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

[... back to menu for this book]




IN an article entitled "Frost-Bitten," I made allusion to a poor soul I met at the shop of the pawnbroker, who was in great trouble because that cautious tradesman declined to receive as a pledge a cotton gown she was anxious to raise a shilling on. It was half-wet from the wash-tub, the pawnbroker declared, and before he could receive it in she must take it home to dry. The man wore a shabby old "ulster," and as she put aside its lappets to conceal the rejected garment, her bare arms and exposed bodice revealed the fact that she was gownless. It was impossible to misjudge the real state of the case, or to resist the impulse to hasten after her. I caught sight of her in the distance, but it was not until she had reached Gravel Lane (one of the poorest parts of Southwark), and turned into one of the numerous wretched blind alleys abounding in that neighbourhood that I came up with her. She paused at the door of one of the dilapidated old houses, and pulling a string that hung suspended through a hole in one of the outer panels, so gained admittance. There was no knocker so I took the liberty of giving a tug to the dangling string and stepped into the passage just as the woman was opening the back-parlour door. Our first few words of conversation need not be here detailed. She was tearfully grateful for the "godsend, as she called the trifle I gave her, and invited me to step in and see for myself how much reason she had to be thankful for it.
    It was dark by this time; and when she had unlocked the door of the back-parlour she struck a match, and, amidst an eager clamour of children's voices, lit a lamp. It was a very common one, in [-109-] which paraffin was burnt, but it had no glass chimney, and as it on that account began to smoke and give out a villanous smell, she placed it on the bob of the fire. grate in which there was no fire.
    "It was all through that dratted thing," said the poor woman, alluding to the flaring lamp, "that I ain't had no work these three days, and shan't have any, I expect, till Monday."
    I asked how the lamp was to blame for her having no work, and she explained that she was a bracemaker by trade, and that, working late at night to finish a task, the lamp-glass got somehow broken, and not having twopence to buy another one she continued to work by it, not thinking of the soot and smoke it was giving off, and not discovering at all that night how the light- coloured webbing of the braces was soiled with it.
    "So there it was, and the whole half-gross not fit to be looked at," said the poor bracemaker dolefully; "and not only was I the sevenpence-ha'penny I ought to have got for finishing 'em out of pocket, but I got blowed up, and had the work stopped for nearly a week as well."
    "And is sevenpence-halfpenny all that you get for finishing half a gross - seventy-two pairs of braces?" I asked her.
    "That's all, sir; but then you see they are of the very common sort, and I can knock off quite half a gross a day of em if I ain't interrupted."
    "And how many of you live on the money you earn?"
    "There are only me and the two children - not counting the baby. He depends on me, bless his little heart."
    As she spoke she took from one of the two wretchedly-clad and exceedingly dirty little girls that were in the room what, in the dim light looked like a roll of old carpet or floor drugget. It was something besides. It contained the infant the woman had so lovingly alluded to, and who released from its rough outer robe, appeared attired in only a bedgown.
    "He ain't fit for a gentleman to see," remarked the mother, as she brushed away the dust that had gathered in ropy ridges on the pleats of the baby's only garment. "You might have shook it, 'Melia, before you ropped him in it. You see, sir, we're glad to do anything to keep 'em warm, poor little mites, this bitter weather, and not a bit of fire in the grate."
    I was already aware that the anything in her case, poor creature, extended even to taking off her own gown to pawn and buy them food and firing. And apropos of that garment, she presently remarked, as she shook it out and hung it across a chair-back.
    "I knew that it wasn't quite dry, but I couldn't get it no drier in the time. Our fire burnt out, and there wasn't a blessed penny to be borrowed to buy another bit of coke with from top to bottom, though I tried all the lodgers. from the back kitchen to the third- floor back; and as the youngsters hadn't had a mouthful of victuals since yesterday, I was obliged to chance it."
    "I should have thought that somebody might have lent you a penny," I remarked, "since they knew, I suppose, how hard-up you were."
    "So they would, sir, if they'd had it to lend. This is 'hard-up' house, this is, if ever there was one. 'Cepting Old Jackson, down in the front kitchen, with his per-[-110-]forming dogs, all the lodgers work at something or other, hand to mouth like, taking their day's work home when they've done it, and getting the money for it. But you may believe me it often happens that not so much as a penny comes into the house twixt Monday and Saturday. You see, it's in this way. No matter what a woman works at - braces or matchbox making, or slop tailoring - the pay is so awful bad that if you can make the ha'pence you earn stretch over from day to day you're lucky. It is all, in a manner of speaking, laid out before ever you get it. If you have eight- pence or ninepence to take it is spent to the last farden, before you get home."
    "As for instance," I remarked, "what should you buy with your sevenpence-halfpenny!"
    "What I always buy," she replied readily; "half-a-quartern loaf, that's threepence; seven pounds of coal, that's twopence more; apen'orth of oil for the lamp, a pen'orth of tea, and a ha'p'orth of sugar. It's soon reckoned up when everything goes on regler, but it do come hard," continued the poor creature, comforting the carpet-enveloped infant at her lean bosom, "It do come hard on such as me, who have to eke out so when the prices of things get rose. Take coals: Seven pounds looks a goodish lot, but you'd be astonished, sir, at the little way they go when the weather is what it has been lately. You might put em all on at once at a single shovelful if you was extravagant. And now they've gone up. What was seven fardens is now twopence-ha'penny, which puts me three fardens a day to the bad, which is a great thing," said the poor soul, shaking her head, and with an expression on her face that told how anxious a matter it was with her, "when one has so little to do with."
    "How do you manage then?"
    "Well, you see, sir, being a widow with three little children I'm allowed half-a-crown a week and two loaves by the parish. And out of that there's one and ninepence for my rent, and out of the other ninepence, I used to get a morsel of something for a relish on Sunday dinner time; but because of the coals going up we had to go short last Sunday. We had a good fire, though. There's a boy belonging to the people in the kitchen who goes bin-raking."
    "Goes - what did you say?"
    "Bin-raking-raking dust-bins. It's a new way of picking up a living, so I'm told, and lots of boys do it. They carry a bag, and they go round to the respectable houses and knock civil at the kitchen-doors, and say, 'Please, d'ye mind me looking over your dust-bin?' And good natured servants don't mind, and they pick over the dust, and bring away the cinders and anything else thrown away that will sell at the rag-shop. They sell the cinders cheap-a peck measure full for a penny."
    By this time, "'Melia," who had been entrusted with the precious two-shilling piece, returned heavily laden with coals in one corner of her flimsy little shawl, and a loaf of bread, a bundle of wood, and two small packets-one of tea and the other of sugar-tucked, for safe carriage, into the bosom part of her frock. Unwilling to embarrass the domestic arrangements, or delay the preparation of the poor meal so long overdue, I was about to' take leave of the unfortunate bracemaker, when I descried in the doorway an object so goblin-like-I should not have [-111-] seen it at all but for the bright glare of the wood with which "'Melia" was making the fire - that I took a hasty step aside to get out of its way. It was not more than eighteen inches high, and it was dressed in a military-cut coat with a shako on its head, and over one shoulder it carried a miniature carbine. No one else in the room observed the strange figure, and before I could make any remark respecting it, it hopped noiselessly into the room under cover of the wide-opened door, and putting its head a little beyond it, peeped cautiously among us. The mother had broken in two halves the loaf 'Melia brought home, and she was cutting up one half into slices, the other being placed on a chair by her side. With three long hops the military goblin approached the bread, seized on it with such a hungry snap that its shako came off, and, dropping down on all fours, scuttled out of the room, and was presently heard scampering down the passage. Hampered with the half-loaf and the baby, the poor bracemaker could not instantly follow the bold thief.
    "Run, 'Melia!" she exclaimed, in a fright; "one of Old Jackson's dogs has got the bread. Oh! stop him, pray, please, sir. They'll eat it up in a minute among em if he takes it downstairs."
    I stepped hastily into the passage, when the red-coated robber doubled on the door-mat, and made for the stairs that led to the kitchen; but, hastily ascending them at the moment, came an active old man in his shirt-sleeves, and with a dog-whip in his hand followed by three other dogs, all of them as fantastically attired as the first. They seemed at first disposed to make common cause with their dishonest comrade, who stood irresolute, with the bread still in his jaws; but they turned tail the instant the old man began to use his whip on the marauder, and the plunder was rescued and restored to 'Melia.
    "He ain't hurt it, my dear," said the owner of the dogs to the little girl, as he considerately wiped the half loaf on the leg of his trousers before he gave it to her.
    "He's as honest a dog as you'll find anywhere, but I reckon he's precious hungry,"
    Then, addressing me as he stood in the kitchen doorway, he continued,- 
    "We're all froze out, sir, don't you see, work being at a standstill, and though, of course, the dawgs get their share, it ain't much when there's nothing coming in. He heard em lighting the fire, and knowed by that there was grub about. Twasn't a minute ago- I was drilling all four of em ; but I [-112-] left off just for a minute to put a vinegar-and-brown-paper plaster on this young man's head, and the warmint took advantage, and sneaked off."
    The kitchen was miserably provided, its chief piece of furniture being an old wooden bedstead, with a counterpane of two hop sacks sewed together (the emblazoned arms of Kent betrayed their origin), but there was a fire burning in the grate, and a lighted lamp stood on the table. Sitting in the room was a young fellow of three or four-and-twenty, perhaps, the object of the performing-dog man's solicitude. The patient was exceedingly shabby as regards his attire, which consisted of a pair of "corduroys" and a check shirt, the collar of which ~vas turned back so that it might escape the trickling of the vinegar which, in acid tears, rolled down the young man's hollow cheeks, a patch of reeking brown paper concealing the whole of his forehead. I took the liberty of stepping into the kitchen to inquire what was the nature of his injury.
    "It all comes of his being froze out, like the rest of us, sir," explained the old dog-man, with a bit of a laugh, and a humorous twinkle in his eyes. "Leastways it comes of taters being froze out, and that's the same thing, that being the cause of his accident."
    " Taint much to laugh at," growled the young man with the patched head.
    "More 'tis, Billy, more 'tis," returned the old fellow, kindly patting the other on the shoulder as he spoke. "It was thinking of what you said about the people laughing that made me laugh I reckon. No, Billy, it was a werry orkard knock, and might have cracked your skull if it had been a thin 'un."
    It is probable that I looked as perplexed as I felt since the old man at once proceeded to enlighten me.
    "D'ye see, sir, he lodges upstairs, and his wife makes sailors' slops, which is regular starve-belly pay, I can tell you, and not much to keep three little uns on when their father's got no work."
    "What a spinning-out sort of chap you are, Jackson!" interrupted the young man, irritated I think, by the vinegar running into his eyes; "why don't you come at what you're going to tell without walking round it?"
    "It's part of it, isn't it? " retorted the dog showman, and then, turning to me, he continued, "he picks up a little at the waterside when business is stirring, sir; but he's good at tumbling, and that sort of thing as well-rare good [-113-] he is at some things. Well, for some time past he's had his eye on tater-skying."
    "And what may that be?"
    "Well, there's only one man that works it. P'raps you might have seen him. A little, stocky man he is, with a bald head, all covered with lumps and bumps that's regler astonishing. He makes a good thing of it - as much as ten shillings a day sometimes, so I've heard. Well, Billy, he's had some practice at it, and was coming on all right while the weather lasted mild. It's shying up a large tater, and letting it come smash down on your forehead, against which it breaks all to bits. It looks about forty to one on your head being broke to bits instead; consequently, you're sure of a good ring of people gathering round. Well, this young man here, he goes out this morning with three pounds of taters in the bag to try if he couldn't pick up a few ha'pence, never thinking about em being froze and as hard as stones, and the very first shy down it come, and down  he come, and it was a good five minutes before they could bring him to again."
    "Well," said I, " the crowd, at all events, ought to have made a handsome collection?"
    "The crowd, sir, didn't do nothing of the kind," returned the old man, with a sneering scowl that betrayed his contempt for crowds in general. "They carried him into a chemist's shop, and when he came out somebody had walked off with the taters, bag and all."
    "Wish I had 'em here now," remarked the young man, dolefully.
    "You wouldn't sky 'em, would you, Billy?" inquired his companion.
    "I'd bile em and eat 'em," said the victim of misplaced confidence in vegetable nature, with an expression in his hungry eyes that was curiously like that in the eyes of the soldier-dog when it pounced on the poor bracemaker's bread. "There's only one thing I wish more."
    "What's that, William?"
    "Why, that them taters may pisen the beggar that stole em from me," returned, William with malignant earnestness. "I'd rather that, than have 'em myself this minute baked under a line of pork."
    "Well, there won't be any bakings or bilings either to-night, I'm thinking," remarked the old man, moistening his lips at the mere mention of the savoury dish; "leastways, speaking for myself I mean. You might be better off Billy, when the wife comes back."
    "What with fourpence to pay for medsun for the young 'un out of the one-and-fippence she earned yesterday and to-day," returned the other sarcastically, "if it runs to a Billingsgate pheasant for supper it's about as high as it will run - and that's a red herrin'," said he, turning to me, "if you don't know the meaning of it."
    " I suppose it is because of the very cold weather," I remarked, [-114-] addressing the owner of the performing dogs, "that you are compelled to be idle?"
    "That's it, sir," he replied. "The poor things couldn't stand it, even if they were able to dance in the snow. What's more, if they could stand it the Cruelty to Animals fellows wouldn't. They're all clipped poodles, don't you see, and if there is any animal that looks more wretched than another out in the streets in snowy weather it is a clipped poodle."
    " Specially," put in the potato-skyer, "when you ain't got proper clothes for 'em to wear."
    "Are they not proper clothes they are wearing now?"
    "Proper enough to knock about in, sir, but not smart enough to appear in public with," replied the old man, dolefully. "There's one thing - I didn't make away with their clothes before my own went. But they are all gone now. You may reckon, sir, a man in my line o' business must be in queer street when it comes to taking the clothes off his dogs' backs to raise a trifle to feed 'em with."
    "And is that what you have had to do?"
    "This young man knows all about it, sir, and can answer for it being true," he replied. "I tried werry hard to keep off doing it, but it couldn't be helped. Didn't I try hard, Billy ?"
    The individual appealed to grinned to an extent that wrinkled the brown paper on his forehead.
    "He went and he got a couple of tickets for soup," said he, "for four quarts of it, and they were all agoing to have a rare good dinner, but one of the committee was there, and says he to Jackson. 'Ain't you the man wot's got four dogs to keep?' to which Jackson says 'I've got four dogs to keep me when they're able to do it, if that's what you mean;' 'Then go away and let em do it,' says the committee man. So Jackson he brought his empty can back, and they was all so jolly hungry that the dawgs' clothes had to go."
    "There was Flora's jacket," resumed the old man- that one's Flora (the canine female alluded to was sitting with her nose on the edge of the fender, looking dejectedly into the fire); "blue cloth it was, with a skirt to match. When she had her hat on and her wail down you'd hardly knowed her from a real young lady. Let's see - what did Flora's suit cost me, Billy?"
    "Over seven-and-six, making and all."
    "To be sure it did, Well, sir, it had to go - 'cepting the hat and parasol - it had to go with a sailor's suit belonging to Jerry - that brown dog there - the lot for one and ninepence. I tried to [-115-] pawn them under the name of children's things; but it wouldn't go down, so I had to sell 'em for what they was. It was a pity. There is no man takes more pride in his dogs than I do, or is more pleased to see 'em respectable looking. Now they'll have to turn out when the weather breaks in the shabby old things you see 'em in now. But it can't be helped. If they could speak as well as dance, I think they'd tell you, sir, that we share and share alike, pretty even. They're as well off as I am, if that's any comfort to 'em."
    And the kind old fellow sighed as he solaced the prominent ribs of the desponding Flora with the toe end of his ragged slipper. And as the young man's wife at that moment appeared at the kitchen door with a few coals in one corner of her old shawl and a loaf of bread in the other-exactly as the little girl upstairs had brought home her marketing, and as, moreover, crowning the loaf there was the fish "pheasant" the discomfited potato-thrower had promised himself for his supper - I thought it time to withdraw, which I did, after a few parting words with Mr. Jackson.