Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Hooligan Nights, by Clarence Rook, 1899 - Chapter 20 - Outrunning the Constable

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Outrunning the Constable

     We were sitting in the pleasant room, and young Alf was discoursing of policemen and their ways, for which he has small respect.
     Stimulated by questions I had asked, he told me with great relish of a certain little trick he has frequently played, which no constable has ever been able to get over.
     A constable may not drink on duty. But most constables want a drink at about closing time, and reckon on getting it, and getting it without payment. It is etiquette for the policeman to tender a coin, whether he wants beer or a bus-ride. But bus-conductor and bar-man alike wave aside the proffered copper. Doubtless they have their reward. Young Alf tells of a constable who always uses the same penny for his nocturnal beer. That penny, he says, must already have purchased a dray load of four ale, and it will probably retain its purchasing power undiminished until the constable claims his pension.
     With these facts young Alf plays.
     You take the constable's penny - for of course he does not make personal application at the bar - and, instead of returning with the beer, you slope out by another door. Thus you gain a penny, and have the laugh of the constable, who dare not make a fuss about it. That is the simplest way of working the trick. You may complicate it by scoring off both cop and publican. You enter the house, and, tendering a penny, ask for the policeman's beer to take outside; selecting a moment when there is no policeman outside. You return the penny to your pocket, take the beer outside, and drink it. Then you bring back the tankard, and depart in peace - to the next public-house, if you are still thirsty. By this means you get your drink for nothing, and have the additional joy of knowing that the copper will probably miss his beer that night.
     Oh no; cops are no account. Such was the substance of Young Alf's judgement. What would you expect when, so soon as a cop joins the force, he is put on to a particular division where his dial is soon as familiar as the clock-face at Westminster? Why don't they shift a Lambeth cop to Stratford, and give a Drury Lane cop a turn in Lisson Grove?
     Young Alf grew quite furious at the folly of those who should pinch him, and neglect their duty.
     Splits, too! what is the use of a split in uniform trousers and the regulation seven-league boots? Why, there isn't a split in South London, that hasn't had his image gone through before he has been at the job a day. Even if he rigs himself out as a Salvation Army captain. Just as well known as the podgy old wobblers who walk their beats to kill time while their pensions ripen.
     Didn't I ever hear how he clean picked the split that wanted him to peach? No? Well, I must hear that.
     'There was a ole split that used to hang abart the gallery at the Canterbury,' said young Alf, an' he was always arstin' me wevver I couldn't sell 'im somefink. An' now an' then I'd give 'im a little bit that I could do wivout for a bob. See? Well, me an' four uvver boys'd got raver a big job on down Dulwich way, an' we wanted the splits put off it. 'Cause I was sure in me mind that they'd been smellin' around. So I took on the job of keepin' the coast clear, finkin' I could ring in me tale awright. An' jest as I fort, the split was hangin' abart outside the gallery at the Canterbury.
     'Soon as he sees me, he says, "Good evenin', me lad."
     ' "Goin' to 'ave somefink wiv me?" he says. "Thanks," I says. "I don't mind if I 'ave a cocoa."
     'An' wiv that I walks up to a stall 'andy.
     ' "Got anyfink nice you can sell me tonight?" he arsts, while I was drinking me cocoa.
     ' "Not for tonight," I replies.
     ' "When? he says.
     ' "I fink I know of somefink for temorrer," I says.
     ' "Fink?" he says, suspicious.
     ' "Well, is it good enough?" I arsts.
     'Long an' short of it was, I told 'im just the time we'd got our job down for, on'y tellin' 'im a place on Clapham Common, stead of Dulwich. See? I couldn't pull his ear down for more'n a bob on'y he promised me somefink good if it come off awright. End of it was that 'im an' four or five more splits met me jest at the right time down Clapham Common. 'Alf-past eight, it was. An' it wasn't till close on ten that they began to show they fort they'd been made a mark of. Goin' strong on the wrong scent they was, wiv no error. Be that time our lads'd done their little job proper. Course, I didn't get nuffmk furver for me infamation, an' I expect the splits fort a lot, eh? On'y there wasn't no evidence. See? Case of clean pick; don't you fink so?'
     Thereupon young Alf waxed contemptuous of the ways of splits.
     'Oh, they ain't no use gainst a smart boy,' he continued, rolling his shoulders from side to side in scorn. 'Why, when I wasn't more'n firteen, there was a split come up to me, fren'ly like, an' arst me if I wouldn't 'ave a drink longer 'im. I said I didn't know 'im, but I didn't mind. Know 'im! I knowed 'im awright. Smell 'im an-way up the street.
     ' "Well," 'e says, "you like to do a little job for me?"
     ' "What as?" I arsts, tumblin' at once, you unnerstand.
     ' "Well," 'e goes on, "I've 'eard you're a clever little hook-"
     ' "Look 'ere, you stow that," I says. "Take me for a thief, do you, stead of a 'ard-workin' young man? Lemme tell yer I've more'n 'arf a mind to give you in chawge for inciting me to commit a felony. Making out as if I was angry. See? An' wiv that 'e never said annuver word an' slunk out of the 'ouse. Finkin' 'e'd catch me like that! See, I knowed somefink of the ways of the law, even if I wasn't more'n firteen.'
     'But it ain't all lavender goin' on beat round the Walk,' continued young Alf, when he had refreshed himself with ginger-beer. I shan't forget the time when we was 'aving a bit of a game near the bottom of a alley that turns out of the Walk. There was eight or nine of us, an' finkin' about the cards, we didn't spot the cop fore 'e was right on to us. Raver a slippy cop, 'e was, in his way. He was jest making a pounce at the cards we was playing wiv when one of the boys sings out 'Dust-bin'! There was a big dust-bin in the corner, wiv a cover over it that fastened wiv a kind of catch. In less than 'arf a mo, we 'ad the copper up-ended an' pitched into the rubbish ole, and shut the lid down. We filled is 'elmet wiv any muck we could find, an' set it atop, like they put a soldier's 'elmet on 'is cawfin. We didn't put 'is truncheon wiv it, cause one of the boys ran that into a sort of curiosity shop for a tanner. Then we fort 'e might be firsty in the dust-'ole, so we kep' 'im supplied wiv water. Free or four buckets full we poured in. From what I unnerstand, he put in the best part of an hour of duty-time in the dust-bin; an' then an inspector missed 'im off the beat, an' ran on to 'is elmet an' let 'im loose. 'Ealfy, wasn't it?'
     This did not betoken any special dislike of the policeman who was immured in the dust-bin, as young Alf subsequently explained to me. It was only part of the game, as  tackling is part of the game of football. Indeed, young Alf reserves his animosity for the split, who does not nail his colours to the mast, but acts in an underhand, secretive manner, pretending, on occasion, to be an inoffensive plasterer having no connection with the mechanism of punishment. The policeman does not sail under false colours. He plays the game, and is entitled to be treated accordingly. You may sneak his beer; you may put him in a dust-bin, if you can catch him unawares and outnumber him to the point of safety; you may pour water upon him from buckets; you may subject him to discomfort and ridicule, as he will subject you to confinement and skilly if he can. But you should not kill him, so long as he plays the game; and the game has not lives for stakes. Such, I gather, are the views of young Alf and his associates. And statistics, as young Alf assures me, show that, in his time at least, no copper has been done to death by violence in Lambeth.
     The police force has its notions of fair play, too. This you may learn from Young Alf's experience. It is pleasant to hear young Alf paying a generous tribute of appreciation to the heart, if not to the head, of the police. He has waged incessant warfare against them. But the battle has been fought fairly and squarely, at least on the part of the constable, and young Alf is quite ready to admit that if he is caught he deserves his capture.
     More particularly, the inspectors are always ready to give you a fair start and a fair run for your money.
     With young Alf the illustration follows pat upon the statement.
     There was that time when he was pinched for doing a bit of bashing. Disorderly, they called it, and drunk. He was quite in the wrong, he admits. For he ought not to have been drunk. Having regained his senses, he resigned himself to his fate; for he had no money wherewith to buy freedom, and foresaw the necessity of working out salvation. His luck seemed to have deserted him, reflected, as he watched a line of men drawn up, of which he himself was the extremity. A woman came in to identify a prisoner.
     Young Alf, standing nearest to the door, spotted detective near her elbow. And as the woman entered, he heard the detective say to her: 
    'Fourth from the end.'
     Young Alf's sense of justice was stirred.
     Before the woman had time to reach the fourth from the end young Alf had stopped the proceedings.
     'Look 'ere, guv'nor,' he said to the inspector, 'I'm in 'ere meself for fightin', an' I want to see fair play.'
     Then he told the inspector what he had heard. Thereupon the inspector ordered the woman out, and shuffled his pack of malefactors. One changed scarves with another, and young Alf clad himself in the coat of the fourth from the end and took his stand beside him.
     Re-admitted, the woman failed to recognize any one, and the fourth from the end, having recovered his coat, went to his own place.
     In due course young Alf came before the beak, and, as he had anticipated, it was forty shillings or a month. For young Alf is an expert in the arithmetic of crime, and knows quite well how far he may go for forty shillings, and what will cost him a stretch. But young Alf had not forty farthings upon his person. This would not have mattered if it had been Lambeth, or Southwark, or perhaps even Wandsworth. For the lads would have been there to limber up. Unfortunately, young Alf was in a district where he was, so far as he knew, friendless. He felt it must be a month.
     And then the extraordinary thing happened.
     A woman stepped forward and paid the fine. A woman who was quite unknown to young Alf. Outside the court he met her.
     Young Alf is not an adept in the language of courtesy and compliment, and from his own account of the incident I gather that he simply stared at her.
     'That was my old man you got off,' said the woman.
     Then she kissed him.
     I got that out of young Alf with some difficulty; but she kissed him.
     So virtue found its reward. So, too, is the character of the policeman vindicated. He plays fair.
     But though the cop's heart is in the right place, his head is weak. You can kid him - oh! you can kid him, straight. Any boy of ordinary smartness can kid a copper, provided that he has not got the swag upon him at the time. What price the fake he worked when the slop came on him suddenly while the lads were at work on the roof? Eh?
     What was the fake?
     Young Alf leaned forward and told me, with many cunning side glances.
     'One night some of the lads was workin' on a job on some flats up Bloomsbury where there was repairs goin' on. I was down in the street below, keepin' a eye, an' I fort they wasn't workin' so quiet as they oughter 'ave. An' jest as I stopped to listen, a cop come up be'ind me wiv 'is silent shoes.
     ' "D'you 'ear anyfink up there?" 'e says, givin' his elmet a nod towards where the lads was workin'.
     ' "I fort I did," I says. "I was jest listenin'."
     ' "I want you," he remarked, "to go up wiv me to the top of this yer buildin'; I've got my suspicions that there's somefink wrong."
    ' "Well," I says, "that's a job I don't care about, guv'nor. I don't want to 'ave a 'ole bored froo me wiv a six-shooter. Wouldn't be 'ealfy for me."
     'Course I wanted to make 'im skeered. See?
     ' "I don't much relish it meself," 'e says. "But if I arst you in the Queen's name, you got to come. An' if we make a capture, it'll be worf your while."
     'I see be his manner 'e was skeered. So I made out as though I was gettin' up me pluck, an' then I says to him- "Well, I says, "I'm a bit used to roofin' be trade. You gimme your lantern, an' I'll nip up an' crawl round an' see what's goin' on."
     He was more'n willing. Handed over 'is lantern, an' went an' hid 'isself round the corner where 'e couldn't see nuffink. Wiv that I nips up one of the ladders that was stannin' 'gainst the flats, an' give the lads the wheeze. Told 'em to grease off be anuvver ladder at the back soon as I'd rung in me tale to the cop down below. See? Then I worked me way back to where the cop was hidin', an' rang in me tale 'ow they was layin' be'ind a chimbly an' we could catch em if we went sawft an' made a spring.
      'Didn't 'arf fancy the job, the cop didn't. But 'e come up awright, me carryin' the lantern in front. An' there we was, crawlin' round the roof like a bloomin' pair of cats. An', when we come to the chimbly, there wasn't nobody there.
     ' "Well," I says, "I fort I see somebody layin' be'ind there; but I s'pose it was on'y me fancy."
     'So down we come again, an' I cracked on to the copper about 'is pluck goin' on to the roof like that, an' 'e thanked me for me 'elp an' sprung a bob for me trouble. Oh, you can kid a cop soon as look at 'im. Don't you make no rneestike.'
     Young Alf leaned back in his chair, stuck his hands into his trouser pockets, and spat straight into the middle of  the fire to show his contempt for the head - not the heart - of the police. I inquired whether this was one of the campaigns organized by Jimmy.
     Young Alf replied that Jimmy had nothing to do with that adventure.
     'Where is Jimmy living now?' I asked.
     Young Alf's under jaw protruded ominously. You know that Jimmy is thriving as a fence. But young Alf did not give me his address. I learned, however, that Jimmy, becoming more cautious with increasing years and bulk, objected to personal dealings with his clients. Jimmy recognizes the admirable organization of the Parcel Post. If you get a bit of stuff - say at Surbiton, - you do not bring it to town in a cart, or by any such crude and open method. You pack it up, affix the requisite number of stamps, and all the Queen's horses and all the Queen's men will combine to convey it safe and sound to Jimmy. That is, if you know what address to put on your parcel. This is an essential if you wish to deal with Jimmy. For Jimmy is a fanatic about the Parcel Post. He maintains that there is no safer and surer service in the world.