Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The Comforts of Home

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WHEN the wintry winds blow, when chilly rain descends, or choking fogs prevail-when the roads reek, and the pavements wear an overcoat of mud, then culminates an Englishman's love of "home." Through the summer months and the pleasant autumn time, when London highways are tolerable and the meadows skirting the city are green and sunny, his great aim and desire is to get away, his sweet dream by night and day is of that glorious moment when, with his luggage comfortably stowed on the cab-roof, and his hands washed clean of "business" that shall not sully them for a month to come - fancy for full one-and-thirty lovely bright summer-days! - he skips into the vehicle, and bids the driver make haste to the station at London Bridge. But if in the December time of year, with the leisure and money to spare, a friend proposed to him a trip to Jersey, or even to Hastings or Brighton, he would beg to be excused. "The country and the sea-side are very well in their season ; but a man cannot get on without home and a goodly share of it too;" "But what do you mean by 'home?' Does the term, as used by you, simply comprehend a cheery room, happy faces, cosy hearthrug, tea-and-toast, and that sort of thing?" "By no means, my good sir. I should hold myself but a selfish man if my ideas of home were clipped so narrow. Home surroundings and associations are not to be forgotten. Abroad, I may pro-[-181-]cure an apartment, as commodious as this, with coals that glow as cheerily, crumpets as well toasted and buttered, tea as invigorating, and the identical feet with whose tread I am familiar participating with mine own in the cosiness of the lodging-house hearthrug but beyond that point the comparison fails. I need not go far to discover that I am not at 'home' in the true and happy acceptation of the term. I go no farther than my window. Where are the familiar faces, and sights, and sounds that tend to the perfection of that tranquillity and repose expressed in that magic little word of four letters ? Until it comes to careful scrutiny one is altogether unaware of the seeming trifles that go to the production of the comfortable whole. So small a matter as the clink of a milk-can may have to do with it, and its harmony may be marred by the absence of the muffin- bell. That bent-backed old fellow whom we now see looming in the evening twilight (and sober and punctual man that he is, he invariably is seen looming at this time), is not a picturesque object, and his shrill harsh voice as he shrieks 'Wa-ter kree-eses' is decidedly owlish ; but, grown accustomed to it, the mind undisturbed and methodical has it in expectation, and would miss it and grow uneasy at its failing.
    "Exactly;" but since your liberal ideas of home embrace the muffin man, as well as his muffins; and the water-cress man, as well as his cresses, pray what of the latter or of the former? What of that muddy boy, with his straight red hair sprouting like early crocuses through his tattered cap, and who blithely carols "Hop light, Loo," as he trudges home with a stumpy birch-broom on his shoulder? You need not inform me that he is the boy who sweeps the crossing in the High Street, and that the labours of the day at an end, he invariably selects this as his homeward route. I already know all about it; but what of him? You are familiar with his appearance-he is a recognized object in your "home" picture; tell us something about him. There is the little lad with the evening paper ringing at [-182-] your gate; surely he, with his ruddy face and his red comforter, and his manly little voice, which seems to bespeak the importance of the news he is the bearer of; is included within the limits of your home circle; what of him? Who is he? Splashing through the mud, and bawling "Pa-per " are not the prime objects of his life; what are?
    You don't know. You make it a point to give the crossing- boy a halfpenny when you avail yourself of his industry and happen to have coppers with you. Your evening paper is paid for, and if you knew your servant to stand higgling with the man of the green baize and bell over an odd muffin you would be extremely angry. Still, your sympathy with the muffin-man extends not beyond his wares and the tinkling of his bell. He is as complete a stranger to you as the old woman with the handkerchief over her head and clattering wooden shoes who came crying sweet cakes under your window when you were in France. You know more of the history of the hippopotamus than of the crossing-sweeping boy, for you have read about it, and you have paid a shilling for the privilege of seeing it flounder about in its grimy bath at the Zoological Gardens. Where does your evening paper come from?- where your morning paper? By what sort of enchantment is Ruddy-face enabled to come chirping with it at your gate before daylight these late mornings? You don't know; you don't inquire concerning these things. You take them as they come, and they all help to make "home," and you are quite contented and happy in that condition of life to which it has pleased God to call you.
    Which in the main is right and proper enough, still you are not absolved of the charge of selfishness. In reality your house is your world, and your sympathies are bound by the four walls of it. The familiar faces and things visible from the loopholes of your castle may conduce to your enjoyment of home as the sight of falling snow or accumulated ice enhances the worth of a glowing gratefull of Wallsend coals; but as far [-183-] as your real knowledge of the passers to and fro is concerned, you might as well look out on a desert.
    And this is a pity, because with the lacking knowledge would come increased satisfaction, and a more thorough enjoyment of home and its comforts. Imperfectly, the knowledge in question is mine, though rather out of business pursuits than by Christian and virtuous seeking. I can tell you all about that old water-cress man. He is seventy-six next birthday, and has been a soldier. Rheumatism is a more malignant foe of the old fellow's than ever were the king's enemies against whom it has been his duty to strike steel or speed bullet. He has a wretched home, but he won't go to the workhouse he will sooner die first. He told me so. I saw him one morning in November down at the water-cress beds near Hackney. It wanted fully three hours of daylight, and while I talked with him we stood on the frosty planks stretched over the bleak oozy "bed" where the cresses grew, and from which a man was gathering them by torchlight. I did not feel the cold, for I had already partaken of a good breakfast, and was well wrapped from the weather but the old water-cress man, without so much as a neckerchief, and his shirt collar wanting a button, winced before the bleak wind that blew his white hair about and visibly increased the blueness of his poor old nose.
    "You would be better in the workhouse," said I.
    "Better in my grave, where I shall be afore long, God willing," answered the old soldier; "but no workhouse for me, thanky."
    "Why don't you buy your cresses in the market?"
    "Because it's cheaper to buy 'em first hand. You'd be astonished how much cheaper. Why, it makes as much difference as threepence or fourpence in a day's stock!"
    Beside the old man, there were women and girls - a dozen of them, at least - all braving the field fog and the early darkness - coming, in some instances, three or four miles to brave it - to save threepence or fourpence in a day's stock! Think [-184-] of this next time you buy water-cresses in winter time, my friend, and bid your servant not grumble over-much at the smallness of the bunches.
    Muffins, again. For all the jolly jingle of his rhyming call and the merry tinkle of his bell, the business of the muffin- seller is of but shabby account. It is not as though he was his own master, as the saying is ; if it were so, things would be better with him. He is only a commission agent. If you meet him at Highgate his headquarters are as far off as Shoreditch. A tradesman lives there who does the most extensive muffin business in the kingdom. During the summer months he devotes his attention exclusively to ginger-beer; but come September (the seventh I believe it is, or the ninth-anyhow there is a fixed date for the opening of the season, like as for the Lord Mayor's show or the oyster season), he goes in with tremendous vigour for muffins. His bakehouse is an extensive place, and goodness knows how many sacks of flour he consumes weekly. It is his boast, I am told (based on information derived from his little boy, who is the cock of his school for arithmetic), that since he has set up he has made and sold muffins and crumpets enough to pave the whole world, mountains and all, two deep. He must be making vast sums of money this muffin-man, but his "lads" are anything but rich. They have to find their own white-sleeves, apron, and "blanket" (to keep the tender muffins warm), and bell ; and the commission they are allowed is threepence in the shilling. When they have disposed of five shillings' worth their earnings amount to fifteen pence, and five shillings' worth of the article is a tolerable board-load. Usually it is about tea-time when the muffin-man's bell is heard, and-.--especially if it should happen to be in the suburbs, to reach which he has trudged four or five miles-it is not at all difficult to imagine what a delicious surprise it is for the poor fellow when, on a dark, nipping afternoon, some good-natured buyer says, "If you like [-185-] to step inside for a minute I will give you a cup of hot tea." It is said that by so doing a singularly delicious flavour is imparted to the crummy discs when they are toasted. I can't answer for the truth of this, but it is an inexpensive experiment and certainly worth trying.