Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At a Dustman's Tea-Party

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JUST lately I received a polite invitation to be present at a public meeting on a grand scale, at which dustmen and their wives and children were to partake of a free tea, honoured by the company of "working men and their wives, ninepence a head, and visitors (the aristocracy of the neighbourhood) one shilling.
    It was quite an experimental gathering. Society had already considered its sweeps and its scavengers, and its shoe-blacks and its costermongers, and its street beggars and its workhouse outcasts ; it had even condescended to hold out the hand of a brother to the thief, and to the female of his species whose misfortune it is to haunt the public highway at midnight but somehow or other it had hitherto overlooked its dustmen. Day by day was heard their melodious call, and we gladly availed ourselves of their eminently useful services; but beyond ordering Jane to keep a sharp eye on them that nothing but dust-bin produce found its way into their baskets, we had troubled ourselves not at all in their concerns.
    I accepted the invitation with great pleasure, for, as it happened, I was not altogether ignorant of the habits and Customs of the dustman ; and I knew that, when the committee invited that person's wife and family, they contracted a rather serious responsibility. If a man be a scavenger, or a Sweep, it is more likely than not that beyond deriving sustenance from his avocation his family have no more to do with [-118-] it: his boys may be shoemaking or bricklaying boys, and his girls maids of all work, or "something in the City" : but with the dustman it is different. The young dustman's bride "takes his nature with his name," and their progeny is to ashes born. The wife must cut her own grass, as the vulgar saying is, and at the same time show her husband that, although a coal- heaver's daughter, she does not look down on him for his lowly craft; and so she takes a place as "sifter" at the yard or wharf to and from which her husband plies, and earns her eighteenpence a day and her "perks," which is a handy abbreviation of "perquisites," and applies to anything shaped in metal she may discover in her sieve. Did the reader ever see dust-sifters at work? If so lie has witnessed one of the most disgusting and degrading, if not the most disgusting and degrading application of female labour. As everybody knows, it is not dust alone that finds its way into the receptacles fixed for the purpose. All kinds of vegetable and animal offal is flung there, and accumulates to decay and putrefy until the dustman makes his call. Then the contents of the bin is carted away, and carried straight to the dustyard, where the sifters work. The sifters invariably are women and girls, and the " feeders" - those who shovel up the muck and pitch it into the sieve-are boys from ten to fifteen. The sifter is of picturesque appearance, wearing short petticoats, a bulky shawl about her throat and chest, and a bonnet of capacious dimensions, and which, in the case of the young and vain, apparently serves as a receptacle for all the gay finders in the way of ribbons and artificial flowers that may turn up in the sieve. The sifter wears about her waist a leathern apron of about the same texture as her husband's "fan-tail." She stands in ashes to within a very short distance of her knees. Her sieve is a full-sized one, being three feet across and weighing about ten pounds. " Sarve!" she says to the feeder, and the feeder straightway delivers into her sieve an enormous shovelful [-119-] from the reeking heap. She bumps the sieve with astonishing violence against her apron, and then proceeds to sort what will not pass through the meshes - her nose and mouth being within eighteen inches of the awful collection. She is surrounded by baskets for the "sortings" - the bones, the rags, the bits of bread, the old shoes, the big cinders and lumps of coal, and the bits of metal; and what then remains is pitched on to a heap of what is called "core," and is used in the foundation of new roads. The rags and hones are sold for manure and paper-making purposes, the coal and cinders go towards brick-making, and the old shoes for making the fiercest of fires for colouring fine steel. As for the bread scraps, they are more valuable than any, being sold at the rate of eighteen-pence the hundredweight to pig-breeders as fattening food. Only "metal" is regarded as legitimate "perks" by the yard foreman, except when it takes the form of money - all the money found (and the amount, as I am informed, in such yards as Messrs. Dodd's or Stroud's, who employ large gangs of sifters, is something very considerable in the course of a quarter) being saved and equally distributed at stated times. It not unfrequently happens that an entire family, including grandfather and grandmother, and sons and daughters, and grandsons and granddaughters, are in the same firm, and knowing this, and considering it in connexion with the liberal announcement of the committee that the entertainment was free to the dustmen and their wives and families, I was, as I said before, not a little curious as to how so ticklish an experiment would succeed. "Maybe," thought I, "they'll find themselves in some difficulty with a couple of hundred hungry dustmen attacking their thin bread-and-butter."
    But, as a single glance round the room in which the tea meeting was to be presently held plainly showed, the individual who had taken the matter in hand knew his business very much better than I could have taught it him. It was a spacious [-120-] room, or rather hall, and very prettily decorated. Flags waved from the oaken beams above, the walls were adorned with scriptural quotations more or less appropriate, and cut flowers, chiefly wallflowers, in profusion graced the long tables. The centre of the hall was apportioned to the guests of the evening, and on four tables extending the whole length of the building, and each capable of accommodating at least eighty persons, was an array of cups and saucers and lump sugar in glass basins, and new milk in jugs. To every four cups and saucers was allowanced a plate with a tremendous pile of bread-and-butter none of your mincing shavings of bread hardly strong enough to bear the weight of the butter spread on them, but jolly, substantial inch-thick rounds of cottage bread, new and "crummy." Flanking these tables were the ninepenny ones set out for workmen and their wives. Except that the bread-and-butter was somewhat genteeler in bulk, and the quality of the cups somewhat superior to the others, there was nothing to distinguish the free tables from the ninepenny ones, and, with all respect to the management, I would, in prospect of a repetition of the festival, suggest that even this slight difference should be avoided. As guests the dustrnen were entitled to at least as much consideration as those the value of whose company was estimated at ninepence a head. This may seem a small matter, but our worthy brethren of the fan-tail arc just the fellows to resent such an invidious distinction. Besides, I am quite sure that the "workmen" were not of the sort who would appreciate such delicate attentions. It only tended to make them uncomfortable. It was different as regards the "visitors," it being perfectly understood (though why it should is not exactly clear) that these included gentry only. However, the platform was set aside for the accommodation of the latter, and the steps of the platform were tastefully ornamented with flowering shrubs and ever-[-121-]greens and everything was as nice and pretty as hands could make it.
    Five o'clock was announced as tea-time, but it was not until a few minutes after the clock had struck that a body of dust-men put in an appearance. Finding that they were the first comers, this batch was shy, looking in at the door, and grinning and nudging each other as though they thought all along that it would be a "lark," and that now they were sure of it. But this was only make-believe. Just inside the door was a great table, and at work at it, under the direction of a pleasant little woman, with kind brown eyes, was a bevy of muscular damsels cutting up plum-cake at a tremendous rate. This wasn't a lark, anyhow, or, if it were, one of much too tempting a sort to be resisted; and when the brown-eyed little woman said cheerily, "Come along in, men; we are nearly ready for you " in they went, biting the peaks of their caps, and took their seats in a row on the handiest forms, where they sat, wondering at the lump sugar in the glass basins, and eyeing the crummy bread-and-butter critically; varying that occupation, when their bashfulness had somewhat subsided, by passing about one of the bunches of wallflowers, and sniffing it solemnly, and commenting in whispers on its market price.
    It was comparatively easy for the next arrivals ; for company's sake they were eagerly welcomed by the first corners, and took their seats as orderly as though to go to a public tea was an event of at least weekly occurrence with them. After this they flocked in in vast numbers - old dustmen, with their heads worn bald by friction of the fan-tail, and with decent smock frocks, with a flower at the button-hole, some of them ; young bucks of dustmen, apeing heavy swelldom in their bulky flannel jackets, and their brilliant and bunchy "kingsman" (silk neckerchief) encircling their throats, and fastened in a holiday bow old dust wives, with the symbol of their life-long labour marking their wrinkles as plainly as though an artist had gone over them [-122-] with his pencil, and with their fingers worn blunt and corny at the tips, through contact with the sieve-bars; blooming young dust wives, and sweethearts with gay handkerchiefs over their shoulders, and brilliant ornaments in their ears, and bran-new ankle-jacks upon their feet, and scores of boy "feeders," and girl odd hands and general assistants. How heartily the dust- men bad responded to the invitation of their friends was signified by the fact that amongst their company was a blind man, one that was silly, and a poor invalid who was wheeled in in an invalid carriage.
    As the number of dustmen increased I looked anxiously towards the master of the ceremonies, and was glad to see his blunt, honest face even more radiant than when I last looked at it. So I took no further concern in the matter, but found myself a seat between two nice old ladies with the corny fingertips before alluded to, and opposite a row of hearty, growing young -dustmen, and waited for the tea urns.
    I ought to have mentioned that instrumental music formed a feature of the entertainment. The police of the district had very kindly lent the band attached to their division, and there they were, a crew of smart young fellows, each with his instrument, posted at the end of the hall opposite to the platform. Presently the sound of trumpet and the martial roll of drums heralded the coming of the first tea-pot - or boiler it should rather be called, for its capacity was four gallons at the very least ; and one after another came twenty of the same measures, smoking hot, and borne by lusty men. When these had been fairly distributed amongst dustmen and visitors, the cruel tantalizing endured during three-quarters of an hour was at an end, and a vigorous pounce made at the bread-and-butter piles by the males, while the women, with that self-sacrifice that ever distinguishes them, for the present restrained their appetite, and busied themselves in filling tea-cups from the big pots.
    The row of hearty young dustmen before me numbered nine, [-123-] and I must confess that in a very few minutes my old fears as to the adequate provisioning of the garrison returned stronger than ever. To see these young men eat was terrible-awe-inspiring. The new and yielding rounds were easily divisible into four, and each quarter was but a mouthful. They ate silently, with downcast eyes, and their throats at ease in their voluminous wrappings. The only time when they evinced any emotion was when the musicians struck on an uncommonly lively key, and then they looked up with sudden pleasure in their eyes, and in the act apparently bolted half a slice without mastication - which, judging from their haste to return to deliberate and judicious eating, they regarded as a loss. I am quite within bounds when 1 say that in the course of half an hour of hard feeding those nine young fellows consumed at least nine half-quartern loaves. They didn't give their minds to tea very much. The new milk and lump sugar at first had its attractions ; but tea-time has its limits, and it soon became manifest to them that they could not afford to daily with unsubstantialities.
    But there was no stint. Soon as a plate was emptied a watchful waitress whisked it away, and replaced it by a full one. By-and-by the empty bread-and-butter plates were removed, and others full of cake placed in their stead. Then, for the first and only time during the evening, was a shade of discontent visible on the faces of my opposite neighbours. They were not angry with any one but themselves, however. They had been unwise. They had so filled themselves with bread-and-butter that to eat more than a couple of "chunks" of cake each was impossible. But they accepted defeat as men should, and with their expiring appetites fought the plummy enemy to the last extremity.
    Without doubt the tea was a success. Three hundred dust-men and their kith and kin had taken tea in the presence of a couple of hundred highly respectable people, and there had not been a single fight, or so much as an unseemly or foul word heard ;-which astonishing circumstance seemed to excite some [-124-] wonder amongst certain ladies and gentlemen patronizing the feast. I must confess, however, that I saw nothing in it to provoke astonishment; but then, you see, I have mixed more with formidable creatures of the dustman breed than the generality, and happen to know that they are not inferior in intelligence to the brute creation, and that they really will express their gratitude when kindly treated. They will bark when they are teased, but seldom or never bite wantonly or maliciously.
    So far the prime object of the gathering was realized. Silk and muslin had fraternized with cotton and gingham; superfine broadcloth had recognized dusty fustian and for the future our hitherto-despised guests are of us and with us and all we ask of them is to set about improving their condition, and show themselves worthy of our condescension. And now we will clear away the tea-things, and spend the evening harmoniously.
    And here began the blundering. While the management of the affair remained in the hands of its honest projector (who, be it known, is just a common greengrocer and lets vans for moving goods), all was as it should be; but now certain well-meaning but mistaken gentlemen on the platform took the reins, and, though they did no positive harm, they simply wasted their opportunity of doing good. It is an error to suppose that dustmen care for readings from Tennyson, or take interest in a milk-and-water parody on the "Seven Ages of Man," in the form of the "Seven Ages of Woman." It is improbable that he will hasten his steps up the ladder of respectability when on the very first round the gray and knowing old dustman finds himself treated to pretty little two-syllable stories, with a moral to them.
    However, all these little matters can be improved at the next dustman's tea party, at which I hope to be present.