Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXVII - A Brood of Mudlarks

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A FACTORY, the newspapers say, has been  started for the extraction of grease out of Thames mud-grease to be exported to Holland, and thence brought back as Dutch butter. Whether any poor Londoners do really get their butter from the river's slimy bed I cannot state, but there is a little army of poor Londoners who pick their bread out of those steaming mudbanks. As the tide goes down bent old men and women, and little old-faced boys and girls, drop from the stairs, on which they have been waiting, and scatter themselves over the slime, to wade and pry, and pounce like swamp-birds.
    In one of my river-side districts I had opened a little school in a lane leading down to the water, and into it I tried to entice the little mudlarks of the neighbourhood. It was not, however, until I opened it as a night-school that I succeeded in numbering any of them amongst my, [-323-] till then, scanty flock of pupils. They and other riverside children came readily enough then, but, as a rule, it was not to learn, the teacher told me. They liked the warmth of the room, the company they found there, and the chance it afforded them of fun in the shape of chaffing one another, and mutinously shouting down the teacher's orders. However, we managed to maintain at length some faint approximation to discipline, although to the last a scholastic martinet would have been horrified had he witnessed the free and easy ways, and the audacious pranks, we were obliged to put up with, through a fear that if we pulled even our silken reins at all tight, there would first be a general insurrection, and then a general exodus. But, as I have said, we did at last get what to us, at any rate, after our previous experiences, looked a little like order; a few of the children took an interest in their week-night lessons; and most of them were willing to come to the school by daylight on Sundays. All the mudlarks, I think, came. They told me that they did not work on Sundays, but they could give no reason why. When I first started the school I thought that the mudlarks' unwillingness to come by day in the week was simply caused by love of lazy liberty. Most children have a queer fondness for dabbling in the dirt. When you take your walks abroad in far more aristocratic regions than the East End you may often see a daintily dressed little toddler slyly eluding her nursemaid's vigilance, and then hear her chuckling delight because she has been able to plunge her foot into a puddle and splash her whiloin snowy socks and plump little mottled bare legs. It was [-324-] some such love of dirt and mischief as this, I had thought, that made the young mudlarks take to the mud. I had no idea how necessary it was for them to grub about in the filthy stuff-how cold, and generally wretched, they often felt in it.
    The first real insight I got into the miseries of young mudlarks' life I obtained from a quaint trio of them, whom I took illegal possession of as they were trotting past the school door one day when I had comedown, and, as usual, found the teacher in almost solitary possession of the room. Two brothers and their little sister made up the number of my captives. They were all very ragged and dirty; they were all very lean, but there was just a hint of childhood's pretty chubbiness in the curly-headed little girl's face. A queer little 'Daughter of the Regiment' she looked, trudging along with an old fig-drum slung from her shoulder to put her findings in. Her elder brother had an old nosebag for his receptacle, the younger an old saucepan. The little girl seemed to be about five years old; her brothers about eight and seven. When I took hold of the little girl's hand, she raised a piercing scream, and her brothers, who were a little way a-head, instantly dashed back to the rescue. Up to their breasts went their little clenched right fists, backwards and forwards worked their little clenched left fists ; 'Kick his shins, Sally,' 'Bite his thumb, Sally,' they shouted. They danced around me with menacing gestures, and looks and words of contemptuous defiance, and then putting down their heads, rushed in, and assaulted me in the most vigorous manner: little Sally [-325-] meanwhile kicking like a little donkey, and biting and scratching like a cat. By a change of front, however, I contrived to cut off the enemy from the river, and then, extending my flanks, succeeded in sweeping them before me into the school-room; where, after a time, I succeeded also in making them believe that my intentions were better than they looked. No doubt Jack, the chief speaker, put a somewhat exaggerated value on the earnings they might have made had I not kept them from their work, but after all the indemnification which I had .to pay in advance to my young friends - Jack standing out for that before he would give me, or allow his brother or sister to give me, any information - was no great tax even upon my scantily furnished purse. They were in the habit of selling half a quarter of a hundred weight of coal, picked up a piece at a time, for a penny, and, therefore, a shilling to be divided amongst them for doing nothing but talk seemed a wonderful bargain to them. I found that they had no father or mother- 'Not as we knows on.' Jack remembered his father, fancied that he must have been a sailor, and that he gave money for their keep to the old woman with whom he left them when he went to sea. Neither of the other children had any recollection of their parents, and Jack could not remember his mother. 'We lives with the old cat still,' Jack went on, 'pays her for our lodgin', and grubs ourselves.' 'She's a old witch,' brother Bill interjected-' cross as two sticks. She whops Sally when we ain't by. She's afeared to when we is, cos we butts her till she's fit to bust - don't she blow, Jack?'
    'But why do you live with her if she isn't kind to you?' 
    [-326-] 'I didn't say nuffink about her not being kind,' answered Jack. 'She ain't game to whop me and Bill, and when she pitches into Sally, we sarves her out somehow. May as well live there as anywheres else, s'far as I sees. When we can't pay our lodgin', she turns us out, and we sleeps jest where we can. But we goes back when we've got the browns. Bill and me could manage, but it's cold for little Sally - dossin' out is, though we puts her in the middle, and cuddles up.'
    I asked him in what kind of places they slept when deprived of their regular lodgings.
    'Sometimes aboard the hempty coal-barges, and under a boat if it's 'andy. There's the pipes, too, when the roads is up - they ain't bad if you git one so as the wind can't cut through it. There was a old chap once when the roads was up give us a warm by his fire, and a sack to kiver us up. Down by.the Sun too ain't a bad place- where they throw the hashes. And there's the little harches behind Alfmoon Stairs - they'd be unkimmon snug if they wasn't quite so mucky - an' there's rats there, an' Sally don't like rats. All kind o' places we could doss in, if it worn't for little Sally.'
    This, however, was said in no tone of reproach. The two brothers were plainly as fond as boys could be of their little sister - the way in which she wedged herself between them during our interview showed how accustomed she was to their affectionate protection. I afterwards saw the regular lodgings of this little self-supporting family. They consisted of what was really merely a triangular cupboard without a door - a space boarded off [-327-]  from a filthy landing at the top of a filthy, crooked staircase. A mat and a singed ironing-blanket, full of holes and dropping to pieces, were literally all the furniture. The 'old witch' anxiously informed me that she charged them nothing for this kennel, and gave them the free run of her kitchen, only taking a penny or two from them for the use of her fire when coals were very dear; but the different story I had heard from the children appeared the more probable. The landlady did not look like one given to perform actions in any degree disinterested, and when she found that her professions of kindness did not meet with pecuniary acknowledgment, she changed her tone, and abused both the children and the person who was inquiring about them with most vigorous virulence.
    I am happy to say that I rescued the children from the 'old witch's' clutches. It would have been absurd to expect a poor woman like her to give the children even such lodging as she did give them for nothing. What were they to her? Only the orphans of a dead sailor who at one time paid her pretty liberally for their keep. But the woman had charged the children most exorbitantly. I will not mention the sum, because few people whose income is counted in pounds - even a very modest amount of pounds - can realize the crushingly important proportion which an expenditure of a few pence weekly bears to a weekly income of only a few pence more. The poorest of the poor are often most kindly helped by those who are a mere shade less poor, but they are also sometimes preyed upon by their next 'superiors,' as the smallest fish are gobbled by those a trifle larger.
    [-328-] In these papers I want to describe 'the poor' as they are. A poor person is not necessarily a posy of the choicest flowers of virtue, to be used as a striking contrast to a bundle of rank weeds of rich man's vice. Amongst poor people as well as rich, just as there are many very kind folks, so there are some most awful screws - and the 'old witch' was one of the poor screwers of the poor. Of course, I did not trust merely to the children's account in arriving at this conclusion. I made inquiries in various quarters.
    'I pity the pore little things, I'm sure, sir,' said one woman to me, 'but pity's about all I've got to spare 'em 'cept now and then a bit o' bread and drippin' - I've got so many o' my own. It's hard lines with the pore little things. I knows the ways o' their life, 'cos I was the same when I was a little un, and the wonder is I've growed up a honest woman. Most of the gals goes to the bad when they're children still, pore dears. It's sich a hard life, you see, sir, that they're glad to do anythink to git out of it, and nobody's told 'em it's wrong to act wrong like that. And the boys horfen grows up thieves. They're used to findin', you see, and so they gits into the abit o' findin' what ain't lost. Copper nails is about what pays 'em best to find, and they can't git a farden a pound more for dry rope than they can for wet, and so they prowls about the ship-yards, but they precious soon gits 'unted off. They'll prig coals too out o' the lighters, when they gits a chance; and when they're ashore, they're 'angin' about the streets, tryin' to pick up a penny any [-329-] 'ow. It's a bad life for a child. It's down by Greenwich I used to go out. The swells sometimes would pitch us coppers out o' the inn winders and laugh to see us duckin' our 'eads and our 'ands, an' tumblin' one another over in the slush, scramblin' arter them. There worn't much kindness in that, as I can see. It's easy to give money for your fun, and what's a handful o' pennies to a swell? If they'd remember that them they sets scramblin' was made by the same God as made them, and give 'em a chance to larn to be'ave accordin' - that 'ud be kinder, to my way o' thinkin'. Not that the swells is so well-be'aved. Some o' those Greenwich fellers 'ud come to the winders with faces as red as biled lobsters, and shout and go on so as they'd ha' been took up if they'd been common people. It were a wonder they didn't flop over into the mud theirselves. For my part I can't see much difference between folks, swells or common folk, when they've got a drop too much drink in them. They goes on in the same silly way. And if eddication's good for anythink, that's what oughtn't not to be.'
    I brought back the good woman to the little people I was inquiring about.
    'Pore little dears! The boys is uncommon good to their little sister. 'Ow they'll stand up for her, and give her the best of everythink! And she's a nice little gal, though she do cry so when she've got the chilblains. I've seed her pore little toes swollen up like little taturs. It's cold work gropin' about in the mud barefoot, when it's 'alf-friz. Them pore little things goes and stands in the [-330-] 'ot water runnin' down from Mr Grainger's works, to warm their legs up a bit. I should say there's things in it, though, that isn't wery good for chilblains.'
    Brother Jack and Brother Bill are now black-bearded A. B.'s - both of them in the Naval Reserve. The uncles, one of them home from Bombay, and the other from Callao, stood sponsors for their sister's first-born son. 'Little Sally' has grown up into a good, shrewd little woman, and is married to an honest giant, who has regular work in a timber-yard - a most affectionate and obedient husband. She manages all his affairs for him, and he regards her as quite a superior being; but her brothers still extend most patronizing protection to little Sally when they are ashore, quite unconscious of the fact that it is she now who saves them from being put upon.