Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 4 - Old-Time Street Scenes

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Retailing beer to houses - Can-boys - Workmen and beer - Dustmen - Muffin-man - Brewers draymen - Austrian General and Barclay and Perkins - Sweeps - Water-carts and pumps - Popularity of street trading - Water-cress girls - Lavender sellers - Cats'-meat man - Gipsies - Thimble-rig -Three-card trick - Purse trick - Street roulette - Impromptu rhymer.

ANOTHER member of our little world who has no counterpart in these later times was the perambulating potman. Public-houses in the 1850s were allowed to deliver liquor at customers' premises, and nearly every tavern did so, employing potmen for the purpose who carried wooden frames divided longitudinally into two compartments in which cans of ale, porter and stout were deposited, together with a measure or two; a parallel bar above affording the necessary carrying handle. On weekdays the supper hour was the principal time of activity for these potmen, but they appeared to better advantage on Sundays, when, as soon as the clock had struck one, they issued from their bars clad in spotless white aprons and, in warm weather, in equally immaculate shirt-sleeves, intent on serving the Londoner with his dinner beer. Staggering under the weight of a couple of frames they went the round of their customers, measuring what was required from the cans into gaping expectant jugs. I am not sure whether they were entitled to serve any pedestrian who wanted drink, but I think they could be called to a house by a chance customer.
    It was ill robbing an Englishman of his beer in those days. Gangs of labouring men, bricklayers, navvies, etc., kept a "can-boy," whose duty it was to make periodical trips to the nearest tavern and maintain a stream of gallons between the tap and the inextinguishable fires which [-44-] tormented the bowels of his masters. I remember an engraving of the building of new London Bridge in which such a can-boy was depicted in the full discharge of his duties. Tradesmen, painters, plumbers, plasterers, when employed about a private house, expected beer, or money to buy it with, and if the occupier did not rise to the necessary height of bibulous expectation would gather up their tools and leave, saying they were urgently required elsewhere.
    This delicate subject induces me to bring the dustman next on the scene as he, too, was sensitive on the subject of beer. The thirst-provoking avocation of dust collecting was not then a matter for the public authorities to perform gratuitously, the carts being sent round by those who made profit out of household refuse. So when the dustman - who wore a cap with a huge leathern flap over the neck and usually carried a bell to notify his presence - inspected the bin he generally found objections to urge against the eligibility of its contents, scruples which could only be dispersed by arguments - such as the heavy coppers of those days commonly constituted with people of his class.
    The bell of the white-aproned muffin and crumpet man was heard more frequently than that of the dustman, for he was one of the best known of street merchants. In 1924 one begins to class him with the dodo - in 1856 he was as regular on his rounds as Her Majesty's Post. Nobody dreamed of objecting to his bell: such squeamishness would have been ridiculed. In two respects he was noteworthy - he was one of the very few who carried wares on the head (in a tray covered with green baize) and who didn't wear a pot-hat, the twin characteristics no doubt being related as cause and effect.
   Reverting to beer, I will now notice a very popular personage indeed, and one, too, who likewise disdained the exalted head cylinder which the world owes to the first Georgian era - to wit, the brewers' drayman. I imagine the practice of having casks of beer on tap in private houses must have greatly decreased since the 1850 - when the bottled beverage was comparatively scarce and grocers had no licences - for draymen delivering casks inscribed XX or [-45-] XXX were to be met in Camberwell every hour of the day. And splendid fellows they were, for brewers would do their products no such villainous disservice as to have them delivered by anybody much under six feet in stature, with dray horses to match. Let it be remembered that in those days beer really contained malt and hops and had no claim to rank with the beverage which the comprehensive strides of advancing chemical knowledge have rendered possible to-day - and therefore justified in a measure or, rather, a good many measures, the prevailing admiration and faith. In our times X perhaps represents an unknown quantity more accurately than it did then.
    Probably Barclay Perkins bore off the palm for the comeliness, ruddiness and sturdiness of their men, and bulk and sleekness of their steeds. Rumour had it that the bipeds were regaled with all the firm's Entire they could stow away and each quadruped had a gallon of it by way of composing draught every night. The men wore red pirate caps with turn-over flap, and white - never dirty-smocks and aprons, with a big pocket under the apron for the wooden spiles used to stop the air holes bored in the tops of the barrels. Two men went with every dray, and carried casks for delivery suspended between them by chains and hooks from a pole supported on their shoulders. We were customers of B. P. & Co., and periodically had a procession of this kind up the garden path, and subsequently down it, as the "empty" was borne away. When at home we boys never missed attendance on the operation of installing the new cask on its stool, driving in the bung with the spigot tap and boring the spile hole. We got to know the two good-natured - beer was supposed to act as a great sweetener of character - giants who performed these services very well, as time went on, and they never came without giving us a handful of the spiles, which we found useful for some of our boyish operations. Well do I remember the dive of the huge fist under the apron, and the shower of pegs into our hands arranged cup-fashion to receive them.
    Barclay Perkins were just then popular for a cause quite remote from hops and malt. An Austrian general, who had [-46-] made himself notorious during the Hungarian rebellion of 1848 by flogging women and other cruelties, came to London, and in an evil hour conceived the idea of visiting Barclay and Perkins' brewery at Bankside. He was well received by the management, but the craftsmen came to know who he was, and began to punctuate his round of inspection with groans and hoots. At first he pretended not to notice, but the men left their work, thronged around, and had such an appearance of resorting to violence - their design was to douse him in a tub of mash - that a retreat was hastily undertaken, and not too soon. Some said that he actually ran and was chased and chevied as far as the outer gates. This "outrage" incensed the Austrian Government, but they were not supposed to have extracted any great excess of satisfaction from Whitehall.
    The sweep was yet another artificer who forswore the fashionable "chimney-pot" hat, which must be counted rather inconsistent on his part. In the 1840s he had been a mark of public opprobrium in connection with the cruel treatment meted to the poor little boys then commonly sent up chimneys to sweep them. In the 1850s this practice, still rife in the provinces, had been greatly diminished in London, and what was left of it was under police regulation. So the brush and flexible screwed rods had come in and Mr. Sweep perambulated the streets with a bundle of them on his shoulder, crying "Sweep!" in husky tones. But pride can flourish even in the bosom of a sweep. In the 1860s at Eltham the village practitioner had a sign inscribed "Flanagan, Ramoneur." However, a sweep's brush surmounted the board so that those who hadn't graduated in French might still have a chance of finding the indispensable artist. The employment of child sweepers was finally stopped by a Bill which the benevolent Earl of Shaftesbury got through Parliament in 1864.
   There were water-carts in those days. Not dissimilar from those we know, since the driver, by depressing a lever with his foot, caused water to spirt from a perforated pipe behind, but they were filled from road-side pumps instead of hydrants, which involved much pumping by the men, [-47-]  and, as a consequence, a great deal of bad language. The pumps, about six feet high, had spouts above the level of the carts, into which the water was conducted by movable wooden troughs. We had a pump of this kind in our street - it stood nearly opposite the garden gate of the first school I attended - and to this fact my brothers and I, as well as most of the other children of the neighbourhood, owed our first introduction to swear words. Two watermen drivers usually met and, standing one on each side of the handle, pumped their carts full, discoursing the while on a great variety of subjects, all of which seemed to require a wealth of expressive and expletive emphasis. There was one circumambient adjective which would have made Dr. Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood, smile had he been flying within ear-shot of Camberwell, and been even as balm of Gilead to Mr. Bernard Shaw. It qualified almost every noun, so we came to refer to it as the "waterman's word," being placed under strict parental injunction never to utter it in any circumstances whatever. And "thereby hangs a tale," which, perhaps, will be told anon. It may be asked, why did we listen? Well, there may be little boys who can resist watching a big pump in full swing: if so, they were not conspicuous in our neighbourhood about 1857.
    So many frequenters of the suburban streets of my boyhood remain, I find, to be noticed that it is obvious that they must have been both more numerous and in greater variety than the corresponding class met with to-day. I seem to be looking back to a vanished world. Certainly, many more people found their livelihood in the highways sixty years ago than is the case now. What has brought about the change? Improved mechanical appliances - transport and distribution facilities - stricter police regulations - stringent pedlars' licences - concentration of trade by large firms - more regular places of amusement, so that the streets no longer serve as theatres? Probably all these causes contribute.
    Here are more departed ghosts. Every day, as tea-time approached, girls selling water-cress from baskets slung from the shoulders went from door to door. They had a [-48-] not unpleasing cry of "Water creases!" and their usual enquiry was "Any creases to-day, Mum? " These damsels' wares had always been gathered that same morning, a fact worthy of the attention of the authorities at Kew Gardens and of botanists in general, since, that being the case, it was abundantly obvious that many of our country brooks must have been endowed with the faculty of producing stale water-cress. But the poor girls were civil, and had their none too luxurious living to get.
    Lavender sellers appeared in due season, making the thoroughfares echo with their melodious old-time refrain. Flower merchants, too, some with barrows, some with trays carried on the head. They cried lustily, "All a-growin' and a-blowin' !" and sometimes trespassed on the domain of the triple-diademed Jew by accepting old clothes and top-hats in exchange for their pansies and geraniums. I don't remember cut flowers ever being hawked.
    The cats'-meat man was in daily attendance with his barrow and basket, and well did the felines know his time for reaching their door. A friend brought a cat from Scotland (where "meat" is unknown), and for some little time the merchant's cry fell meaningless on inattentive ears; but it was a little time. Not in vain had puss been bred on t'other side of the Border. Within a week she had discovered what the cabalistic sound meant, and then was as prompt as any of the others in welcoming the vendor.
    Another friend had a little cat that always brought her any mouse or bird it succeeded in catching, and she was sometimes able to rescue sparrows - on one occasion a thrush - alive. Pussy was particularly attentive and insistent in this way if her mistress happened to be indisposed, apparently under the impression that at such times she required something really nice to eat. Lying down one afternoon, this lady was disturbed by a tremendous mewing intermitted by loud purring outside. In vain she told the cat to go away, and at last rose and opened the door. Pussy immediately backed into the room, dragging a huge lump of horseflesh, weighing a good many pounds. This she laid at her mistress's feet, with every evidence of delight. " There, [-49-] help yourself, she seemed to say. The cats'-meat man had, it appeared, left his barrow to serve customers at their doors, and in his absence puss had ravished the sirloin that formed his main stock-in-trade and dragged it through the garden, up several steps, along a passage and finally upstairs to the first floor. And, after all, to see the maid take it back to the wondering proprietor on a fork!
    In the fifties long-haired, Persian and other foreign cats were but seldom met with; and of the commoner varieties tabbies and tortoise-shells were favourites. Fewer black felines existed, the superstition that sable kittens bring good-fortune not being nearly so wide-spread. Persistent preservation of black offspring during the past thirty or forty years has naturally had its effect and should, finally, if there is any potency in Darwin's theory, extinguish all other kinds except for an occasional "reversion to type." What a lot of luck there will be in the world then! And it is curious to note that black grimalkin, esteemed to-day as a mascot, was in the old time condemned (and occasionally burned alive) as the accomplice of witches, and the essence of everything evil.
    Gipsies must not be overlooked. They hawked brooms and brushes, clothes props and pegs, fern-roots and other odds and ends from carts and baskets, and pitched primitive swings and round-abouts on plots of spare ground. The steam round-about and organ had not yet been evolved, and the motive power of those they had took the form of ragged boys running round and pushing bars radiating from the centre pole. Gipsy women went from door to door, selling their wares and inducing the servant maids to cross their palms with silver - were it only with a "joey" (four-penny bit) in return for promises of husbands fair or husbands dark. Telling fortunes was not a police offence then, and it is doubtful whether anybody has been a bodle the happier or worthier since it was made one. The broom trade was not, in the fifties, quite a gipsy monopoly since there were a few vagrant girls in short frocks, gay stockings, embroidered jackets and plaited hair, supposed, I think, to be Tyrolese peasants, who woke the echoes with their [-50-] cry of "Buy a broom"! They looked very odd in those days of crinoline, but were seen no more in Camberwell after about 1857.
    Perhaps not wholly foreign to gipsies were the various kinds of swindlers who made their prey of the unwary and self-confident. Police regulations were not so tightly woven then, and a much greater number of sharpers contrived to dodge through the meshes, particularly where crowds assembled, as at race-courses, regattas, fairs and sea-side beaches. One of these nimble gentlemen was the professor of thimble-rig, who had a folding tray slung round his neck which in a moment could be converted into a horizontal table, whereon he manipulated three thimbles and a pea, the game being to get some younker in the crowd to bet that he could indicate under which thimble the pea was resting - a perfectly hopeless undertaking unless he were permitted to be right now and then for the purpose of more effective ultimate plunder.
    Sleight-of-hand came in, too, in the three-card trick, in which the victim was invited to pick out the Queen amongst three cards shuffled in his sight, and then thrown face downwards, which he never could do unless it pleased the operator to let him. I watched some respectable-looking men, reasonable beings seemingly, badly robbed in this way at Ealing races in the mid 1860s. And the purse trick I saw effectively worked at Croydon races some years later. The prestigiator pretended to rain hall-crowns into a purse, and then sold it for a quarter of its apparent value. But the purchaser would find only a penny or perhaps two to represent the silver. Instead of complaining he would usually swallow his wrath and slink away, unable to face the derision of the crowd; so that a new purse and a new softy usually materialised in a few minutes.
    And roulette-tables with a spinning needle instead of a whirling ball were not uncommon. I once tempted fortune in a small way on the beach at Herne Bay about 1864. At first I won and was honestly paid, but luck soon turned and I lost all my winnings - ten-pence or so - and my original stake as well. But then I stopped with a prudence that did [-51-] not please the croupier and which, I'm afraid, was not often paralleled. The next time I tried to break the bank was at Alexandria in 1869, with exactly similar results. When I had lost the 5-franc piece I had started with I stopped.
    It was at Herne Bay, too, about the same year, that I came across an impromptu rhymer, the only one I ever had the fortune to listen to. He stood on a chair at the base of the Clock Tower with a banjo slung round his neck, and to the tune of The Captain with his Whiskers, a popular one of the day, sang rhyming couplets, chiefly descriptive of the peculiarities of members of his audience, men, women, boys and girls, but inclusive of some caustic comments on prominent politicians. Not vulgar, distinctly funny and often far from complimentary (unless it were a pretty girl, in which ease he would make her blush scarlet with confusion-and flattered vanity), he created continuous titters of laughter. Never at a loss for a word or rhyme, he seemed ready to fit instantly any new-corner who joined the throng. I thought it very clever and doubted whether even Milton could have done so well. For days afterwards I applied his wheezes to my relatives and friends, until they thought me rhyming crazy. But it wasn't so easy when launching out for yourself and trying to be original, and I reflected that, after all, the number of types in a crowd was limited and could probably be mostly covered (he only rhymed about those he himself selected) by a few dozen of couplets well learned, with some faculty for adaptation. And the troubadour's cap grew weighty as it was passed round for coppers.