Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At an Auction "Knock-Out"

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IN the placard that announced the coming sale, "twelve for one o'clock" was the time mentioned for the auctioneer to mount his rostrum; and as early as half-past eleven, the bar of the public-house nearest to the unfortunate dwelling doomed to be sacked was crowded with a choice company of that peculiar class of persons who make a living-and not at all a bad one-by "attending at sales."
    So they themselves modestly describe their avocation, should a stranger venture to make enquiry; but amongst themselves they are "skinners," "knock-outs," and "odd-trick men," and they work together in what the elegant language of the profession calls a "swim." At a glance, however, it was evident that the element in which the knock-outs commonly "swam" was not water. Men, as well as women, looked as though they had recently taken a dry bath in the dust of old carpets, and given themselves a polish with an unclean duster. An unsavoury, shabby lot, attired for the most part in suits which an old-clothesman would not have purchased at the rate of half-a-crown a suit, and wearing hats so battered and greasy that the same enterprising individual would not have picked them off a dunghill; yet there they were, having half-an-hour to spare and a little preliminary business to arrange, indulging in sixpen'orths of hot brandy and water and in glasses of the best ale, with an ease and prodigality that bespoke the prosperity of the business in which they were engaged.
    [-81-] Evidently, however, it was not a business the nature of which might be openly discussed. There was one gentleman with a nose of the vulture pattern, and who was chiefly remarkable for the dirtiness of the enormous ears that stood out from his head, so that they looked more like ugly rosettes to the brim of his greasy old hat than natural appendages; this was the captain. There was nothing in his appearance to mark him as a man of wealth, but the respectful demeanour of those about him proclaimed him unmistakably their chief. Every member of the unclean "swim"     held in his hand a catalogue of the "furniture and general household effects" that were presently to be brought under the hammer, and every man and woman there licked the tip of his or her black-lead pencil as they all listened to the whispered instructions of the gentleman with the enormous ears, in order to make an unmistakable note against the printed item under discussion.
    The males of the swim addressed this important personage as Ben; but the women, with an eye to ulterior business, did violence to the natural expression of their faces in a desperate effort to appear amiable, and, in accents bold or wheedling, called him "Benny;" while the wofully-shabby few who were not of the elect, but humbly "hung on," swigged pots of fourpenny as they kept a respectable distance from the initiated, and looked their admiration and wriggled their bodies devotedly towards him as they politely blew off the froth of the pot replenished, and drank "Your 'ealth, Mister Benjamin!" A wary old swimmer was Benjamin! He had explored the upper chambers of the house doomed to demolition under the hammer of the auctioneer, "in consequence of the death of the late proprietor;" he had dived down into the lower regions, and overhauled [-82-] the cutlery, and the plated goods, and the "small but choice stock of wine" in the cellar; and he had weighed and estimated the exact market value of every item that the dwelling contained, from the warming-pan hanging against the kitchen wall to the elegant full-compass walnut pianoforte in the drawing-room.
    I may as well here explain that I was no mere eavesdropper at this select assemblage. With the connivance of a traitor in the knock-out camp, I too was in the swim, and at perfect liberty to make notes on the margin of my catalogue in cypher all the time that I was supposed to be "ticking off" the bed and bedding in the second floor front, and the fender and fire-irons in the parlour. As one o'clock drew near we marched to the house round the corner, where two lengths of shabby stair-carpet were feebly fluttering from the upper windows.
    The sale was to take place in the parlour, and the trestles of the ironing-board from below, as well as the kitchen-table, had been utilised in making a sort of platform, at one end of which the auctioneer's rostrum was perched. There was a tolerable sprinkling of intending purchasers of respectable appearance already assembled, but the "swim" knew its business too well to feel the least disconcerted at that fact. Mr Benjamin was a wary General; at one keen glance (after friendly nods of recognition with the auctioneer) lie read the exact position of affairs, and proceeded to take measures accordingly. Grouped together were six or eight well-dressed persons, including three ladies, and they were earnestly discussing certain lots that they were bent on securing. "We can do without that there lot," growled Mr Benjamin in an under-tone, as he indicated the "lot" in question with a backward jerk of his dirty thumb.
    [-83-] The hint was sufficient. Before twenty might be counted, half-a-dozen fish of the "swim" had worked their way where the respectable group was standing, and quite surrounded it. Simultaneously half-a-dozen limp and unclean cards were produced from as many waistcoat pockets, and pressed on the acceptance of the respectable folk. "Anythink you wants we'll buy for you, mum. We're the trade - the brokers, dont you know. Five per cent, is our commission."
    "Thank you, we can buy for ourselves if we feel inclined."
    "Oh! well, don't you make any mistake. We wants everythink here; we're the trade, don't you know, and if you are a lady you won't run your head agin the trade. You'd better tell us what you wants."
    The respectable "lot" remaining obdurate, however, a change of tactics was at once resorted to. Each unshaven shabby blackguard of the gang at once exerted all his cowardly ingenuity towards making himself as disgustingly annoying as possible. Every one knows how powerless decent people are in the hands of an equal number of roughs at close quarters. The accidental brushing off of hats, the elbowing and treading on toes, the sofa pillow that is thrown by Brown over to Jones and falls short and strikes a lady in the face, the stable-yard "chaff," the practical joke, the coarse and brutal conversation shaped and aimed with a purpose. Mr Benjamin's gang was eminently successful. Before a dozen lots were disposed of, the party specially attacked had made its escape, while others of a like class, who had attended the sale prepared to pay for such of the widow's goods the best they would realise, shrank from competing with the blackguardly fellows and remained silent and amazed spectators.
    [-84-] Had I not been previously aware that such scenes are almost invariable at small-house furniture auctions, I should have found it difficult to believe the evidence of my eyes and ears on the present occasion. Literally no one had a chance of bidding for anything but the "skinners" and the "odd-trick men;" and if they did so, they were made to suffer. In the slang of the clique, they were "run up till they were out of breath."
    The "running-up" process is simple and peculiarly effective. An innocent individual having a fancy for an article - a picture, say - bids for it, and has previously fixed the sum he will give at a couple of guineas, which is the picture's full value. The clique want the picture, and bid in the most spirited manner against him, capping his extreme bid with a further one to the extent of half-a-crown, and so raising the mettle of the innocent bidder that, not to be outdone, and to settle the matter at once, he calls, "Two, seven and six." "Two ten," exclaims one of Mr. Benjamin's men. And a very good thing, too, the reader may say. If people will be obstinate and wrong-headed they should pay for it; and since the widow in whose behalf the goods are sold gets the benefit, there is no harm done. But the reader has not yet heard the finish of that spirited bidding for the picture. "Two ten!" cries a knock-out.
    "Two twelve six!" exclaims the weak-minded, though rash Briton. "Three pound!" and an audible giggle amongst the skinners and odd-trick men. "Going for three pounds!" and down falls the hammer. "For you, Mr Davis," says the auctioneer. "Me! Lor' bless yer, me bid three pounds for a daub like that! Ho! ho! that's good;" and he appeals to his confederate skinners, while they as one man swear that Mr Davis has not once opened his mouth. "It was that ginelman over [-85-] there," (the Innocent), "who bid three pounds," they positively assert, and recommend the auctioneer to insist on his taking it at that price. But by this time Mr Innocent smells the trick, so, thanking his lucky stars that he was not bit, he backs out of the transaction, and, according to the auction rules, the lot is put up again and re-sold. No one ventures now to touch the picture but Mr Benjamin's men, and without further fuss it is knocked down to that enterprising firm for seventeen shillings.
    The leading principles of the conspirators are intimidation, bullying, and barefaced, baseless insinuations against the goods under sale. As I have mentioned, the melancholy reason why the auction was held was, that the head of the house had been cut off by death.
    ? Indeed, the poor gentleman had died of consumption, but only his immediate neighbours knew the fact.
    Small-pox was prevalent, and that was the dastardly weapon of which the shabby crew availed themselves to get the widow's beds and bedding at about a sixth of their fair value. On the appearance of the first feather bed, Mr Benjamin, with great solemnity, wished to be informed had it been thoroughly disinfected.
    "Disinfected of what?" the auctioneer asked in surprise.
    "Oh! there's no occasion to mention it; it ain't a werry pleasant subject," grinned Mr Benjamin. "I don't care, I've been waxinated myself."
    Mr Auctioneer vehemently protested against the insinuation, and Benjamin and his men roared with laughter, and said it was only a little joke. It was effective, however. Beds, bedding, bedsteads, everything that pertained to the sleeping chambers, became the property of the conspirators without a shadow of [-86-] opposition. Altogether a very fair haul was made, and when it was all over, a merry band of "knock-outs," we adjourned to the public-house, at the bar of which morning refreshment had been taken, and there, in a private room and with the door locked, we proceeded to divide the spoil.
    Mr Benjamin, as master of the ceremonies, took the chair at the head of the table, having first procured, from the landlord down stairs, change for a ten-pound note in silver, which he piled in a heap before him. Every knock-out had his catalogue and pencil in his hands. "Lot the first is the parlour chimney-glass. Thirty-five shillings it fetched ; I'll give two pun ten. Anybody give more?" No one seemed inclined to give more, and Mr Benjamin, taking fifteen shillings from his heap, laid them apart. "The drawing-room suite," continued the man with the large ears, consulting the catalogue, "it was agreed that Mrs Simmons should have for seven pun' ten. Six pound it fetched, and so we'll trouble you for thirty bob, Mrs S." With cheerful alacrity Mrs S. responded, and the pile of fifteen shillings on the table was increased to two pounds five.
    It will be needless to enumerate the various articles that were so disposed of; the examples given will sufficiently explain the knock-out principle. When the knock-out gentry, by hook and by crook, have scrambled into their clutches all they want, the goods which have figured in the farce of sale by auction are submitted to fair competition, and realise something like their value. For instance, the bedding already mentioned on being "lumped," was found to have cost thirteen pounds. "I'll give twenty," said Mr. Benjamin. "Twenty-one," cried Mr. Davis. "Twenty-two and brandy-and-water round" [-87-] - and Mr. Benjamin was again the purchaser at a cost of placing nine pounds on the table for the "good of the company." Occasionally, however, the increasing heap is called on to pay a "deficiency." The clique is compelled at times to give really more than the value for goods, so as to keep the game in their own hands. "These here vauses - they fetched a awful lot more than they ought," said Mr. Benjamin dolefully; "one pun' three! who'll take 'em at a pound-nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen! Yours, Mr. Abrahams ," and Mr. Benjamin, to whom the vases were "knocked down," took seven shillings from the savings heap and put them in his pocket.
    When the spoil was all divided, the money heap on the table had increased to nearly twelve pounds, and there were eight of us to divide it amongst. As I was understood to be "in," I took my share and dutifully returned it per post-office order to the person who certainly had most right to it - the widow, who, by the kind permission of her worthy landlord, was permitted to reside in the kitchen of her late well-furnished house until a more prosperous tenant could be found to take possession of it.
    And now comes the question who is to blame for the cruel injustice - robbery it might almost be called - of which the case recounted is an example, and which, it may be fearlessly averred, is of every day occurrence. It being an undoubted fact, that, in the majority of cases, those unfortunates who are compelled to give over their household goods to be sold by public auction suffer cruelly through the dishonest "dodges" practised among the members of a well-organised band of conspirators, it becomes a question, in what direction shall we turn for a remedy?
    [-88-] Is the auctioneer at all responsible for the malpractices of these ruthless devourers of the widow's goods and chattels? He is not altogether guiltless. A short time since, being present at a private house sale, I was witness to a dispute between the auctioneer, and one of the harpies in question. It was concerning some article which the clique had been manoeuvring to obtain at about a tenth of the true value, but which somehow slipped out of its clutches. "Look ye here!" exclaimed the exasperated knocker-out, the captain of the gang, I think he was addressing the auctioneer, with his dirty face distorted with fury, "I've followed you these six ears; I've b'lieved in you, and I've stuck to you all through. But never no more! I wouldn't give you another bid-no, not if it was to save yer!" And growling in approving chorus, the whole gang at once left the room.
    Now, herein lies the key to the mystery. There is scarcely an auctioneer of third-rate practice in London who has not his "followers." He is not intimate with them, but they are on terms of easy nodding acquaintance, - and he knows every man's name and address - in fact, keeps a register of the same - and can form a tolerably shrewd guess at each one's means, and the sort of goods in which it suits him to deal. As soon as a batch of new catalogues arrives from the printer's, the auctioneer's first care is to see that each one of his professed followers has one duly delivered him by post, with perhaps a line - if he be a follower constant and faithful - as to the probability of this or that lot's going "easy."
    At the same time I should wish it to be distinctly understood that I do not accuse the auctioneer who so acts with being in dishonest league with the clique; nay, [-89-] from his professional point of view, his conduct may be justifiable. His reputation and success depend in a great measure on his being able to command a good "attendance;" and there can be no doubt that, if free and uninterrupted competition prevailed, better prices may be obtained from the larger number than the few. In all probability auctioneers would tell you that it would be impossible to conduct their business with satisfaction to their clients, unless they took this precaution, and thereby ensured the attendance of the trade. By so doing they provide against the possibility of an auction with no buyers, or, in the case of an "unreserved " sale, of what may be yet worse - the chance that ten or a dozen private people may happen to drop in and sweep off the whole property at whatever price they chose to give for it. The attendance of the "trade" ensures bustle and attractive excitement. It comes with its carts and its vans, and it comes with its hangers-on - the poor shabby pack who humbly wait on the well-to-do dogs of the chase, and who will in their small way back their interest, and, if need be, swear that black is white, on the chance of securing a mouthful of bread and cheese and a pot of beer when the time comes for dividing the spoil. They come with their baize aprons and their brazen impudence, to lounge in knots at the gate and at the street-door, and in a measure they serve as does the banger of the gong at the door of the caravan, in which the dwarf and the fat giantess are on view. They call the attention of the public to what is going forward, and promote the gathering of a crowd out of which may come bidders and buyers.
    So far, the auctioneer's "followers" do no harm ; but there will creep in the suspicion of harm beyond all this. [-90-] The "follower" has his choice of leaders, and he very naturally attaches himself to that one who gives him the greatest amount of satisfaction; which simply means the one who is most obligingly disposed to put "good things" in his way, and to keep a sharp look-out for those small but significant gestures, those nods anti winks in which he, the "follower," finds it so much more convenient to indulge during the sale than in outspoken bidding. In short, the auctioneer who is most in favour with followers is he who puts most money in their pockets.
    The mischief wrought, however, by those sharks of the auction trade, who confine their operations to the wreckage of private houses, is as nothing compared with the monstrous iniquity that is daily and hourly perpetrated by a different class of auctioneer - the colleague of the unscrupulous petty loan monger, and, it is to be feared, but too frequently his confederate. Let us pay a visit to Mr Slaughter's private auction rooms. Those whose good fortune it is to reside in the same street in which Slaughter's auction rooms are situated have nothing to complain of on the score of lack of amusement. As a rule, they are treated to about three stirring spectacles a day, and in each one a vehicle of some kind - a van or cart - laden with household goods, figures conspicuously. Each cart or van has a man at the horse's head with a determined hold on the bridle, and a man behind, not unfrequently in company with a member of the police force; while bringing up the rear there is sometimes a woman with a scared white face, plentifully shedding tears, and uttering protestations and entreaties; sometimes a man - a shirt- sleeved mechanic, or a person of better class in decent black, furious with rage and indignation, and vowing [-91-] vengeance on some thief or band of thieves, that have robbed and ruined him. The inhabitants of the street have grown so used to this species of entertainment, that they scarcely take the trouble to look out at door or window to see it, but it is prime fun for the youth of the surrounding courts and alleys, who follow the procession, and just as the humour takes them, deride the policemen and the men in custody of the goods, or make disparaging remarks respecting the goods themselves.
    As a rule the latter are remarkable not so much for their quality as for the extraordinary stowage in the vehicle that contains them. Tables and chairs have evidently been pitched in helter-skelter ; drawers are sliding out of the chests that properly should contain them, with their contents all revealed and spilling about; beds and bedding, loose, and huddled together with carpets full of dust, and evidently just as they were snatched up from the floor: fenders, crockeryware, fire-irons, books, washing utensils, and bed-hangings, all huddled in pell-mell confusion, like nothing so much as if the whole load had been rescued by clumsy hands, and only just in the nick of time, from some raging conflagration.
    Every consignment of household goods that so makes its appearance is bound for the Auction Rooms, which are ever open to receive it. Not unfrequently it happens that, seeing, as it were, the jaws of the place open to swallow his tables and chairs, his bed and his bedstead, the desperate person behind, whose complaint is that he has been heartlessly ruined and despoiled, will make a frantic effort to storm the cart, and repossess himself of his own. But at this point, the policeman interferes. There is no use in kicking up a row. The parties that have seized had the power to do so, and he [-92-] is bound to protect them. If there is any thing wrong, why, there is law for one party as well as for the other, and they can settle it afterwards. So the invariable ending is that the furniture is lugged out of the vehicle as hastily and unceremoniously as it had been pitched in, and lodged within Slaughter's-gate, leaving the men at liberty to drive away with the van, the policeman to go about his business, and the bereaved ones to make their way back in wretched plight to what, three hours ago, may have been a comfortable home.
    It is only on a Thursday that the casual observer may obtain a clue to all this mystery. Let him then pay a visit to the back street in which Slaughter's Auction Rooms are situated, and he will find the aspect of that establishment entirely altered. The shutters are down, and the offices and the extensive store-rooms at the  side are now open, and numerous placards announce the business afoot. Ten or fifteen big posters are exhibited on a capacious board: all relate to the Thursday's sale of furniture at Slaughter's, and every one bears on its face the ominous words, "Under a bill of sale." Look close into the placards,  and you shall discover, if you are curious in such matters, that in every case it originates with the owner of a loan office, who, empowered by a bill of sale, has done his worst towards some unlucky defaulter.
    Mr Slaughter's business depends almost entirely on loan-office patronage, as many as ten or twelve of the leading "monetary establishments" on the Surrey side of the river, which make advances of ten or even fifteen pounds, bring their "seizures" to him, knowing him to be a man highly respectable, and eminently snug in his dealings. It is a branch of the loan-office business that requires a discreet agency. As the trade is now [-93-] conducted, the selling up of clients is the main staple of profit, but it would never do for that to be a fact generally known. If loan-office proprietors distributed their seizures amongst auctioneers indiscriminately, there are, under the new system, so many of them, that borrowers would at length open their stupid eyes, and the game would be in a great measure spoilt. The bill-of-sale game, I mean. It is quite a modern idea as applying to financial advances on a small scale, but it works splendidly. Time was when, if a borrower and his surety could not pay, there was nothing left but to carry the better of the two before a county court judge, and abide by his decision, which was always, be it related to the judge's credit, one that was tempered with mercy for the defendant ; but the intervention of a bill of sale wonderfully simplifies the recovery of the debt, and its 60 or 80 per cent interest. And the best of the joke is that, nine times in ten, the said bill is obtained without the knowledge of those who render it.
    It is a delicate operation, but people - especially people who are driven to the verge of despair for a few pounds - are such simpletons. All that occupies their thoughts is to touch the money already counted out before them, and it is not until that trying moment that the winning card is played. It is done "in a rush" as the vulgar saying is, and it is not once in a dozen times that it miscarries. The way has been paved before. A day or two since, when the borrower's friend presented himself to tender his security, the clerk in command remarked in an off-hand way.
    "I needn't ask, sir, are your circumstances sufficiently good to enable you to pay this money, should you be called on to do so?"
    "Oh, of course."
    [-94-] "You have a decent house of furniture?"
    "Oh, yes."
    "Just - for form's sake, you know - give me an idea - no matter how rough a one - of what it is comprised. Feather beds or flock?"
    "Feather, sir," replies the surety, loftily. It is'nt he who wants money.
    "Precisely. Feather beds and bedding. I'll just make a memorandum, for the look of the thing; though, of course, in a case like yours it is all nonsense. Tables - how many; four ? - five! thank you. And chairs - say a dozen and a half. Chests of drawers, two? - we don't need to be particular. Carpets, of course, and I daresay a chimney-glass and a few pictures. All right, sir; that will be near enough. If you will call with your friend any time to-morrow, he can have the money."
    Perhaps the surety - especially if he be a green hand at such matters, is rather amused than otherwise at the fanciful inventory taking of his goods and chattels, but he sets it down as the ordinary routine of loan-office business, and thinks no more of it. Next day he calls at the office, with his friend, whom he is good-naturedly obliging, and while the money is being counted out, he is asked to sign the promissory-note. Then - with the money in his hand, and as though it were a matter that had almost slipped his memory, and might just as well be done as not - the clerk says, "Oh, ah! there's this memorandum of your goods. Just pop your name at the end here, as an acknowledgement that they are yours!" And the fatal pen, already dipped in ink, is handed to the unsuspecting one, and, seeing neither good nor harm in the act, in a moment it is done.
    I    t is incredible, altogether past belief that the success [-95-] of modern offices for the loan of paltry sums depends on this manoeuvre; but it is a fact nevertheless. It is rarely that the truth is exposed before a magistrate, but when it is, the victim invariably declares that he never signed what purported to be a bill of sale, and that such an instrument was never mentioned during the negotiation. If asked what it was that he did sign, the reply is, "a mere scrap of paper with the items of my furniture jotted down on it." "Do you think it could have been this very document, with the upper part folded over?"  "Well, it may have been."  "And do you mean to tell me," says the incredulous magistrate, "that you were so foolish as to affix your signature to a paper of the nature of which you profess to be so ignorant that you cannot tell whether it was a folded paper or not?"
    Well, it is astounding, but such things do happen. As the victim on the preceding day left the document, it was merely the skeleton of a bill of sale, with the printed technical wording, and space left for filling in. It is not till the conclusion of the transaction that the loan office clerk, at his leisure, fills it in with as much liberty to set what value he pleases on it as though it was a signed bank cheque. One day at Slaughter's Rooms I had an opportunity of examining three of these nefariously obtained securities, and in the worst case of all, it was made to appear that a man who had lent his name to a friend for the sum of ?7, 10s., had been hoodwinked into giving the loan office shark a bill of sale authorising him, in case of default in payment of any one of the agreed on instalments, to come and peremptorily take possession of "the goods herein mentioned," or any others that may be found on the premises, to the value of ?27, by the sale of which the said shark might satisfy himself in the matter of " balance [-96-] due," with any amount of "expense" he might please to heap up. This was a bootmaker in a small way, and there being ?4 15s. still unpaid of the loan, he had been "troubled" for ?11 9s., and not only had all his furniture been seized, but his little stock of boots and shoes, and the poor fellow, who had managed to scrape together , ?7 or ?8, was there on the auction day to try what he might buy back.
    As it seemed to me, almost everybody was there whose goods since the preceding Thursday had been pounced on and swept away to Slaughter's. You might tell them by their haggard anxious visages, and by the way in which, as brethren in misfortune, they kept together, and compared notes of their grievances. They never will learn wisdom, these people. Having been fleeced by the loan office people, they flock here to Slaughter's, and tender their carcases to the butchers of the auction room for disjointing. Were they so utterly friendless that there was no one who would open their eyes to the act of simplicity they were committing when they ventured to that sale room to buy their own goods
- No doubt it was the auctioneer, or one of those shabby harpies that haunt his premises, that advised the step, but it was only a trap to catch a poor bird already maimed.
They know how the matter stands - the pack of hungry brokers' men, and the scoundrelly touts and "commission agents" who attend Slaughter's place. They know a man's affection for the home that has been built up and bettered year by year by dint of self-denial and extra spells of work, that meant extra shillings for the savings' bank. True, there is not much romance in tables and chairs, or in a Kidderminster carpet, or a loo-table, or a chimney-glass. Whatever [-97-] the pattern may be, you may match them for money any day of the week, and they will be just as substantial and useful - the chairs to sit on, the table to spread a dinner on, and the looking-glass to make splendid the mantel-shelf; but if there are two words more than any other two opposite in signification, they are home and newness. To be a real home, solidly comfortable and satisfactory, every item that comprises it must undergo, under the roof-tree, a process of mellowing and ripening; and though meanwhile a considerable portion of its original gloss and polish may be rubbed off, an armchair or a dining-table at which every day in the year the children assemble, has a more than compensating amount of affection rubbed into it. When the familiar old home is ruthlessly broken up, it is no more than natural that a man should feel a yearning to pick up the pieces, and endeavour to restore something of the original shape.
    It is this weakness that takes so many anxious faces to Slaughter's sale-room on a Thursday; and again, it is this weakness that causes to gather there the grimy, hawk-eyed horde of brokers' men. They are present to keep watch, and take care that the despoiled ones, who are so ridiculously bent on reclaiming their goods, shall not do so unless they pay handsomely for their sentimental whistle. I am unable to say who hires these fellows, or whether, in shabby malice, they attend there for the brutal fun of the thing. Anyhow, there they were, and it required no uncommon degree of penetration to discover that their chief aim was to take note of every bid that was made by an unfortunate whose goods had beep seized and "run him up" most villainously. I feel quite convinced that many persons there who had come to repurchase their furniture, might have got it, [-98-] taking it at its market value, at half the sum they had to pay; but it was a value much more precious than that of the market that these poor creatures set on their feather beds, their children's cribs, and other articles sanctified by long and loving usage. They stuck desperately to their intention of making them once again their own, and often enough the auctioneer's hammer fell amid the derisive laughter and unsavoury "chaff" of the broker crew, who telegraphed to each other by winks and gestures, and seemed to be on terms of easy acquaintance with the auctioneer.
    But it was only a few selected articles that these impoverished ones could afford to buy-articles that were needed for the immediate necessities of the family, such as bedsteads and bedding, and a table and a few chairs. After the doubly-sweated victims had taken their departure, then came the time when the hungry pack of brokers' men, who had been "running up" the prices, earned their reward. It was stern business now, for under the conditions of the sale the goods must be disposed of without reserve.
    No more chaffing or horse play. They didn't quarrel much over the tit-bits in shape of lots that the auctioneer threw to them from his rostrum. Occasionally, some discontented dog snarled and growled a little when he thought that he had missed a bite at something or other; but, as a rule, except for their clamour to the auctioneer "not to dwell, sir," but to knock the rubbish down, they were orderly enough - as well they might be, for the goods "knocked down" belonged to no one at present. Only three or four men were making the bids, which were kept discreetly low, as they easily might be, when there was nothing in the shape of competition going on. The various lots were merely being [-99-] collected together out of the auctioneer's hands, to be fairly apportioned amongst the members of the pack, when by-and-bye it assembled at the "knock out." There is a public house within a stone's-throw of Slaughter's that possesses the advantage of a very large club-room. This is where the knock-out - i.e., the division of the spoil - takes place. I was informed by the confiding potman that ever since Slaughter had "took to the bill of sale business, there wasn't a Thursday but there was quite a mob of brokers and brokers' men settling their business upstairs."
    And all this mischief and ruin inextricable comes of the want of a simple Act of Parliament regulating the doings of petty loan-office keepers. The law is stringent enough as regards pawnbrokers and "leaving-shops;" why cannot its repressive hand be laid on these devourers of the poor, whose bait is "money without security," but who, having hooked their gudgeon, strip him and flay him without mercy?

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874