Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 17 - "While-You-Wait"

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WITHIN the area of my own district I am, to a greater extent than even others engaged in the work of visitation among the poor, "the man in the street." As a rule I am "on round" all the day and every day. I know, and am known to, the majority of those I meet in the street. It is my cue, so far as may be, to adapt myself to the habits and customs of the street folks, and within becoming limits to be hail-fellow-well-met with them. I am constantly "passing the time of day" with them, and am frequently addressed by some man or woman among them who has something more than "Good day" to say. Sometimes they wish to speak of their own affairs, sometimes of the affairs of others, or occasionally their object is to criticise my work. Speaking from their knowledge of the circumstances of some given case, they suggest - in idiomatic terms, and more or less emphatically - that I have left undone things that I ought to have done, or done things that I ought not to have done. It often happens, however, that some incidental matter that crops up in the course of a conversation so commenced will prove to be of greater interest than the subject originally mentioned. Such an instance was the one of which I am now about to speak.
[-240-] I was passing a "commanding corner public-house," the footway in front of which was a favourite lounging-place of sundry of the corner-men of the district, when one of the loafers, a young fellow of two-or three-and-twenty, left his companions, and, walking beside me, entered into conversation by saying - 
    "Excuse me, sir, but have you been to Smith's?"
    Well, I had heard the name before, I answered in a mildly jocular strain, and as a matter of fact had at one time or another visited a great many Smiths.
    "Right you are, guv'nor," said the young fellow, "but I was coming to that. John Smith, number one, London, wouldn't be much use, would it? but this is Ted Smith, and he is to be dug up at twenty-four B------ Street."
    I had not hitherto "dug up" that particular Smith, I answered.
    "Then you take my tip," said my interrogator; "if you ain't looked him up, you oughter."
    Very well, I replied, I would take his tip, and to that end would jot down the address at once.
    Accordingly, opening my note-book, I paused in my walk to write. Though at the moment I had not observed it, I was speedily made aware that I had come to a standstill by the window of a photographic establishment. It was a humble one of its kind, and not among those usually affected by the shop-window gazers of the district. On this afternoon, however, there was quite a large and animated group of idlers around it. Having fulfilled his mission of calling my attention to the desirability of "digging up" Ted Smith, the young corner-man joined the group, and it was hearing him suddenly "striking [-241-] into" the conversation that caused me to look up. The object of attraction in the window was an enlarged and tinted - rather too highly tinted - and handsomely framed photograph, the portrait of an elderly man wearing over his ordinary clothing the collar and scarf and badges of office of some association using such outward and visible signs of its existence and object.
    "Who is it?" asked my loafer, addressing himself more particularly to a young fellow of about his own age, evidently an out-of-work labourer, but with nothing of the corner-man stamp about him.
    "Who is it?" echoed the latter, turning a somewhat contemptuous look upon his questioner. "Why, Old Dick."
    "Old Dick ?" repeated the first speaker, still inquiringly.
    "Yes; Old Dick. Old 'While-you-wait,' you know." Then seeing evidently that the other did not know, the speaker impatiently added, "The old cobbler in S----- Street; him as has the place that used to be a coke-shed."
    "O' course it is!" exclaimed my man, his face brightening as light at length broke in upon him. "Ain't it like him too, and ain't he got 'em all on?"
    "Well, yes," assented the other; "he seems to have put his war-paint on to be took in. But he ain't the sort of customer to do that on his own account. I expect the lodge is making him a present of this likeness, or else they are having it done for themselves to hang up in the lodge."
    "What lodge? - what does he belong to?" came the next question.
    [-242-]  "Why, the teetotalers; can't you see?" was the answer, again accompanied by a rather withering look.
    "All right; keep your curls on," answered the loafer, quite unabashed. "I ain't up in this sort of  thing. I can see he is sporting a full-blown 'regalier' of some sort, but he might 'a been an Ancient Buffalo or a Comical Fellow for anything I know. You see, teetotalism isn't in my line ; and, if you ask me, I shouldn't say it was in yours."
    "I don't ask you," said the other; " all the same, I expect it would be better for the pair of us if it was both our lines. At any rate, Old Dick there is a teetotaler, and a good one. His lodge is proud of him, and so they ought to be; he is the best speaker they have got, by a long way."
    "How do you know?" asked his interlocutor, in a distinctively aggressive tone.
    "There is only one way to know, I suppose," the other retorted; "I've heard the other speakers, and I've heard him." And once more there was anger in the tone and look of the speaker.
    At this point the pair walked away from the window, and accompanying them much as the one of them had accompanied me in the first instance, and assuming the freedom of manners incidental to outdoor life in the district, I joined in their talk.
    "Whose portrait was it you were looking at? - what is his name, I mean?" I asked, addressing myself to the young man who had been looking at the photograph when I had paused to make the entry in my note-book.
    "I'm blessed if I know," he answered after a pause, [-243-]  and looking first surprised and then amused at the discovery of his own ignorance upon the point. "Of course he has a name," he went on; "but, now I come to think of it, I never heard it. Everybody calls him just Old Dick ; leastways, unless they speak of him as 'While-you- wait,' but that is only along of his trade. Nowadays you see in lots of the big shoe-shop windows a printed notice, 'Repairs While You Wait.' Well, when he sees one of these bills the old man says - he has a lot of odd sayings - 'That is my thunder,' which he means it was his original idea. He had it in his window in writing years before the bills came to be printed; and there is no mistake about his being a while-you-wait trade, for there aren't one in a hundred of his customers as ever has more than the one pair of boots at a time. That is why he is sometimes called 'While-you-wait,' though you oftener hear him spoken of as Old Dick. Not that he is so very old either," he continued reflectively; "about sixty, I should say, but still upright and down-straight, and sound as a bell. He could give most of the young 'uns a start and a beating in the way of a day's work, and when the day's work is over he'll do his six miles out and home as a summer evening stroll, or in the winter knock off a rattling speech."
    "You have heard him speak?" I said.
    "Yes," he answered. And though he directed his conversation to me, he now spoke at our companion. " It was this way. One night I was passing the temperance hall, when I sees on the wall a written bill with 'Come and have a glass' upon it. This is a rum start, thinks I to myself; and seeing a lot of others going in, [-244-]  I went in too. It turned out it was Old Dick who was the leading speaker for the night, and when he steps on the platform, 'Come and have a glass,' says he, quite quiet like, just as if he had met a mate. That was his text, as you may say, and he went round it like a cooper round a cask. 'Come and have a glass,' he says; 'that is how you working men salute each other when you meet. You think that is good-fellowship; and there being always in this blessed England of ours a public-house at hand, you turn in and have a glass. There you find other friends having a glass, and it is, 'Won't you join us?' Presently it is, 'We'll have another;' then, 'It is my turn next,' and 'My turn next,' and 'Just one more,' and 'I haven't stood a round yet,' and so on. You not only have a glass, but a number of glasses, and while you are having them, while you are wasting your time and money and health in the glare and glitter and riot of the public-house, perhaps the wife or child of some one of you is waiting and watching in the cold and darkness without-watching for the husband or father who isn't man enough to keep watch upon himself, who is spending in drink what ought to go for food, or firing, or clothing for his wife and little ones. Or if he happens to be a fellow who is earning good wages, and tells you that his family don't have to go short of necessaries because he takes his glass, if he is only spending on drink what he ought to be putting aside for a rainy day, then he also happens to be one of your pot-valiant sort. When he is turned out of the public-house at closing time he is likely to get himself into the hands of the police if some member of his family is not upon his track to save him [-245-] from his drunken self, to tell people not to heed him, that he does not know what he is saving or doing, that he is drunk. After glassing in the public-house at night you wake in the morning too late or too ill to turn out, and so lose a morning quarter; and, of course, the lost wages for the lost quarter have to be added to the price of your glass. More than this, when times of bad trade set in and workmen are being discharged, your drinking, quarter-losing hands are always among the first to have to go. And when you are out of work, how is it then ? Why, it is still a case of 'Come and have a glass.' Never 'Come and have the price of a loaf,' or of a sack of coals, or anything of that kind that your wife and children could share. No, it is 'Come and have a glass,' and you go and have a glass, and perhaps two or three or more glasses. Then with the drink aboard you go to look for work, and managers or foremen see that you are a 'Have a glass man,' and you miss employment that otherwise you might have got. You've heard of the saving about people paying dear for their whistle. Well, the drink is many a working man's whistle, and if they would only reckon up how much it cost them one way and another, they would find they paid very dear for it indeed. Take my advice, never ask any one to come and have a glass. To do so is not the act of a friend, but of an enemy. And if any one asks you to come and have a glass, 'No, John; no, John,' that's what you must say, John. That is about how the old man put it," concluded the young fellow, evidently proud of his effort of memory.
    "Good boy, Johnny, go up one; you've got it all off [-246-]  like a book," exclaimed the loafer sneeringly, by way of comment.
    "Yes, I've got what he said pat enough," answered the other, "though as yet I have not had the pluck to act upon his advice. While-you-wait is the sort of speaker that rubs in what he has to say. It knocks you hard, and you may not like it, but you can't get away from it, and you can't forget it. If you think you can pick holes in his speeches, you go to the hall one night and have a try."
    "Not me," said the corner-man.
    "You know better," said the admirer of "While-you- wait;" "as far as sense and argument go it would be a case of send for the coroner ; the old man would make mince-meat of you."
    He spoke with scornful emphasis, and turned on his heel as he finished, while the loafer, not being ready of wit, could think of no better retort than "Garn!" as he too turned to lounge back to his favourite corner.
    From what I had thus heard of him I was anxious to make the acquaintance of the eloquent cobbler, and a few days later an opportunity to do so presented itself. I was visiting a family that was chronically in distressful circumstances owing to the drinking habits of the father, an unskilled labourer, who, however, had regular employment if he cared to apply himself regularly to it. On the occasion here in question he had been "on the drink" from Saturday to Tuesday, the day of my visit. He had spent the greater part of his week's earnings in drink, the wife having only been able to capture a few shillings, which had gone to her landlord, with whom she was in [-247-]  arrears of rent. As a consequence she and her children were in sore straits. A seven-year-old little girl was trotting about the house barefooted, and referring to this and speaking to the mother, I remarked, "I suppose you have had to 'put away' her boots?"
    "Well, not exactly," answered the mother; "they were not in a condition to be put away. All the same I might say they are in pawn. I had sent them to 'While-you-wait's' to be repaired, and he won't part with them because I can't pay his charge. He is a very kindhearted old man in a general way," she added, "but he is strong against drink, and he knows why it is that I can't pay."
    It was of this incident that I made use to introduce myself to "While-you-wait." Being regarded, as lie evidently was, as a "bit of a character," I took as a matter of course that he should be known by a nickname - the unvarying penalty of (local) fame in my district. As already mentioned, the old man's place, his workshop and dwelling combined, had originally been a coke-shed. It was snugly situated at the rear of a chandler's shop, and you only came upon it after passing through a winding passage. The cobbler, who was a "handy man," had greatly improved the original structure of rough "slab" wood.
    The inner walls were match-boarded, and in winter time were further fortified with neat hangings of rush matting. A seven-foot-high partition divided the workroom from the bachelor living and sleeping apartment. On the workroom side of the partition were hung a couple of well-filled bookshelves, and a row of "lend-[-248-]ing out" boots - boots well worn, but still serviceable, which were lent for the day to customers who otherwise would have to lose work while their own boots were "laid up for repairs." Beside the work-bench there was another for the accommodation of waiting customers, though customers were not always the only persons to be found in waiting.
    Numbers of those who were upon sufficiently intimate terms to do so would come and spend a vacant hour in his stall, the more especially as he took in a daily paper, which lay about at the service of callers. The old man rather encouraged this dropping in at will upon the part of his acquaintances. It was no hindrance to him, he had accustomed himself to "whistle and ride," work and talk, and was always eager to seize upon any opportunity to improve the occasion with respect to his favourite topic of temperance. He could have boasted, had he been given to boast, that his habit of' improving the occasion had not been wholly vain. In his cobbler's stall his word in season had won to the side of temperance some whom platform eloquence and open-air demonstrations had failed to bring in. Much of this of course I learned later and by degrees.
    On the day of our meeting I found Old Dick a vigorous-looking old man - tall and thin, but wiry and muscular and straight. He had a well-shaped head, and his features, though perhaps not "well-cut," were redeemed from mere homeliness by their intelligent and resolute expression. As he looked up from his work on my entrance I saw that he knew me, so without any formal self-introduction, I bade him good-day. and said that I [-249-]  had called to see him on a small matter of business - about little Annie H-----'s boots.
    "If you have called about them simply as a matter of business," he answered - "if, that is, you have come to pay for them and have them sent home - why, so it must be. At the same time, if you will excuse me saying so, I think that you would be making a mistake to do so. There are circumstances under which it may in the end be profitable to those concerned to act to some extent upon the principle of being cruel to be kind. Not that I think any actual cruelty need be involved in this instance. It will do the child no harm to patter about the house barefooted in this warm weather, while her having to do so for a day or two may make some impression upon the father. You can sometimes get at a drunkard through his children when all other means have failed."
    "Only sometimes, unfortunately," I said.
    "Well, yes, only sometimes," he agreed; "in but too many cases your drunkard is proof against any and every form of appeal - will sacrifice wife and child, home, good name, everything to the accursed thing. In this connection the best you can say of them as a class is on negative lines. As a rule they won't try to prevent you attempting to save their children from following in their footsteps. I speak from some experience upon this point, for I am one of the oldest recruiting officers for our Bands of Hope."
    Continuing the conversation, I said that I had a few days previously fallen in with an enthusiastic admirer of his eloquence.
    "I won't say anything about eloquence," answered the [-250-] old man calmly, "but I know what I am talking about. I am always in earnest, and I speak from an assured position. When I tell an audience that my aim is to put down drink, they cannot throw the old joke at me, and bawl out that I have put down a good deal of drink in my time. I have always been a total abstainer, have never in my life tasted intoxicants. None the less, I might say I had personal cause for taking up my parable against drink. I was born of drunken parents, and as a child had to tumble up as best I could in a drink-ruined home. The remembrance of what I saw and suffered in this way bred in me a horror of drink. It may be arguing from in sufficient premises, but my own experience has been a chief reason with me for having my doubts as to the drink-craving being hereditary. I don't know that the theory has ever been scientifically demonstrated, and if it is a rule, there are happily a good many exceptions to it. What unquestionablv descends from generation to generation with us is our all-pervading drinking customs - the garish public-house yawning wherever a man may turn, the practice of making drink a symbol of friendship and hospitality, of introducing it into all manner of public and private proceedings, whether joyous or sad. Our social customs and surroundings are a lure to drinking, especially among the poor, who are everywhere overshadowed by the public-house, and whose shibboleth is 'Let us have a drunk.' It is our customs, as it seems to me, that are chiefly responsible for the creation of the drink habit and the drink craving, and all the sin and sorrow and suffering that result from them. Let us get rid of the customs, which not only [-251-]   afford a means, but constitute a temptation to drink, and I think we should soon hear very little about heredity in the matter of drunkenness.
    On this and some other points in connection with the great drink question "While-you-wait" holds distinctive views, and his opinions are always worth considering, for he is not only a speaker, but a thinker. Like most of the unattached workers for the "elevation of the masses," who are themselves in and of the working classes, he carries special weight with those classes, and will sometimes succeed where other workers, though equally earnest and energetic, may fail. He has done much good work in his day, but few realise more clearly or sadly than does he how much of the work to which he has devoted himself remains to be done. He is firmly persuaded that, bad as is the existing position in regard to the drink question, it would have been much worse but for the efforts of the army of temperance.
    At the same time he does not blind himself to the fact that our drinking customs show little sign of abatement, that our annual drink bill tends rather to increase than diminish, and that its amount is still a measure of the prosperity of the working classes of the country. But the old man is not without hopefulness. "I shall not see the promised land even from afar," he will sometimes say, "though it is borne in upon me that it lies beyond. If we who have been delivered from the bondage work and pray without ceasing, our efforts will in the end be crowned. Though we of the old brigade shall not live to see it, there will yet be a sober England, an England in which the demon of drink will be chained, an England [-252-] less sinful, less miserable, and more God-fearing in proportion as she is more sober."
    7Meanwhiile old "While-you-wait" bears himself bravely in the good fight against the great evil. His name is familiar as a household word within those among whom line lives and moves. He is beloved by those he has been instrumental in bringing out of the deeps, and admired and respected by those who, like the young fellow who first spoke of him to me, appreciate his counsel, even though they have not been wise enough to act upon it. In these latter cases, however, it is to be hoped that the seed has not all fallen upon stony ground, but that the good this humble but able disciple of temperance has done may live after him.