Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - A Pawnbroker's Christmas Eve

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MR BALCHIN'S neighbourhood is not exactly poverty- stricken-that is to say, it is not hopelessly and helplessly paralysed in the miry ways of squalor, with its arms and hands so long stretched out imploring charity, that those useful members have stiffened in that humiliating position, and are no more available for honest labour, or anything but begging. As all well know, there are neighbourhoods so unfortunately circumstanced ; but Mr Balchin's is not one of them. His neighbourhood is poor all conscience; but its poverty is of the toilsome, drudging, honest sort.
    It is a mixed population amongst which Mr Balchin is fixed, consisting chiefly of working jewellers and tailors, artificial florists, and makers of fancy goods, who, as a rule work at home, and whose means of existence are at best precarious. This being the case, it is not surprising that Mr Balchin does a brisk stroke of business in the pawnbroking line. He is so good as to lend money on their clothing, their household goods, and their tools. It is on pledges of the last-mentioned sort that Mr Balchin's knowledge of the condition of those about him is mainly founded. Part of his business is to study these matters ; as, for instance, he informs me, the greater part of his customers are "regulars "- that is to say, those who, as a rule, redeem on Saturday night, out of the week's earnings, all that [-307-] they have been compelled to pawn since the preceding Monday.
    It is chiefly the Sunday clothing that is thus temporarily mortgaged; and I have a respectable tradesman's word that in "no end of cases" the money advanced is more than equal to the value of the pledges deposited. "It is easily enough explained," said Mr Balchin. "Say a suit is brought to us, and, it being worth the money, we lend 15s. on it - as it's used only once a week, its value does not very rapidly depreciate, and we go on lending 15s. on its being brought to us punctually every Monday morning, while those who bring it depend on the sum of 15s., as though it was money earned. Very likely it's all laid out beforehand for rent and one thing and another, and they need every sixpence of it. It is a terrible blow to them when, in right down self-defence, we are obliged to cut down the advance from 15s. to 12s. I assure you, my dear sir, we dare not do it suddenly. We are obliged to break it to them gently; to point out to them the increasing greasiness of the coat collar and the fraying of the trouser legs, and to impress on them to prepare for a reduction in the amount next week, or, at the very farthest, the week following that."
    "Perhaps," continued Mr Balchin, whose chokeful warehouses I was inspecting with him as he talked, "I may have, at the present time, twelve or fourteen hundred pounds invested in such goods. It is all right when they take 'em out on Saturday and bring 'em back on Monday; but if anything happens, and they are not able to redeem, where am I ? There is one thing, I always know when there is a screw getting loose, and that is when the regular pledges show uneasiness in flowing out, and tools begin to flow in. It's a [-308-] fatal sign, that is. First come those tools of the finer kind which at a push may be spared ; and if the pawning stops at them, there may be a chance of the hard time tiding over; but if in a week or so the coarse tools come in, then I know that there's a dead block, and that the Sunday suits are likely to lie in limbo for a considerable time, even if they are ever redeemed at all. I know as well as possible how matters stand with em. You come to me and ask, 'How's the artificial flower trade in your neighbourhood?' 'How's the fancy box business?' or 'How are things going in the tailoring way?' I turn over the leaves of my pledge-book for a few weeks past, and am able to tell you exactly."
    On this sure foundation of knowledge did Mr Balchin make the gratifying statement that it is many a year, taking the season of Christmas, since poor hard-working people were so easily circumstanced. "I don't know," said he, "to what to attribute it ; possibly it is the continuance of mild weather, but it is a positive fact that my books are within twenty pounds as clear of tools as they were in July."
    "And have you found a corresponding diminution in the number of your 'regular' weekly pledges?" I asked.
    "No," returned Mr Balchin, in a comfortable tone of satisfaction; "they never diminish, no matter what amount of prosperity there is. They get into the habit of coming here, you see; and habits are not easily cured when they grow on one. We are very full just now, but I reckon on having a grand clear out before we put up the shop shutters to-night. It is not often that I am mistaken, and I have a fancy that we shall have as hot a Christmas Eve delivery as we have had ever since I have been established."
     I was very glad to hear this; in the first place, [-309-] because there could be no doubt that a "hot delivery" of pledged goods by poor folk on a Christmas Eve was comfortably indicative of warmly-clad shoulders on the morrow - to say nothing of the fair presumption that hot and jolly Christmas dinners would be more than usually prevalent; and in the second place, because, having promised myself the interesting sight of a Christmas Eve redemption, and arranged accordingly with Mr Balchin, it was fortunate that the occasion promised to be of an exceptional sort.
    At an early hour in the evening - as soon as it was dusk, in fact - the decks were cleared for the coming contest. In the warehouses on the floors above the shop there must have been thousands of bundles of all sorts and sizes, closely wedged into square wooden receptacles that covered the walls from floor to ceiling on every side, and in racks that extended across and across the rooms, with alleys no more than two feet wide between. Each bundle had its ticket hanging out, like a tale-telling tongue, revealing what was inside, together with particulars of the month and the day it Was brought to pawn, who pawned it, and what was lent on it.
    There were three of these floors, and the "spout" from the shop penetrated to the topmost. On every floor was a sharp and active youth, whose business it was to discover and send "down the spout" the ransomed bundles; and, besides, there was another, Beadle by name, a morose and moody boy, whose department was the cellar, and who was looked down upon by the young gentlemen of the spout as one of mean position, whose familiar advances it was the proper thing to discourage. Besides these junior assistants there were the two young men, Joseph and Charles, besides Mr [-310-] Balchin himself in the shop. As for roe, I was accommodated with a seat in the private parlour, where, through an opening in the wire blind, I was enabled to see the whole shop, and the boxes, with their occupants.
    There were not many of the latter, however, at starting; and the business done with them was, as a rule, the reverse of pleasant to an eye-witness. Occasionally the door of a box would be opened, and would shut again with an independent kind of bang, heralding the arrival of a customer whose husband had made a good week, got his wages early, received perhaps a handsome Christmas-box over and above, and who had proudly come to "take out" to the extent of thirty shillings or so, including "earrings, 4s.," and "copper kettle, 5s." They were takers out most of these early birds; but now and then, entering at a door that made no bang at all, and approaching the counter with a manner in painful contrast to that of the redeemer of the copper kettle would come an unfortunate with whom times were so desperately hard that the only way left for tiding over Christmas was a resort to the pawnshop.
    Nor was it the act of pawning at such a time, so much as the articles they brought to pawn, that excited one's commiseration for them. There was one man, a dreadfully pale and thin poor fellow, who produced from his pockets and his hat, and laid on the counter, three common little pictures in their shabby frames, a crockery figure of Garibaldi, and two other chimney ornaments of a similar kind. "Eighteenpence" suggested the pale man, in a mild tone. " Can't take 'em in," remarked the matter-of-fact Joseph, flicking Garibaldi's head with his finger and thumb, evidently suspecting that he was cracked.
    "What's the use of bringing such rubbish here?"
    [-311-] "Couldn't you make em half - couldn't you say nine-pence?" urged the pale man, with a dismal alteration in his voice, "only ninepence, come!" But Joseph was a young fellow who had served an apprenticeship to pawnbroking, and, as a matter of business, his heart was steeled against the appeals of the poverty-stricken.
    "I couldn't make 'em fourpence. I wouldn't give house-room to such trumpery," he lightly replied, pushing the "trumpery" back in a heap, and giving his attention to the next customer.
    "God forbid, my lad, that you should ever need a shilling as sorely as I do this night !" said the pale man, in a shaky voice; then he gathered up the chimney-ornaments and the paltry little pictures and took his departure, to find, I hope, better luck elsewhere. I wouldn't have been Joseph, and had those bitter words addressed to me for all the money in Mr Balchin's till. But Joseph was used to this sort of thing. Scarcely had the pale man gone when a poor woman came in with a cotton gown to pawn. She had an old shawl wrapped about her, and as she reached over to place the bundle on the counter, I saw that her arm was naked to the shoulder. Joseph narrowly examined the gown about the body part.
    "You have been washing it in a hurry, haven't you?" he remarked ; "it's hardly dry yet."
    "It was on my back two hours ago," replied the woman, "and it was either take it off and bring it here, or let the young 'uns go without a bit of grub tomorrow."
    "It's a confounded nuisance, you know," remarked Joseph, folding up the gown.
    "Ah! well, never mind; p'raps I ought to thank God that I've got a gown to pawn," said the poor soul.
    [-312-] "I meant it was a nuisance that it is damp," remarked Joseph the unsentimental; "the blessed things go mildewed, and so we lose by 'em;" and then, with professional dexterity, he made the gown into a roll not larger than a German sausage, pinned a ticket to it, threw it under the counter, and airily pitched two separate shillings towards the gownless woman, who hurried off to make the most of them, I suppose, in the shape of the "bit of grub" for the next day, which was Christmas.
    There were a good many others who responded to Joseph's repeated "Any one want to leave?" but, except the two cases I have described, and two others, there was nothing remarkable about them. One of those last mentioned was that of a woman smelling horribly of rum, who came staggering in with two pairs of tiny boots - the mud still wet upon them - to pawn, and who, I was glad to see, was promptly ejected from the premises, muddy boots and all, by Mr Balchin himself. The other case was that of an old woman who was in the singular dilemma of wishing to pawn her wedding ring, worn almost as thin as a thread, but who could not get it over her bony old knuckle. Her "old man" was coming out of the hospital that night, she said, having lain there ten weeks with a broken leg; there was nothing at home to eat; and she had turned the matter over "in her conscience" whether it was more wicked to take off her ring and pawn it - having nothing else in the world left to pawn -or to keep it on and let her "old man" go without a bit of dinner on Christmas for the first time in their married lives.
    The worst of it was that, having decided which was the lesser wickedness, she couldn't get the ring off. Joseph tried, but also failed, and, after his customary [-313-] practical manner, expressed an opinion that it would have to be buried with her. "But if it was off what could you lend me on it?" the poor woman asked. Joseph turned about the bony old finger, and finally said that he could go as high as two shillings. I must confess that I had my doubts about the old woman. It seemed so very like an artful Christmas Eve tale got up to impose on Mr Balchin, or on some kindly-disposed customer who might happen to be in the shop at the time. I did the good old soul injustice, however. In less than a quarter of an hour she was back again, looking triumphant - although her finger was bound up in a bit of rag-and laid the ring on the counter. It is not too often that I give away half-crowns, goodness knows, and Mr Balchin, to whom appeal was made on the matter, was seriously opposed to such an unbusinesslike interference; while as for Joseph, his sense of the ludicrous was so immensely tickled, that he could scarcely hold a pen steady enough to make out tickets for ten minutes afterwards. But he was not called on to make out one for that brave old woman.
    As the evening advanced, business grew brisker and brisker. Mr Balchin had now divested himself of his coat, and his two young men had followed his example. The doors of the various compartments no longer by their banging announced the entrance of some fresh customer, for the crowd in every case extended through the doorway, and out into the passage beyond. There were six boxes, and at least five-and-twenty persons in each. The cry was no longer, "Who wants to leave?" - the time for "leaving" had passed, and redemption alone was the order of the night.
    Mr Balchin was right in his prognostication that he should have a hot night of it. It was hot, literally as [-314-] well as figuratively, and the atmosphere was rendered none the more pleasant by the strong flavour of spirituous liquors with which it was impregnated. It was a marvel how the pawnbroker and his assistants preserved their equanimity. Nine out of every ten men, women, and children were clamouring to be served, bewailing the length of time they had been already obliged to wait, pushing and jostling and mercilessly elbowing each other in the narrow spaces to get closer to the counter, and throwing out their arms, every fist grasping one, two, or half a dozen "tickets," while all in the same breath called out for Joseph and Charles. The wonder was that these two enduring mortals were not distracted and rendered incapable of any manner of business. It was easy enough to see how the least hitch in the methodical manner in which the pledges were delivered would lead to inextricable confusion. Had Mr Balchin or either of his young men been taken suddenly unwell, or had one or other of the active youths who officiated in the mysterious upper chambers through which the convenient "spout" penetrated struck work, and at that time quitted his employment without notice, it is impossible to say what the result would have been. Even as it was, the women in the background did not scruple to launch withering sarcasms at both Joseph and Charles for their alleged want of alacrity, at the same time suggesting many ingenious - and, in some instances, painful - devices for prevailing on them to move a little quicker. Some, on the other hand, tried soft persuasion, and even wheedling - calling on the young men as good souls, as dears, and even as "ducks," to take the tickets from their outstretched hands. But Joseph and Charles were as proof against blandishment as the flat-irons they from time to time [-315-] handed over. "When the boys throw down the batch they've got tickets for, there'll be another lot of tickets sent up, and not before; so it's no use making a bother about it." "Then why don't you stir up the lazy varmint?" Occasionally, one of the hard-worked youths, so disrespectfully stigmatised in the pursuit of his legitimate business, let himself down the spout instead of a bundle, and, even while no more than the calves of his legs and his slippers were yet visible, he was made the target for universal execration; and "Wake up, wooden head!" "Pull yourself together, lazybones!" "Keep your eyes open, spoony!" were among the mildest counsels gratuitously administered.
    But the individual who came in for the greatest share of abuse was the youth I have already mentioned, whose dismal occupation it was to rescue ransomed goods from some place in the bowels of the earth, an entrance thereto being effected by means of a trap-door in the floor of the shop, which, as it was in the common path, was kept shut except when in actual use. He was a bulky and well fed looking boy of grimy aspect, wearing a black apron with a bib tied over his buttoned-up coat, and a close-fitting cap of the Glengarry sort. An affable boy enough, I dare say, when undisturbed by the worries of business, but sulkily - I am afraid malignantly - disposed towards his enemies when they exasperated him beyond endurance. Heavy goods seemed to be peculiar to his department; pots and kettles, fenders, fire-irons, cumbersome articles of crockery, &c., and such other kinds of pledges as would be none the worse for underground stowage. To be sure, the goods it was his business to discover and haul to the surface were heavy, and sometimes awkward to carry; and I cannot say what was the extent of the subterranean passages he had to [-316-] explore by the light of the lantern attached by a strap to his waist. But I am bound to confess that impatient customers might be excused if they thought that the lapse of time that occurred between each descent and reappearance was in the least degree unnecessary. Discovering that the method adopted by the shopmen to expedite this youth's movements when down below was to stamp on the floor with the heels of their boots, the crowd in the boxes occasionally did likewise. Then Beadle would make his appearance like an imp in a pantomime, scowling and glaring on his grinning persecutors, and looking as though nothing would afford him sweeter satisfaction than to have them one at a time at the foot of his cellar stairs, while he hurled down on them the pots and kettles, the pudding basons, plates, and baking dishes they had come to redeem, and were making such a fuss about.
    It is only right, however, to mention that there were extenuating circumstances for his sourness of temper not the most insignificant being, that the trap was always shut when he was coming out, and as he usually had both his arms full there was nothing left for him but to butt up the heavy wooden flap with the crown of his head. They laughed at him then. Beadle's time for laughing was when he had relieved himself of his load, and was entrusted with a fresh batch of tickets. It was not of the least use for Mr Balchin to call out, "And be quick about it!" Had Beadle been descending to a dungeon for life, he could not have more lingeringly halted on each stair, meanwhile steadily eyeing his persecutors; when his nose was on a level with the flooring he paused anew, deliberately closed his eyes and nodded, then opened his eyes again, and maliciously winked, thereby meaning to convey that it [-317-] was his intention to have a comfortable nap so soon as ever he reached his den, after which, if he found it convenient, he might search for their goods.
    Nevertheless, the exchange of bundles for money went forward with amazing rapidity. Every ten minutes or so either Charles or Joseph would call out "Now for tickets!" and, beginning at the last box, would gather with amazing dexterity, using both his hands, the plentiful crop of dirty little bits of pasteboard that were eagerly thrust forward by scores of dirtier hands. When he had thus operated on the six boxes, he took the double handful of tickets to the spout, thrust them into a bag hanging there, and tugged at a bell. Up flew the bag by the string, and in a minute or so the big and little bundles to which the tickets referred came tumbling down till the throat of the spout was fairly choked.
    Then came the job of calling out the names on the bundles, the most formidable part of the business appearing to be the number of bundles that belonged to one person. It was no uncommon thing, when Charles called out, "Sweeny, how many?" to hear the voice of Sweeny shrilly respond "Seven;" and that number of bundles had to be separately put aside before the Sweeny delivery could take place. They were not much to look at, these bundles; but one might gain some idea of their value by a glance at the till, as big as a Christmas punchbowl, which before eleven o'clock was piled to brimming-over with silver money, and even then the value of the bundles was by no means exactly ascertained. No one could correctly estimate the real value of the mean-looking bundles but their owners, who knew what treasures their shabby envelopes covered-the Sunday-frocks of their children) [-318-] their warm and comfortable underclothing; mother's best gowns, in which she takes pardonable pride; father's hard-earned decent broadcloth suit-one and all "put away" in a time of need, but on Christmas Eve joyfully redeemed. The wearing of those rescued treasures would certainly be not the least satisfactory feature of the morrow's enjoyment. If any of Mr Balchin's customers were disappointed, it was no fault of him or of his assistants. So manfully had they stuck to their task, that by eleven o'clock the last batch of tickets had been collected, the shower of bundles down the spout became a mere fitful pattering and then stopped entirely, and the vengeful Beadle, emerging sooty and savage from his cellar, received orders to put up the shutters.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874