Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - A Beggarman's Bunker

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SIR - Respectin' that little affair of the 'Bunker' we was speaking about the last time I saw you, this is to tell you that thayle be one of em termoro night, close by here. So, if you'll call at Gridiron, about eight to ar parst, I'll interduece you to a party you can go in co, with.
    Such a mysteriously-worded communication might, in these times of treason and disaffection, have seemed an artfully-indited invitation to attend a Nihilist conspiracy meeting, or to be present at a secret Land League conference, with a plot to blow up the Tower of London. I was, however, aware of the purport of the message the moment I caught sight of the messenger. Over the stair-head I heard his husky voice remarking that if it wouldn't be any inconvenience he would wait to take back an answer; and it did not very much surprise me [-6-] when our prudent maidservant made reply to that proposition, that if it was all the same to him, she would rather he waited outside the door than inside.
He was not prepossessing as regards personal appearance. A long-ago sustained injury to the bridge of his nose, combined with an extraordinary development of chin and cheekbone, with a bullet head capped by a furry covering that was like an inverted colander, did not bespeak him a person who might safely be left alone with uncounted spoons. But as far as I know, he was honest enough. His ordinary avocations were not such as demanded a genteel appearance. Rather the contrary, perhaps. Situated in the midst of the commonest of common lodging-houses in Spitalfields, the proprietor of the "Gridiron" had no option but to entertain strange company at his drinking bar, and the terms of his licence compelling him to keep his house orderly, he found it convenient to employ someone able and willing to effectually arbitrate between pugilistic disputants, and, at a pinch, take on himself the responsibility of forcibly ejecting them from his employer s premises into the street. This post of trust was filled by the bearer of the above-mentioned note. It came from the friendly barman of the " Gridiron."
    In the course of a confidential conversation I had with him some time before respecting such matters, he informed me that if I wished to see a common lodging-house kitchen in "full blow" I should go there when there was a "bunker" on; and he then proceeded to satisfy my curiosity as to what a "bunker" might be. It was a benefit banquet, got up by the lodgers generally, in behalf of any respected member who chanced at the time to be in urgent need of a little assistance. The materials for the charitable feast were not costly. At all such harbours of refuge for the destitute and otherwise homeless, there are pretty sure to be found at least a few who obtain a livelihood by begging, the majority carrying the cadger's bag for the reception of such kitchen scraps and broken victuals as may be bestowed on them. And it would much surprise the compassionate housekeeper, who, moved at sight of the imploring mendicant's blue cold feet and his chattering teeth, hastens to cut from the loaf a thick slice of bread, and to surmount it with a liberal proportion of cheese, if the good soul could see the small value that is set on the wholesome food when it is turned out of the bags at night, and planned in penny lots on a bench in the kitchen for those who choose to buy them.
    But the house-to-house beggar at times has meat as well as bread given him, together with fragments of pies and puddings, and even remnants of poultry and game. Not that personally the professional beggar appreciates even such toothsome pickings as these. Alms in food shape are not to his liking, and any time he would rather receive twopence in coin than sixpennyworth of meat scraps, baked, boiled, or roast. In his case, broken victuals of all sorts hardly pay for carriage. It is not as though he required it for his own or his family's consumption. A few of the choicest titbits may perhaps tempt his wife or the younger children, but the bulk is retailed to the poorest of the lodgers at such a rate that very often there is the price of a bit of rump-steak and half a pint [-7-]
of gin in a well-stuffed "scran" bag. The latter is not despised, however, ~vhen a "bunker" is projected. It is managed in this way. The more prosperous of the lodgers combine to purchase the whole of the beggars' collections, and such parts as are most suitable for the purpose are converted in the kitchen copper to a savoury hotchpotch stew, which is the staple of the feast. The right to participate in the privilege of unlimited "savoury" maybe secured on payment of sixpence, and the whole of the proceeds go to the person whose declared benefit it is.
    "The more the merrier being the maxim on such occasions, any regular lodger may invite a friend, but is held responsible for the latter being of the "right sort. My obliging informant was unable to satisfy me as to why the affair was called a "bunker", but hazarded the not improbable conjecture that it was so named from the "bunk, or bulk of scraps and crusts, and fag ends represented by the accumulated heap at the disposal of the cook.
    Attired in an evening dress that had already seen some service on somewhat similar occasions, I arrived at the "Gridiron" a little before eight o'clock the following evening. The gentleman I was to go in "co." with was there before me, however; indeed, he was engaged in whispered conversation with the barman as I entered, and with a nod my friend recognised me. They had already arranged matters between them, it seemed; for as I approached the bar the "Co.," obedient to a nudge of the barman's elbow, turned about, and accosting me at once, went into a rapture of delight.
    "What cheer, Hungerford, old chap?" he exclaimed (he invented the fictitious name on the spot, he was afterwards proud to assure me), "who'd ever thought of seeing you? Why, when did you come up from Bristol?"
    And the fleetest of winks advised me to take the hint and adopt it. I evaded direct falsehood by replying that I had been in London some time, and accepted his proffered hand and shook it cordially, as an old friend should.
    "Come and sit down, old fellow," exclaimed Co., "and tell us how you've been gettin' on all this long while."
    And we went and sat down on a form apart from the others, with a pint of ale for our mutual delectation, on the head of a barrel that served as a table.
    "Co. then remarked, in a whispered voice, "You understood my meaning for speaking out like that? Half the chaps you see drinking, lodge at ----'s, and will be at the 'Bunker.' They heard what I said well enough, though they took no notice, and now they won't be surprised-especially as you've just come up from the [-8-] country - if I ask you to come and have a bit of supper. Not that anybody need go into the country to get up a appetite to eat it," he continued, his hungry eyes watering at the promising prospect. "It's a 'Bunker' as any man might come a purpose: from Bristol or Birmingham either to have a shy at. I've just come away from the kitchen, and I've got the smell of it in my nose still.''
    He was a long, lean man, past middle age, and dressed in dilapidated fustian, and when he mentioned his nose he took his cotton handkerchief out of his battered tall hat and made as though he was going to sneeze, but bethinking him, probably, that he could do so only by an abrupt sacrifice of the lingering aroma that afforded him so much satisfaction, he, with an effort, conquered the inclination, and sniffed and wiped his eyes instead.
    "It is something uncommon," then, I remarked.
    "That it's bound to be at this season of the year?" he replied; "there aint no other time o' year when there is so much good grub flying about, or when people are so free-handed in weeding out their pantries. And that isn't all. We've got a reg'lar man cook lodging at -----'s. He's a broke-down poor old chap, and picks up his crumbs - wot few he do get - by selling ha'penny cakes and tarts off a tray he carries on his head. But I'm told he's been a reg'lar top-sawyer in his time. He's got his white cap, and his sleeves, and his apron to show for it, and he's got em on now, having had em got up clean on purpose. It's him the benefit's for, so you may depend he'll come out as strong as it's possible to. It's bound to be a first-rate stew. Why, I know of more'n half a leg of mutton and a whole lot of turkey's giblets, and best part of a hand of pickled pork that's going into it, and there's a precious sight more'n that, not to mention a couple of cowheels the tripe-shop where the fellows deal have made a present of. Same time, we'd best not be late, and had best be off at once, perhaps."
    We found ----'s lodging-house not more than two minutes' walk from the Gridiron. Exteriorly it was such an uninviting-looking place that it was a relief to see the word "Registered" legibly painted over the door, which was a guarantee at least that the authorities kept a more or less watchful eye on the establishment. A light burned dimly behind the dirty and tattered window blinds, and made visible the announcement in each that "Lodgings at 4d. a Night" might be obtained there, except in cases where some fastidious person required a bed all to himself, when the price was sixpence. But with the dormitory arrangements I had nothing to do. On the present occasion my business was in the kitchen, and to reach this I followed my guide, who traversed a long passage, which was so dark that when he threw open a door at the end of it the sudden light quite dazed one's eyes. The kitchen itself which was common to all the lodgers at the time residing in the house, was a room about forty feet in length, and thirty in width, and lit with one flaring gas-jet over the fireplace and a two-branch burner in the middle of the room. It was a great deal cleaner than might have been expected, judging from the dilapidated exterior of the lodging- house. The walls were of a yellow colour, and the low ceiling had [-9-] been recently whitened. The bare floor was not so very dirty, and the coarse deal tables presented laudable evidence of being on familiar terms with the scrubbing brush. But coming in out of the cold, the most conspicuous feature was the fire that blazed in a grate capacious enough to roast a whole sheep at, and it is easy enough to understand that it is regarded as no inconsiderable part of their money's worth by the poor, shivering wretches who of nights pay the fourpenny entrance fee at the door.
    There were as yet not more than about thirty persons present, and the majority were males-many of them lads just growing to manhood, and, as a rule, as low-looking and devil-may-care a set of young ruffians as one would care to set eyes on. Not more than one in six was of the costermonger or street-hawker type, the other five wearing clothes that at one time or other were of genteel cut, and such as would not render a wearer conspicuous on a busy City pavement or in a crowd. There were a few middle-aged and old rascals of the same school, and a few of various ages who were evidently mere poor folks who struggled hard for their honest daily bread, which left them such a narrow margin of means that there was no help for it but for them to lodge at a fourpenny shop. But, as already intimated, it is not only the bed; it means firing as well, and the use of cooking utensils and the loan of a knife and fork and plate, and plenty of gaslight if one has a little mending to do. And that the repairing of garments openly and in full view of the kitchen guests was no novelty, was shown by the fact that there sat an elderly gentleman in his shirt sleeves and with his spectacles on, cobbling a great patch on the shoulder of his ragged jacket.
    The fair sex was represented by eight or ten, some of them drunken-looking old hags, hideous enough in every respect to play the witches' part in "Macbeth;" but most of the females were grown girls and young women, hailing probably from Flower and Dean and the other neighbouring streets. In honour of the occasion, I suppose, they appeared in evening dress, consisting mainly of a flashy silk neckerchief worn crosswise over a dirty cotton gown, which was loose in the sleeves and turned back above the elbows. Earrings twinkled in their ears, and their hair was arranged as though the idea was to arrive at a happy compromise between the fashions of the East End and the West. Forehead fringe was the invariable rule, plastered in tiny curls as low almost as the eyebrows, the hair at back being gathered in one wisp, which was bound in a hard knot, skewered through and secured with a hair-pin. As most of these young ladies paired with one of the young gentlemen al-[-10-]ready described, I suppose they were sweethearting couples, the wary youths with the lank under- turned side locks gallantly standing treat.
    Our company increased as it drew towards nine o'clock, that being the time the cook had promised that the "Bunker" should smoke on the table, or rather on the three tables, which, for convenience sake were placed together, end to end, so as to form one festive board. When as many as were entitled to partake of the banquet had taken their seats, it became apparent that some of the lodgers, a dozen or more, despite its cheapness, were doomed by cruel fate to have their enjoyment limited to the smell of it. There was one who, as my "Co." informed me, played a tin whistle about the streets, and a more terribly thin and hungry poor wretch I never beheld. His entire dress consisted of a tattered old coat, inches too small for him, fastened at the throat with a piece of twine, a pair of trousers to match, a down-at-heel walking- shoe, and a side-spring boot, at the fore part of which more than one naked toe was visible. I don't know whether constantly blowing at his whistle had anything to do with it, but his cheeks were shrunk so close together, it seemed a marvel how he could shut his mouth without biting them, He had bought a penn'orth of "bits," and was eating them out of his old cap, that served him as a plate, but his famished eyes were on the great pot on the fire, and each time its lid was raised he involuntarily gave such a prolonged and hungry sniff that the sides of his Roman nose caved in almost as much as his cheeks, and made him a perfect picture of famine.
    I intimated to my "Co." my  desire to provide the famished whistle-player with the necessary sixpence; but "Co." was emphatic in his whispered declaration that it must not be done. I earnestly urged him, however, and he at last consented to endeavour to manage it.
    "Give me the tanner,'' said Co.,. "and let's saunter up to where he is, and you get behind him, and pull his hair, and when he looks. round purtend you thought you knew him."
    It was a novel arrangement, but my companion was so unmistakably in earnest that there was nothing for it but for me to agree. I gave him the sixpence, we strolled towards the poor old whistle player, and, according to instructions, I twitched his hair behind. He looked round hastily and angrily. I apologised, and we came away.
    "I've done it," grinned Co., "he's. got it among the bits in his cap."
    And now the reader is probably expecting to be told that presently the precious sixpence was discovered, and that, overwhelmed with joy at the miracle, the whistle-player hastened to take a place at the table where the plates and spoons were now laid. I confess that I myself expected nothing less. But I was disappointed. The hollow-cheeked man still continued to champ at his "bits," and to watch the pot and sniff till at last he shook the crumbs out of his cap into his hand, swallowed them, and replaced the cap on his head with a heavy sigh. So that I can think nothing else than with his mind so distracted with the fumes of the "Bunker," he bolted the sixpence, and was never the wiser.
    There were other unfortunate outsiders besides the whistle-player - poor wretches who seemingly had not even a meal of bits to mitigate the tantalisation the delicious smell of the stew must [-11-] have occasioned them: but there was no time to try further charitable experiments. The impatient guests at table were rattling their spoons against their deep tin plates and loud cries of "Let's have it!" and "Bring it for'ad!" resounded through the kitchen. The cook I had previously heard spoken of was evidently anxious for just a few more minutes ere he gave the command to dish up, but he was compelled to yield to popular clamour. In less than live minutes the two large earthenware pans, one of which graced either end of the festive board, was reeking full to the brim with a savoury concoction, and in the midst of a steam that made the gaslights burn dim, every guest concentrated his energies to do justice to the "Bunker. It was so nice that I wished I had a better appetite for it, and I was glad, for the poor cook's sake, to hear it so warmly commended.
    He was a little old man, with a watery eye and a red nose, and with a hand that shook so as he manipulated the soup ladle, that there could be but little doubt as to the sad cause of his present miserable condition. Why he still preserved his white cap and apron and sleeves, would be hard to say, but they served a good turn now. They hid the poor old fellow's rags, and, being snowy white and glossy from the mangle, they conferred on him an appearance of respectability, and thus a flavour was imparted to the "Bunker" it would not otherwise have possessed. The old man himself was delighted at his success, though I thought I observed additional moisture in his eyes as, everybody served, he stood by the fire reflectively chafing his red nose with the ladle handle. Perhaps he was thinking of the old times, and of how different were the guests he then catered for. His lit of despondency was brief, however, for after the trenchers had been filled and emptied until no more remained in the two pans, the chairman rose to announce that now had come the time when it was his pleasing duty to hand to their old friend Stewpan-which it wasn't his proper name, but what was the odds when it was said in kindness-the sum of fifteen and sixpence, there having been thirty-one who had sat down to his "Bunker," which, in his, the speaker's, opinion - and he thought he spoke the sentiments of the company generally - was the stunningest " Bunker" that a man ever dipped a spoon into. And the grateful Mr. Stewpan having taken off his cap and returned thanks, the party broke up.