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

VII. THE HORSE REPOSITORY.

   MY grandfather being a man of small means, and being desirous of purchasing for pleasure and business purposes a horse, sound of wind and limb, and yet not of particularly noble blood, and of a value so low that the highly-bred hammer of Tattersall could not possibly descend to "knock it down," experienced considerable difficulty in suiting himself. He might wait for the annual horse fair at Barnet; but to select a decent beast from among the best of unkempt quadrupedal savages assembled, required an amount of subtle calculation and sagacity peculiar to purchasers of growing crops and cargoes of cocoanuts in the husks. There was Smithfield, and had he been a butcher he would not have had the least hesitation in proceeding there alone to buy an ox or a score of sheep; but, had any friend suggested that he should visit Smithfield's chartered and officially-recognised weekly horse sale, the said friend would have been regarded as a simpleton unacquainted with metropolitan pitfalls, or as a wicked, practical joker.
   There were several other courses open to my grandfather, all more or less objectionable; and among the latter the "auction-yard " of Messrs. Betty and Martingale, and Mr. Spavinger's weekly horse sale. Mr. Spavinger's premises were not splendid; they were not even commodious, nor particularly clean. The entrance was a low archway, about the mouth of which lounged and leant any number of seedy, tight-breeched blackguards-shrewd villains, most of them with a knowledge of horseflesh almost amounting to inspiration, and astute readers of the human countenance, enabling them at a glance to tell the simple visitor from the knowing, and so to shape their behaviour. At the same time, I am ready to believe that, except when brought in contact with equine nature, these unlucky dogs are as honest as the majority of us. They are like the terrier-if that respectable dog will pardon me-who is of peaceable disposition, just in his dealings with his own species, and all other animals except the rat. Only show him a rat, and he at once abandons his pacific demeanour and becomes a furious, mouthing little savage, anxious only to rend and tear and make havoc. So it would seem to be with certain of the human species, that, being from their childhood thrown into horse society, and having ample opportunities of observing that, compared with the intelligence of the brute, their own low, loose minds appear to little advantage, gradually conceive a violent hatred to Equus, and resolve to devote their entire lives to persecuting it, and to convincing the arrogant beast which is master. These worthies are like the terrier, inasmuch as they eat and drink with their fellows, and that without sponging or filching the bread or the beer: if they have wives and little children, they will dutifully carry home such of their earnings as are left from their spendings; they will even turn the mangle should their wives possess such an instrument; or, at least, nurse the baby while she turns it. So far are they docile, harmless creatures; but show them a horse-that is, a horse whose owner wishes to dispose of him-let them but catch scent of one such, and his disquietude will begin. This peculiar species of individual will nose about here and there till he discovers it, when he will eagerly offer his services to the seller-he " knows a gen'leman as wants jist sich a mare," if you'll allow him to take it round to the gentleman's stables; he will not take no for answer-he has suggestions to make concerning the animal's appearance, and hints the difference a little "touching-up" would make; all the while fussing about his four-legged enemy, pulling open its eyelids and staring impudently into its eyes, wrenching its jaws asunder and examining its teeth, poking its withers, and investigating its hoofs. Decline his services flatly as you may, an uncontrollable itching, a right of further handling of the beast, possesses him; and though he be absolutely driven away, there presently he is again, hovering about your quadruped like a baffled bobfly.
   To return, however, to Mr. Spavinger's horse auction. Penetrating the gloomy archway, you come to a sort of open court, paved with those ingenious instruments of torture " cobble " stones, which, when trod, yielded with an unpleasant and inodorous oozing. Flanking one side of the auction-yard was a row of squalid stables, and flanking the other side was a double or triple row of such carriages, and carts, and trucks, as were ordered for the day's sale. The company, with a praiseworthy endeavour to avoid the slushy pavement, mounted the various vehicles, while Mr. Spavinger, seated in front of an old cab, rested the catalogue of the goods against the dash-iron, and knocked them on the driving-box; while his clerks sat within, and took the purchase-money and gave receipts through the window.
   Bad enough as all this was, it was still possiblethat fair dealing might have come out of it had the auctioneer been an honest man and the company bond fide buyers and sellers. This, however, was far from being the case. That ancient and mysterious institution known as "knocking-out" held freer sway at horse and carriage auctions than any other, and before it the sale became a sham and the bidding the merest waste of time. "Knocking-out" at carriage and horse sales of the old school prevails to this day. There is a rough, ignorant man residing in a squalid street in the London Road, Southwark, who may be regarded as one of the chiefs of the knockers-out. He, however, does more in the vehicle and harness than in the horse branch of the business. His experience of carriages commenced with costermongers' barrows. He builds them and lets them out at eighteenpence a-week, and at certain seasons of the year has as many as seventy so engaged. Not only does he let the barrows, he also stocks them with any sort of fruit with which the market happens to be glutted. Should contrary winds so retard the ships that bring cargoes of pineapples that the fruit is damaged before it reaches the consignee, the barrow-letter is the first at the Monument Yard sale, ready to buy damaged pines by the cartload to the extent of a hundred pounds' worth. The same with oranges and cherries. This fruit is farmed to the costermongers on the simple plan of " thirds "-that is, a fixed price is set, and the stock weighed or counted out to the vender before he starts in the morning, and again when he returns at night, the produce being apportioned, two- thirds to the costermonger and a third to the proprietor of the fruit. During a good season the barrow-master's troop will easily take among them 30 a day; out of this he takes ten, besides the rent of the barrows and the original profit on his wholesale purchase of the pineapples or cherries.
   Lucrative as this " game " must be, it is inferior to that of "knocking-out," which gives much less trouble, is accompanied by no risks, and continues summer and winter. It is conducted as follows:-The before-mentioned barrow-letter and a few choice companions meet at Mr. Spavinger's on a sale day. There are cabs, and phaetons, and horses and harness to be sold; and the merry little troop of " knockers-out," although they have not the slightest intention of retaining a single article, intend purchasing at least half the goods presently to be submitted to public competition. The value of the goods on which the knockers-out have set their heart, say, is five hundred pounds; the knockers-out, among them, are not prepared with as many shillings. That, however, is not of the slightest consequence. If Mr. Spavinger and the knockers-out are friends, so much the better; if not, they "work" before his very eyes, and in defiance of him; they have done it a hundred times and will do it again. They have done it so many times that the habitual resorters to the horse and carriage auction know them, and at the same time know that there is not the slightest chance of buying a single article " wanted " by the banded "knockers-out." They may bid if they please, but the confederates will bid against them-will bid and buy a horse for twenty pounds worth ten. So the obstinate, honest bidder may compel the rascals to pay pretty dear for their whistle, bearing in mind one little circumstance-that when the obstinate bidding has gone five pounds further than prudence dictates, the knocker-out may suddenly pause, and allow the honest bidder the privilege of taking the disputed "lot" at half as much again as it is worth.
   The key to the knocker-out's success is a fear on the part of the legitimate buyer that he may be suddenly left in the lurch as above described. The only way, therefore, to obtain what he wants at a moderate rate is for him to consult the conspirators before the sale begins. Says the buyer to one of the knockers-out, "Mr. Blinkum, I want lot 21, sorrel mare."
   "You can't have her," replies Mr. Blinkum; "I've got her down " (whether he has or no, of course).
   "I'm going as high as 17 for her," persists the buyer.
   "Well," replies Mr. Blinkum, well knowing that she may be bought by the gang for 14, "if she is knocked down to me, you shall have her at that price." So the game goes on till the sale is over, and then the gang adjourn to the nearest tavern and the "knocking- out" commences. Say there are six in the gang. Each one produces his catalogue, with the articles knocked down to him notified. The case of Mr. Blinkum and the sorrel mare, however, will illustrate the whole proceeding.
   "Lot 21-anybody want it? " asks Mr. B. Nobody wants it. One of the clique, however, remarks that, since it was knocked down at 13, Mr. B. could afford to stump up handsomely for his bargain.
   "I'll give you a crown each to go out" (out of the transaction), remarks Mr. B.
   "I shan't take it," observes a conspirator.
   "Then take the mare, and give us a crown each,' retorts Mr. B., " with a pound to me for buying her." This, however, does not meet the objector's views, and he finally agrees, as do the others, to "knock-out" on consideration of receiving seven-and-sixpence, which Mr. B. pays, and has still left a profit of over two pounds on his bargain with the private buyer. In all probability the gang have at least twenty lots to discuss, resulting in the division of a very pretty spoil.
   Thus it is that so universally is that near relative of the rogue family, Jeremy Diddler, supposed to be the patron saint of the genus Equus and all that pertains thereto, that he must have been a bold man who first ventured to embark in the horse-dealing business with the steady determination to elevate it to at least the ordinary standard of commercial respectability, to establish a public auction differing from that of Messrs. Betty and Martingale, and Mr. Spavinger, inasmuch as a man utterly unknowing in equine matters might venture in and buy a horse or a carriage with the certainty that he will not be chaffed by stable ruffians or fleeced by the common horse-sale shark; and that, whatever he may pay for his nag, ho will be made thoroughly acquainted with its' faults and failings, if it have any-a repository where the seller may with confidence bestow his property and regard its careful keeping as guaranteed. No little perseverance was required to convince the public that the St. Martin's Lane Repository was only superior to old Mr. Spavinger's yard as the gambling hells of the Haymarket are superior to the skittle-ground attached to the " Pig and Whistle; " while the host of "knockers-out" and "chaunters" and " copers," hearing of the scheme, set it down as the old dodge with a new cloak, and imagined that, by washing their faces and wearing white neckcloths, they could entirely meet the new rules. They have, however, discovered their mistake long ago, and gone back to Mr. Spavinger's, while the public are brought to understand that the purchase of a horse does not necessarily involve meddling either with edged tools or foul ones, and that by the exorcise of ordinary discrimination the first essential to equestrianism may be obtained as easily as a new coat or a pound of cigars.