Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XVIII - Hugging Rags

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STREET-TRADING is not the mode of industry I should select for a London child compelled to earn its own living - if only (a mocking condition in hundreds of cases) it could find anything better to do. Street-life is not civilizing. Those bred to it can rarely settle down, when they can get the chance, to what persons accustomed to home and within-walls labour would think far more comfortable callings. Sometimes they become vagabonds in the moral sense, and they are almost sure to become vagabonds in the etymological sense. They like to be free to rove or rest according to their pleasure. They prefer 'chancy' profits to fixed wages; if to-day's take is bad, they comfort themselves with the thought of 'better luck to-morrow.' Permanent shelter, associated with confinement, makes them feel, in their own phrase, 'choked like.' In spite of these nomadic tendencies however, laziness [-198-] is not a charge which can be brought against the street-sellers of London. The miles they walk, the hours they stand, the shouts they utter, and often the heavy weights they push or pull or carry, make such an accusation ridiculous. The vast majority of London street-sellers work hard enough for their living, and feel a pride in being beholden to nobody for their keep. Their honesty is not always unimpeachable, but many of them are strictly honest; and when we remember the very high places of British commerce that are defiled by dirty tricks of trade, we should be chary of casting pharisaic stones at those of the uninstructed, sorely-tempted street-sellers who do try to defraud their customers.
    It is our tramp class, whom we too often encourage by miscalled 'charity,' because we like to buy a little reputation for benevolence, from ourselves or others, cheap; because we are too indolent to make inquiries; or because we want to get rid of the bore of having a disagreeable-looking, brimstone-scented object running beside us on the pavement, or whining or bullying at our doors - it is our tramps who, par excellence (or the lack of it), form the lazily-dishonest species of the awfully large body slumped under the generic head of the London Poor. A professional thief seems almost respectable in comparison with a tramp. The trained thief has a theory that alienum is rightfully suum, and, to carry his theory into practice, he will expose himself to risk, and sometimes work very hard. The tramp's theory of the universe, on the other hand, is this - that he is to be fed and housed without any trouble to himself. He is ready to steal and [-199-] riot, when he can do so without much danger; for 'a lark' he will even risk his neck; but, as a rule, he thinks that the less he does the more society is bound to support him. Sometimes he will not even take the trouble to beg. I have seen tattered tramps lounging in Regent Street, on a fine day, with as self-possessed an air as any 'swell' upon the pavement. They had slept the night before in a casual ward; another casual ward was waiting for them; they had managed somehow to get a dinner; and so they were amusing themselves by 'looking at the shops.' A poor man who genuinely shrinks from observation because of his tatteredness is one of the most pity-moving sights that can be seen, but this lazy contentment with rags is loathsomely fearful to behold. It is a pungent satire on the philosophy and religion which make a merit of a man's learning to live on as little as he can - although, when they have the opportunity of gratifying them, tramps are by no means ascetics in any of their appetites.
    And yet, despicable as the dirty tramp may seem, sluggishly feeding on society like parasitic vermin, his is a state into which it is far easier for a once self-respecting man to sink and subside than those disposed to despise him might like to believe possible. As a contrast to some of these lives I have recorded, I will give the history of such a man. I fell in with him at the Refuge, and got him to talk pretty freely with me. Now and then he gave a professionally sanctimonious whine, in the hope of propitiating me; when he spoke of the time when he was in work, he did seem to feel a momentary touch of [-200-] shame; but a chuckle over his adroitness in making other people provide for him ran through the greater part of his narrative. He could read and write, and, though he interlarded his talk with the 'cadger's cant' he had picked up not only in London, but all over England, he otherwise spoke pretty correctly. His clothing was wretched, and he was very dirty; but there was no trace of famine in his fleshy face and form. He would not give me his real name. 'Figs' was the name, he said, he went by - why, he could not, or would not, tell. He had been apprenticed to a carpenter in Maidstone, and, for a year or two after the expiration of his apprenticeship, had earned good wages as a journeyman. 'I used to go to All Saints' of a Sunday - it's a fine old church, and I used to like to see the soldiers of a morning. They've cavalry soldiers of all sorts at the barracks, big and little, red and blue; and they used to make a pretty sight marching in and out, and clanking their spurs and their sabres when they got up and down at prayers. I was always fond of variety. Sometimes I'd go in the afternoon. There's a travellers' house on the left-hand side as you come up from the bridge. When I've seen the tramps and the hoppers hanging about there of a Sunday afternoon, and the church-going folks looking at them half frightened, I little thought I should ever be one of them; but I've had some jolly larks in that house since.'
    Work became slack in Maidstone, and after spending almost all his savings in search of it in his native town, the carpenter started on foot for London. 'Leastways I footed it to Gravesend, meaning to take the boat there. [-201-] I'd got a bundle of my clothes, and my tool basket, and a shilling or two. When I was going up Bluebell Hill, close by Kit's Coty House, that, no doubt, you've heard of; sir, I felt very down-hearted. You can see Aylesford from the hill, and there was a girl there that I was sweet upon - but that wasn't to be. A good thing for her, and for me too, I think, now. And yet if I'd got work when I came to London, I might have been different. I tried my best, so I'm not to blame, sir. I went to every carpenters' house of call I could hear of, but it was no good. No, sir, I didn't drink then, and it isn't much that I take now. I may break out now and then, but I ain't a lushington, praise the Lord. I don't see the sense of it - it ain't seeing life when you've got three parts stupid before the fun begins. Anyhow, I got rid of my clothes, and then I got rid of my tools - and then what was I to do?
    When he had just money enough left to pay for a bed, he went into a lodging-house in Keate Street, or Thrawl Street - I forget which-and there he matriculated in mendicancy. I'm used to such places now, and so long as you're warm and got your grub, where's the sense of making a fuss about a bit of dirt? But I was different then. I'd been used to having things decent about me till I came to London; and the place smelt so bad, and there was such goings on at night, that I wished myself out of it. I was getting a warm at the fire in the morning, and wondering what I was to do for a breakfast, when a chap came up to fill his pot, and says he, "What's your lay?" I didn't know what he meant, and, of course, he could see [-202-] that I was green. "Come along," says he, "and have a feed - me and my pals will stand it, though you do look as if you'd got a good twist of your own."'
    The invitation to breakfast was accepted, and before it was over the carpenter found himself enlisted by a band of lurkers - sham workmen out of work. He was one, and looked the character they personated so tellingly that they eagerly availed themselves of his want to snap him up as the show member of their company. 'I was shamefaced at first, sir - I didn't like the thought of begging - but what was I to do? I wasn't going to starve, if I knew it; and when I found how the money came tumbling in, I began to think that folks must be flats to work when they could get a deal more by not working. Ain't it reasonable, sir, for a poor man to think like that? He may work all day, and only get as much in a week as a swell will spend in a minute. It's only fair that the swells should give some of their tin to us, instead of spending it all on their greedy selves. And if they won't give it without asking, it's only doing them a kindness to ask 'em. If your story ain't' true exactly of yourself; it's true of somebody they ought to give to, but they wouldn't.'
    'Figs,' like a great many other people who have no genuine fear and love of God, had previously been kept honest simply because those with whom he mingled thought it 'respectable' to be honest. Mixed up with another set who thought it 'spoony' to be honest, he rapidly adopted their views. I've seen a deal of life, sir - that I have, in fact. There ain't many so fly to a good bit of all sorts as folks in my line. Bless you, we [-203-] read the papers, and it makes us laugh, it does, when they pity our ignorance. We could put the editors up to a wrinkle or two, I guess. I should like to get one of them into a padding-ken, without a bobby to look, after him. He'd be as helpless as a child - indeed, there's plenty of children that know a deal more of what real life is than editors. And the bobbies ain't half so knowing as the papers make them out to be. I could show them up, if I chose; but, of course, it wouldn't pay. A deal of life I've seen, and a deal more I've shammed to see. I've been all sorts of trades, and blown-up stokers, and shipwrecked mariners, with a picture of the wreck, and full particulars for them that cared to ask for 'em, and some will, but mostly it's old women it's easy to gammon. Most of my limbs I've lost down coalpits and elsewhere. I've been a wounded soldier discharged without a pension, and appealing to an indignant, sympathizing country to right its stingy, ungrateful government's wrong. And I've been a shivery-shaky, the man who couldn't get warm, as the song says; but I never took much to that, because you see, sir, it must be pretty cold when you go out to shiver. I've been all sorts of things, and have cultivated the compassion of my countrymen extensively. Where's the harm? Ain't that what you parsons try to do, sir? You should get me to preach a charity sermon for you - just as I am.'
    The cynical candour of the man's confessions astounded me, but he explained their candour with equal cynicism. 'Why, you see, sir, I soon found out that I couldn't bleed you. You haven't much blood to lose, I guess, and though [-204-] you don't know half as much about such as me as you fancy, at any rate, you have got to know us when you see us, and you've learnt at last not to trust us - and so I thought, just to take a rise out of you, I'd make you open your eyes with a bit of Gospel truth. You'll excuse my saying it, I hope, but you've a soft look, and I don't think you'd have the heart to turn me out of here tonight, even if you'd got the power, which, I believe, you haven't, so long as I obey regulations and don't make a row; and, power or no power, you'd have to send for the police - and that wouldn't look pretty in the papers, would it, sir ? - there'd be leaders about the homeless wanderer kicked out by the folks that call themselves charitable - lamentable to state, at the instigation of a clergyman-into the bitter inclemency of the wintry elements. I shan't trouble you after to-night, sir. Your  accommodation ain't to my taste, nor your grub either, and I was fool enough to think I'd get a good feed, and so I didn't bring anything in. You've done me, sir. I owe you one, I own.'
    I suppose I ought to be ashamed to say so, but I could scarcely suppress a smile at the fellow's impudent outspokenness. Of course, he instantly noticed the twitching of my lips, and went on in high good-humour:- 'You're not bad in London. Where there's such a sight of folks there must be a sight of flats. But the yokels are better. If you can't butter 'em, you can bounce 'em. The farmers, big as they are, are very timorous. They'll give a cadger, if he's only a bit cheeky, and the farm's a bit lonely, a tanner, and sometimes a bob, to get him to [-205-] move on when the day's drawing in; and how they'll watch you down the lanes-shamming not to, all the while! They're afraid their ricks will be fired, or their throats cut at night. I've slept in many a barn, for all their looking-out. It's a good game to go up to the back door of a farm-house, when all the men folk are out. The maids look as if they'd drop through the floor when you poke your head in, and "However did he get past the dog?"  you'll hear the mistress say; but we know a trick or two besides that. And then the scran you get in the country - not round near London, but when you go north'ard. It ain't dry crusts and cold fat, such as they give away in London, and think themselves very charitable for getting rid of what they can't eat; but real good stuff that it's a pleasure to eat-ham, and pies, and such like - and what you can't eat you can sell with a good conscience at the ken. And rare larks you can have at some of them country kens. Quiet little places they may be in - you'd think three parts of the folks went to bed as soon as they'd had their supper, and then lay trembling for fear the country beaks should wake 'em up to say they've some fault to find with them; but we've nice games, notwithstanding, in them quiet little cribs with "Accommodation for Travellers" up over them, as steady-looking as if the travellers were Methody travelling preachers.'
    To make the man feel ashamed of himself; I asked him how he had felt the first time he visited Maidstone as a beggar. 'Well, sir, I won't deny that I felt queer - afraid like, somehow, that I should meet myself - what used to [-206-] be myself; I mean - but I can't explain silly nonsense. Of course, I met lots of people I knew, but they didn't know me, and if they had, they wouldn't have been likely to claim my acquaintance. A cadger is better off than a king - if he wants to travel incog., he can. But it did make me uncomfortable that first time I was in Maidstone. I saw the house where I was born, and the school I went to, and the shop I worked at, and the woman's where I lodged, and they all looked so decent, that I half wished I'd never gone away. But this was the cuttingest thing - at the houses we use, they mostly put you up to the best walks to take in turn. Well, the day after I got to Maidstone, I was up pretty early. We mostly are. We ain't early to bed, but we're early to rise, and that's what makes us so healthy, wealthy, and wise. Well, when I got to Allington, I thought I'd sit down on the grass by the old castle, and have a pipe there before I went to business. Who do you think came by, sir, whilst I was sitting there? The very girl I courted at Aylesford. I knew her, but she didn't know me. When I was going to speak to her, back she ran, screeching "John, John," and up came her husband, a big quarryman, looking as black as thunder. I'd half a mind to tell him I knew his wife before he did, but then there's no use in making mischief when you can't get anything out of it; and so I said, as mild as milk, "I'm sorry I frightened the lady - I was only going to ask her for a copper to help a poor traveller, that's been sleeping under a hayrick, to a breakfast." And she gave me a penny with her own hand, and look'd right at me, sir, and yet she didn't know me - [-207-] so, you see, sir, she hadn't broken her heart about me.'
    Fancying that he was softening, I asked 'Figs' whether his brazen talk was not all bravado - whether he had not often felt ashamed of the unmanly line of life he had adopted. Can't say I have, sir. Well - yes, I did once feel downright ashamed of myself. It was at Chelmsford. The Three Queens I was stopping at, and I was going along the London Road when an old lady looked over her garden gate. There's some tidyish little houses along the London road. "Poor man," says the old lady, "you look very hungry, and as if you'd like a job." "Yes, ma'am," says I, "I am very hungry, and I should like a job." "Well, then," says she, "come in, my poor man, and I'll give you some breakfast, and then I'll give you a job." And a jolly good breakfast she gave me in her kitchen - coffee with cream in it, and as much as I liked to have of buttered toast. I'd had a good feed before I started, and so it was hard work to eat all that the old lady wanted me to - but she liked me all the better for being so modest. She kept the servant girl toasting for me till her face was as red as a brick, and "Don't spare the butter, Jane," says she, "it ain't often this poor man can get a meal." I'd hard work to keep from bursting out laughing, but I didn't. When she'd let me give over at last, she took me down to a bit of grass in her garden, and says she, "Now, my good man, I want you to roll this for an hour, and I'll give you a shilling - that's more than you've had for a week, I suppose?" (My opinions were different, but that wasn't the time to [-208-] express 'em.) "I'm sure you'll roll it well - you've such an honest face." "Thankee, ma'am,2 says I, "I hope I have. A man may be honest, though he is poor." "Of course he can," says she. "I hope you don't think I wanted to wound your feelings, my poor man. I'm going down into the town for an hour, and when I come back, you Il have finished, and I'll pay you." I clutched hold of the handle of the roller, and set to as if I was going to work like a steam-engine, but before the old lady was indoors, I was down with my back against a tree, having a pipe. I was up again at the roller, though, by the time I thought she'd have got her bonnet and shawl on. She was a neat old body, of a Quaker kind of cut, and I guessed she'd be a pretty good bit about it. But, bless you, she never looked at me when she came out - she was so sure that I was honest. I was up again by the time I thought she'd be back. She was a bit late, and so I had to trundle that confounded old roller pretty brisk for five minutes or so. Up she came running like a partridge, but I didn't take any notice of her till she was right on me. "Oh," says she, "out of breath, my poor man, I'm so sorry I've kept you waiting. And you've done it so nicely - how hard you must have been working, with your feeble frame!" Blessed if she didn't give me a bull, and advise me to put half of it into the savings' bank. Yes, I did feel a bit ashamed when I took it - I hadn't earned it anyway. I hadn't had to set my wits against hers. She'd done my business for me. The innocence of the poor old silly was downright touching.'
    I have made a chapter of these cadger-confessions just [-209-] now, because in the winter month in which I have been turning over my diary to prepare my present Episodes frightful destitution once more prevails, and is likely for some time to prevail, in the East End. Wanting every penny we can get for our genuine poor, I am more than ever anxious to warn the charitably disposed against the sham poor. Let all who have money or goods to give for the relief of their suffering fellow-countrymen, make it a religious duty to ascertain, either by personal inquiry amongst the poor, or by a strict eye kept over the agency they may select as their almoner; that their gifts really go to those who are really in want of them. Otherwise they may merely manure our already rankly rampant mendicancy, and rob the very people they wish to serve. It is a sin, and not a virtue, to scatter money for what schoolboys call a 'scramble' in a distressed district In the pauper parish, as in the playground, the sturdiest beggars, under such circumstances are sure to appropriate the bulk of the indiscriminate donation.