Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - Some Secrets of Gipsy Life

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IT rnay not be generally known that at a certain time of the year an important movement takes place amongst certain people dwelling in our midst. Numerically they are not great, but, as is well known, on account of their peculiar habits and customs, and their means of obtaining a livelihood, they exercise considerable influence on a large section of the community.
    The people in question are the gipsies, and just now, according to their invariable custom, they are engaged in preparing for their summer campaign, which lasts from April until the end of the following October. It is quite a mistake to imagine that they regard the "broad canopy of heaven" as such a mighty good thing that they cannot have too much of it. The "rollicking Romany," the hero of gaol bird vocalisation, the "child of the forest glade, roaming abroad like a bird or a bee," of more polite and romantic eulogy, is not so "green" as - just for the look of the thing and to uphold his theatrical reputation - to pass the frosty months by which Christmas is bounded camped out in the wintry wilderness. A pitch on a common, or in a snug lane, and by a country wayside, may be all very well when the yellow gorse is ripening under the sun to the complexion of a Maltese orange, and when the hedges are so amply cloaked in verdure, as to afford prime screening for a hen-roost robber, or a misappropriator of family linen; but when first frosts powder the short-nipped grass, and leaves fall thick, and the rook-nests [-212-] are left naked aloft in the black boughs, the bold gipsy feels that his faith in mossy banks and bosky brakes is shaken, and that, after all, though haystacks may in their season be all that can be desired in the way of shelter, there is another season when chimney-stacks and their cosy associations are to be preferred.
    Not that the gipsy will consent to do violence to the fine free spirit with which nature has invested him by becoming a house-dweller. No; as close as you please to the skirts of civilisation - indeed, if the said skirts are so immediately adjacent as to admit of his dipping his honest hands in the pockets thereof, he has no objection - but four walls and a roof are not to his fancy. It is the same with the women as the men. I recently overheard two middle-aged flowers of the forest discussing the matter in their encampment in the vicinity of Lock's Fields, Walworth. Both were sun-bronzed, and both wore coral earrings, and their straw bonnets hind side in front. Both were at ease, and comfortably disposed for leisurely chat. The one was seated in a barrow, for which her ample form was an easy fit, and the other was partaking of her midday meal, and was evidently actuated by a determination to adhere, as far as circumstances would permit, to those rural domestic rites and ceremonies to which her heart inclined. She was squatted on a wisp of haybands by the side of a recumbent donkey, whose four legs hedged her in, and she had utilised the flanks of the docile creature to serve as a table. There was bread-and-butter spread on it, and about a quarter of a peck of turnip radishes. There was a bald shiny patch on the donkey's hip set round with hair, and this served as a convenient salt cellar, and every time his mistress dipped a radish into this repository and proceeded to scrunch it up, there was an expression in the animal's half-closed eyes that betrayed his consciousness that now she was enjoying herself, and the satisfaction the reflection afforded him.
    [-213-] "And how's old Cooper a doin' since he give up the wan and took to the house?" inquired the female in the wheelbarrow.
    "He's growing wus and wus," replied her friend with a grim serve-him-right-too expression in her beady eyes.
    "He was right enough on wheels; why didn't he stay on 'em?"
    "Ah, to be sure. I know what I should expect would shortly happen to me if once I trusted myself atween lath and plaster."
    "But it ain't the laths, and it ain't the bricks, my dear," rejoined her friend; "its summat in the mortar that works its way into your cistern, and that's what'll bunnick up old Cooper, you mark my words."
    I don't believe that she meant "cistern," though certainly she said it. If I might hazard a guess, I think she intended to convey her impression that there was something in the composition of mortar that was injurious to the human system, and that old Mr. Cooper was in danger of becoming a victim to rashly entrusting himself within its influence. If to be "bunnicked" means worse than this, the mortar is responsible.
    As soon as the cold weather sets in the members of the various gipsy tribes whose head-quarters are London and its suburbs, may be seen with their brown babies and their houses on wheels, the gay green and yellow paint with which their panels are bedecked, dulled and blistered by the sun of a long summer, leisurely making their way to the winter settlements. These are not few. There are two or three at Camberwell, and one at a place called Pollard's Gardens, near the Waterloo Road. Peckham boasts of several; they may be found at Homerton, in the back slums of Lambeth, and among the potteries between Notting Hill and Shepherd's Bush. Lock's Fields, Walworth, is a favourite spot with the fraternity, and has been since that remote time, when Lock himself, standing at the door of his farmhouse, was able to take an uninterrupted view [-214-] of his cows browsing in the open meadows. Now, one might traverse the said "fields" from end to end and find nothing more suggestive of cows than the heels and paunches of the animals in question exposed for sale in the grimy little shops that plentifully dot the neighbourhood; while as for grass, not a solitary blade would meet the eye except in the form of those saucer- sized bits of turf retailed at a penny each, and which imprisoned larks speedily convert into the frowsiest of hay with their hot feet as they madly dance to their own pitiful piping. The gipsies are expected at these places, and the "bits o' waste" are reserved and kept vacant for their winter hiring. If the said bit o' waste includes a bit o' hedge, and anything of a ditch, no matter how inodorous or overgrown with green duck- weed, they are regarded as advantages. Nothing else except a stable for the one or two old horses and a donkey is needed. The house on wheels serves as kitchen, parlour, and all, including bedroom for the elders of the family. As for the younger fry, half a dozen or so maybe easily packed hammockwise in the hay-bag that is slung beneath the house to the fore and aft axle-trees; and should there be one or two still unprovided for, there is always a spare bed in the stable.
    It is not so easy to understand how the numerous party is provided for by day. Should the question be asked how a livelihood is obtained, the short answer is, "Clothes-pegs." If they are produced at all, however, it must be by some necromantic process of manufacture, for no gipsy is ever seen engaged with such implements and materials as are ordinarily used. Perhaps, however, "clothes-peg" is merely a slang phrase of "Romany," and signifies living by one's wits, or by other folks' lack of them. This would appear the more probable since, when in town, papa Gipsy may invariably be found at the horse-market at Islington on Fridays, while mamma Gipsy is busy every day going her rounds and modestly concealing the light of divination and prophecy which possesses her under a simple [-215-] handbasket, containing cottons and laces and hairpins. Readers of the daily newspaper may always know, on turning to the police reports, when the merry gipsy band have returned to town for the winter. Things do not appear to work smoothly with the fortune-tellers of the tribes at first starting. Perhaps exuberance of spirits at finding the "pastures new," as represented by silly housemaids and kitchen wenches, as green and promising as ever, causes them to be rash and recklessly grasping in their dealings; or, maybe, sufficient time has not yet elapsed for the weak-minded damsels to have forgotten the stories of barefaced swindle and extortion exposed and made public last season. At all events, it somehow happens that early winter is bad for the fortune-telling trade.
    It was at Lock's-Fields that I recently scraped acquaintance with an interesting family of gipsies, thirty-three in number, including grandfather and grandmother and great-grandmother: and the old lady - eighty-nine last birthday, and with a face as hard looking and as wrinkled, though many shades darker, than a walnut - was as eager to "be off and get a sniff at the wholesome green leaves and the daisies" as the youngest of her tawny kindred. There was a tremendous bustle among them. There were houses on wheels and a cart; and, turning the corner to reach the "bit o' waste" where the vehicles found standing room, the wind came at me so powerfully impregnated with paint and turpentine as nearly to take my breath away. All the adults of the party were literally up to their eyes in brilliant colours - grinding and mixing and laying on first coats and second coats, and picking out wheel-spokes and panels; while the great-grandmother was the proud custodian of the three brass knockers, which she had splendidly polished, and which, as I was informed, she wrapped in a flannel petticoat, and took to bed with her of a night, to preserve them from marauding fingers.
    As the whole family were, however, not engaged in the work [-216-] of decoration previous to making a start, business as well as pleasure had to be thought of; and the nature of the approaching campaign was disclosed on every side. Here an industrious youth was high busy, stripped to his waist, but with the inevitable black short pipe between his lips, fashioning cockshy sticks out of hardy loppings of green elm; while his brother, and doubtless partner in the innocent pastime, was sorting and mending, with the aid of a glue-pot, a big bagfull of damaged cockshy toys, and which, as was in confidence confided to me, had been bought in the "ditch" (Houndsditch) that morning for two shillings. At a little distance off was another youth, whose simple implements of business were a little dab of clay, a bit of stick, and a threepenny-piece; and having stuck the stick in a hollow made in the clay, and balanced the coin atop of it, he went a little way off and practised knocking the three- pence off by throwing another bit of stick at it, his object being to hit the coin so that it should not fall into the hollow. As he did so he kept up in under tone a sort of incantation,
    "Don't be afeard, gen'elmen's sons, hey a shy: try your luck and never say die. Every time you knocks off the little silver bit it is yourn, and on'y a penny a shy. In the hole's for me; outside the hole, which iver way, east, west, north or south, is for you - a penny a shy, and three to one in your favour."
    He was a shock-headed, heavy-featured, lubberly youth of about fifteen, and, of course, smoked a short pipe; but it was plainly perceptible that his eyes were red with weeping, and that both his great ears, as though in sympathy, were red too. Every time he aimed at the little silver coin perched on top of the stick, it fell outside the hole ; instead of exhibiting satisfaction, however, he scratched his head in despair, and growled, "Bust and beggar the jiggerin' thing, why the dl don't it fall into the hole?" and then he would put up the bit of stick again inclined a little more forward or backward, [-217-]  according to his fancy. It was evident that he was practising a "little game," in which, opportunity serving, the public were to be invited to join, the plan being that any one was to have as many "shys" at the threepenny-piece as he had a mind to, at the rate of a penny a shy, the winnings to be the said coin, provided it was so knocked off that it avoided the basin in which its support was stuck, and the manipulator's object was to adjust the stick at such an artful angle that "shy" how he would, the customer was bound to facilitate the descent of the threepenny into the hollow, and so lose his penny. It seemed to be a new branch of the cheating profession to the lad who was practising it, and that his progress towards perfection was not rapid; but what on earth did he find to cry about?
    I discovered presently.
    "Don't be afeared, gen'elmen's sons; hey another shy!" sighed the despairing youth, brushing a trickling tear from the side of his nose with the back of his dirty hand "Try yer luck, and never say die;" and this time he threw, and the coin fell into the hole. His eyes brightened as he stuck up the stick just as before, and threw again, and with the same result. Again, and still again, and every time the threepenny-piece was faithful. There was a middle-aged giant with great hairy arms engaged in sand-papering a newly-painted van-wheel a short distance off, and to him the lad presently cried,
"Now come and hey a try!"
    And the hairy giant came, and, kneeling down, took wary aim. At the very first try he tipped off the threepenny-piece and sent it flying, whereupon he seized on the youth's large ears, and wrung them as though they had been two wet sponges, and his aim was to squeeze every atom of moisture out of them, after which, and never heeding the maddened bellowing of the tortured one, he returned to his wheel, and next instant was sandpapering away as though he were the father of the most contented family in the world.
   [-218-] "Bust and beggar and double bust the blessed threepenny !" roared the youth rebelliously; but at that instant he fortunately glanced in the direction of the sand-paperer, who had caught up a spoke-brush, and was poising it for a throw; so he judiciously altered his tune, and, once more adjuring imaginary gentlemen's sons not to be afeared, he gulped down his grief; again applied himself to learning his business.
    But one of the oddest bits of information I picked up at the Lock's Fields encampment was, that, simmering in knavery as gipsies are, from the time when they are old enough to lisp lies to the gay company on a racecourse, until they arrive at the dead ripe age of the infatuated old lady who took the brass knockers to bed with her, they still believe, or seriously affect to believe, in the fortune-telling powers of their own women. Over a beer-can I put the question fairly to the herculean sand-paperer, and he replied that though she was his own grandmother, he should be very sorry to aggravate the old lady - who, at that moment, was breathing tenderly on the brazen nose of the dog's head that was part of one of the knockers, and rubbing it bright again with the corner of her shawl - to the extent of bringing on his head her malediction. "Do you think she really could tell you your fortune if she tried ?"
    "I'm sure of it," he replied, in a whisper.
    "Then why don't you let her do so ?" I suggested.
    "Well, I'll tell you why," he replied, after reflecting on the matter for several seconds, with his face in the beer-can, "I'll tell you why. Every man, mister, has ups and downs in life afore him, as well as behind him; and though it might be werry pleasant to be put up to the hups aforehand, a man mightn't feel ekal to be put up to all the downs what's in store for him. Life's very much like bacon," continued the hairy-armed philosopher, intently regarding the ale in the can as though the revelation appeared in the liquor, "there's fat to it and there's lean to it, and him as tries to make a division makes a mess of [-219-] it. It's best to put the two together and take it streaky. That's what I think about life, and that's why I don't see any pull in having my fortune told."
    And this opinion was accepted as the correct one by the six or seven young men and old who were present, and they, one and all, expressed their implicit belief in the women of the tribe as fortune-tellers, "if they chose to give their mind to it."
    "Then they don't always do so," I remarked.
    " Taint likely," replied a young fellow, "it can't be expected that they'll go chucking away their talents for a tanner (6d.) or so a time. It would be a reg'lar insult to the stars to go to em and consult em at such a cag-mag price. They'd very likely chuck you over if you tried it on with 'em, and tell you all wrong, and serve you right too. But them as pays handsome and deals square, is dealt square by, and gets what they bargains for, as true as this here in my hand is a paint-brush."
    I should like to have had another hour of the society of my interesting friends, but at that moment there came trooping a dozen or so of another tribe who had just broken up their encampment at Peckham, and so, wishing them a prosperous summer, I bade them good-bye, casting an encouraging glance, as I came away, on the youth who was still ruefully on his knees before the bit of stick and the hollowed clay, enjoining gentlemen's sons to try their hands, and never say die.