Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - To the "Derby" Afoot

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THE arrival of the tag- rag contingent of the immense multitude of pleasure and profit seekers, who on Derby Day flock to Epsom Downs, may not be an imposing spectacle, but it has its points of interest, and the experienced seeker may pick up material for pen pictures at no other time or place obtainable. I walked out from Epsom towards London on Tuesday night, making for a point of the road which is a favourite halting-place with those who tramp from the metropolis by way of Croydon and Carshalton.
    The spot in question is a steep bank by the roadside, convenient for lying or sitting on. I found the usual company there assembled, and by the bright moonlight counted more than fifty tired tramps, half the number being mere boys, who had footed it thus far to the Tom Tiddler's ground of their hopes, and who for the most part were holding doleful inquisition on their old boots, which were ground down to be worse than no boots at all on the flinty road. There were but a few hilarous "roughs" in the company, but the majority were downcast and dejected.
    The roughs were regaling on peas, of all things in the world, and apparently finding an appetising sauce for the husky provender, in the pastime of pelting an exasperated old man, who sat at some distance from them - except that now and again, when goaded beyond endurance, he scrambled to his [-104-] feet and made a rush at them, with what in the moonlight, looked like a bundle of bright knife blades in his hand, but which turned out to be innocent tin pea-shooters. The rascals had, it seemed, served the old fellow a shabby trick. As ammunition for his shooters he carried on his back in a bag half a peck of peas, and pretending to hold him in friendly conversation, they had cut a slit in the bag, and caught its contents by double handfuls until his unaccountably lightened load made the old man suspect that something was amiss. His shooters were no good without peas, and all he had left was a bare quart.
    Another doleful case was that of two boys, whose faces and hands were blackened and who it seemed represented two-thirds of an original musical partnership consisting of a concertina and a tin whistle. The other performer carried no instrument, but he was a pretty jig-dancer, and the bold design was to proceed to Epsom Downs on the grand day and come away at night with at least a pound each in their pockets. But the concertina had basely turned tail and severed his connection with the company. He had remained staunch as far as Beddington, and there complaining of a lameness he had sold his instrument to a cockshy man for tenpence, and returned to London by the last train. To make matters worse, the unfortunate jig-dancer's boots had served him so cruelly that his toes were no better than a double row of blisters, and dancing was quite out of the question. Plucky to the last, the original piper, whose feet remained sound and who could dance a bit himself; was giving his sore-footed friend a lesson in jig-music, so that they might make it out somehow between them, though it was evident that the minds of both boys were filled with gloomy forebodings for the result.
    It is not a little remarkable that men whose sole capital and stock- in-trade consists of unbounded impudence and low cunning, combined with a shrewd insight - the result of studied experience-into the weak side of human nature, should, under certain conditions, prove to be themselves as credulous and as foolishly trusting as they could desire to see the silliest pigeon that ever fell all ready for plucking into an artful snare.
    Earlier in the day, in the neighbourhood of the Downs, I had come on a gipsy family temporarily encamped under a hedge and engaged in a fierce quarrel. There were several woman present-evidently of the fortune-telling tribe, including one old enough to be at least a great grandmother-a hideously ugly beldame, whose face was like a rude carving in nil- polished mahogany, and whose back was so bent that, when she looked up, it seemed as though she must lose her balance and topple over. The object of her wrath was a young fellow, her grandson, a shock-headed, poaching looking rascal, nearly six feet in height and brawny in proportion. I know not how the difficulty began; but, from what I could understand, the old lady had just before laid her "ban" on him, and if ever there was a frightened and abject looking wretch it was the grandson.
    Not caring to appear too curious in a family affair of such delicacy, I cannot tell how it ended, but, so far as I saw of it, the broad brown ruffian was slouching apart from his friends, pale and haggard, and wiping his eyes with the ragged sleeve of his fustian jacket, while [-105-] the younger women had gathered round the harridan and were imploring her, though seemingly in vain, to recall the curse with which she had blighted her kinsman. And yet, I suppose, had any one seriously suggested to the young fellow that it would be good for him to have his fortune told, even his mouth would not have been wide enough to adequately grin his derision of the comical proposition.
    Again, later on in the evening, in the midst of a mob assembled outside the "Spread Eagle" in the town, there was a young fellow apparently getting in a fair harvest of shillings in exchange for nothing more than an envelope containing a bit of paper with something written on it. He did not pretend that there was any better value for the money except that the scrap of writing revealed a full, true, and particular "tip" for every race that would appear on the Derby c'rect card. He was a coarse and swaggering impostor, and swore he didn't care whether those round him bought his tips or let them alone. He merely begged to remind them that they had been offered the same chance last year and the year before as well, and how that he had put scores of pounds in the pockets of those who had faith in him, while those who had grudged their shilling, had lost their luck in consequence.
    So, there was his tip once more - take it or leave it. Some then took it and paid for it, half a dozen at least in the short time I stood looking on, and it needed no second glance at them to be made aware that the buyers were all betting men. They laughed and were laughed at, as they parted with their shillings, and affected to treat the matter as a joke, but how much in earnest they were was betrayed by the opportunity they each took when they thought no one was looking, to open the envelope and scan what was inside. Aware of the instances I have narrated, I was not prepared to learn that, wide-awake as weasles though a certain class of the professional betting fraternity are admitted to be, they should be so simple as to accept information prophetic of profit from the beaks of linnets and canaries. " A little bird whispered it to me" is a familiar nursery phrase, but who would expect to find serious belief in a tiny feathered intelligencer amongst hard-headed men, who have a living to gain by their own wit, coupled with a lack of it in others. Such things are, however.
    On the same grassy bank on which I made the acquaintance of the luckless three young minstrels and the poor man who had been so pitilessly deprived of his peas, was some one I could not well make out, but who was sitting down nursing what I took for the Epsom pilgrim's most common burden, a shoe-blacking box. Presently, however, I heard a twittering sound, and a tramp near at hand who had a dog with him exclaimed,
    "Beggared if there ain't rats about here somewheres. Find 'em ole gal."
    "Get out you fool," said somebody else; "It's Bossymecue's fortune-tellin' birds wot made that squeaky row, ain't it, Bossy?"
    "Bossy" replied that it was so, and further said that they could't sleep because they were hungry.
    Further still, that, blow him, if they mightn't go on squeaking till they "bust," rather than they should have so much as a hemp-[-106-]seed before they earned it. He delivered himself so emphatically that my inclination to ascertain what he meant by it was irresistible. Mr. Bossymecue (if that were his proper name) was not at all shy in satisfying my curiosity; possibly he could no more make out my figure exactly than I could make out his, and he mistook me for a person "on the road like himself."
    "How do I mean?" said Mr. B. "Well, I don't mind telling you straight, cos mine's a fake you can't come up to or imitate, whoever you are. You'd never have the patience to teach the little creatures; not that they want any hextry teaching when I bring 'em out on the betting lay, cos, o' course, they'd as soon pick one bit o' paper as another. It don't matter to a linnet, don't you know, whether he tells your fortune or gives you the tip for the Derby."
    "I should suppose not," I remarked, "but I don't quite see how he's able to do one or the other."
    "Well, I'd jolly soon show you if it was daylight. But it don't matter. You may take my word for it. There are birds in this cage that tells gals their fortunes in this way. They drops a penny in the slit in the top, which rings a bell, then one of 'em - they knows their names when I call on 'em - lifts up the lid of a box, and he brings out a bit of folded paper wot's got something printed on; that's the fortune. He gets a few seeds for doing it if he's smart over it, and there you see is the advantage of keeping 'em hungry. Well, last year, for the first time I tried 'em on the new dodge; it was 'appy idea, and it worked well - 'cept at last, which I'll tell you about presen'ly. I said to myself; I ses, 'If gals' fortunes, why not men's fortunes? Why not make 'em racing prophets able to give the tip for the Epsom races?' It was all as one you see, only stead of dropping a penny through the slit they had to drop a shilling. It paid like a 'ouse a-fire. I made my pitch not far from the Grand Stand on the Tuesday last year,. and I did well; part owing to the novelty, and part because it don't matter where a 'tip' comes from people will grab at it. Well, I had one customer - cuss him, I've swore more about him than ever I swore a teachin' my birds - he came a Tuesday, and he came a Derby Day; but he came with more bounce and flourish till it came to his dropping a half-crown in at the slit stead of a tanner. He was winning 'olesale. The tips my birds giv him came off right, time after time, for the two days and he would have made a 'atful of money. But he wouldn't leave it off. He came again on Thursday. He was waiting for me a hour before I got up the hill. But the linnet's tip for the first race came off wrong, and so did the next, and so did all of 'em. 'Try one of the canaries,' I ses to him when at last he got in a passion. 'No,' he ses, 'I'll stick to the linnet till I'm broke, and if I am let him look out, and you too. Look out both of you, if it comes to that,' he says, laughing savage like. Well, he lost all through Thursday, and he come again on Friday - the Oaks day. He had come down again from his half-crowns to his sixpences by this time. But he stuck to the linnet though he swore at it dreadful. But his bad luck didn't change. He was dead out every tip. 'That's the last,' when he came again after he'd lost on the Oaks. 'Your linnet would give me some luck this time, if he knew what [-107-] was good for himself.' Well, he never came back after that. And a jolly good job, I ses to myself; I've had enough of you. But he hadn't had enough of me. It were the end of the race week, and I went by rail to Croydon with my birds meaning to stay there with a friend and go to London next day. But the willan was follerin me. I hadn't got a hundred yards from the station all in the dark when all on a sudden my bird cage was snatched from under my arm, and I was sent spinning into the road, and before I could recover myself there he was, with my bird box on the ground, jumping on it. He jumped it flat with the birds inside of it - the linnet wot he'd set his spite against, and a goldfinch, as clever a little feller as ever was trained, and three canaries. He warn't so big as me, but he was that ravin' mad to look at that, 'pon my soul, I daren't tackle him. He jumped on the cage till, if there'd been a bluebottle inside of it, it would have been smashed, and then he give the wreck of it a kick that sent it flying, and he bolted off in the dark without sayin' a word. It was pounds out o' my pocket, for it takes a good couple o' months sticking to 'em to teach a bird to be anything like clever. But if I have as good luck this year as last, I shall make up for it."
    "Shall you call it good luck," I asked him, "to meet the same customer again?"
    "It'll cost me ten bob, but I'll pay it cheerful if I come across him. I've spoke to a fightin' man that comes from the same part of Whitechapel as wot I do, and he'll do the job for ten bob."
    "What job will he do?"
    "Why, he'll lay wait for my gentleman, and he'll have him down and he'll jump on him, just like he did on my bird box. That'll bring him to his senses, I reckon."
    It was past eleven o'clock ere the majority of those I had discovered resting on the bank, including the performing bird man,. and piper, and his partner, took the road again for Epsom. There never was a more beautiful night.. The moon shone in a dark blue sky, and the air was as warm as in August; but I never knew the- roads to be whiter, or more as though flour had fallen, as snow falls, till the deposit was more than shoe deep. It was so deep and so soft, and the boots of the tramps were as a rule so slipperish as regards level flatness of the soles and heels, that scarcely a footfall was heard.
    Limp and limping, heads down and high shouldered, powdered white from head to foot, they dotted the straight road, with the moonlight shining down on them, and with the boundary hedge showing sharp and black on either side in a ghostly sort of way, that somehow suggested the quaint idea of spirits in purgatory in the performance of some painful act of penance. It was but a mile and a half to Epsom town to Ewell, according to the milestone; but milestones to the dead-beat and feet-blistered are unfeeling mockeries. It seemed that we had walked already two miles at least from the last indicator, for at this point our pace was slow and grew each minute slower, when we came to another at the top of a lane, a little way down which a black windmill stood, with simply Ewell on one side of it and Epsom on the other.
    At last! But where was the gain?
    "We are in Epsom now," Tommy Piper's partner remarked encouragingly.
   [-108-] "Are we?" returned Piper ruefully. "Why it ain't no different from ever so far."
    The old stagers, of course, knew better, and trudged on, but those who were new to the business, and, strangely enough, these seemed by far the majority, lost heart a good many of them, and were unable any longer to resist the luxurious couches presented by what in wet weather would have been wayside ditches. Now, however, it being five full weeks since a drop of rain had sprinkled them, they were dry at bottom "as a bakin' dish," as one young gentleman expressed it, and filled to the brim with a rank growth of grass and nettles. They would have lain there and been thankful for the privilege, but it was not allowed. The mounted police patrol wouldn't have it. He was not unkindly spoken, but he was firm.
    "You didn't come to Ewell; you come to Epsom town, didn't you?" was his argument. "Very well, then, why stop short of Epsom town when you could almost fire a gun into it from this spot."
    There was something in this, though those who had already nicely arranged a pillow consisting of their dilapidated boots and their bundle, would still have argued the matter if they had been permitted. But the patrol's manner was peremptory, and they turned out of bed, where their feet were cooling so deliciously amongst the green grass, and trudged amongst the gritty dust again, when all of a sudden, as though the town authorities had so arranged it as a pleasant surprise for jaded wayfarers, a curve in the road was achieved, and there broke into view Epsom in reality. Surmounting a handsome stone pedestal and capping a great golden ball that of itself had an hospitably and tavern-sign look about it, was a cheery globular reflecting lamp of large size that shows a light on a welcome foretaste of good things in store.
    Dusty as millers, and with grit in their teeth, their nostrils, their ears and eyes, the limping throng made straight for the rare treat. It was spring water contained in two huge granite troughs. There was a pump and metal ladles to drink from, but that was a refined arrangement that only the fastidious would avail themselves of. Besides, what was the good of a mere ladleful? What they required-the parched and thirsty ones-was a long swig and a strong swig, and the only way of doing it properly was to drink as the horses drink, and put their mouths in the trough itself. So they did it all of a row, boys and men, and afterwards slipped off their tormenting shoe-leather to cool their feet on the plashy stones and in the puddles that lay about the pump. But their enjoyment of this luxury was but brief. If ever there was a place well policed it is Epsom at Derby time, and there are several sauntering about in the neighbourhood of the trough.
    "Now, move on there. You musn't loiter in the town; you know that well enough."
    But the policeman who spoke did not need the light of his lantern to discover that many of those who had so gratefully slaked their thirst did not know it at all.
    "There will be no harm in walking about the town, will there, mister?" some one asked.
    "You may walk about the town as much as you please to-morrow," returned the officer, "but to-night it is up you go or back you go. You know which will suit you best."
   [-109-] It is a crushing disappointment - the final ounce weight to which the already over-burdened camel succumbs. "Move on;" there is no help for it when a couple of the appointed guardians of Epsom's nocturnal peace are able and willing to make one move a little faster should there be any sign of sulking. "Up you go," means mounting the long, steep, tedious hill, the top stair, as it were, of which is the threshold of the Downs. There are meadows on either side, and one landed proprietor, as though actuated with malice aforethought, has left standing in a field within twenty yards of the rubbly roadway a stump of a haystack railed in, and from which armsful enough might be pulled to make a hundred capital make. shift beds. But "Move on, please!" Don't suppose for a moment that the police - picked men from London - are not up to every move on the vagrant chequer-board; that the halting troupe are seen to the beginning of the lane, and there left to find their way. They are politely shown to the very top. On the way are the many villa residences of those who are content to pay for a little extra protection, and they certainly get the worth of their money.
    "Move on, please; plenty of room upstairs."
    And so the tattered scores and hundreds drag their weary way to the top; and, arrived at last at the turfy plain, there cast themselves down, and, pillowed on each Other's dusty carcases, lie as though dead till late in the morning. That is to say, the novices do this. The artful ones who have been there before, and are familiar with Epsom and its ways at Derby time, are aware of a snug retreat, availing themselves of which they may reserve the hill journey until after breakfast - or breakfast time without the breakfast, as may happen. They have but to diverge to the right as they go up the town, and through an unpromising railway arch they come on the open country and as luscious a buttercup meadow as could be desired. Nor is this the only natural advantage the place offers as an open-air lodging. It includes facilities for washing as well.
    The droughty weather is, perhaps, somewhat against the latter, since it diminishes what is really in winter time a brimful pool of land-drainage water to a shallow, green-mantled ditch. But there, at seven o'clock in the morning, I saw and counted forty of the more decent of the tramp tribe - old men and lads, old women and girls - who had passed the night under the hedges having a "good wash" and performing acts of laundry-work under such immense difficulties that made one regret that the water was not a little cleaner and more plentiful, as well as that the urgent need for hurrying, so that they might be in time for a supply of c'rect cards hot from the press, compelled them to be content to hang their wrung-out rags on their backs, to dry at leisure in the sun.