As need not be repeated here, a
boy’s estimate of earthy bliss might be conveniently contained in a
dinner-plate of goodly dimensions. When he first goes out to work, his pride and
glory is the parcel of food his mother makes up for the day’s consumption.
There he has it—breakfast, dinner, tea! Possibly he might get as much, or very
nearly, in the ordinary course of events at home, but in a piecemeal and ignoble
way. He never in his life possessed such a wealth of food, all his own, to do as
he pleases with. Eight—ten slices of bread and butter, and may be—especially
if it happen to be Monday—a slice of meat and a lump of cold pudding, relics
of that dinner of dinners, Sunday’s dinner!
His, all his, with nobody to say nay; but still only wealth in prospective! It is now barely seven o’clock, and, by fair eating, he will not arrive at that delicious piece of cold pork ‘with the crackling on it until twelve! It is a keen, bracing morning; he has already walked a mile or more; and it wants yet fully an hour and a half to the factory breakfast time. It is just as broad as it is long; suppose he draws on his breakfast allowance just to the extent of one slice? Only one, and that in stern integrity: the topmost slice without fee or favour! But, ah! the cruel fragrance of that juicy cut of spare-rib! It has impregnated the whole contents of the bundle; The crust of that abstracted slice is as savoury, almost, as the crisp-baked rind of the original. Six bites—”too brief for friendship, not for fame”—have consumed it, and left him, alas! hungrier than ever. Shall he? What—taste of the sacred slice? No. It isn’t likely. The pork is for his dinner. But the pudding—that is a supplemental sort of article; a mere extravagance when added to so much perfection as the luscious meat embodies. And out he hauls it; the ponderous abstraction afflicting the hitherto compact parcel with such a shambling looseness, that it is necessary to pause in one of the recesses of the bridge to readjust and tighten it. But, ah! rash boy! Since thou wert not proof against the temptation lurking in that slice of bread-and-butter, but faintly odorous of that maddening flavour, how canst thou hope to save thyself now that thou hast tasted of the pudding to which the pork was wedded in the baker’s oven? It were as safe to trust thee at hungry noon with a luscious apple-dumpling, and bid thee eat of the dough and leave the fruit. It is all over. Reason, discretion, the admonitions of a troubled conscience, were all gulped down with that last corner, crusty bit, so full of gravy. The bridge’s next recess is the scene of another halt, and of an utterly reckless spoliation of the dwindled bundle. And now the pork is consumed, to the veriest atom, and nought remains but four reproachful bread slices, that skulk in a Corner, and almost demand the untimely fate visited on their companions. Shall they crave in vain? No. A pretty bundle, this, to take to the factory for his mates to see. A good excuse will Serve his purpose better. He will engulf the four slices as he did the rest, and fold up his bag neatly, and hide it in his pocket, and, when dinner-time comes, he will profess that there is something nice at home, and he is going there to partake of it; while, really, he will take a dismal stroll, lamenting his early weakness, and making desperate vows for the future.
It is not, however, with Tom as the lucky owner of a filled food-bag that we have here to deal, but with Tom who at least five days out of the six is packed off to work with just as much bread and butter as his poor mother can spare off the family loaf. Now “going out to work” is a vastly different matter from going from home to school, and innocently playing between whiles. In the first place, the real hard work he has to perform (and few people would readily believe the enormous amount of muscular exertion these little fellows are capable of enduring), develops his appetite for eating to a prodigious extent. He finds the food he brings from home as his daily ration but half sufficient. What are a couple of slices of bread, with perhaps a morsel of cheese, considered as a dinner for a hearty boy who has perhaps trudged from post to pillar a dozen miles or so since his breakfast, carrying loads more or less heavy? He hungers for more, and more is constantly in his sight if he only had the means, a penny or twopence even, to buy it. He makes the acquaintance of other boys; he is drawn towards them in hungry, envious curiosity, seeing them in the enjoyment of what he so yearns after, and they speedily inform him how easy it is to make” not only a penny or twopence, but a sixpence or a shilling, if he has a mind. And they are quite right, these young counsellors of evil. The facilities for petty pilfering afforded to the shopkeeper’s errand-boy are such as favour momentary evil impulses. He need not engage in subtle plans for the purloining of a shilling or a shilling’s worth. The opportunity is at his fingers’ ends constantly. Usually he has the range of the business premises. Few people mistrust a little boy, and he is left to mind the shop where the money-till is, and he has free access to the store-room or warehouse in which all manner of portable small goods are heaped in profusion. It is an awful temptation. It is not sufficient to urge that it should not be, and that in the case of a lad of well-regulated mind it would not be. It would perhaps be more to the purpose to substitute “well-regulated meals” for “well-regulated minds.” Nine times out of ten the confessions of a discovered juvenile pilferer go to prove that he sinned for his belly’s sake. He has no conscience above his waistband, poor little wretch; nor can much better be expected, when we consider that all his life, his experience and observation has taught him that the first grand aim of human ingenuity and industry is to place a hot baked dinner on the table of Sundays. To be sure, in the case of his hard-working father he may never have known him resort to any other than honest industry; he never found out that his parent was any other than an honest man; and so long as his father or his employer does not find him out to be any other than an honest boy, matters may run smoothly.
[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]
James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869