Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 6 - Street Entertainers

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Raree-show - Punch and Judy - Dancing puppets - Acrobats - Mu1tiplex musician - Bagpipers - Hurdy-gurdy and white mice - Organ-grjnders -  German bands - Ballad singers - Victorian and modern music - Happy families - Glass-blowers - Bell-ringers - Jack-in-the-Green - Guy Fawkes  - Grottoes - Marrow-bones and cleavers.

MY Looking-glass Street World would be very incomplete if no notice were taken of the tribe of entertainers. Street amusements were both numerous and varied sixty years ago, due, perhaps, to the comparative scarcity of indoor diversions, and to the much greater tolerance of the police.
    Children of to-day, with their cinemas and comic journals and their plethora of elaborate and refined picture-books, automatic machines, etc., would find, I fear, but little use for the Raree-show, or, as it was also called, Peep-show or Gallantry-show. I fancy that this device was decrepit and well on the way to extinction in the 1850s, for its professors were usually poor fellows of the shabbiest description. The Raree-show was a box supported on a stick or, if of the larger variety, on a barrow, in which were placed pictures, sometimes rude paintings, but more often engravings, which could be viewed through peep-holes on payment of a halfpenny. The box was often surmounted by the Union Jack and by placards announcing the rarity and beauty (both highly supposititious) of the pictures within; with perhaps an earnest entreaty to "support the Fine Arts." Some were lighted at night by a candle. People, chiefly children, were attracted, sometimes by sound of trumpet, in sufficient numbers to keep the proprietor's soul in his body, but hardly more. During the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny and also, perhaps, after the great Sayers-[-61-]Heenan prize-fight, custom had spasms of activity, but after 1860 events of such moment became scarcer, while pictures grew commoner and cheaper. Then the Raree-show died the death, at all events in London. Its tableaux were poor, and it was a sorry business. Yet we read of the arrival of such a show in a village constituting quite an event earlier in the century. The two peep-hole screen pictures in the Wirtz Gallery, Brussels, are glorified Raree-shows.
    Our old friends Punch and Judy afforded an ever-popular show. The presentation itself has varied but little except in the dress of the policeman, but in those days the manipulator of the puppets was always accompanied by a comrade who usually wore a pot-hat, not infrequently a white one, had a mouth-organ stuck in his stock or neckerchief, and carried a drum. The noise of the instruments was quite characteristic and children a street or two off could tell when a Punch was in the vicinity. The musician also acted as collector. In these degenerate days I notice no such picturesque collaborator, the artist's adjunct being often a music-mute youth or woman who looks after the ha' pence and nothing more.
    There was sometimes seen a show of dancing puppets using the Punch type of portable stage with let-down curtains to conceal the operator. Female figures performed a ballet of four or six, and a sailor danced the hornpipe; but the piece was a skeleton which indulged in a pas seul. For a time his whole frame - if not his heart - was in it then his bones began to separate and, marvellous to relate, disappeared behind the scenes, dancing all the time. At last, when the skull alone was left, still footing it - if I may so express it - merrily, the fragments returned one by one and reunited themselves to the figure, each in its proper place; when the skeleton, finding itself all there and quite itself again, terminated the performance with a graceful bow. These puppet-shows did not excite the same enthusiasm as Punch and Judy - there was no policeman to batter about - and I don't think I saw one in England after 1860 or so. But in 1871 I witnessed a not dissimilar, though more [-62-] elaborate - and, be it said, grossly indecent - travelling puppet-show in Mesopotamia. How the Turks reconciled it with the Prophet's drastic prohibition of images I did not learn.
    Acrobats and jugglers (then popularly called tumblers) frequently occupied pitches at convenient corners. A troupe visiting our neighbourhood comprised an elderly man, a youth and a girl, possibly all of a family. They spread a carpet, opened a box of properties, threw off their coats and appeared in regulation acrobatic dress. A basin for the reception of coppers was not forgotten at one corner of the carpet. The old man performed feats of strength and dexterity, the others aiding as supernumeraries. His chief act - and it was one common to most of the street tumblers - was to support and balance a pole about ten feet long perpendicularly in a waistband, and allow the youth to climb to the top and there go through several tricks. To keep the balance he had to watch the pole narrowly, hands on hips, as it shifted, but I never witnessed a failure. Then he would take both boy and girl on his shoulders, where they would posture and disport in various ways. He would fasten a cup to his forehead by a band, and, throwing a gilded ball high in the air, catch it in the cup every time. And keep half a dozen balls rotating, and so on. This, with crowded traffic of all kinds circulating within a few feet, required nerve and self-possession. I don't know how many pitches they made in a day, but the old man must have been a tough one to stand the racket.
    Another street performer was a foreigner who played, or made a noise on, five or six instruments at once, drum on his back struck by a stick tied to the elbow; cymbals on the knee played by a string from the foot; bells on the head jangling when it was shaken; mouth-organ; accordion, and so on. The Highland pipers had not yet discovered London, but there was a Tyrolean bag-piper who played over hail a dozen bars of the same tune incessantly, all day and every day. There were Italians or Savoyards with hurdy-gurdies and white mice, marmots or squirrels in rotating cages. The hurdy-gurdy was a squeaky instrument [-63-] operated by the friction of a wheel against a violin string or strings which were stopped off by keys to form the few notes within its range.
    There were two tribes of organ-grinders; one with a tall-backed instrument which tinkled like Queen Elizabeth's virginals and must, I think, have been the forerunner of the present street piano. This was played by a crooked handle at one end. The other was a wind-and-reed affair in a rectangular box, much fuller in tone, resembling its rival only in being invariably and desperately out of tune. Both were carried on the back - always by foreigners of sorts - and supported on sticks when performed on. The square box of the latter excruciator often served as stage for a wretched monkey, gaudily attired, which was forced to dance or to pretend to go through a few tricks. We boys had a favourite grinder (with monkey, of course) who was sometimes admitted to the front garden, where, screened from vulgar observation by the brick wall, we played his organ and teased his (and our) Simian relative. Once poor Jacko escaped and climbed the laburnum tree, which was covered with its poisonous pods. He was fortunately too wise or too frightened to taste them, and was ultimately persuaded to come down by the aid of a pair of steps and a clothes-prop.
    What a distance have we travelled since those times! On March 16th, 1923, the Daily Mirror had a picture of a "wireless organ fitted with aerial and loud-speaker,'' all drawn by a donkey - well, no, not all, not the picture - busy earning coppers in the streets of London by tapping the music of the broadcasting stations, which by reason of its invasion of the ether had actually become "music of the spheres." Was the proprietor obliged to take out a pedlar' s license - or a Post Office one - I wonder? This suggests that at no distant date sea-side loungers may possibly carry down to the beach, in addition to luncheon-baskets, spades and pails, a compact aerial rolled up like an umbrella, and, idly reclining, listen drowsily to the music of five Continents.
    German bands existed, but were not numerous. They [-64-] rarely counted more than three performers, one of whom accented every bar with a porn-porn on a big wind instrument. "German band was an expression of contempt in those times, so little promise of this latter- day exaltation of Deutscher music was there in their performances. When they tried English airs it was generally to misinterpret them.
    While on the subject of music the ballad-singer must claim attention. He was English enough, although usually a very shabby person not of the highest class of education. He was great at public executions, being always present and prepared with a woeful ballad writ to suit the crime under expiation. But in our neighbourhood he was a star most often visible on Saturday evenings, when he planted a wooden frame - sometimes it was a clothes-horse - covered with ballads hung on horizontal strings, at street corners, and attracted a crowd by singing some well-known ditty with force and emphasis. He sold copies of the words, never, I think, of the music, printed on long strips of coarse paper at a halfpenny or penny, I forget which, and never wanted for custom.
    The popular songs of the 1850s were, no doubt, often silly and vulgar and contained but little wit as it is understood to-day, but they were frequently set to melodies which, though simple, crudely harmonised, and dreadfully inartistic according to modern standards, had plenty of go and possessed the faculty of sticking to the memory. Many of them terminated in a nonsensical chorus of "Fol de-lol" or "Doodledum-day," but that practice was fast dying out. The Postman's Knock, already quoted, was one of the best. Then there were Beautiful Star, Villikins and his Dinah, Up and Down the City Road, Billy Barlow, The Ratcatcher's Daughter, Alonzo the Brave, some of which are not dead yet, sixty years later. The Crimean patriotic song Red, White and Blue was heard everywhere.
    Words and music, both the work of Mr. D. J. Shaw, were picturesque and bursting with enthusiasm. It passed through many editions and for a long series of years was as [-65-] truly a national hymn as God save the King or Rule Britannia. But, in view of what has happened since to-
        "Britannia, the Pride of the Ocean,
        The land of the brave and the free,"
I am sorely afraid that sarcastic queries might justly be written against every line of the poetry, and that Shaw's discontented ghost must be looping the loop somewhere in the azure welkin in very rage - although I hope not, as I believe he was a parson - at the hauling down of his precious Red, White and Blue, and the jettisoning of Britannia's trident by the nerveless hands of the modern politician. One of the couplets refers to the entente cordiale of the Crimean days: it runs:
        "May the French from the English ne'er sever,
        But staunch to their colours prove true!"
    Shaw's song is still very much alive to-day, for in the United States it has been adopted as a sort of national paean, and is believed by many Americans to be of strictly native origin. The words have been altered to suit the new role, but the refrain of "Red, White and Blue" is retained as descriptive of the Stars and Stripes.
    In 1898 I steamed into New York in the Cunarder Umbria just as the American fleet was returning from the Spanish War. Many pleasure craft were afloat to receive them, and one steamer with a walking beam and high-pressure engine accompanied us for some distance, a band on board playing Red, White and Blue. Naturally Britishers took that for a decidedly graceful compliment until Yankee passengers informed us that it was an American national hymn, and wouldn't be persuaded to the contrary!
    A young gentleman from Yale was even highly indignant when informed that the tune of the Star-spangled Banner was English also, while Yankee Doodle laboured under a strong suspicion of being Irish. And as the Americans have likewise adopted the air of God Save the King for their My Country 'tis of thee, the compliment to English music seems fairly complete from the American side.
    [-66-] But it is right to state that in the 1850s many of Uncle Sam's productions were favourites in England, such as Nelly Gray, Swanee River, Old Dog Tray, Wait for the Wagon, I'm off to Charleston, Cottage near a Wood, Old Kentucky Shore. Some of these were, no doubt, due to British musicians domiciled in the West, but they were known and acknowledged as American or American negro.
    About 1860 came Stead with his Perfect Cure, which raged through the land like an influenza. We have had a lot of musical education since then, but what modern composition has rivalled the renown of that to-all-appearance silly production? In later years it was stated that this popular performer was a relative of Mr. "Pall Mall" Stead.
    The music of to-day is no doubt superior to the old in the artistic sense, but it does not appeal to the masses in the same degree. Folk-songs, the infantile musical lispings of a nation, were, and are, always simple; and they take their form and tone from the mentality of the people from whom they spring. They accord with their peculiar mode of thought; they are the prentice voice. Substitute something infinitely more scientific and the target will be missed. What elaborate symphony could compensate a Switzer for the Ranz des Vaches or the Scot for Scots wha hae ? Where is the latter-day composition, highly wrought after the modern German method, that equals many of the old English ballads for pathos and force?
    I say "modern German" because the old German songs were both simple and touching. At the Frankfort-on-Main Exhibition of 1891 a choir sang native folk-songs to the British electrical engineers one evening after dinner, to the admiration of us all. The tenor was a fat schoolmaster who took himself very seriously, and some of his colleagues didn't look very musical from the outside, but they scored.
    The fact is that very technical music is an acquired taste. Education in refined musical methods vitiates the original natural inclinations. It is like a stimulant or a drug that ceases to take effect except in increased doses. The result is that British composers trained exclusively on scientific German lines succeed in pleasing their compeers only and [-67-] are treated with indifference by the masses. In the old days English musicians kept pace with national requirements and aspirations. Three years ago Gay's Beggar's Opera was revived and astonishment was expressed that such a wealth of beautiful English music existed in 1728. The Daily Telegraph (June 7, 1920)  called it, "lovely, irresistibly-fresh melody." And witness the Napoleonic wars, with their opulence of naval and patriotic minstrelsy, Hearts of Oak, Tom Bowling, Death of Nelson, and scores of others; and the brief Crimean War as already cited.
    What, to compare with these, did the mighty struggle of 1914-8 produce? Tipperary! Not one song or composition that has caught the national taste and lived even for one year! And yet music rolled unceasingly from the publishers' printing-presses. Technically, much of it was probably better than that of 1800 and 1850, but it was of a kind not "understanded of the people" and consequently failed to catch on. Before the war the London County Council tried to "educate" the people musically by appointing a German controller for their bands who tabooed all but "high-class" music, and on one occasion, I remember, took credit in his annual Report for excluding from the Parks Swanee River and all tunes like it.
    Even in music-hall ditties the same phenomenon obtains. Popular songs, such as were chorused by whole audiences and survived for years as street ditties, are no longer known. The new airs lack character, distinction and energy. The best of the old Lions Comique couldn't have made them go. Their authors suffer from over-education.
    Yet another Victorian street exhibition was the Happy Family, examples of which I remember dimly even from my Islington days. They had a general resemblance and consisted of a large wire cage occupying nearly hail of a handbarrow, the rest of which was boarded over to provide a stage for the performers. The content of the cage was not constant, varying a little with the tastes of the proprietor, and, no doubt, with the availability of specimens, but nearly always contained a dog; two cats of distinctive [-68-] appearance; half a dozen mice of sorts; several canaries or finches, and, occasionally, a small monkey. The initial wonder was to see creatures so antagonistic by nature occupying the same apartment in apparent harmony. The performance would commence by opening the cage door and calling the cats by popular pugilistic names. They came, were invested with boxing-gloves, stood on their hind legs and pretended to spar. After a time the man would ask the dog "if he didn't see the family fighting?" He would bark a reply, and, charging out of the cage, interpose, growling, between the combatants, sometimes upsetting them far from gently. Having stopped the fight he retired wagging his tail. But the cats, encouraged by their master, set to again and were once more stopped. When this palled a little by repetition a medal was hung round the neck of one cat and a bandage tied round one eye of the other, and they were told to sit at two corners of the platform.
    Then, under their noses almost, the mice walked a tight rope carrying balancing-poles, a la mode de Blondin. A bird fired a toy cannon, and another, affecting to be killed, permitted itself to be placed in a coffin and towed away on a hearse without a sign of life till the carriage stopped at the cage door, when it revived and hopped in. The supposed murderer was executed by placing his head in a running noose, suspended from a gibbet, which another bird tightened by pulling. Then the showman, after going round with the cap, sought another pitch. The public always provided a crowd, although there was a notion abroad that such effects could only be produced by ill-treatment. Whether the Police deemed these displays obstructive or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals interfered I don't know, but Happy Families grew scarcer and scarcer. The last I saw was on the Thames Embankment by Charing Cross Bridge some time in the 1880s.
    A glass-blowing exhibition figured amongst the street entertainments of the 1860s. At a portable stall a tallish man (in a tall hat, of course) with a blow-pipe and several small pots of melted glass, probably heated by charcoal, [-69-] produced globes and various small glass articles in different colours, which lie sold to admiring crowds. Particularly he was expert in evolving masses of iridescent glass fibre, which he called silk, and for which customers never lacked. What would Scotland Yard say to that nowadays, I wonder? In many ways Englishmen are not so free as they once were. The educative value of that show must have been considerable. It stirred one to think.
    Other gatherers of public largess carried frames hung with an octave or two of small bells from place to place and thereon discoursed more or less sweet music. One of these troupes had a piebald pony which played Home, sweet home, and other simple melodies, and not badly, by striking the bells with his right hoof. Once I had the luck to find out how it was done. The bell frame had a screen or small tent behind it which got disarranged one day sufficiently to afford a peep of the interior. There was a man inside who, while his mate in front was giving the pony pats and the crowd patter, pointed with a whip, the thong of which was bent back in his hand, to each successive bell to be struck at the proper interval. The pony, seated on its haunches, faithfully followed the lead and chimed out several tunes.
    There were several street amusements of amateur origin and only annual occurrence. Jack-in-the-Green was one of these and the most pretentious. He appeared only on May 1st, Chimney-sweepers' Day. Chimneys took care of themselves on this anniversary, and if any unluckily caught alight they had to burn or have the Fire Brigade. After breakfast, Sir Sweep, with wife, family and friends sallied forth on sweeping intent, but it was of coppers and not of soot, and of pockets in lieu of chimneys. A lusty sweep - for strength and endurance were necessary for the due performance of the part - covered himself down to the boots with a circular wicker frame of beehive contour, carried on the shoulders, and terminating in a dome or pinnacle above his head. This frame was entirely concealed by green boughs and flowers, May blossoms preponderating if the season was propitious. A small window gave egress [-70-] to his gaze, but was not very obvious from without, and one seldom caught a glimpse of the perspiring countenance within. Women and girls, one to each corner, and two or three men or youths, sometimes with sooty faces, mouth-organs and tambourines, formed his escort, the females being in short dresses, white stockings and gaudy shoes, like sorry May Queens. The verdure-clad sweep pranced, twirled, jumped and capered to the music while the others danced round, imitating the ballet at the Opera as well as they were able. Sometimes a vocal accompaniment was attempted, but sweeps' voices but imperfectly resemble silver bells, and this part was seldom conspicuously successful.
    Not so the sweeping up of coppers, for the public gave generously. In a residential street almost every house sent a maid or a child with something for the bags flourished by the dusky roisterers. A survival, no doubt, of the old May Day festivities, of a time when we are told every village green had its Maypole. But in London Jack-in-the-Green has been as dead as Judas Maccabaeus for a generation or two now. He has gone with Twelfth Night, Valentine's Day, Clown, Pantaloon and Columbine, Operatic Ballet, Burlesque, King Charles the Martyr and Oak Apple Day. He claims no special requiem, but he gave London streets for a few hours what they sorely needed-colour.
    On November 5th Guy Fawkes held mighty sway. Him we have still, although in a sadly debilitated condition. Guys were then more numerous and more elaborate than they are to-day, and the public largess was conceived on a more liberal scale. As now, they were exhibited chiefly by boys, and perhaps their decline is not wholly unconnected with the insistent inquisitiveness of the modern School Board Officer.
    Another almost vanished show and levy by children greatly in vogue in the 1850s was the Grotto. At the beginning of the oyster season boys and girls collected shells of that bi-valve and built in any convenient street corner or recess a sort of domed temple in which, after dark, a lighted candle-stump was placed. Imaginative youngsters [-71-] made windows with bits of coloured glass or tinsel and often produced a pretty effect. They stood by and earnestly invited wayfarers to "remember the grotto," which a good many of them did, bestowing tokens of their remembrance in the shape of ha'pence of the realm. Why?
    Because the oyster was then very much more popular with the masses than is now the case. He was sold at the not unreasonable figure of four a penny, opened, vinagered, and peppered, from numerous costermongers' harrows and improvised corner stalls. The yearly consumption in London streets ran into many millions. Thus St. James's Day was an anniversary that obtruded itself on the public gaze yet the pedestrian was entreated to remember it, and very often did, to the lightening of his purse. In spite of the haziness of purpose I myself remembered it a good many times in defiance of all the precepts of Political Economy. Imagine Adam Smith remembering the grotto! I used to know his native place, the "lang toon o' Kirkcaldy," very well, but never detected any grottoes there.
    The only other amateur "turn" I can call to mind was the excruciating marrow-bone-and-cleaver band which, as a rule, came to life only in honour of a butcher's nuptials, when he and his bride were apt to be serenaded by apprentices and boys belonging to the craft. Some used two bones in castanet fashion, others clashed big bones against cleavers, awakening noises which sometimes possessed rhythm, but never tune. Complaints were made of the nocturnal progress of such musicians through the streets, and I imagine the police had some hand in the suppression of the rowdy function.