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Saturday, May 25, 1850
In my last Letter I commenced an account of the street performers and
showmen. There are a large class of individuals, I said, who obtain their living
in the open air. Some sell something - others perform or show something - others
do something (as sweep crossings, deliver bills, hold horses, carry boards,
&c.) - and others, again, mend or make something - by way of gaining a
subsistence. The first are Hucksters, or street tradesmen; the second are
Mountebanks, or street performers; the third Working Pedlars, or
street artisans; and the fourth, street Labourers or Jobbers.
The Mountebanks appear to arrange themselves into five classes, viz. - the street performers, or exhibitors of puppet shows, peep shows, feats of strength and sleight of hand, and trained animals, together with dancers and musicians. I have already given an account of the puppet shows. In my present Letter I purpose describing the condition and earnings of the street performers of feats of strength and manual dexterity.
These consist of many distinct varieties. First, there are the "Acrobats," or posturers; second, the "Equilibrists," or balancers; third, the "stiff" and "bending" tumblers; fourth, the jugglers; fifth, the conjurors; and sixth, the sword swallowers, and "salamanders" or fire-eaters. Each of these is generally a distinct branch of the "profession," requiring a separate education; in some cases, the same individual will combine in himself two or three of the different "lines," but this is by no means usual. A stiff and bending tumbler is a very distinct character from either an equilibrist or a conjuror; in the one the muscles of the back and limbs have been educated, whereas, in the others, the eye and hand have acquired especial quickness from long practice and training. Indeed, the essential difference between the several branches of these arts appears to be in the cultivation of a different set of muscles or organs. In the sword-swallower, the throat - in the equilibrist, the eye - in the tumbler, the back and limbs - and in the conjuror, the hands - have been trained to the performance of feats that to uneducated muscles are utterly impossible. The marvel lies not so much in what the performers do, as it does in what first led them to adopt so strange a means of subsistence, and why they should continue to pursue a calling in which the perils are so great, and the gains so limited and uncertain. To see a man bend backwards, and pick up pins from the ground with his eyes - to behold another balance the heaviest and lightest substances on his chin - now a donkey and then the ashes of a burnt paper bag - to witness another swallow swords and live snakes, and all for the sake of a few pence -- is wonderful enough; but surely it is more wonderful still to think what could have originally induced these people to give up the ordinary means of subsistence, and adopt a mode of life which appears to require a longer apprenticeship than the common handicrafts, and after all to yield a far more precarious support. The explanation is to be found partly in that love of the marvellous, and of exciting admiration, which is more or less innate with us all, and partly - or rather principally - in the irksomeness of labour, as well as the incapacity for steady and continuous employment, which appears to be a distinctive feature of the vagabond class. It is this irksomeness of labour and this indisposition for any settled occupation, together with a love of novelty and amusement, and an objection to restraint (all of which are implied in the desire for "a roving life" of which the class themselves so often speak), which, as I have before pointed out, constitute the main characteristics of the vagrants and hucksters; and that similar tastes and propensities are among the most notable traits in the moral physiognomy of the beggars and criminals, we shall see when I come to treat of them specially. Another of the main causes of the prevalence of street performers and street tradesmen, is to be found not only in the irksomeness of labour, but in the small remuneration to be obtained from many industrial occupations. Costermongering is easier work - and far more profitable, even now, overstocked as the business appears to be - than tolling at any handicraft; and juggling, conjuring, balancing, posturing, and even sword-swallowing, with all their attendant perils and casualties, are better than starving by the sweat of the brow. The sword-swallower whom I saw assured me that he had tried to get his bread by slipper-making for some two or three years; but as he could only obtain 3s. 6d. a dozen from the slop-sellers, and out of this he had to give 1s. 6d. for materials, and could make only 6s. a week at it, he was obliged to return to swallowing swords and snakes, and eating fire in the streets, as a means of getting something more substantial for his family to swallow and eat at home.
The habits and character of the street performers of feats and strength and dexterity present some curious moral and social phenomena, and they are the more curious as the posturers, balancers, conjurors, jugglers, and others who may be considered as the "skilled labourers" of the streets, represent their calling as "dying out." I have met with few old men among street performers, and the class generally seem to look on fifty as a great age. "The original Billy Barlow" (a kind of street clown or fool), said one man to me, "died quite an old man in St. Giles's workhouse - I dare say he was fifty." The prevailing age among street performers appears to be from eighteen to thirty, which I have before shown is the vagabond period of life. Among the whole class I observed two characteristics - intelligence and poverty. By intelligence, I mean that quickness of perception which is commonly called "cunning," a readiness of expression, and a familiarity (more or less) with the topics of the day - the latter picked up probably in public-houses. I found very few of the class unable to read and write; they were naturally quick, and among the whole body there was little of what is understood as vulgar manners. In some few instances I discovered a taste for reading, and almost all expressed a strong desire to leave the streets for some more reputable and certain livelihood. The poverty of many of these people - even of the more skilful - is great, and in some few cases extreme. It is the more irksome too, as most of them have known what they call "better times," by which they naturally mean better earnings. One of the most dexterous of the street conjurors - and that in the opinion of "the profession" - is very poor, and living in a wretched place. His landlady, a tidy, well-behaved woman, gave me (not knowing who I was) an excellent character of her lodger - a single man. He was very quiet, she said, and not irregular in his habits. This poverty is doubly injurious to the street performers, as, from the nature of their "profession," they have necessarily acquired a habit of begging, and it makes them even more servile and importunate for money where there is any expression of sympathy than they might otherwise be. With one or two exceptions, the class seem to have lost all pride of independence, and to consent to subsist on the "generosity" of others, without the least sense of shame. But if they are deficient in pride, they assuredly make it up in vanity - for, according to their own accounts, they are one and all the best and only regular performers in their respective lines. One of the poorest men that I met with seemed to be one of the most deserving. He lived with his family in a small room, and was indignant at the supposition of its being a common lodging-house. The furniture was a turn-up bed, one table, and two chairs, both of the chairs being without bottoms, where rags and fragments of old clothes were so disposed about the framework as to give the semblance of a seat. Above and upon the poor man's mantelpiece was a profusion of small pictures and common china ornaments (his notion of the beautiful), among which his crucifix (for he was a Roman Catholic) was not wanting; and his small German pipe - "his pipe," he said, "was often a meal to him" - held a conspicuous position. The same improvidence - which is the invariable concomitant of every kind of labour that is uncertain - prevails among this class as among all others where the income is of a precarious character.
The street performers do not appear to be habitually intemperate. That they indulge in those excesses which great gains at uncertain periods naturally engender, they themselves allow; but they seem rather to have a habit than a love of drinking. Indeed it is a peculiar feature in the character of the vagrant class that they generally exhibit little taste for fermented liquors. They are libidinous, but not drunken - and this is to be accounted for, in most cases, by the comparatively youthful age to which the vagabond period of life is confined. Drunkenness is the vice of the old rather than the young. The intemperance of the street performers is more acquired than natural, being begotten not only by the love of excess which comes of excessive gain, but by the sociality of their natures, and that "love of company" which is the ordinary concomitant of a desire for approbation. The public tap-room is the arena for display with such people as much as the public streets. Again, it is usual for the performers to put on their street costumes in public-houses, for which accommodation a certain amount of drink is expected to be taken, as well as to dine in such places, and to retire thither during wet weather; so that, after discovering the many inducements that there are among the class to drink, a stranger is struck with the little intoxication that is to be found among them. The older members of the profession certainly appear to have acquired habits of drinking; but speaking of the street performers generally, I must say they seem to be far less intemperate than labouring people. Improvidence appears to be their great failing. Let them make what they will in the summer, it is all squandered as soon as got, and they starve in the winter. Let their gains be as large as they may in their youth, not one penny is laid by, and they die in the workhouse in their old age.
Some performers, it will be seen, have been "regularly born and bred" to the street business, while others have been brought up to handicrafts, but preferred a "roving life" to a settled occupation. Some, again, it will be found, have, according to their own statements, been forced into the streets by harsh treatment at home. "Their home," to use their own words, "was no home to them." It should be remembered, however, that one of the most marked characteristics of the vagrant class is an objection to control, so that such people are likely to look upon the mildest form of domestic government as positive tyranny. I do not mean to imply that the severity of parents has not driven many a youth to resort to a vagabond life, who might, with kind conduct, have been brought up to some reputable calling; but, in many cases, I believe that the love of amusement and the irkesomeness of restraint are so strong in these individuals, that they desire greater liberty and licence than is consistent with parental care, while they are so "self-willed" that they are ready on every occasion to rebel at authority, and to leave their homes whenever any attempt is made to control them.
A tall, stalwart young man, dressed in a faded blue surtout and trousers patched at the knees, beneath which he wore the elastic cotton dress, with short spangled velvet drawers, that constitutes the ordinary street costume of the class, gave me the following account as to the calling of an "Acrobat," or posturer. He was of ready speech, good manners, and almost respectable in his appearance: -
"I am the son of a man moving in a superior sphere of life to mine. I left home to follow my fancy for a public life, though it was partly compulsion, as my home was no home. I took to the nigger business at first - about eight years ago, but not in any band of niggers. I began not long after Jem Crow came out, and before there were any Ethiopian serenaders. It was pretty good then, but it's turned about and wheeled about backwards since that time. I have long wished to leave public life, and wish it still more now, for I have a wife and child; and I would leave it too, if I could get anything better to do - but half a loaf' you know, sir. I have no ambition to stop in it. After my coming out as a street nigger I was a balancer. This I acquired by practice, and after that I picked up balancing with the pole. I was never taught anything in my life. I picked every thing up by practice and assiduity. I balance the pole sometimes now. I lie on my back in the streets (the streets and fine weather is all I have to depend upon) with a cushion under my loins, and I balance and dance the pole with my feet. It's called 'pole-dancing.' It's very hard work to the muscles, and trying to the nerves. I learned pole-dancing, or rather perfected myself in it, in private, after twelve months' pains, at Bristol. I had often a rap on the head, while learning, by the pole's falling, and it will slip occasionally still with the best feet, though I flatter myself, that I can perform it, with any man in England. I joined the acrobats three or four years ago. I make my pole performance part of our acrobat business. It's done generally to 'keep the pitch up,' as we term it, that is to keep the people together until we can get ha'pence from them. We have six in our company of acrobats, including a boy. The man who stands at the bottom is called 'the bearer,' and is generally a strong man; but there's as much tact as strength in his part of the business. Another man jumps upon his shoulders and is called 'the second.' I am a second (and occasionally a bearer, too). The man who stands on the second's shoulder is called 'the top-mounter.' He gets first on the shoulder of the bearer, and so up to the back of the second, then he takes hold of the second's left hand and raises himself up to stand on the second's shoulders - each assists the other. As the top-mounter leans or inclines, the bearer walks forward - he must follow the inclining of the top-mounter as he feels it communicated to him by the second, who just projects his chest a little, the slightest motion is sufficient. If he (the bearer) did not move on we should all come down together - nothing could prevent it. He must bend forward, for we who are up above use our shins and legs as stays against the bearer's or second's heads, and if there be any backward movement the bearer loses his command over the men upon him. Sometimes there is a fall; I once was hurt from one. I never knew any one killed in the acrobat performance, but a young performer has broken his arm twice by falling as an acrobat. Accidents, though are not common, and we have ways of saving ourselves by a cat-like agility. If the top-mounter finds he is falling by leaning too far forward, he must jump down. He says 'go,' and the second puts his hand up to help the top man in the jump. If he lights on the ball of his foot there is no great hurt, but come down flat-footed and your foot's jarred all to pieces. Learners generally practise at a place in -----, St. Pancras, where they form a 'school.' Sunday mornings is the chief time. In practising there are terrible falls sometimes. There is no particular tuition. Young men have a turn for it and try it one with another. All classes and all grades are in the profession, but the general of us have been pretty well educated.I don't know a dishonest man among us. We ought of all men to be temperate; but still some of us drink hard. I don't care about drink myself, but men pick up a taste for it by being treated when performing at public houses. I felt rather nervous the first time I was 'a second' in public, for fear of 'making a mull of it' (a slip in private's nothing). I got through very well though. I once left off acrobating for six weeks. On rejoining the acrobats as a second I was too confident the first time, and slipped; the 'top mounter' was thrown down and slightly hurt. There are now thirteen acrobats in London, and two London schools' numbering four or five each, are in the country and Scotland. We generally know where one another is, by letters to wives and such like. The West-end is the best for acrobating in the London season of fashion - the summer; but it's an aggravating place often, for we have got only 2d. for a performance, and some few times nothing. Gentlemen have looked on and walked away without giving a farthing. In the other parts of the year the East-end is the best. Mechanics are our best friends - indeed our principal dependence. We, that is all the 'school,' share alike. I said there were six persons in our company - but besides these, who are all posturers, there is the musician and a negro singer and dancer. Thirty shillings a week is the most lever got for my share, and that was in the height of summer when the days are longest; but take the year through, we acrobats can't make 12s. a week a piece, and out of that, too, we must find our dresses for performing in. It costs us 1s. a week for our pumps: our dresses are a close suit of elastic wove cotton; they cost generally 8s. 6d. We usually have a deep girdle round our waists, and a fillet of spangled velvet round our heads. Some have their dresses dyed flesh-colour - but that I hate; it looks so much like nudity that, on a sudden, it might startle any one. I have been well educated, and should like to get out of such a business; it is as disagreeable to me as it is dangerous. My wife has to work with her needle to help to keep the family - but what can a woman earn that way, when there are so many slop shops? The acrobats, and people of that class, differ perhaps in their tastes from ordinary mechanics. We have some very intellectual men among us. I've travelled with one young man, who was what I call 'a fanatic' for Shakespeare. He is the son of a tradesman. On our way into the country in an acrobat school, he used always to carry Mansell's penny Shakespeare, and he and I would recite Othello and Iago and suchlike, to while away the time on the road, and in our lodgings. My pipe, however, is my chief solace, for I can't get books enough to read though I pick up a twopenny volume at a stall now and then. I've exhausted all my neighbours' libraries, too, but that was soon done. The best of the acrobats are fondest of theatricals by way of amusement - a good tragedian, or a comedian - when there's a shilling in the locker. Acrobats sometimes get into theatres, and are sprites, and even harlequins. (He mentioned some.) The dull fellows of Acrobats - and there are such - have no amusements out of a public house. Our living is generally a meat dinner in summer, when performing. Against my will, beer and and dinner have cost me far more, when out performing, than I have had to take home to my family. Only four acrobats (including myself) are, I believe, legally married. Our wives are all compelled to work at something. One man's wife earns 6s. - as a 'topper' in the shirt business, and that is a great help. Among the acrobats that I know some have been glass-cutters, hod-carriers, errand boys, shoemakers, and paper block cutters, before taking to the street business. I can hardly say what the others were. We all have an inkling of shoemaking, because we have to mend our own shoes. I consider all are acrobats who stand on each others' shoulders. The acrobats are generally tumblers or posturers as well. A tumbler is one who throws somersaults, headsprings, fore-springs, lion's leaps, and such like. A posturer is a man who puts his leg behind his head, or does what we call 'the frog;' namely, he puts his two legs over his shoulders, and hops along on his hands; some posturers put their legs behind their backs down to their hips; they are what we term limp posturers. The tumblers are either stiff or bending tumblers. The stiff tumbler performs such feats as I have described, as somersaults, head springs, lion's leaps, and such like. The bending tumbler is one who can bend his head back down to his feet and pick up a sixpence, or such like. We have a man with our school whose body seems all joints and bendable everywhere; he fairly sits on his own head, bringing it down his back, his chin resting on the ground, and he looks out from between the top of his thighs. A juggler I consider a man who balances plates, throws balls, and feats of that kind; whereas a conjuror is a man who performs tricks of deception by sleight-of-hand, changing cards, coins, and so on. The acrobats don't reside in any particular part of the town - perhaps no body of men are more equally distributed through London. We settle over night where we are to meet next day - always with the uncomfortable proviso, weather permitting. I have read the letters in the Morning Chronicle on the costermongers. My lot once led me to live among that class, and the accounts I saw of them were perfectly true. I should like to emigrate to Australia, where I could get on by perseverance, for I have plenty of that. I wouldn't be an acrobat there, of course, but a labourer of some description. I should like it, but cannot even get on to the first step of the ladder. My wife also wishes to emigrate; but what's the use of such people as us wishing?"
A little boy, with an inanimate look, large sleepy eyes, and very high shoulders, so that he looked almost deformed, gave me the subjoined account: -
"I was twelve years old last March, and play with the acrobats. I have done so for the last three years. I stand on the hands of the 'top mounter,' who holds my feet and throws me about, catching me." (The 'second' here showed the way, even with the boy's thick shoes on, showing great agility, and a very quick eye). "I was frightened at first," continued the lad, "but never am now. My father is dead. My mother - she has five of us - put me to this business. I'm allowed 1s. a day when performing, and get my dinner with the men. My master takes the money to keep and clothe me. I am very kindly treated. I'd sooner be a trade than this line of life, but if I am to be a tumbler, why I must stick to it; so I practise a few tricks now and then, and try to do something new, I was never let fall in performing so to be hurt. I am the only boy, except one, who plays with the street acrobats."
The next class of street performers are the tumblers. The man whom I saw had a quiet pleasant look and manner, but he was in no way remarkable for muscular development. He had, however, a very graceful bend in the back, and was exceedingly well proportioned, though short. He was dressed like a mechanic on a Sunday.
"I am a tumbler - a stiff tumbler and a bending tumbler too," he said. "I have been in this business since I was two years of age. My father was in the profession, and was my teacher. I tumbled at two years old, and have followed it until now, which is twenty-six years. I was compelled to tumble when a child, but my father wasn't cruel to me. He took up the trade of tumbling; he had been a soldier, a silversmith, and a shoemaker, before he became a tumbler. At two years I used to bend back and pick up pins with my eyes - four pins - and then drop them one by one. I do that still. It wasn't very painful to learn this, but I had the headache often, and my nose used to bleed. I used to tremble a good deal when doing it as a child, and sol do now if I leave it off and begin it again. As I grew up I learned other tricks. I can stand on my head, and walk round my head with my legs, while I keep my head standing still. It required a great deal of practice for me to get that perfect - two months perhaps - when I was seven or eight years old. it's a laborious thing, but not painful. We must begin tumbling young, before the bones get set. I can walk along on my elbows, with my legs over my head; it's not painful to me, but it would be to others. I learned that when I was 12 or 13. I have been in this trade all my life, and a very bad trade it is. Some days I may take 6d., somedays 1s., some 1s. 6d.,and the best day's work I ever had was 10s.; but its all casualty, and depends greatly on the weather. I have taken as low as 1?d. A fine day like this I might make 7s. or 8s., with luck, in the streets; but on wet days I can do nothing but at the public-houses, and public-house work is very bad indeed. In summer the nights are very short, and night's the only time for tavern tumbling. In one public-house I was stooping back to pick up the pins with my eyelids, and a fellow, half drunk, kicked me, and the pins stuck about my eyes, and it's a mercy I wasn't blinded. I've had gin flung in my eyes, and snuff, and have been subjected to every kind of insult, perhaps for no money at all, when I've asked leave for a to perform in the tap-room, and had it granted me. Sometimes I'm refused leave in a public-house and sometimes I'm kicked out of it. The street's the best for money, but there the boys heave stones at you, and the policemen order you on, and go you must. I do the best in the West-end streets-one's about as good as another, if it's only quiet. Regent-street's too busy; Portland-place is pretty good; and so is Grosvenor-square and the squares generally, but we're not often allowed to perform in them. Gentlefolk, both male and female, are my best patrons; the ladies are best generally. I'm never sent for to perform as Punch is. I don't go to any saloons to perform, but I go to fairs. Country is generally better than town for me, but only in summer. Some parts of the City are not so bad; but I'm only allowed in the back streets, such as Bartholomew-close and them places. I believe there are only two other men in London who are of the same profession as myself, a bending and a stiff tumbler at once; they're almost all posturers now, which is easier work. I suppose those two men average what I do, which may be 15s. a week the year through, and that's very little, because I find my own dresses, which come expensive. My dress is made of elastic cotton; it costs me 6s. 6d. or 7s. One dress lasts only six or seven weeks. In bending and tumbling it's strained all to pieces. I want to get out of this line of life, and get into shoemaking, of which I do know a little. To know how to make shoes well is better than all the tricks I know, for the profession is very bad. I owe a man 10s. for giving me instructions in making children's shoes, and I'm improving very much in the trade. Tumbling strains every nerve in the body. I ought to know what it does, for I can manage all these tricks: - I can walk on my hands; jump on my hands, nine feet in three jumps; put a penny under my toe, bend back and pick it up with my mouth without putting my hands to the ground; bend my body body back and pick up four pins with my eyes. I can do lion's leaps, that's to jump over chairs like a cat, pitching on my hands and going on; I can bend backwards and bring my head and feet into a tea saucer; do head springs, or go on my head and turn over without using my hands. That's about all. I can't tell which trick is most admired, for I do them all at one performance, leaving the walking round my head to the last. I am a married man. My wife is a shoe-binder. I have no children; and if I had I wouldn't like to bring them up to be tumblers. I nearly always play by myself, but I have played with Jim Crows and Highland fling and hornpipe dancers, and jugglers too. We all shared alike, but I do best by myself. I am very strong in the back, and in the muscles of my leg and thigh, but I have never tried all my strength." This man showed me one of his headsprings; he ran along for a few yards and then threw himself violently on his head, and so turned "head over heels" without using his hands. The fore part of the skull had a large callous lump on it, induced by the repeated performance of this trick. After this he stuck four pins upright in the carpet, two close together in one place, and two more about four inches from the others. He then stood with his back towards the pins, about two or three feet from them, and bending backwards brought his head gradually down to the ground, when he removed the pins from the floor by closing his eyelids. Then he raised himself slowly up, and advancing towards the table, with his eyelids still grasping the pins, he shook them one by one from his eyes. His next feat was to run round his head, his neck appearing to serve as a pivot on which his body turned, and he literally flinging his trunk round his head very rapidly. The sights were all painful enough, but done very deftly. He stated, however, that he was out of practice, neither was he in proper costume.
Concerning the Street equilibrists or balancers, a spare wiry-looking man, and with an appearance of anything rather than surpassing strength in his body, stated the following: -
"My father was an equestrian and brought me up to his business, but my ancles failed me eight years back from somersaulting, &c. I then took to the equilibrist line. I fulled 40 years old. I liked equestrianing. I knew Ducrow, and know Mr. Batty and others in the business, and have performed in Belgium and France. I have been an equilibrist for eight years now, playing in the open air or in-doors. I am a slack wire dancer as well. As an equilibrist I balance poles and an 18-foot deal plank on my chin. Formerly I balanced a donkey on the top of a ladder. It's dreadfully hard work; it pulls you all to pieces. Over 30 years of age you feel it more and more. The donkey was strapped tight to the ladder; there was no training needed for the donkey; any young donkey would do. It was frightening at first generally, but got accustomed to it after a time - use is a great thing. The papers attacked the performance and I was taken to Union-hall for balancing by donkey in the streets. I was fined 7s. 6d., and they kept the donkey in default. I never let the donkey fall, and always put it down gently, for I have the use of my hands in that feat. I was the original of the saying, sir. Twopence more, and up goes the donkey. It's a saying still, and a part of the language now. I sometimes stand on my head on the top of a pole, without the assistance of my hands, and drink a glass of ale in that position, and go through all sorts of postures while on my head. It's more tiring than painful. I've fallen off the pole, for sometimes I'm nervous; when I'm performing, I dare only take one glass of spirits and water. When I fell, I always lighted on my legs, though not so as to make it appear part of the performance - one can't. On the slack-wire I perform all kinds of balancing, spinning plates on sticks, and such like, and I stand on my head on the wire at full swing, holding it in my hands. The wire has broken with me - it was rusty. I fell, and dislocated my hip; that was at Epping. It's dangerous work. I think that I'm the only man now in London who is an equilibrist and slack-wire dancer, and there is only one in the country in my particular line. It's a bad trade; one day I may pick up 5s., that's a first-rate day for street work. In bad weather I can do nothing. It's all a casualty what I make. I couldn't undertake to depend upon 10s. 6d. a week if I confined myself to out-door performances. My trade is a bad one, and badly paid; and the jewels and spangles worn by performers like me are sort of mockery. We are in general poor; and it's difficult to get a rise, or even to leave the business, after you~ re once in it. When you're old you're like a worn-out horse, reckoned fit for nothing." The man's arms and limbs were hard and firm to the touch, though not remarkable for muscular development. He attributed his success as an equibrilist more to art, or "a way of doing it," than to mere bodily strength. He showed me some of his lighter feats, blowing from his mouth a piece of cinquefoil hay, and catching it on the balance, upright on the chin, and balancing a piece of paper rolled up into a conical bag (such as is used for moist sugar), which he placed alight on the bridge of his nose, and there allowed it to burn to the bottom, after which he balanced the black pile of ashes that remained with amazing dexterity - tossing them and catching them upright without breaking them, in a manner that made one positively wonder at the useless skill. He told me that he has balanced fire-works and ships - the Cheseapeake and the Shannon, the Chesapeake blowing up and burning close to his chin. Gentlefolks he thought his best friends, if he had any best - but the City was perhaps as good as the West-end for money. Grooms and "people about horses" were very fair customers.
The following account of a street juggler's business I had from a grave looking man, of half dignified appearance both in face and figure, and with long well-oiled locks that seemed to be got up expressly for public display:
"I have been twenty-eight years in the profession of a juggler. I was a plasterer born, as the saying is, and a citizen too, but family circumstances, such as I'd rather not state, led me to form a connection with old Mr. Saunders, the rider, a well-known mountebank. With Saunders's company I juggled on stilts, both in town and country. I believe no man in England but me ever juggled on stilts five feet high. When I started first I did well - most excellent, and never knew what it was to want money. I dare say I made my ?5 every week, full that, when I began. I performed on the stilts, with brass balls, from one to five; throwing them up and down and catching them, like the Indian juggler, only he did it from the ground, and I on my stilts. After the brass balls, I threw large brass rings, catching them, and then linking them together. Then I threw three large daggers, or rather from one to three, I have thrown more, all round about my body, catching them as they came. I next took a wooden pole, and on the top of it a wash hand basin - the pole was 7 feet high, and on the top of the pole, still on my stilts, I kept the basin spinning round. I kept to the stilts until six or seven years ago, doing pretty well. After the stilts I performed on the ground, and now I carry a small box which stands on four legs, and with it I'm mostly to be seen at the West-end. I perform out of doors as well as at parties. The box is to hold my apparatus. In one of my tricks I appear to eat a quantity of shavings, and draw them afterwards, in the shape of an immense long barber's pole, out of my mouth. A little doll I make appear and disappear from the folds of a cloak. I show the cloak to be empty, and the next moment there's the doll in it. The shavings, the pole, and the doll are generally called for, if I try anything else. These are my juggling feats; as to conjuring, I do all sorts of things with cards. I make them do anything but speak. I do chiefly the old tricks, such as the shavings, which are not known in the toy-shops. These toy-shops, with their toy tricks, are the ruin of us. I teach conjuring and juggling, and am a professor of legerdemain. I have no pupils - worse luck. I had a natural turn for the profession myself, and didn't require teaching. I perfected myself by study and practice. There are, I believe, only eight persons whom I can rank with myself as regular professional men in London; but toy-shops send out their own conjurors now, and the number of chance conjurors - and they are half gamblers many of them - is uncertain. I don't reckon them professionals. This time of the year is the best of my seasons, but lean make nothing like what Iused. I've been ailing too, or else I might make my ?2 a week or even more, bad as it is. Private parties is a casualty business. The winter time is my slack time, except about Christmas. I juggled at Vauxhall in 1831, before the Queen. I find town the best for me, but common hands do best in the country; the people are not up to the town mark there. I've taught many an amateur conjuror, real gentlemen, who amuse their friends that way; some of them take to it very kindly, others s1op it; but I make them perfect conjurors if I can."
A red-faced man, with what is called a "professional look," gave me the following account. He wore a black dress-coat that had seen better days, and had much the appearance of a third or fourth rate actor:
"I have been thirty years a professor of conjuring," he said, "and was regularly brought up to the profession. My father was a sailor. I was seven years a clown to old Mr. Brown, known as 'the salt-box,' and known all over the world. He was the first Chinese shades man, and used to take them about in a waggon. He died latterly, very poor. Before Brown took to me I was destitute, and slept two nights in a cart. When I left Brown, I joined a man named B-----, in the theatrical way, I doing the conjuring for the concern. I then travelled five years professionally, on my own account, in the country. I conjured both in the open air and in rooms, and have conjured for ten years in the open air in London. When I first knew the trade it was far better than it is now, a great deal. I could take 20s. a night, in a London public house; now I can't make a living by my tricks, dogs and all, and I'm the first dog breaker in England. There's been a wonderful deal of change in the tricks. The old tricks were what I may call a little indelicate. The amusements, generally, were more brutal in those days; so were our tricks, as for instance cutting off a cock's head and putting it on again - that's done by attaching a false head and neck as you swing the cock round, but one man used actually to cut the cock's head off and have a facsimile live cock under the table as a substitute - that's an expensive way; but the people see the bird flutter and die, and they like that, or rather they did like it once. Cups and balls were fashionable then; they're lost now; but I play them in an improved manner. At present I'm the only man in all the profession can do it in the style I do. I put three small potatoes, real potatoes, under three cups, and conjure them into six good-sized balls, all brought to light under the cups when lifted. (He showed me this trick, which was done with remarkable neatness.) The egg bag was a popular trick then; bringing a number of eggs from an empty bag. Frying pancakes in any one's hat was all the rage too at that time; frying them over a lamp or a candle, bringing them out of the hat, and then showing that the hat was perfectly clean within. The batter really goes into the hat, in an apparatus which is whisked into it for the purpose, and the pancakes were eaten by the company, and were made of good stuff. Cutting off a man's nose was common then. A gentleman was asked to lend a conjuror his nose, and was placed in a chair to have it cut off. The conjuror used a knife with a wire attached to the middle round a vacant part of the blade, and this was pressed on the nose. The conjuror first applied a cloth with rose pink on it, so that being removed, it looked as if the nose were cut off, and a bloody mass remained. Afterwards the conjuror drew the cloth over the face, wiped off the colouring, and the nose appeared as before. I've often seen gentlemen put their fingers to their nose to feel if it was all right, and that caused great laughter. We used to press the nose with the wire as if there were a wound. Bringing a guinea-pig from under the hat was an old trick. The guinea-pig was ready behind the conjuror, and was got into the hat while some little tricks were being played with it. (He illustrated this by conjuring a doll into a hat.) A cabbage was used when a guinea-pig wasn't to be had. Conjuring now is revolutionised like other things. People weren't so enlightened formerly, and easier tricks passed. Now producing a bowl of gold fish from a shawl, and a quantity of bouquets from an empty hat are the rage. The inexhaustible bottle has tubes in his sleeves, and other contrivances, to have sufficient of any liquor wanted; some of the glasses are prepared, too, asthe bottle contains only five compartments, four of which are controlled by the fingers, and the fifth flows out naturally. In the palmy days of conjurors I've had ?4 a week at a saloon, and now many a week I can't make more than 10s., both in the open air and the public-houses together. Money's a thing not easy to be conjured, sir. The West-end's the best for the open air. Leicester-square is pretty good; Grosvenor and Belgrave are no good - they're not thoroughfares - you wouldn't get a penny in a day there. Oxford-street and Piccadilly are pretty good. In open air conjuring children and women are small benefit. Mechanics and tradespeople are our best friends in 'pitching,' as we called it. One day I may get 3s.,or 4s.,or 5s.; next day almost nothing. I know but a dozen professed street conjurors - pure conjurors - in England; five of them are in London, and I believe that ten years ago there were three times as many, not reckoning the numbers of people that practise conjuring whom we call imposters, or 'shisers.' I break dogs to do conjurors' tricks." (He showed me one which picked up cards out of a ring, in answer to questions; such as how many days are in the week? The answer being a card with '7' marked on it. How many gentlemen are in the room? How many ladies? and such like. The dog never took a wrong answer.) "I have broken a dog in three days," he continued, "but that dog took me three months, he's a spaniel, but I believe one kind of dog is as tractable as another under a proper system. I've known the stupidest dogs as they were reckoned make the best conjuring dogs. I've broken at least 20. I perfect them by constant training, great petting, and a little bit of the whip. The trade gets worse and worse, and I don't know what it'll come to."
Concerning sword swallowing, I had the subjoined narrative from a fat-faced man, with what may be called a first-rate clown's look, and of grave manners. He and Ramo Samee are, I understand, the only sword swallowers now living - and both are old men. Ramo Samee is the once famous Indian juggler:
"I have been connected with the conjuring and tumbling professions, and every branch of them for 46 years. I lost my mother when a child, and my father was a carpenter, and allowed me to go with the tumblers. I continued tumbling until my feet were knocked up. I tumbled twenty-three or twenty-four years. It was never what you may call a good business, only a living. I got ?3 a week certainly, at onetime, and sometimes ?4; but you had to live up to it, or you were nothing thought of; that is to say, if you kept 'good company.' Now there's not a living to be made in the trade. Six and twenty years ago I began to practise sword swallowing against the celebrated Ramo Samee, who was then getting ?25 and ?30 a week. I first practised with a cane, and found it difficult to get the cane down. When I first did it with the cane, I thought I was a dead man. There's an aperture in the chest which opens and shuts; and it keeps opening and shutting, as I understand it; but I know nothing about what they call anatomy, and never thought about such things. Well, if the cane or sword go down upon this aperture when its shut, it can go no further, and the pain is dreadful. If its open, the weapon can go through, the aperture closing on the weapon. The first time I put down the cane, I got it back easily, but put my head on the table and was very sick, vomiting dreadfully. I tried again the same afternoon, however, three or four hours after, and did it without pain. I did it two or three times more, and next day boldly tried it with a sword and succeeded. The sword was blunt, and was 36 inches long, an inch wide, and perhaps a sixth of an inch thick. I felt frightened with the cane, but not with the sword. Before the sword was used, it was rubbed with a handkerchief and made warm by friction. I swallowed swords for 14 years. At one time I used to swallow three swords, a knife and two forks, of course keeping the handles in my mouth, and having all the blades in my stomach together. I felt no pain. No doubt many of the audience felt far more pain at seeing it than I in doing it. I wore a Turkish dress both in the streets and the theatres. I never saw ladies faint at my performance; no, there was no nonsense of that kind. Gentlemen often pulled the swords and knives by their handles out of my mouth, to convince themselves it was real, and they found it real, though people to this day generally believe its not. I've sometimes seen people shudder at my performance, but I generally had loud applause. I used to hold my head back with the swords in my stomach for two or three minutes. I've had a guinea a day for sword-swallowing. This guinea a day was only for a few days at fair times. I was with old 'salt-box' Brown too, and swallowed swords and conjured with him. I swallowed swords with him thirty times a day - more than one each time, sometimes three or four. I had a third of the profits; Brown had two-thirds. We divided after all expenses were paid. My third might have been 30s. a week, but it wouldn't be half as much now if I could swallow swords still. If I could swallow a tea-kettle now the people would hardly look at me. Sometimes - indeed a great many times - say twenty - I have brought up oysters out of my stomach after eating them, just as I swallowed them, on the end of the sword. At other times there was blood on the end of the blade. I always felt faint after the blood, and used to take gin or anything I could get at hand to revive me, which it did for a time. At last I injured my health so much that I was obliged to go to the doctor's. I used to eat well, and drink too. When I felt myself injured by the swallowing I had lost my appetite, and the doctor advised me to take honey. I was three months on his hands, living on honey and liquids, tea, beer, and sometimes a drop of grog. At three months' end he told me, if I swallowed swords, it would be my death; but for all that I was forced to swallow the swords to get a meal to swallow. I kept swallowing swords three or four years after this, not feeling any great suffering. I then thought I would swallow a live snake. I'd never heard of any one, Indian or anybody, swallowing a live snake. It came into my head once by catching a grass snake in the fields in Norfolk. I said to myself, as I held it by the neck, "there seems no harm in this fellow, I'll try if I can swallow him." I tried then and there, and I did swallow him. It felt cold and slimy as it went down. I didn't feel afraid, for I kept tight hold of him by the tail; and no one has any business to be afraid of a grass snake. When I brought the snake up again, in about three minutes, it seemed dead. After that I introduced snake swallowing into my public performances, and did so for about four years. I have taken 5s., and as low as 1s. when I swallowed snakes in the streets of London. I catched my own snakes a few miles from London, and killed very few through swallowing on em. Six snakes, properly fed on milk, lasted me a-year. The snakes never injured me; and I shouldn't have given it up, but the performance grew stale, and people wouldn't give me anything for it. I have swallowed swords in the streets thirty to forty times a day, and snakes as often, both in town and country. I thought once I couldn't have followed any other sort of life; you see, I'd been so long accustomed to public life; besides I may have liked it far better than labour, as most young men do, but no labour can be harder than mine has been. If my father had been what he ought, he might have checked my childish doings and wishes. I have tried other things though, in the hopes of bettering myself. I have tired shoemaking, and for five or six years, but couldn't get a living at it. I wasn't competent for it - that's two years ago - so now I'm a musician to a 'school' of acrobats. Very many like me remain in the street business, because they can't get out of it; that's the fact. Whilst I swallowed swords and snakes I played the fire-eater. I did it once or twice last week. I eat red- hot cinders from the grate, at least I put them in my mouth; really red-hot cinders. I have had melted lead in my mouth. I only use a bit of chalk. I chalk my palate, tongue, and fingers; it hardens the skin of the tongue and palate, but that's all. Fire-eating affects the taste for a time, or rather it prevents one tasting anything very particularly. I've eaten fire for 20 years in the streets and in public places. It hasn't brought any money of late years. I wasn't afraid when I first tried it, and I first tried it by eating a lighted link - a small flambeau. I felt no inconvenience. The chalk did everything that was right. You may stroke a red hot poker with chalked hands, and not be burnt. I make the same as the acrobats; perhaps I average 12s. a week, and have a wife and six children, the oldest under eleven, to maintain out of that. Sometimes we're obliged to live upon nothing. When I was slipper-making I had from 3s. 6d. to 4s. a dozen, the grindery costing me 1s. 6d., leaving me 2s. for a dozen. I could only clear 6s. a week by it; that's all I could get out of the slop-shops. There's one good thing coming from sword swallowing that I ought to mention. I'm satisfied that Ramo Samee and I gave the doctors their notions about a stomach-pump."
Another class of out-door performers are the street dancers. These, I am informed by one who has had many years' experience at the business, are not so numerous as they were nine years back. It is about twelve years since dancing was introduced into the public thoroughfares as a source of amusement to the spectators, and of subsistence to the performers. The cause of this new kind of street performance being adopted, I am told, was the bad business and payment at the itinerant theatres. Before that time the lower order of dancers were confined to the travelling booths. The first dancer who made his appearance in the streets did only the sailor's hornpipe, dressed in character. It was very successful then, and produced about 9s. or 10s. on a fine day. From ?2 5s. to ?2 10s. per week was the regular income in the summer at that period. My informant had himself taken as much as 10s. a day in the streets only four years back. The success of the first street dancer soon spread among the tribe in the booths. The salary of a dancer at a booth only goes on during fair time, and was some few years ago lOs. a day for the three days that the fair usually lasted. (Now the price is from 3s. to 5s., the latter being the terms of the "very best performers.") A booth dancer is generally at work three days in the week, there being fairs enough throughout the country to keep them half employed, and, indeed, fully employed if they could reach them in time. From the first introduction of dancing into the streets, up to the present time, performers have kept on leaving the booths for the streets, so that the street business is now quite overdone; and the average taking, I am credibly informed, does not amount to above 2s. a day. It requires a great deal of luck, says my informant, to raise it to 2s. 6d., and often they get only 1s. or 1s. 6d. The street dances are always performed on a small piece of board (about three feet long and two feet wide), placed in the middle of the road. The most popular dances are the Sailor's Hornpipe - in and out of fetters - the Lancashire Clog dance, the Highland Ring, and a comic medley dance. The street dancers at present in London are about a dozen or fifteen in number; many of these can only dance the sailor's hornpipe. Only one-third of the number, I am informed, can do the whole of the dances before mentioned. Included in the twelve London street-dancers are six children; these are girls from five to fifteen years of age. The fathers of these girls play the drum and pipes, and have brought them up to the business. The children make more money than the grown men. The takings of these people are, in fine weather, from 5s. to 10s. a day. The father takes the whole of the money collected, and gives but a halfpenny or a penny to the girls, and that not always. These children appear in the streets either in Scotch or ballet dresses. There is no female above 20 dancing in the streets of London. Stilt dancing has quite disappeared from the streets; the police will not allow it, lam told. The male dancers are between 20 and 30 years of age. The occupations of the men previously to taking to street dancing were of various kinds. One was a baker, another a coachsmith, another a cotton-spinner, another a street singer, and the rest have been brought up to the "profession" in booths. The men have mostly taken to the street business under the impression of doing better at it than at their trades. Some have gone to it from the love of a roving life, and objection to any settled occupation or continuous labour. It is thought to be easy work - dancing in the streets - "but," says my informant, "I find it to be much harder than even smith's work, which was the business I was brought up to; it strains the nerves of the legs and sinews, and is more tiring than the sledge-hammer. I was at smith's work five years, and got upon an average from 15s. to 22s. a week when I followed it. But I thought I could do better at dancing, and sol did at first; though now I don't make not a quarter of what I did at my trade, and have picked up habits that have quite unsettled me for following the business I was brought up to. Ah, I was young, sir, when I left it, and now I begin to see my folly. Had I stuck to my trade it would have been a good thing for me and my poor wife. I'd go to anything indeed rather than be as I am. Our life is so uncertain. There is no Saturday night you know, sir. You get your money in dribs and drabs, and being about we are obliged to drop into public-houses, and so a good part of even the little we do get goes in beer. We are obliged to have beer at the publics where we go and dress. I learnt my dancing in tap-rooms. I used to dance to my fellow-workmen of a night, and was thought a little of; that was why I took to it. The male dancers seldom go out alone, but usually with the Acrobats. Occasionally two dancers will join, one doing the Highland fling, and another the sailor's hornpipe. And sometimes one will go out alone with a clown or a Billy Barlow, to keep the pitch up. These all share equally. A small party generally does better than a large one. Sometimes two 'schools' will meet at a public-house, and, 'getting on the drink,' will agree together after they have spent all their morning's earnings in beer and gin, to go out together merely for the purpose of getting more drink. I have known," says my informant, "as many as ten acrobats, jugglers, dancers, clowns, and Jim Crows to go out altogether, and spend every halfpenny they brought back in drink, and even after that to pledge the big drum for more liquor. The wives of the street dancers are generally very poverty stricken, and very miserable. Some do a little needlework or washing, but many are dependent solely upon their husbands' exertions, and often they have neither food nor fire at home."
My informant had been for the last two years playing "my lord in Jack-in-the-green," on May-day. He had been engaged at 5s. a day, and "plenty to drink" by the sweeps, who I am informed made a very good thing of it, having cleared ?4 or ?5 in the three days. This kind of street performance is generally got up by some master sweep in reduced circumstances, who engages all the parties and finds the dresses. There was only one regular sweep in the school that my informant joined. Many of the Jacks-in-the-green are got up by costermongers. "My Lady" generally has 3s. a day, and is mostly the sweep's or costermonger's daughter or sister - anything, indeed, said my informant, so as she can shake a leg about a bit. The Clown gets 5s., the Jack 3s. or 4s., and the drum and pipes 6s. There are generally from five to six persons go out together, and the expenses (not including dresses) will be about 30s. a day, and the receipts about ?3. Another street dancer, "in the general line," whom I saw, said, "I can't state how many there are in London like me - perhaps twenty. I dare say I make about 7s. or 8s. a week, take the year through - perhaps 9s. some years."
Among the street dancers, or performers, may be enumerated a soldier who dances, and goes through the manual exercise with considerable spirit and gesticulation. His appearance is that of an ordinary foot-soldier, well sunburnt. His dress is an artilleryman's blue jacket, and a pair of (patched, but clean) grey trowsers, with a dark blue undress military cap. His jacket, he told me, was not what he might be considered entitled to wear by right of his military service, but it was given to him at Barracks (he wouldn't like it to be known where), by soldiers who had a feeling for a comrade. The lodging-house at which he lived was of the better kind; only adults were admitted. He couldn't bear, he declared, to live in a house where there was boys and girls, and all sorts - "there was such carryings on." He said, "I was born in the town of Ballinrobe, county of Mayo, and when I was eighteen (I'm now thirty-six), I went to Liverpool to try to get work. My father was a carpenter, but I followed no trade. I think I could have given my mind to trade; but I don't know, for I wasn't tried, and I always thought of a soldier's life, and a roving one too. I used to look into the barracks at Ballinrobe to see the soldiers go to church, and I thought a soldier's life was a fine life; but God knows, then, it isn't; for I have seen men drop in Leuchistan for want of water - that was in Sir Charles Napier's campaign in 1845.1 have been as near to Sir Charles as lam to you now. He's a good man to a private soldier, and would talk to them as to a staff-officer; there's no pride in him. I marched 100 miles barefoot over the hills and through the desert. I was all through the Seikh campaign, and suffered a good deal in forced marches, with just reasonable to eat, but the water was the worst. I served in Spain three years before I went to India. I was with General Evans, and for two years didn't sleep on a bed. I came home with a good character, and ?9 2s. ad. to receive, but never received it, no nor a fraction of it. I then listed for India, where I was discharged at Sebatho, in the Himala Mountains, and came down the Ganges (three months of it in boats) to Calcutta. When I got to the India House, on my return here, I received 3s. - that's all, sir. I kicked up a row at the India House for some employment, and was taken before the Lord Mayor, who was very civil to me, and sent me to prison because I was turned into the streets to starve. I was ill three months after that, and was in the Free Hospital, ill of fever and want. I had to beg next with matches, and met with all kinds of insult and contempt, till I thought dancing was better than begging, with a turn every now and then in prison for begging, for I never stole in my life. I was nervous the first time I tried it, but I've since done the soldier~ s exercise in the street, both broad-sword and firelock. I dance anything that comes into my head. The exercise is better than the dancing; it pleases the people; they like the soldiers; they say, 'this poor man works hard, he deserves a halfpenny, and he sells a few books, we'll buy one.' I always do it in the uniform. I reckon 1s. a very good day's work for my exercise, but oftener get 8d. or 9d. It's hard work, killing work. I may dance half an hour, too, for a halfpenny and break my old boots to pieces. I would like to get out of this exercise, and exercise myself as an emigrant. I'm heart broken and foot-sore, for I walk from twenty to thirty miles every day, except Sunday, besides being hunted by the police to stop my gathering a crowd - I don't know why exactly; for if it's right to fight, it can't be so wrong to show how it's done. I never eat idle bread in my life, and would do anything for an honest living. I'm not a drinking man. I didn't drink in India, that's clear - or I shouldn't have been here exercising. I believe I have all the trade to myself. Quiet bye streets are my best places; one part of town is about as good as another; and ladies are my best customers."