Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Gleaners of Thames Bank

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THE bridge of London was overhead, the river at low tide, and the only living being in sight - for it was but half-past six in the morning - was as deplorable a specimen of woman-kind as ever excited a man's compassion; a bedraggled, mud-be- spattered creature, shoeless and stockingless; and on her head a battered old bonnet, from out of the rents and rifts of which sprouted wisps of grey hair, mud-smeared, as though, in her too eager pursuit of waifs and strays, she had butted her bonnet against the hull of a stranded barge. She had evidently been engaged in poking and raking amongst the mud, and between the vessels at the wharves, for bits of coal cast overboard by accident: and there she was ankle deep in the water and with her skirts dabbling in it, washing the tenacious slime from her gleanings so as to give them a marketable appearance. She had a coarse sack with her, and in this she deposited the lumps as she washed them. I was about to address her sympathetically, when she turned her face towards me - a bright and pleasant face, despite its wrinkles and smudges - and cheerily bade me good morning.
    "We're havin' a lovely March, ain't we, sir ? " said she, as the east wind howling through the arch snatched at her wet gown and plastered it tight to her limbs; "it's poor creeters like me as feel the blessing of bright weather after what we've been through."
    "But you must find it dreadfully cold."
    "I should if I wasn't used to it, [-130-] I dare say; but it's my livin', and so what's the good of thinking about it. I'm warm enough, if I can only get my bag full."
    "You are warm enough when you get home, you mean - when you have made a big fire with the coals you pick up. Yes, I can understand that ; but is worth while-"
    But here she interrupted me with a laugh at my ignorance. 
    "Make a big fire with the coals I pick up! It ain't many as comes to our share, master. Anything does for a fire for my old man and me - cinders, driftwood, anything; but coals is money, and we can't afford to burn money. Is it a trade I always follow? Yes, sir; and I've follored it a many years now - mor'fl twenty I should think. I'm sixty-four now; and I wasn't forty when I started. Every day, 'cept Sundays, and in all weathers, so as I can see. How did I get on during that foggy time? Ah! that was a hard spell-that was. It was a'most the workhouse or starving, for my old man and me then. He works the shore as well as me, though not for coals. He takes the shore in general - anything that washes up. He could do better, if they'd let him dig a bit. They wasn't so partickler one time; but now, bless your soul, no matter how low the water is, or how far out my old man can get, it's quite enough for 'em - the river police, I mean - to ketch him with a shovel; and they down on him as though they were afraid he was going to dig a hole right through, and let the tide out. What would he find, if they gave him leave to dig when the water was at its lowest? Many a good haul, I'll wager. Brass and copper and money of the old time. Did my old man ever make a good haul! No, he never did; but he once came very near to it, worse luck. Why worse luck? I'll tell you, sir. If he hadn't come so nigh to it he would have had two good legs to walk on, stead of being a'most a cripple. My old man, you must know, used to work the shore along with a man named Kedger; and one day, when the water was astonishin' low, they was workin' just about Blackfriars Bridge, when they come on what seemed to be a brown earthenware pan turned bottom-side up. It was so set up in the mud, that they couldn't prize it up, and the tide had began to flow, and, what was worse, the p'lice was comin'. 'We'll see if it's got anything in it before we leave it, anyhow,' says my old man, and he fetched it a crack with his spade, and knocked a hole in it, and they could look inside - only just one look, you understand, for the water was coming up sharp, and it flowed in at the hole in a second - but long enough for them both to see that the jar, or whatever it was, had a lot of money in it. Well, they knowed what would happen if they called the p'lice; and they couldn't do anything of themselves because of the tide. So Kedger says, 'There's one thing, Bill, it can't run away; and it aint possible that any one will find it till next tide out, which will be at two tomorrow morning; we'll re-mark the spot, and be down here and swag the lot, and go halves.' Well, my old man was agreeable, and they left it, and they come to the landing stairs. My old man was going up before Kedger, when all on a sudden, Kedger cries out, 'There's a rat!' and makes what he purtended - cuss him ! - was a blow at it. Stead of that, he struck with all his might at my poor Bill's ankle, and broke it. He [-131-] brought my old man home on his back, and made believe to be awfully sorry, specially as now they couldn't go together to get the old jar with the money in it. 'Never mind, Bill,' he says, 'it'll keep; and when you're all right again, and not before, we'll go together and have it up.' And he took a oath that he wouldn't go by himself. Well, my Bill he was nine weeks in the hospital; and soon as he was discharged and could hobble with a stick, they picked their time and went to the spot. The jar wasn't gone, sir, but it had been had up; and there was the bits of it, showing it had been smashed up. Kedger made believe to rave and swear, and to be dreadful disappointed, when they found that every coin was gone. 'This comes of my bein' so thunderin' honest,' say he, 'and of my stickin' true to a pal. If I'd a come alone that next tide it would have been all right.' But it was right enough as it was for that villain. A month after he said a uncle of his at Ware, in Har'for', had died and left him three hundred pounds - which, of course, was all lies, and made it clear that he broke my poor Bill's leg a purpose. My old man has brought home old coins by the handful sometimes, when he found a chance to use the spade a bit; but they've been mostly in metal not worth more than about six-pence a pound at the rag-shop. What he picks up in general is bones and old rope; but it isn't much he makes at it, poor old chap, seventy odd, and him with rheumatics. You see, sir, he ain't so lissome as he used to be; and when the cold and the wind is agin him his eyes are not very sharp for anything layin' about. How much a day does he earn? Well, p'r'aps, take it all round, about sevenpence. I do better than that. Bless you, yes. I can make my two bagsful in the long days of summer, when its light about three, and there's no dark till nine at night-though in the winter its often only one bagful. I ain't so good at standing against cold as I used to be; and being out along here hour after hour, when there's frost or the snow is drifting, makes you feel numley like - silly a'most - specially if things is bad, and you hav'n't had any breakfast to speak of. How do I get rid of the coals I pick up? Reg'ler customers takes them off me. They have 'em cheap, and they're glad to get 'em. They're all poor people that buy 'em. My bag holds about a hundredweight; but you see, sir, coals is a thing that soaks a lot of water, and p'r'aps there am' t more than three-quarters when they're dry. I charge 'em eightpence a bag for 'em; and always the same price, no matter what the shops are charging. How long does it take me to get a bagful? That depends. There's slices of luck its my trade, like all trades. I found one this morning, up higher here, at Bankside. I think the 'coaly' must have made a slip on the plank, and shot over half his sackful. There they was, all of a heap, about a foot deep in the mud, like a nest of eggs. That was a find for a woman to feel grateful for, wasn't it ? I should like just such a bit fortune on one of these days when them dark and deathly fogs was on the river. It was bad for all poor people, of course; but it was cruel hard on me and my old man, as have been so true to the river all these years. There our bread was, and what was we to do? Day after day we come down, when the tide favoured; and when it was blacker than [-132-] any night, and everything was stopped on the river, which was as quiet as a churchyard, waiting and waiting with hungry stomachs, in hopes that the fog would lift a bit this time, and let us get at the mud. They're only good for one thing, sir, them pinching times."
    "And what is that?"
    "They give you thankfulness for your better luck when it sets in again - luck like this of mine this morning, when I've got a bagful in about two hours."
    "But how are you going to get your load home?"
    "How? why by shoulderin' it, to be sure. Bless ye," continued the worthy old scarecrow, brightening up, "don't you go for to think that because my hair is grey, I ain't got any stren'th left me. This'll show you."
    And, as she spoke, she hugged the sodden sack, which was by this time filled, and with a dexterous upward hitch got it on to her back; tricklets of muddy water streaming therefrom down her skirts so copiously as to soak through any remaining dry rags on her poor back. But her belief in her "luck," and her gratitude for it, were not in the least abated on that account, and wishing me good morning, she trudged oft; and, toiling up the landing stairs, was lost to view.
    Nothing could well be more dissimilar, both as regards appearance and associations; but the mud "lark" may have been so named on account of his habit of early rising and his turning out to business at as early an hour as the little feathered minstrel of the sky commences to tune his pipes. Anyhow, I had not proceeded a hundred yards along the strand, ere I came on another specimen of the shore-grubber kind-a man old enough to have been the ill-used Bill, who was so cruelly deluded by the deceitful Kedger. Nor was it easy to discover whether he was lame of a leg, as he stood knee-high in the dreadful-looking inky deposit that accumulates by the river walls; and was groping higher than his elbows, with a shrewd sense of touch for anything buried and worth fishing up. It was not Bill, however. As I more closely approached him he got out of the mud, and I made out that he had two sound legs. Business was only "middlin'" good with him, he informed me. There was always a something to be picked up; though "them blessed bankments" had been a severe blow to many who formerly used to depend on the river, and strew its banks at every tide with miscellaneous crumbs, on which an unfastidious appetite might make a meal.
    "There ain't half the number of larks there used to be, sir, twenty years ago. I mind the time when a man could make a crown a day comfortable, if he only kep' his eyes open."
    "And if he was not too particular," I ventured.
    "Well, as to that, sir," returned the elderly "lark, "it can't be 'xpected that a man can go adwertising every stray shilling's-worth he comes across. Tain't the likes of me the wharfingers are afraid of; on account of their barges when they are aground at low tide; it's the boys - young prigs that work along shore only for robbery, and who know them that will buy whatever they can get hold of and ask no questions. They're as hard to keep out of the stranded craft as rats. They'll come the acrobat dodge, and stand on each other's shoulders three high; and the top one will creep aboard while the [-133-]  others skulk about, - not close by the vessel, but nigh enough to mark the spots where their mate drop things over the side into the mud. They're a dead mark on coals. Him what they call the 'ferret,' when he boards a laden barge, don't stand up to his work; the wharf watchman would see him if he did. He gets hisself up as black as a sweep, so as not to be noticeable, and he wriggles along flat on his stomach, and lugs the big lumps to the side, and pushes 'em off. A knowing ferret will push over a couple of hundredweight in a quarter of an hour easy. But they get into the wars awful sometimes, poor little beggars. I've seen the barge-men, when they've caught a boy aboard, tie his feet together and his hands, and throw him down into the mud so deep that he's been wery nigh strangled before he can roll out of it. Or, they see 'em hanging about on the shore, they'll pelt 'em with lumps of coal as big as their fist. I've seen 'em bruised and bleeding, shaking through it. Did I ever find a dead body on the shore? Yes, a goodish few - eight or nine, I dessay. Five shillings reward it is to find 'em; but I'd a jolly sight sooner find a good boat's grating, or a few fathom of cable. There's a lot of trouble about finding a body, and what with the inquest and one thing and another it don't pay. Still, it isn't in human nature to see a fellow-creeter, man or woman, layin' there, lookin' like they do look, and know if you don't look after 'em they'll be took off again by the next tide. Only once I found a body that I never said anything about. I daresn't. It was a well-dressed body, and looked like a first mate or something of that; but every pocket of the clothes was turned out, and showing robbery before or arter. It wouldn't ha' done for me to meddle with it, with no witnesses to swear how I found it. Is it true that there are men who make a livin' by fishing for drowned people for the sake of robbing 'em? I've been asked that question a good many times; and, not to tell you lies, mister, - just for the sake of the trifle you might be agoin' to give me, - I tell you, straight, that I never knowed such a fisherman, and I don't think he's to be found on the Thames. Not a man who plies at it reg'ler, I mean. Course, and as everybody knows, there's a awful rough lot to he found on the water - worse than you'll find on land anywhere; and I wouldn't go as far as to say that if they found a body floating, and there was rings or jewellery on it to tempt 'em, but what they'd rather reach over the side and strip it of the waluables than take it into the boat; but nobody makes a livin' of it. It wouldn't pay. Taint like as if only ladies and gentlemen made a hole in the water. In general it is the hard-up sort that do so - them that can't stand up against their trouble any longer - and it would be a poor livin' to go a fishin' for that kind. I never had much to do with boats myself; 'cept in the way of being a Jack-in-the-water; but that trade is knocked on the head now. I used to make a good thing of it at Westminster; and arter that at Hungerford, when people used to take their pleasure on the river; but I might as well go a fishin' for bodies as hope to pick up a livin' at any landing stairs up or down as a Jack. Come to the rights on it, the steamers ought to have stood something handsome to the watermen they swep' off the Thames, and to the Jacks as well. So ought the 'bankments. [-134-] They reg'ler ruined ever so many 'larks.' That was the time to pick up a livin' on the shore, before the bankments was thought of; and when Delphi dry arches was open right away from the "Fox-under-the-Hill," - the little public-house where the green bower was of the scarlet runners, right away up the Strand. Lodgins' didn't cost nothing in them days. You could always find a cart or a wagon under them arches; and the reg'ler roosters used to take to one, and stick to it for sleeping in summer and winter, and nobody ever made any complaints. Did I ever find anything what might be called waluble? Once I did. It wasn't silver or gold, or anything like that. It was tallow. You might recollect the time - seventeen or eighteen years ago - when the great fire at London Bridge was, and Mr. Braidwood was burnt to death through getting jammed behind a wharf gateway in Tooley Street. That was the time. The Thames was afire half a mile long with the oil and tallow floating on the top of it; and it flowed ashore, all alight down the sewers. There it cooled and lay a top of the water in the sewers inches thick; and every bit, though it was as black as your hat, worth a pound a hundred weight. That was a godsend for 'larks,' if ever there was one. There was scores of 'em at work at it, though they had to do it sly, on account of the p'lece. Ah! I as nigh as a toucher got toasted over that job, me and another. That other is now a preacher, a conwerter of young thieves, and that sort of thing, and I very often see his name stuck about on the walls. But he wasn't a preacher then; he was a prig, so I was a cut above him in them times anyhow. Well, we scraped acquaintance, and he was a daring one, and we went at that tallow in the sewers. We got it out at the rate of about five hundred weight a day for about a week. Ah! that was good luck if yer like!"
    And meditating on the strange ideas some amongst us have in the matter of "godsends," I left the talkative old "lark" to his mud-raking.