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

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THE "Vagabond" reflected in a lyrical mirror is a picturesque and interesting object. Nor can it be said that it is altogether because for the nonce he is attired in the stage properties provided him by musician and poet, that the "homeless, ragged, and tanned" hero of song is welcomed even in fastidious society. There are vagabonds and vagabonds - the country-bred and the town-bred animal, and its long odds that had Messrs. Molloy and Sullivan taken the latter in hand instead of the former, he would have proved too much for them. But our human nature takes kindly to the berry-brown ne'er-do-well of the country. He toils not, neither has he taste or capacity for "spinning," unless it be in a metaphorical sense, as when he engages in the manufacture of a "yarn," to be used in stimulating the compassion of the credulous and the tender-hearted. But he is not of the pestilent cadger breed, and would scorn to beg for wherewith to spend in a public-house, or that he might hoard a little money in some secret pocket amongst his rags.
    He is simply a victim to the fascinations of indolence, and will cheerfully bear with the inconvenience of tattered raiment, and endure frequent spells of protracted fasting, so that he may revel in a rank luxuriance of liberty; lounging in shady lanes, and lying down to bake brown on a daisy bank, while the corn is ripening to the right and the left of him; or dangling his lazy legs on a stile or swinging gate, smoking his pipe and clicking his boot-tips together, to the leisurely burden of a song that is droning in his mind about haymakers or poachers. He is an [-53-] incorrigibly idle villain; but there are thousands who, at this dead- ripe season of summer, would to a certain extent dearly like to go and do likewise.
    Nobody cares to confess to it, but how many are there who, finding themselves at the end of the year rather worse than better off than they were twelve months since, and with increasing burdens to bear on their weakened shoulders, nourish in their secret hearts a shrewd suspicion that the country vagabond has the best of it after all.
    But his counterfeit, the destitute Cockney countryman, though exteriorly he may present some likeness to his rustic cousin, is quite another kind of creature. He is a shockingly dirty and lazy rascal, very properly despised and shunned by even the lowest of the lower orders who somehow or other live by honest labour. He is, of course, a cadger, and his "lay," as he would term it, is to impose on a pitying public by making a "picture" of himself. He would pass as a misguided Berkshire shepherd, or a Dorsetshire labourer rendered desperate by starvation wages, and dazzled by neighbours' talk of the wonders of London town, who has ventured to brave the dangers of the great metropolis and try their luck. He has got utterly stunned and floored in the first encounter. He has lost his shirt in the struggle and his waistcoat, and he has kicked against adversity until he has next to nothing of boots to his feet. But he still cherishes the remnants of his sage green smockfrock, and, excepting a portion of its rim, his "billycock" cap, worn in happier times, when he whistled at the plough. He is lost in London, but his simple nature has as yet suffered little from the wiles and wicked snares that have been laid to entrap it. Work he cannot get, diligently though he has sought it.
    There is no one in want of a ploughman from Charing Cross to Threadneedle Street, and, though he would but too thankfully accept a job at reaping, or sowing, or even weeding, the pitiless stones of London streets afford no field for his industry. Friends he has none - to beg he is ashamed. But, surely, these are not sufficient reasons why an honest man should starve. No indeed. He - the guileless countryman - may not be able to make his way back to Dorsetshire; but Nature, in whose lap he was nurtured, has not altogether forsaken him. She has revealed to him crops of chickweed and abundance of groundsel growing in brickfields within an hour's walk of roaring, rattling London, and he has caught eagerly at the happy idea which those simple vegetables beloved by small singing birds suggested to him.
    Chickweed and groundsel are, on a humble scale, saleable, and would afford him the means of buying a mouthful of bread, and, what is more precious still, they, the innocent herbs of the fields, would serve him as a tender reminder of the far-away home of his childhood, of his young manhood, of the village church where, hand-in-hand, and with hearts beating in unison-!
    But never mind. What though sad thoughts are wringing him as he gazes so pensively down on the pavement; what though these touching reminiscences cause his frame, even to his very legs, to tremble and twitch so considerably. He does not wish to afflict you with a recital of his tale of his tale of sorrow ; he merely [-54-] meekly and respectfully, though humbly, solicits you to buy a pen'orth of groundsel from his rush basket, or, should you prefer to give him the penny and forego the canary's food, it is not for him, the destitute rustic - homeless, friendless, cast amongst strangers - to protest.
    It is a remarkable feature of the destitute countryman in London that he has a habit of presenting himself in places which as a shy man, and one whose disposition it was to shrink from the eyes of the multitude, one might naturally suppose he would avoid. As, for example, London Bridge is perhaps the busiest thoroughfare in all England from eight or nine o clock in the morning until even a later hour in the evening. Road and pathways are so densely thronged that it seems little short of marvellous how the contrary streams can be kept flowing without now and again mingling in mad confusion, and culminating in a resistless whirlpool that over- leaps the parapet. The very place one might well imagine for a lazy skulker to avoid. It is not so, however. Amidst the deafening clatter of wheels and horses' hoofs, and the unceasing bustle and excitement of the pavement, there in the recess seats of the bridge, and within three yards of all the hubbub and uproar, half-a-dozen of the London vagabond community may generally be seen, with their chickweed and groundsel baskets, or relying solely on their squalor and shrivering semi-nakedness to excite compassion.
    They seat themselves on the granite ledges, as though they were reclining on a grassy bank, and the noises about them were no more than the chirp of grasshoppers and the drowsy hum of bees and beetles. Tattered as scarecrows, uncombed, unshaven, and ingrained with grime, they sit there, or even lie at full length with their hands under their heads, and their ragged caps tilted forward to screen their eyes, with the afternoon sun blazing down on their ugly outlines, which show on the clear grey stone as distinctly in all their parts as insects that are impaled on pins in the specimen case of the naturalist.
    Why they are there - why they are permitted to remain - is not easy to understand. Chickweed and groundsel sellers, or tramps and cadgers undisguised, they are pretty sure to have the whole of the recess to themselves while they sit there, the poorest of decent folk not caring, for obvious reasons, to share a seat with them. It was under such conditions that I recently scraped a conversational acquaintance with two of the fraternity.
    One was a man beyond middle- age, short and thickset, fat and hearty-looking, with a broad chest, plainly to be seen through the chinks of his tattered countrified smock frock and the loopholes of his ragged waistcoat, buttoned as high as his bulky throat. He was ragged beyond the margin of decency and villanously dirty, but with a sound and substantial pair of boots on his feet.
    His companion was a much younger man - a gaunt, hollow-cheeked, lout, of three-or-four-and-twenty, ragged as the other, and with his feet on the seat, his back in a corner, with his cap over his eyes and his great hands thrust deep into his trousers pockets, seemed laziness personified. Both were asleep, or dozing with their eyes shut, and excepting myself there was no one else in the recess. But I had had dealings with their kind before, and I knew how to [-55-] stir them to wakefulness without saying a word.
    Town bred or country, the wandering vagabond has as keen a scent and as insatiable appetite for tobacco as a cat for fish. It may be possible to trust him at an unguarded pantry door, or even with unwatched linen drying on a wayside hedge, but were it a penal offence he would lose no opportunity to beg or filch tobacco. Aware of this, I took out my pipe and well-filled pouch and gently tapped the bowl of the former on the parapet. The effect was instantaneous.
    The elder one opened his eyes with a sudden start, glanced at my pouch, licked his lips, and nudged his friend with the toe of his boot. The young man began a growl of remonstrance, but at the same moment unclosed his optics and blinked in my direction. But half escaped from his lips the growl changed to a wistful sigh, and lowering his long legs to the ground, he dived his dirty paw into his dirtier jacket pocket, and produced therefrom a stumpy clay pipe, and, with a dejected air, probed its empty bowl with the tip of his finger. Observing which the other produced his pipe which was of exactly the same size and pattern, and examining it narrowly, as though with the desperate hope that he had left in it from last time an unsmoked morsel, shook his head in a melancholy manner.
    "Ain't you got none, Tinker?" asked the young man solicitously.
    "Not a blessed whiff," was the doleful reply. " Lord send I had."
    "P'raps the gen'elman would two'ard up poor fellows 'arf a pipeful atwixt 'em," remarked the young man, "he'd never be the wuss for it, Tinker."
    The respectful appeal liberally responded to, I leant my arms on the stone ledge between them, looking riverward, and smoked a pipe too, less for enjoyment's sake than as a sanitary precaution.
    "Ah!" remarked Mr. Tinker presently, and speaking with a snuffle, as though he was adding a zest to the sudden treat by blowing the tobacco smoke through his nose, "It's bad enough for a labourin' man to be 'ard up for wittles and a lodgin', but to be stone broke for a bit of 'bacca - it's enough to make a man jump over and make a end of it. What do you say, matey?"
    This last to the young man, who, inserting three of his fingers in at a hole in his dreadful looking cap, and stirring his shock of frowsy hair, replied that it was enough to put things in a cove's head as was a jolly sight better out of it.
    "What are you two doing here?" I ventured to inquire.
    "Agricultooral labourers we are," responded the elderly vagabond, "and we're on the look out for a job, ain't we, matey?"
    "I've got blisters on two of my 'eels as big as 'arf walnuts a doing of it," answered the "matey," with a wink at the other. "There's 'undreds of us out, mister, as I daresay you might have 'eerd on. Its summut horful!"
    And the young man replaced his long legs up on the seat again, and fitted his shoulder comfortably into the old corner.
    "You can hardly expect to find an agricultural job here on London Bridge," I remarked. "But, perhaps, you have tried one part of the country, and are now on your way to another. Or do you mean to try your hands at the first job that offers, whatever it may be?"
    "Well, I ain't pertickler, mister," [-56-] said the elderly vagabond; "anything I could fall acrost would suit me, so long as I didn't shove another man out. What do you say, matey?"
    "I ses what you ses about that, Tinker," returned the young man, in the midst of a gape so terrific in its width that his back teeth were visible; "take a job if you come acrost one, but don't shove another man out. That be blowed. I'd rather beg for a livin'; wouldn't you, Tinker?"
    "I should 'ope so," returned the Tinker with a virtuous shake of his head; "bust it all, we may be poor, and we may be 'ard up, but let's keep our princerples."
    "But I don't understand. What do you mean by shoving another man out?"
    " Well, it's like this, master. There's men, don't you see, who don't care a brass farden who sinks so that they swim, or whose head they shove under water to keep their own at top. I should hate myself if I was that greedy. I takes the thing, and looks at in this ere light. It don't matter what you are - agricultooral or any other class of labourers - there's always a jolly sight more men to do the work than there's work for. Very well then ; them as in let 'em stay in. What does another man want to go a poking his nose and sneaking, and saying, 'Here I am, please, sir; pray do me a job o' work,' when he knows that wery likely when he shoves himself in he shoves another out. Not me; I'd sooner eat the bread of hidleness than do such a mean thing."
    "And how long have you been idle?"
    The young man to whom I addressed the question stirred up his memory through the hole in his cap, and then replied- 
    "Well, if you mean a regler job, I aint done such a thing since last hopping. Wery nigh a year ago now, it must be. That's about as long as you've been out, aint it, Tinker?"
    "I was a haymakin' up Saint Alban's way at that very time, and I stood a old fortnight of it. Then I found that I had shoved another man out, and course I cut it," replied Mr. Tinker. "They wouldn't own to it, but I knowed better. I come away without giving 'em a minute's notice, like a man; and I aint done nothing to speak on since."
    "You've heard nothing since do you mean?"
    "Well, if you mean wagers when you say earnings, no, I aint mister."
    "How then do you live?"
    "Ser-elp me if I can tell you, mister," replied the high-minded vagabond, with a cheerful grin. "I often ask myself the same question, and the only answer I can think of is, I live like the sparrers. I picks up a bit of wittles wheresomever and howsomever I can. 'There's a sweet little chirrup that sits up aloof,' don't you know, mister, continued the rascal with a contortion of his villanous face that was meant to represent a voluntary spasm begot of his childlike confidence in a pitying Providence. "Lor' on'y knows what would become of poor coves like us if it warn't for summut of that kind."
    "But you seem to forget one thing," said I, bluntly, " the sparrows do not beg for a living, and you do when it is not to be had in any other way, or I am much mistaken."
    There was something in my altered tone, I suppose, that roused their suspicions. A rapid glance was exchanged; and, unable other-[-57-]wise to vent his disgust, the young man twisted round on his seat and spat over the bridge."
    "I hope you don't call askin' the favour of a bit of bacca begging master," remarked the elderly vagabond, in a whining voice, "though of course, you should know best if you are one of them gene'lmen set to look arter beggars."
    "You may make your mind easy on that score," I replied with a laugh. "You are quite welcome to another pipeful, if it comes to that. I would at any time rather help a man reduced to beggary than betray him. I merely put the question in curiosity, you can answer or not as you please."
    They were reassured, and I have no doubt saw, at least sixpence in the distance. The younger vagabond faced round again, wiping his mouth on what looked like the torn out lining of his old cap, and made believe that he had been coughing.
    "Do you mean as regards begging I might answer your question or leave it alone, master?" remarked Tinker.
    "Yes, you do beg when you are on the road, I suppose?"
    "And likewise when we're on the path," he replied, with a confidential grin. "I won't deceive you, master. If I thought you - jest for argyment sake - was good for a tanner - and it's very likely you might be, arter showing yourself so free with your bacca - I won't tell no lie about it, I'd make so bold as to beg it off you. So would this young man. He's like me. When we're asked by a gene'lman as is a gene'lman, to be plain and straightfor'ad, we can be it."
    As I made no sign of responding to this candid and manly appeal for the moment, the sturdy villian presently remarked, 
    "A man can't starve, as you are p'raps aweer, sir. If a man starved hisself when it could be prevented, he would be committing sooicide, and going agin the laws of his land."
    "And the laws of his land," I ventured to remark, "put him into prison if he can work and won't, and prefers to beg."
    "I knows all about that, mister," returned the elderly vagabond, with a snarl that showed the end of the dirty pipe stem socketted in a hole worn between two of his yellow teeth, "I'd like to have the settlin' with them as make them kind o' laws. Why, it's a lawyering agin the scripters. I've never been through the scripters myself but I know them as has, and I'm give to understand that you'll find these words in one shape or other: 'Be charitable to'rds the poor,' in more'n five-and-forty places, and yet the blessed law steps in and makes it a summary conwiction if a man civilly asks for a trifle, and gets it."
    "Well, I can understand," I began, "that if a person is rendered destitute through being a cripple, or he is sickly and weak "-but he interrupted me with much more energy than he had hitherto displayed.
    "And do you mean to say, mister, that you would rather give a trifle to a chap that was sickly and weak, than a chap like me?"
    "Undoubtedly; it stands to common sense that I should."
    "Not to my common sense it ain't, though I've heered it said times enough to make a horse sick," he replied. "How can it? Who's most likely to warnt witt1es, one like me with a arty appetite, or a sickly chap who don't care [-58-] whether he eats or leaves it alone? One like him is hard up - which I ain't agoing to deny it - and the magistrates says, sez he, 'A strong, hearty, able-bodied fellow, you ought to be 'shamed of yourself to beg for food. If you was unable to work on account of being ill and weak I could understand it.' Why its just because I am strong and hearty that I am always ready for my wittles, and feels the miss of 'em forty times more than a sickly one would. But there, its no use talkin'."
    When it came to this I thought so too, and parting with the expected sixpence, I left my two destitute countrymen, who, I have no doubt, passed a merry quarter of an hour in talking about the "flat" they had so neatly "fiddled."