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

[... back to menu for this book]




"PLEASE, sir, did you want any blacking?
    To be invited to have one's boots cleaned has become so common a feature of London street pedestrianism, so as to excite no surprise whenever or wherever the useful industry involved is practised; but to be solicited in a comparatively secluded locality like Lincoln's Inn, to purchase material for the personal exercise of the polishing brushes seemed so odd, that I involuntarily paused to contemplate the small pedlar who put the question to me. He was ten years old, perhaps-a white-faced miserably-clad thin little boy, but intelligent looking, and so unaccountably shy, that as I looked at him and he at me, he appeared painfully embarrassed, and as if rather than detain me a minute longer, even though a purchase came of it, he would prefer that I would curtly cast him off with a "No," and let him go his way. Nor did it seem to set him at his ease when I gave him a penny, declining to accept in exchange the three moist and sooty little packets he tendered in exchange.
    "This is not a very likely place for selling blacking," I remarked to him; "you should try bustling streets, where there a plenty of people passing to and fro."
    "I know that, sir," he replied, miserably. "I should catch it if father found me here. On'y I can't bear to ply in the lane- Leather Lane, I mean. That's where my two brothers stand. But the other boys won't let me alone. They're always jollying me, and my two brothers join in and won't take my part."
    "What do you mean by jollying?"
    [-46-] "Chaffing me, and pulling my hair, and smoothing me down the face, and making all manner of game at me. I feel as though I could smash 'em, if I was big enough."
    And as he spoke the small blacking boy's eyes flashed through tears, which he furtively flicked away with the cuff of his old jacket as he turned away his head.
    "Perhaps you don't like selling things in the streets?"
    "I don't, sir," he replied, looking up quickly; "I hate it. I - ain't got the knack of it somehow."
    "And do your father and mother know that you don't like it?"
    "Yes, they know it, but I daren't say much to father for fear of a wallopin'. Mother knows it, but we don't talk about it very often. She makes allowance for me, unbeknown to my two brothers, who would round on me and mother too if they knowed it, and then father'd wallop her."
    The walloping propensities of the blacking boy's father notwithstanding, here was a case for some one's interference. To say the least, the School Board had a claim to the child for some years to come, and though I could not be very sanguine of success if I ventured to find out and argue with his unnatural parent, I felt curious to inquire a little into the matter. I contrived to get out of the blacking boy where he lived, and the time in the evening when his father would probably be at home. I did not make known to the boy that it was my design to pay a visit to his paternal abode, a reserve I afterwards almost repented of. For when about eight o'clock that night I tapped at the kitchen door of a house in a court near the Gray's Inn Lane, and it was opened by the blacking boy himself, he looked so horribly scared and shock so that I thought he would have dropped the bottle he carried in his hand, and in which a bit of tallow candle was glittering. I gave him all the encouragement and reassurance that could be conveyed in a look and a nod and entered the room.
    The whole family were at home. The father, a brawny skulking- looking fellow in frowsy fustian and with a spotted cotton neckerchief, the knot of which was under his ear instead of under his chin, and who wore his cap at the fireside, and mingled with the smoke from the fire that of his dirty short pipe; the mother, a poor gaunt-looking creature, whose soaked and crinkled looking hands betokened recent experience at the washtub, but who in face and features was strikingly like the blacking boy, and the two brothers of the latter. There was an equally striking similarity between them and their father, and one, whose age may have been thirteen, had faithfully copied the tie of his neckerchief and the cock of the peak of his cap, while the two short pipes might have come from the same mould. The younger child was seemingly a year or two junior to the object of my solicitude, but, for his size, as pronounced a chip of the old block as his blackguardly brother. My blacking boy looked imploringly at me and got behind his mother.
    "Get up, Jack, and give the gentleman the cheer," she nervously remarked to her husband, who sat on the only article of furniture of the kind contained in the room.
    "P'raps the gentleman would rather stand, and p'raps I'd rather he did," he replied, with an ugly scowl and with the look and tone of a man who smells mischief.
    "What does the genelman want here?"
    [-47-] "I have called merely to tell you," I replied with a glance at the quiet young blacking-seller, "That, if you will permit me, I think I may be able to give your little son there something better to do than selling things in the streets. I saw him so engaged this morning, and, from a few words I had with him, I should imagine-"
    "Never mind about the 'imagining,'" interrupted the father, knocking the ashes out of his pipe in a way that was significant of more serious business shortly to follow: "tell us about the few words. Wot was they ?"
    I hope to be forgiven. It was for the sake of the white and terror-stricken little face beseeching me from the cover of his mother's gown-skirt that I evaded an exact reply.
    "I don't remember the words precisely," said I, "but from his brisk and cheerful way of going about his business, it seemed to me he might be better employed."
    The man regarded me searchingly for a moment, and then broke into a hoarse laugh.
    "Brisk and cheerful!" he exclaimed; "why, he's the laziest warmint as ever was turned out to peck for hisself. Brisk and cheer-ful! Good Lord! And he brings home three-pence ha'penny arter being out about nine hours. I'll settle with him presently."
    "He brought back nearly all his blackin' back, so it was mostly profit, anyhow," remarked the mother, timidly.
    "You hold your jaw," returned the partner of her joys and sorrows; "I knows wot I'm talking about. Here's his two brothers; they goes out day arter day, and a shillin' a piece is the worst they makes, and that rnilkslop little warmint don't earn the bread he eats."
    "He don't try," the elder brother with the short pipe put in maliciously; "he's fit to wear petticoats and go to the Sunday school; that's all he's fit for."
    "Perhaps he would do better at something else," I remarked.
    "He ain't a-goin' to try, thanky," said his father, obstinately; " he's got to stick to what he's doing of. He's got to be broke to it, or he'll have his blessed neck broke, so I tell him. A sort o' workman like I am ain't a-going to be lived on by idle warmint like he is. I'll lather him afore he goes to bed."
    "No, no; you don't mean it, Jack," the woman remarked, coaxingly. "You ought to make allowances, Jack."
    "Why, so I do, don't I? Hain't I said to you, over and over agin, it can't be expected that Bill will ever do as well as the other two- he ain't got the pints."
    "I beg pardon," said I, "he hasn't got what ?"
    "The pints - the promisings if you like it better - the features and the markings. He ain't a bit like me, more'n a mungrel like a rattin' terrier."
    There was no gainsaying this, though an unprejudiced person might not have felt disposed to agree that this was altogether to the boy's disadvantage.
    "But about the pints," I remarked.
    "Ah,that's it," he replied, with an amount of readiness that denoted it a favourite subject with him. "It's the same with kids as with dawgs. If they ain't got the right strain in 'em they are sure to grow up curs, ain't they? Can I show you how to pick out the points of a boy? Course I can. This ere one we're talking about is what I call a soft-roed un. He takes after his mother, and he [-48-] ain't got the pluck of a tame rabbit. Take the looks of him, or feel of his head, if it comes to that"- and he reached towards the white blacking boy and hauled him towards him by the hair. "I'm a bit of a fancier, you know, and I can tell the pints of a boy just the same as I can tell the pints of a dawg. Ketch old of this hair. What's it like? Why, it's like kitten's fluff. Now clap your hand on this one - take off your cap, Joe - there, it's wiry, ain't it? Got a spring in it; that's a pint. Now look at t'other one's ears; why, they ain't bigger than a penny, and they lay as close to his head as hyesters. I like to see a boy what's got a pair of ears on him that are ears, like Joe's; and a good back to his ed, and a good solid pair o' jaws, like his young brother here has got. He's two years younger than that mother-coddle, and he'd go and beat his 'ed off at buyin' or selling', or flghtin', or anything. But don't you trouble about him, mister. Being out o' work, I got lots of time on my hands to bring him up properly, and I'll cure him if if there's any curin' of him at all. Where is he?"
    But behind the cover of his mother's skirts poor Bill has escaped out of the kitchen. Under the circumstances the best I could do was to present a small peace offering to the offended father, and exact from him a promise that the boy should not only be permitted to go to bed unbeaten, but that he should have some supper. When I reached the street I looked about for Bill, but he, probably, had no faith in friendship such as mine, and he was nowhere to be seen.
    The reader, however, is by no means to deduce from the above example that the race of juvenile street traders is an oppressed race, driven to gain a livelihood in a manner repugnant to their feelings and instincts by the tyranny of brutal fathers. On the contrary, my experience of the whole tribe of small pedlars, with rare exceptions, is that they take as kindly to the trade as young ducks to the water. It is only in human nature to pity the wretched-looking little waifs, ragged and shoeless, that throng the market streets in all poor neighbourhoods and infest the broad highways and the omnibuses and railway stations with flowers, or toys, or cigar lights, or whatever trifling pedlery that is saleable may happen to be in season; but they themselves are happily unaware of their sad state.
    According to the statutory standard of moral measurement they should be miserable and dejected, but they are so terribly ignorant as to know but one wretchedness, and that is when hunger pinches them, which, after all, is not so often as might be supposed. To adopt the phrase used by Bill's rascally father, they learn to "peck for themselves" at a wonderfully early age, and it is no hardship to them so long as "trade" is tolerably profitable, and sufficient for their immediate wants rewards their long hours of diligence and ingenuity. As a rule they work for their parents and take home their earnings, keeping back the stock money, and go to market next morning to purchase a fresh supply of the goods they deal in. This is not invariably the case, however.
    At times these small merchants will form a "Co." four or five strong, subscribing equal proportions of the working capital, which, perhaps, may amount to seven or eight shillings, and sharing the aggregate luck, good at [-49-] bad. The "company have a room to eat and sleep in, and pay the woman of the house a rent for it, with something for washing when they possess anything to wash, and for getting their coffee ready for them. Boys such as these are the children of parents who have died or "ran away," or disappeared in some unceremonious manner, or perhaps been sent to prison.
    Children of eight or ten years old, more tenderly brought up, under such conditions would of course be utterly helpless, and there would be no other refuge for them but the workhouse; but the thoroughbred street boy would as soon think of going to Colney Hatch to deliver himself up as hopelessly insane. Sometimes these baby men of business, through misfortune in their commercial transactions or injudicious investments, will become insolvent, and reduced to act the subordinate part of commission agents for others.
    There was at one time to be seen in the neighbourhood of the Angel at Islington, a fat and well- fed, dirty-looking, middle-aged man, who himself sold cigar lights, and who was reputed to have "made his fortune" and retired to rural independence in the country, out of profits derived from a score or so of ragged urchins who sold for him "on commission," his allowance to them being three halfpence in the sixpence on gross returns.
    "I recollects him," said a veteran in the "trade" of at least eleven years old, and with whom I had some conversation "Carrotty Joe you mean. I worked for him going on for six months. That's ever so many a year ago. I got stone broke through hearing of a stunning piece wot was cut at the Vic, and when I got there with another chap there was no room in the gallery, and stead of coming away we stopped looking at the picters of the piece outside till we couldn't stand it, and we both paid a tanner - all we had - to go into the pit. That was why I took to working for Joe - three ha'pence in sixpence on cigar lights. Oh, yes, it paid pretty well. Leastways, the lights did. Joe paid paid too, but he was such a oner for tossing. He wouldn't give you a job unless you tossed with him for what you made. 'Threepence or nothing,' when you had three ha'pence coming, and if you won that, 'sixpence or nothing;' and so he'd go on double or quits, till you lost the lot, and pr'a'ps got a tanner into his debt, and then you had to take your earnings mostly in wittles, what he brought with him in his coat pockets-lumps of bread and bits of cheese, wot he give about threepence a pound for.
    "That was his artfulness, don't you see, mister. Taking it out in wittles stood in the way of us getting a bit of stock-money and starting on our own hook, and, then, lie had the cigar-light business atween the Angel, right away to Highbury, and tother road down to the Eagle in the City-road almost all in his own hands. One of the artfulest coves Joe was. Genelmen used to deal with him, and drop him fourpennies and that, cos he was so kind to poor boys. He used to give us out our wittles for breakfast when the genelmen was waiting about for 'bus, and they used to think that it was his charitable ways. If any one took any notice he'd say.
    "'Poor little beggars; a poor man like wot I am can't afford it, but I can't abear to see em hungry which p'raps I shan't be any wuss off for it'
    [-50-] "Which he jolly well knowed he wasn't, charging a penny for a chunk of bread that did'nt cost him a 'apenny. No; I didn't work for Artful Joe till he made his fortune and cut the business. I had a slice of luck. It was at night time and very nigh the last bus to Wictoria.Genelman on the top, he says, says he,
    "'Box of wax ones, boy.'
    "So I chucks it up, and he chucks down the penny. Least-ways it wasn't a penny; it was a two-shillin' bit.
    "'Do you know what you give me, sir' I asked him.
    "'Rayther,' he ses, swearing. "You won't get more'n a ha'penny out o' me for a box a' lights, I can tell you.'
    "'All right,' I ses; I aint going to be perticular if you don't mind'   - which it served him right for the wax lights cost fourpence ha'- penny a dozen. But I daren't tell any of 'em, nor yet Joe. The gent was a reg'lar rider, don't you see, and Joe would a' made me give it up to him, so as he might have give it back to the gent, and been told to keep it for his honesty, very likely. I've been on my own hook ever since. What do I reckon to make? Sometimes ninepence or tenpence in a day. Sometimes not more'n fourpence or fippence. I don't go in for cigar lights now. Come to pay twopence ha'penny a dozen for flamers and soovians, and sell 'em at three boxes a penny, which they've been brought down to, you'd better go 'tottin.' Picking up bones, I mean. No; I goes in mostly for new inwentions in the trick toy way. What do I mean by that? Well, you can see a lot of it any day in the City round about the Bank and Broad Street and Cheapside. Puzzle cards- how to find the Lord Mayor in the Zulu ladies' school was one of 'em. That give me a good day that card did. I sold three dozen and six at the Angel in one arternoon and evening when it fust come out at a penny each, and they cost only threepence a dozen. There ain't a day but wot something new comes up-bird-whistles, ticking watches, magic flowers, spring- wire spiders, magic mikerscopes. Never more'n a penny each. They wouldn't sell if they was dearer. Houndsditch you buy 'em in mostly, and they're half profit. But you have to keep your eyes open. They are always a coming out with these new dodges, but the novelty wears off 'em quicker en a boot-shining sometimes. I nearly got broke over going in vast for them Japan paper pair-a'sauls. It was when they first come over. You've seen em p'raps, sir. Bout as large as a sarser, and all painted, and let up and down all reglar. I was sweet on 'em, and trusted 'em with all my stock-money-one and nine- at fourpence a dozen. It was sunny when I bought 'em. The weather looked like lastin', but blowed if it didn't set in wet soon as i got em, and it rained and rained every day for more'n a week. I altered the name of em and called em urnberallas stead of pair-o'-sauls, but it was no good. I dares'nt show em, don't you see, sir, for fear of the rain spiling em, and the wet got into the box I keep 'em in and made mash of nearly a dozen. I don't remember ever havin' such a funky time as that was. One blessed penny was all I took one day, and that's all I had to buy grub with, and all the while get- tin' into debt at threepence o'night at my lodgin', which wasn't worth the money, through my layin' awake, and wishin' and hopin' that it might be a fine day to-[-51-]morrow. But it wasn't. It would hold up in the night, but in the morning down it came agin, and kep' it up till dark. Why, it was enough to make any anybody do anything."
    "And what did you do ?"
    "Well, I don't say it was a right thing to do," replied the worthy pupil of Artful Joe; "but I was druv to it. There was a lodging in the same buildings in Golden Lane where I was a  chap- a old man who used to pay a extra penny every morning for warm water and soap to wash his white hair, which he wore long-who used to work the ruined lucifer- man's game."
    "What is that?"
    "Why, make believe somebody run agin him, and pushed him. down in the mud and spilt all his stock, which there it was, and him a cryin' as he picked up his loose lucifers out of the gutter. He'd get as much as half-a-crown collected for him for a couple of pen'oth of matches. Well, he see the fix I was in with these blessed pair-o'-sauls, which was all gone limp and not one fit to open by this time, and he says to me,- "'A nod is as good as a wink to a blind orse, Teddy. Have a spill with em'
    "So I did. I brought it off just opposite that big chapel in Upper Street, when the people was flocking out in the evening. I got another chap - bigger than me - to begin quarrelling with me, arid punching me, and then he threw me down and jumped on my tray what the pair-o'-sauls was in, so that they was all squashed in the mud, and then he ran away. Ever so many genelmen and ladies see him do it as they was coming out with their im books and that, but he was off before they could ketch him. Close upon two shillings that brought me in, and I was set up again. Give you my word, mister, I'd rather have worked for I ain't done nothing like it ever since. It on'y shows you what a feller might come to if he was druv."