Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - The Costermonger's Free-and-Easy

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THE COSTERMONGERS' FREE-AND-EASY.

    EVERY class in London has its particular pleasures. The gay have their theatres - the philanthropic their Exeter Hall - the wealthy their "ancient concerts" - the costermongers what they term their sing-song.
    I once penetrated into one of these dens. It was situated in a very low neighbourhood, not far from a gigantic brewery, where you could not walk a yard scarcely without coming to a public house. The costermongers are a numerous race. Walk the poor neighbourhoods on a Saturday night, and hear the cries,-"Chestnuts all 'ot a penny a score," "Three a penny, Yarmouth bloaters," "Penny a lot fine russets, a penny a lot," "Now's your time, fine whelks, a penny a lot." Well, the itinerant vendors of these delicacies are costermongers. Or in the daytime see the long carts drawn by donkies loaded with greens and other vegetables, all announced to the public in stentorian lungs - these men are costermongers. [-201-] Listen to those boys calling, "Ho, ho, hi, hi,- what do you think of this here? a penny a bunch, a penny a bunch. Here's your turnips!" Those boys are costermongers' lads. It is seldom they last long as men. They soon lose their voice, and how they pick up a living then no one can tell. Their talk is peculiar. Mr Mayhew tells us their slang consists merely in pronouncing each word as if spelt backwards. "I say, Curly, will you do a top of reeb" (pot of beer)? one costermonger may say to another. "It s on doog, Whelkey, on doog" (no good, no good), the second may reply; "I've had a regular troseno (bad sort) to-day; I ye been doing dab (bad) with my tol (lot)-han't made a yennep (penny), s'elp me - ". "Why, I ye cleared a flatchenore (half a crown) a' ready." Master Whelkey will answer perhaps, "But kool the esilop (look at the police), kool him (look at him). Curly: Nommus (be off), I am going to do the tightner" (have my dinner). Would you know more of them, come with me.
    Just look at the people in this public-house. A more drunken, dissipated, wretched lot you never saw. There are one or two little tables in front of the bar and benches, and on these [-202-] benches are the most wretched men and women possible to imagine. They are drinking gin and smoking, and all have the appearance of confirmed sots. They are shoemakers in the neighbourhood, and these women with them are their wives. "Lor' bless you, sir," exclaims the landlord, "they spend all they has in drink. They live on a penny roll and a ha'porth of sprats or mussels, and they never buy any clothes, except once in three or four years, and then they get some second-hand rubbish." And here, when they are not at work, they sit spending their money. Are there none to save them ?- none to come here and pluck these brands from the burning? I know they are short-lived; I see in their pale, haggard, blotched, and bloated faces premature death. The first touch of illness will carry them off as rotten leaves fall in November; but ere this be the case, can you not reveal to them one glimpse of a truer and diviner life? But come up-stairs into this concert-room, where about a hundred costermongers and shoemakers are listening to the charms of song. Talk about the refining influence of music! it is not here you will find such to be the case. The men and women and lads sitting round these shabby-[-203-]looking tables have come here to drink, for that is their idea of enjoyment; and whilst we would not grudge them one particle of mirth, we cannot but regret that their standard of enjoyment should be so low. The landlord is in the chair, and a professional man presides at the piano. As to the songs, they are partly professional and partly by volunteers. I cannot say much for their character. The costermongers have not very strict notions of meum and tuum; they are not remarkable for keeping all the commandments; their reverence for the conventional ideas of decency and propriety is not very profound; their notions are not peculiarly polished or refined, nor is the language in which they are clothed, nor the mode in which they are uttered, such as would be recognised in Belgravia. Dickens makes Mrs General in "Little Dorrit" remark, "Society never forms opinions, and is never demonstrative." Well, the costermongers are the reverse of all this, and as the pots of heavy and the quarterns of juniper are freely quaffed, and the world and its cares are forgotten, and the company becomes hourly more noisy and hilarious, you will perceive the truth of my remarks. Anybody sings who likes; sometimes a [-204-] man, sometimes a female, volunteers a performance, and I am sorry to say it is not the girls who sing the most delicate songs. The burdens of these songs are what you might expect. In one you were recommended not to go courting in the kitchen when the master was at home, but, instead, to choose the "airey." One song, with a chorus, was devoted to the deeds of "those handsome men, the French Grenadiers." Another recommended beer as a remedy for low spirits; and thus the harmony of the evening is continued till twelve, when the landlord closes his establishment, to the great grief of the few who have any money left, who would only be too happy to keep it up all night. Let me say a word about costermonger literature. I see Mr Manby Smith calculates its pecuniary value at twelve thousand a year. It is wretched in every way, - in composition, in printing, in cuts, and paper. These street ballads - we are all familiar with them - are sold by a class of men called patterers, and are written so as to bear on the events of the day. Thus, at the last Lord Mayor's day we had a song sung in the streets, of which the following is a specimen:-
      [-205-] "Away they go, the high and low,
        Such glorious sights was never seen,
        But still the London Lord Mayor's show
        Is not as it has former been,
        When old Dick Whittington was mayor,
        And our forefathers had to go;
        They had not got no Peelers there,
        To guard great London's Lord Mayor's show."
And we are told in another verse that-
        "They will talk of Russia, France, and that,
        And mention how the money goes;
        Each man will eat a pect of sprats,
        That's the fashion at the Lord Mayor's show."
    Some of these songs are indecent; almost all of them have a morbid sympathy with criminals. Thus Redpath in the following lines is almost made a martyr to his benevolence and Christian life.
        "Alas! I am convicted, there a no one to blame-
        I suppose you all know Leopold Redpath is my name;
        I have one consolation, perhaps I ye more,
        All the days of my life I ne'er injured the poor.
      
"I procured for the widow and orphan their bread,
        The naked I clothed, and the hungry I fed;
        But still I am sentenced, you must understand,
        Because I had broken the laws of the land.
        "A last fend adieu to my heart-broken wife-
        Leopold Redpath, your husband, a transported for life;
        Providence will protect you, love, do not deplore,
        Since your husband never hurted or injured the poor
  
                             * * * *
      [-206-]"In London and Weybridge I in splendour did dwell,
  
     By the rich and the poor was respected right well;
  
     But now I m going - oh I where shall I say -
        A convict from England, oh! far, far away.
                                * * * * *
        "I might have lived happy with my virtuous wife,
        Kept away from temptation, from tumult and strife,
        I'd enough to support me in happiness to live,
        But I wanted something more poor people for to give.
"
    The street singers of the metropolis seized upon the Waterloo Bridge Tragedy as a fit subject for the exercise of their dismal strains. The following is printed verbatim, from an illustrated broad-sheet vended "at the charge of one halfpenny":-
        "Oh such a year for dreadful murders
            As this before was never seen;
        In England, Ireland, Britain over,
            Such horrid crimes has never been.
        But this which now has been discovered
            Very far exceeds the whole,
        The very thought makes men to shudder,
            How horrible for to unfold.
         "See and read in every paper
            This dreadful crime, this mystery,
        Worse, far worse, than James Greenacre's
            Is the London mystery.
        "His body it was cut to pieces-
            Oh how dreadful was his fate!
        Then placed in brine and hid in secret-
            Horrible for to relate.
        The head and limbs had been divided-
            Where parts was taken no one knows;
        In a carpet bag they packed the body,
            Over Waterloo bridge they did it throw.
        [-207-]"It is supposed that a female monster
            Her victim's body onward dragged,
        With no companion to assist her,
            All packed within a carpet bag.
        Justice determined is to take her,
            When without doubt she hi punished be,
        The atrocious female Greenacre
            Of the Waterloo Bridge Tragedy."
    The reader will see from these specimens how alien the costermonger race is in sympathy and life from the respectable and the well-to-do. Their songs are not ours, nor their aims nor conventional observances. What wonder is it that they leave their wretched cellars all dirt and darkness, and crowd round the public-house; or that at the costermongers' house of call-in the midst of an atmosphere of gin and tobacco-smoke, and under the influence of songs of very questionable merit-the poor lads receive the education which is to stamp their character and to teach them to grow up Ishmaelites, with their hands against every one, and every one's hand against them. Society will not educate its poor; wonder not then that they educate themselves, and that after a fashion not very desirable in the eyes of the friends of morality, of order, and of law.