Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 24 - Thoughts about London Beggars

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THOUGHTS ABOUT LONDON BEGGARS

    QUIET streets are great godsends to beggars. Your great thoroughfares are heard-hearted [-sic-] things. People in the bustle and crowd won't unbutton their pockets; but your quiet streets, cul de sacs especially, seem made for beggars and late-in-the-morning ash-boxes. The beggar has such a claim upon the very last house in the street; he has come all the way to beg your charity, with a mournful whine over the rails; one feels he has had faith in the charity of the last house (at least a person of fine susceptibility, would feel so), and dependence on the kindness of human nature, we fancy, does not always go unrewarded. We have lived in a quiet street now for some time, and are up to all their doubles, and, as in most other things, we have our favourites among them, however sneaking our regard might be for the whole family. Beggars divide themselves in several classes:— the humorous, the poetical, the sentimental, the dodgey, and the sneaking. The humorous beggar is for our money; we cannot get a sight of him often, however, for, like a pair of skates, he is only of use in a hard frost, aided perhaps by a driving sleet. On such a day, whilst a man is making himself a peculiarly warm triangle before [-238-] the fire, in the way in which Englishmen are so accustomed to, and in the true spirit of Christian feeling, pitying the poor devils their red noses as they pass on such a day we may be pretty sure of our prime favourites. There is no mistaking them; we hear their stentorian lungs in the far-off streets louder and louder, until they burst upon our sight, with bare feet, naked chests, white ducks, and navy-cut jackets shipwrecked seamen, just cast ashore from St. Giles's. Bravely against the cutting sleet and splitting frost do they struggle up the road. 'Tis worth a penny, sitting by one's fire, to see the self-torture of the rascals, their feet well nigh sticking to the freezing flags. Let them pass on, to make soft the hearts of mothers who have sons at sea. They are jolly dogs, and worth their money to those who laugh before they give.
    Again, that old grumbling song rambling up and down, gusty as the wind round a church corner! The day is fine, and we may have an out-of-door peep at the picturesque singer the ship upon his head, the cubby-house upon his back it seems all cast in one as if they had been out in a great heat, and had gradually fused together. Numberless suggestions arise at his sight is the little girl in the cage his daughter? If so, he is not quite friendless; but he can never see her but once a day, when he puts her in, and he is obliged to talk round the corner to her. Does he go to sleep with that nautical sort of nightcap on? He is decidedly a suggestive beggar, and therefore a poetical one. To find the sentimental class, we must trudge off to the Strand, or some larger thoroughfare, as they are a passive race sought rather than seeking, and are to be found showing their wares off [-239-] upon some snug door-step. The finest specimen of this class is the woman with twins, a little suckling on each side: this is a sure card; few can stand twins, especially young married people. If such a couple happens to come by, the wife pities the "poor little dears," and the husband, poor fellow, thinks his turn may come next, so it's a ready penny for her. We have even known a single child, well displayed, and of an interesting age say three years old  draw well. There used to be a woman in the Strand who had a beautiful child, that she would set to sleep, to show its profile. A gentleman of our acquaintance could never pass her without dropping a sixpence into her lap, and when rallied for his extravagance, his answer was irresistible, at least to a father, "'Twas so much like his little Mary." The large hauls, we fancy, fall to the share of the sentimental beggar, but the dodgey class pick up a few pence. In this category we place all those who have been driven by the harsh rigour of the mendicity officers into petty subterfuges, which have utterly spoiled their characters as bold beggars. The peppermint-dropper is, perhaps, the best type of the class we could pick out. Her chief haunt is in front of the National Gallery, and the day must be wet and dirty. The artiste, generally a little girl (to get up a cry easily), and the mode of procedure very simple. She carries a little pocket of peppermint lozenges, which she pretends to vend at so many a penny; she unfortunately manages, however, to run up against people, and get pushed down, with her lily-white peppermints all in the mud. They make such a show when against the black ground, all speckled over. "That gentleman shoved me down," she cries, pointing to the [-240-]  person she run against. The gentleman gives her a fourpenny-bit to set her up in business again, and passes on. Ah! what are you doing up in that corner there, little girl? licking them white again, as I am alive, and preparing for a new upset! It will be observed, however, that a butcher's boy swaggering along may send her spinning in the road, and she will only clutch her merchandize the more firmly; but let a decent black coat come near her, or a kind-looking old lady in pattens, and the difference will soon be seen. A great example is this child of the evils of mendicity societies. They will not let her beg boldly, so she must turn a dodger, and a very clever one she is in the long run. The sneaking beggar ah, there he is, half naked, without anything on his head, rubbing his hands along the railings as he goes, to look as if he was after nothing. A fine eye he has for fiddle-handle teaspoon, or an area door ajar; he is essentially a quiet-street young gentleman he loves retirement training in this way by degrees, we suppose, for the seclusion of the penitentiary. "Kind gentleman, give a poor boy a penny." No almsman could say it with a more genuine tone; even such as he reap a rich harvest from good-meaning, unsuspecting old ladies. There is another class of beggars worthy of notice, the "Poor Jacks," the crossing-sweepers; and a polite race they are. "Thank you, sir!" seems to come as readily from their lips, whether you give or not, if you only speak kindly. Some men think they have a right to march across a cleanly-swept path, and never pay. According to the first principles of the political economists, they are wrong. "If a man," Bentham would say, "picks a wild apple from a tree, it is more his than another's, [-241-] he has imparted some of his labour, and therefore has a prior claim to it." The crossing-sweeper surely imparts some of his labour, and deserves a. return for the benefit you reap from it. People should not fancy their pennies are so difficult to get at; to unbutton a coat is easy, but to go without a pennyworth of bread, as your poor almsman may, is very hard. And do not throw it down on the ground when you have got it out, but give it into the man's hand like a Christian; they are only fools and parvenues that treat poverty with contempt. As the wet days get fine, it is high fun to see what shifts they are put to to show something for their money; brush, brush, brush, till the stones are polished. The man who can longest hold out against a dry week is the sweeper of Lansdowne-passage, beside Lansdowne-house. We remember watching him one fine day, as we were passing, sweeping, in a grave and business-like manner, a little heap of dust from one end of the lane to the other. The next day we happened to be passing the same passage, but in an opposite direction; when we came to the end there was our old friend the sweeper, leaning his hand upon his brush, and contemplating the self-same little heap of dust, tastefully brushed up all round into a little cone, not bigger than the sand in a good-sized hour glass. The sight was almost melancholy. We believe he gave it up soon afterwards, shouldered his brush, and hied to "fresh fields and pastures new; " but how that little heap must have journeyed backwards and forwards before it was allowed to rest in peace! The sweepers have their regular crossings, and if an interloper should happen to step in, he will soon find out he is on leasehold property, and [-242-] must budge. They are not very lucrative posts, although there is a tradition about the holder of the richest (the Bank crossing) keeping his country house and his cab. The highest sum ever got by any of them at one time, that we could hear upon inquiry, was a sixpence, and a "Dialogue between Richard and Harry," a religious tract, given by a good lady of the Mrs. Fry class. A man should put halfpence in his pocket in bad weather; it is well to purchase a "God bless you! " even if you know that your eleemosynary copper goes the next moment to one of the gin-shops, which, like a moral scurvy, seem to have seized upon every joint and corner of the metropolitan anatomy. We know a gentleman who is so scrupulously honest on the point of rewarding the sweepers, that if, when he came home, he remembered that he had passed one of them without giving, he would issue out again, and, by way of punishment, give largess to every sweeper in the neighbourhood. A fine spirit moved him a rare one, indeed, in these hard utilitarian times. Beggars are sadly gone down in this England of ours they should all be Catholic, the true religion of mendicants. They might then, by chance, have their feet washed by the Pope on Holy Thursday, and be thus made aristocrats among their fellows for life. As a class, all the poetry is gone out of them. At the door of some almshouse, an old woman may still be seen with her clack-dish before her at certain seasons of the year the last of her race reminding one of times long past, when there were no such things as mendicity societies, and charity was considered a thing which
"Blesses him that gives, and him that takes."