Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - A Cockney Holiday

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A COCKNEY HOLIDAY

MUSEUMS, of the South Kensington and Bethnal-green order, are doubtless of great utility, and are without doubt highly appreciated by the thousands in whose behalf they were established and are maintained; but these and kindred social advantages do not entirely meet the requirements of what, without disparagement, may be called the commonality. A bona fide playground is required; a territory unbeadled and free, where on high days and holidays, such as Easter and Whitsun, holiday-makers may run reasonable riot, and indulge in fun loud and uproarious to their hearts' content.
    Hampstead Heath furnishes the best possible proof of this. Hampstead is by no means a central spot for Londoners. As regards the inhabitants of the northern districts, the Heath may only be gained by an uphill walk of a mile or two, while those from the west and south of the metropolis can only reach it by rail or excursion van. Nevertheless, on a fine Easter or Whitsun Monday, it is no exaggeration to say that, somehow or other, at least two hundred thousand persons, working men chiefly, with their wives and children, find their way thither, and that from morning till night the grassy hillocks, from Gospel Oak to the limits of Hampstead village, resound with one unbroken hilarious roar, to which the shrill laughter of thousands of children contribute not a little. As full as any fair, the vast gathering is respectably distinguished from those bygone [-177-] abominations, Greenwich and Bartle'my, inasmuch as it depends for its existence not on caravans of wild beast shows and sparring and drinking booths, but, for the greater part, on such amusements as the people make for themselves, bringing their own materials or finding them already provided on the ground. Curiously innocent are most of these pastimes. Skip-rope, for instance, appears to be one of the main staples of the day's enjoyment, with middle-aged as well as young  - not skip-rope of the kind where the operator acts with a slender cord for his or her own amusement, but a thirty feet long, substantial scaffold cord, "turned" by able-bodied men, who provide skipping boards and invite any number to "jine in" it at a fee of a halfpenny each, and "keep the pot a bilin'."
    The inhabitants of the metropolis should be thankful for the recurrence of Hampstead Heath jubilations, if for one reason only - the freedom from the plague of organ-grinders which for one day at least is secured them. The wondering observer might suppose that the Government, aiming at securing admiration and gratitude at one blow had effectually accomplished the arduous feat, by passing a law for the peremptory banishment of the whole Italian horde, who, to make their bread, worry the brains of Britons. If the lord of the manor of Hampstead has no licence for music and dancing, it would make the fortune of any informer who gave information against him, on the strength of being able to net half the enormous sum his lordship might be mulcted in the shape of penalties. Organ men, not simply in twos, but in gangs of at least half a dozen, may on such occasions be met from breakfast time until noon hurrying to the festive scene, made certain by previous experience of finding plenty of remunerative employment when they get there. They are busy from morning till night, or it may even be said from morning till morning,, since with a certain class of the carousers on the Heath, the curtain of night is lowered in vain. Throughout the afternoon, at fifty different parts, there are [-178-] juvenile dancing parties, the grinning grinder acting the part of M.C. as well as musician, and proving himself the fount of such immeasurable delight that, for once in a lifetime, one's heart is inclined to soften towards the villain, who is kept in constant good humour by the ready inflow of halfpence, cheerfully contributed by the youngsters. He does not get on so well in the evening and night time, when his youthful audience has dispersed, and has been replaced by adults of the tag-rag and draggle-tail breed who have no taste for any tunes but those they can vigorously kick up their heels to, and who are apt to quarrel with him on account of his refusal to accept drinks out of their gin and beer bottles as payment in lieu of ready money, and who not unfrequently detain him - a hard-worked and unpaid captive - by the hour together by threats of sequestrating the handle of his instrument.
    Nor were those mentioned the only active amusements to which the multitude that assemble on Hampstead heights devote themselves. There are swings, and in a dozen places at least rows of archery targets. But, at least as regards the youthful and juvenile throng, the Hampstead donkeys are the chief attraction. Quite a "Rotten-row" has been established on the heath, a gravel and railed-in space, with a handsome pump and stone water trough at one end for the refreshment of any thirsty and harassed quadruped who stands in need thereof, with a person in attendance to see that whenever a brute evinces a desire to drink he is not prevented. It is not, that I am aware, anywhere recorded that the donkeys of Hampstead-heath are a peculiarly artful race; but truth compels me to mention that the older animals, and those who, judging from the prominence of their ribs, are long experienced in the service, seem to take the fullest possible advantage of the humane arrangement alluded to. The agreement is, up the ride - a distance of perhaps fifty yards - and down again for a penny, the time occupied being so brief that the mouth of a donkey well wetted at starting [-179-] can scarcely get dry in the time, yet there are animals there who at every turn will stop short in their gallop within a few feet of the trough, and at once simulate an appearance of extreme thirst, hanging their heads and gasping in a way that is well calculated to impose on the trough keeper, just for the sake of a short spell of idleness with their noses in the cool water.
    To be sure there is great excuse for them. What becomes of the Hampstead donkeys during the winter months - there are several scores of them - is a mystery that will probably be solved when it comes to be settled beyond dispute by what means the same race of animals continues to vanish from off the face of the earth without leaving their carcases behind them as evidence of their demise. From their appearance when they are brought to light for the holiday season, it would seem not improbable that ever since the fall of last year they had been shut up somewhere in the dark, without benefit of currycomb or food, excepting such nutriment as might be derived from gnawing the flaps and hay stuffing of their saddles. If donkey driving was always as remunerative as it is on Hampstead-heath on an Easter Monday say, it would be as difficult to procure a license and a badge as a share in the New River Waterworks Company.
    The fun of the great Hampstead Easter fair, of course, includes plenty in the shape of substantial eating and drinking as well as light refreshment. Amongst the latter must not be forgotten ice-creams, vended by an army of Italian stallkeepers. The successful advance which this unsubstantial foreign delicacy has made of late years amongst the juvenile population of Great Britain is not only amazing but almost enough to make one feel uncomfortable for England's future. The British boy of the last generation was a boy who, though free with his pocket money, invariably went in for solids - for cake and buns and savoury pies. Had a shallow mess of sweetened congealed water been [-180-] offered to that boy for his penny he certainly would not have accepted it, or, at any rate, would have stipulated for a spoon.
    Unfortunately, however, the well-behaved working man cannot have Hampstead-heath to himself at holiday time. That untamable and, from every point of view, objectionable animal, the London "rough," implacable in his animosity to the usages of decent society, must have his outing and enjoy himself. In doing so, however, he will consent to make no sacrifice of principle. He comes in his hob-nailed boots, with a hearty will to kick out of his path and trample on all weak and defenceless persons who for the moment, and however undesignedly, may stand in the way of his free and independent progress. In bygone times, Greenwich, Camberwell, Chalk Farm and Charlton fairs were the rough's Easter Monday delights, and these being abolished he has really nowhere to go at holiday season, if he wishes to kick up his heels with impunity, but to Hampstead-heath. He is drawn thither from all parts - from Shoreditch, from Lambeth, from St. Luke's, from Bethnal-green, and from his several haunts at Islington.
    It is not his custom to "go in" for a long day. It is not until evening that he may be seen, with a choice set of half-a-dozen or so, accompanied by the females of their kind, with as few stoppages as there happen to be public-houses on the line of route, making his way Heathward. The attire of the London rough on festive occasions is worth describing. It is his pride and delight to wear a new pair of boots, of the kind known as ankle-jacks, and somehow he obtains them. He loves to wear them loosely laced, and it is accounted "the thing" to permit the "tongues" of the boots to lap out and wag freely, as though in dumb derision of tidiness. Similarly, and in accordance with his savage disposition to comport himself in all things in direct opposition to what the generality of mankind agree in regarding as proper, he wears the peak of his close-fitting cloth or hairy [-181-] cap as a screen for his left ear instead of his eyes. As a rule he has no taste for neckerchiefs of flimsy texture or gaudy pattern; on the contrary he prefers to swathe his throat with almost surgical severity, in a bandaging of dirty white cloth, taking care that the knot which secures it is accurately adjusted under his right ear, by way, possibly, of balancing his cap peak overhanging his left. As his shabby coat or fustian jacket is usually buttoned up to his chin, nothing can be said of either his waistcoat or his linen.
    What the rough ultimately develops into-whether having sown his wild oats, he reforms and cultivates the comparative respectability of costermongerdom, or whether it is his inevitable fate on approaching man's estate to give such grievous offence to the law that he is banished to Portland or Chatham, I am not in a position to say, but it is a singular fact that the London rough is invariably a young fellow with no more than down adorning his tremendous chin, while his ample breadth of cheek is as bare of hair as the shiny hillocks that seem placed behind his great ears to keep them constantly ajar. It is a curious fact that the rough has no heart for a holiday outing, unless he is accompanied by his ladylove, though whether this arises from affection on his part, or is merely a friendly and judicious domestic arrangement between them, is uncertain. Part of the programme of the evening, of course, is for the rough to get as drunk as gin and beer can make him; and it is understood that when in that state he has a habit of kicking or attacking with his fists the person who may happen to be nearest him. Ordinarily, it is his "young woman" that he so maltreats, and she having possibly grown too used to it to mind it much, would rather be at his elbow when his brutality sought vent at his knuckles and his iron-tipped boots than that he should practice it on a stranger, and fall into the hands of the police. And so it comes about that pedestrians happening to be in the neighbourhood of the heath or any of the main roads [-182-] leading therefrom at a late hour on Easter Monday night, are apt, judging from the noisy, staggering crews they meet, to form an erroneous idea of the kind of company that as a rule is entertained on the great Northern playground at this holiday time.