Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - A Cow-Cross Tea-Party

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IT had been agreed by the benevolent promoters of the gathering that the invitation should be by tickets judiciously distributed, and that the scene of the feast should be the Mission Hall in White Horse-yard, Smithfield.
    The invited guests numbered over two hundred. To the uninitiated it may appear strange that a mere "tea" should possess attractions sufficient to call together so considerable a contingent of the rough-and-ready brotherhood of costermongers. As a rule, public tea-givings are by no means heavy affairs. The cups are filled and emptied as a mere social formality, and there is scarcely any consumption of solids worth mentioning.
    This, however, is in polite society, of whose usages the British costermonger is as ignorant as he could wish to be. With him a "tea" is a chief meal. His breakfast is a hasty affair, despatched in these winter morning hours before daylight, at a coffee-stall at Billingsgate or Farringdon Market. When he has bought his goods and drawn them home - at nine or ten o'clock, maybe - he will refresh on "a crust and a half-pint," but after that the course of business knows no break until dusk, when, "between the lights," he snatches half-an-hour or so, and feeds as heavily as his means will allow, ere, with recruited strength, he sallies forth again to dispose, by naphtha-light, of the remains of his yet unsold stock. It is seldom, however, that an opportunity occurs for his indulging in what, in his rude though expressive language, he calls a "reg'ler buster." The regular burster [-42-] is a luxury reserved for special occasions, such as that here described; and it was necessary to make preparations accordingly.
    Attached to the snug little hall in White Horse-alley, there is an ante-room; and here it was that, hours before the appointed tea-time, those who had undertaken the formidable task of cutting bread and butter were hard at it. There was a stack of loaves reminding one of those stacks of granite cubes one sees piled for road paving, and a mighty mound of butter. Besides which, there were in tall baskets of half-bushel capacity some hundred of "chunks" of seed and currant cake. It appears that it is just possible to make a rough calculation as to the quantity of solid food that will be required on such occasions.
    It has been ascertained, by careful observation, that when the costermonger grows aged, and is incapacitated by failing teeth, or some other physical infirmity, he can seldom, within the limits of an ordinary tea-time, manage to stow away more than six, or at the outside eight, slices. The middle-aged and robust make easy work of a dozen: the main difficulty rests with the long-legged, lean-flanked, growing young coster, whose appetite is continually keen as a razor edge. It is impossible to arrange with any certainty and prepare against this individual's raid on the bread-and-butter plate. There is nothing for it but to make a time bargain with him. It has been observed that, when at comfortable full swing, when he is not overcrowded, and it is not necessary for him to waste precious moments in blowing his hot tea, he is fairly equal to the task of disposing of a substantial slice in two minutes. He can keep on at this pace without faltering for a considerable period - how long, he himself confessedly does not know, since [-43-] he never yet enjoyed the felicity of assisting at a tea- party that was sufficiently protracted to enable him to settle the question.
    However, half-an-hour is reckoned to be a fair teatime, which would give the growing young costermonger fifteen slices. Taking the average, it may be set down at ten for each of the two hundred, or two thousand slices in all-thick slices, bear in mind: anything under an inch thick would be regarded with contempt by the bony young barrowman, and perhaps with an uncomfortable suspicion that you have designs to inveigle him into the detestable ways of gentility. He calls it "toffishness." He is peculiar in his views in this respect. Tall hats are toffish in Costerdom: so are starched shirt-collars; and as for gloves, sooner than wear a pair a costermonger would be seen carrying an umbrella. To affect thin bread and butter is undoubtedly "toffish," and is eschewed accordingly.
    The evening was miserably wet, and I began, as six o'clock drew near, to be apprehensive lest on that account there should be a falling-off in the number of expected guests. But I did them injustice. There is not wanting among these honest poor fellows a spirit of gratitude towards those who compassionate their grievances, and they take a pride in "keeping their word." Ill clad, most of them, with not a few who imprinted on the boards fantastic muddy shapes that were like anything but such as a sound shoe makes, they came trooping in at the appointed time, as bright and jolly-looking as possible-healthy-looking, too, which was even more surprising. A little while before, there had been made from the tall roof of the Mission House a display of lime - light, which threw its dazzling, unearthly glare through the darkness on the surrounding courts and [-44-] alleys with an effect that was appalling. Between the Sessions House and the New Meat Market may be reckoned a score or so of such hideous "no thoroughfares" as are to be met with in no other part of London. Maybe there are many who, passing along Turnmill Street, towards the Metropolitan Railway Station, have ventured to peep into the two-feet-wide entrances to nests of squalor; but such a glimpse gives them no more idea of a Cow-cross alley's hidden mysteries than is to be gleaned of the wonders of the ocean by the contemplation of a bag of Mr Tidman's sea-salt.
    The sun, even, knows very little about the matter, for its rays can penetrate only to a little distance between these black crevices, flanked on either side by tall, time-wrecked, crazy houses, each with its ten, twelve, or fourteen rooms - for the cellars count as such - and each of these again in its turn an abode for a family. It was startling to see the fashion in which the inexorable lime-light ripped away the dense alley mist that clung like a sable cloak about these horrible habitations, and exposed them. You could see through the uncurtained windows sheer into scores of rooms, plainly as you can into a dingy corner when a bull's-eye light is flashed upon the spot; the walls bare and smoke-begrimed, the floor naked, except for the sack or strip of old carpet before the fenderless fire-place, round about which the squalid family huddled. You could see, as plainly as though you were within three yards of them, what were the rags they wore, and how insufficient they were to cover the poor little bodies of the children. You could make out, too, quite distinctly, what a dreadful contrivance a Cow-cross alley bedstead is in many cases, and picture to your mind what a terrible hardship you would find it to have to lie on such [-45-] a heap of rags and under such a coverlet. How cold it must be-taking into account the broken ceiling and the broken windows-in the winter nights; how insufferably suffocating and sickening in the sultry nights of July and August!
    It was difficult, when the laughing, merry-faced folk trooped into the hall to tea, to realise that they were of the kind who can find no better lodgings, and can afford no better bed, than those I have described. There were coster girls as well as lads - stout-built, buxom wenches, with rosy cheeks and bright eyes; and coster matrons, with their well-nurtured babies; and prime-o'life costers, tall enough for lifeguards-men, with limbs in proportion.
    A noticeable feature was that the greater part had washed and dressed for the occasion; and it was plain that there had been a considerable expenditure in hair-oil. An uproarious head of hair, even among the lads, was decidedly the exception; while in many instances it was evident that vast patience and perseverance had been employed in persuading the rebellious stubble to "lie down" peaceably, and even permit its untutored ends to be tortured in what was supposed to be a curl, although, as regards both rigidity and curve, it was more like a butcher's meat-hook. But they were one and all remarkably obliging and docile, and in a hundred small ways evinced a disposition to be comfortable and sociable.
    They needed no second bidding by their true friend, the presiding genius of the Cow-cross Mission, to make themselves quite at home. The women did so to the extent of removing their bonnets and tying on a clean apron, produced from the gown-pocket; the men, at least very many of them, by divesting themselves of [-46-] their coats and jackets, and appearing in their shirtsleeves. Some half-dozen extreme enthusiasts went the length of rolling their shirt-sleeves above their elbows, and disencumbering their sinewy throats of their kerchiefs. While the tea, already milked and sweetened, was being teemed from the copper into convenient portable urns, the company rose and sung a hymn, which lasted until the bread-and-butter bearers, being now quite ready, entered in single file. Then, with a subdued chuckle of delight, they sat down and commenced the attack.
    That was a serious business-serious as it was solid. I was under the impression that the chuckle above- mentioned betokened that it was to be a mirthful meal - that so soon as the first slice or so had, as it were, taken the edge off the company's teeth, and their nostrils had sniffed the soothing aroma of the really excellent congou, pleasant conversation and mild hilarity would be the order of the evening. But I did not know them. That preliminary sound which I had mistaken for a chuckle, was but the brief ejaculation of proud confidence with which the combatant, sure of his strength and skill, welcomes the approach of an antagonist. So it was with my staunch two hundred. The severity- not to say ferocity-with which they helped themselves to slices, the contraction of brows that accompanied the act, the grim way in which, as they champed their massive jaws, they put aside the oily meat hook, stray hairs of which tickled their cheek -bones, as though to shew how inexorably determined they were to renounce the vanities of the world, and give their minds steadily to its substantials - all this made a sight to behold.
    There was no hurry, no scrambling - there was no need for either; almost every table of fifteen or eighteen [-47-] guests had its particular waiter, and the plates were always kept piled with slices. Each double row kept its attendant going pretty briskly, however. He was not troubled much with verbal applications. When a guest had bolted, or was in the act of bolting his last mouthful, he either caught the waiter's eye, and winked his desire, or, failing this, he snapped his finger and thumb, or emitted a short, sharp sound within his lips - "Phit! "- and the plate was forwarded immediately. The remarkable way in which the more hearty of the guests disposed of these slices was so universal, that I need but describe the process as performed by one. Having gulped down the remnant of slice seven, he signalled for slice eight. If he had yet a moment to spare before his masticating organs were quite at liberty for the reception, he clutched it firmly by the crust, and regarded its buttered surface, as though to fascinate it and make it fall an easier victim to his devouring jaws. Then he gave his lips one cooling lick, and, opening his mouth to its widest, rammed in the slice, as though about to take a full cast of his molars and incissors for dental purposes. When he released the slice, its crummy part had half-vanished, his sharp teeth having actually grazed its crusty back-bone. As he masticated the mouthful, he kept his eyes steadily on the wounded slice, and turned it a little to the right and to the left, as if to make up his mind at what part he would take a fresh grip of it. This settled to his satisfaction, he made a snap at the remainder of the crumb, and, having despatched that at two bites, he disposed of the crust, and promptly telegraphed for slice nine.
    The tea they treated with less ceremony, though their relish for it was unmistakable. When they ordered a fresh cup, the first act was to pour it all out into the saucer, so that it might cool. When they required it, they did [-48-] not sip it, but "flushed" their throats with it at a single drench. These, however, be it remembered, were the younger branches, the unruly colts, of Costerdom, who had not learnt manners from their elders.
    But they all ate and drank with a most tremendous relish. It was easy to understand now what a "reg'ler buster" meant. It means the partaking of food until the fastenings of ordinary articles of attire are no longer equal to the strain on them, and must be relaxed on peril of splitting. But my young friends, the budding costermongers, accomplished this "letting out" with as much circumspection as they shewed in devouring slices. They did not let slip all the buttons of their waistcoat at once, but after a certain time paid toll, as it were, at the rate of a button for a slice.
    And yet it was impossible to call it gluttony. There was not a single youth present who did not, after he had made away with his entire row of buttons, look as serene and comfortable as though he was wearing an under-waistcoat closer buttoned even than the outer one, and as though he was good to keep on to the bottommost button-hole. Indeed, their undiminished capacity was presently proved. The cake appeared in the half-bushel baskets, and was hailed with a hearty welcome. There were large pieces of cake in the baskets-as large as the hand, perhaps; but not a guest present refused a slice and another cup of tea "to wrench it down" as one young gentleman apologetically remarked to his attendant. He and his companions, however, continued to put away several slices each without much "wrenching."
    On the whole, it was a highly successful tea. This was sufficiently evidenced by the beaming faces of all present, as well as by the fact that, when it was suggested that it was "all over, but if any lady or gentle-[-49-]man there, as yet, had not had enough, they were at liberty to stay after the rest had dispersed, and have a jolly good gorge all to themselves." I could not but note that there were three or four who cast wistful glances at the cake, as though of more than half a mind to accept the invitation, but though bold enough for most things, had not the courage to withstand the jeers of the contented majority, and joining heartily with the rest in the "three cheers" that were given for their entertainer, the comfortable company of low Cow-crossites dispersed.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874