Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 5 - The Diorama of the Street

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CHAPTER V

THE DIORAMA OF THE STREET

Chair-menders - "Ornaments for your fire-stoves!" - Fly-catchers - Draught-bags - Italian images - Sham sailors - Groundsel  -Baked chestnuts and potatoes - Night refreshments - Fruit and vegetable hawkers - Strawberries in pottles - Street stalls - Orange girls - Hand-bills - Beggars with paintings - Cheap Jacks - Preachers - Waits - Workmen's paper caps - Soldiers - Sailors - Pensioners - Beadles - Lamplighters - Crossing sweepers - Shoeblacks - Undertakers.

"CHAIRS to mend! was a very familiar cry!"  Cane- and rush-bottomed seats were much more common than at present. Bent-wood furniture was not yet, and there was little intermediate between the light and convenient cane-thatched chair and the heavy and massive mahogany and horse-hair, or the solid wood. Poor people, men and women, often of gipsy aspect, brought round bundles of canes and rushes, and, settling on your doorstep or in your front garden, deftly and cheaply repaired the ravages of time or wear and tear.
    Summer had hawkers peculiarly its own - he or she who vociferated, "Ornaments for your fire-stoves!" and carried, hung from poles, apron-like confections in curly paper of many colours, designed to fill and hide domestic grates from which King Sol had temporarily banished the hissing yule-log; and the vendor of fly-traps whose cry was "Catch em-alive, oh! " and whose merchandise consisted of crude devices for inveigling the domestic pests which then throve and multiplied even more than in the present year of grace.
    Autumn likewise produced a seasonal hawker - he of the sawdust bags used for excluding draughts, articles which resembled long sausages and were uniformly coloured red. People used to lay them on window sills and frames and along the bottom of doors, and then blame the weather if [-53-] they caught cold and their coal-merchant if the fires wouldn't burn. The Fresh-air Fiend hadn't been born then. Folks were only lately emancipated from night-caps (the woolly with tassel sort) and many were still partial to bed-curtains.
    Italian image vendors carried platforms of plaster-of-Paris busts about, and now and then sold one, it is to be presumed, since they went on doing it.
    The business they transacted was, however, insignificant compared with the traffic of the one-armed or one-legged sailor hailing (according to his own account) from Navarino or the Crimea. Dressed in sailor costume as immaculate as the decks of the line-of-battle ship they had probably only seen in their dreams, these privateers cruised slowly along the middle of the causeway singing some appropriate ditty. Tom Bowling, as suggesting, perhaps, that the public had the "darling of his crew" in propria persona before their very eyes, and being capable in artistic mouths of much doleful expression, was a favourite; and Red, White and Blue, then very popular, with its "Britannia, the Pride of the Ocean," was another. It is to be feared that some at least of these men were impostors. We were told that could we but see inside the neat white duck trouser leg that surmounted the timber under-rigging, a whole limb doubled up at the knee and laced tightly, call to thigh, would meet our view. The pot-hatted policeman regarded these old salts with toleration, and never charged them with obstruction. I don't remember ever seeing a beggar soldier, not that they were superabundantly provided for, poor fellows.
    Certain wretchedly-clad men hawked groundsel, and had regular customers amongst canary fanciers. There seemed something debasing about this weed, for I never saw a, decent vendor of it; but there were a few hawkers of periwinkles who ran them close in sordidness.
    In winter roasted-chestnut and baked-potato merchants were more in evidence than they are to-day; chestnuts were not yet the Italian monopoly they appear to have become of recent years. There were no fried-fish shops and no cabmen' s shelters, so that Jehus and others whose [-54-] occupation kept them much in the open found these simple edibles very much to the purpose as supper time approached. There were, I believe, street refreshment stalls at night in some localities, but I never saw one.
    Bawling costermongers selling fruit and vegetables from harrows often traversed the streets. One article of their commerce - strawberries in pottles - is known no more. A pottle in London - it had other attributes in country places, I believe - was a fragile basket of conical shape, like a huge candle extinguisher (if that is not likewise too obsolete to be useful as an illustration for this present generation) holding a pint or so of berries - usually fine ones on top and tiny or damaged ones below.
    Stalls of various kinds, generally kept by old men or women, were numerous. At the corner of our street, where it joined the great artery of traffic, stood a sweet- stuff stall, kept by a deaf man who had a drunken wife whom he was continually being charged with assaulting, and once with attempting to murder. But he was respectful and obliging to the public and went on year after year, selling quite a variety of sweeties and apparently doing well. Stewed eels, sheep's trotters, oysters, whelks and cockles were sold from stalls not infrequently situated outside public-houses. The two last-named delicacies, which, alas! I never had the courage to taste - although I have since probably often, if unwittingly, made their acquaintance in the disguise of oyster sauce - were sold in little dishes, immersed in vinegar and delicately peppered.
    Apple women, too, sat behind stalls or baskets at street corners without any interference by the police. One smiling old lady, whose stand was alongside the Old Kent Road Toll Gate, was noteworthy for her pyramids of shining, rosy-cheeked fruit - the product, so some boys averred, of saliva and elbow-grease cunningly apportioned and combined. The apple stall is likely to have been a very ancient London institution. In 1898 I discovered a woman with an apple-stall on an over-bridge behind the New York Central Railroad terminus in the city of that ilk, who might have been transported on a magic carpet straight from the [-55-] London S.E. of the 1850s, so closely did she and her belongings resemble this much-maligned old lady. No doubt a survival of custom from the days when New Yorkers still enjoyed the privilege of boasting themselves Britons.
    Orange-Sellers there was none in our neighbourhood, but they were in great force outside the theatres in town, and at London Bridge, just at the turn of the road on the way to the railway termini, a row of girls stood until well into the 1860s. They sold oranges from trays or baskets hung by straps from their shoulders, and were both impudent and vociferous. I always thought of Nell Gwynne as I passed, but found it difficult to pick out one likely to attract the attention of a King, although, of course, there is no accounting for tastes.
    Distribution of hand-bills to pedestrians was not then banned and many tradesmen took that method of advertising their wares. So it came about that seedy personages were often stationed outside shops and at street corners handing bills to anyone who would accept. In 1858 it occurred to me to make a collection of such bills, and during the two following years I accumulated a band-box full of brilliantly-coloured leaflets of many more hues than the rainbow can boast of. I tired of the game, however, and a waste-paper merchant ultimately walked off with the lot.
    Pavement artists, as we know them, did not, so far as my observation went, exist; but there was a class of beggar privileged to spread a roll-up picture in any sheltered corner out of the way of, but alongside, the stream of pedestrian traffic. Such men were usually maimed, and the picture was supposed to represent the scene of their misfortune. One mutilated man sat for years in front of the Blind Asylum (long abolished) near Bricklayers' Arms Station with a crude painting of a whale hunt in several stages. In one of these the artist had chosen the moment when a huge cetacean of the Greenland variety had jerked a boat full of men high in the air, the launch being shown smashed in several pieces and the whalers descending seawards like so many stars from a Roman candle. Another compartment represented the picking up of the men or [-56-] what remained of them by a second boat; yet another, the proprietor of the picture in hospital at Liverpool with a consultation of (apparently) most of the medical faculty of that city round his bed; and the last sad scene depicted the operating table. Another unfortunate exhibited a painting, not badly done, showing a locomotive and a train of coal-trucks running over his legs. Another tableau presented a colliery shaft in section with a cage full of men falling down it from a broken rope. Where was the artist standing? Pictures of this kind I have not seen for many years.
    Cheap Jacks held the street corners on Saturday nights, and preachers of sorts - the Salvation Army was not then even dreamed of - on Sunday afternoons and evenings. They all seemed to possess the knack of attracting crowds.
    At Christmas time we listened for the Waits, who furnished an additional pretext for being allowed to sit up late. The children who now succeed each other at front doors and sing invariably and incessantly "When shepherds watched their flocks by night," were happily not yet. Waits of the 1850s often sang concerted pieces, frequently with instrumental accompaniment, quite acceptably. It was nice to lie in bed on a snowy night and be lulled to sleep so agreeably.
    Artisans, more especially, perhaps, carpenters and painters, affected home-made square white paper caps during working hours, both in-doors and out, and these lent another by-gone aspect to the streets, particularly in the dinner hour and in the neighbourhood of public-houses. Such caps were easily renewed when soiled, and were much more becoming than the modern slouching flat cloth cap. This head-dress constituted quite a class distinction: mere labourers or navvies never wore it.
    Soldiers lent colour and picturesqueness to the streets, whether in full or undress uniform. The short scarlet shell-jacket and little round cap worn over one ear of the latter would look very funny these post-war days: cause quite a sort of shell shock, in fact. I used to smile at Gustave Dor?'s picture of the Battle of Inkerman at Versailles, in which the English guards are shown hard at work [-57-] with the bayonet in shell-jacket and tiny cap. Sailors in their ducks, jackets and straw hats, and Volunteers (after 1859) were likewise to be met, and Chelsea and Greenwich pensioners; and so were beadles.
    The bulk of the youth of the present generation cannot know the beadle, for, with the exception of those pertaining to the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange, and these are comparatively dingy specimens, very few exist. The City Companies retain them, I believe, in name but not in glory. But in the 1850s the beadle was a civic functionary - he is now usually called a mace-bearer or Mayor's officer - and formed an appurtenance of nearly every church. His laced, gold-embroidered cocked hat of enormous dimensions (which he was actually privileged to wear in church!); long gold-edged red, blue or green coat; canary or puce-coloured breeches; calves - tremendous both in magnitude and colour - and long gold-tipped staff, were the terror of naughty boys, and well they deserved to be. I am sure that when the children of those days dreamed of Old Bogie he would often present himself to their imagination in cocked hat and calves. Stalwarts usually filled the part-a little man accentuated the comicality of the dress.
    But to-day boys would deride an early Victorian beadle as fit only for comic opera. Well, we have all read of the beadle in Oliver Twist. Is it possible that the derision there cast upon Bumble, so eminent a member of the craft, has justified the saying that nothing kills like ridicule? The late C. H. Spurgeon, in his witty little book, John Ploughman's Talk, remarks: "Even Poor Law Guardians have their little failings, and Parish Beadles are not wholly of heavenly nature." The word "beadle" survives, it is true, as vulgar children persist in miscalling certain house pests "black beadles." But the real beadle was very far from black. There may be cited, however, a certain resemblance between the genera. Black-beetles are best caught with beer - so was the beadle.
    The lamplighter calls for notice, too. He was often an elderly man, furnished with a short ladder and a hand-lamp. The former he placed against the projecting iron [-58-] arm provided for the purpose, ran up, turned the gas cock, applied his lamp, down again, and away with shouldered ladder to the next beacon. In the morning he went his round again, this time to extinguish. This system endured for many years. London was gas-illuminated from the dawn of my recollection and I do not remember anything but the ladder device until the 1870s. The gas jet was only a feeble fish-tail burner, but at all events it did not daze and dazzle as some of the modern bright lights do.
    Crossing-sweepers, male and female, were very much more numerous than they are to-day. Perhaps the streets were dirtier. There were no wooden blocks and no asphalt paving, and although some of the chief arteries of traffic had granite setts, the ruling type of roadway was macadam, which, in the absence of steam-road rollers, was probably not of the best. And there was not so much objection to poor persons getting a livelihood in the streets as there is to-day. There were crossing-sweepers in the City, near the Bank and Mansion House. I think Thackeray has a character who sweeps a City crossing by day and goes home in his carriage to a sumptuous house in the West End at night. It was not uncommon for suburban sweepers to have a tame animal pet to keep them company - a dog, cat, rabbit or guinea-pig - which suggested good nature and awakened sympathy. But in this direction I must perforce admit that Glasgow outpaced London, for in the 1880s there was a shoeblack on the Broomielaw, near the Caledonian Railway bridge, who kept a knowing goose, or possibly a gander, beside him.
    Shoeblacks were numerous. In the fifties they were independent men and lads of many ages and descriptions, often sordid and, on occasion, extortionate. Later, came the red-clad boys of the Shoeblack Brigade, clean-faced, under control and with a uniform charge as well as blouse.
    Now I conjure up from the "vasty" deep of memory the ghosts of the undertakers and their paraphernalia of woe. The undertaker was of course in black, and equally of course wore a pot-hat turbaned with a wealth of weeping crape. Two of his men bearing draped wands invariably stood, [-59-] motionless as the statues in Tutankhamen's tomb, one on each side of the door of the house of mourning. These were the mutes. If the deceased had rejoiced in a coat-of-arms his escutcheon was displayed in front of the dwelling. This was the hatchment. The hearse was a long black box on wheels, closed on all sides, without glass, and bearing sockets in which plumes could be placed. The black horses bore tall black plumes nodding on their heads, acquiring therefrom a touch of the majestic. The coffins were covered with black cloth tacked on with innumerable brass-headed nails, for the polished "casket," as our American friends call it, was still a good many years ahead. A very familiar street sound of those days was the tack, tack, tack of the undertaker's hammer as he nailed on the cloth in his shop. He did it with a kind of rhythm which rendered the process unmistakable.
    And one more observation I must make in all sadness - a funeral often passed through the streets, quiet or crowded, without a single head being uncovered or a single hat disturbed in its honour. How far were we behind other nations in that respect! Frenchmen, when they witnessed this indifference, were horrified. They would not admit that there was anything like Spartan stoicism about it. Even the Germans had a better sense of decorum. Once at Trier, from a window of the Porta Nigra Hotel, I witnessed the main thoroughfare closed by the marching of an interminable Prussian regiment for which all traffic was held up. Suddenly from a side-street a funeral - and a poor class one - appeared. Instantly commands rang out. The column halted, space was made, and the cortege passed between the dislocated battalion, officers and men standing at attention while by-standers bared their heads. Bravo Attila & Co.! We are somewhat more decent nowadays, and credit for the fact must, I think, be given to the London County Council school committee. Some doings of that body I contemn, for their effects are evil; but, in teaching boys to uncover and girls to curtsy on the passage of a funeral, they have done well.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924