Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Guides to the Turf

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[* This paper was written at the time when betting in the streets had become such a nuisance that it was found necessary to take prompt measures for the suppression of the vice.]

IT cannot be too generally known that at the present season an alarming and shocking epidemic is threatening the metropolis. It is not a new affliction, being familiar to the public as "the betting nuisance." Fifteen years since it raged to such a terrible extent that the law was roused to action, and made desperate endeavours to mitigate, if it was not possible to eradicate, the evil by clearing out the hot-beds of the contagion known as "betting shops," and curing their foul promoters and proprietors by sweating them on the treadmill and sousing them in prison baths, and holding them fast even after that until they provided substantial security that they would for the future shun their old ways of abomination.
    For a time the snake was scotched, but by-and-by it crept out again - shyly, however, and not as a householder; being content to lurk about likely street-corners seeking whom it might devour-always with a watchful eye for the policeman on his beat. Finding that its resuscitation was either unheeded or observed and winked at, the nuisance grew bolder, and emerging from the slums of its birth, marched into the City, and boldly took its stand. The Fleet Street end of Farringdon Street appeared a promising spot. Passing to work in the morning or home in the evening, or going to or returning from [-311-] dinner, troops of rash and stupid young fellows - clerks, warehousemen and factory lads - came that way, and there can be little doubt that for some considerable time the betting man had a good time of it. It speedily became apparent that he did. On his first reappearance after his long seclusion, his presence was scarcely calculated to inspire confidence in the breast of his clients, and only the most insane infatuation for gambling on the part of the dupes that he angled for stood his friend. His clothes were lamentably shabby, his hat black and seedy and battered, but well brushed invariably, while his last week's shirt modestly retreated from view under the protecting lappet of his waistcoat, and the consolation of the blacking-brush was unequal to the task of inspiring his down-trodden high-lows with smartness. But lo! tended by kind fortune, these trifling infirmities were speedily remedied. The seedy black hat gave place to the jauntiest of white ones, the inconsolable boots to a pair all shiny leather and drab cloth, while a sportsmanlike pin sprouted out of the betting man's flashy neckscarf, and his watch chain was an article not to be weighed in the puny scales of a gold smith. His sudden good fortune intoxicated him, and he took to swagger and insolence. It was nothing to him that honest men required the pavement that he and his choice companions impeded by mobbing on it that they might the more conveniently compare and regulate the baits proper to catch flats with, and if by accident he was elbowed, he resented in bullying and bluster, and not unfrequently by threatening pugilistic consequences. This was his ruin ; a repetition of this objectionable behaviour attracted the attention of the police, and the fiat went forth that the betting man was to move on. If he did not move on fast enough, he was shoved into the gutter, and if this did not expedite his movements, he was helped along to the station-house.
    As may be readily imagined, such unceremonious treatment caused not a little excitement amongst the fraternity of the [-312-] little book and pencil. The British householder who reads this has probably had opportunity of observing how a horde of blackbeetles will scuttle away if in the night-time a light is suddenly brought to them. Just such a panic affected these human creatures. Deserting the corner of Farringdon Street, they fled across the road-the main body into Bride Court, and a few stragglers into the alleys leading to by-way taverns, from whence they emerged timorously, and snatched crumbs from the highway when the backs of the policemen were towards them. After a little while, however, the bull's-eye again flashed among them, and they emigrated in a body once more across the road and down Farringdon Street, until they came to a piece of waste land in the select neighbourhood of Field Lane and Saffron Hill, and this field they held for a year or more, until one fine morning, on coming to their hunting-ground, they discovered erected on it a board bearing the simple intimation that trespassers would be prosecuted; and there being no more waste land in the neighbourhood, to all appearance they "moved on" as the police directed, and congregated no more. 
    Only to appearance, however, as I recently discovered - the fact being that whereas the public at large has deemed these sharks and man-catchers defunct a year and more, they have all the time been alive and active, increasing as vermin will, and plying a roaring trade, with the full cognizance and under the eyes almost of the police.
    In Farringdon Street there is a narrow, old-fashioned way known as Fleet Lane, and at the end of this, extending towards Snow Hill, is a public thoroughfare, flanked on one side by the arches of the Metropolitan Railway, and on the other by a hoarding that shuts in part of the ground on which the Fleet Prison formerly stood. It is not a capacious thoroughfare, being, if I may trust my memory, about twenty feet wide and a hundred and fifty yards long. It was about one o'clock in the day when I visited the pretty place, and that I may [-313-] make no mistake as to the number of people there assembled, I will say simply that the said thoroughfare was crammed full, chiefly of gulls making bets and kites taking them. Regarding the motley mob from one end of the street, the spectacle wasa curious one. On the paling side of the way, and extending the street's entire length, in a straight line almost, was a show of what at first sight appeared to be picture boards of the kind that in old-fashioned times were borne by catchpenny chanters of horrible domestic tragedies, the pictures being illustrative of such of the horrors as were most effective when depicted in vivid colours. A closer inspection, however, disclosed that these boards were only a handy means of publishing to the mob the terms on which the betting-men were willing to deal. To give the reader some idea of the extent of the betting business carried on in this alley, I may state that I counted these boards - each one having announcements of at least half a dozen races, with the names of the favourite horses and the odds that might be obtained against them - and they amounted to sixty-three. Every betting-man stood by his standard, and every standard had its bearer, generally a thin, ragged wretch, eager to earn twopence anyhow, and contrasting strangely with that tremendous swell, his master, with his flashy clothes and his golden ornaments, and his brazen face pitted all over with "rogue" as indelibly as though he had been afflicted with that disease in place of smallpox in his early boyhood, and had suffered a very bad attack indeed. 
    Whatever might be the difference in the published odds, one rule was universal, and appeared on the face of each rogue s bill of fare, and that was, "Under no circumstance whatever will a bet be booked unless the money is paid." Let not the innocent reader suppose, however, that this little arrangement involved the staking of any money by the betting-man. If he laid four to one that a horse did not win, he insisted on having the sovereign to hold until the race was decided, and all he [-314-] gave in exchange was a ticket with a number on it, and the terms of the wager. Under any circumstances, therefore, he is sure of your money. You are quite at his mercy. If he finds it convenient to adhere to the conditions of his contract he will do so if not, he will not, and there is no law in England that can compel him.
    Nevertheless, he does a brisk trade. You see, his views as a man of business are not lofty. It is true that on many of the boards appears the intimation that no less a sum than two-and-sixpence will be dealt with, but it is only reasonable to infer, therefore, that there are noble sportsmen of the alley who are more accommodating, and who will do eighteenpenny and even shilling business. And doubtless there is wisdom in fixing the scale so low, not a small trade being done with shop-boys, as one was bound to observe. It must be a poor boy indeed who, inclined to betting, has not eighteenpence ; or who, having it not, cannot - somehow - raise it especially when the odds are twenty to one, and that knowing prophet "Kestrel" of the Penny Turf declares that that one must win. What is eighteenpence, or even half-a-crown? It isn't like a sum that one would miss - that any one would miss. One's master, for instance. Besides, it is not like stealing ; it is only borrowing just for a few hours, and it can be put back, and no one the wiser. Of course, the flashy gentleman who so ostentatiously rattles the wealth contained in the natty wallet strapped to his side would be very much shocked if the bare possibility of a half-crown so obtained finding its way to him were suggested. They are all honest young fellows that deal with him ; they must be, how otherwise could they be such constant customers? If he occasionally misses a familiar face, that is not surprising. The lads were lads of spirit, and have very likely made a fortune and retired. 
    Considering the number of persons engaged in the betting lane, the quiet that is preserved is somewhat astonishing. In [-315-] this respect the betting men here found differ from their brethren of the Epsom and Ascot rings. There is no roaring and bawling out of the extraordinary odds that the self-sacrificing professional is willing to lay ; no bewildering Babel of the names of a whole stampede of horses cried at the same time. The betting men of Fleet Lane have a more settled and steady business to pursue than your great race-roarers: their customers are of a different stamp. That may be perceived at a glance. There is no pell-mell rushing to "get on," as the racing cant goes ; the great care is - and it is visible on the faces of nine-tenths of the shabby throng - how to invest the trifle so shamefully perverted from its proper use, how to lay out this crown or pound that shall be the last - the very last - if this run of infernal luck continues. Never was seen such a poverty-stricken, haggard lot of gamblers. Of course there were exceptions. Well-dressed men with more money than brains ; slop-dressed swells of the barrow-driving order, who, through some lucky (!) stroke of betting, had placed themselves for a month or so above corduroy, and beer and bread and cheese; and not a few infatuated young men, evidently shopkeepers, and who, because they had proved their aptitude for making money by plain dealings in cheese and bacon, had grown to regard their good-fortune as invincible, and to be trusted to any extent, no matter how apparently daring. But the great majority of the Fleet Lane company was a miserable- looking crew enough. Journeymen printers and bakers and butchers (an astonishing number of butchers), and factory hands with cap and apron just as they hurried from the shop in their dinner hour to see whether the first favourite was still firm, or whether The Rake had advanced a point, or was it really true that The Hermit was scratched. Finding their fears dispelled, or perhaps their previous anticipations more than justified, then came the question, should they "put on" a little more-just a crown say? To be sure, they had not the money to spare, but [-316-] the matter might be accommodated by the pledging of a watch. chain, or that greatcoat that will lie useless till the winter. And there he stands in a maze of indecision staring hard at Mr. Marks's betting board until somebody comes bustling up, inquiring "What's the odds on Dragon?" "Ten to one." "I'll go a pound on it. " Phew! everybody is winning money on that horse " says the dubious cabinetmaker, who has been pondering whether the watch-chain or the overcoat can be best spared to pawn. "Here goes for another crown anyhow." And straightway he pays down his money for an additional burden of anxiety and worry that, win or lose, must be his for a week at least.
    No doubt that amongst the shabby ones there are scores of unlucky wretches who have wagered themselves out of their shops and situations, out of their good coats and sound shoes - out of their minds almost. You may know them at a glance. Gaunt, hungry-eyed, wistful creatures without so much as a six-pence in their pockets, who come here day after day to wander over the treacherous marsh where six months ago they stumbled and sank in the betting bog, for ever beggared and stained by the disgraceful mire that sticks to them. It is hard to understand what they do here, or what satisfaction they, without as many halfpence as will make a jingle in their pockets, can find in listening to long odds and short odds, or in seeing gold and silver pass from Bob to Bill. But there was a stranger sight even than these poor bankrupts to be seen amongst the betting mob - at least so it appeared to me. In the midst of the journeyman wagerers and the shop-boy wagerers, and the general tag-rag and bobtail, were two old ladies, decently dressed in black, both of them of sixty years old at least. There they were with a card of Bath Races between them, scanning the horses' names and the odds against them, with their wrinkled old brows contracted, and their toothless mouths pursed up as though their lives hung on some event there set forth. Despite [-317-] these evidences that the old ladies were "horsey," I could hardly have believed it, until, being close enough, presently I heard the oldest of them exclaim, turning to a "knight of the standard,"" I'll take the odds against Stewpan for the Nursery Stakes, Mr. Fiddler," and the bet being clinched, they went off hobnobbing and grinning, as though of opinion that they had the best of Mr. Fiddler this time, if they never had before.