Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Out with the Waits

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IT was verging towards twelve o'clock when, by appointment, I met my three friends, the flageolet, the cornopean, and the trombone, in the neighbourhood of the Elephant and Castle.
    My object in desiring to spend a few hours in the company of these midnight musicians may be stated in a few words. In the first place, I felt curious to satisfy myself as to the truth of an ominous whisper, the Increasing prevalence of which had for some time caused me uneasiness, to the effect that Englishmen, and especially Londoners, were growing indifferent to that venerable institution, Christmas waits; that, though its unimpeachable respectability protected it against open hostility, and though in certain quarters it was still tolerated, and to some extent favoured, this was in a spirit far different from bygone feelings, and rather out of pity for its grey hairs and tottering steps, and the conviction that it had but a little while to live. It was represented to me that, except in rare instances, Christmas waits proper had ceased to exist years ago; that the instrumentalists who now affected nocturnal performances towards the end of December had thrown over all pretence to pious motive, and aspired to nothing more sublime and soul-stirring than the favourite airs of the sentimental ballads of the Christy Minstrels that lively music-hall hilarity of the "Slap bang, here [-329-] we are again!" type was found to be more profitable playing, and more in accordance with popular taste, than the sweet old hymn music with which, one time o day-or rather night-sleepers were awakened to be reminded that the greatest of all days of Christian thanksgiving was at hand.
    Again, it had always been a puzzle to me how Christmas waits ever could make the business pay. One can understand strolling musicians, even those unmusical vagabonds the German bandits, picking up a living of some sort in the day-time, and on the system of prompt payment; but the waits are compelled to give credit. Night after night, for ten or a dozen nights, they turn out at an hour when even the public-houses are closed, and nobody is abroad but penniless, homeless wanderers and the police; and they play to houses wrapped in darkness, and to people who, for all they can know to the contrary, are fast asleep, and who, on that ground, may justly repudiate the debt accumulating against them.
Then, again, there is the serious drawback of not being able to call for payment until Christmas and its sentimental thoughts are things of the past, and when the wind and the snow are beating in at the street door, meekly knocked at by the red-nosed trombone, who presents his instrument that you may see for yourself that he is no impostor, and who mildly reminds you that "about ten days afore you took in a card with the names of him and the other waits on it." It is a much quicker operation to shut the door, dismissing the man with a brief  "No" than to ask him into the passage while you go and make inquiries. But then, if it is such a doubtful speculation, how is it that it has been in modern times taken up by such shrewd [-330-] and wide-awake people as those who cater for the people in the "Slap-bang" line?
    The mystery seemed to me worth solving, and on that account I did not so much mind the marrow- chilling mixture of snow and rain that blew into my eyes and ears as I greeted my friends in Newington Causeway. And I had the more reason to congratulate myself on my present opportunity, inasmuch as it happened that my newly-found acquaintances were waits of the kind that are said to be becoming extinct. Before I had been in Mr Weevil's company five minutes - Weevil was the flageolet and leader - indeed, while we were standing under a gateway, and fortifying against the weather's inclemency by a pull at my flask - I was duly informed that, please goodness, while he was a wait, he would "stick to the tex' as waits took their rise from," and that he could no more make up his mind to be guilty of the goings-on of some fellows who called themselves waits, than he could to lead a church choir with the music of the bones and banjo.
    From the Elephant and Castle we struck into the New Kent Road, and "worked" the small streets to the left of that thoroughfare, it being Mr Weevil's belief - derived, I suppose, from experience - that the sort of people here were more free with their contributions than those who were well-to-do. I must confess, however, that I did not find it very cheering at first. Five times did we make a "pitch" in the wind and the deadly-cold sleet, playing our three tunes "Hark the herald angels," " Lo, He comes," &c., and "While shepherds watched." Five times did Mr Weevil, tucking his flageolet in at the breast of his coat, and making a speaking trumpet of both his hands, deliver himself of his blessing and exhortation "God bless you all, both [-331-] great and small ; a merry Christmas you befall. Remember the poor waits when they call. Nigh one o'clock and a boisterous morning. Five times, I say, was this ceremony repeated without so much as a light appearing at a window, or a passer-by bestowing on us a single copper. But this was nothing, Mr Weevil said. They seldom or never did get anything till Boxing Day.
    "And how much do you hope to get then ?" I asked.
    "Why, a matter of four pun' ten or five pound atwixt us," replied the old gentleman, looking radiant in the light of the street-lamp, and with the rain dripping from his nose on to his flageolet.b
    "To say nothing of the drink," remarked the Trombone, who was a short, thick-set man, lame of a leg, and with a twinkling eye; "Lor help you, you might swim in it, if you had a mind to."
    Nevertheless, and despite the last-mentioned collateral advantage, I could not understand that thirty shillings for ten nights' work was very splendid remuneration for being a "Wait," in the cold, and the rain, and the wind. At our sixth "pitch," however, we did a little better. There were lights in the windows of the house, and enough could be seen of its interior to make known that it was a laundry, and that the ironers, late as it was, were still at work. We played out three tunes, and Mr Weevil had just begun "God bless you all," when a stout lady, with shiny arms, and her head enveloped in an ironing-blanket, ran out to the gate.
    She beckoned Mr Weevil. " Would them two trumpets mind leaving off while you play 'Home, sweet home,' on your flute ?" she asked. Mr Weevil was about, I think, to decline, when his nostrils, as well as ours, were assailed by the fragrant fumes of hot coffee [-332-] issuing from the door, which stood ajar. He hesitated. "I've got a son that's gone to Kennedy, and he used to play it on his flute; I wish you would," pleaded the old lady; "come in and do it, and them other three can have a warm at the ironing-stove. This was a temptation too great to be resisted. I don't know much about the flute myself, but I declare if Mr Weevil had refused, I felt so benumbed with cold, that I verily believe I should have borrowed his instrument, and struggled through "Home, sweet home" somehow, for the sake of a warm. But Mr Weevil was merely human. The tune, strictly speaking, was not according to "tex'," yet we all four went in, and, before an audience of five grinning young ironers, "Home, sweet home" was played, after which the benevolent laundress, besides sixpence, gave us a big yellow jug full of coffee, out of which we gratefully drank and drank about, and then turned into the night again quite cheerfully.
    It was now getting towards two o'clock, and our "round" took a turn that to me appeared by no means promising. We entered a dingy narrow thoroughfare somewhere at the rear of St George's Church in the Borough; a mean little street, the shabbiness of the houses of which the mantle of night could not conceal. Nevertheless, from some cause or other, it was not deemed prudent to trust it to the guardianship of a single police-constable. We met two stalwart fellows of the "Force" shoulder to shoulder, tramping leisurely in the roadway, and occasionally with their " bulls'-eyes" flashing a hint of their presence on the dingy houses to the left and the right. It was not quite dark, however, leaving the bulls'-eyes out of the question. Before at least half a dozen of the houses, thrust out from the fan-light over the door, or suspended from a [-333-]bar after the manner of a public-house sign, was a lamp inscribed with an intimation that "lodgings" might there be obtained.
    There was a lack of uniformity about these lamps that was peculiarly striking. They were lamps of the oil-burning kind all of them; one being the mere iron frame of the original structure, walled in with part of an old newspaper, and inscribed with letters evidently cut out of some wall placard, to the effect that at that establishment "Logins for Travilirs" might be procured at the rate of "4d a nite, with cooking and blacking brushes" -  the latter, I suppose, being a rare and exceptional domestic convenience provided for the accommodation of lodgers who were desirous of turning out genteelly in the morning. There was a doctor's lamp, an appalling thing of oval shape, looking in the distance like a monstrous head with sea-green cheeks and forehead, and with flaming red eyes which blinked and winked on the hanging board inscribed "Lodgings here at 3d a night," in such a scowling and ruffianly manner as to make it seem a marvel that, even at this low figure, people were courageous enough to risk their lives in such a den.
    A few doors further was quite a rustic contrivance, intended, it may be presumed, to appeal especially to tramps newly arrived from the agricultural districts. It was an old-fashioned waggon lantern, latticed with rusty iron and glazed with horn, with a steeple roof, and a door with a latch; and, in the loop of the latch, just as a rustic swain wears a nosegay in his buttonhole, there was stuck quite a handsome sprig of mistletoe. A tallow candle, flickering and flaring in the lantern's interior, revealed the fact that this was Blisterchick's lodging-house, and that it was open at all hours.
[-334-] Was this Blisterchick's ordinary advertisement, or did it mean that at this festive season the hospitable lodging-house-keeper kept open doors and by this cheerful sign of the mistletoe sprig, desired it to be known that even tramps and other folks so poor that threepence was all they could afford to pay for a night's lodging need not despair of Christmas entertainment ? Was there to be revelry at Blisterchick's on Christmas Day, and were the lean tables in the great kitchen on which on every other day throughout the year appeared no more sumptuous fare than the humble rasher or the appetising bloater-were these same modest boards to creak under mighty dishfulls of roast and boiled Blisterchick bounty, his annual Christmas-box to his friends and patrons?
    The idea went well with the lantern. All honour to the festive Blisterchick! And at that very moment there came along the street a woman whose clothes were a mere bundle of rags, carrying at her back a year-old youngster, whose blue arms encircled its mother's throat, and held on by her bonnet-strings. Besides this one, the woman led another child by the hand. She hesitated, then paused at Blisterchick's door, and knocked. A fat, dirty old woman, with a greasy old cotton handkerchief over her head and a sackcloth apron with a bib to it - you could see all this quite plainly, for she came to the door with a lighted candle in her hand - appeared; and of her the woman with the children asked a question. Whatever it was, it was in so low and humble a tone as to be quite inaudible to one standing just a few yards away, but it was easy enough to hear the dirty, fat woman's reply - far easier than to print it in its entirety. "What next?" exclaimed the fat woman ferociously, and with an oath [-335-] she slammed the door in the poor soul's face, with such a vengeance as to set the latticed lantern swinging at a rate that threatened to dislodge the sprig of mistletoe.
    If this was not Mrs Blisterchick who bad opened the door, she was evidently the presiding genius of the establishment ; and it was equally certain that it was not she who had adorned the lantern. Perhaps some market gardener, lumbering that way the night before on his holly-and-mistletoe-laden cart, had conceived the grim joke of sticking the sprig there, little dreaming of the treacherous beacon he was planting. Of course it is impossible for me, since I did not bear her words, to say what the poor wayfarer with the two small children asked the dirty old fat woman for. Perhaps she simply wished to be informed if her husband was there ; perhaps she sought to know whether site was on the right road for Dartford ; still it is not improbable that she might have been as much taken in by that bit of mistletoe as I was. She may not have thought, a moment before, of knocking at Blisterchick's door; but, spying the emblem of peace and goodwill, sudden hope may have leapt to her desolate heart. "Here's a Godsend !" she may have said to herself, as she caught sight of the mystic green and the snowy berries. "They must at least be cheery-hearted folk who hang that out in a place like this; here goes to try my good luck this bitter night, at all events." And she raps at the door, and out bursts hideous old Mother Blistercbick, uglier than any ogress in a story-book. "Go to the devil," says she, and bangs the door; and the poor soul, without a word, creeps away and is gradually lost in the bleak dark, just as the Hautboy, having extracted his nose from his comforter, patheti-[-336-]cally pipes up "While shepherds watched their flock by night."
    The reason why this villanous street was included in our round, as I am informed by the Cornopean, is that the landlady of the "Kilkenny Cats," the most flourishing public-house in the neighbourhood, is a devout believer in "Waits," and is undoubtedly "good" for half a crown and a quart of egg-hot when they call on her on Boxing Day. The "Kilkenny Cats" is not many steps from Blisterchick's, but it exhibits no light, and with its flashy lamps and gilded boards, and the recent imprint of human feet in mud and sawdust on its threshold, has a stark and stricken-suddenly-dead aspect that is not easy to describe. An emblem of the last evil act it committed before departing this life appears in the shape of a "navvy" lying at full length on the wooden cellar-flap, with some bacon and a cabbage tied in a bundle-handkerchief hugged affectionately to his breast, and serving him in part as a pillow. The navvy rouses at the first strains of "While shepherds watched," &c., and hiccups some drunken words to the sacred tune, and drums with his hob-nailed heels on the cellar-flap. The solemn slowness of the music, however, presently excites his wrath ; and, ferociously addressing Mr Weevil, he requests him to "chuck it out livelier," unless he wants his precious ribs stove in. This unreasonable demand not being complied with, the navvy scrambles to his feet, and, using awful language, makes a vicious lounge at the Flageolet, but, missing him and staggering past him, he happily keeps on, balancing himself and maintaining an erect posture, solely by virtue of the bundle, which he skilfully manoeuvres as a counter-weight, and so vanishes. I remarked to the old gentleman who had so narrowly [-337-] escaped assault and battery, that the inhabitants of the neighbourhood did not seem to possess a particularly keen appreciation for sacred music. "I'd sooner play to the beasts in the Sirlogical Gardens," he replied ; "but being the wust of the wust, I s'pose we must make some allowance for them." "And so you consider the people hereabout the worst of the worst?" "I'd wager a guinea, if I had one," the old flageolet-player whispered back in confidence, "that there isn't a house on either side of the way, from top to bottom, that doesn't contain a convicted thief. Bless you! there's none but thieves, and bad women, and tramps, and cadgers, and bullies lives about here."
    One not unfrequenthy hears of folk such as those mentioned by the venerable "Wait" being converted from their ways of sin by means less potent than that of a sacred message of mercy and forgiveness sounding in guilty ears suddenly awakened in the middle of the quiet night; but if any such result attended our humble ministrations, I am scarcely in a position to say that I was aware of it. To be sure, one never can tell and it is especially hard to form a judgment in the case of persons so peculiarly constituted as were those inhabiting the houses about us. It is a fact that, in three or four instances, late stragglers, returning from God only knows what manner of occupation to their lodgings in this vile street, caught up the tune that was being played, and softly whistled it to themselves as they came shuffling along with their coat tight-buttoned, their collars upturned, and their hat or cap pulled down low - for the double purpose possibly of screening their features from the observations of a too attentive Police, and protecting their unhappy noses from the biting wind that was blowing. One of these, arrived at his [-338-] door, did not at once enter, but, pulling up his jacket collar yet a little higher, stood in the shadow, as though with some idea that it would be a pity to be shut in from sharing in a real bit of Christmas, and favoured us with a whistling accompaniment to "Lo, He comes!" to its very end ; although he was driven by stress of weather, poor fellow, to utilise his musical effort by blowing on his benumbed fingers, in order to impart a little warmth into them.
    On the other hand, one inhabitant - the fact of his keeping a small beer-shop exactly opposite the flourishing " Kilkenny Cats," to the proprietress of which our efforts were mainly directed, may have had to do with it - waxed wroth at our music. He flung up his window with a furious bang, and appearing at the opening with his nightcap on, and with a patchwork counterpane huddled over his shoulders, swore in horrible terms that if we did not that instant "sling our Daniels " -  which the Trombone informed me was a Sludge Street equivalent for moving off - he would "shy" at us every heavenly article of crockery his apartment contained.
    There was a woman, too! She came up Sludge Street in a condition of reckless and defiant intoxication, her wretched finery arid the profuse display of flower and feather in her bonnet sufficiently denoting the class to which she belonged. I don't quite remember the tune we were at the moment playing; but whatever it may have been, she took offence at it. She stood still a little time and listened, and then she broke out with tremendous ferocity, "It is all cant and lies," she cried, raising her voice almost to a shriek, at the same time leaning her unsteady body against the shutters of an oil-shop to enable her to stamp with her feet, "it is all [-339-] lies and cant - all rot, all a cheat; and you ought to be pole-axed, you hoary-headed old thief," she continued, addressing the meek Flageolet, "for helping to put it about. Ha! ha! who believes that?" - she knew the words of the tune, it seemed. "Do I believe it, do you think? Look at me," and as she shrieked forth the words she stretched out her arms, at the time spreading her shawl, and in the semi-darkness giving herself an appearance as of some evil angel. "Look at me, and then talk of saving. I'm miles too low down to be hooked up again; and there's thousands with me -  millions; you whining old Methodist, I am going to ---- straight, I tell you ; and I mean to lush well along the road." And then, with a shout of wild laughter, she staggered off, her draggletails flapping in the wind.
    I did not see what became of her. My impression was that she entered one of the houses, or turned into one of the abounding arched alleys with which both sides of the way were pierced. She did not go far, anyhow. In less than ten minutes, quite suddenly, she appeared again, scarcely staggering at all now, and walking fast. She made straight for Mr Weevil, and, plucking one of his hands from his instrument before he could recover from his amazement, thrust into his palm and pressed his fingers over the sum of fourpence-halfpenny in coppers. "I was drunk just now," she remarked quietly. "Thank'ee kindly, missus," replied the forgiving Flageolet. "Don't thank me - hit me," cried the woman, growing excited again; "strike me down into the mud, and tread on me. Stamp me down into the ground and bury me. It would be a good riddance, for I'm no good alive - no good, no good." And the strange creature flitted away again, still [-340-] wailing "no good," in such a despairing tone that we hadn't the pluck to stay in Sludge Street any longer. So we took a turning, and thereby got back into the Borough again; and as, by this time, I had obtained the glimpse I wanted of the sort of existence which a "Wait" leads, I gladly hailed a passing hansom, shook hands with my grateful friends, and wished them good luck and better weather.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874