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 interesting to remark the various shifts and contrivances, the resorts of a very humble species of ingenuity, to which some of the right-minded poor by whom we are surrounded have recourse, in order to procure what they proudly and independently term "an honest penny." It is gratifying to know that there is a very large section of the lowest ranks to whom the feeling of dependence upon others and the practices of dishonesty are equally hateful and repugnant; and it is impossible not to sympathise with the persevering endeavours of many of this class whom society seems, from some accident or other, to have pushed aside from the beaten paths of labour and its deserved emoluments; and who are left to make their way in the world in the strict and literal sense of the term- seeing that they have first to invent a calling before they can pursue it. How much physical energy and good moral determination some of them bring to bear upon this praiseworthy undertaking, the following brief sketches, drawn from the life, may assist in showing.


Terence O'Donough is an Irishman whom a fortunate fate has united to an English wife. When I first knew Terry he was in the enviable position of a hanger-on at the underground warehouse of a small printing-office, where two or three minor monthly publications were rolled off from a machine in a cellar, the motive-power of which was supplied by a steam-engine in an adjoining factory. Terry's whole fortune consisted in his wife, who plied as a basket-woman in Covent Garden, and his own broad back, which he carried steadily under the pressure of three hundred weight; to which might be added a temper insensible to provocation, and an appetite which, owing to "his riverence, Father Matthew," who had cured him of whisky-drinking, was a match for anything eatable under the sun. Terry's wife, whom he always addressed as "me darlint," was in every respect the "dacent ooman" he was fond of calling her; and she was not a little proud of her Herculean spouse, as anybody might see who observed her watching him as he devoured the monstrous boiling of potatoes which she brought him regularly at one o'clock, and which, with a draught of water from the pump in the court-yard, constituted his unvarying dinner. I question if the good woman herself lived upon anything better: it was Terry's boast that he had made her, like himself, a "taytotalman intirely," and that "iver since, wi' the blessin' of iven, they hadn't wanted for nothin' at all at all." Terry had no regular engagement; his earnings were limited to fetchings and carryings, and running of errands; and when he had nothing to do he had nothing to receive. His average receipts were rather under than over a pound a month; and his wife, according to his own account, which I believe was the true one, earned about half as much; but she made his home comfortable to him, kept his little garret as "clane as the blue sky;" and if Terry had any wish in the world, you may be sure the image of his wife was shut up in the centre of it. 
    And, to tell the truth, Terry had his wishes; and they were, like those of all honest hard workers - for constant employment and a larger income. How to bring about their realisation was the question. An untaught Irishman, bred in the bogs of Connaught, without education and without a calling, what could he do to improve his condition? There was no human rival whom he could supplant by superior qualifications. Even the little printer's devils, who gallopped up and down stairs, and ran about the warehouse, had all "got the larnin', and could rade a printed book out and out," while he did not know "sorrow a letther." "Tisn't the larnin' will do my business anyhow," said he to himself. "Bedad, if I was but a stame-ingin, it's a pound a week they'd be afther givin' me. Arrah now! that's what I call a diskivery. Sure I'll be the stame-ingin, and do it half-price, if the masther will ounly hear rayson!" So Terry watched his opportunity, and one day when the steam ran short, as it invariably did on the Saturday, he boldly volunteered to supersede the steam-engine, "if the masther would put a handle to the mill," and drive it clean through the week for a less sum than he paid to the proprietor of the steam. Terry's proposition was at first laughed at as absurd, as the power required was considered far too great for one man to supply continuously. Repeated defalcations, however, on the part of Terry's rival, the steam-engine, at length induced the printer to listen to his offer. A handle was fitted to the machine, and Terry was offered half-a-crown a day for keeping it going. The experiment succeeded admirably. The contest between flesh and blood, bones and sinews, on the one side, and cast-iron on the other, was for once decided in favour of the former. The snorting, fire-eating rival was cashiered, and sent about his proper business; and from that day to this the arms of Terence O'Donough, with some occasional assistance from his wife, have supplied the motive-power to the printing-machine in -- Court. From long practice, Terry now makes comparatively light work of his ponderous task. During the hot summer weather his wife makes her appearance in the afternoon, and laying hold of the same handle, proves herself a worthy helpmate to her toiling spouse. More than once have I seen Terry fast asleep on the floor, after working half the night, while his wife, grinding away, kept the concern going at the accustomed pace. The steam-proprietor is the only loser by the bargain; Terry's employer saves 20 per cent. by the exchange; Terry himself has trebled his earnings; and both he and his wife are confidently looking forward to the accumulation of sufficient capital for a start in the "general line," including "murphies and black-diamonds," which is to lead them onwards and upwards to respectability and fortune.


    Returning lately from a visit to the Principality, I arrived by the Great Western Railway at the Paddington terminus. Throwing my portmanteau on the top of an omnibus bound for the Bank, I mounted myself by the side of it, and in a few minutes we were en -route for the city. We had not yet entered upon the New Road ere I became aware that the omnibus, which was crowned with luggage, was accompanied on its journey by no less than six young lads, the eldest not above seventeen, who, running at the side or in the rear of the vehicle, kept up with it the whole way. I noticed that if one of them caught my eye, he made a motion of touching his hat -though not a semblance of a hat or of a shoe either was to be found among the whole party - and executed a kind of shambling bow, which, being performed at the speed of six or seven miles an hour, appeared a rather comic species of politeness. I asked the driver the meaning of this curious cortege. "Them poor young 'uns, sir," said he, "is arnin' what I calls a reg'lar hard penny. They are a-lookin' out arter the luggage; and because they runs it down all the way from the railway, they thinks they got a right to the porterage. When we drops a passenger and a portmanteau together you'll see the move. The fast man (they goes in reg'lar turns) will shoulder the luggage, and pocket the browns for carrin' of it home. He as has the last turn will have to run perhaps all the way to the Bank - a good four mile the way we go. They gits what they can, and takes their chance whatever it is. Sometimes they're done altogether. A boy may foller the bus all the way on the hunt arter a gentleman's luggage, and never git it at last - cause why, d'ye see, a cab may take it out of his mouth, or a kind-hearted swell may think that a chap as will run four miles arter a trunk, is perhaps likely to bolt with it when he's got it. Tis all a chance. I wish em better luck, that's all. "A hard penny indeed, thought I; "and a proof that these poor, ragged vagabonds are willing at any rate to get one honestly, if they can.
    The first passenger with luggage got out at Tottenham Court Road; his baggage was hauled from the roof and lifted upon the shoulders of one of our running attendants by the conductor, who seemed to look upon the ceremony as a matter of course. Away marched the little bare-legged Atlas at the heels of the passenger towards the Hampstead Road, and the omnibus proceeded on its route accompanied by the remaining five. The next stoppage was at Euston Square; and the porterage, being only from the omnibus to the North-Western Railway station, was but a twopenny job. At King's Cross we discharged another passenger, and lost another ragged attendant. At the Angel, Islington, two more disappeared; and the vehicle, on the roof of which my own was the only remaining luggage, proceeded onwards to the Bank. Onward at its side, with bare feet padding the dusty road, now at the rate of nearly eight miles an hour, came a flaxen-headed, country lad of fourteen, now and then scanning my face with eager glances, and pulling an obeisance at his straggling locks as they fluttered in the wind. When at length we stopped at the Bank, the little fellow had to fight for the possession of the portmanteau, which he did with a vigour almost amounting to desperation, with a half drunken porter of forty, who was standing on the look-out. Finding himself likely to be worsted in the contest, he appealed to me with a look which a flint could not have resisted, and I felt myself compelled to interfere to procure him the job. He volunteered to carry the object of contention to PaternosterRow for 4d., after having run at least four miles in a broiling sun to make sure of the commission. He kept close to my side, as though fearful of incurring suspicion, either by going too fast or by lagging behind, and civilly bore the burden upstairs to the second landing before holding out his hand for payment. In answer to my questions, he told me that he should immediately start back again by the shortest cut to Paddington, there being no chance of a job by the return journey. He said he could get back in forty-five minutes in a direct line without much running, and that they could do three journeys a day. A good day was worth 1s. 3d. or 1s. 4d., a bad one 8d. or 9d. He thought he made about 5s. a week out of it, but it was very hard work, and his victuals cost him all he got, except 6d. for lodging. He added that it would never do to run in shoes or boots-the gains would all go in leather: "the sole of a shoe wears out in no time when a boy's a runnin' all day long, while the sole of a fellar's foot only gits the thicker for it." His time was too fully occupied to allow of much questioning; and having received his coin, he was off westward like a shot, to rejoin his comrades at the railway terminus.
    These poor fellows work in bands, and find their security in sticking closely to each other. It is only when one is left alone at the end of a journey that a stationary porter has a chance against them. Together they would infallibly chase away any interloper who should presume to attempt to bag the game which they had conjointly hunted down. There is no doubt that they rely a great deal, as they have reason to do, upon the sympathy of the passengers, some of whom find no small amusement in the race so pertinaciously maintained for the chance of a trifling reward. I am not sorry to observe that since the increase of employment for all classes which has arisen from our growing commercial prosperity, their numbers have been materially thinned. They have been in some sort replaced by numerous gangs of country-bred urchins, who make a trade of following the suburban omnibuses, and tumbling heels-over-head, or "wheeling" for a hundred yards together on outstretched hands and feet, after the manner of the gipsy broods, who, in times gone by, swarmed in the track of the old stage-coaches, cutting capers for the halfpence of the outsiders - an occupation that will most assuredly cease to be remunerative when its novelty to the Londoner has died away.


    Bob Rudge is the son of a "navvie" employed on the Great Northern Railway. His father's fifteen shillings a week has been made to undergo a very considerable stretching in order to make it sufficient for the wants of eight young children, of whom Bob is the eldest, and he not yet sixteen. The mother has too much to do with her little troop of half-naked rebels to make any further attempt at industry than is manifested to the passers-by in the appearance of a small ginger-bread and apple stall in front of the blackened brick cottage in Maiden Lane. If the poor woman manages by her desultory traffic to pay the rent of the little domicile, she thinks herself well off. The number of undeniably good appetites beneath Mr. Rudge's small roof has been long a source of perplexity to the honest man, and all of them would certainly have been reduced to occasional very short commons if Bob had not, like a dutiful son, come to the rescue. Maiden Lane and its adjoining purlieus and precincts, it should be known, are the El Dorado, the unbought paradise, of hungry donkeys. There and thereabouts are numberless small patches of unenclosed grass, half lumbered with bricks and building materials, and destined to be built upon at no very distant date. These are plentifully pastured by asses too poorly ownered to boast of private lodgings, who browse patiently among the broken bricks and rubbish, and pick up a gratuitous livelihood, being turned out of the shafts and left to shift for themselves whenever relieved from duty. Man is ever the child of circumstances, and generally derives his knowledge, if indeed he gets any worth having, from his personal surroundings. Little Bob Rudge, like the rest of us, caught up his experience from the lessons of his daily life. He was nurtured and bred among donkeys, and from the long habit of observing their predilections and propensities, has at last struck out a business for himself, enabling him to relieve his parents of the burden of his maintenance, and further, to render valuable co-operation towards that of the family.
    All round the suburbs of London, girding the metropolis in every direction, are miles upon miles of open sewers and drains. The pedestrian who diverges from the beaten track is often only prevented from walking into them by the kindly information of his olfactory nerves: they are carried by numerous culverts under the New River in the north, and under the roads and railways in the east and south; the aristocratic nostrils of the west have voted them a nuisance, and there they abound in less profusion; but everywhere their odours ascend and flavour the country air which the retired citizen imagines he is inhaling in all its purity. But the poison of one man is the meat of another, and this interminable source of disease and death little Bob Rudge has made the foundation of his traffic. The banks of these endless ditches and drains are everywhere covered with a rank and luxurious vegetation, chiefly consisting of a gigantic species of succulent grass rising on long reedy stems, which is to a donkey what turtle-soup is to an alderman. This Master Bob collects and sells by the sackful to the owners of asses; not to the poverty-stricken proprietors of the squatting herds in his own immediate neighbourhood, but to the thriving owners of the lively brutes who on Hampstead Heath, and other such places of fashionable resort, amble flauntingly in milk-white drapery beneath the soft side-saddles of the frolic fair, or plod quietly along, guided by the feeble hand of the consumptive invalid. 
    Bob's profession is anything but a sinecure. He began by being his own beast of burden. I met him two years ago, armed with a short sickle and a sack six feet long; he was levelling the herbage on the bank of a ditch, and ramming it into his bag. Not being at all in the secret, I questioned him as to the use of his crop.
    "What is it for?" said he: "why, for the mokes to be sure. Don't they like it-jest!"
    "You don't pretend that they prefer it to grass or hay?"
    "Don't they though? They perfers it to anythink. If you got a moke, you jest try him: if you lives handy here, I'll be proud to sarve yer. Bless your art, about three bags on it turns 'em out as sleek as a mole. Vy, look ere; it's pretty nigh all juice - aint it? With that he squeezed a handful of the reedy grass till his fingers were dripping with moisture. "The mokes is no fools, whatever you think on 'em: they likes gravy in their meat as well as Christians. He, he! You don't catch 'em leavin' on it till tis all gone, I can tell yer. I could sell ten times as much as I do if I could git it, only tis so fur to take it. This 'ere s a-goin' to Camden Town, more nor two mile. If I had a moke o' my own I'd do well."
    By this time he had reaped a dozen yards of the bank, and cut enough to fill his bag. He rammed it in with his head and shoulders as the sack lay upon the ground, until it was tight enough to stand upright. Raising it on end till it towered far above his head, he stooped, and buckling it round his waist by straps stitched to the sacking, walked off with bended back, the ponderous load projecting forwards over his head, like the coffin of Daniel Lambert on the back of a Lilliputian undertaker.
    Bob has now grown quite the little man of business. His ambition is gratified, for he has two "mokes" of his own, and is doing a smart trade as commissariat to a pretty numerous regiment of donkeys, if one may judge by the palpable improvement in his costume and the expression of his confident face. lie reaps and sells his crops without paying rent, taxes, or tithe. The paternal cottage has been lately painted and whitewashed; little Dick has made his first appearance in a shirt; and a neat-boarded shed, well pitched with tar, and weather -proof, in the rear of the dwelling, gives token at once of Bob's prosperity and his humane care for the comforts of his friends and benefactors the mokes, who have helped in bringing it about. How he employs his time and his donkey-power in winter is a secret which, not being in his confidence, I have not been able to fathom. I have no doubt that he has found a market for both, and turns them to good account. I encountered him only a few days ago in a field not far from the Seven Sisters' Road. He was accompanied by young Dick; both were busy "reaping where they had not sown;" and their allies, the mokes, tethered to a hurdle in an adjoining lane, stood witnessing the operation through a gap in the hedge with characteristic satisfaction.


    Nancy Goodall was the only daughter of poor parents. Her father was a day-labourer upon a farm at which when a boy it was my wont to pay an annual visit at harvest-time. She was a sprightly and active young woman when, while yet a child, I first saw her. Born to servitude, she graced her lot with those quiet virtues which render servitude respectable and often endearing. In her twenty-first year she accompanied the squire's family to London in the humble capacity of housemaid. There she remained for nearly thirty years, rising gradually through the various grades of service, until, finally installed as housekeeper, she had the sole management of domestic affairs. She might, perhaps ought to have saved during this long period a considerable sum of money. She really saved nothing. The sole use of money, in her estimation, was to ameliorate the condition of those dear to her. Her parents, who, as they grew old and infirm, needed assistance, received the best-part of her earnings, and by her bounty were saved from having recourse to the hateful charity of the parish. After their death her only brother, who had married young and imprudently, emigrated with a large family to America. It was Nancy's money and Nancy's credit that procured his outfit and paid his passage; and several years passed after his departure before she had discharged the responsibilities undertaken in behalf of him and his wife and children. Still no thought of care or anxiety for herself ever troubled her. She knew her old master too well to imagine for a moment that he would ever allow her to be in want. Since the death of her mistress she had been the friend rather than the servant of the young ladies, and after they were married and settled in the north, had been the careful nurse of the old squire, who, before he died, added a codicil to his will, which secured her, as he thought, a comfortable provision for life.
    When the lifeless body of the old man was borne off to the family vault in Devonshire, Nancy felt herself completely alone in the world. She remained a few weeks in the house in Piccadilly, awaiting the settlement of affairs, and expecting the purchase of the annuity which she well knew had been bequeathed by her master. The cruelest misfortune overtook her at once. Owing to certain family quarrels, and some real or fancied neglect on the part of his heirs, which the deceased squire had violently resented in the disposition of his property, the will he had made was disputed on the ground of alleged insanity on the part of the testator; and after a great deal of strife and some litigation, the estate was thrown into Chancery. Neither of the litigants had the slightest objection to Nancy's legacy, which each and all pronounced well deserved, and pledged themselves to pay: but no one paid it, and the desolate woman, now past the prime of life, was thrown, after a comparatively easy and luxurious existence, upon her own resources. The town-house was shut up, and Nancy, with one quarter's wages in her pocket, was turned loose on the desert of London to seek for the means of subsistence. As if it were decreed that nothing should be wanting to complete her distress, she was knocked down and run over by a coach while wandering about in search of a lodging; and emerged from the hospital - to which she was carried in a state of insensibility - three months after, a cripple for life, to begin the world again at fifty years of age upon a pair of crutches.
    Nine-tenths of the women in existence so situated would have given up the contest, and retired to die in the workhouse. Nancy was made of harder stuff. In a dingy house in a by-street in Somers-town she took a humble lodging, and, determined to support herself, cast about for the means of doing it. The pride that kept her from asking alms of any one strengthened her resolution to do without alms. Hardly possessed of the power of locomotion, she still managed to creep about in search of employment. Needlework was out of the question - her way of life not having sufficiently skilled her in the art, and it being too late to learn; her sight, moreover, beginning to fail. So she boldly entered the lists of handicraft labour: paid a journeyman clogmaker for instruction in his craft, bought the necessary tools, and set about making clogs for the market. In muddy London there is an immense demand for these useful manufactures; and Nancy, with a woman's tact for an article of woman's wear, contrived to make her productions favourites with her sex. It was little indeed, but a few pence, that she got out of each pair; but she became expert from practice, and therefore never wanted employment. For seven years she pursued her laborious trade, and supplied a large district of dealers with her stock. She faced the rigid economy and penurious fare to which she found herself suddenly reduced, after a life of plentiful abundance, with a courage and patient endurance that never flagged. Her one room was half-filled with narrow planks of wood, from which she sawed with her own hands the soles of the clogs, afterwards carving them to shape, and hollowing them for the reception of the foot. This was the labour of the morning, generally commencing with the dawn; the latter part of the day she spent seated at a little bench, cutting out and affixing the leathern ears, and finishing off the goods for the shopkeeper. She lived constantly surrounded with chips and cuttings, and used to boast that she smelt like a carpenter's shop. But the exercise preserved and even improved her health, and the little excitement of traffic gave a purpose and a pleasure to her toilsome life which she had never felt before.
    Nancy is yet alive. Contrary to almost all precedent in Chancery cases, that one in which she was so deeply interested has been lately settled. Her master's will has been executed to the letter, and Nancy is now in receipt of an annuity considerably greater than the sum bequeathed for the purchase would have bought when she was eight years younger. She has retired to her native village-not to indulge in the pride of ease and sloth, but to set an example of usefulness and benevolence. She has voluntarily undertaken a task for which few are better qualified - that of educating practically young girls for service, two of whom she has constantly under tuition. If this short history of her life should meet her eye, which is not improbable, she may perhaps suspect who was the writer; but the very last thing she would think of would be the idea of taking offence at the narrative.

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