Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXVIII - More About the Orphan Flower Sellers

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XXVIII.

MORE ABOUT THE ORPHAN FLOWER-SELLERS.

HOP-GATHERING in a picture is a most 'idyllic' occupation. The hop-garden itself is so beautiful, that an artist who does not make it look so on his canvas must be a wilful traducer of natural beauty. The whilom stiff brown poles no longer look like ranks of giants' broomsticks. Their identity is lost in the gracefully irregular cones of glossy leaves and tassels of light-golden blossom that twine and droop around them. If you think of the prop at all, it is to fancy, as the lazy, sunny autumn breeze stirs the vine-like leaves of the bine, that the nearly smothered pole is, nevertheless, complacently murmuring- 
    'All my misfortunes are but as the stuff
    Whence fancy makes me dreams of happiness; 
    For hopss grow round me, like the twining vine, 
    And fruits and foliage, not my own, seem mine.
[-332-] The adroitest artist can only hint the deliciously bracing coolness of the autumn morning air, when the obliquely shooting sunbeams begin to drink up the dew that trembles, like drops of etherealized quicksilver, on the leaves and blossoms of the bines; or the lulling aroma that broods in a hop-garden, when its rows and bins are basking in early-afternoon sunshine. But he can make the ripe red wall, and white split extinguishers of warped weather-board on the roof of the old 'oast-house' in the background, almost as real as reality, and more eye-pleasing; and - so marvellous is the beauty-discovering faculty of Art - he can group the very rags of the hop-pickers into combinations on which the eye delights to linger. Most of the pickers, when the 'tally' pleases them, are merry-faced at hopping-time, and therefore the artist is only faithful in giving them merry faces. But how he idealizes those merry faces !-keeps the fun in them, the features often, too, without giving a hint of the too frequently filthy jest that has caused the merriment. No doubt, he is right in doing so. He has to paint a picture that will please, and even vice takes no delight in its own portrait limned without softening. More or less unconsciously, also, he may have a moral purpose in his aesthetics - though few of those who, directly, most need its teaching, may ever see his doubly-coloured sermon. Art worships Beauty; and, au fond the beauties of the body, mind, and heart are intertwined like the three Graces. The artist paints the hop-garden innocent, because he feels, perhaps, rather than thinks, that the hop-garden would be more beautiful, in every sense, if it were innocent.
    [-333-] But, when taking a rare holiday, I have helped to strip off the yellow blossoms of the hop into the canvas bins - respectfully admonished by the professional workers, whose 'tally' I was doing my best to swell as an amateur, on account of the number of leaves with which I was unwittingly vitiating it; and I have heard the talk that was going on, close at hand, over bins unaided by my amateur labours, and unawed by my professional presence - possibly stimulated into ranker impropriety thereby. I have seen the appreciative grins with which my comrades in the long double row of pickers greeted those sallies - looking very must like bubblingly-oozing bottles of stout, just at the point of bursting, in the hot sunshine, from the painful efforts which their interested sense of propriety made them make to abstain from acknowledging the same with an uproarious guffaw. I have also seen something, and have heard more from others, of the scenes that take place in and about the thronged 'hopper-houses;' and, therefore, hopping does not seem very 'idyllic' (in the modern sense) to me. The idyll is of the ancient type -hoppers talk and act like Theocritus's peasants.
    Nevertheless, I cannot help rejoicing when hopping-time comes round. The poorest poor of East End and South London slums then get their one real holiday, and, whilst they take it, gain not only health, but unwonted wages also. Their lodging, rough as it generally is, is probably not worse, either physically or morally, than what the bulk of them have been accustomed to 'at home.' If they did not go into the country, they could not escape, poor creatures, from defiling sights and sounds; and, in [-334-] the country, there is just a chance that Nature's teaching may tell upon them in some slight degree. At any rate, for a week or two, they have work that they can enjoy, and fresh air to do it in. That does not seem much to say, but it means a good deal when said in reference to those whose lot in life has been cast in the midst of the dreary drudgery and squalid misery of the stifling streets, lanes, alleys, and courts of East and South London. Down the London pickers swarm to join the local pickers, whom they terrify often - especially the Irish amongst the strangers - and, generally speaking, I am afraid, do not often edify. Some already engaged, and some on spec.; some by the South-Eastern's hopper-trains, and some by boat to Gravesend, and so, on foot, across country, to hop-begirt old Maidstone; some tramping down the whole dusty, weary way; some jolting down in fearfully overladen costermongers' carts and harrows. The provisionally hired are sometimes met upon their way by hop-growers' waggons; the others get to their quarters as best they can. And even this humble army is followed by a little swarm of lazy vultures, who have no thought of working, but mean to pick up anything that may come handy in the excitement of hop-harvest-even though taken from the scanty furniture of a hopper-house carelessly left unpadlocked.
    Queer barracks most of these hopper-houses are-long, low, red-brick lines of hovels, bedded with straw, in each of which a dozen and more of men, women, and children house' like pigs. Anyhow, the night air of the line of walled and latticed-off compartments must almost neces-[-335-]sarily be foul, but their miscellaneous tenants make it fouler by blocking up, to the best of their ability, the means of ventilation provided. The poor creatures are accustomed to foul air at night; a good many of them, no doubt, have often felt cold air blowing over them at night; but that experience is clustered around with so many dreary associations, that, when they can get the chance, they like to be warm at night, at any cost. Some hop-growers house their pickers in tents, some in extemporized structures of straw-thatched hurdle, some in the out-buildings of their farmsteads-the last not always taking proper care that the cattle-sheds are decently cleansed before their human cattle are turned into them. Common cooking-places are erected outside the barracks of all sorts. The farmers supply their casual labourers with fuel; common gathering-fires are lighted, alfresco, and round them, after dusk, the hoppers lounge, and gossip, and sing, and dance, and squabble, and fight. Near such a fire I once heard an ex-student of Maynooth - at least, such was his account of himself - warbling a Latin hymn in joyous tranquillity, like a pious lark, whilst a party of his scarcely more tattered countrymen and countrywomen were breaking, in a howling and screeching 'free fight,' one another's heads, and the head of any Saxon rash or stupid enough to venture within the jaggedly eccentric circle of the combat. The 'domestic' conditions of the hop-pickers often seem pestilence-inviting to a theorist, but they are used to such conditions, and in the country they have so much of fresh sunny air to aid them, that, as a rule, there, at any rate, they can manage [-336-] to defy what seems to a sanitary theorist their inevitable fate.
    Sometimes, however, in spite of sunny country air, pestilence does swoop down upon the hoppers - most literally with a vengeance. It is of such a time that I have to tell - as I can reproduce the story told me by Phoebe, the flower- seller, the only survivor then of the little family in which she had played, or rather genuinely performed, the part of mother. Phoebe's gravity - so out of keeping with her tender years - had struck me when I first saw her; but when she told me her story of death in the hop-gardens, the few months that had passed since we first became acquainted might have been years multiplied tenfold, so completely had she lost the merest trace of even the very little childlike gaiety she ever possessed.
    The four children had been enlisted in a little party going down to Kent on foot, but little 'Em' was to have a seat in the tiny, donkey-drawn baggage-waggon of the party. Merrily they trooped out of their East-end quarters in the early September morning. Merrily they tramped across London Bridge-the blue-guernseyed, greasy-corded fish-buyers going up and down the steps leading to crowded Lower Thames Street and Billingsgate envying the hoppers as they passed. Merrily they turned down by the red church in the Borough, and so into the Old Kent Road - the prematurely sere leaves of its stunted garden-trees all clogged with dust; and up to and over dusty, brown-burned Blackheath ; and so at last into a road that began to look like country. The blackberries in the hedges were dusty, but Harriet and Dick hunted [-337-] for them as if they had been peaches or pine-apples, and smeared their faces and fingers with the juice until they looked like jovial little cannibals. 'Em' sometimes joined them in their hunts, but poor little Em was weaker even than usual - it was chiefly for her sake that Phoebe had arranged to take her little family into the country: so little Em generally sat in the donkey-cart, supplied by Harriet and Dick with a good many more blackberries than she could have gathered for herself. As for Phcebe, she was far too staid a personage to indulge in any such frivolous pursuit as 'blackberryin',' when no money could be made out of it.
    All the party, young and old, except poor little Em, could 'pad the hoof' without inconvenience. The change from the dingy, dung-scented streets in which they generally toiled about was so great that the walking hoppers thoroughly enjoyed their country tramp; and little Em, who had only to tramp when she pleased, began to think that she must have been mysteriously metamorphosed into 'a lady.'
    The hoppers camped out that night under the donkey-cart and in a dry ditch. There were nettles in the ditch, but Dick mowed them down with such vigorous valour that even tired little Em could not help laughing. The grown-up members of the party laughed again when Phoebe called her brood around her to say their prayers before they went to sleep; but the laughter, though thoughtless, was not, for the most part, unkindly, and when Harriet and Dick appeared half inclined to mutiny, most of the elders, of whose ridicule they had stood in [-338-] dread, gruffly bade them do as they were bid. One more night the little party camped out, just outside Maidstone, on the Wrotham road; and then the chief of the party went into the town - speedily returning to conduct his followers to the work he had secured for them a mile or two beyond. They settled themselves in their compartment of the long row of hopper-houses, and then took holiday for the rest of that Saturday. Their picking was to begin upon the following Monday. Phoebe stayed at home with her little invalid, but Harriet and Dick roamed far and wide through the shady woods and sunny fields and lanes, revelling in the bright air and their freedom from the necessity of doing anything but amuse themselves. They came home very hungry to their evening meal. The kitchen fires were burning brightly. Laughing hoppers were clustered about them cooking, or sitting in knots on the little strip of green in front of the hopper-houses, taking their suppers. And then one or two bonfires were lighted on the green, and the hoppers gathered round them, dancing, and joking, and singing- almost all of them in the best of tempers. Before the next Saturday night came round, fierce, foul language and savage blows had begun to interrupt the harmony of those open-air soirees; and when the Saturday after that came round, the penumbra of the awful shadow of death was stealing with the night dusk over the little colony; but that Saturday night all was pleasurable excitement or peaceful rest upon the little green. The stars budded and suddenly blossomed into serene or trembling brilliance in the almost cloudless sky; the moon came up, [-339-] and made the smoky fires look a little less cheerful from their contrast to her silvery light; but Phoebe and Em still sat out upon the green - Em cuddled in Phoebe's motherly - almost grandmotherly - arms; each thinking, in her different way, that she had never been so happy before. Dick and Harriet, meanwhile, as happy in their way, zigzagged about in the moonlit dusk like bats - except that bats generally make no noise, and Dick and Harriet were about the noisiest people on the green. Their high spirits and Harriet's prettiness had already made them favourites in the hopper-colony. Phoebe grew anxious when she found that they did not 'mind' her as they had been accustomed to mind her in London. That was the sole drawback from her tranquil pleasure. She fussed about like a hen that wants to get its chickens to roost, when she thought that it was time at last for all of them to go to bed. Harriet and Dick were both saucy when she told them to come in, but when they saw that Phoebe was half ready to cry, and that little Em was crying, at their disobedience, they came readily enough then. One or two of their grown-up companions were already stretching themselves on the straw that formed the common bed of the compartment - one or two who were not the best of the party, and who might, perhaps, have encouraged the young truants, if they had been inclined to strike against prayers again; but Harriet and Dick, nevertheless, knelt down and began to say their prayers directly Phoebe bade them do so. She had roughly curtained off an angle of the hovel with an old shawl - almost the only impedimentum which the children had burdened the bag-[-340-]gage-waggon with. Within that little screen the little vagrant could enjoy something of the 'domesticity' she liked, in spite of her vagrancy. The children were soon sound asleep in the clean abundant straw. When all the other tenants of the hovel had rolled themselves up in their rugs, &c., and were snoring in the dim light of the lantern, hung slanting from the rough wall, - packed almost as tight as a drum of figs, the air of the hovel soon ceased to be pure, and before the middle of the next week the straw was anything but clean; but all those bed-fellows were used to rude lodging, and did not break their hearts about such trifles.
    On the Sunday morning Phoebe and her brood were allowed to get their turn at the washing-bowl pretty early by their grown-up and hobbydehoy companions, who, after their fashion, were almost all kind to the orphans, and then as the donkey-cart-owner who had engaged them 'grubbed' his party, the children were free to spend the Sunday as they pleased - so long (if they wished to get any 'grub') as they were back to the common meals.
    In spite of the numbers that had flocked into the country parish, the village church had few more worshippers than usual in it that Sunday morning. Perhaps even fewer, since some of the parishioners who had been engaged for the hop-picking had already been corrupted by the latitudinarianism of their strange fellow-workers, and, like them, preferred a snug snooze or a lazy lounge to church-going. A large percentage of the strangers were Roman Catholic Irish, and they, of course, could not be expected to go to an English Protestant church, [-341-] even though the vicar might be, as they soon learned he was, very fond of Catholics: anxious to obtain for them at any cost of money or clerical dignity (from an ultra-Protestant point of view) to himself, the spiritual consolation in their last moments which, much as they loved him and his for the kindness which he and his family bravely, self-denyingly bestowed upon all the pestilence-stricken strangers who had come within his parish's bounds, the Irish amongst them - to their grief, because they were so grateful - could not get from him. 'Ah, sure, sir-r-r, ye'll belong to the ould Chur-r-ch yit,' said an old Irishman to the vicar, when he had brought a priest with him to the old Irishman on his death-straw. I have no love for Romanism. It degrades the 'poetry' which, I think, it can rightly claim - the charm of historical continuity, and so on, and so on - by childish mummeries; and then, as it seems to me, it so terribly emasculates a man in a mental point of view. I can understand a very good man, with a sentimental bias, becoming a Romanist; but how a man like Dr Newman - mentally as great as morally he is good - a man who could logically crumple up all the OEcumenical Council in one hand, and in the other almost all its Protestant critics - how such a great man amongst great men as he could have become and can continue a Romanist, especially now when Romanism wishes to formulize into a dogma its previously floating pretension of Papal Infallibility (poor old Pio Nono infallible!) by a counting of episcopal noses, attached, in spite of their episcopacy, to not the most brilliantly-witted of pates (from whatever part of the world the episcopal sheep [-342-] may have blindly rushed, or have been painfully dogged, to baa in unison in the Papal hurdles)  - that is a mystery to me. Notwithstanding, I can well understand how the vicar brought the priest to the old Irishman to guide and comfort him in his last moments. It was only a Roman Catholic priest from whom the old Irishman would have accepted guidance and comfort then - and, after all, how much 'the voice of the Church' and 'private judgment,' in spite of their wrangling, leave in common to their respective votaries! Having relieved myself, moreover, by expressing my opinion of Romanism, I must in fairness add that a good many Protestants seem to me to exercise not a whit more 'private judgment' than the most ignorant Romanist does. He believes what he has been taught from his earliest days his Church requires him to believe, and they, with as much or as little reason, and with equal scrutiny, accept the dogmata of their churches.
    Phoebe marshalled her little troop to the village church in the morning, but in the afternoon Dick and Harriet again played truant. They professed that they would rather go to church in Maidstone, and they certainly started in the direction of its grey old church, grey, ivy-clad old palace, and grey old 'college,' with its famous hop-garden of gigantic poles, which they could see from their barracks rising above the Medway beyond the lock; bat neither Dick nor Harriet swelled the congregation of All Saints' that afternoon. They got into trouble, and were saucy when Phoebe scolded them on their late return. 'I got into a temper, sir,' poor Phoebe told me, 'an' told 'em that me and Em would git on twice as well [-343-] if they was gone for good - that none of the children was anythink but a bother to me. That made poor little Em cry, and then Dick and 'Arriet began to cry. Little did I think what was a-goin' to appen. If I'd known it then, I'd a' cut my tongue out fust, afore I'd a' said it.'
    However, the children were soon reconciled, and next morning went to work in high glee. The pickers took their stands along the lines of bins, the bines were cut, the poles plucked up and slanted against the bins, and the pickers' fingers began to strip the tall thyrsi of their grape like clusters, only resting when the tally-man and his assistants .came along with his bushel-measure, tallies, and sacks. Such standing-still work seemed so much like play to the little Londoners that it was hard for them to believe that they had been promised more a day for it than they had ever earned by their wearisome trampings through London streets. Sweet air sighed lazily about them, leaf-chequered sunlight fell upon them almost constantly; tan-sailed barges now and then noiselessly crept past the bottom of the hill, on the slope of which the children were working, and the monotonous wooden rumble of the riverside paper-mill, after a time, did not seem much more out of harmony with the calm sunshine than the gliding barges did.
    'I should like to go opping all the year round,' said little Dick, 'wouldn't you, 'Arriet?' Poor vain little Harriet tossed her pretty little head, and said that she didn't mean to go working much longer; she'd 'ave somebody as would be glad to work for her, soon's ever she was growed-up.
    [-344-] Dick and Harriet thought it great fun when the pickers in their hop-field struck. 'Eight to the shilling' had been the tally agreed upon, but, after a few hours' grumbling, the pickers suddenly knocked off work, and became so clamorous and menacing in their demands for a reduction of the tale to six, that the local pickers who had been - very willingly - forced into the strike by their cosmopolitan colleagues, grew scared at the violence of their allies, and the hop-grower began to think that he must ride into Maidstone to get a magistrate to let the commandant of the Cavalry Depot know what was going on. Such scenes terrified poor little Em. They disgusted grave Phoebe. 'What's the good of it?' she said to me. 'If the masters give in, you might ha' arned pretty nigh as much, if you'd gone on workin' without making a to-do-shoutin' and fightin' an' that, an' nobody to pay you for your time.'
    The riotous scenes which soon took place in and about the hopper-houses in the evening also terrified Em and disgusted Phoebe; whilst Dick and Harriet rather enjoyed the tumult. But on the whole - up to that Saturday I have named - grave Phoebe was quietly comfortable in the hop-fields; although she could not help feeling rather anxious when she found that little Em grew no stronger, and was mortified, as well as honestly grieved, at discovering that Dick and Harriet were becoming less amenable to her motherly discipline.
    When the hoppers left London, cholera was raging in it. There were streets in and about Shoreditch and St George's in the East through which people who did not belong to them did not care to pass, or if considerations [-345-] of time and fatigue did compel them to take such routes, they shunned the footpaths with their foul-breathed doorways and court-entrances, and took the roadway, as in the old plague-times, avoiding jostling with those they met in a space-wasting way that was strange on the part of bustling Londoners, who generally look as if they were running a race for their lives against Time. These were dodging a race for their lives against Cholera. Fruit and vegetables were very plentiful that autumn: but greengrocers and costermongers and street-market sellers in the poor parts of London complained that it was no use being able to buy cheap, when their customers had got it into their. heads that 'greens and sich was p'ison.'  'I'd sell my barrerful for what I give for it,' said a costermonger of my acquaintance at that time. "Alf price they should 'ave it, if it come to that; but they won' t 'ave nothing to speak of at no price. Blow the doctors! - putting sich maggots into folks' 'eads, an' robbin' honest men o' their livin'. Where's the arm to anybody of a ripe Horlines plum, I'd like to know? Blow them doctors! says I.' It was partly the thought that they were escaping from a plague-stricken city that made our hoppers so merry as they crossed London Bridge. They fancied that they were giving cholera the slip, but it followed them down into the country. The hoppers lived in the country, when within-doors, with as little regard to health as when in town. Perhaps, knowing as they thought themselves in comparison with the 'yokels,' their country purveyors palmed off, under the guise of 'bargains,' worse provisions upon them than they would have been permitted to buy [-346-]  in London - even if so disposed. At any rate, cholera broke out amongst them. On that third Saturday night there was a sound of lamentation and great woe at the Irish end of the row of hovels in which our children were housed. Cholera had claimed its first victim in rural Kent, and old Irishwornen were keening over the corpse. Next day the dread disease began to pick off the hoppers as if they were hops. It was a dreary Sunday, though the sun never shone more serenely bright than it shone then. Doctors were coming and going. The vicar left out the Litany in the morning, and curtailed his sermons, both in the morning and the afternoon, in order to return more speedily to his work amongst the dying. An awful week followed. The hoppers no longer laughed over their work, or laughed with a drunken defiance of Death. The 'cramps' seized them as they stood beside the bins. The clergyman and his wife and daughters took sleep and food in hastiest snatches in their anxiety to get back to their livid, awfully contorted patients. The Anglican vicar, as I have previously intimated, sent for Romanist priests, and piloted them himself to their writhing clammily perspiring co-religionists. They died so fast that a huge, gaping common grave had to be dug for them in the green, quiet old churchyard. They were put into it by twos and threes, and every now and then a Roman Catholic priest would come to such a funeral, and take off his hat in genuine reverence, whilst the Anglican Catholic, whose catholicity he then, at least, was eagerly anxious to acknowledge, read the solemn service in a voice broken by weariness and sorrow. That huge, gaping grave, in which [-347-] scores are buried, is covered now with grass and. daisies that look as if grass and daisies had grown there for ever. The barges glide by at the bottom of the hill, the paper-mill pounds monotonously, just as they did before. Hoppers swarm down into the parish, and frolic and fight as of old; although the old hands look serious for a minute or two when they talk of that old time, and the new hands cannot help shuddering a little when they hear the story, and see the simple stone that marks the resting-place of Death's greedy double handful. But Phoebe has never recovered from the shock she then received. The family with whom she has lived almost ever since all speak highly of her, except that the children belonging to, or visiting the house, cannot help saying now and then, though they are very fond of her, 'She's got no fun in her; she gets tired of playing so soon.'
    Harriet, Emma, and Dick were buried in that common grave down in Kent. In spite of their higher spirits and greater strength, Harriet and Dick died before weak little Emma. 'Kiss me, Phoebe,' she said, when, just before her death, she was momentarily relieved from the horrid tortures of her disease. 'I'm going to see Jesus Christ, a'n't I, Phoebe?'
    "Arriet and Dick didn't ax me to kiss 'em afore they was took; they was too bad, poor dears. Awful bad they was,' said Phoebe, for the first time breaking into a sob as she told me her sad story. 'But they would a' done, bad as they was, if they'd known 'ow I wanted it. They was dear good children, though they wouldn't mind ye [-348-] some times; that they was, poor dears. An' so was poor dear little Hemmer. I've only myself to look to now, sir; but God's al'ays good, I don't doubt though sometimes it don't look like it.'