Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Preface - Grandmother Cooper

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The title attached to the present series of pen pictures derived from my most recent inquiries concerning the homes, haunts and habits of some of the lower grade of the great community, speaks so plainly for itself that it would be superfluous and tedious on my part to inflict on the reader a lengthy explanatory preface. "ODD PEOPLE IN ODD PLACES" in its nature is akin to the, I am encouraged to believe, not too many collections of social sketches that, appearing originally in the Daily Telegraph, have been afterwards republished in book form. I have laboured long in the same great neglected garden of few flowers and many weeds, and am not likely to grow weary of so doing while I have health and strength, and my humble efforts on behalf of the "Great Residuum" continue to be regarded with favour and approbation by a generous and sympathetic public.



The gipsies of romance and reality - My introduction to the Cooper family  - Mr. C. refers me to his grandmother - Belief of the tribe in the mystic knowledge of their elders - Sunday morning in camp - Miss Cooper at play with her brothers - I dine with the family - Fatal effects of bricks and mortar - The young gipsy who came courting Hester - Tyranny of Grandmother Cooper - The old lady effects some miraculous cures - I excite suspicions, and make a hurried exit.

I DO not feel at liberty to make known the why and the wherefore of my being permitted to travel with the Cooper family in their yellow house on wheels from Camberwell to Epsom. Perhaps I was seeking somebody, and a gipsy conveyance and gipsy company were supposed to be favourable to the object in view. I may know some one whose demented uncle had mysteriously disappeared.
    Weary of the civilized world and its worries, and desirous of escaping from them, it may have come to the knowledge of the rash man's relatives that he had dyed himself brown with walnut-juice, and donned a sage-green smock frock, and an old billycock cap, hoping, thus cunningly disguised, to impose on the guileless Zingari, and be received among them as a genuine child of the forest glade. Or my caravan expedition may possibly have originated in a desire to assist in the discovery of a bad boy of vagabond tendencies who had run away from home, leaving no clue as to his intentions but several hundred penny numbers of the "Boy Bohemian; or, The Young Chief of the Romany Rovers," afterwards discovered between the mattresses of his [-2-] bed. Anyhow, and whatever may have been the reason why the mission was undertaken, I promised both Mrs. and Mr. Cooper, when they agreed to carry me along with them, so that I might have the opportunity of making inquiry of any of their brethren we might chance to fall in with on the road, that I would keep "mum" on the subject, and "mum" I remain.
    When I first applied to Mr. Cooper, who is an iron-grey man, with a skin tanned mahogany-colour through fifty years of outdoor life in all weathers, he expressed a confident opinion that if I would consult his grandmother as regards the affair I have hinted at, it would save all further trouble, since she would be able, by means of divination, to give me every information. To this I replied that I was not so weak-minded as to believe anything of the kind, and that I was very far from supposing that he was. It would not have surprised me if our acquaintance had terminated then and there. An angry flush showed through the tan-colour of his face, and his keen eyes twinkled ominously as he remarked,
    "You don't know what you re sayin'; therefore you don't mean no harm. If so be you think what you just now said, keep it to yourself don't say it to me. It sets my back up, and when my back's set up I in sometimes orkard." I hastened to apologize to Mr. Cooper, and excuse myself on the ground that I had really no idea that persons like himself seriously believed that the elders of their tribe justly laid claim to supernatural power, but that, since I had his word for it, I should be glad to avail myself of his grandmother's assistance.
    "You mean to say," I remarked to him, "that you yourself believe in the ability of your people to reveal that which is hidden from ordinary mortals? They really can tell fortunes, and all that sort of thing?"
    "I don't know about 'that sort of thing,'" returned the grey- headed gipsy, gravely; "and I wasn't thinking about fortune-telling. Any bit of a gal that's got the gift can do that. But if you ask me can my old grandam see into the future or tell you what's happening hundreds - thousands, if you like - of miles away, I tell you that I am as sure she can as that this is my right hand."
    "You would consult her yourself?"
    "Would I? I do it, sir. Not about every farden business [-3-] that comes in my way, of course; but if there's anything that I only knows as to the present handling, and can't see the far end of, I'd get her to show me."
    "And you'd be guided by her judgment?"
    "Blindfold I would," he replied, with an earnestness there was no questioning; "if she pointed a way to go, and I said I can't go it, cos there's fire in the way," and she said, 'Go through it; it won't burn you,' I'd go through it as lief as I'd go into water and swim. But don't you take my word. Go to her yourself."
    We went together. The yellow caravan was at the time at rest on a piece of waste land at the back of a beer-shop. It was Sunday morning, but the Cooper family had not gone to church. Shut out the rear of the beer-shop, where the potboy of the establishment was scouring pewter quarts and pints, and the picture was well nigh as savage as though the scene of it was the wilds of Africa. Three semi-nude small barbarians - two boys and a girl, the eldest probably ten years old - were kicking up their heels on the earth, as they rested on their elbows and played with boisterous glee at a game I had never before seen or heard of. The toy they used was a rusty old carving-fork bereft of one prong, and having a heavy buckhorn handle. Each player in turn tossed it up with a spin, over and over, with the object that the prong should stick upright in the ground. Nine times the fork was tossed, and the player who succeeded in making it stick upright the least number of times lost the game, and had to pay the penalty, which took the shape of a sort of torture, the implements for inflicting which were a wooden clothes-peg and the fork before mentioned. The victors - this time the two boys - had each nine blows at the peg with the fork haft, driving it as far as they could into the earth. At the eighteenth blow it was buried at least an inch below the surface, whereon little Miss Cooper cried, "Scoopings!" and, scoopings being allowed, she proceeded to clear a little basin round the top of the imbedded peg, just wide and deep enough to admit her mouth and nose, for she had to draw it out with her mouth. She had to kneel, clasp her hands behind her back, bend down, and root out the peg with her teeth, their glistening whiteness contrasting strikingly with her dirty tawny face. The prime of the fun, and that which sent them all into hysterics of [-4-] mirth, was that, as often as not, in renewing her attack on the peg, she toppled over and came down with a force that would have permanently damaged any nose less puggy and pliant than her own. 
    The door of the caravan stood open, showing there was no one within, and we went round the other side of it, where we found Mr. Cooper's wife and an elder daughter busy with an iron cooking-pot, suspended over a crackling wood fire, and a little apart from them was the venerable Sybil, to whom I had been so strongly recommended. I should have been more impressed at finding myself in the presence of one of such mystic attributes had she been apprised of my coming, and prepared herself to receive visitors. As it was there was nothing in the least necromantic in her appearance or her occupation. She was squatting on the ground, tailorwise, smoking a short pipe, and branding cockshy sticks with a piece of thick iron wire made red-hot in the fire at which the others were cooking. After a brief whispered conference with her son, however, she retired to the caravan, bidding me wait awhile. I scarcely knew her again, when, a few minutes afterwards, she beckoned me up the steps. She had put on a gorgeous gown, and with her swarthy face hooded with a brilliant silk handkerchief and silver earrings in her ears, and armlets of the same precious metal, with a weird-looking necklace made of shells and teeth and strange-looking coins; but I might as well have consulted her as she smoked her pipe by the side of the heap of cockshy sticks for all the information respecting the somebody I was in search of. Perhaps if I had not beforehand suggested to Mr. Cooper my desire to accompany him in the caravan, at the same time mentioning the sum I was prepared to pay for the privilege, she would have been more successful.
    The end of it was that she got half a crown for her present trouble, and we had to fall back on the original idea after all. By this time it was past one o'clock, and the party that had been engaged in the peg and fork game, together with five other juvenile Coopers, including a brown bald-headed baby in arms, were gathered with hungry expectation in their eyes round the cooking pot. Dinner would be ready in five minutes, Mrs. Cooper hospitably announced, and in such a confidential way that it was plain she expected I should sit down with the family. [-5-] I was not quite prepared for this. It was not so much the sitting down - though it was evident from the preparations that were now being made that there was only the ground to sit on - that I objected to as the children. Juvenile company at the dinner-table may at best of times be dispensed with; but eight of them, shock-headed (barring the baby) and shoeless, innocent of soap as Hottentots, and more ragged than any colt that ever ran, sprawling on the frowsy patch of grass in a ring, face downwards, and resting on their elbows, could scarcely be regarded as a select circle, or one in which even a not more than ordinary fastidious person would care to exercise a knife and fork.
    I tried to excuse myself, but Cooper whispered to me that his grandmother would most likely be offended if I refused, so there was nothing for it but to submit. It was a hotch-potch dinner, but it smelt very nice. A sort of a stew, made seemingly of pork, and rabbits, and steak, highly seasoned with herbs, and when it was turned out of the swinging-pot into a round tin dish as large as a small sponge-bath, had it been cold weather instead of warm, and the dining-place somewhat more private than an open field with a near perspective of a dust-yard, it might have proved tempting. Such as it was, however, we made the best of it. We had no tablecloth, but the crockery was clean, and for us elders who ate in the middle there was a sufficiency of plates; but we were not strong in cutlery. Cooper carried his own blade in shape of a great clasp-knife, and he did not seem to require a fork. The elder Miss Cooper, her mother, and myself were better provided, and grandmother used a spoon. The small fry of the outer circle had as plates just what they had the luck to lay hands on, including a couple of saucepan-lids and the tin dish belonging to a Dutch oven, and generally they ate with their fingers. Beer was procured in a half-gallon can from the conveniently adjacent beer-shop, and we drank round out of it as out of my Lord Mayor's loving cup. When we had dined - including Miss Cooper - we adjourned to the caravan for a pipe, and what remained in the great dish became the property of the younger members of the family. When the word was given they were down on it with an unanimity that instantly concealed it from view, and a minute or two afterwards they retired breathless from the struggle, revealing [-6-] the great tin vessel clean as though it had been washed and polished with a towel.
    After one pipe, Grandmother Cooper retired to some inner recess of the caravan for her afternoon nap, and her grandson and his wife began to talk about the time for making a start on our journey. Cooper was for postponing it until the morning, but his wife was averse to this arrangement, not on her own account, it seemed, but because of grandmother. I gathered from their conversation that the old lady, sorely against her will, had been sleeping all the winter and until now in the caravan, and it had been arranged among them that the first day of Epsom week she should "sleep on the turf" - that is to say, with no other shelter than the little arched hovel of canvas stretched over hoops and pegged to the ground. Her grandson urged - under his breath, though, for fear she might be listening - that one more night could make no difference; but his wife reminded him that her grandmother (aged eighty-nine next birthday) had been anxiously looking forward to the treat, and that if she were disappointed it would put her out, and you know what she can do when she is spiteful, remarked Mrs. Cooper meaningly. After this Cooper had nothing to say, but took off his jacket and commenced packing up.
    It was growing towards evening when we started, and it would be an affectation on my part to say that I wish it had been earlier, and with hours of broad daylight before us. Our procession consisted of the caravan and two donkey-carts, one of the latter being laden with cockshy sticks and cocoa-nuts (and we carried a couple of gorgeously-attired Aunt Sallies, but being choice goods they were for safety hung against the partition of the caravan sleeping compartment), and the other two large barrels that served as present stowage for the younger members of the family, but which, when we arrived at Epsom, were to be filled at the town pump and carried up the hill to be retailed at sixpence a pailful on Derby Day. Cooper's eldest daughter led one donkey, his wife the other, Cooper piloting the horse, so that for a mile or so grandmother and I had the caravan all to ourselves.
    She was in high spirits, probably on account of the immediate prospect of "turfing" it. She confided to me that she had not been what she might call well and hearty since the end of last [-7-] October, when, at her grandson's persuasion; she quitted the hovel and took to sleeping in the van. It did not stand to reason, in her opinion, that a person, young or old, could preserve their health being boded up of nights so as the fresh air could not blow on them, and she was certain that nothing was so hurtful as living in houses. She thought perhaps that it was something in the bricks and mortar that was drawn out by the heat of the fire. Not that she had ever experienced it. She would not have been here now to tell of it if it had been otherwise. She had never in all her life done worse than sleep in the van, and it was in the van or in the hovel that her fourteen boys and girls were born. And Mrs. Cooper further informed me, with tears in her eyes, and sadly shaking her head, that she had no doubt her husband would have been now alive had he not helplessly and against her wishes been carried "into housen."
    "He was only eighty-three, and one day when he had a little drink in him, he slipped down and the van wheels went over him and broke both his legs, and they took him to the hospital."
    "They said it was his hurts as killed him," said the old lady, "but it was no use em telling me that. It was the bricks and mortar that did his business, poor chap."
    It was past nine o'clock when we reached Cheam, and in that neighbourhood we halted at a spot where two or three other caravans were, and where the Cooper family were warmly welcomed, grandmother being treated with great deference and respect by every one who approached her. There could be no doubt that they at once reverenced and feared her, and it could only be because of her supposed supernatural powers. Her authority, which seemed to be undisputed, was, or so it appeared to me to be, used in a rather tyrannical way sometimes. As, for instance, I have spoken of Cooper's daughter - Hester by name, a tall and good-looking girl of about eighteen, and amongst those Who came to our van to do homage to the venerable Sybil was a lanky youth, a gipsy double-dyed, with his jetty hair done in what are called tobacco-pipe curls, and wearing as full dress a long fustian jacket, with mother-of-pearl buttons, and a yellow silk bandanna round his throat. As he approached I noticed that he looked questioningly at Hester, and that her eyes dropped before his ardent, gaze in a way that told a tale; at the same time it was evident that both were considerably embarrassed, [-8-] and for some reason or other not at liberty to do as they pleased. The cause was soon made apparent. 
    "Is that young Mo. Lee?" exclaimed Grandmother Cooper, catching sight of the bashful swain as he was sheepishly slinking behind some one else; "if it is, tell him to be off. I'll have none of him here. Let him keep his distance from me and mine."
    "Why, bless us, granny," ventured Mrs. Cooper, timidly remonstrative, "don't be hard on the poor chap. Let him-"
    "Let him keep to his own," interrupted the old lady fiercely. "Let him go home and help his father in the barber's shop- that s good enough for him."
    "She never forgive Mo.'s father taking to the shaving line," Mr. Cooper remarked to me by way of explanation. "A horse kicked Mo.'s father and broke his ribs, and so he give up travelling and took a barber's shop at Leicester. She's dead agin shops, and houses, and that, and she never forgive him, and won't hear of his son coming after our gal."
    Young Moses Lee stood in his ankle jacks something over six feet high, but the supplicating face with which he stepped forward was like that of a disgraced school child.
    "It ain't as though I could help it, Mrs. Cooper," he began; "it don't foller cos the old man-"
    "Be off!" snapped the inexorable old woman. "Let me as much as see you speaking to her and you'll find the sort of luck you'll have this Epsom."
    Even Mrs. Cooper dare not speak a word for him now. He looked imploringly at Hester (who was crying), and rasping his eyes with his wrist, slunk away.
    I found that grandmother, besides ruling her subjects as a sorceress, was likewise considered great at medicine and the curing of all manner of diseases. Soon after Master Lee had received his dismissal, a woman from another caravan brought a miserable-looking little child of about two years old, suffering severely from some complaint of the eyes - with which complaint sleeping in a hovel on the damp earth, and in the midst of tobacco-smoke, had, I have no doubt, not a little to do. The old lady examined the child.
    "What do you think her Aunt Hagar says?" its mother remarked anxiously; "she says she shouldn't wonder if it turned to a squint."
    [-9-] "Lord forbid," exclaimed two or three women in chorus. "So I should think," said the child's mother ; "she'd better go blind at once, she couldn't do anybody harm then, poor little creeter." And from the comments that ensued, I gathered that a squinting eye is held by certain of the gipsy race to be indicative of a crooked and malicious mind, as well as of a power to give baleful effects to the mind's dictates. But Grandmother Cooper dissipated the anxious parent's alarms by telling her that she would soon set its eyes right. Perhaps she went the right way about it; but her method was certainly not one commonly adopted in such cases. She produced a small lump of something that looked like dried clay from her medicine-box, and, spitting on it, worked the surface with her finger-tip until she made a thin paste, and with this she anointed the child's afflicted optics, and bound a piece of rag tight round them.
    "Don't take the band off," she remarked. "Keep it on three days and nights, and keep it wet with water a cabbage has been biled in."
    It had been raining considerably during the day, and the earth and grass where we had halted for the night was reeking with moisture. But grandmother was not to be balked of the treat she had promised herself. Joining in good fellowship, the owners of the other caravan mixed with the Cooper company, and until nearly midnight we reclined at our ease about a jolly wood fire, and drank gin out of a pewter measure that bore a strong resemblance to those I had seen the potboy at the Camberwell beer-shop scrubbing, and told stories, and smoked pipes, and played cards by lantern-light beneath a van screened round with sacks to secure us against prying eyes. A little later I had a message from Granny Cooper that she wished to speak to me. I thought it was a chance that I might judge for myself of the manifest advantages of "turfing" it in a hovel; but perhaps I did her injustice. I had to stoop nearly to going on all-fours to enter the wretched little place, and when I had done so, although there-was a lamp burning within, I could scarcely make out what its interior was like, it was so full of tobacco-smoke. I succeeded better presently, however. Whether it was a regular bed spread on the sacks, or merely a layer of hay covered with a cloth, I cannot say, but it was something that answered the purpose of a bed, and in the centre was squatted [-10-] the ancient Sybil, with her head and face tied up in a handkerchief and the lower part of her body under the bedclothes. In bed along with her were five of the younger Cooper children, including the young lady whom I had seen playing "mumble-peg" in the morning, and who, now keeping her grandmother company, was squatted beside her, puffing at a black short pipe as sedately as an elderly coalheaver.
    "Have you got any news of him you're looking after?" she inquired.
    I replied that I had not.
    "Have you thought about where you'll sleep?" was her next question, as she regarded me with a queer expression in her beady eyes.
    "It does not matter," said I; "I'll borrow a rug and make a pitch anywhere where it's dry and snug."
    "You'd be better off in the town," she replied, with no abatement of the queer look. "You've done fair by us, and I tell you that you'll be better off in the town to-night than here."
    It was not my intention to quit the caravan company until I had seen it settled on the downs; but there was that in the old lady's manner rather than in her words that inclined me to think it might be as well if I altered my plans. So being quite unencumbered with luggage, I intimated to grandmother that I should take her advice, and, striking across the meadow, gained the high road, and an hour afterwards extinguished the light in the hotel candlestick and lay awake a long time pondering what old Mrs. Cooper meant by so impressively telling me that I should be better off that night in the town, and what was the danger, if any, she hinted at.