Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Hooligan Nights, by Clarence Rook, 1899 - Chapter 12 - The Boot-trick and Others

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The Boot-trick and Others

     There are plenty of things lying about the world, unwatched, and waiting to be pinched by the boy who keeps his eyes skinned. But you have to jump at them as soon as you see them. Bicycles, for example. Young Alf, noting the turn of fashion, learned the art of bicycling in a backyard, having made the acquaintance of a barber's assistant who possessed a machine.
     Knowledge is power - and Young Alf's knowledge of the art of bicycling speedily developed into the power of acquiring bicycles of his own. One day an unguarded bicycle attracted his attention. It stood invitingly upon the kerb, looking for a partner. Young Alf mounted, rode slowly, and with many wobbles, until he came to the first corner. Then he turned, and rode at full tilt to a shop he knows. Within ten minutes the bicycle was disintegrated, and its own maker would not have known it. This fake he has worked many times. If the owner sees him wobbling down the street he explains that he is having a lark. His obvious inexperience, his blatant incompetence witness in his favour. If the owner does not see him, there is no need of explanation.
     There are, indeed, many ways of picking up a living outside what we may call the legitimate lines of burglary and pocket-picking. Of many of these young Alf has spoken at various times, and they seem worth collecting into a single chapter, as serving to illustrate the axiom which is the ultimate major premise of Young Alf's practical syllogism: that things are there to be nicked. The novelist frequently finds it profitable to fill up odd time with journalism. In the same way the burglar need not be ashamed to confess that he descends occasionally to till-lifting and dog-stealing, when no more serious business engages his attention. Moreover, idleness leads to mischief. Young Alf is fully aware that the boy who does not keep himself busy is liable to get into mischief. He will take to drink and lose his nerve; at the best, he misses opportumties of keeping his hand in and making a bit extra as well. Do the duty that lies nearest, not asking if it be a small matter or a big one, and your reward will be many little bits of splosh. Blackmailing, for instance. It is not Young Alf's regular business. Indeed, he considers himself rather above that fake, and confesses, with a certain amount of shame, tempered with amusement, that on two occasions he worked it, and even on three occasions brought it off. The simplest method is to spot a gentleman who is speaking with a lady, say in Oxford Street or in Piccadilly, say at a little past midnight. You threaten to inform his wife. In one case, the result was five pounds in Young Alf's pocket. Or you may follow up a pair of innocent lovers on Clapham Common. In three cases out of four there are obdurate parents, or some reason why the meeting should not be known. And you can make a bit out of that. But it is not class; and young Alf - let us do him justice - has only resorted to blackmailing when very hard pushed for a crust. And even the best of burglars, if he spends freely and is generous to his pals, may find himself now and again hard pushed. Besides, blackmailing is not a wide way of making a living. For the blackmailer has to disclose his identity, more or less; and if the victim only has the pluck to refuse, he needn't pay. Because the blackmailer never intends to carry out his threat. The game wouldn't be worth the shoe-leather.
     There are, however, numerous other means of turning spare time to profitable use - means, too, of which no criminal need be ashamed. For example, there is a rather amusing little quiff which, as it can only be worked during the season of Advent, comes up every year with a pleasing novelty. If you have an evening off, you follow up a party of waits, carefully marking their pitches. Next morning you arise betimes, and calling at the houses you have marked, reap the reward that the waits have earned. You may rely upon it that the waits, having been up half the night, will take an extra hour in bed. It is well to select a melodious party, preferably church choristers singing for a charity, or your only reward may be contumely. An element of humour enters into this fake; for when the genuine waits call later in the day for their money, they are regarded as swindlers.
     Another fairly safe way of getting hold of the ready is to collect money at Lifeboat processions or on Hospital Saturdays. The street collections for hospitals have become somewhat discredited of late; but young Alf has a couple of lady friends who used to array themselves as nurses and make a nice little haul. Young Alf himself prefers collecting for lifeboats, because he knows where to obtain a specially made box in the shape of a boat, and that disanns suspicion. But the public is, as young Alf gladly admits, wonderfully credulous. His integrity as a collector was only once challenged. He was getting funds for sending poor children for a happy day in the country. He boldly offered to accompany the doubter to the nearest police station. Of course, he was ready to do a sprint if the offer was closed with. But it was not.
     Dog-sneaking, too, though it would scarcely pay as a regular profession, is useful when times are dull. Your objective, of course, is not the dog, but the reward offered for its recovery. And young Alf has picked up many a stray sovereign in this way. He is in the habit, too, of asking a bit extra for the cost of the dog's keep; and he usually gets it. Dog-sneaking is a very safe method of replenishing an empty pocket, for owners never prosecute, even though they may be morally sure that the finder is a thief. They are too delighted at the return of their pet. Besides, they suspect that a prosecution would lead to the poisoning of the animal by the prisoner or one of his pals, and their suspicion is quite justified. Young Alf holds that no boy was ever pinched for dog-stealing.
     Burglaries are not often brought off on a Sunday; though I doubt whether this is due to any religious objection on the part of such as young Alf. But a church is an easy mark. The point about a church is that you need not break into it. Young Alf confesses to having robbed three churches, and in each one of them he found a courteous welcome, as well as the loan of certain implements of worship which somewhat embarrassed him. In robbing a church the only difficulty is the breaking out; and that is a small one. Having concealed yourself at the close of the service - an easy matter, since a church affords abundant cover - you have about three hours in which to prise open the offertory boxes. At eleven o'clock, when the police have their eyes on the doors of the public-houses, you may depart in peace. In most cases of church robbery you will read that the offertory-box had not been cleared for some time, and that the precise amount it contained was uncertain.
     'Why don't they clear the boxes after each pefawmince?' asks young Alf. And the unanswerable question seems to him his justification.
     Buying empty boxes and packing-cases from tradesmen may be made remunerative. The initial expense is small. You want a truck; and the boy who cannot get a truck when he wants it is not called young Alf. Nor is there a lot of kid required for this particular fake; for many shop-keepers are glad to get their cellars cleared of boxes, paper and so forth, especially when a fair price is offered. You gain admittance, you will perceive, to the tradesman's premises, and that is an advantage not to be despised. For even in a grocer's cellar there are things worth having.
     The first thing is to collect the empties and make a deal for them. Then you put them together, the smaller inside the larger, so as to save space and make the job a neat one. Say you get half-a-dozen of such cases to put on your truck. It will be very hard if one case that has not been unpacked cannot be shifted with the empties. Let it be something light, - prepared oats, we will say - so that, if stopped, you can apologize: 'Well, I fort it seemed raver eavy when I humped it up wiv the empties, on'y it's so dark down there you can't see what you're doin' of.'
     On his last box-buying expedition young Alf succeeded in lifting three boxes of oats, which he speedily disposed of to his advantage.
     You should keep an eye skinned too for drowsy dray-men, for the chain that binds the empty casks together is quite worth having. Young Alf has described to me a little drive he had on the tail of a dray, during which he unfastened nearly a hundred feet of chain, and sold it for three and sixpence.
     A boy who wishes to make the most of his opportunities will do well to keep his eye upon such carts and vans as he may encounter. They afford many profitable openings. One day young Alf, going up the Kingsland Road, noticed a big builder's van pull up at a public-house. The driver went inside, and stayed there a considerable time. Young Alf unfortunately could not devise any means of planting a horse and van, as well as a lot of building materials, within any reasonable time; but the chance was too good to be altogether lost. So he sent Maggots, who accompanied him, into the public-house, with instructions to engage the attention of the driver. Young Alf, having noted the address on the van, drove it quietly off to the office. There he explained that he had seen it wandering at large without a driver, and thinking that there might be an accident which would entail loss upon the firm, had taken charge of it. This at considerable inconvenience to himself, and at the expense of a job to which he was making his way. Half-a-sovereign rewarded his enterprise, as well as the offer of the driver's place. He accepted the former; the latter he refused.
     But perhaps the smartest thing in cart and van work which young Alf has carried out, was conceived when he noticed that a certain firm in South London was in the habit of sending out large consignments of eggs in cases. He looked up a pal who possessed a pony and barrow, and one morning they started after a van on which about a dozen cases of eggs were loaded. Delivery was to be made in the Clapham district. In the traffic at the Elephant they began to get to work, young Alf on one side and his pal on the other, edging a case inch by inch over the tail board, so as not to make any sudden jerk. For something over a mile they went, patiently helping the case over the edge as opportunity occurred; and then came the ticklish part of the business. Bringing the barrow close up, they raised the box of eggs, and planted it down, as tenderly as if it were a baby, and belonged to them, on their barrow. They turned, and drove for Lambeth, where they arrived without breaking a single egg. Young Alf is proud of this achievement, for wobblers are tricky things to handle. That evening Lambeth Walk saw a cheap line in new-laid eggs, for young Alf was selling them at sixteen a shilling.
     But the things that wait for the watchful boy are simply innumerable. You want, we will say, a pair of boots. There are more boots than people in London. And young Alf told me of the boot-trick as we leaned over the parapet of Westminster Bridge and talked. He was kicking the toes of those very boots against the stonework as he spoke. It arose out of a dispute as to the nearest way from Westminster Bridge to Lambeth Walk. I should have gone down the Westminster Bridge Road, struck the Kennington Road, and turned from Lambeth Road into the Walk. But young Alf knew a shorter cut.
     Besides, he does not go down the Westminster Bridge Road.
     I inquired the reason.
     So the story came out.
     'It was when me an' Maggots was workin' togevver,' said young Alf, and bofe of us was on the hank for a new pair of boots. Down on our uppers we was, wiv no error; an we 'greed that them trotter cases'd 'ave to be got, even if we sneaked 'em. Nor I don't fink Maggots could a' walked easy in a pair of boots that e'd 'ad to pay for. Same 'ere, too. Reg'lar on the make, Maggots was. Well, there was a ole Jew snob down there that Maggots wanted to get level wiv.'
     Young Alf jerked his head in the direction of the Westminster Bridge Road.
     'Bin Maggots's landlord, 'e had; on'y 'e didn't know it. See? An' Maggots fort it was time 'e got a bit of his own back. So we nips down to the shop, an' goes in, an' I arsts to be showed a pair of boots. First pair I tried on fitted me a treat; but I fair nicked that they were too tight for me corns.
     ' "Easy, guv'nor," I says, "easy. I want a pair of boots for walkin' in," I says. "I can't ford to sit wiv me trotters on a sofy smokin' ceegars all day. See?"
     'The ole Jew snob says, "Why, they're a splendid fit," he says.
     ' "After you, guv'nor," I replies. "They'd cripple me fore I'd walked a dozen yards."
     ' "You talk sense," he says. "An' don't your fren want a pair too?" he says.
     ' "I don't say I won't look at a pair, now you mention it," says Maggots. "On'y, don't you clamp up my trotters like what you 'ave my fren's," he says.
     ' "I'll do you bofe a good turn," says the Jew snob. Wiv that 'e brings out anuvver pair of boots, an' Maggot tries 'em on. "There," says the ole Jew, "I never in all life see such fits."
     ' "Fits it is," says Maggots. "Why, I couldn't 'obble in 'em, let alone walkin'."
     ' An' wiv that 'e makes a show of 'obblin cross the floor of the shop, an' me after 'im, makin' out as if I couldn't 'ardly put one foot down fore the uvver. An' soon as we come to the door, Maggots flings it open an' scoots, an' me after 'im. Pace we went was a testermonial to the ole Jew's boots, wiv no error. I like to fink 'ow we got a bit of our own back off that bleed'n' ole Jew.'
     Young Alf kicked the toes of his boots viciously against the parapet of the bridge. Then he turned again suddenly to me, and his eyes gleamed, while his mouth worked convulsively.
     'I'll see meself righted, if I do five years for it,' he said.
    Young Alf then proceeded to explain to me that the small shopkeeper simply invites depredation, by keeping' the till just under the counter where any boy can get his hooks on it. This is especially foolish in the case of a shop kept by a woman. It is in such shops that three-fourths of the till-robberies are brought off. A foggy day, a till within easy reach of the first comer, an unprotected woman behind the counter - well, she has only herself to blame if she is robbed.
     As an illustration of the folly to which a woman shopkeeper will stoop, young Alf recounted to me his last exploit in the tffi-lifting line. It was at Peckham. The day was cold, wet, and foggy. And young Alf was going round with a piano-organ, which was wheeled by one of the lads that worked with him. Young Alf finds that a piano-organ gives excellent cover, and enables a boy to see the world without incurring the world's suspicion.
     He had ground out a couple of tunes in front of a small shop which dealt in sweets and newspapers, when the woman came out and gave him twopence. Moreover, seeing that his clothes were thin and poor, she said it was a shame that a boy should face such weather without a decent coat to his back. Young Alf was invited into the shelter of the shop, while the kind-hearted woman went upstairs to fetch a coat which had belonged to her son. She had no longer a son to wear it; so she told young Alf.
     Young Alf stood alone in the little shop, amazed at the folly of the woman who had left him there. He leaned over the counter and slid the till out.
     About fifteen shillings!
     He had the choice of fifteen shillings and a few odd coppers, or a second-hand coat which might be worth a good deal less, and was certainly not worth more than that sum. Such was the problem that presented itself to our young friend, nor do I think it was complicated by any other data.
     He chose the fifteen shillings - with the odd coppers, and scooted, leaving the other lad to find his way home with the organ.
     Once, as young Alf told me this story, I fancied I detected a touch of shame, a mere hint of an apology, in his tone. But I was mistaken.
     When he had ended, I hinted that it would have been at least courteous to await the return of the good-hearted woman.
     Young Alf saw my meaning; for he is sharp-witted enough.
     He explained that when a boy gets hanked by softheartedness he is better off the business.
     After all, this is a very sound commercial maxim, and lies at the root of bigger businesses than till-snatching.
     Anyhow, you will admit that there are a lot of things to be picked up by the boy who can take things as he finds them.