Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - A Veteran of Vauxhall

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A VETERAN OF VAUXHALL.

The last of race - Gone to the dogs almost - A letter from abroad with glad tidings - He redeems the parcel left at the leaving-shop - What the parcel contained - The old waiter - Story of the pawning - The waiter's reminiscences of his Golden Age - What caused his downfall - Waiter on tramp - The phantom waiter - A job to be remembered - Waiter at a Shadwell sailors' house - Down and down till now I'm lifted up sky-high again.

AN emigrant ship recently left Gravesend for Australia, carrying away from England an individual who, had his claim to be lionized been properly and judiciously set before a discriminating British public, might have created as great a furore in the way of an exhibit as the immortal Jumbo itself. He was no other, if his word might be taken for it, than the last surviving Vauxhall waiter.
    Not the Vauxhall of comparatively modern times, dwindled down to the insignificance of a third-rate suburban tea-garden, but the old original "Paradise of the South," renowned for its any number of thousand extra lamps, and patronized as a place of fashionable resort by real lords and ladies, and occasionally by personages even more exalted. But the veteran in question was not in his old age honoured by the nation he had served so assiduously when in his professional prime. Indeed, had it not been for an unexpected and wonderful windfall of good luck, the probabilities are that by this time his unhonoured remains would have reposed beneath the clay hillock of a pauper's grave in Marylebone Cemetery. He was fairly in view of that melancholy consummation, poor fellow, when relief and, as it were, a new lease of life were miraculously vouchsafed him.
    I learnt this part of his sad story in the parlour of the house of a friend of mine, who had charitably given the old waiter shelter in his extremity, and several days before he had been made aware of the amazing change in his prospects. When I received a communication to come and see him, a day or two had elapsed since the postman had brought the letter that contained the glad news, and the patriarchal waiter was as yet too weak to quit his bed-room upstairs. He had sent to the proprietor of a "leaving-shop." It was the first request he made [-37-] when the letter had been read and re-read to him, and his bewildered senses had grasped its full meaning. That epistle was from a son of the old man, who, in 1857, had emigrated to Australia, and he had never heard from him since the day of his sailing until now; but it came to say that the writer was alive and well, and had made money, and that, if his father were still in the land of the living, and felt inclined to make the voyage, on application to a certain firm in Leadenhall Street the sum of seventy pounds would be paid to him on production of this letter, to enable him to purchase an outfit and pay his passage; and that, arrived at Melbourne, it would be his, the son's, pleasant duty to make his father as comfortable as was possible during the remainder of his life.
    The poor old fellow, who had been taken in well nigh starved and penniless but a few days before, was too much overcome to be able to speak at first, but when he had a bit recovered he said anxiously to my friend, "There's a little shop in the secondhand clothes line, a 'leaving-shop,' I think they call it, in ---- Street. There's a parcel there that belongs to me, and which it will cost one and eightpence to redeem; at least, the woman promised I might redeem it in a month if I paid double what she gave me for what's in it. I didn't mention anything about it to you before, sir, because I thought, to be sure, I was going off the hooks, and it was no use talking about it. But now this good news has come from my a'most forgotten boy, and I'm going to foreign parts to be made a gentleman of, I should dearly like to take the old things with me; not for the worth of 'em or for wearing, but on account of the many years I've cherished and preserved 'em."
    His wish had been complied with, and there when I arrived was the leaving-shop woman with the parcel in question. She untied it and spread out its contents on the table, so as to convince us that no article had been abstracted. It was an odd display: the lot consisted mainly of a dress coat and vest, and a pair of black trousers. The garments were disfigured neither by holes nor tatters, but such was their condition that the term threadbare affords but weak help towards its realization. Years of careful wear had so attenuated the material that it seemed a marvel when the coat was held up that the skirts did not of their own weight become detached from the body; the cuffs [-38-] were frayed, the buttonholes had been cobbled out of their original shape, and at the collar and seams the sickly hue of natural decay was but imperfectly concealed by the ink that had been liberally applied to them. It was the same with the trousers and the vest, and besides these articles there was a pair of what had once been white linen cuffs, a "dickey" of the same dubious complexion, and a white tie.
    There was not the least reason why the owner of the leaving-shop should have been at the trouble to bring the parcel herself, since the person who applied for its redemption was prepared to pay her the stipulated sum; but it had been rashly intimated to her by the messenger that the old gentleman had "come into a lot of money," and she perhaps entertained the possibility of a substantial reward for the handsome way she had befriended him in his distress.
    "I gave him tenpence for the lot, gentlemen," said she, "which, little as it might seem to you for a whole suit of clothes, not to mention the linen, is, I do assure you as a living creeter, tuppence outside their walue to a buyer. But he begged so hard. He came to our shop late at night, and just as I was shutting it up, so weak and ill that he was obliged to hold on by the counter, and says he, 'I want you to do me a favour, ma'am, if you will be so kind. I m brought so low down,' he says, 'that I must either starve or part with what, somehow or other, I've always managed to keep by me - my professional clothes. I'm a waiter,' he says, 'and unless I've got a black suit to appear respectable in, I haven't got the least chance of getting a job; so on that account I don't want to sell the things, I only want to raise a trifle on 'em tempory. I've been the round of the pawnbrokers,' he says - and, gentlemen, if there is any one thing worse than another, it is to see an old man like him cry- 'I've been the round of the pawnbrokers, but not one of 'em will take 'em in, though all that I asked was eighteenpence. If you could be so kind as to give me that sum for 'em, on the condition that you will sell em back to me, say in a month's time, charging a good profit, I can't tell you how much I should feel obliged to you.'
    "It was lucky," continued the sympathetic leaving-shop woman, "that my husband was not there. He's that sharp and offhand with customers, most likely he'd have said, 'Snivelling isn't business. Tuppence a pound is my price for such old [-39-]  truck as that, so put 'em in the scale, or take yourself off with em.' But a woman, gentlemen, has naturally got a kinder heart. So I offered him eightpence for the lot, which, on his hard begging, I made tenpence, on his agreeing to pay double that for 'em if he wished em back again." Her generosity and disinterestedness having been rewarded with half a crown, she was dismissed, and then I was taken upstairs and introduced to the venerable waiter himself.
    I found him sitting in an easy chair, comfortably padded with pillows, and a brand-new clothes-chest was close by him, the open lid revealing an ample stock of new articles, and plainly indicating that a satisfactory visit had already been made to Leadenhall Street. He was a round-shouldered old fellow, with silvery hair, and still wore the look of a man who had been long intimate with privation, but there was a healthy brightness in his eyes and a briskness in his manner that betokened his rapid mending. I congratulated him on his good fortune, and on my alluding to his Vauxhall experiences of nearly fifty years since, he at once became cheerfully chatty on that and his career generally as a waiter.
    "Ah, those were the golden times, sir," he remarked, wagging his white head. "I wasn't more than three or four and twenty at that time, and, though I say it, as handsome and strapping a young fellow as ever wore the Gardens livery. And as for money! In them days Vauxhall was a perfect Tom Tiddler's Ground for an attendant who was up to his business and studied the whims and the ways of the swells who used to be regular in their visits. Many a time I've made a couple and three guineas a night, and with so much wine and champagne.to be got at that it wasn't one night in the six that I didn't go to bed as drunk as a lord, sir. Not that it is anything to brag about. Indeed, hundreds of times since, when I've been hard put to it to get a bit of victuals, I've thought it was a judgment on me for my extravagant and wasteful ways in those times. I ought to have saved money in the five years I was there, and took a little public house or something of that kind; but I never was one of the saving kind, though in my time I've had as good places as any man in my line could wish for. But it was the drink that always was my stumbling-block, sir, and that gave me what I may call my knock-down blow at last.
    [-40-] "That was nearly twenty years ago, when I was found intoxicated in the wine-cellar at the ---- Tavern, where I was then in service, and was falsely accused of stealing and concealing five bottles of port. May I never live to cross the ocean and see my dear boy again if I wasn't innocent of the charge; but they somehow proved it against me, and I was sent to prison for three months. I have never done any good since. I know that, being innocent, I ought to have showed a spirit and stuck to the same good class of business I had always been used to. But I felt ashamed and lost my pluck, and was out of work so long when I came out of prison that my clothes got shabby, and I was glad to get employment at eating-houses or at the cheap restaurants in the City, and nobody knows but those who have had to endure it, what a mean and miserable life that is for a waiter, especially if he has seen better days. The standing wages you get is hardly worth reckoning, it is so small. You depend mainly on the pennies. It is never more than a penny at such places, nearly all the customers being young men in the City offices and clerks whose salaries are so small, poor fellows, they are obliged to limit themselves in their eating according to a certain exact sum set apart for the purpose. You can see, by the expression of their eyes, that they hate you on account of the penny they feel compelled to give you though they can so ill afford it, and which they would much prefer to spend in another bread or an extra serving of potatoes. I never could take kindly to that branch of the business, and it didn't require much temptation to induce me to go jobbing about as odd man or as an 'occasional.'
   "Then I got down at heel, as the saying is; and when a man is reduced to one bare suit of black, and that one so shaky with long wear that it wants as tender handling as an invalid, he hasn't got much of a chance to get on well as a waiter. But the poor old suit" - and he patted it affectionately as it lay on the table at his side- "and me wore out together. It was the only link left that attached me to the purfession, and it gave me a twisting when I was at last obliged to part with it. I hadn't tasted food for two whole days when I did it."
    "You'd hardly wonder at my affection for the old things," he continued, with his hand on the parcel, "if you knew what, one way and another, we ye been through together. It's been my [-41-] only capital on tramp many a time, and has done mc many a good turn. You never before heard of a waiter going on tramp. No, I flatter myself it was a rather original idea. Not that I deserve any credit for it. It was one of those inwentions gentlemen, that necessity is the mother of. It is nearly ten years ago since I tried it, and I worked it during the summer months until my legs began to fail me, and I couldn't stand the many miles of walking. I was awfully hard up when I started it. I couldn't find a day's work anywhere in London, and was regularly stumped out when the notion came into my head to make up my bundle, and try my luck on the march.
    "It was just the beginning of July, and the time of year when the beanfeast season commences, and when working men belonging to shops and factories go a few miles by rail or by road to have a dinner, and enjoy themselves in the pleasure-grounds at some tavern on the country road that has a name for that sort of entertainment. They are to be found in all parts - in Kent, in Surrey, and in Har'fordshire - and plenty of other places from ten to thirty miles of London. I knew pretty well where to find 'em, and was able to plan out the road so as to make my way from one to the other. Of course, it was all speculation. Any old things did to wear while I was travelling, and I carried my black suit and my front and cuffs and a pair of light shoes in my bundle. When I came to a place where a dinner was coming off that day I used to slip into some shed or barn near at hand, or go behind a hedge, if there was nothing more conwenient, and change my things. I used to carry a bit of looking-glass and a brush and a comb, so that I was able to make myself neat and smart, so that when I made my appearance to ask if there was any requirement for an occasional, I've no doubt they used to wonder where I had started up from. More often than not I got the job, because, rather than lose it, I'd take it for nothing, or perhaps for my bare food, and trust to my luck as to what I got for waiting on the company. I've got as much as twelve or fourteen shillings in a day that way; but at other times they've turned out to be a mean lot of fellows, who haven't tipped me more than a penny each all day long, and there hasn't been more than about four and twenty of them, and it has been perhaps three days before I've come across the next job.
    "But off and on, while the weather lasted fine, it was not at [-42-] all an unpleasant life. Wet weather, of course, was bad for it. I've known it to rain that continuous while I've been doing a tramp of a dozen miles, that when I've got to the place I was making for, the things in my bundle have been soaked, and my front and cuffs so limp and soiled with the dye off my coat, it was impossible to wear them till they were washed and ironed again; and so I've lost the job. They used to call me the phantom waiter, I was down on 'em so sudden and unexpected, all spick and span and ready to go on duty.
    "Did they never find out how it was that I managed to turn up in my black suit, and with my pumps and white tie on, just at the nick of time? I recollect one time they did. It was down near Cobham, in Kent, at a beanfeast, and it was a beanfeaster who did it, I reckon. He must have watched me go into the shed, which was near a pea-field. I changed my things there in the morning, and hid the old ones behind a cart-tilt there. It turned out wet in the evening, but I'd done pretty well among the company, and I meant to get into my travelling rig and push on to Strood, where I knew of a chance of a job next day. But when I came to look behind the cart-tilt for my old coat and trousers, they were gone - boots, billycock hat, everything. It was no use hunting for them, they were nowhere to be found. So I came out of the shed, wondering where on earth I should make inquiries, when there I saw in the middle of the pea-field my entire suit, stuffed out with hay and hung on a pole for a scarecrow. It would not have mattered so much, but they had been in the rain several hours and were drenched through, and to make it worse the confounded joker who had done it must have told the landlord and a few more, for while I was carrying the blessed dummy back to the shed to unstuff it, there they were to meet me. Of course my secret was out then, and though they treated me to a bed and breakfast and dried the clothes for me, I never showed my face near Cobham again.
    "I didn't show my face anywhere in that line of business much after that. I got rheumatism, and was that stiff in my j'ints I couldn't tackle the miles of walking, and it was no use without. Besides the rheumatism, my age began to tell on me.
    "It's no use denying it, when a man turns of seventy, waiter or no waiter, he can't expect to be as firm on his pins and as [-43-] ready for work as a younger man, and he's bound to get pushed aside. That's how I found it. The respectable places, where I used to have an evening a week or so, grumbled at my being slow, and gave me the cold shoulder, till at last I was glad to take a job at places where I d feel ashamed to have been seen in more well-to-do times. For several months this last winter I had four evenings a week at one of the lowest dancing and drinking saloons in Shadwell. No wages, only two threepenn'orths of what I liked to drink, and what I could pick up amongst the drunken sailors and the women. There wasn't much left for me after they had done their fleecing, and many a time, even though I've sold my two threepenn'orths to customers, and took the money for it, I've come away at one in the morning with no more than fourteen or fifteenpence in my pocket - I, who had once waited on Royalty, and who have had allusions made to my eyes and limbs by a real marquis, as free and familiar as though we were each other's equals. But, bad as it was, I should have been glad to have kept on with it. But one night I saw a woman take a sailor's money-bag out of the bosom of his shirt where he had stowed it for safety, and when he accused her, and sent for a policeman, I told what I had seen, and I had to go to the police station and see her charged. I wasn't aware of the rash thing I was doing. When I got back to the public house, I was set on and beat so brutally that I could scarcely stand. 'And serve you jolly well right,' said the landlord, when I told him; 'serve you right if they'd knocked your ugly old head off. Take yourself off, or I shall be tempted to do it myself.'
    "So that s how I got the sack from the last place I ever had, and I went down and down, till I looked on it as certain it was all over with me, and I was as good as gone, when all of a sudden comes my boy's letter, and I'm lifted up sky-high again."