Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853


    It is impossible to pay much attention to the study of the popular character, as it is so variously developed among the very lowest ranks of society, without occasionally recognising among them that force of determination and persevering energy which, when it characterises men in the higher and educated classes, leads them on to fortune and reputation. There is an order of minds who under any circumstances will act for themselves; they are the moral antitheses of those drones of society who are always waiting for something to turn up in their favour. The men of action have no appetite for waiting at all, and no very particular relish, perhaps, for anything that turns up. They are, in a sense, artificers of their own fortune, and they love the fruits of their own labour far better than any unearned luxuries doled out to them from the rich man's table. The observer of manhood, who has not seen this spirit exemplified in the very lowest grade of industrial life, has not thoroughly studied his subject. These remarks may serve, perhaps not inappropriately, to introduce the out-of-door history of Bob, (we do not know his patronymic,) the market-groom.
    It must be eight or nine years ago since we first encountered Bob, in -- Street, Covent Garden, in one of our early morning rambles. Who he was, or where he came from, we never knew. On his first appearance, he was a grimy, half-starved, little tatterdemalion, without a shirt, a shoe, or a hat, and with six months' growth of matted raven hair, through the lank and thatchy locks of which a pair of vivid eyes flashed from as pallid and hungry a face as ever child of eleven years of age bared to an adverse destiny. He seemed as if just dropped from some forlorn planet into a world of strangers, amongst whom he looked wildly and eagerly around - not for favour or the relief of alms, but for work - work, and bread, though but a crust, in return. We marked his constant and earnest applications for employment of any sort, at any wage, and his utter insensibility to rebuke and rebuff, however violently and abusively bestowed. Through the mud, rain, fog, sleet, and slush of the dark winter mornings, with bare feet and unsheltered head, he toiled and moiled, and tugged and laboured, for the chance of a penny, the price of his breakfast, for which he often waited many a weary hour, hungering patiently beneath a wintry sky. Unlike his numerous congeners - the ragged tribes who frequent the market, and rove from one point to another in search of a job whenever it may offer - the boy had the sense to confine his exertions to one locality, where, in the course of a few months, his unbroken good temper and unwearying willinghood earned him a welcome, and procured him employment. From being a sort of butt upon whom the dealers expended their small wit, he grew by degrees into a favourite, and by some unaccountable means actually got into a pair of serviceable hob-nailed bluchers before the winter was over; and having had his hair cut by a charitable barber, who did it for nothing, on condition that Bob should carry off the whole crop in his basket, so that room might be left in his shop for succeeding customers; and having then invested sixpence in a jaunty cap, cocked knowingly on one side of his head-he came out in a new character. The hungry look had vanished from his face, and given place to a merry one; and his activity, upon which there were now more demands, was greater than ever. He improved in looks, and in circumstances too, rapidly; the genial spring and summer atmosphere of the market, and the early rising which his calling enforced, agreed with him so well, that before the gooseberries were all gone, a shirt positively sprouted out from under his new fustian waistcoat.
    Bob, finding by this time that he had got a character for honesty, and feeling no doubt that he deserved it, wisely resolved to turn it to the best account. In the course of his market experience he had observed the necessity which the dealers, green-grocers, retailers, and costers were under of leaving their carts in the streets, sometimes at a great distance from the market, while they were absent negotiating their purchases. This practice, though unavoidable, was attended with risk and damage, from want of supervision, and often too from the wanton mischief or dishonesty of the urchins left in charge of the vehicles. Having duly conned the matter over in his mind, Bob all at once started in a new speculation. He abandoned his various functions of fetcher and carrier and supernumerary porter, began a canvass among all the traders frequenting his side of the market, to the whole of whom he was personally known, offering to take charge of their vehicles during their absence, and to guarantee the security of their stock, for the smallest mentionable charge per head. The tried character of the lad, and his known kindness to animals, whom he could not help instinctively fondling, soon procured him plenty of customers; and he was in a few days regularly installed in office as the custodier of the horse and ass-drawn chariots of the market.
    Thus it was that Bob became groom of the market, a profession, be it observed, which he built up for himself, and in which, though he has now many imitators and rivals, he has no compeer. He is to Covent Garden, or at least to one of the many arteries branching from it, what the waterman is to the cab-stand. He may be seen before dawn all the year round busy at his vocation. No sooner does the first cart drive up, though the sun is yet an hour below the horizon, than he is on the spot to receive the whip from the hand of the owner. He shoulders the whips as the symbol of his authority, and marches under a complete fagot of them by the time the traffic has fairly set in. When a dealer has completed his purchases, and wants to be off, all he has to do is to shout with lusty lungs, "Yo ho, Bob!" and in an instant you may see the long whip-lashes streaming horizontally through the air as Bob answers the cry and hurries towards his patron. The whips are all marked with the names of the owners, and as Bob has learned to read at the Sunday-school, and knows them pretty well from long acquaintance, but little time is lost in finding the right owner of each.
    The reader is not to imagine that the subject of our sketch enjoys anything like a sinecure. If it were a sinecure, we have a suspicion that it would not suit him at all. It is something very much the contrary. In the first place, he has to exercise a constant surveillance to see that the army of donkeys, horses, and ponies do not get out of the rank and block up the way, which must be left free on either side; and this requires his frequent presence in all parts of his domain. In the next place, when fruit is ripe, it is tempting to juvenile palates, and there is a young gang of smugglers continually on the look-out for contraband pippins or unsentinelled gooseberries; against these Bob plays the part of the preventive service, and sometimes (we have seen him do it) leads them gently out of temptation by the ear. Then again, donkeys, who have, unfortunately for Bob, no moral principles, are very much given to munching one another's turnips, or the turnips of one another's masters, which is very much the same thing; and it must be confessed, that as they sometimes stand for hours together, each with his head in his neighbour's cart - the carts being well loaded with fruit or vegetables - the temptation may well be more than untaught donkeyhood can stand. Over these Bob has to keep a vigilant eye, and to teach them the virtues of abstinence and self~denial. In this task he is seen to exercise a praiseworthy patience. Though armed with fifty whips, he is never known to beat an animal; he may be seen now and then polishing the sleek ear of a pet "moke" with the cuff of his coat, but never ill-using one. His admonitory ejaculation of "Ha! would you ?" launched at the head of an offender, is sufficient to bring the most predatory beast among them to a temporary sense of honesty. From a long and intimate acquaintance with his long-eared friends, he knows well enough those upon whom be can rely, and he will locate them, if possible, accordingly. A brute, naturally unprincipled, upon whom admonition is thrown away, finds himself drawn up with his nose against the tail of a tall wagon, where, like many a biped correspondingly situated, he is virtuous from necessity; or, wanting this convenience, Bob will envelop his head in an empty nose-bag, through which he would find it a difficult matter to make a surreptitious meal upon his neighbour's cabbages. Our hero thinks no trouble too great which tends to the improved performance of his function, and the consequence is that he reaps credit, and ready money too, from performing it well.
    Bob has grown in stature as years have rolled over his head: from a miserable starveling and friendless child, pinched in stomach and stunted in growth, he is transformed into a decent, well-spoken, and responsible man, known and trusted by hundreds, and dependent on no one for the comforts of life. Poor, indeed, he is-and poor, in one sense of the word, he is likely to remain. It is but little that is to be got by turning out of bed an hour or two after midnight, and playing the part of gentleman usher to a caravanserai of horses and asses, up to the hour when portly respectability sits down to coffee, eggs, breakfast bacon and the morning paper - little indeed - a handful of coppers at the most; but if competence is won by it - if independence is won by it - if a clear conscience and a contented mind are retained under it - and if a love for God's dumb creatures is gratified and cherished by it - it may be worth the doing, in spite of the sneers of the overwise.

Charles Manby Smith Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, 1853