Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At a Blind Beggars' Tea-Party

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JUST as it happened, within a fortnight of my taking tea at Cow-cross I was favoured with another invitation of a similar nature, and emanating from an exactly similar neighbourhood, in fact from Mr. Orsman's Mission House in Golden-lane. It is possible to have too much of good things, even when they take the shape of bread and butter in a clothes-basket, and tea poured out from a two gallon can. For the moment I was about to write a polite declining note, but closer inspection of the card resolved me to embrace the offered opportunity as one not likely to occur again.
    Half-past five had been duly advertised as tea-time, and at least an hour before, the various thoroughfares that led to the place of meeting must, to the uninitiated, have presented a curious and perplexing spectacle. Only for the absolute absence of consternation and panic, it might have been that a blight, that carried on its wings the terrible scourge of blindness, had fallen on at least one in twenty of the pedestrian population. Blind men, blind women, blind boys, blind girls - the pavement was fairly dotted with them. Grey-headed, bent-backed, poor old folks, whose organs of vision may have failed them through sheer decay of nature; tall and sturdy fellows, whose affliction, as it seemed, was so recent that they had not as yet recovered from the first fright of it, and still carried dismay in their upturned faces, and stared timidly before them, as though it were not quite impossible that, in an instant, life might dart back to [-51-] their hollow sepulchres of dead sight, and enable them to see and understand the strange din that surrounded them. Scarcely less painful was it to contemplate the faces of the blind children,, as a rule happy and cheerful - thank goodness - but lacking light, or, at best, shining with a borrowed brightness, gathered from the merry talk of children about them who could see.
    But where were the dogs?
    Our four-footed friends are so intimately associated with blind men that one looked for them quite naturally; and, failing to discover them, experienced an additional alarm for the safety of the sightless ones. Somehow, they did not appear nearly so secure in the keeping of their two-legged guides. It was as though a company of cripples had abandoned their crutches, substituting for the old familiar supports, on which they swing along so easily, the willing, though awkward, hands and arms of their friends.
    But, as I afterwards found out, dogs were not eligible for admittance at the place of the meeting ; and, though at first this may appear a somewhat arbitrary arrangement, there really may be sound grounds for the canine exclusion. Blind men's dogs are, as a rule, exceedingly sensitive animals, and jealous for their master's safety, and it is not difficult to imagine how easily a "row might originate, and what a sad interference with harmonious tea-drinking might be created by a hundred determined dogs of various breeds, and with their collars and chains hideously entangled, each bent on deadly satisfaction.
    Again, the dogs of blind men are known to be peculiarly alive to the charms of music, and, since the entertainment in question was to include singing and tunes on the harmonium, the committee probably exercised a [-52-] wise discretion in avoiding the possibility of a discordant augmentation of the choruses. Some few of the invited guests, however, were without "guides " of any kind. Old experienced London hands these, who had served a long apprenticeship, and were perfect masters of the mystery of finding their way in the blank lands of stone-blindness from any given quarter of the metropolis to another, with only a stick to steer by.
    I had some talk with an elderly gentleman, so accomplished, who had found his way from Hoxton to Goswell-street, with scarcely a speck of mud on his well-blacked boots, and who, in confidence, informed me that nothing beat him but fog. It "bothers me somehow," said the old gentleman, "and gets into my ears and kind o' spins my head full of wool. I've been that deceived sometimes as to find myself right under a cab-horse's head, when I could have declared that it was a good six yards off."
    The same afflicted person was terribly wroth against metropolitan improvements generally; but waxed to a degree of eloquence that even the Board of Works would have found it difficult to resist, when he spoke of the cruel wrong he had endured through the machinations of the inventors of wood and asphalte road-paving. "It isn't English at all; it's a sly, sneaking French way," the irate blind Briton declared ; "there is nothing like the good old cobble-stones that made the wheels rattle in an honest way that a man can hear." The precious ears of blind men guide their speech in a way that sounds odd at times. "Well, Matthew, and how do you find yourself at this happy time ?" one of the blind visitors asked of the blind ticket-taker at the door. "Better, better; but not well, I am sorry to say." "Ah, I might ha' knowed that," returned the sympathetic old lady, [-53-] with a doleful wag of her blank face; "you don't sound very bright."
    Being a busy worker among them, the blind ticket-taker knew them all, and with no other assistance than an intelligent little boy, his son, could render him, received his motley guests, and, according to their age and the severity of other ailments, besides blindness, under which many of them were suffering, directed where they should be seated. This distinction was necessary, as it was but a little place, and would not accommodate their whole number without packing some of them in the gallery upstairs. They came from all parts of the town - from Stepney, from Mile-end, from Hoxton; but, with an instinct that was marvellous, he knew them all by mere touch, as it seemed. " How d'ye do, Peters? The stairs will be no trouble to you; you'll go up. Same with you, Mrs. Harrison - you won't mind, I know." "Not in the least, sir; but the old 'oman as was good enough to guide me is a club-footed old 'oman, and she-" " All right ; downstairs, then. Ah, John Hays! who is with you, old John?" " My daughter Peggy, sir." "Umph! well, you two had better keep down here; I know how uncertain her fits are." And so they come stumbling in, the lame not unfrequently leading the blind, until the stipulated number of 200 have obtained admission, and the party is complete.
    Of the tea I need say nothing, except that it was a plentiful meal, and that the cake and bread and butter were in excess of the demand, which, however, was sufficiently hearty to be equal to the demolishing of several capacious wicker clothes-baskets piled full of tempting slices and "rounds."
    I can't say that it was a particularly lively tea-party. Even among the old women there was little or no [-54-] gossiping. Every one's neighbour was a stranger at present. Under more favourable circumstances we know how cautiously guests unknown to each other unbend and engage in conversation, and it is not difficult to understand how this feeling of reserve is increased in the case of persons who in their sociable advances have literally to feel their way. Then, again, that very many of them were bewildered with the strangeness of their position was painfully apparent. Be his home never so poor a one, each has his special corner by the fire, his special chair to sit in, and the cup that he drinks out of is his only, and the handle of it is familiar to his sensitive fingers. That the majority of them were embarrassed in these small matters was perceptible at a glance. They sat stiff and awkwardly on the forms, and held on to the never-failing stick, standing it between their knees, and embracing the sturdy knob of it with their interlaced fingers, as though if this old friend failed them they should be lost indeed. The clumsy tea-cups were foreign to their touch, and it was evidently with a depressing consciousness of the risk he ran that each blind tea-drinker essayed the passage of a smoking saucerful from the table to his lips. But sufficient time being allowed them, and confidence growing with experience, I believe that one and all contrived to do tolerably well.
    But the best of the entertainment had yet to commence. .Plentiful teas were, to be sure, not everyday occurrences with these poor creatures shut out from the world. Still they did happen at times; whereas, what was in store for them had occurred but once before in all their sightless lives, and that was on that very evening a year ago. There was to be a concert - not a solemn affair, built up entirely of hymns, but a musical entertainment that was to be in part funny. Nay, there was [-55-] no use in blinking the fact now that it grew so near, there was to be downright comic singing.
    They pricked up their ears in the space before the platform as soon as the sober harmonium, under the fingers of a blind player, gave notice that, contrary to its custom, it was about to be hilarious. With a keen remembrance of last year's treat, the sightless orbs that faced about in the front row of the gallery quivered and twitched, which was the best they could do towards twinkling. But they were not to remain up in the gallery - they were to come down and sit all together, as they did last year; and this they did, laughing and chatting as they made room for each other, and thawing out of their mistrust and timidity in a wonderful way.
    Now that their faces were turned upwards, and the gaslight shone down on them, you could see how awfully blind some of them were; and I verily believe that what was once their eyes would have looked less appalling had not their faces been puckered in smiles. It was so grimly suggestive of death in the midst of life. And there they were, many rows deep, and all with their eyes towards the harmonium, for all the world as though they could see. And I may here remark that several of the blind men and women wore spectacles, not, of course, that they derived the smallest personal benefit from their use, but purely out of tender regard for the sensitive feelings of beholders.
    A blind man played the harmonium, and a blind man who was now growing towards middle age, and who had lost his eyes when he was two months old, in a voice mellow and jovial, started the concert with " Tis forty years, my old friend John," in the chorus to which all joined with heartiness, and as though it were an uncommon treat to hear their own voices mingling har-[-56-]moniously with other voices. After that a blind female singer favoured the audience with "Beloved Star, singing the song with much sweetness. Then followed other songs, including one about the " Merry sunshine ;" and it is a remarkable fact that the majority of the ditties sung bore reference to pleasant sights rather than sounds.
    There were some funny songs too, all about courtship and sweethearting (all sung by blind singers), and a "laughing song," the chorus to which was nothing but "Ha! ha! ha!" and it was really comforting to find, now that they were stirred to it, that they could laugh as heartily without eyes as with - a fact that previously I certainly should have been disposed to dispute. It was all right now as regards sociability, and I have no doubt that the laughing song did it. When it becomes a trial of good humour, even between blind men, who shall laugh the longest and the loudest, there seems nothing for the vanquished to do but clap hands with the victor, and hail him as a pleasant neighbour. They were getting so well along one with the other under the influence of comic and sentimental song, that I was profane enough to wish that I might order in just enough of steaming punch to serve out to all who liked it - one, only one, comfortable tumbler, with new long clay pipes and Bristol bird's-eye (not by way of mending matters - they required no mending, as every one of the two hundred was ready to attest), when, shortly after nine o'clock, they took their departure, each one receiving a new shilling as he or she passed out.