Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The Organ-Grinder

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SEEDY, not to say downright shabby individuals, whose habiliments are undoubtedly of Cockney cut, are not uncommonly encountered on a Sunday evening in the course of a stroll through country lanes ; nor is the circumstance of a person's sitting on a stile by any means extraordinary. It was his face that first brought me to a standstill. A long, wan, melancholy face, shewing a cavernous, whiskerless waste between each prominent cheek-bone and the ledge of the lower jaw, and a chin festooned with a ragged fringe of sandy beard. He wore a cap of the "billycock" order, and it was in all respects a decentish cap, except that, in front of the brim, for the space of a hand's breadth or so, it was worn limp and greasy.
    I mention this peculiarity of the billycock, because, after a few moments' puzzled contemplation of the lugubrious visage, some vague remembrance led mc to raise my eyes in expectation of finding it exactly as it was. In an odd kind of way I recollected him without recognising him. His figure was quite familiar to me; the elongated countenance, the cap, the threadbare brown coat, long in the skirts and ridiculously short in the sleeves, the stoop - or one might almost say the half-hoop of the man's shoulders. Bother the man - where had I before seen him, and why did it seem to me that his sitting on a stile in a quiet green lane on a Sunday evening was the very last thing that might have been expected of him?
[-72-] Presently, however, the riddle was solved in a manner as conclusive as it was startling. The bells of a church in the distance began melodiously ringing, and instantly the figure on the stile pricked up his ears, and looked in the direction from which the sounds came, and, with both his hands in the pockets of his breeches, took to drumming with his heels on the stile-bar a sort of rough accompaniment. This amount of sympathy satisfied him for a short time; but, as the bell music became louder and clearer, he grew more fidgety, and, quite unsuspicious that he was observed, he drew his hands from his pokets, and, dropping them from the wrist with apparent unconsciousness, executed certain movements that were unmistakable. It was the action of one who plays on those instruments peculiar to Ethiopian music - the bones.
    But my friend on the stile was not an Ethiopian. He was the veritable and original organ-grinder's bones - the lanky, merry-faced villain who, for goodness knows how many years, had been the companion of various members of that fiendish Italian horde who, by means of a barrel-organ, grind us mad to make their bread - the playful Bones, who capers as he rattles his clappers, who spars up to the organ-man to the tune in course of grinding, and affects to smite him on the nose - ah! how often have I wished he was doing it in earnest - blows sounding most awfully.
    The first time I recollect seeing him was during the time of the first Exhibition, twenty years ago, and he was an accomplished player on the bones then. How came he on this Sunday evening so far from the haunts of his comrades, whose colony, as everybody knows, is within a stone's throw of Leather-lane, Holborn? What on earth had induced him to wander so far away from [-73-] home? What pleasure could the poor clown of the streets gain by slinking off ten miles from the slums where organ-men do congregate, to smoke a solitary pipe at a spot that was at least a mile removed from any public-house? Perhaps, disgusted with his wretched pay as a clapper-man, he contemplated turning author, and writing a book of his experiences, and had here sought that quiet that was necessary to the maturing of his plans. His experiences! The idea was too good to be lost. Why should not I know something of his experiences?
    In five minutes more I, too, was sitting on the stile, and a portion of my Bristol bird's-eye was emitting smoke from his stumpy black pipe. Finding that he was ready enough for talk, I contrived that he should have a liberal share of it.
    "No, sir; you haven't made no mistake. I am the party you allude to. Goin' it in dumb show, was I? Very likely. I've been goin' it such a number of years, that I s'pose I'm like them dogs that sets off a howlin' when they hear music. I can't help it. Longer ago than the first Exhibition - four years before. Twenty-four years I've been at it. I was quite a little kid when I first took to it-ten years old. Nobody decoyed me away. I took to it natural. I used to do it fur a lark, and to put them out of temper; and so they was, till one day I came on one that wasn't."
    "I was a hard-up sort of boy, and didn't care much what I did ; so that when he said he'd give me a shilling a-day to go about with him, I didn't make no objection. It wasn't a shilling a-day long, though it was a dodge that took, and we made a lot of money. When the other organ-grinders found that out, they bid more for me - two, three shillings a-day; so at last my grinder [-74-] says, "We'll go fair whacks in all we get,' and that settled it. I didn't live among 'em at first. I used to be out all day, and come home to sleep. I didn't like to tell the old woman or father what I was up to. I felt kind of ashamed of it, and I used to bring home such a lot of money - six and seven shillings a-day sometimes - and I wouldn't split how I came by it; and the old woman thought I had gone wrong - thought that I went out priggin', you know, and they used to whack me orful; and before they went out to work in the morning, they'd lock up my clothes, right down to my shirt.
    "It was a whistling organ-man that first took me up - used to whistle with his mouth to the tunes he played. There used to be a good many of them do it, but they've died out now. Well, I used to hear him whistling after me a couple of streets off. He knowed where I lived, but he durstn't come to the house: so one day I couldn't stand it any longer, so I burst open the cupboard and dressed myself, and ran away from home for good. I went and lodged with the whistling organ-man at his lodgings at Saffron-hill. I lodged among 'em till I got married. Am I? Yes; and got a family, wus luck.
    "Wus luck, I mean, because things have got so orful bad. It isn't six and seven shillings a-day now: it isn't two very often. Last Saturday we was out from ten in the morning till dark, and my share was a shilling. Miles of walking? I should think there was. Saturday I met him in the Caledonian-road, and we worked the Surrey side right round about, as far as Clapham-common, and then had to walk the nine miles home. There isn't no regular way between me and the grinders. Sometimes we go halves; sometimes he will be paid for his day's work-half-a-crown and a bit of something for [-75-] dinner; and I gets all that is over for myself. Some of the grinders - not many - have their own organ. Most of 'em hire 'em, and what they are supposed to pay is half what they earn."
    "They are a very honest lot amongst themselves, and generally the master - the man who lets the organ and keeps the lodging-house - knows them. Perhaps he owns some land in the district in Italy they come from, and has got a lot of their relations working for him there. That makes it more secure for the master, of course. I never heard of a grinder stealing the organ lent to him. I once knew of one who thought he would try his luck in the country, and who got drunk and pawned his organ at Uxbridge for two pounds; but the pawnbroker had to give it up without payment, and the grinder got three months. How many organ-grinders do I suppose there are in London? Not more than eight or nine hundred now. They all live at Saffron-hill, except a batch of about forty, who lodge at a house in Short's-gardens, Drury-lane.
    "Organ-grinding is nothing like what it used to be. Oh, yes, the organs are better - there's no mistake about that; but the business is fell off wonderful. It is growing a stale game, as they say; and I should think that a good quarter of them I used to know have cut it. Have I any proof? Well, I don't know; but I should say this was a tidy sort of proof. There are two or three organ-makers on the hill - Saffron-hill - who deal in secondhand organs when they can get them. Well, seven or eight years ago it was a job to get hold of a good second-hand organ. There was none for sale. Now, if I wanted a couple of hundred, I should know where to put my hand on 'em, and at a low price too. There's no call for 'em.
[-77-] "How do I count for it? Well, I don't think Acts of Parliament have got much to do with the falling off. I never heard much talk among em about being compelled to "move on" when a householder tells 'em, and being locked up and fined if they won't. They don't feel the fine much. It is paid by whip - I mean a whip round. Says there's forty grinders live in one house - well, forty shillings fine is only a shilling each for 'em, and they're never hard up for a shilling. I mean that. I mean to say that of all the hundreds of grinders I've ever known - except a few drunken ones - I never yet knew one that didn't have a bit of money about him. Lor' bless yer! see how they live. If they only make a matter of twelve shillings a-week, they'll save six. How can they do it? Easy. They board partly at the lodging-house where they live. They have breakfast there - a basin of some sort of tea, without milk in it, and a chunk of bread. Well; that's their breakfast. Then at night they have supper; always the same thing summer time and winter time - macaroni soup.
    "It isn't reg'ler macaroni. I'll tell you how they make it. Say there's twenty of them. They'll get sixpenn'orth of bacon and cut it up in little slips, and put it in a kettle with about three gallons of water; and while it is boiling they make a dough of flour and water, and spread it out in thin cakes, and cut it into ribbons, and roll it up like thick bits of bacca-pipe, and mix it in with the bacon-water-that's all; they charge twopence a pint for it, and if you're a lodger you're bound to have it - at least, whether you do or not you have to pay for it.
    "Well, as I was a saying about cheapness. The breakfast and the supper is threepence halfpenny, and the lodgin' - the bed, I mean - is twopence a night. Two in a bed they sleep, but I don't know how many in a [-78-] room: I never counted 'em. Three-and-sixpence pays for their week's bed, breakfast, and supper, and a clean shirt as well; and all they have to buy after that is a penn'orth or two of something in the middle of the day by way of a dinner. Well, I often wonder how they stand it: it must be the constitution they bring with them, I s'pose. They're the low sort when they are at home - field-labourers and vineyard hands; and they earn next to nothing at all. They seldom or never bring their families with 'em. The mother and the young ones keep on with their regular work; and the father, who comes here and turns grinder, sends over a bit of money out of his savings, till he's scraped together the sum he's set his mind on: then he goes home to 'em. Some do this reg'ler, and have nine months here and three with their family at home.
    "No; my opinion is that the organ-grinding business is fell off, partly on account of the fiddles and harps which, I dessay, you have seen about, and partly because of the shaky kind of tunes they put on organs now. Music-hall tunes, I mean. They're werry lively; but there's a sort of 'slap-bang' about 'em all that don't agree with everybody. It isn't so respectable as the old tunes. What I mean is that these music-hall tunes - 'Hop light, Loo,' and 'Champagne Charlie' -are more aggravatin' to serious families than good solid operas and that; and so they are set against organs of all kinds. Of course it's a good thing for a music-hall singer to get his particular songs set on the organ. I've known 'em - one of 'em in particular, what's very thick with the nobs and swells - give as much as five pounds a organ for his favourite songs to be set on 'em.
    "Seven-and-sixpence is the trade price for setting a new tune on a organ. Comic or sentimental, it's all the [-78-] same. Some organs are all comic - jig-organs they are called; and they are the hardest-worked, and go the rounds in the lowest neighbourhoods. I've only heard 'em called jig-organs lately, since the young 'uns in back streets have took to dancing to 'em - dancing in reg'ler parties, I mean. Oh, yes, it's quite a new thing, and it's spreading too. Round about Whitechapel in the warm weather of evenings, the jig-organs do very well sometimes. So they do over the water. The young 'uns club their ha'pence; and sometimes the mothers and fathers, admirin' of 'em at the doors and windows will chuck out a copper or two as well.
    "I don't mean to say they all do bad. There are some grinders who have superior opera instruments, and who are reg'ler top-sawyers of the purfession. Evening is their time. They never think of going out till four in the afternoon, and they've got their reg'ler beats round the West-end squares and that, and make a very pretty thing of it. They ought to make more than the jig-organs: the instruments cost more. Four-and-twenty pound a good opera organ costs, and a common one fourteen or sixteen. They're orful heavy to carry about, those opera organs - over sixty pounds, every one of em. The common organs are heavy enough. Forty odd pounds they weigh; and some of the grinders will be out with em from eight in the morning till eleven at night every working days of their lives. I should say that, take it all through the year, a organ-grinder of the common sort earns about fourteen shillings a-week for himself. Playing the clappers is easier work, you think? Well, you see, there are different ways of playing clappers. I find it orful hard work. It gives me such pain between the shoulders, and keeps me layin' awake o' nights.
   [-79-] "Do I know of many boys that are brought here by padrones? There used to be a regular swarm of 'em but the magistrates stopped that. You won't find one - either a hurdy-gurdy, or white mice, or guinea-pig boy - where you might one time find twenty. The boys took care of themselves as soon as they found the chance. As soon as they came to know that the magistrate was on their side, it was all over with the padrone ill-using 'em, or getting a living out of 'em for that matter. They're naturally a laying-about, lazy lot of little beggars in their own country, and as soon as they found out that the man that hired 'em and brought 'em over was bound to feed 'em, and daren't wollop 'em, they let him have a nice life of it. He used to he afraid to offend 'em for fear they should put themselves in the way to be locked up and get him fined forty shillin's. And now, if you've no objection, I'll make a move, and see about gettin' towards home. It ain't often I get a quiet sniff at the country, and I shan't forget this one. Gord bless you, sir, and thanky werry hearty, I'm sure!"
    So he went his way, and I went mine.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874