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


    "MY dear," said I to my wife, dutifully saluting her as she adjusted the top button of my overcoat, "we will have muffins at tea this evening."
   " But, my love, there are no muffins to be had yet awhile," replied she.
   "My precious, there will be muffins this afternoon: listen for the tinkling of the bell just before dusk." She shook her head incredulously, and observed, "We shall see."
   We did see. As I deposited my umbrella and my life- preserver in the hall that evening I experienced the happy sensation that invariably attends the man the correctness of whose prognostication is proved. The air was fragrant of buttered muffins, and in another minute were revealed to me the luscious discs, blushing a dainty straw colour in the cheery firelight.
   "Did I not tell you so?"
   "Truly," replied my wife, regarding me as the head of a household likes to be regarded; "but how, in the name of goodness, you came to know that it would be so is more than I can imagine."
   "Your silly little head cannot be expected to know everything," I replied, with an offhand air of superiority, and seemingly unconscious of the glance of prideful admiration that was directed to me on account of this last proof of my profound wisdom. I let the discussion drop, and gave my attention to that which had originated it. Perhaps I ought to be ashamed to confess that my wife's simple and confiding nature had been imposed on. The fact is, I knew as well that the muffin "season" would commence that day as when the next Good Friday would fall. I know all about muffin boys, and men, and bells, and trays, and can give the names and addresses of the chief muffin merchants, east, west, north, and south. I attained my muffin knowledge in a purely accidental way. Possibly the reader may know nothing of the neighbourhood of Shoreditch, or his knowledge at most may be restricted to the highway part of it where the railway station is; there it will be useless for me to specify by name a certain narrow, tortuous, miry thoroughfare, with a rutty road and pathway for not more than two abreast, that leads from the main street to Curtain Road. Anyhow, that was the street, or lane, or whatever they call it, it was lately my lot to traverse, and there, keeping my eyes about me, as is my wont, I was struck by a somewhat singular announcement stuck in a shop-window. It was a mysterious-looking shop. The name over the door (which was close shut, and, as might be seen by the broad mud splashes that crossed the chink of opening, had remained so for several months) was Toomey, but of Toomey's trade there was not even a hint. You naturally turned for the required information to the contents of the shop, and there you saw a great stack of empty ginger-beer bottles; and for a moment your mind was at rest-only for a moment, however, for a second glance disclosed several flour barrels and sacks, that could not possibly have to do with the ginger-beer trade; added to this the written announcement, "The season commences on Tuesday," was clearly against the bottles, for, as common sense dictated, the call for the exhilarating beverage contained in them becomes fainter as the summer wanes, and at the present season of the year, with the wintry wind blowing and the rain falling, could be in no demand at all.
   Happily, in the midst of my perplexity, there sauntered past Mr. Toomey's premises two intelligent-looking but sparsely-dressed youths of the neighbourhood. Their industrious eyes at once found out the mysterious notification, and they halted simultaneously to discuss it.
   " Oh, 'mences on Toosday, do it," was the observation of one of them, as he screwed up his mouth and reflectively fingered the lobe of his left ear.
   "It do so, aperiently, William," said his companion, "which it is later by three weeks than last 'ear. How do it find you, William ? "
   "It don't find me werry well," responded William.
   "I sees my way to the apron and sleeves; the old 'ooman will look arter them-it's the bell as floors me. It's been away since the Darby, which the money as was got on it went, as you werry well know, to buy a close-brush. Let us see, June, July, August, Siptember, 'Tober, 'Vember" (this on his fingers), "that's thruppence, and thruppence as they lent on it, that's just a 'sprat' altogether. I wish I might get a sprat to spare atween this and Toosday."
   As the youth had mentioned two threepences as equivalent to a "sprat," it was pretty clear that the name of the familiar little fish was "Shoreditch" for sixpence-a sum the attainment of which by William within the prescribed period was so utterly hopeless as to be inexpressible in words. A few steps of a hornpipe, however, seemed to meet the case, for after its serious performance, William so far dismissed the subject as to be able to devote his entire attention to a sugar-tub that stood at a grocer's door adjacent.
   I was no longer at a loss to understand the import of the placard in the dingy window. Without doubt the "season" alluded to was that of muffins. What else could an apron and sleeves in connection with a bell point to? What the flour-sacks and barrels? But how was the opening of the season inaugurated ? Was there a procession of muffineers with green baize banners ? and did Mr. Toomey himself announce the momentous event by clang of brazen clapper ? Early in the afternoon of the Tuesday advertised I once more visited the spot where William had bewailed his want of a "sprat." Mr. Toomey's premises had altered wonderfully in appearance. The ginger-beer bottles had disappeared, and in their place-in the place, indeed, everything else had previously occupied-were piles and mounds of muffins and crumpets. It was not a lofty shop, but it was very long and tolerably wide; and yet, with the exception of a narrow passage, it was chokefull of the ware in question; while at the end was a stack of muffin-trays, all bright with fresh paint, and reaching from floor to ceiling, each one bearing on its front ledge the name of Toomey. There was one thing that rather astonished me: here were the goods meant without doubt to be buttered and consumed that very afternoon; there were the trays ready for conveying them away; but where were the vendors ? Presently, however, directed by a Babel of tongues, I discovered by the side of the muffin merchant's premises a spacious yard, and in the yard, and pressing about the door of what I suppose was the bakery, was a mob forty or fifty strong of decent-looking old men, and boys ranging in age from ten to sixteen, each attired in a snowy apron and sleeves, and bearing in his hands a bell and a piece of green baize. Presently an old fellow came leisurely towards the gate where I was standing, and observed, "What's the use of 'em scrouging? There's enough for all of us, I'll be bound, and they won't get served before three o'clock, that's a certain thing."
   "But why three o'clock ? " I inquired.
   "Blest if I know," replied the old fellow; "I only know it is so, and always was; if you was to go the round, both this and the t'other side of the water, you would find just this sort of game-this pushing, and driving, and scrouging to be first, going on at all the master muffin bakers."
   Then ensued a conversation between myself and the old muffin man, in which he informed me that the " season" was regulated by nothing more reliable than the whim or convenience of half a dozen muffin merchants, established in as many obscure streets in and about the metro- polis ;-that he, on whose premises we now stood, regarded the districts of Dalston, Islington, and Highbury as exclusively his;-that Belgravia and the aristocratic parts of Chelsea were supplied from the insalubrious vicinity of Strutton Ground;-that the seat of the southern muffin interest was Kent Street. My informant was particularly desirous that I should understand that these (he mentioned their names) were the leviathans of the business, and ruled the "season;" for, said he, "of course you, as a gentleman, don't want no telling that the season for a thing is the season, and that the crumpets as you buy of a 'fectioner in July ain't no more in season than is green peas at Christmas."
   "Pray, is it a profitable business?" I ventured to inquire.
   "Profitable enough to him, I'll wager," replied he, intimating who "him " was by a jerk of his thumb towards the muffin-shop; " I've known him empty twenty sacks of flour a week."
   "And how many muffins would that make ?"
   "How many muffins? " repeated the old man, slowly, and gazing mazily up the street and down the street, and up at the gables of the tall old-fashioned houses. " Goodness knows. You could never count 'em. Look here, your edication will find it out quicker than mine. How much batter-werry thin batter-will twenty sacks of flour make ?"
   The arithmetical problem thus suddenly put so fairly staggered me, that I could merely shake my head, and ejaculate "Ah !"
   "Werry well, then," continued he, "half a pint of batter makes six muffins. Now you've got it. Besides," continued he, sinking his voice confidentially, "he's got two seasons. He's got a ginger-beer season as costs, as I know from my lad as works here, 70 a year for corks and twine alone. Bless you, old Toomey's a warm man-never drinks nothing but brandy-and-water "
   Seeing that he expected it, I was much impressed with this last item of intelligence, and for a moment was overwhelmed with silent amazement.
   "About being profitable," he broke out again presently, " why, you know, fourpence out of a shilling ain't bad, and that's what we get. Mind you, he don't change your stale, and at that figure you can't expect it. But muffins have been frightful slack these three seasons. You see the butter's all against us."
   "The butter? I beg your pardon."
   "Oh, no offence, sir; none in the least. It ain't your fault, but it's none the less true, I assure you. When one's up t'other's down. You don't catch 'em running ekal together; no, not one season out of six. Nobody thinks of eating dry muffins, or muffins with marmalade. So, you see, with butter at fourteen pence a pound, it's good-bye muffins."
   Three o'clock just then struck out from the neighbouring churches, and, with a nod, the old muffin-man turned on his heel and hurried towards the now open door of the muffin bakery. In less than a quarter of an hour the bells gave tongue, and the welcome news that the muffin season had commenced was spread through the town.