Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Hooligan Nights, by Clarence Rook, 1899 - Chapter 4 - Billy the Snide

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Billy the Snide

So young All took service with Billy the Snide, and felt that he had his foot well on the first rung of the ladder whereby a boy may mount to an honoured old age as a publican or a fence.
    On the evening after the conversation recounted in the previous chapter I pushed open the swing-door of the public-house off the Walk, and found young Alf engaged in conversation with the can. He nodded to me, and led the way through the door at the far end of the bar. As I reached the door, I caught the eye of the can.
    ;Same line?' he said, jerking his head towards the door through which young Alf had disappeared.
    'Just at present,' I replied.
    I was not quite certain for the moment as to his meaning, but I think I told the truth. For the present young Alf and I were a pair of literary men.
    We had the pleasant room to ourselves, for we were rather early, and there was a race-meeting somewhere in the neighbourhood of London, and the boys had not yet returned to town.
    'I been finkin'!' said young Alf, rubbing his close-cropped head with a grimy hand. 'I said I'd tell you 'ow we worked the biz, me an' Billy, an' I fink I can remember most about it.'
    'What was his real name?' I asked.
    He hesitated for a few moments.
    'Bill Day was 'is name,' he said presently. 'But we never called 'im nuffink but Billy, or Billy the Snide. Everybody'd know who you meant. If you'd sent a tallygram to 'im by that name, 'e'd a' got it. But you couldn't tallygraft to Billy no more. His number's up awright, wiv no error.'
    Bill, as I have implied, has pegged out, a victim to sundry disorders mostly of his own creating. I inquired of his appearance in the flesh, but young Alf, though frequently graphic in the delineation of events, is not an adept at describing personalities. It was only by careful cross- examination that I gained any idea of Billy the Snide's outward aspect, and my idea may differ entirely from the photograph which has been buried somewhere in Scotland Yard. I have the impression of a man above the middle height, clean shaven, of stern and perhaps forbidding exterior; a man who limped slightly in one foot, owing to a sudden leap from a first-floor window on to the area railings; a man observant, but reticent; a man who said nothing but what he meant to be believed; a man who always wore a bowler hat. Such is the impression of Billy the Snide that I have brought away. It is too meagre. I regret exceedingly that I never saw him before he snuffed out, for he was a leader of men, and his memory is still green in the Walk, where there is nothing green but is plucked.
    Billy the Snide was in a pretty big way of business; he did not, you will understand, depend on his day's takings for the price of his kip. He was the owner of a pony and a barrow, as well as of a missus. He managed to feed and clothe himself, as well as certain people who had a more or less illegal claim upon him on the margin of profit left by counterfeit half-crowns, enjoying, too, ample intervals of leisure. Karl Alley was his address. Karl Alley cheek-by- jowl with Irish Court, runs off China Walk, and is a nasty corner for a green hand to find himself in after dark. Here Billy the Snide had a room; and by means of a few simple appliances he imitated the products of the Mint. But snide coin takes a bit of passing, and Billy was glad of the help of a smart youngster, who had done something class in the way of nicking to show he was up to the work; a youngster, too, whose appearance disarmed suspicion, for young Alf tells me that, in those days his face was almost saintly in its purity, more especially when he was permitted to wear an Eton suit. We may suspect that a touch of worldliness was added to his aspect when he wore his new overcoat and his new cap, and was smoking a cigar.
    Henceforth, for a few days of crowded life, it was the office of young Alf to throw bad money after good. He still lived with his mother and the acrobat, but every morning he went round to Karl Alley to arrange the work for the day; and there was a lot of jealousy among the boys who had never got beyond tea-leafing, which is creditable, but not class. He looks back upon this period of his life with considerable pride, for promotion went by merit alone in the circle of which Billy the Snide was the centre, and no boy would have been taken on to work with him unless he had given evidence of capacity. Young Alf was not yet thirteen, and very young to occupy so responsible a position of trust.
    So young Alf was a proud boy when he turned into Karl Alley on the first morning of his engagement, and sought out the dwelling of his chief.
    In order to try his hand and acquire confidence, young Alf was sent out on a small job alone. Billy the Snide produced a wrong 'un, and bade young Alf plant it at a big house near the Walk - the house to which you take mugs who have been marked for skinning.
    Young Alf set forth, while Billy the Snide awaited the result in Karl Alley. It was nervous work, for young Alf was aware that they knew a bit at that house; moreover, he felt that his future depended on his present success. He waited a bit outside until he saw through the swing-doors that the can was busy. Then he entered, gave his order, planked his bull's-eye on the counter, and came out with four and elevenpence change.
    Billy the Snide expressed approval, gave young Alf a shilling for himself, and for the next day proposed an expedition on a far more sumptuous scale.
    The next morning they started, a pleasant family party, from the Walk, in Billy the Snide's pony-barrow; Billy and the missus in front, and young Alf sitting on the empty baskets at the tail-board. You would have said, had you met them trotting along the Brixton Road, that they were going to market. Indeed, Billy the Snide was wont to describe himself, when publicly invited to declare his occupation, as a general dealer.
    Round Brixton, Stockwell, and Clapham they drove on a career of uninterrupted prosperity, pulling up at public-houses, and now and then at a likely looking small shop. The best kind of small shop is one which is looked after by a woman whose husband is working elsewhere. Meanwhile Billy's right-side trouser pocket was growing rapidly lighter, and the left one, containing honest metal, was pleasantly heavy. Young Alf, too, had half-a-sovereign as his own share in his waistcoat pocket.
    It was past noon when they reached Wandsworth Common, and Billy the Snide pulled up the pony at a house he had decided to work. Young Alf and the missus entered together, while Billy the Snide remained without by the pony-barrow so as to be ready in case of a scoot.
    'What are you takin', missus?' asked young Alf.
    The missus said that her call was for the usual - half-a-quartern of gin and two out. Young Alf slashed down a bull's-eye for the drink, and the can, being suspicious, picked it up and put his lamps over it. Young Alf, being about to gargle, set down his glass.
    'Missus, we're rumbled,' he said.
    For the can had walked up to the bung with the coin, and the bung was walking with the coin to the tester. The tester was consulted, and for answer split the bull's-eye into halves.
    The bung slid up to young Alf and the missus. 'That's a bad un,' said the bung, holding out the two halves of the detected coin. 'D'you know that?'
    'Bad!' exclaimed young Alf.
    'Good Gawd! To think of that!' said the missus, looking struck all of a heap.
    'Well, guv'nor,' said young Alf, 'I'm in for a bit of a loss out of my 'ard week's graft froo that coin gettin' in wiv the uvvers; an' if I've got any more I shall look what ho!'
    Young Alf pulled from his waistcoat pocket the half thick 'un which was his share of the profits.
    'D'you mind puttin' one of these in the fake?' said young Alf.
    The coin was put through the tester and came out intact. Whereupon the bung reckoned it was a shame that young Alf should have been taken in with the five-shilling piece.
    'It's very kind of you to symperfise wiv us, boss,' said young Alf, finishing his ginger-beer.
    'Now you 'ave one with me,' said the bung, looking at the empty glasses.
    The missus said she would have another of the same. But young Alf, noting the sudden absence of the can, concluded that he had gone for a cop. It was clear that the bung was having some of his old swank.
    'Step short, missus,' said young Alf. And wishing the bung 'good-afternoon', they scooted.
    'It didn't take us 'arf a mo to shift soon as joinin' Billy,' said young Alf in concluding his narrative of the day's adventures. 'An' sharper'n any cop ever put down 'is daisy roots, we was round the corner an' out of sight.'
    Altogether it was a day of pleasure and of profit.
    To this succeeded three days of joy and gain; days on which young Alf viewed the world as it stretched southward to Denmark Hill, and eastward to the Bricklayer's Arms', sitting proudly upon the empty baskets at the tail of Billy the Snide's pony-barrow. Impartially and conscientiously they worked South London; and young Alf's share of the swag ran into something like fifteen shillings a day, on the average. Young Alf confesses that these were among the happiest days of his life, for fresh air is good, and driving is good, and fifteen shillings a day is very good indeed, so long as it lasts; much better than three-and-six a week as an honest errand-boy.
    'I don't ever fink I made more'n that since, not day in, day out,' said young Alf, as he told me the story of the six days.
    But success made them reckless. The fifth day was the last of triumph. It was down Battersea way that the last victory was scored, a victory that led to defeat. I would not spoil young Alf's artless story; it must be given in his own words, as he told it to me in that pleasant room behind the bar of the public-house off Lambeth Walk. He told it, sitting well forward in his chair, with quick glances this way and that way, and with no turn of the head all the time, his hands between his knees, and his cap bunched in his hands.
    'Gettin' well down into Battersea,' said young Alf, 'Billy marked a small shop where there was a ole woman be'ind the counter. So he give me the wheeze, an' says, "You slip in there, cocker." An' presently he pulls up the pony, and I nips back an' goes into the shop. The ole woman was stannin' be'ind the counter.
    '"Arf-a-dozen eggs, missus, an' new laid," I says. "We always keep 'em fresh," says the ole woman. "Well, I want 'em for someone that's snuffin' it, I told 'er." "Wort you mean?" she chipped in, not 'ankin'. "Well, peggin' out," I eggsplained. So she says, "Dyin', I s'pose you mean," an' 'andin' me the wobblers. Down I planks a two-hog piece, an' she picked it up an' fair screamed. "That's bad," she calls out. "I've 'ad one like it afore to-day," she says - the old geezer. "Bad, missus!" I says. "I'd like to 'ave a cart- load of 'em."
    'She didn't say nuffink to that, but she turned round and called out to somebody in the parlour be'ind the shop, an' out comes a bloke wiv a razzo like 'arf a boiled beetroot, or I don't know nuffmk about it. Looked as if you wouldn't like to pay for the 'arf of what 'e could lower. Well, ole ruby boko put 'is lamps over me, wiv no error, an' he says, "Why you're the youngster as come in 'ere afore." An' wiv that he picks up the snide. Then I chips in. "Well," I says, "then you can testerfy to my respecterability." 'Cause, you unnerstand, I 'adn't never bin wivin 'arf-a-mile of the shop in me life. "The money's bad," he goes on, runnin' it tween 'is fingers.
    'So then I made out as if I was cross, and I says, "What the bleedin' 'ell d'you mean?" I says. "If you finks I've cheated you, or if you finks I've tried to cheat you, then send for the p'lice," I says. Course I see my game, cause old ruby boko was tween me an' the door. See?'
    Young Alf shot a cunning glance at me; and, after a moment's reflection, I saw.
    Young Alf leaned well forward in his chair and puffed out his cheeks, whence I inferred an amusing reminiscence. Then he continued his story.
    Wiv that out 'e goes, an' pulls the door of the shop be'ind 'im, so's to cage me while 'e fetches the cops; an' that's a pretty long job, as a general rule. Course that was just what I wanted. In 'arf a mo I was over the counter an' slashin' at the ole woman. Caught 'er one under the chib, an' she give a scream, an' dropped on to the floor like a wet sack. There wasn't no one else in the 'ouse, so I got to work quick, and went froo the till. It wasn't much of a 'aul - nuffink to talk about. I don't fink there was more'n free twoers worf to be nicked. But it was worf more'n bein' pinched, eh? Well, I was out of the shop in a tick, an' there was Billy an' the missus on the pony-barrer, carm and peaceful, jest up by the corner where the road turns off. Course I give Billy the wheeze quick as I could, an' 'e whips up the pony jest as I 'opped up be'ind. An' jest as we drove off there was old ruby boko about a 'undred yards away, running as fast as the cop could keep time to wiv 'is plates o' meat. See?'
    But as I have already said, this was the last day of triumph for Billy the Snide, who was pretty well at the end of his tether. There are some things that even the police force cannot overlook, and the doings of Billy were crying to Heaven. Over-production, it seems, was the bane of Billy the Snide. Not content with doing a moderate and comparatively safe retail trade, Billy had made haste to be rich, and had placed a nice little lot of snide money with a pal. There was bad management somewhere, for the pal had been putting it about over the same ground which Billy and young Alf were covering; and the splits were on the look-out.
    It was on the following day that the catastrophe came about.
    'Never you carry snide coin on your person, 'cept when you want to put it about,' said young Alf, as he told me the story of Billy's downfall. 'An' if you fink you've incurred suspicion, you frow it all away quick as you can. Never mind 'ow much it is. Frow it away. You can 'ford that more'n you can 'ford doing a stretch. An' if they don't find nuffink on your person, why, they can't do nuffink to you. See? You can say it was a mistake, you 'avin' a snide coin at all. See?'
    Disregard of this advice, which had been given to him by Billy the Snide, nearly cost young Alf his liberty on that fatal morning. He was coming round as usual to Billy's residence to organize the day's graft, flushed with the pride of success, and carrying in his pocket a quantity of base metal which would have represented about the value of a sovereign had it been honest money. As he was about to turn into Karl Alley he was suddenly aware of a split hanging about. To give Billy the wheeze was to give himself away. Young Alf had decided to go home again and wait upon events, when he found himself rushed before he could turn round. A copper took him off to the police station.
    The situation looked desperate, for a pound's worth of snide coin is difficult to explain away; and young Alf felt pretty certain that the game was up.
    But his luck did not desert him. When they reached the police station the inspector happened to have stepped out for a few moments, so young Alf was dabbed into a cell to await his return.
    This was his opportunity, and he did not neglect it. No sooner was the door closed than he cleared the snide coin out of his pockets, and pitched it into the most obvious receptacle.
    'I knew it was awright then,' said young Alf. 'I jest 'ad time to go froo a bit of a double-shuffle step on the floor of the cell - showin' I wasn't disturbed in me mind, you unnerstand - and then the cop came to take me before the inspector, an' run me froo to see what I 'ad on my person. That's what they say in evidence, y'know.
    'Course they didn't find any snide coin on me person, an' as I 'adn't anyfink in the way of good money, it was a case of bein' clean picked. I never see a copper look so seprised in all me born days; looked as if you might 'ave brought 'im down wiv 'arf a brick. The inspector 'e was jest knocked  sick, 'e was. Fort they'd got me proper that time, they did. But I reckon if I 'aven't got any sharpness of me own, I got 'old of a little bit of someone else's that time, eh?'
    I replied that the incident did him infinite credit.
    Young Alf pinched the end of his cigar, and put the stump into his waistcoat pocket.
    'So you got off?' I said.
    'The inspector told me I could ook it,' said young Alf. 'But d'you fink I was going like that? Not me. Not wivout giving 'em somefink thick in the way of slanging. "What d'yer mean?" I says. "What d'yer mean by interferin' wiv a 'ard-working boy in the performance of 'is employment? I can tell you," I says, "I got my livin' to look after; and now I lost me morning's work jest because a silly swine of a cop don't know a honest boy from a thief. An' I can tell you straight," I says, "I don't get rabbit-pie fair chucked at me, neither."'
    That was enough. They bundled him out of the police station by main force. For if you want to make a copper very angry indeed, you have only to mention to him the name of rabbit-pie. It has the same effect on a policeman as an allusion to puppy-pie has on a Thames bargeman. This is one of the many things that young Alf knows.
    I inquired the reason of this strange aversion.
    'Gives a cop the indigestion,' explained young Alf, 'even if you only talk to 'im about it. But I don't believe anyone that know'd a p'liceman personally would ever think of foolin' 'im wiv such a snack. Rabbit-pie might do for fillin' up odd corners, but if you 'arst 'im to make a banquet off it, why, 'e wouldn't be takin' any.'
    I think there must be some better explanation than that. But Karl Alley knew Billy the Snide no more. The cops rushed him while young Alf was being run through at the police station.
    'Billy the Snide an' 'is missus bofe fell,' said young Alf, as he recounted the melancholy story; 'an' for a week or two it was a case of looking round and about for your 'umble. But I laid low, an' the pair of 'em, 'avin been before the beak twice on remand froo me bein' wanted to make the party complete, they was sent for trial.'
    It was a terrible set-back for young Alf, who was just beginning to get on; the more especially as Billy had taught him only how to pass snide coin, and not how to make it.
    Young Alf had pitched away his stock of base money, and had very little of the ordinary kind. Nevertheless, he kept a brave heart, knowing that a boy who had worked with Billy the Snide could not long be out of employment. Meanwhile, he sold newspapers outside Waterloo Station, and kept his eyes skinned for chances.
    In the evening papers he read how Billy and the missus came up for trial; how Billy was given an eight years' stretch, while the missus had a twelvemonth that she could call her own, and no one else's; how Billy, undaunted by his fate, made the approved retort - that he could do that little lot on his napper, and was thereafter removed from the sight of men.
    Billy the Snide has, as I have said, snuffed out. But he was a good 'un in his time. He gave young Alf his start, taught him many useful wheezes, and was not ungenerous in the division of swag; and young Alf always speaks very nicely about him.