he had finished his cup, so she see him across the road. 'Cept a cup to a night cabman, and ditto with cake to an unfortnight, and giving the policeman a light, nothing done till half-past twelve.
   "Half-past Twelve.-Never thought to serve two blind people in one night; but so it was. This time a little boy about six years old, with his father, who, although it ain't for me to talk about looks or to judge, was not a nice sort of person. He seemed out of sorts, and turned over the bread and butter for the thickest, in a way that made me speak about it. 'It ain't no more for sitting, I spose,' said he, taking up the boy and slamming him on to a form. 'Didn't I sing it properly, father?' presently asked the little chap. ' As proper as you'll ever sing it,' snapped out his father. Then turning to me, says he, 'You're jolly pious in this quarter, ain't you?' 'Not that I ever heard,' says I; 'what makes you ask?' 'Just this,' says he, 'you must know that my little boy, who is as blind as a stone, and likely to be a burden to me as long as he lives, has got a tidy voice, that is for the comic style-" Dark girl dressed in blue," "Mrs. Rummins's Ball,"-that sort of thing, you know; well, I takes him of nights, you know, to concert-rooms, 'specially where there is a bit of a platform and a piano where he can show off, you know. If the company likes to take pity and club round, it's optional. I don't ask 'em, not I; I sits down and smokes my pipe like another man. Well, we goes to-night to the "North Star" close here, and says I to the chairman, " Perhaps the company would like to hear a little blind boy sing a song." "I dessay they would," said he, and, after tapping the table, he announced it. Well, I 'spose because he was blind they thought he was going to strike up the Old Hundredth, or something in that line; but he didn't, he sang " Mrs. Rummins's Ball," and when he had done, instead of clapping and knocking as he deserved, they fell to hissing like steam, and in a minute a waiter comes, and says he, "There's somebody as wants you in the next street, sir." A pretty canting lot you must be about here !' and then he flung down the price of what he had had, and, jerking the blind boy off the form, walked off with him. Four cups to the night street-sweepers, and a goodish many spilt, if not drank, with five spoons bit in two for a wager, and a saucer broke, by three tipsy gents out of the Belvedere, who handsomely paid a shilling each for damages, making up the time till half-past one.
   " Half-past One.-More call for pickled cabbage (which, you must know, I was asked for till at last I kept) than anything else, by married men, and them as are single, and live in quiet lodgings, that they might go in something like sober. I've had as much as a shilling give me for a pull at the vinegar in the jar before now. At a little after two I sold my last pen'orth of pickles, and then begins to come in my very worst sort of customers: they who, in consequence of having something short of the price of a lodging, walk about till two, and then come and dribble and drabble their bits of ha'pence in coffee and bread and butter just as long as you can put up with 'em. Bless you, if I encouraged it, I shouldn't be able to get near the coffee-tap. They'll come in, trying to look as promiscuous as possible, and call for threeaporth of coffee, and sit down close to the fire; but I'm so used to 'em, that only by their lingering way of stirring it I know what their game is. If I don't take any notice of 'cm they are asleep in a jiffy, and when I wakes 'em they order a slice of bread and butter, and then they're off again. I wakes'em again, and again they order another slice, till I'm thankful when their last halfpenny is gone, and I can say, 'Now, sir, what can I serve you with ?' ' Nothing more, thanky.' ' Then, good morning, sir!' "But these lodgingless ones ain't all ' sirs,' and that's the worst of it, the other sort being much more frequent and harder to get rid of. I've had 'em come and say, ' Mister, I want to sit by your fire till the morning: don't turn me away-for God's sake don't!' So, for God's sake, I give 'em shelter, which it's what a man ought to do, no doubt, specially when he comes to consider that that very night may be their last in that unlucky lane to which there seems no turnin', and that, by the help of another day's seeking, they may find the reward for remaining honest against such heavy odds. "Half-past Two. Three unfortunates, two of which are old customers and sisters, for coffee and cake. ' Don't you wish he sold rum, Polly?' asked one. ' I wish he sold laudanum,' replied she, ' and was bound to make me swallow a quartern of it! I feel as though I was standing up to my knees in ice.' ' That's a very wrong wish of yours, aint it, miss ?' says I to her. 'You be hanged, you old fool !' said she; ' what do you know about it ? I'd like to see every man in London choking in a ditch with a stone round his neck.' Just then comes up two navigating-looking men, with bundles at their backs, and asks if they were on the right road for Uxbridge. ' You ain't going to Uxbridge now, are you?' asked the one that spoke about the laudanum. ' Right away, miss: the young 'uns and the missuses are there, where we left 'em to try for work at the new shore up here; but it's no go, and the sooner we gets back the better.' 'You might have rode home for eighteenpence,' said Polly. 'That's the identical sum we set out with, three days gone,' said the navvy, ruefully. ' Come in, men,' says Polly, ' and pitch into the bread and butter and coffee; I'll pay.' So in they came; but I'm proud to say that they used her like honest chaps, eating a tidy lot, certainly, but not half, no, nor a quarter, as much as they could; and then went off shaking hands with her, and thanking her, and steadfastly denying the sixpence she wanted to press on them. Cabman brought a drunken gentleman, who swore dreadfully because I had no new-laid eggs; said he was well known to Mr. Cox, of Finsbury, and would take care that the thing was looked into. Polly, the unfortnight, who was not yet gone, asked him to stand coffee; on which he threw what was in his cup all over her, and called for the police, who turned 'em all out, and the gentleman got into his cab, and was drove clear off without paying. The fire-escape man looked in, and I smoked a pipe with him, while one of the homeless ones, mentioned in half-past one, edged close to the fire and dozed for half-an-hour.
   "Half-past Three.-Being market morning, the drovers begin now to come along, and for the next hour, off and on, the stall is filled with them and their dogs, which makes it uncomfortable; and all the more so because they bring their bread with them, and like their coffee so very sweet. They're a dreadful rough lot, and their talk is something awful; but I darn't open mouth, or over would go my boiler in a twinkling. I'm thankful that I only have their company two mornings in the week. "Half-past Four.-Plenty of unfortnights, who have been a waitin' and a watchin' about for the drovers to go, now come in and spend their ha'pence, and take it in turns to warm themselves. If you was to peep in and see me behind my table, and the stall filled with a dozen of these customers, mostly pretty, and dressed out so gay, you might think me lucky; but if you was to hear what I hear in their talks one to the other of their poverty and wretchedness, their brutal usage, and their hatred of themselves and all the rest of the world, I think you would alter your opinion. So there they stay, taking it in turns to stand at the fire, till five o'clock strikes. At that hour they know, as I have before told you, that my regular morning working customers drop in, and so, without being told, they then clear out.
   "You might wish to know what sort of a night's work this makes. Well, I've sold three gallons of coffee, and I get two-and-threepence out of that, tenpence out of my bread and butter, and ninepence out of my cake. That's three-and-tenpence, and rather over than under the average; and I leave it to you to say if it's earned a bit too easy."