Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At a "Knocking Out"

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No. 44, in our row, where the late Mr. Tatters resided, was, one time o' day, the envy of the entire neighbourhood. The green railings enclosing the front garden were never allowed to appear in a coat of paint in the least degree shabby, the garden itself was a little paradise of red gravel rolled to the gloss and smoothness of ironed linen, and trim box borders and flowering plants of every sort and variety; the window curtains were matchless, the windows bright as a brook. As for Tatters' doorsteps, whether it was solely due to the superior skill of Tatters' housemaid or to a peculiar sort of heatthstone known only to a select few, certain it is that, whatever the state of the weather, they were a reproach to all others, left and right, and on the other side of the road.
    What Mr. Tatters was, was not generally known. That he was something in the City was beyond a doubt, since precisely at half-past nine in the morning he appeared at his gate to await the coming of the Balham bus, the destination of which was the Bank, and precisely at half-past four in the afternoon Mrs. Tatters might be observed at the parlour window, confidently looking out for the return of her lord by the same vehicle. Mr. Tatters enjoyed the reputation of being very well-to-do. The fishmonger and poulterer, as well as the butcher, called every morning for orders, and the pastrycook's boy could have found his way to Laurel Cottage blindfold. Erard's people had been seen to deliver a harp there. Young Tatters rode out on a pony, and often of afternoons the same animal was attached 

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[-151-] to a basket phaeton to draw Mrs. Tatters and the two youngest girls round the country for an hour or so. About August the window-blinds would be lowered, to rise no more for the space of six weeks, during which time the Tatters family was at Ventnor or Broadstairs. These little matters had been maturely considered by the matrons of our row, together with the probable cost, and the conclusion arrived at was that Mr. Tatters' income was as near five hundred a year as possible.
    Just after Christmas of the present year, however, there were evidences of something amiss at 44. Morning after morning half-past nine came round, and the Balham bus came down the hill and passed on innocent of Mr. Tatters. "What's come of the gent in the white 'at, Bill?" asked the driver of the conductor ; "he ain't rid with us this fortnite." "Ill, I shouldn't wonder; thought he looked shaky last time I set him down." "Oh! that's all right then, I was afraid the opposition had nailed him." And the driver, with his mind relieved, gives "the gent with the white 'at " no further thought.
    The conductor was right. Poor Mr. Tatters is shaky indeed. The doctor's carriage is daily at the door of Laurel Cottage as punctually as the baker's cart, and the door-knocker wears a kid glove. This for two months or thereabouts, and then the doctor's carriage is seen at the door twice as often as the baker's cart. This for still a further two months, during which the knocker has worn out two pairs of gloves at least. Then comes a time when it would almost seem that the doctor had made a wager as to the number of times he can drive to and from between his own residence and Laurel Cottage from breakfast time till dusk - arriving at the close of the last heat with two other doctors in their carriages as though the waste of a moment would lose him his stake. Next morning the doctor does not call at all, and the blinds are down at all the front windows, just after the August fashion, and the neighbours know that the poor gentleman has gone out of town for good and all.
[-152-] They buried him in so handsome a manner as to give grounds for the rumour that he had left his widow and five children very comfortable. But this was a mistake. On the contrary, he had left them exceedingly uncomfortable. He had been one of those easy-going, generous-minded men, content so that he grew grass enough for the present browsing of his little flock, and with no thought at all towards haymaking. He might have grown more thrifty and grudging by-and-by, but he was only thirty-seven when he died. That four months' long sickness had, on Dr. Balsam's account alone, exhausted the Tatters exchequer and butcher and baker, and tinker and tailor remained unpaid; and there were summonses in the house for poor's-rate and income tax, and thirty-one pounds ten due on the score of rent.
    It was inevitable what would happen. All that poor Mrs. Tatters possessed in the world was the furniture of her house  - (how the funeral expenses were met there were the pawnbroker's tickets for "two gold watches and chains, seven finger rings, twelve silver forks," &c., &c., to prove) - and that the butcher and the baker and the house agent clamoured for. It was a very capital house of furniture, and first and last had cost the late Mr. Tatters more than seven hundred pounds. It might reasonably be expected that sold at auction property of this value would fetch at least two hundred pounds, which would leave the widow exactly sixty-five pounds, all debts paid, and with which modest surplus the butcher suggested that she might open a little school or something.
    In a few days there was a breadth of stair-carpet drooping out of the second-floor window at No. 44, to which a placard was affixed announcing the sale; and knowing poor Tatters as a man of some taste, I procured a catalogue and marked a few articles that might be worth while bidding for.
    There was no mistaking the house. Besides the Kiddermninster banner floating from the window, there was drawn up [-153-] in front of 44 and extending to 49 on one side and 38 on the other, a line of shabby trucks and carts, the horses in which had their nose-bags on, making it clear that they were destined to stay there some little time. The gate was open, as was the street door, and lounging on the miraculous steps, and within the neat hall, were groups of unclean men with battered hats and green baize aprons, who looked as though their sole feeding was mouldy corn, and. their bedding the mildewing stalks of it. What their business at the sale was did not appear, since a threshing of their united pockets would not have yielded half-a-crown, but there they were, and at such places they are always to be found. The auctioneer's porters don't like them, and warn them off just as frequently as they encounter them, but they only turn tail for a yard or so, and then recluster in the passages and on the kitchen stairs.
    The sale at Laurel Cottage took place in the parlour, with the folding doors thrown open. The auctioneer was perched with his pulpit atop of a table, and four or five other tables in a row formed a convenient platform for the display of the article at the moment "under the hammer." I found that many of poor Tatters' neighbours besides myself were present, and every one, I have no doubt, willing to give a reasonable price for such goods as suited them. But, alas for the widow and her five children! there were likewise present in mighty force a host of shabby wretches, with dirty shirts, and dirty faces, and dirty hands; and their business there was to conspire to bamboozle and deceive honest buyers, and to cheat Mrs. Tatters out of as much of the value of her furniture as possible. My knowledge of this gentry is not restricted to my opportunity for observing their practices that afternoon. I know them of old, at horse sales and wine sales, and sales of Custom House rummage, but it never before entered my head in my small way to expose the dodgers. Maybe I never met a case in which their machinations worked so cruelly.
    [-154-] Shabby and hungry as the members of the Jewish pack appear, they have money in their pockets. It is not very unlikely that they will want it, but they may, and it would not do to be without a pound or so. Their prime capital, however, is unscrupulous lying and impudence of so gross and disgusting a sort that decent people dare not face it, and prefer, from the same reason that they decline to touch pitch, to leave the company or remain silent. " Knockers out" these fellows are called, and they manage their business systematically. They do not group together, but distribute themselves amongst the bona fide bidders, pretending to act in a perfectly independent manner. The "knocker out" is very communicative to the people about him, rather boasting than otherwise of his acuteness as a dealer, and talking as Jewish as possible. There are some rare things going, he believes, but all that is worth buying will be bought by the trade. "Don't you see how it is ? People who have got to pick up their living at sales take more trouble than private buyers. It wasn't his luck to come yesterday and look through the house, but there is old Marks over there, and Hookey Barnet, and Phillips from Dog Row; they were here all day yesterday, and there isn't a stick nor a rag in the place that they haven't handled, and know the value of to a penny. There's one precious good job they are such close shavers that a man with any conscience at all can always bid a shilling or two over them!" This is Mr. Solomons who says this, and meanwhile Hookey Barnet over yonder is confiding the same yarn to his innocent neighbour, only that he is the unlucky man who couldn't get as far as Balham to the private view yesterday, and Solomons is one of the close shavers, who has valued every stick and rag; and so the pretty story goes round.
    "Lot 28," says the auctioneer, "is an inlaid worktable and a velvet-covered settee ; what shall I say for lot 28? Ten shillings, eleven, twelve, twelve, twelve, twelve any advance upon [-155-] twelve?" (Mr. Phillips' was the last bid.) "Why, gentlemen! the worktable is worth twice the money!" " Thirteen," exclaims a timid voice, whereon muffled voices in various parts of the room are heard to titter, and Mr. Phillips exclaims, "Knock it down, sir! let the gentleman have 'em; he'll have time to examine 'em when he gets 'em home." "Going for thirteen shillings!" cries Mr. Auctioneer. Mr. Solomons intimates another shilling by a nod imperceptible to any one but the keen man of the rostrum. "Fourteen! going at fourteen!" The timid bidder of thirteen shillings is glad to have escaped the threatened peril, and the lot is knocked down to Mr. Solomons.
    Lot 20 is a feather bed and pillows. Next to blankets nothing has greater attractions for a furniture-dealer than a feather bed. Honestly the bed in question is well worth five pounds. As it is pitched down on to the platform Mr. Marks pinches up a great handful of it, and, shrugging his shoulders, turns away, muttering "Rubbish!" Mr. Barnet, on the other side, hooks his finger in at a seam, and tearing a rent, plunges in his fist and playfully remarks, " Oh, yes they is feathers! Ain't there a shuttlecock maker here as vill bid for it?" "I shall give you a pound for it, and chance it," cries Mr. Marks. "Twenty-five," from Mr. Solomons. " Twenty-six," from Mr. Barnet. "More fool you," exclaims Mr. Davis, "it'll cost ten bob washin' and purifying before it can be used." "Only twenty-six shillings for a perfectly clean goose feather bed," says Mr. Auctioneer, "clean as a new bed, I assure you." But it is of no use; visions of small-pox and fever fill the minds of the majority present (they know there has recently been a burial from the house), and the feather bed is knocked down at twenty-six shillings.
    Lots 30 and up to 35 are of a sort that the Jews have no fancy for, and these they willingly let strangers buy. Still nothing like a fair price is obtained. The Jews have, as it were, set the market, and the bids are ruinously low; but there is no reserve, [-156-] and down goes the hammer. Then comes a lot that they, the Jews, will buy if they can get it next to nothing; if not, the buyer who dares come between them and their spoil shall suffer. Say it is a chimney clock of Swiss make, and not valuable. "Ten shillings," says Mr. Moses. " Twenty," says a stranger, attracted by the pretty brass works and handsome glass case. The bidder is a troublesome one, and more than once has nearly baulked the Jews of a bargain. The wink goes round - the stranger must be "run up." Mr. Abrahams examines the clock closely, and deliberately bids thirty shillings. "Thirty- five," cries Mr. Marks. "Forty," promptly exclaims Abrahams. The stranger falls into the trap. Clearly the clock is worth more than he thought. "Forty-five," he bids. " Fifty," says Mr. Abrahams, with his hand eagerly laid on the clock, and his eye on the auctioneer, as though terribly anxious to secure the gem. The stranger hesitates; shall he lose it for the sake of half-a-crown? "Going for two pounds ten!" exclaims Mr. Auctioneer, raising his hammer. "Two twelve six," says the stranger. "Going for two twelve six!" and down goes the hammer. The stranger is bit. A roar of laughter from the Israelites follows the fall of the hammer - of real mirth, and of a very different kind from affected make-believe sniggering and the buyer sheepishly pays his money, and the transaction is a caution to all other strangers in the room. So the game is kept alive through the disposal of the hundred and forty lots that comprise Widow Tatters' household goods, and the entire proceeds realize a sum that, instead of sixty pounds, leaves her exactly eleven pounds fifteen "to open a little school or something" for the support of herself and her five orphans.
    After the sale comes the "knock out." The parlour of the nearest public-house serves them as a meeting-place, and there they congregate. They are all dealers, but there is sure to be one richer and in a more extensive way of business  than the rest amongst them. He takes the chair, with the cata-[-157-]logue of the sale and a pile of gold and silver money before him.
    "The first lot, gentlemen," says he, " is the drawing-room suite, knocked down at seven pounds. I shall stand nine for it." "It's worth ten!" remarks one of the company. "Will you give ten, Barny?" inquires the chairman. " No, I don't want the lot." "Will anybody give more than nine pounds?" Nobody will, and the chairman hands his eight brother conspirators each five shillings, and the lot becomes his.
    So with the goose-feather bed - (there is no talk now about shuttlecocks or insinuations as to fever, the reader may depend) - and the carpets and the splendid mahogany tables, &c., poor Tatters took such pride in; and more or less the fatter from their picking of the bones of his widow and little ones, the vultures disperse.