Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At the "Turnspit," Quaker's Alley

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THE ticket read as follows

On Monday, the --, the Canine Fancy may make
sure of a treat by dropping in at Billy Skunko's,
Rats in the pit at Half-past Eight precisely.
Previous to the above entertainment, Mr. Chitley will sing his finch Peeler against Edward the Topyob's celebrated bird, for a pound a side. Cages uncovered at Eight. Plenty of rats on this occasion, with squeakers for youngsters and shy'uns. After the sports a harmonic meeting, with

The gentleman who kindly furnished me with the above document (which was at once a programme of the entertainments and an order of admission) being doubtless of opinion that a person of my evident ratty tendencies would experience no difficulty in the matter, simply informed roe that "the Spit was somewhere nigh the Brill," and that Quaker's Alley ~~ as in the same delectable neighbourhood. I had previously heard of the "Brill" - indeed, knew my way to that imposing palace of gin and bitters tolerably well. So thitherward, in the first place, I inclined my steps, and then came to a halt, that I might inquire of some likely-looking wayfarer whereabouts was the " Spit."
    Advancing at a hurried pace from a dark and dirty little street immediately before me, came an individual whose oily locks and neckerchief stamped him as of the "fancy;" and if further [-272-] confirmation were required, there it was in shape of a square little parcel neatly tied in a cloth, and carefully tucked tinder his arm.
    "Which is Quaker's Alley, my friend ?"
    "On a'ead, and the ftft to the left. I'm a goin' there."
    "So am I."
    "Wuth your while. Wuth anybody's while. Got anythink ?"
    "How do you mean?"
    "What are you going to Billy's for? - to kill or sing, or only to look on and do a bit of tebbing if you sees a openin' ?"
    I certainly was not going to Billy's to "kill," nor to sing unless on compulsion, and not having the least idea what "tebbing " was, I was likely to miss my chance of making a bit at it, though the opening that revealed it was never so large. So I replied to my friend that until I saw how matters went at Skunko's, I wasn't sure what I should do.
    "I'll tell you what you mustn't do, or you'll blue all the stuff (lose all the money) you've got with you," remarked my friend confidentially- "you mustn't lay as much as a oat on Chitley's finch."
    "What makes you think so?"
    "What makes me ? Why, common sense makes me. Havin' eyes in my cad makes me. He's a cur, that's what Chitley's finch is. He'll keep it going like steam when there's nothing great brought agin him ; but show him a out-and-out battler like the Topyob's, and he's down on the knuckle bone before you've chalked five to him."
    "That's one side of the question," I replied, deeming it prudent, even at a trifling pecuniary sacrifice, to affect some acquaintance with the subject. "What's the odds against Chitley's finch?"
    "Taint odds at all it's evens. What I'm a tellin' you is on the quiet. Howsomever, I'll go you a half-dollar level if you re a-mind."   

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[-273-] Of course I was a-mind, and we shook hands on the wager. My name's Chick, said he proudly, "don't you make no mistake. I'm good for half-a-dollar or a flyer either." After this Mr. Chick, who evidently regarded my half crown as already bagged, became more chatty than ever. The conversation turned on chaffinches, and he gave me the history of the one imprisoned in his pocket-handkerchief. It was good at "pegging," he informed me, but had no heart for match singing. As I gleaned from Mr. Chick, pegging is a rural pastime, and one not without attractive features to persons eager in the pursuit and capture of wild creatures. First of all, you require a pegging finch, which simply means a chaffinch that has been trained to preserve his equanimity and disposition to sing under the most foreign and singular circumstances. "A good pegger," said Mr. Chick, " should be able to make hisself at home anywhere, and pipe up at word of command as well when carried in the jacket pocket as when hanging quiet agin the wall. Dark or light should make no difference to him, nor carrying about, nor nothink.'' When your chaffinch is educated to this pitch of perfection, he is fit for the pegging business. When you set out, however, on a bird-catching expedition, you will require besides (your pegger in his little cage being enveloped in a thick handkerchief) a stuffed bird of the same species mounted on a stick, at one end of which there is a spike and some skips of whalebone somewhat thinner than a pipe-stem, and each with a spike at the end ; and some good bird-lime in a tin box.
    So equipped, you take to the country, and stroll through the pleasant lanes until you hear the peculiar note of a chaffinch in a neighbouring tree. Your pegger in his prison hears as quickly as you do - more quickly, probably - and at once opens his pipes and lets out a loud-sounding challenge. It was only the love-call (as Mr. Chick expressed it) that the bird in the tree previously had uttered, but, hearing the strange clarion, at once replied as a bold bird should - as a jealous, loving husband [-274-] should, who, after no end of fighting and fierce contention, has secured to his spouse a poplar tree all to herself, anti suddenly is made aware of some sweet-throated rival approaching its sacred precincts. There is an exchange of volleys, and then the bird-catcher makes his little arrangements. His experienced eye discovers the tree in which the terrible little Blue Beard, or rather blue-beak is, and in the trunk of it he sticks the pointed end of the stick the stuffed bird is mounted on, so that it stands out fair in view. Then he anoints his whalebone slips plentifully with bird-lime, and fixes them likewise in the tree's trunk, two just above and two just below the stuffed bird. Then he places his pegging finch, in its enveloped cage at the foot of the tree, strewing a handful of grass over it. Now he can retire from the spot and leave the dispute to be settled between the two live finches and the stuffed one.
    The contest is of short duration. Banging their musical artillery at each other, each moment faster and more furious, the free bird flies about and darts from tree to tree and from bough to bough, bent on discovering the insolent invader of his domestic peace and taking signal vengeance on him. Presently he spies him, or rather he imagines that he does ; but, instead of the aggressor, it is only the innocent dummy. Jealousy, however, is blind as love itself; and swift as an arrow the brave chaffinch swoops down, alas! to find himself entangled amongst the whalebone slips, the treacherous smearing on which holds him fast, or, if he is strong enough to bring them down, it is only to run screaming along hampered by the cruel skewers, until the bird-catcher comes and makes the capture sure. As many as twenty prime singing chaffinches (of course it is only the males who are thus lured) may be thus captured in a single morning.
    By the time that Mr. Chick finished his interesting dissertation on the art of chaffinch snaring, we arrived at the Turnspit - an ill-looking little beershop, smelling villanously of dogs and [-275-] birds and stale tobacco and beer-slopped sawdust. The bar was a small one, but the parlour behind, where the Skunko family lived and ate (and slept, too, if the presence of a press bedstead might be taken as evidence), was opened to it and appropriate to its ordinary use. Under a table was a heap of pots and cans awaiting the necessary process of scrubbing, and on the table were bottles and measures, and other implements of the beer-retailer's trade. Round the walls were ranged stuffed birds, and stuffed dogs, and pictures of fighting men in every imaginable attitude of difficulty, and a picture effectively coloured of the " man-mungoose," who, with his hands tied behind him, fought fifty rats in a pit by biting them to death. Dog collars and leashes and muzzles and bird-cages made up the remainder of the decorations. Mr. Skunko and his wife and eldest daughter were at tea in the parlour, and on the rug before the fire were several canine treasures, including a long-suffering looking shaven French poodle, the ears of which a Skunko baby was viciously gnawing as it sprawled on the ground.
    Not knowing exactly to what part of the premises my order gave me admission, I pushed open the first door I came to. A glance convinced me that this was neither the ratting nor finch-singing department ; but it was worth a peep, as showing to what degrading shifts and inconveniences men will submit rather than forego their hobbies. The room in question was a nasty little place fitted as a taproom, but it also served as a washhouse for dogs, and the washing at that moment was in progress. One animal, an enormous fellow of the retriever cross-breed, had undergone the ordeal of the suds, and now was reclining on a long board before the fire, while a dog-barber combed and curled its hair. Another dog, however, was at present in hot water, and whining and shivering on a table, while the potman rubbed and scrubbed him, splashing and slopping, and filling the evil little den with unwholesome [-276-] steam ; there, however, dimly visible through the mist, sat half-a-dozen gentlemen of the fancy, calmly smoking their pipes and sipping beer, and discoursing of birds and dogs and rats.
    It was in an apartment adjoining that the singing match was to take place, and preparations were being made for it as I entered. Since I have something besides to tell of, and space is precious, I may not enter at length into the particulars of the chaffinch conflict. The room, which was capable of accommodating about sixty persons, was full, and at least half of those present were smoking ; nevertheless, time rival songsters hung facing each other on opposite walls, gave their notes with full throats, answering each other just as Mr. Chick described the caged bird and the free one answering each other at a pegging bout; while a well-trusted authority sat at a table and made a chalk mark on it whenever Mr. Chitley's bird or the Topyob's (the mysterious cognomen of this last-mentioned personage, to my disgust, I afterwards discovered was merely "pot-boy" disguised in what is known in certain circles as "back-slang" ) uttered a note and finally, as Mr. Chick had predicted, Mr. Chitley host.
    "Now, gentlemen," exclaimed Mr. Skunko, "the preserves is open and the game laws is suspended for this night only." At which little pleasantry everybody laughed, and in a mob followed their host to the rear of the premises.
    Out at the back door, across the yard, and into another horrible-smelling building, which, soon as Mr. Skunko lit a glaring gas jet, was revealed the skittle-ground of the establishment. Likewise it was the storehouse of Mr. Skunko's canine stock-in-trade. Round about the walls were tubs and kennels and railed boxes, and, startled by the incoming of so many strangers, instantly there was a clanking of dog chains and such a chorus of dog music as I had not heard since my visit to the Home at Battersea. With mastiffs and yard dogs [-277-] and terriers and bandy, blear-eyed bulldogs grinning in malice, and madly struggling against their collars to get at the legs of Mr. Skunko's guests, I was delighted to hear his cheerful assurance, as he went first with the light, that there was no danger "if we didn't get a joshlin' and scrougmg within their reach."
    The rat pit was on the frame of the skittle-alley, with boards placed round about breast high. Here we were out of reach of the dogs, and at the end was a sort of raised platform for the more favoured of the company. On a great bunk at hand were several iron-wire cages of rats smelling their doom, and squeaking and scratching to get out ; and over these Mr. Skunko presided. Round about the pit were the fanciers who meant to test the killing powers of their dogs, and who carried the pets hugged in their arms.
    "Let me have half a dozen, Billy," exclaimed a customer; and at once Billy opened the stocking-leg mouth of a rat cage, and fearlessly plunging his hand into the vermin nest plucked out by their long tails, one after another, six rats, flinging them, as it seemed to me, with unnecessary force into the pit. Instantly the customer dropped his dog over the barricade, and the work of slaughter began, the spectators yelling encouragement to the plucky little terrier, and banging the boards of the pit with their hands and feet to startle back any maddening wretch of a rat that sought so to escape from the inexorable jaws of "Wix," which, as I understood, was a handy abbreviation of "Wixen." In three minutes there remained in the pit six still rats, a few waifs of bloody fur, and a dog licking his lips.
    Then came another customer and six more rats. Then a gentleman well known in the pigeon-flying interest, with a new dog he was mighty proud of, and ordered a dozen rats for him all at once. But the pride of the pigeon-fancier was doomed to stiffer ; the dog was even more afraid than were the rats, and ran away from them, whereat the spectators banged the boards [-278-] in derision, and made such ridicule of the poor dog and its owner that the latter presently grew furious, and vaulting into the pit snatched up the rats and shook them in the dog's face, at the same time calling it all manner of horrible names for its cowardice. But the dog wouldn't bite, and being enjoined by Mr. Skunko that he was "cuttin' time to waste," the pigeon- flyer stamped on all the rats, and, fetching his dog a kick, sent it howling over the heads of the audience into the middle of the skittle-ground.
    The next customer had a very young dog that he wasn't sure of; so he ordered for it a rat with the "teeth drawed." Except from the mouth of a mad dog it is difficult to imagine a more ticklish bit of dentistry than that of extracting the incisors of a full-grown rat. But, to my astonishment, Mr. Skunko made light of the job. Catching the creature somehow by the throat, he forced open its mouth, and, as far as I could see, with no other implement than his strong thumb-nail, wrenched out as many teeth as he pleased, and then flung the poor mutilated rat into the pit to be mumbled and worried by the savage puppy - the result so pleasing the puppy owner, that the tooth-drawing process was repeated again and again.
    So the "sports" proceeded until the floor of the pit was stained red, and as many dead rats as would fill a bushel basket were heaped up by the cages. The best of the customers served, came those of the humbler sort - hard-up and out-o'work men, who had stinted themselves of beer even all the evening that they might reserve fourpence to buy a rat to show their dog off. It was very curious to hear these customers begging for a "whacker, one what'll want facing," for their four-pence, and watch their eager faces craning over the pit's edge as they joyously clapped their hands and laughed aloud to see their beauty pin the "warmint." Equally curious was it to see the utterly penniless fancier, with his cur under his arm, excited by the sport till he had lost his shame of beggary, going about [-279-] inquiring imploringly, " Who'll give my dawg a rat ? who'll be a penny to'rds my dawg havin' a rat ?" and all the while his hungry stomach would be grateful for a pen'orth of bread.
    By ten o'clock I had seen so much of the "Renowned Billy" at the pit, that I had no heart left for viewing him in the harmonic "cheer" he was presently to fill, and so I came away.