Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - The Queen of "Clubs"

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A valuable Christmas Club connection - Some particulars of Mr. Bragster's establishment at Walworth - Poor mothers far-sightcd Christmas carefulness - The precious "card,'' and the pains and penalties of harbouring it - Strange hiding-place for it - The pudding card in father's hat - Narrow escape from drowning - An anxious time and a family council - 'Has mother joined a club this year? "- Hopes and fears, and the joyful realization.

I WAS always aware that of all English feasts and festivals, fixed or movable, including Easter and Whitsun, Good Friday, and the Bank Holidays, there is not one that, in the estimation of the working classes generally, can for a moment compare with Christmas Day; but I scarcely thought that the practice of commencing to make preparations for the great event several months before its happening was so universal, until an advertisement in a newspaper enlightened me.
    It was as follows: "Grocery Business to be Disposed of in Street, Walworth. Good business, with Christmas Club attached, and which is annually increasing. Number of members this year 180. Money in hand for same at present time over 40; will amount to more than 100 by Christmas  -Apply for particulars, &c., &c."
    Advertisements respecting the disposal of businesses are not always compiled with a rigid regard for truth, but there could be no exaggeration in this statement concerning the Christmas club. The retiring grocer no doubt kept a separate ledger for his club customers, which an intending purchaser would be entitled to inspect, and the deposited money was a hard fact. But the number of "members" amazed me no less than the statement that they were annually increasing. As regards the first, I knew ---- Street, and though it might lay claim to being one of the busiest parts of Walworth, it at the same time was one of the poorest. It is a street with shops on either side of the way, and at a rough guess there must be at least half a dozen among them in the grocery line of business, and it was scarcely likely that the tradesman who had advertised was permitted by the others to enjoy an unopposed and profitable monopoly of a plum-pudding club. Supposing that only half the other [-150-] grocers had clubs, and that altogether they reckoned only as many members as the first-mentioned, that would bring the total up to three hundred and sixty. As far as it went this was very satisfactory, as bespeaking not only the willingness but the ability of so many persons of limited means to make timely provision for the festive season. Nobody knows so well as that most frugal of economists, the poor mother of a large family, how ready money is the key to bargain-buying; but surely it might be better, instead of receiving from the proprietor of the club what is represented to be the money's worth, to withdraw the ten or twelve shillings from the bank and take them to market, free to buy of those whose goads are the best and the cheapest. It was a subject that demanded some investigation, and having an hour to spare I ran over to ---- Street to see about it.
    It was evening, and the shops were bright with gaslight, and I soon discovered that my surmise as to there being more grocers' Christmas clubs than one hereabouts was correct. There were four such clubs from one end of the street to the other - the fact being announced in two instances by large posters in the windows, which had been there so long that they were quite faded and shabby. They were first stuck up at the beginning of August. "Be in time! be in time!" said the placard in the window of the grocer who owned to having a hundred and eighty members. "Bragster's Christmas Club commences August 5th. Pay what you please and when you like. Fair value for your money, and no restriction as to the selection of goods. P.S - Be cautious which club you join, as it must be a sad disappointment to go with a fully paid-up card on Christmas Eve, and find the grocer's shop shut up."
    Although there was a smack of malice in the postscript, and a tone that indicated that Mr. Bragster was not on terms of brotherly love with the neighbouring grocers, the candour and frankness with which the terms on which he was willing to do business with the public were stated nothing could equal - except it was its impudence. Not only was Mr. Bragster ready to receive any sum you might please to lodge with him at any time, but you had his positive promise that, come withdrawing-time, you should not be embarrassed by his insisting on you taking as your money's worth any goods he might be particularly desirous of getting rid of - an encumbrance of washing powder,  [-151-] for instance, or his surplus stock of tinned beef - but have the privilege of taking your choice of articles that suited you, for all the world as though you paid cash down on his counter. No wonder that under a system so liberal his Christmas club patrons were annually increasing.
    The other shops tried boldly to outbid Bragster - at least one did. "All members of our club paying up the full amount of fifteen shillings," said the placard in this instance, " will be presented with a bottle of British or foreign wine." To be sure, there was a magnanimity in giving the member a choice in the matter of the vinous bonus, but not a word, mark you, as to the absence of restrictions in the selection of goods. Another competing club proprietor promised a present of a set of handsome jugs, or half a dozen knives and forks, to all members paying in the sum of twenty shillings. But here came in a possible application of Bragster's postscript. Promises and piecrust! says Bragster. Half a dozen knives and forks arc certainly a handsome present, but if it should happen that when the fully paid-up card is carried to the shop on Christmas Eve it is found that, &c., &c., it would be awkward.
    I discovered other Christmas clubs besides those held at the grocers' in the same neighbourhood. Goose clubs at public houses, at which the members who paid its full value were entitled to receive a goose on condition that they likewise paid in advance, and by weekly instalments, for a bottle of gin, rum, or brandy; and other public house clubs, at which subscriptions were received for spirits only, every member who, between August and the 25th of December, paid up as many shillings as amounted to a sovereign, to be entitled to receive as much spirits and wine as would provide an inebriate family with the materials for intoxication right to the back end of Boxing Day. But, from what I was enabled to gather, it is the grocer who does the lion's share of the Christmas club business, the goose clubs ranking next.
    Being Saturday night, I expected to see the shops where these clubs were held doing a brisk trade with subscription card-holders, but I was informed it was not the open transaction I supposed it to be. There is a deal of secresy about it, it being the custom amongst poor mothers to keep the matter from the knowledge of the husband and children, no matter how hard [-152-] they may be pushed at home to keep up the weekly payments, so as to provide an agreeable surprise for the family on Christmas Eve. It may well be asked what is the compensating satisfaction that the poor mother derives from this plotting and planning, and what it is that upholds and encourages her to make secret self-sacrifice so that she may continue the pious imposture to the happy end? Why does she not announce her praiseworthy determination from the commencement? If it made any difference at all, it must be in her favour. Her husband and such of her boys and girls as earned a little money would be only too happy to assist her amiable endeavour, and the shilling a week might be raised with scarcely any pinching and scraping on her part to speak of.
    But poor mother knows better than to trust to anything of the kind. If she made known from the first - the commencement of August, that is to say - her intention to join a goose and a pudding club, at that time, at all events, she would meet with but lukewarm support. Where was the need for thinking about Christmas before even the summer was at an end? Where was the use of being blessed with fine weather if the limited means one had of enjoying the same were to be taxed to provide for an event that was at present five months in prospective? And, even supposing the husband and such of the children as were able did contribute an occasional trifle while the autumn lasted and wages were at the best, their generosity would be sure to chill as the days grew shorter, and the earnings in consequence fell off. They might still assist in the good cause if anything like pressure was put on them, but they would do so grudgingly, and all the time cherish a spite against the unoffending goose while it was yet a gosling, and against the pudding ere its fruit had set sail from the country of its growth. The flavour of both roast and boiled would be discounted long before they became due; and though the Christmas dinner, as a matter of course, would be praised as the very best that ever was eaten, the commendation would be bestowed not without unspoken reservation. It was all very good, and so it ought to be, considering how many times they, the contributing members of the family, had gone short so as to save up for it.
    Besides, were it commonly known that the two sixpences a week were being hoarded, the accumulating money would never [-153-] be absolutely safe and secure for the sacred purpose for which it was being put by. Between August and Christmas-time there would almost certainly occur a season of ill luck. There would be some sickness, or father would be out of work for a week or so, or some other domestic calamity would upset the family calculations, and then wistful eyes would he cast on the two subscription cards and the terms of contract inscribed thereon "Pay in what you like, and have it out how you like and when you please." Why not act on the suggestions the tradesmen in question were bound to abide by? Unless some desperate endeavour were made, to-morrow - Sunday - would be memorable in their family history as one of exceptionally short commons. Why not draw on the cards, at all events, to the extent of materials for a dinner? The goose club man sold bacon and pork ; why not buy just a small joint of him, and settle for it by permitting him to score off so much of the goose money he held already in hand? It wouldn't be like knocking the affair on the head altogether. Better times would be sure to come presently, and then it would be easy enough to make another start - to pay a shilling a week instead of sixpence, and so put the matter straight again before Christmas-time. Mother would undoubtedly protest against the specious proposition, and declare her utter disbelief in it ; but when the cupboard is bare, and Sunday is to-morrow, the most strong-minded female head of a family is apt to yield, and she would in the end give in.
    And, shrewd as hard experience has taught her to be, she foresees this possibility, and it furnishes her with one of the many good reasons she has for making the goose and pudding clubs her secrets. The marvel is, how she contrives to repeat the same performance year after year, and carry it through to a triumphant consummation. One would naturally suppose that at the second, or at all events the third attempt, she must fail in arranging for a genuine and delightful surprise for the family circle on Christmas Eve. It might reasonably be assumed that, taking after their parent in the matter of shrewdness, the children old enough to understand matters would not be easily taken in after a time or two; but this is where the poor mother is put on her mettle. What fun can she find in hoarding in secret ? Why, not very much, perhaps, when those about her have no suspicion that she is doing so, but any amount of fun [-154-] when she has to exercise all her ingenuity to baffle artful inquirers and keep her precious earths from prying eyes.
    She has in some way to alter her tactics and to invent a new set of manoeuvres each succeeding year. She has to tax her ingenuity to find a new hiding-place for the tell-tale documentary evidence of her savings. This is a most important part of the business. She is aware that as the day of days more closely approaches, and the probability - the bare possibility, even - of her doing this year as last, is privately and anxiously discussed among her boys and girls, a rigid search will be made, and even the most unlikely places ransacked, to discover the receipt cards. She recollects that time when she very nearly overreached herself by a cunning contrivance to outwit the inquisitive ones.
    She laid the two cards under the crown lining of her husband's Sunday hat, and it used to afford her immense amusement when Christmas-time was coming on and the prospects were by no means so brilliant as they might have been. They would be taking a walk, maybe, on Sunday evening, and she would mischievously make doleful allusions to the forthcoming festive season, to the poor affair it promised to be with them this year; and he, by this time more than half surmising that the annual glorious surprise would fail him this Christmas, would in melancholy sympathy shake his head, with the hat on it, and with the precious cards in the lining, which, had they been shaken only a little more vigorously, would have betrayed her with their rattling. It was an excellent joke indeed until a catastrophe wellnigh happened. They were crossing Blackfriars Bridge on a Sunday evening in the early part of December, and all of a sudden a gust of wind took the hat, and away it went over the parapet, and into the river. Luckily the accident happened near the landing stairs, and never did wife bestir herself so energetically to recover her husband's imperilled property. It was she who was first down the steps, and ere he had reached the first landing, and stood bareheaded, holding his hair on in bewilderment, she had already bargained with a boatman to fetch up the floating beaver for sixpence. It was she who took it from the rescuer's hand ; it was she who did her best to dry it with her apron ; it was she who dexterously, and before his very eyes, took out the lining (something else with it), on the plea that it was wet through, and might give him a cold. When [-155-] they reached home he made merry concerning her fright, and the fuss she had made; but she didn't mind that, since he never knew the reason why until the evening of the 24th.
    Then it was her time to laugh, as she revealed the Thames-stained vouchers for "a fine fat goose, weighing not less than ten pounds," and for the ingredients for the Christmas pudding, with the sugar, and just the same as last year and the year before; but on this occasion the good things were invested with a spice of romance that gave them an unusually good Christmas flavour. They were salvage from a wreck, in a manner of speaking, and the children opened their eyes and listened with bated breath while "mother" pridefully related how that, instigated by her, the boatman put off in his skiff, and in the nick of time rescued the frail vessel in which the all-important receipts were deposited, just as it had filled and was settling down in deep water. It was only natural that, now the time was ripe for the revelation, she should make it; but for the sake of the future it would have been better had she said nothing about it, since the eyes of all concerned were opened to her illimitable powers of resource as well as to her consummate ability to keep any secret connected with Christmas in the face of the most desperate difficulties. Each year she had formally announced, when the festivities were at an end and there was nothing left to feast on, that, in order that the family might not be disappointed, she gave them timely warning that she intended never again to have anything to do with either goose or pudding clubs. That the worry of them, to say nothing of the constant drag on her week's allowance of housekeeping money, was more than she could bear, and she assured them that if they indulged in hopes to the contrary they would be deceived.
    And the worry and the drag being undeniable, in all probability, at the time, she speaks in perfect earnestness ; but she will alter her mind as certain as the grocer will, come the time, put out his placard, " Our Christmas Club has commenced." And the difficulty is, she dare not, for conscience' sake, flatly disavow the renunciation of her anti-goose-club declarations should the question be plainly put to her. She can only evade it, and affect that she is too much provoked by the bare supposition that such a thing is this year possible to find patience to talk about it. Besides, did she not distinctly make it understood [-156-] last Christmas that she would never again be troubled with Christmas club cards? Very well, then. And what, pray, has happened since then to make anybody think she may have thought better of it, even if she had the means, which this year she has not, goodness knows? Should exceptionally hard times prevail just about the time when the great yellow posters concerning the cattle show appear on the walls, and the grocers dismantle their shop windows of the ordinary commonplace display to make room for the prodigious heaps of newly-imported Christmas fruit, garnished with mighty mounds of candied lemon and citron-peel, the momentous question, " Has mother joined the clubs this year or has she not?" is more anxiously and frequently discussed, in mother's absence, of course.
    It is the older boys and girls who manifest the keenest interest in the matter. Perhaps father could if he chose set their minds at rest, and they take a favourable opportunity to "pump" him on the subject. But he is quite as much in the dark as they are, and he is even less hopeful. It is in vain they remind him of how closely mother kept the secret last year - every year, indeed, as long as they can remember - and how that she had always pursued her present tactics, and succeeded in driving them almost to despair. Keeping up the delusion right to the verge of Christmas Eve, when, after "piling up the agony" by affecting resignation to the doleful situation, and advising that, since there is no help for it, they had best make the best of a bad job, and be content for to-morrow's dinner with the nice Irish stew she intended to make for them, all of a sudden, and when "father " - his last lingering hope utterly dashed now - was sitting looking his glummest, she throws off the mask, and laughing, with tears in her honest eyes, flings her arms round his neck, and giving him a kiss, tells him to cheer up, since it was all right after all, and there was the club ticket fully paid up, and all he had to do was to put on his hat and run round to the Jolly Gardener and fetch the goose she had already selected, and the bottle of spirits, while she made a visit to the grocer. They remind him of all this, and though in reality his doleful foreboding is somewhat shaken by these various reminders, he shrinks from raising hopes that may not be realized, and still shakes his head, declining to give them comfort. They would get no more information out of him if [-157-] he knew all about it, or if he by accident had discovered such evidence as placed it wellnigh beyond a doubt that his wife (bless her kind heart!) was secretly saving, as she never yet failed to do, at Christmas-time. He wouldn't throw out so much as a hint advising the boys and girls of the actual state of affairs for the finest goose that ever cackled - no, not for a whole flock of them. He knows too well what her unspeakable pleasure is when the supreme moment arrives for her to make her annual revelation.