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HEREIN I have ventured to string together, in book-form, a
selection from my from time to time experiences already published in the columns
of the "Daily Telegraph," because it seems to me that, when after much
exercise of patience and overcoming of difficulty, any specially bad case of
disease or deformity in our social system has been brought to light, it is a
pity that its term of exposure to public contemplation - on which rests mainly
its chance of cure, should last no longer than a single day. Besides, and apart
from this, however widespread the influence of a newspaper may be, it cannot
hope to include amongst its readers all who take an interest in the ways
and means, the habits, haunts, manners, and customs of such members of the
community as comprised the Strange Company I one way and another contrived to
scrape acquaintance with.
I regard it as my duty to warn those who admire nothing so much as "fine writing," that it will be waste of time to seek for it within these covers. My Strange Company were not of the sort that take kindly to polish, being of a gritty race, and, individually, no more capable of refinement than a grindstone, - human [-vi-] nettles that resent being dealt with gingerly or glove- handed. They have no notion of "dressing" for their photographs. You must take them in the rough, or leave them alone.
In such manner I have taken them; and in the rough, and faithfully set down in this volume all that I learnt concerning them.
IN STRANGE COMPANY.
THREE OF TEN THOUSAND.
THE Angel at Islington, from which every minute almost
through the livelong day omnibuses from all parts of London are setting down and
taking up their loads of passengers, is a favourite hunting ground with the
juvenile ragamuffin horde, who, for their sustenance, are driven to beg, or
steal, or legitimately trade, as occasion may serve. Day and night you may find
them there - paper boys, fusee boys, crossing-sweeper boys, and boys out of
number who are nothing in particular "at present," three-feet-high
merchants, ruined through rash speculations, and "rubbing on" until a
lucky windfall sends them a sixpence with which to go to market again; dirty,
houseless, poor little gutter prowlers, who ever keep a bright look-out, are
never downhearted, live on from day to day, and at night find shelter for their
capless, unkempt heads, God only knows how.
You may always find them there; and there they were as that miserable winter's day, last Thursday, was closing in with drizzling rain that was ten times colder than snow. There they were, and it came into my head quite suddenly that an hour might be worse spent than [-2-] in sampling the bulk and hearing from their own lips what were their present means and future prospects in that state of life to which hard fortune had doomed them.
As though divining my thoughts, at that moment there leaped out of the mud, right under my nose, one of exactly the sort on which my mind was dwelling - a poor shoeless shuffling little wretch, whose entire suit consisted of a pair of manly trousers ingeniously secured by a single brace over a dilapidated shirt of the Guernsey order, and whose stock-in-trade was five or six cakes of boot blacking, contained in a box slung round his neck.
The box had no lid, and the rain was so rapidly liquefying the paper-covered cakes, that the one he held out for me to buy drooped across his mite of a hand - deadly white with cold where it was not black with grime - in a manner not calculated to tempt a person who was some miles distant from home, and who really was not urgently in need of blacking.
"Buy a a'porth," pleaded the small boy, "here yer are, take three on 'em for a penny; that won't hurt yer"
Great was the boy's amazement when I bade him go and wait a little while for me at the corner of the next street, and I would show him how he might earn a shilling easily.
My next capture was a fusee boy, a little younger-looking than my blacking boy; but I wanted still another, and presently I espied him, a red-haired boy, a sturdy broad-nosed freckled villain of eleven or so, who scorned trade, and was a lawless savage. When I set eyes on him he was in a fierce conflict with a boy older and bigger for possession of a crumpled-up paper of that evening's issue that some one had thrown from the roof of an omnibus. Encouraged by the cries of "Go it, [-3-] Ginger !" yelled by his admiring friends, the red-haired boy presently finished his antagonist by scientifically butting him with his bullet head in the pit of the stomach, and bringing him to the ground; after which Ginger retired to the pavement, and, waving his captured prize most aggravatingly before the eyes of the vanquished, with calm precision executed a war dance.
A quarter of an hour later we four - the blacking boy, the cigar-light vendor, Mr. Ginger, and the reader's humble servant - were comfortably bestowed in the parlour of a little alehouse in the Pentonville Road, with bread and cheese before us, and a glorious fire burning in the grate, in the fender of which my thrifty blacking-boy laid out his little stock to dry.
Ginger's delight when the landlord brought in along with a big loaf the half of a huge Cheshire cheese, was a sight to behold; his amazement when the landlord left the room, leaving the half cheese behind him, I will not attempt to describe.
"He's forgot it, ain't he?" he said, handling his knife as though sadly tempted to make the most of the innkeeper's mistake by slicing off a pound or so.
"No, he hasn't forgotten, my lad," said I, "he'll fetch it away when we have done with it."
"When we have done with it! What, are we going to eat as much as we likes on it?"
Ginger lost not a moment more. Licking his lips as I cut him a liberal slice, he pounced on it and on a hunch of bread with a degree of voracity that spoke of long fasting.
Ginger ate with his elbows on the table-nay, with both his arms and hands forming a jealous barrier round his food, just as the brown bear at the Zoological Gar-[-4-]dens encircles with his paws the meal of biscuits the keeper throws to him in his den. As he munched each greedy mouthful, his fierce eyes marked the next in the crisp crust, in the luscious cheese that yielded but too faint a resistance to his grim semicircle of teeth. I can't say how much that half cheese weighed, probably thirty pounds, but it was evident that Ginger had promised himself that he would eat the whole of it, and the spasm of pain it caused him to see me help the other two was ludicrous to behold. The second, the third time, he thrust his plate for another helping, and still once again, and with a chuckle of triumph as the blacking-boy and the fusee-boy announced that they had had enough. The champing of his insatiable jaws was the only sound that was heard, while his mates sat silent and expectant of information as to what was the "job" I had spoken of. At last I ventured mildly to remark to Ginger,-
"When you are quite full, my young friend -" To which he promptly responded,- "All right, guvner, I ain't a greedy cove; I'll knock off now, if you like," and bolting at a gulp about two square inches of cheese that remained on his plate, he announced himself at my service.
I explained briefly that, in the first place, I wished to know where was their home, and what their means of living; and I first addressed myself to the blacking-boy.
"I am nine and a half," said he, "and I lives in Playhouse Yard, in Whitecross Street. It ain't a house, at least it ain't a house what you goes in-doors to, with tables and chairs and that, and a fire."
"Ah, ah!" remarked Ginger; "no, there ain't much room for furniture in Billy Taggs's house, but it's werry comfortable, and, wot's more, it's regler. It's a barrer."
[-5-] "A baker's barrer," poor little Taggs hastened to explain - "one of them with a lid. The baker lets me sleep there, and I watches out for the cats."
"For the cats?"
"It's down a yard with gates to it where the barrer is and the baker he keeps breeding ducks and pigeons there and the cats come and nail 'em o' nights, and when I hears em I gives the lid of the barrer a histe, and down it comes with a whack, and they are off like a shot."
"Are your parents alive ?" I asked him.
"I ain't got no mother, I've got a father; I sees him sometimes. He don't live up my way, he goes to fairs and that. I ain't got no brothers. I've got a sister she's in the hospital. She used to work up Mile End I way, at the lucifer factory, till she got the canker making of em. She's been in the hospital this ever so long. That's why I don't sell 'lights.' I can t bear the sight of em. I'm on my own hands. I earns all I gets. I've been adoin' it ever since she was took to the hospital."
"Are you ever ill ?"
"I haint been ill a long time, not since the middle o' summer, when I had the measles. No, I dIdn t sleep in the baker's barrer then. I didn't know him. I knowed a pipemaker, and he let me lay in his shed, and his missus was werry kind to me. I do werry well. I hardly ever goes without grub. I don't know what you mean by 'regler' grub. I most times saves three-half-pence for my breakfast, and this cold weather I gets a ha'porth of bread and a penn'orth of pea soup; there's lots of shops what sells penn'orths of soup in Whitecross Street, ha'porths too. I sell out somehow every night. I gets a dozen cakes of blacking for tuppence - ha'penny, and I in general clears about [-6-] fivepence. Dinner time I get's a baked tater, or sometimes a ha'porth of fried fish. All I got left, cept three- half-pence for breakfast and stock-money, we spends at supper-time."
"We goes together, four or five of us, sometimes to the soup shop, sometimes to the baked tater and fish shop. It's all right mostly; course there is hard times. Once a p'liceman took away my box, blacking and all, cos I cheeked him. It was more'n a week before I could make another start. I washes myself sometimes, not often; I ain't got no towel and soap. I don't recollect when the last time was. It was afore the frost, though, cos I know it was a wrench at the pump I had. Yes, sometimes I wears boots. I ain't had none since the last boat-race day, Cambridge and Oxford, and I lost one on 'em turning cat'n wheels behind a carriage."
"Were you ever in trouble?"
"I never was locked up; cert'ny not. Don't I think I should be better off in the workus? No, I don't want to be shut up anywheres. I am all right. I don't want nobody to be a-looking arter me like that, thanky all the same, mister."
"Can you read?"
"No, I can't read, nor write neither; I never was in a school. Never was in a church. I don't like to be shut up anywhere. I'd a jolly sight rather go on as I'm a goin.'"
And so he retires to collect his blacking out of the fender with a dismal foreboding, as I can see that he may, after all, in consequence of his sturdy determination to embark in no business that may involve his "being shut up," though for never so short a period, miss my "job" and the promised shilling after all.
The fusee-boy comes next; but his experiences are tame and commonplace compared with those of the [-7-] blacking-boy. He is a meek and spare-looking little chap, woefully ill-clad and dirty, and his age, as he informs me, is "summat about eight or ten." He refers to Ginger, who is a personal friend, for definite information on the matter.
Ginger opines that, as "nigh as a toucher, he was eight last birthday." The fusee-boy was better off than Billy Taggs, inasmuch as he had a mother and "regler lodgings;" but the advantage was not unalloyed, for the fusee-boy's mother was what Master Ginger described as a "lushing, fightin' sort of woman, who was wuss than a scalded cat to them about her when the drink was in her."
"I'd rather be without a mother than have a oner like her," said the red-haired boy; "there's him and his two young brothers and his sister wot sells buttonolers (flower-sprigs for the button-hole), and she grabs all they earn, and get's drunk with the money, and punches them about orful cos they don't bring her more. Their only good time is when she is in quod. She is there now for twenty-one days, for saultin' a policeman on Christmas Eve. Good job if she was dead. Yah! yer young fool!" continued the ferocious Ginger, as the small pale boy raised to his dirty eyes his dirtier cuff; "he always snivels when you tell him that."
Were his brothers older than himself? I asked.
"One was older," the fusee-boy replied, and one was two years younger, and they were all out selling lights. The sister was the eldest of all. Thirteen she was, but she wasn't very big because of her humpty back." She can't get no flowers now it's frosty, so she gets paper bags to make, and stops at home to look arter the wittles and that, agin we comes home at night."
"Are you out all day long, then ?"
"All day long, up to about nine."
[-8-] "But you go home to your meals ?"
"There ain't no meals, 'cept the coffee in the morning, and what we gets when we go home at night."
"And what do you then get ?"
"Oh, all manners ; stews sometimes," and his dirty little white face lit up at the glorious recollection.
"Jolly fine stews they are," put in the irrepressible Ginger; "I've paid my whack towards em, and joined in. We should ha' had one to-night, only his sister Becky hain't good on her pins when it's slippery, and it's a long way over to Bermondsey."
"Why to Bermondsey ?"
" Cos you can't buy bits and ears 'cept in the skin market."
"Bits of what and ears?"
"Bits of meat what they scrapes off the insides of the skins and the ears of the bullocks; stunnin' stew it makes with an ingun and a few taters."
"And how much a pound do you pay for the - the ears and bits ?"
"Nothing a pound; you buys it in lots. Them wots got the priwilege cuts 'em off and makes 'eaps of 'em on the pavement, about a couple of pound for twopence. That's how his sister Beck looks arter em when she's left to herself, yet he ses he shouldn't be glad if his old woman was dead !" And the red-haired boy disgustfully snorted his scorn for self-damaging weakness in general.
To the cigar-light boy I put the same questions as to the blacking-boy.
"Did he ever go to church?"
"To school ?"
[-9-] "Could he read or write at all ?"
"No; he knew nothing about them things," the fuseeboy answered listlessly.
"Ah, but he can do something wots a lot better!" exclaimed Ginger, with an admiring glance at his young friend; "he's a fizzer on the whistle."
"On the whistle ?"
"The tin-whistle-don't yer know ?" and taking up a long piece of bread-crust from the table he made on it the motions of a flute-player ; after which he put it in his pocket.
"He ain't got the cheek to go into public-houses and that, or else he might make a reg'lar good living of it."
There must have been something more than empty flattery in Master Ginger's eulogium of his friend's whistling powers, for the little pale boy brightened up wonderfully.
"Mister," said he to me, with much more animation than he had yet displayed, "did you ever hear that boy what plays in a coffee-pot ?"
I was fain to confess that I was ignorant of the existence of the phenomenon in question.
"He don't mean in it, guv'ncr; he means down the spout of it," explained the ready Ginger; "the chap he means goes about playing down the spout of a coffee-pot, just like as though it was a whistle. He very often makes a pitch in them streets that leads out of the Strand."
"And would you like to go about playing tunes on a coffee-pot?" I asked the little cigar-light boy.
"Better'n everything," returned the modest small musician; and, then, finding that I had nothing more to say to him, he joined the blacking-boy, who had by this time repacked his dry goods, and was now dozing by the fire.
[-10-] "My name is John Galloper," remarked the red-haired boy, before he was asked the question, and folding his hands behind him, after the fashion of good little boys, when repeating a catechism lesson.
"And how do you get a living, John ?"
"You don't want to hear no lies, mister."
"Then I don't get a living at all; I lets the living get itself."
"But you must either provide for yourself or somebody provides for you; which is it ?"
"It's a kind of mixshure of both, I suppose," returned John Galloper, with a laugh, and, after a little reflection, "it comes somehow; I don't trouble myself."
"How old are you ?"
"Older than you might think," answered John Galloper, with the wink of a middle-aged horse dealer; "I am thirteen last birthday."
"And you do no work ?"
"I ain't above a job, if I tumble across it.
"Sometimes you beg?"
"Per'aps you might call it beggin'."
"Sometimes you steal ?"
"Oh! come, yer know, you're a-comin' it a little too hot now. It's a mixshure. I tell you you'd better call it a mixshure, and say no more about it. What's the job you brought me here to do, guv'ner ?"
"Wait a little: where do you live ?"
"I don't live anywheres. I ony lodges in Golden-lane - sometimes at the 'Nussery,' sometimes at Dunn's."
"Have you a father or a mother ?"
"I d'n know; I hain't been to see this year and more. They don't care nothing about me, and I don't want 'em to."
[-11-] "I tell you what, my young friend, it seems to me that unless you alter your ways there can be little doubt as to what the end of all this will be."
John Galloper broke off a bit from the purloined crust in his pocket, and calmly masticated it as he looked up to the ceiling.
"You'll become a convict, and sent to drudge in misery to the end of your life in some stone quarry."
"Ah, all right," said John Galloper, evidently growing restless; "we'll see about that when we gets there. What's the job, master?"
"I didn't bring you here to preach to you, but I must tell you it is terribly distressing to find a little lad like you so reckless as to what becomes of him. If you could seriously -"
"Oh, that's enough of that. Don't you fret about me, mister; I knows my way about. Now, what's the job ?"
There was no use in further talking, and so the "job" was at an end, very much to Mr John Galloper's amazement when I announced the fact. So I gave them a shilling each, and let them go back to the mire where I had found them. I don't know if it was the effect of the cheese of which with my young friends I had partaken, or whether it was the influence of their strange company, but that night I lay much awake, thinking of poor Billy Taggs bemoaning the worry of cats as he tumbled and tossed in the friendly baker's barrow, and of the pale little fusee-boy, tucked as warmly as may be in his wretched bed by his little hunchback sister, and dreaming of the genius of the coffee-pot, and of desperately wicked young John Galloper, and of what, one of these days, would inevitably come out of his pernicious mixshure.