Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - VIII - The Twin Crossing-Sweepers

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A CROSSING-SWEEPING in the poor parts of the East End of London is not a very valuable property on week-days. Most of the people who cross the road care little how muddy it is. There are no eccentric old gentlemen in the neighbourhood who pay five-shilling and even golden toll (as used, at any rate, I have heard, to be the case in the West End) when they condescend to pick their way over the crossing; no benevolent old ladies, whose combined pensions give the crossing-sweeper a very comfortable little income; no lazy, swellish servants, to hire him with coppers and cold fowl to post letters and call cabs, in order that their own brawny calves may still enjoy a spotless otium cum dignitate. Crossing-sweepers, locally practising their profession, are scarce in the parts I speak of on week-days. But on Sundays they make their appearance in front of the churches and the larger chapels [-66-] just before and after service. The Sunday incumbents of the two crossings that led to one of my churches, were at one time a little boy and a little girl strikingly alike in features, although the boy looked very feeble, and the girl, in spite of her poor clothing and diet, seemed a merrily healthy young puss. Some of those who had coppers to spare chose the boy's crossing when they came to church, because he looked so weak; but most gave their pence and halfpence to the girl, because she smiled so brightly and brandished her broom with so much cheerful vigour. Both the children were very well-behaved, and, poor as their dress was, they managed somehow to make it look tidy. They were not exactly 'pretty children,' but still their faces were very different from the jumble of flat features, lighted only by low cunning, which is the general type of countenance amongst our poor little 'street Arabs.' They differed from the ruck of street children strikingly in another respect. As soon as the single bell had ceased to toll, they left their brooms in a corner of one of the porches, and stole into church, dropping side by side into one of the obscurest free seats. (What a pity it is, by-the-by, that so many of our churches in poor neighbourhoods have only single bells, which clank as monotonously as the factory bells which the dwellers in such places hear every week-day, instead of at once soothing and cheering them as a Sunday peal of bells soothes and cheers when it rings out like a chorus of angel voices !) 
    Sunday after Sunday, when I passed the little crossing-sweepers on my way to church, I determined to make inquiries about them, but it so happened that for some [-67-] weeks they escaped my memory as soon as Sunday had passed. One Sunday morning I missed them from their accustomed post. A bent old man, almost muffled from view in a threadbare, greasy, many-caped drab great-coat, was ply ing the broom in their stead. I asked him if he could tell me what had become of the children.
    'Boy's bad, an' the gal's a-nussin' of him.'
    'Where do they live?'
    'Them an' me lodges together in a harch, an' the gal says to me, "Fred can't go, Ginger, an' I'm agoin' to stay along with him to-day  -so you take my broom, an' go down to our pitch afore the new church - it's a pity some un shouldn't git the browns. So I've come, but bless ye, sir, I don't mean to keep all I gits. They shall have their whack, as they've a right. You'll please to remember the sweeper, sir?'
    I asked h im if he would pilot me after service to thesingular joint lodging of which he had spoken. 'Ye're not agoin' to blow on us, sir?' he cross-questioned, glancing up sharply. 'Ye see, we've got it rent free, an' though it ain't used for nothin' else, them as the place belongs to might turn us out if they knowed there was any one in it.'
    There is a network of railways in the East End now, but at that time the Blackwall - the trains drawn by a rope that ran over wheels - was the only East-End line. In the upper portion of one of its arches, that had been boarded up for use as a stable and hayloft, but had not been long tenanted in that capacity, the old man and the children resided.
    'I hain't been there so long as them,' said the old man, [-68-] as we walked back together. I'm a finder by trade, if ye can call it a trade - pick up rags, an' bones, an' metal, and sich; an' one night I come back dead beat, for I 'adn't had nothin' to eat, an' 'adn't found nothin' to speak on. neither. I sot down by that there railway harch, an' felt as if I could blubber, hold as I be. It was a good step yet to the place where I was a-lodgin' then, an' there wasn't anythin' for me to eat when I did git back. Well, jist then up come them two children, wi' their brooms over their shoulders. They work a City crossin' a-week days, an' only come to yourn a-Sundays, cos it's handy like, an' the City's empty a-Sundays. "What's the matter, old man?" says the little gal. "I'm tired, says I." "Come in an' ave a rest," says she. "That'll be better than settin' out 'ere in the rain." The rain was comin' down; but I was so tired, I should like to ha' gone to sleep there. So up they took me to the loft where we're all a-lodgin' now; an' when they found out I was 'ungry, they give me some o' their grub. "If you've no objections, I'll turn in 'ere tonight," says I; an' I did. Both on 'em said their prayers, afore they turned in. It made me feel ashamed like - I was layin' awake watchin' on 'em. "That's good children," says I. "I'd ha' done it myself, if I 'adn't been so tired but now I'll say 'em in bed." An' I did say 'em, sir, an' I've gone on saying 'em, an' so has the children. Presently says I, "Would you mind if I was to come an' doss 'ere?" They says "No," an' I says "Good-night, then," an' they says "Good-night," and we've lodged together ever since. Sometimes I helps them, an' sometimes they helps me, accordin' as we've got on. Poor dears, they wouldn't be [-69-] crossin'-sweepin', if they'd their rights. Their father was a doctor, sir ! Don't it sound strange? They don't speak agin' him more than they can 'elp; but I can make out that their father was a bad sort, though he were a doctor. He'd 'ave let 'em run wild, if it 'adn't 'a' been for the mother, an' she died afore the father, an' when he died, there was nobody to take care on 'em. As I can make out, they was left alone in the house after his buryin' without anythin' to eat, an' got skeared, an' come out to see what they could do for theirselves. I s'pose it was thought as they'd friends to look after 'em by them as seed to the buryin' - I can make out there was no friends at the buryin', an' I guess the doctor chap had tired out his friends, axin' em for money an' sich like. I know a son o' mine tired out me, or I shouldn't ha' been where I am now, an' I don't expect that doctors an' sich is much different from sich as us when the devil gits a old on 'em. Any'ow, them two poor children turned out into the streets - it must be pretty nigh two year ago - they've been where they are goin' on for a year and more - an' in the streets they've got their livin' ever since. The mother must ha' been a good un, whatever the father were. It's wonderful the little wickedness they know, but then, ye see, they keeps theirselves to theirselves - that's why they come to the harch - an' God knows I wouldn't lead 'em wrong. It seems 'ard, though, that nothin' can be done for 'em - that it do. Both on 'em can read very pretty. Whenever I see a scrap o' print, I pick it up to keep 'em in practice. Their way o' talk is pretty, too. In course they've picked up some o' the words they've heard, but they don't say [-70-] 'em so sarcy as the other children. I don't mind their callin' on me Ginger, though who it was fust give me that name, or what reason they 'ad, I can't make out. There ain't much o' ginger about me, as I see. But, law bless ye, sir, I don't mind it from them; an' I calls them Fred an' Em'ly, an' we gits on as if we'd knowed one another all our lives.'
    'That's our harch, sir,' the old man said presently, pointing to one that was secluded, although with houses almost touching it. There was no thoroughfare past it, and no near window gave upon it. The old man opened a door cut out in the stable-gates, and motioned me to enter. In the four corners of one of the stalls lay four little heaps - of dark rags, of comparatively light rags, of bones, and of old metal (the last subdivided into rusty iron and more precious metallic waifs). 'I does my sortin' down 'ere,'  Ginger explained.' I ought to ha' got rid o' them by rights yesterday - there ain't so much on 'em - but I was too tired to stir out when I got back, an' I never does business a-Sundays. I don't call this business' - pointing to the broom -  'what I've took at the church is for the children. Manners is manners,' he added apologetically, as he pushed before me, when I was about to mount the ladder that led to the loft; 'but they might be skeared if they see you fust.' When he had reached the top of the ladder, I heard a jingling splash of coppers. 'There, I hain't done so bad,' cried Ginger; 'an' what dye think? 'ere's your parson come to see you. Come up, sir. Mind how ye come, though. Stretch your foot over them two rungs - they're rotten.' 
A little mouldy hay and straw had been left in the loft by the former tenant, and two or three tattered sacks. It is no exaggeration to say that these were its chief furniture. The articles which the incoming tenants had brought in with them, or subsequently acquired, might all have been put into a not very large carpet-bag. On a hay-and-straw-and-sacking bed lay Fred, with Emily squatted on the floor beside him - arrested by my coming, in the gleeful counting of the vicariously earned coppers which she had commenced. Both the children were rather shy at first, but they soon - Emily especially - got at home with me. What they told me, in reply to my questions, tallied with what I had heard from the old man. They both, however, gave old Ginger more credit than he had given to himself; and though they had plainly no awe of the old fellow, and Emily made open fun of him before me, they seemed to look upon him as a kind of protection. It was touching to see how fond the children were of each other. Emily wanted to make out that Fred did all their work, and Fred, rousing himself from his sickly languor, startled me by shouting, 'That's a lie. Em's worth two of me.' I had a Testament, and tested Emily's reading powers with it. 'Oh, that is nice! I remember all about that,' she cried, when she had finished, very creditably, the dozen verses I had pointed out. 'Ginger's very kind - he always brings us home something to read when he can. There was half a Lloyd's he brought home last night, and there's a pretty bit in it about a little girl and a canary and a scarlet geranium; and the canary dies, you know, and the little girl buries him under the [-72-] scarlet geranium, because he liked to perch on it. Ma used to have a canary, don't you remember, Fred? I read some of that to Fred, but he thought it wasn't Sunday reading, so I picked out this, because it sounded like a sermon; but he didn't like it, and I didn't like it. Perhaps we could have made it out better if there had been a head and a tail to it.' She handed me a crumpled, charred tract, which had evidently been twisted up for a pipe-light. Great was Emily's delight when I told her she might keep the Testament. 'We can go over them all now, can't we, Fred?' she exultingly exclaimed. 'The little children, and the good Samaritan and his donkey, and everything. We used to read them to mamma of a Sunday evening, when papa was out,' she added in explanation. 
    Whilst we were talking a train rumbled overhead. The reverberations which it caused were new to me; I could not help giving a little start, and Emily could not help giving a little laugh. 'You behave yourself, Em'ly,' growled Ginger, who felt that he had somehow dropped out of the leading position due to his age. 'It's a queer sound to them as ain't used to it, an' to them as is. You young uns are snorin' like anything when they goes over at nights, but sometimes I'm a-layin' awake, an' sometimes they wakes me, an' any'ow it ain't pleasant to 'ave that tumble- tumble right over ye - as if the Last Day 'ad come, an' the skies was a-droppin'-in. If a train was to come down on ye, ye'd larf on the other side o' yer mouth, Em'ly.'
    The children, when asked whether they would not like to make their living in some other way than by crossing-[-73-]sweepings - some way more congruous with the opportunities which their father seemed to have thrown away for them - were not half so anxious as Ginger was they should be, to avail themselves of the chance of 'bettering themselves' which my words held out. 'We don't do bad,' said Emily, 'when Fred's up, and he'll soon be up again, and we shouldn't like to be parted, and we're used to Ginger. He isn't such a bad old chap, though he does growl sometimes as if he'd snap your head off.' 'I don't want to get rid on ye,' retorted Ginger, 'but if ye won't give up crossing-sweepin', when ye've got the hoffer, ye're sillier than I thought ye was, Em'ly.'
    There was food in the loft, I saw, and money to buy more - such as it was. Fred, moreover, did not seem to be what is called 'dangerously ill.' But those two children getting in love with the hard street life and railway-arch shelter they shared with the old man, who was so fond of them in his grumpy way, clung to my memory long after the little door in the stable-gates had been closed behind me. It might be impossible to help the old man - however much one might wish to give him a helping hand - but surely something might be done for his young fellow-lodgers.
    The next day I went to the arch with the clergyman to whom I was giving temporary partial assistance. He remembered the name of the children's father. The 'doctor' I found had been one of those medical men, numerous in poor neighbourhoods, who also keep druggists' shops. My friend also remembered and respected the character of the doctor's wife, and was startled to find that her children [-74-] had for months been crossing-sweepers in front of his own church. When we mounted the ladder Emily as well as Fred was in the loft. She had raced in from her City crossing to see how he was getting on, and was giving him a drink of water: looking very scared because he talked so strangely, and stared at her as if he did not know her. The violent cold which he had taken had ended in fever, and the first thing to be done was to get him into the Fever Hospital. I cannot remember now whether it was the old building or the present one in the Liverpool Road, but I do remember that Ginger used to find time once or twice a week to trudge northwards and sit with his young friend. Whilst her brother was in the hospital my friend took Emily into his own house, he had children of his own, and was, therefore, naturally unwilling that she should visit Fred; but she fretted so that, fearing she would otherwise break away, my friend went with her to the hospital long before he thought it was prudent for her to visit it. No harm came of the visit, but it was not until months had passed that he ventured to tell his wife of it.
    Admission into the Orphan Asylum at Clapton was eventually obtained for both the children. The night before they started for their school my friend invited Ginger to take tea with them at the parsonage. Its pill-box parlour was no gilded saloon, but Ginger looked so aghast at the idea of sitting down on a carpet and in company with two parsons and a parson's wife, that the latter object of his dread considerately proposed that he and his young friends should have their tea alone together in her husband's uncarpeted study. The books it held were not many, but [-75-] they impressed Ginger with awe. 'Ah,' he half-sighed, 'you won't want me to pick up bits o' print now, Miss Em'ly an' Master Fred.' When they were bidding their old friend good-bye the children said he must often come and see them at the Asylum. 'No,' answered Ginger. They wouldn't let me if I wanted, an' I shouldn't want if they would. You've got your rights, thank God, an' are a-goin' to be brought up respectable, an' I ain't a respectable sort. I shall miss ye both - we got on uncommon well when we was much of a muchness - but, law bless ye, ye'll soon be ashamed to think ye ever lived with sich as me. I s'pose there ain't no lor, though, agin' my takin' your crossin' of a Sunday if I can git it, an' the gen'lemen 'ere 'ave no objections. I shall be lonesome of a Sunday now with nothin' to do, an' I can go to church all the same, an' it'll seem, some'ow, as if ye 'adn't quite gone up in a balloon like.'