Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Diddler Domesticus

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DIDDLER DOMESTICUS.

Diddlers generally, their tricks and Propensities - Diddler Domesticus - Young housekeepers his favourite victims  -D. the Peripatetic cabinet-maker - The Canterbury and whatnot fake - D. the Brummagem electro-plate hawker - D. the coalheaver - The lame horse and the disowned Wallsends - The king of great double D's, the dairyproduce duffer - The cheese dodge - The fresh butter "do"  - The ketchup bottle trick - Home-bred ducks and chickens - Dirt cheap, with a vengeance.

IN these burglarious times the careful husband and father who every morning departs by bus or rail from his suburban villa residence to attend to his daily duties in the City should be able to feel some degree of confidence that, during his absence, his domicile will be secure against lawless marauders. It is hardly possible that ruffians will, in broad daylight, and with face becraped and grasping a six-shooter, break in and make a demand for the spoons and any amount of ready cash that may happen to be on the premises. There are rogues abroad who will not hesitate to assail his domestic stronghold even at noonday. They are of one family, heartless as they are artful, and their name is Diddler.
    It is a very large family, and the majority of its members affect walks in life superior to those the Diddlers here treated of have made their own. But though the nefarious operations of the latter never at any time rise above the mean and paltry, it is doubtful if their more accomplished relations, who stoop to nothing short of wholesale swindling, have caused their victims anything like as much annoyance and vexation. Forewarned is forearmed, and as the scoundrels in question are as active as ever seeking whom they may devour, a brief narration of their tricks and impostures may prove not unprofitable reading, especially for thriftily-disposed but inexperienced young housewives, who naturally desire to stand well in the esteem of their husbands - men of moderate income, probably-as being fully equal to the matters of bargaining and buying to the responsibilities of their position.
    This is where Diddler Domesticus shows himself as treacherous a rascal as he is a cunning. He is fully aware of the sort [-90-] of serio-comic condition of affairs that frequently exists between young couples but a year or so established in a home of their own as regards domestic economy. The husband may laugh good-naturedly at his wife's blunders of household management, but it is no joke to have to pay for them out of a limited purse. She may not be such a prodigy of innocence in such matters as David Copperfield's Dora, who, when her husband expressed a wish for a bit of salmon, went straight to the fishmonger's and ordered a fish of seventeen pounds weight, and she should not be so silly as the same "child-wife", who, when the leg of mutton was exhausted, suggested a leg of beef by way of a light and pleasant change; but until she has attained some amount of worldly wisdom she will occasionally make small mistakes, and he rallied thereon by her husband - who, of course, is never on any occasion overreached or taken in in his dealings, great or small.
    Under such circumstances, what wonder is it that the young wife should be constantly on the alert for an opportunity of doing such a splendid stroke of business in the bargain-buying way as shall henceforth put her husband to silence, and set her sagacity and shrewdness beyond question? It is this, the inexperienced housekeeper's weakness, that Diddler sometimes preys on. He comes in so many different shapes, it would be difficult to enumerate them, and as a rule his "get-up" is perfection itself. He is particularly partial to the fancy cabinet-work dodge. He does not appear in the fustian or corduroy of the ordinary hawker. He is a respectable though dejected tradesman. He wears a black coat and a tall hat, and a cabinetmaker's white apron. He does not himself carry the articles he wishes to dispose of - a decent-looking lad, presumably his apprentice, who, poor young fellow, is as shame-faced as his master, is the bearer of them. He has a lady's "whatnot," a "Canterbury," and two or three elegant workboxes to dispose of. He humbly hopes that he has given no offence in calling, and his voice grows husky, and there are tears in his eyes as he declares he is sure the lady would pardon him if she knew the hard necessity that has driven him to such a course. The articles are of his own make and of the very best West-end quality but, through the expenses Attendant on the long illness of his bedridden wife, he has an execution for rent in his house, and [-91-] is bound to make any sacrifice to raise a little money. He could get more - much more - at the furniture shops for the goods than he is now willing to take for them, but he dare not offer them. It would ruin him if he so lowered himself in the eyes of the "trade." The lady shall have either of the work-boxes for the cost price of the pearl they are inlaid with, which is seven shillings and ninepence each box; or she can have the whatnot or the Canterbury for the bare price of the mahogany, which is twelve and sixpence. The lady does not know anything about the value of such things ; no, and sadly he begs her pardon if he remarks that anybody might see that at a glance, or she wouldn't hesitate to give twelve and sixpence for an article the price of which in Oxford Street would be two guineas at the very least.
    And glistening in varnish, the things look remarkably cheap. There is pearl enough in each box-lid to cover a small tea-tray. It does not seem quite right to take advantage of the poor man's necessity, but think of the triumph of securing such bargains, and astonishing her husband when he comes home. Will the disconsolate cabinet-maker take ten shillings for the whatnot - six for the workbox? No, lady, he will not do that, he replies, firmly though respectfully. He would sooner even let things take their course in his wretched home ; but what he will do, at a word, is to take seventeen-and-six for the two. And that is what Mr. Diddler does take, and walks off, well satisfied with ten shillings profit on the transaction, while his victim has to endure the mortification of being laughed at by her husband for the acquisition of slop-made rubbish that would have been dear at half what she has given for it.
    There are members of the family Diddler Domesticus who "travel" with tea; with flower-bulbs and garden seeds of the choicest qualities, but which, with strange perversity, belie their horticultural appellations, and come up as parsley; dress-lengths of Lyons silk that turn out to be three-fourths cotton; and proof engravings of famous pictures at the ridiculously low price of five shillings each, but which really have been printed from wornout and battered plates, and may be purchased in Houndsditch at the rate of five shillings a dozen.
    Beware of him in the guise of a well-spoken and well-dressed gentlemanly man who has been entrusted with a commission to [-92-] dispose of by "private contract" a valuable bankrupt stock of plated goods. Turn a deaf ear to his plausible explanation that this novel way of realizing as much as possible for the creditors is resorted to in order to avoid the extortionate charges and the ruinous sacrifice of an unreserved public auction, and under no pretence be induced to inspect the samples of the said stock he carries with him in an unimpeachable travelling bag. Resplendent with their recent washing of silver, the tea and coffee services and the forks and spoons appear to be worth at least three times what he asks for them, but a week's wear will restore to them their proper complexion, which is that of the commonest pewter.
    Nor does Diddler Domesticns always affect respectability. There are members of the family - a very large number indeed - who never aspire to genteel swindling. Their cunning tricks and devices for the circumvention of the unsuspicious householder are such as the most cautious might fall a victim to - as, for example, who would for a moment imagine that the Diddler interest could be represented by a seemingly blunt and honest coalheaver? - a distressed heaver, with a load of trouble on his mind in the shape of two tons of coal, vainly seeking to be comforted.
    In this character it is not necessary for the impostor to take a mean advantage of the master of the house being from home. He appears at dusk of evening, or in the darkness of early night, in some quiet road in the suburbs, with his laden waggon brought to a standstill, and with his face perplexed and his very fantail askew on his head, he is so whelmed in bewilderment. He modestly rings at the area bell, and civilly inquires of the servant can she direct him to the address written on the back of the printed delivery ticket he holds in his hand? The servant cannot. She never heard of such a place as Crocus Terrace.
    "Oh, dear! oh, dear!" exclaims the poor man, "then I suppose I shall have to take 'em back after all. I've been searching about for that there address, Miss, these four hours. They must have writ it wrong at the counting-house, I suppose. Would you be so kind as to go and ask the master or the missus if they know where Crocus Terrace is?"
    It is possible, if the servant complies, and the master of the house is a kind-hearted man, that he may himself come to the [-93-] door. Then let him beware. He examines the address, and the guileless waggoner directs his attention to the circumstance that the delivery note is for two tons of the best Wallsends at thirty shillings a ton. No. The master is as ignorant as the maid of the whereabouts of Crocus Terrace.
    "It isn't so much the taking 'em back," remarks the coalman ruefully; "it's getting 'em back. The fact is, sir, my horse is took that ill that it's real cruel to ask him to drag a couple of tons to King's Cross - which it's a matter of five miles. I suppose, sir, you couldn't find room for half of 'em, or all of 'em, in your coal-cellar? You should have 'em at the price of seconds - for five and twenty shillings a ton. If you could be so obliging, I'm sure master would approve of what I done, and be thankful to you as well. It wouldn't hurt the poor animal to walk him back gently with the empty waggon."
    It is a plausible story. It would be an act of charity to relieve the poor horse of his load and the poor man of his trouble. It would be a stroke of economy to purchase a couple of tons of coal at five shillings a ton less than the invoiced value. There cannot be any mistake as to this last, because there is the evidence of the delivery note.
    "But are you sure your master will sanction your selling the coals at the price?" is perhaps asked.
    "WeII, I put it to you, sir," says the considerate carman "wouldn't master be better pleased to lose ten shillings on the coals there than have ten pound value took off a horse through over-straining it when it s unfit?"
    With such arguments the bargain is driven to a conclusion, and the grateful "coaley" takes his departure with two pounds ten in his pocket, leaving as an equivalent twenty sacks of vile rubbish not worth half thirty shillings.
    But Diddler Domestictus of this class is seen at his best, perhaps, when he enacts the part of the countryman in London with home-grown fruit and vegetables and dairy produce to dispose of. His account of himself is charmingly simple if the good-natured lady of the house at which he makes a call will listen to him.
    "D' ye see, ma'am, we've got a sort of a little cottage farm of our own. We're only in a small way, but what we do raise is of the very best. But what's the good of us taking it to the [-94-] market near the village where we live? I do assure you, ma'am, that the price the wholesale dealers offer has often brought the tears into our eyes, as my missus can tell you. So at last we talked it over, and we said, Why not make up a good cartload two or three times a week of one thing and another, and carry it up to'rds London and sell it out retail at the private houses? The profits may not be large, we says to one another, but, such as they are, we shall have 'em all without dividing 'em with anybody else. And so here we are, ma'am, and if so be you want a little fruit or wedgetables of a man's own growing, or a chicken or duck of that man's own wife's killing, or a few pounds of rare good cheese, why, we shall be wery grateful if you will give us a turn."
    And in corroboration of his artless story there is his "missus, and the cart, and the horse in its shafts. As for the man himself, he is a countryman from the crown of his battered old brown beaver hat to his bootlaces. His cotton neckerchief is neatly tied, his decent sage-green smock frock is so long that it half conceals his leggings of russet leather, and them are indications of the farmyard about his heavy ankle-jacks that even a Cockney might swear to.
    Behold his "missus." Who but a woman of rustic breeding and habits could wear a straw bonnet perched on her head with such hay-field rakishness? Who but a real countrywoman would wear her shawl crossed in front and tied behind? Who but a person accustomed to cross the daisied rnead at early morn, and when the dew lies reeking, to milk the cows, could "tuck up" the skirts of her tidy gown so nattily? But, if you still require further proof of the bona fides of the whole affair, look at the horse and cart. Town carts are not provided with sackcloth tilts, neither are their wheels beplastered with such clay and mire. That is only to be found in lanes remote from the busy highways, while as for the horse, it is refreshing almost as the scent of growing clover to contemplate him. There is meadow mud on his shaggy uncurricombed sides, his tangled mane is adorned with bits of red braid, and his ears are encased in twine netting to protect them from flies, and the hand of the village maker proclaims itself in every strap of the animal's clumsy harness.
    A shrewd survey of these things having satisfied the probable [-95-] customer, comes the question, What has the pair of enterprising rustics got to sell? It soon appears that their leading article, and that on which they most pride themselves, is cheese.
    "But don't you take my word for it, ma'am," says the honest fellow, as he produces from the cart a piece of a dozen pounds weight or so.; "good cheese is an article that wants no backing up with words - taste and try for yourself, that's the fairest way."
    What possibly can be fairer? The plain-dealing countryman produces a cheese-taster, and thrusting it into the bulk, withdraws a nice-looking plug of it, and which he offers for tasting. Should the intended victim be a good judge of cheese, so much the better for the impostor's purpose. The sample submitted is all that the most fastidious palate could desire. It is a rich mellow cheese of excellent flavour, and such as can be procured nowhere in London for less than a shilling a pound. The price the simple rustic asks for it is only ninepence a pound.
    "Take the piece, eightpence halfpenny?"
    It is a marvel of cheapness, and it seems a little too bad to "bate" the poor man. Will he take eightpence a pound for the piece? Well, really, he didn't ought, but you are sure to be a regular customer ever afterwards, and he will; and the fourteen pounds of cheese at eightpence is weighed and delivered.
    "Anything else?- any butter?" Of the wife's own making, only the day before, from the milk of his two grass-fed cows. "If you don't care to buy there's no harm in looking." And a couple of rolls of butter are produced and tasted.
    No butter ever was nicer - quite as good as that for which the cheesemonger charges one and eightpence per pound. The price of this, however, is but sixteenpence. Three or four pounds at such an extraordinary low figure cannot be a bad investment, and the butter is purchased.
    "Anything else? Would the lady like a couple of bottles of first-rate mushroom ketchup? " made by the wife herself from mushrooms picked out of the fields round about the little cottage farm. Only a shilling the pint and a half winebottle. He would willingly uncork a bottle and let the lady smell and taste it, but it spoilt the look of it for another customer if she didn't happen to buy; but if an honest man's word might be taken, [-96-] there is not a better drop of ketchup to be got in all England. And on the strength of the proved and undoubted goodness of the butter and the cheese, a couple of bottles of the ketchup are added to the purchase, and nothing more being at present required, the artless dairy-farmer pockets the twelve or fourteen shillings and with respectful thanks departs. 
    Now in what way has the rascal victimized his customer, the reader may ask? It could only be in the weight of the articles, for since both the butter and the cheese were tasted before they were bought, there could be no imposture there. Would, for the credit sake of that guileless country couple, it were so. There is a mystery about the transaction that, to the bewildered purchaser, savours almost of witchcraft. It must be, and yet undoubtedly it is not, the same cheese as that tasted! There could be no doubt in the world that it is the identical quarter of a cheese into which the countryman stuck the "taster," and it is equally certain that the sample submitted was in every respect satisfactory. How, then, has it changed within a few hours to a lump of ill-tasting stuff not worthy the name of cheese at all?
    My dear madam, it has not changed. The simple explanation is that the article you tasted was not the cheese you bought, or, more correctly speaking, the sample that was handed to you at the tip of the taster, although drawn from the bulk, did not honestly represent it. A small piece of a really good cheese had been skilfully inserted in place of a plug of corresponding size previously removed, and it was from this the test-piece was taken, as you may easily satisfy yourself now that you are provided with a clue to the imposture.
    But the butter! Thank goodness such a cheat is impossible with that article. Possibly ; though it is not improbable that the ingenious Mr. Diddler might successfully attempt it did he have no easier method of palming off the cheapest and vilest "butterine" for the best dairy "fresh." But he has an easier method. The beauty of the butter rolls, wrapped in spotless linen, is but skin deep. In other words, the inner roll of uneatable nastiness is, as you will find the moment you cut it, cased over with fresh butter to the thickness of about a quarter of an inch, an arrangement that provides a very substantial profit to the seller when the precious compound realizes sixteenpence the pound.
    [-97-] After this it is perhaps necessary to state that the genuine home-made ketchup will turn out to be something more in the nature of weak tea than what it was represented as being. It is a money loss and a vexing disappointment, but there is some consolation in knowing that it might have been worse. The smock-frocked innocent from "Harfor'shire," but who has a more convenient town residence in a back street in Bethnal Green, carries in that delusive cart of his some equally astonishing bargains in shape of chickens, and ducks, and geese, all fed and fattened, as he will tell you, by that simple-minded old person, his "missus." They are such plump-looking birds, and withal so marvellously heavy in the hand, considering their size, that it would seem that she must have had a way peculiarly her own of feeding them. Anyhow, such geese must be dirt cheap, already trussed for roasting, at tenpence a pound. "Dirt" cheap, alas! they eventually prove themselves to be, when the two or three pounds of wet sand, artfully entombed in their interior, are discovered.

source: James Greenwood, Odd People in Odd Places, 1883