Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Sunday Evening with the "Fancy"

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IT is altogether a mistake to suppose that the poor folk of Bethnal Green sit continually in ashes, and attired in sackcloth. I must confess that the evidence that inclined me to this conclusion was gathered on a Sunday, but, as everybody knows, if you find a poor man merry on a Sunday, you may reasonably infer that his worldly condition is not unsatisfactory. Sunday is a terrible day with the downright destitute. In the hurry and drive and elbowing of work-day life, it is not impossible for the "hard-up" man to escape from a sense of his misery, to say nothing of the lingering hope that something may be just on the point of turning up. But on Sunday there is a lull. The bustling tide on which he has waited during the six preceding days, praying that it might presently float him, has subsided for four and twenty hours, stranding him on the comfortless ooze, with nothing more cheering for his contemplation, possibly, than an empty cupboard and several pairs of hungry eyes mutely inquiring when dinner will be ready.
    But, if flocking to a fair may be taken as a proof of minds contented and well at ease, we may dry our eyes and cease to mourn the existence of Hollybush Place and Crispin's Alley. At the rear of Shoreditch Church, and extending a distance of at least half-a-mile, is a long, narrow thoroughfare, part of which is Hare Street, and in that insalubrious locality the reader's duti-[-22-]ful servant found himself while the church bells were ringing on a Sunday morning. One of the churches from which the inviting sound proceeded was in the middle of Hare Street, and, chiming in with the shouting from leathern throats of "Who'll buy a cock?" "Who ses three piball mice for a tanner?" "Who'll give three hog (shillings) for a pegging finch?' "Almond nuts!" "Ha'penny a lot, whelks ;" "Toss or buy!" "Turf, green turf!" the effect produced was somewhat peculiar.
    The pavement being much too narrow to accommodate the pressing throng, the muddy road was crowded as well. It would be more difficult to specify what you might not buy in the way of live stock that morning in Hare Street, than to enumerate what was offered for sale. If you wanted chickens, there they were in baskets, in bags, and held by the legs, and swinging in feathery bunches from the dirty fists of the vendors. If you wanted a Cochin China fowl, there was a prime chance for you, for ploughing through the mire came a gaunt bird of that species struggling with all the pluck of his breed against a boy who had him by the tail, and came splashing after him. Did you want a goat, there were three "agoin' for the price of dawg's meat," as the person charged with their disposal declared. Were you desirous of possessing a donkey, there was one, together with a commodious barrow and four "tater sieves," - the lot for two pun' fifteen! Were you inclined to rabbits, lopeared, dewlapped, smut, or butterfly, you might here take your pick from a thousand. Ferrets, door-mice, white mice, black mice, rats for the pits, fancy rats, white, with red eyes and ginger-coloured rats, with tremendous teeth and whiskers; hedgehogs, for the destruction of black-beetles, guinea-pigs, tortoises. Is your heart set on any of these? If so, rejoice that you are in Hare Street on a Sunday morning.
    But, before all, Hare Street is strongest in singing birds. Not so much for sale seemingly, as brought out for an airing. There 

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[-23-] they were, not here and there one, but by dozens and hundreds - goldfinches and chaffinches chiefly, the cages that contain them tied in handkerchiefs, silk and cotton, and carried swinging in the hand, and jostling amongst the rude mob, as though they were of no more account than parcels of most ordinary merchandise, But the most amazing part of the business was, that not only did the imprisoned and much-hustled finches continue to exist under such circumstances, but they retained their perches and their equanimity in the most perfect manner, and sang as they were carried. To what amount and what sort of training these poor little birds had been subjected it is hard to guess. There they were, however, all in the dark, with no purer air to breathe than the ordinary Hare Street air, further poisoned by the presence of the foul mob, hung dangling at arm's length, and jostled, and shook, and spun about, yet raising their tiny pipes as though nothing at all was the matter, and they were as much at their ease as the grimy-faced, short-pipe puffing gentry that carried them. My particular attention was directed to a young man of the neighbourhood, who wore the peak of his cap over his left ear, and who, besides a bird in a handkerchief, carried a bull-terrier pup affectionately hugged to his bosom. 
    "On for a deal ?" the young man inquired, stopping abruptly as he caught my inquiring gaze.
    "What for ?"
    "Pup. Three months old; comes o' the best warmint bitch out. Buy him ?- arf a quid!"
    "I don't want a dog. I might buy a bird that was cheap. What do you want for that one in the cage ?"
    "What for the finch ? I don't want nothink for the finch. If you want a peggin' finch I dare say I can put you on to one, but this ere one o' mine ain't a-goin'. Do you want a peggin' finch ?"
    "Is a finch that can 'peg' dearer than one that can't? [-24-] What does it peg at ?" I innocently inquired. However, the young man found offence in my answer. Curling his expressive upper lip, and jerking his head scornfully, "You had better buy a guinea-pig with your money," said he, and walked off.
    I walked the length of the fair through and through, but though I frequently tried to court the attention of a person with a musical bundle, I was in no case successful. But I had fixed my mind on ascertaining all about finches and their peggings, and as it was now one o'clock, and the public-house doors were opened, I joined the thirsty throng waiting for admittance, knowing how men will talk over their beer, and hoping by that means to get at the secret. It was a hazardous experiment. The beer of Brick Lane, though strong, is peculiar as to its flavour, and with any one not accustomed to it a little goes a long way. It was not so, however, with my brother bibbers, Many hours had elapsed since their lips had pressed a pewter pot, and their return to their love was a spectacle to behold. They gazed on its creamy head as on the face of a sweetheart, and, still fixing their eyes on it, gently and by a curious action of the muscles of the wrist gave to the vessel a circular motion so that the foam wantoned with the edge of the cool, shining pewter, and threatened to spill. Then, like snatching a kiss, the creamy crown and the lips met, the drinker half closed his eyes, and there ensued a period of bliss, prolonged, unspeakable.
    There were a good many performers before the bar, and before every man had re-plighted his troth and put himself in condition to discuss ordinary topics, my measure of Brick Lane beer was considerably reduced. But alas! even when they began to talk I was almost as much in the dark as ever. The conversation was strictly birdy. One person was bragging of his "slamming" goldfinch, and there was a dispute as to how many "slams" it could execute within a given time. Another [-25-] individual button-holed a friend, and told him all about his "greypates," while a third was learned on the subject of linnets, and recited that able bird's sixty-four distinct notes, but of which the only sentence I could make out was "Tollic, tollic, tollic, chew-chew-tew-wit-joey," and as the man had a very gruff voice and gave the recitation with a strong nasal twang, I am afraid that my ideas of the linnet's song were not exalted by the lesson. There was presently some talk about chaffinches and "chaffinch matches," and then I began to glean a little real information. I learned that in the very house we were then in the " muffin man" had sung his bird against another songster the property of a gentleman whom the company spoke of as "More-Antique," on the previous Thursday, for 3 a side, and that More-Antique had lost by three chalks. The terms of the said match appeared to be that each man hung up his bird against the wall, in the position he best fancied, and that the finch that uttered the greatest number of perfect notes within the space of fifteen minutes - an impartial person sitting at a table, and chalking down the notes as they were delivered-should be the winner. A "perfect note," as described by the gentleman who was so great in linnets, was "toll-loll-loll chuck weedo," and if in its utterance the bird abated a single syllable of the note it didn't count in the scoring.
    The conversation changing from chaffinches, I was about to take my departure, when the gruff-voiced man politely stepped up to me with a printed card in his hand. It was black- bordered, and as he offered it to me he remarked,
    "Did yer know him ?"
    As he spoke he laid his finger on the name of "Jemmy Baldwin," punted on the black-bordered ticket. I replied that I wasn't quite sure that I did know him, but at the same time inquired what was the matter with Jemmy.
    "Snuffed it," replied the gruff man impressively - "snuffed it, and left the missus and the kids - eight on 'em - in Queer Street. [-26-] Howsomever, take a ticket; it's only threepence, and then you'll know all about it."
    I took the ticket, which informed a sympathetic public that "Jemmy Baldwin had died sudden, leaving nothing to bury him," and "that a few friends would meet that (Sunday) night at the Tinkers' Arms, Spicer Street, for the benefit of the widow and orphans. P.S.-Mr. Cullum will show his celebrated battling finch." The last line decided me as to my line of conduct.
    Between seven and eight that evening I once more found my way to the Tinkers' Arms, and on producing my ticket was directed to the "parlour," which was at the end of a passage and down a flight of steps, giving rise to the supposition that the chamber now so called was at one time a kitchen or beer-cellar. Early in the night as it was, the aspect of the parlour was significant of the esteem in which the late Jemmy Baldwin was held. Capable of accommodating about twenty-five persons comfortably, the parlour was made to hold at least seventy, and as there was a tremendous fire in the grate, and at least half the seventy were tobacco smokers, the terrible fog that came lazily belching out on one as the door was opened may be easily imagined. At first glance I thought that there could not possibly be room for another individual, but my friend with the gruff voice was there, and, recognizing me, rose and beckoned me with the stem of his pipe to come and sit beside him, an invitation I at once availed myself of. 
    "Rather crowded," I remarked.
    "Will be bimeby," replied the gruff man. "Cullum ain't come yet, but he's sent his finch. That's Cullum's finch over agin the chimbley. That there back cage with the black crape on it is Jemmy's goldfinch, poor feller."
    Whether the gruff man's expression of compassion was intended for the deceased Jemmy or the goldfinch was not clear, but certainly the bird, whose cage was in mourning, was not [-27-]  unworthy of pity. There it hung, poor little creature, and there, as I could contrive to make out through the dense fog of tobacco smoke, now that my attention was specially called to the matter, hung thirty or forty small birdcages, each with an occupant. On every table in the room, further sweltered and stifled by having its habitation enveloped in a handkerchief, were at least half-a-dozen similar cages, and the birds within could be heard hopping about and chirping as merry as crickets. Will any learned ornithologist kindly unravel the mystery? How is it that my goldfinch would die before morning if I were guilty of the barbarity of hanging him on retiring to bed beneath my bed-curtains, and that the "muffin man's" goldfinch retains its sprightliness in an atmosphere foul enough to poison a well-sinker? How is it that any dicky-bird of mine will pine and die if the smallest quantity of tainted matter is allowed to remain in his house, while cat's-meat sellers with impunity combine the bird-dealing business with their proper one, and perch their "store cages," containing songsters of every kind - including that ethereal creature, the skylark - on mounds of feculent horseflesh in their shop-windows?
    To return, however, to the parlour of the Tinkers' Arms. Not for the sake of anything that remains to be said concerning poor Mr. Baldwin's benefit, or the show of birds that graced it. The "show" meant nothing at all, and why on earth the gentlemen who met to smoke their pipes could not have left their finches at home was altogether a puzzle. In nine cases out of ten the cages that were brought in tied in a handkerchief remained so standing on the table by the side of the owner's pint-pot during the hour or so that I remained in the room, nobody inquiring after the sweet-throated tenants, or making, as far as I could see, the slightest allusion to them. I inquired of my gruff-voiced friend (who, by-the-by, turned out to be a very decent fellow) where was the use of bringing the birds if they didn't uncover them for people to see. "Oh, I don't know," [-28-]  he replied. "It's their fancy, don't yer know; that and flashness," an explanation which I submit to the reader without a word of comment.
    By nine o'clock the room became at least thirty per cent. more crowded than when I entered it, and I was not sorry to hear my gruff friend presently remark that he had had almost enough of it. "Besides," said he, "I promised to look in at the Ship in Hunt Street; there's a dawg-show there to-night; Lemike's in the chair. Lemike's a-goin' to show his white bulldawg, and King's dawg Prince'll be there."
    "I'll take a turn there with you if you like," said I, and away we went there and then.
    Hunt Street is a rather dark street, and the Ship Tavern not so brilliantly illuminated as it might be; but there was no difficulty in discovering it, knowing beforehand that dogs were there assembled. The deep-mouthed barking of bulldogs, the sharp challenging bark of the English terrier, the pettish, snappish bark of the spaniels and "toys" blended to make an uproar not commonly heard. The gruff-voiced man led the way past the bar, before which a dozen or so of doggy men, with their canine property in their arms, or between their legs, were carousing, and into a room beyond.
    In all respects it was an inferior spectacle to that presented by the lively room at the Tinkers' Arms. The room itself was filthy in the extreme; its walls and ceiling black with tobacco smoke, and the atmosphere of the place simply pestilential. As for the company-dogs and men - the former, though possibly in a minority, formed by far the most respectable portion - indeed, it was quite saddening to see some of the well-bred dogs in such detestable company.
    The chairman was not at his post, a circumstance that seemed to puzzle the company generally not a little, as Mr. Lemike was known to be the most punctual of men, and always proud and happy to bring his pets to a show. But, alas for poor Mr. [-29-] Lemike! his absence was presently accounted for. It was sorrow and deep distress that kept him away from the Ship that night. Himself a publican, the police had most provokingly paid an untimely visit to his house a day or two before, and there discovered fifty-three young thieves and their sweethearts engaged in a raffle in Mr. Lemike's tap-room;  5 was the penalty in which the unfortunate publican was mulct, with the magisterial intimation that it would be wasting his time to apply next March for a renewal of his licence. No wonder that Mr. Lemike had no heart for dog-shows that Sunday night.
    The place was crowded, and there was scarcely standing room, so that, until you took courage from the indifference displayed by the company generally, one could not help feeling slightly nervous at the close proximity of furious bull-dogs, with glaring eyes and lolling tongues, savage at sight of each other, and not improbably hard-pressed by thirst in that hot, close den, and panting for the blood of the first creature they could plant their teeth in. True, their masters, not caring to trust to their leash, held them each by the collar as a policeman holds a thief; but this seemed only to increase their fury, and they strained and strove, as only a bull-dog can, to break away, and then, with one's calf within a foot of the monsters' jaws, and not even the protection of a Wellington boot, came the thrilling reflection, " If it should!"
    Different, too, from the bird-show was the present exhibition in the matter of passive enjoyments of the "fancy involved. Louder even than the barking of the bigger dogs was the uproar of shockheaded, loud-mouthed ruffians extolling the qualities of their canine nets, and staking the security of their eyes and limbs - of their lives even - on the truth of the barefaced lies that came so freely from their blasphemous mouths. Matches for dog to fight dog, for dogs to kill rats against time, and against each other, and for dogs to "show for points," were yelled out With many oaths, and with a horrible din that made one shudder. [-30-]  And in this precious amusement, in this one foul pot-house, were engaged at least sixty men, all on a Sunday evening.
    There is always to be met an exception to the prevailing rule, and it was not wanting on the present occasion. This was a man with a bull-dog pup, who sat in a corner nursing his pet, and speaking not until he was spoken to. He was a middle-aged man this, with long, well-oiled hair, the ends of which were trained to turn under, and, as was plain to be seen, his hair and his pup were that man's chief treasures on earth. It was almost melancholy to reflect that human hair will decay as age creeps on - that puppies will grow and assume the stature of mature dogs. It was a white puppy, and he nursed it like a baby, with its hideous head resting against his greasy bosom. Alternately he sleeked his hair and coaxed it to remain turned under at the ends, and fondled the bull-dog, and tenderly rubbed its gums with his forefinger. "That's a pooty thing," remarked a connoisseur, "what might be the age on it?" - "Seven months and a week," replied the oily man, looking up with almost maternal pride in his eyes; "it's pooty, as you say, now, but what will it be bimeby ?"