Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Street Entertainments

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AN acquaintance of mine, who for more than an ordinary lifetime has conducted a pawnbroking establishment in one of the densely- populated working-class districts in or about the metropolis, makes it his boast that a glance at his daily ledger will at any time reveal the exact condition of the labour market, and the present condition and immediate prospects of the labouring community. It depends, of course, on the quality and quantity of the goods deposited with him as security for money advanced; but it is rather a deep insight into the ways of working people that [-55-]  enables my friend to put faith in his indicator. The temporary mortgaging of Sunday raiment he regards as having little or no bearing on the question; nor does he attach much importance to spasmodic influxes of superfluities and articles of adornment, such as brooches and earrings, or even watches. Rings of the "keeper kind, and those that are supposed to denote "engagement," he is accustomed to look on as merely convenient little factors in raising the wind for pleasure or business, though when it comes to the point of pawning the wedding-ring (and my friend keeps a stock of excellent gilt imitations, at the small sum of threepence each, that may be worn as a substitute), he admits that matters are beginning to look serious; but the line he takes his stand on is represented by the house-clock. Says my friend, When it comes to parting with the clock, be it eight-day or mantelshelf, or common Dutchman, I at once ask my young man. "How are we off for store room for tools? They are sure to come in now." In driblets at first, perhaps, and those that may at a pinch be least needed, but we are bound to get them. The tools follow the clock, in a manner of speaking, just as mourners at a funeral follow the departed; and it is just as certain that, at the first glimmer of returning prosperity, the clock will be redeemed before the feather-bed or even the parlour carpet. Feeling, at this commencement of winter time, curious to ascertain the verdict of Mr. Pawnbroker's poor- man's-means meter, I was on my way home after hearing a not very encouraging account, and was pondering on the amount of reliance that might be placed in the prognostics of the Lombardian prophet, when by chance I met the master of an East-London workhouse.
    "And how do you find matters at your establishment, sir?" I ventured to ask him.
    He shook his head dubiously.
    "My good friend," he made answer, "our prospects are not promising. There are certain signs that with us are infallible, whatever others may fail."
    My thoughts instantly reverted to the pawnbroker. Here was another individual, who from his calling should be reckoned amongst the most hard-headed and practical, owning to a superstitious belief in signs and tokens.
    " I can tell pretty well the state of the working-man's pocket," continued the parochial authority, "when he begins to neglect those who depend on him for making a living. I allude, sir, to street performers. I really believe we might give a very decent entertainment to our old people, if it was the time for their annual treat, without hiring a single professional from outside. We have at present in the house two families of acrobats, a sword-swallower, the fellow that eats burning tow with a fork, the black man who throws the half- hundred weight, and I am not sure if it is three or four street niggers."
    "But," I remarked, "since they can't obtain a living by their street entertainments, why don't they turn their hands to something else?"
    "Well, you see," replied the workhouse master, "I suppose it is because there is nothing else they know how to turn their hands to that they took up their peculiar line of business at first; and when that fails them - and it always [-56-] does when times go hard and working people have no longer pennies to spare - there is no other refuge for them but the workhouse. 
    "But they pick up plenty of money in summer time, and when trade is brisk."
    "It is always precarious," returned my informant; "wretchedly little as a whole, and at best barely enough to enable them to live from hand to mouth. I have talked with them on the subject, and they have told me the street public, as well as the shopkeeping class, are generous when they can afford it, but they are injudicious. There is at the present time in our infirmary a cornopean player, and a very clever one, I am told. He didn't start as a beggar. Quite a swell, I believe; he was of good family, but squandered his means at gambling and horse-racing. He lost his last remainder of money, so he says, at Ascot - every penny, and owed plenty besides, and was ruined. He vent to the race on a drag; and the party had taken a cornopean-player with them, a poor kind of man, who liked to tell anyone who would listen his misfortunes, and on the way he found opportunity to make known his difficulties to the other-to my man, I will call him. My man, being a generous fellow, gave him a sovereign, making sure, as they all do, that he should have a pocketful and to spare presently. Well, he didn't have; he lost, and was ruined, as I have told you; and months afterwards, so he tells the tale, being in rags and hungry, the cornopean-player of the drag, to whom he had given the sovereign, met him by chance, and took him home and lodged and fed him, and finally taught him how to play, and bought him a second-hand instrument, and so started him. But it only postponed his going to the bad for a year or two. The only chance a street cornopean-player has, as I am told; is to play outside public-houses; and that is what my player did for nearly a year and a half. But a man cannot subsist entirely on beer, and it is in that form that the publican almost invariably rewards this class of musician. It was almost all that the poor fellow got in the way of nourishment-beer for breakfast, tea, and supper; and the consequence is that he is now in our infirmary, and there, no doubt, will be an end of him."
    "I suppose," I remarked, "that at one time or other you have given shelter to almost every kind of itinerant amuser of the people?"
    "I think I may say all, without exception," he replied, after a little consideration; "all of the showman kind, at any rate."
    "Including Punch-and-Judy men, of course?" said I.
    My friend reflected for fully half a minute ere he answered.
    "Well, really I think I must say excluding Punch. It never occurred to me before; but now you recall it to my mind, I am quite sure that all the years I have filled the office of master I never once entered a Punch-and-Judy man on the parish books. Which I take to be a very remarkable circumstance," he continued pleasantly, "when one bears in mind that any time during the last quarter of a century Punch has been supposed to be on his last legs."
    It was, perhaps, not very surprising after this conversation with the worthy workhouse master, that my thoughts should take, a [-57-] vagabond turn and wander amongst the fraternity of street exhibitions and amusing performances past and present. It was not a cheerful theme, viewed by the light my friend had thrown on it; but I must say I derived considerable comfort from the assurance that Mr. Punch was yet able to weather the storm, and munch between his nut-cracker nose and chin the bread of independence. The very Bagstock of public entertainers, "rough and tough old Joe, sir," Punch is still hale and hearty, and as competent to draw "full houses" as he was a generation since, when people began to predict his decline and fall. It was said that it was only in the ordinary course of things that the hero, who had so repeatedly "laid" the ghost of Judy, must soon himself retire to the land of invisibles. The march of intellect and advancing enlightenment amongst our juvenile population would not tolerate the barbarous old wooden head blocking the way. He might, perhaps, have managed to drag out a failing existence a few years longer, had ignorance been permitted still to rule rampant amongst the lower classes; but the inauguration of the Board School had effectually done the humpbacked old tyrant's business - snuffed him out, sir, as effectually as gas snuffed out the reign of the dim old tallow "dip." Under the new order of affairs, when education had opened the eyes of even the street urchins, and taught them to distinguish between vulgarity and politeness, they would tingle with shame to think there was once a time when the coarse and brutal exhibition of Punch and Judy won their admiration, and conjured the pennies out of their pockets almost before they were aware of it. Having planted their third and fourth standards on the heights of Parnassus, they would look down with disdain on the paltry little theatre with the painted puppets; and that onetime wonderful dog Toby being now sunk even below their contempt, they would be willing, not only to give the sagacious creature a bad name, but to hang him into the bargain.
    Such, as regards Mr. Punch, were the forecasts of the future; and if ever the goggle-eyed breaker of beadles' heads, and intrepid turner of the table even on Jack [-58-] Ketch himself, gives vent to a genuine chuckle, it must be when it crosses his mind how curiously the knowing ones were out in their reckoning. True, there was a time, some ten or twelve years ago, when there was spread about what seemed to be a well-founded rumour, that Punch was prohibited, and had quietly accepted his fate and shut up shop and retired to oblivion. Certain it was that he had disappeared from the streets, that even in his most familiar haunts his cheery " roo-ti-too-i" was heard no more. People wondered what could have occasioned the sudden suppression. Was it on account of an order issued by the Lord Chamberlain? That could scarcely be, because, unscrupulous old rascal as Punch is as regards almost every other social institution, he was never known to overstep the bounds of propriety as regards the habiliments of his female characters. No lady's gown could be of more modest proportions than Judy's, and even her ghost was draped in the ampLest of bedgowns. No one could fathom the secret, when, just as the ancient hero of the baton was about to be relegated to the list of "mysterious disappearances," lo, and behold, the matter was cleared up.
    An artful and enterprising speculator, judging that amongst the kindliest recollections of the old country, in the hearts of those who had emigrated therefrom, Punch and Judy would occupy no mean position, had induced all the Punch men that were procurable to pack up their theatres and their drums and Pandean pipes, and taking with them their Tobies (this last was a principal clause in the agreement, Tobies of the genuine breed not being procurable out of England), sign for a twelvemonth's engagement to perform in the streets of the United States of America. Whether the adventurers, finding their circumstances much improved, never came back again, and those seen about now are their friends and relatives who have succeeded them, is not certain. Anyhow, everybody - including, it may be safely wagered, all Board-School pupils under twelve, "standard" or no standard - was mightily glad to welcome Punch again when he reappeared. Perhaps it was a good thing for the old gentleman in more ways than one that the happy thought occurred to that Yankee speculator. It has given to Mr. Punch a more independent position. He is no longer to be treated as a doddering old imbecile, to be recognised with a shamefaced nod of encouragement, and "patronised" as a pauper kept out of the workhouse in mere compassion. If you are tired of him, say the word; America will receive him with open arms; Australia would turn out and make holiday in honour of his arrival; and there is money to be made in New Zealand, where an exhibition such as Punch and Judy could not fail to astonish the natives.
    There are street performers, at least as old as Punch , who have been less fortunate in retaining a hold on the affections of the public. There is the "peepshowman" of the days of one's youth.
    Quite as familiar as the little theatre with its four slender wooden legs and its green-baise petticoat was the individual who carried his panoramic box on his back, and the trestles to stand it on in his hand, and who was sure of an audience, albeit not always a paying one, within two minutes of his making a "pitch." It was a marvel-[-59-]lously cheap entertainment at a half- penny, and it had the advantage of combining instruction with amusement, though perhaps it was not always rigorously accurate as regards historical detail. There may, however, be a reason for the peepshow-man's decadence. At the time he was flourishing, panoramas on a gigantic and splendid scale were not much in vogue. When they came to be, the minor affair, with its half a dozen yards of painted calico and its penny-sized spyglasses, that would become blurred the moment one began to breathe quickly with excitement had no chance against it. The showman, poor old fellow, held out bravely, and seemed exceedingly loth to acknowledge that his occupation was gone. Had he yielded earlier, it would perhaps have been better for his dignity. The last one I remember seeing was in a back street in Camden Town, and, ready-money failing him, he was fain to attempt to do business in kind. "Bring out your rags, bring out your bones or your old bottles! " he cried aloud. And they brought out the articles named; arid when I saw him, with a shrewd judgment for what it might bring him, balancing a bone in his hand, and then insisting that the child should fetch another bone, or at least a doctor's bottle, before he could permit her to take a turn at the spyglasses, I sincerely hoped that, once it had come to this, he  would soon see the propriety of shutting up shop altogether; and I suppose he did so, since in all my perambulations I never set eyes on him since.
    There is the "gallanty show" again. Who can give a satisfactory reason why Punch's theatre should still hold its own, while its exact counterpart - except that the "gallanty" was an evening amid illuminated exhibition, and the audience, instead of the substantial puppets, saw only their shadows cast on a sheet - has almost, if not entirely, disappeared ? Without prejudice, the gallanty was far more entertaining than Punch; and if the two were weighed in the scales of morality, there can be no question as to which would kick the beam. Goodness forbid that the rising generation should go Punchless, but really there is much that is reprehensible in the conduct of Toby's master! He is a shameful old wife-beater, and he never makes a joke that is not emphasised with a murderous blow of his too-ready bludgeon. Whereas the gallanty show dealt in only innocent domestic drama and farce. A Quaker's children might without contamination witness the spirited play of the broken bridge, or the eccentricities of Mr. Jobson, the inebriated shoemaker. But the gallanty has gone. To be sure it always had its disadvantage from a financial point of view - that is to say, the performance being capable of taking place at dark was against the proprietors. It is notorious, and an ever-rankling thorn in the side of Punch-and-Judy men, that in the broad daylight there are even grown people who are so mean as to stand and witness the performance right up to the part where Mr. Ketch comes in, and then sneak off the moment there are symptoms of the hat coming round; and if folk will behave thus shabbily in the open face of day, is it likely they will do otherwise with the cloak of evening to screen them from detection? It is not pleasant to be driven in this way to account for the despairing re-[-60-]tirement of a once popular exhibition. It does not indicate an improved moral tone amongst the people. The gallanty showman, despite the drawback hinted, could make a living in a bygone generation, why cannot he do so in the present? It is useless to "pause for a reply,'' because the only persons who can answer it, according to their wont, are off and round the corner the moment they are called on.
    The longer one reflects on the subject, the more certain it appears that the race of speculators willing to devote themselves to street entertainments depending on voluntary contributions for their remuneration, is dwindling. Whether as an institution it has gained in quality what it may have lost in quantity, is another matter. In some respects the advantage is decidedly on the side of modern time. As regards street music, for example, it is not half a century since that the only itinerant purveyors of sweet harmonies were the fiddler (who was generally blind and almost invariably intoxicated), the bagpipes, that even more execrable instrument of torture the hurdy-gurdy, and the hautboy. It may be the opinion of some people that, once a taste for music has been cultivated amongst the commonalty, the most prominent outcrop is the barrel- organ and the persecuting ogre who turns its handle. It would have been better for the peace of mind and the nerves and temper of the nation if we had never  advanced beyond the blind-fiddler period. It must be acknowledged, however, that the last few years have seen a vast improvement in the street organ; while as regards other musical instruments there are many street "bands" whose performances will satisfy all but the most fastidious. Having, then, made satisfactory progress in this important direction, it should follow-if there is virtue in the quotation, "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast" - that brutalizing street exhibitions prove no longer attractive. Undoubtedly there are some of the old sort that would not now be tolerated. As, for example, in these days, when we can boast of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, it would be quite useless for any ruffian to attempt to revive the once popular back-street spectacle, of balancing a young donkey with its feet tied together on the top of a short ladder, the resting place of which was the performer's chin. We have grown too refined, perhaps, even in our "back settlements, to regard with admiration and liberal intent the sight of a miserable mangy old bear made to "dance" by having his toes rapped with a stick, being kept the while reared on its hind- legs by the ungentle persuasion of tugging at an iron ring passed through the gristle of its nose.
    Such gross barbarities are no longer in favour even amongst the very lowest classes, but there is room for further improvement still. As witness the performer who, for many years now, has been exhibiting in the streets of London, the tools of his craft being a bag of large-sized raw potatoes. The man is beyond middle age, and his head is bald, or nearly so; and all over his cranium, from the forehead to the base of his skull, are bumps unknown to the phrenologist. There are blue bumps, and bumps of a faded greenish hue, and bumps red and inflamed, and his bald sconce looks as though it had been out [-61-] in a rain of spent bullets. It is not so, however; it has only been exposed to a downpour of raw potatoes. He is well known, and as soon as he puts his bag down, and divests himself of his coat, is quickly surrounded by a ring of spectators.
    "Here I am again,! he says, with a grin, as he takes off his can and exposes his mottled skull; "here is the old man once more, and he's not dead yet. You'll see a treat to-day, for my taters are bigger than ever they were before, and, what's more, they're 'Yorkshire reds,' the hardest tater that grows. I shall do it once too often, there's no mistake about that; but I've served the public faithful for five years and more, and I ain't going to funk over it now. Here you are: here's a tater that weighs half a pound if it weighs an ounce. Chuck threepence in the ring, and up it goes."
    And threepence is "chucked into the ring, and up it does go- high above the houses; and the man with the mottled head folds his arms like Ajax defying the lightning, and gazes skywards, prepared for the descending missile; and presently it strikes him with a sounding thud, and is smashed into a dozen pieces with the concussion, and bespatters his visage with the pulp.
    "Now chuck fourpence in," says the exhibitor, wiping his eyes, "and we'll see what we can do with a tater just as large again."
    I don't know whether, on compulsion, I would rather witness the pretty sight, or stand by and see another modern street performer making a fiery meal of strands of blazing tarred rope, daintily picked from a torch with a three- pronged fork; or that other stirring spectacle of the man who lies on the flat of his back, while another places large stones on the prostrate one's chest, and cracks them with a sledge-hammer.
    It is a subject for curious reflection, what is the private life of individuals of that class last alluded to? They of course have private lives, or it would not be worth while to endure the risks and inconveniences that pertain to their public existence. Take the potato-thrower. Has he a wife and children at home waiting for him in the evening? Has the partner of his joys and sorrows always ready, by the time her husband returns, some nice comforting fomentation for his bruised head? And does he take his evening pipe and listen to the prattle of his little ones with his unlucky head bandaged in a poultice? Can he bear, after the many terrific smashes the cruel vegetable has dealt him in the course of the day, to sit down to a dish of potatoes for his supper? And does his wife, the meal concluded, count up the pence he [-62-] has had "chucked" into the ring? And does she - can she - is it in human nature that she can then take the bag and go to market to replenish it with Yorkshire reds, "the hardest tater that grows?"
    There is another branch of street entertainments that has fallen off of late years, that which includes the performances of animals. The hare and tabor have too long ago vanished to be more than merely alluded to; but until twenty years back, say, performing dogs were a common feature of our high ways and byways. Indeed, they are so rarely seen now that it may be worth while to make mention of almost the last remaining of the tribe. The animal in question accompanies a dancing Scotchman, whose silvery locks, no less than his weather-beaten visage and his battered- looking old bonnet, proclaim him a veteran in the army of peripatetic performers. His brogues are trodden down at heel, the tartan of his hose is marred in countless places with the healing efforts of the darning-needle, his scarlet regimental coat-for he pretends to military origin-has holes at the elbows, and its gaping buttonholes are eked out with scraps of twine; but he possesses a spirit that soars above such trifling deficiencies. He makes no appeal to public compassion; he claims encouragement and support on his merits as a performer on the bagpipes and a dancer to his own music; and in the latter capacity he acquits himself with an amount of spirit and energy that, in muddy weather, bespatters him to his very eyebrows. He is an ardent believer in the stimulative qualities of whisky, as is attested by his bloodshot eyes and the emulative hue of his nasal organ, which seems to mellow towards evening, as fruits ripen in the autumn time. But though the spectator does not feel called upon to commiserate the man, it is hard to withhold a full measure of pity from the unlucky dog, who is the constant companion of the Scotchman's musical perambulations. It is an intelligent animal of the poodle breed, with its hinder parts clean shaven, and with nothing left it of the distinguishing shagginess of its tribe but a kind of mock mane, a bedraggled tuft to its tail, and an inch or two of slovenly raggedness about its unfortunate toes. Unfortunate in more than a manner of speaking, since the drunken old bagpiper, in his wild capering, not being as accurate as he might be in his steps, frequently treads on them, when his poor, patient, four-footed companion makes a lame attempt to respond to the inspiring strains of the pipes, as, raised on its hind- legs, it faces its master. If ever there was an instance of unselfish devotion, it is manifested by that wretched poodle. In private life, and when the weary pair have limped home late at night, they may possibly partake of the same supper and share the same bed; but in public the poor beast has a miserable time of it. It wears a kilt and a Scotch bonnet, and in the excitement of a strathspey the latter will shake down over one eye or both; but let it stop only for a moment to regain its obstructed vision, and the fierce Scotchman, without pausing in the tune, will send such a blast through the pipes as to cause the afflicted animal to leap a foot from the ground; and it keeps on capering blindfold, thereby doubling [-63-] the danger of getting its toes trodden on. Sometimes when it does not move quick enough, the Scotchman will, by the vigorous application of the toe of his shoe, cause it to accomplish a perfect somersault; but it alights on its hind-legs without resentment, and mends its paces with meek obedience in its eyes. One could almost wish rather that it made for a vengeful mouthful out of the old rascal's bare calf, and then run for it. But where could it run to? An unencumbered dog might do so, and with some chance of finding a home and honest employment in a distant part of the country; but a dog in a plaid petticoat! The hateful bonnet it might get rid of but not the tightly-tied-on emblem of its make-believe nationality. Wherever it went it would be as surely recognised as an escaping convict, whose nether limbs are incased, the one in black and the other in canary colour, and captured ignominiously and returned to its tyrant master. Does that sagacious poodle in its scant hours of leisure reflect on the hardships of its existence? Does it lay awake of nights, when the whiskified old bagpiper is snoring, licking its abrased toes, and sorrowfully recalling the days of happy puppyhood? It looks quite capable of doing so. It looks capable of so much that when it comes round with the leather saucer in its mouth, one bestows a copper on the dog, not on the man. Its beseeching eyes seem to say, "Do, please! If we have a good day there will be enough for his whisky, and perhaps a penny over to buy meat for me.