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


THE trade in second-hand umbrellas is one which is very industriously pursued in every part of the metropolis, although in seasons of dry and fair weather no trace or indication of it may be visible to the most experienced observer. The fall of the barometer, however, lures the hawkers from their hiding- places, and, simultaneously with the pattering descent of the first smart shower of rain, they may be beheld, if not numerous as frogs on the windward bank of a dry pond, yet vocal as their saltatory prototypes, and, like them, rejoicing in the blessed dews of heaven. In them the forgetful pedestrian, who has left his umbrella behind him, encounters accommodating friends, ready to dispense a shelter at any price, from a "tanner" to a "bull," as they phrase it, or from sixpence to a crown-piece. In the neighbourhood of some sheltered court or covered archway, where the crowd have rushed to covert from the rattling storm, the umbrella pedler takes his stand - his back to the breeze, his battered frock buttoned to the chin, his blucher-booted feet firmly planted on the slushy pavement, and his burly figure effectually shielded from the assaults of the tempest beneath the ample dome of gingham upheld in his sturdy fist. With a dozen or two of serviceable umbrellas of every possible colour and material gathered up under his left arm, he stands erect and scornful of the inclement sky; and as you shrink from the driving sleet or peppering hail, jostling uncomfortably with "damp strangers" beneath the crowded covert, he pits his patience against yours, pretty sure to conquer in the end, unless the heavens prove adverse, and the beams of the returning sunshine put his mercantile prospects to flight. He is an admirable prophet of the weather, and knows far better than did Murphy when the clouds intend to drop fatness. When you see him emerging, stock in hand, from some malodorous alley in the purlieus of Clare Market or Drury Lane, you may set it down as a matter of certainty, whatever be the promise of the hour, that he has derived from some mysterious source or other, infallible indications of impending moisture, and that he is prepared to take advantage of it. A sudden change to wet occurring at eight or nine o'clock on a summer's evening is a special providence in his favour, adding fifty per cent, to the value of his goods, and insuring a certain and rapid market for them. He is off at such a crisis without loss of time to Vauxhall, or Cremorne, or some other popular resort of out-of-door entertainment, where thousands of callow Cockneys, who piously believe that to carry an umbrella is to invite wet weather, are to be found fluttering in their Sunday's best, and in the precise condition he would have them for the encouragement of trade. The disgorgement of Exeter Hall after a May meeting or an Oratorio by Handel, during a summer storm, is a harvest which he is sure to be on the spot to reap. Wherever, indeed, a crowd is caught in the rain he is present to catch the crowd, and on such occasions it need hardly be said, is pretty sure to be well received and well remunerated.
    When fine weather has fairly set in, our moist friend disappears from his accustomed stations, and if, as it ought to be, his stock be greatly diminished, he has now the task of replenishing it to perform against the return of the wet season. With this view he makes the tour of London on a principle peculiar to himself: avoiding all the main and business thoroughfares, he penetrates into the back slums and private-door districts, where, in a monotonous voice, reminding one of the magician's cry in the tale of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp - a voice intended for the ears of servant-girls and peculating servitors - he bawls the interesting announcement: "Sixpence for any ole humrellar !" Now as he sells hundreds of umbrellas in the course of the year at sixpence a piece, it is hardly to be expected that this announcement is to be taken in its literal sense. It means, in fact, that he will give sixpence for an article that he approves of. If you offer him a dilapidated machine, he will prove to you logically enough that, so far from being a (wh)ole umbrella, it is only a portion of one, and is therefore only worth a part of the price. He will buy it, however, at his own valuation, be it what it may, as he has ample means in store for supplying all deficiencies. If the relic in question be that of a genuine manufacture, with ribs of actual whalebone, and not the substitute of blackened cane, he will hardly let it escape him unless you are really inordinate in your demand. Umbrellas whose sticks and ribs are of iron are his utter abomination, and he tells you to bring them to him red-hot; he "haves nuffin to do wi' them sort without the chill took orf." It is not always that he pays for his purchases in ready-money: he carries with him on his rounds a dozen or two of tidy little parasols, not too large for a servant-girl to smuggle out of the house in her pocket, in cases where the mistress forbids her domestics the use of such vanities. When he has overhauled the goods he means to buy, "Lookee here, my dear," says he, "if you got a mind to gi' me a bob (that s a shillin you know) and these here three or four bits o' humrellars, you shall have an 'ansome parrysaul fit for arra lady in town, and take your chice." With that he unfolds his tempting display of bright coloured sunshades, and the bargain is only delayed till the dazzled abigail has fixed her hesitating selection.
    When he is sufficiently provided against a rainy day, and the wet weather, as is sometimes the case, does not set in to suit his convenience, he sets out on a repairing campaign. Furnished with a canvas or leather bag strapped round his waist, and well supplied with ferrules, handles, tips, and all the little etcetera that go to the construction and reparation of umbrellas, together with a few simple tools, he perambulates the various suburbs and quiet streets of the capital, crying at the top of his voice: "Humrellars to mend!" His ingenuity in the repair of any disorder incidental to the constitution of these useful articles is really marvellous. Your old companion in travel shall have had his brazen nose knocked off-shall have been actually turned inside out by the blustering assault of Boreas-shall have had the whole of his eight ribs wrenched from his spine, besides sundry other minor injuries-and shall yet emerge from the hands of this peripatetic bone-setter restored to his pristine integrity; hale, hearty, strong and serviceable as ever - and all for the small charge of "such a thing as tenpence."
    In addition to what may be called his independent trade, carried on on his own account, he is bound by certain contracts to the keepers of retail umbrella and parasol shops. These contracts are not to him of a very profitable description: he has undertaken to do all the repairs required to be done-to medicate the wounds and fractures of each individual sufferer at a price comparable only to that at which a parish doctor is remunerated for attendance upon workhouse patients. Two shillings per dozen is the liberal allowance generally paid by the shopkeeper to the travelling artisan for the repair of umbrellas and parasols, lumping them all together, irrespective of the nature of the injurv to be repaired. New coverings of course are not included, and the shopkeeper supplies such new handles as may be necessary: all the rest is furnished by the repairer Some few of the more liberal dealers allow half-a-crown a dozen, which seeing that sixpence is the lowest charge over made for a single job to the public, and that the generality of cases cost the customer a shilling, they can very well afford to do.
    Sometimes a member of this fraternity will lay by his umbrellas and repairing-kit for a season, and betake himself to an analogous pursuit in the sale of walking-sticks. In carrying out this branch of his profession, he becomes the subject of a temptation to which he is not always superior. True he is a "natty" hand at a walking-stick; and though he may not be, like Sir Plume, critically correct "in the nice conduct of a clouded cane," he is an admirable judge of the quality of canes in general, from the common chair-bottomed bamboo to the costly amber-coloured Malacca. The perfection of his judgment in this particular has indeed been the source of the moral declension above hinted at. In his purchases of secondhand umbrellas, or perhaps in his barterings with serving- maids at gentlemen's back-doors, he meets occasionally with specimens of which the stick is a good partridge-cane. This, truth compels us to say, he invariably extracts (substituting a common one of beech), and dressing it up as a walking-stick, readily disposes of it as such at the price of a shilling or eighteenpence - the regular price for such a cane being from half-a-crown to three-and-sixpence. The purchaser soon makes the agreeable discovery that he has parted with his money to no purpose, and that his bargain, like most bargains, is good for nothing - the cane proving unsound, and snapping short at about a foot from the lower extremity. He sees when it is too late that his new walking-stick had done service as the rod of an umbrella - that it had been excavated at the part where it has now broken, for the insertion of the spring - that the wood had become rotten from the moisture collected there, and had consequently given way upon the first pressure. It is impossible to detect the imposture by examination before purchase - the cavity being cleverly filled with an imitative composition, and the whole subsequently varnished over.
    Not a few of the ambulatory umbrella-merchants and menders are Jews, who are at all times ready and willing to exchange their wares or their skill for any portable species of marketable commodities. The writer many years ago took lessons in Hebrew from a travelling umbrella-mender, who read into such English as he was master of - he being by birth a Pole - any part of the Old Testament with the utmost ease and rapidity. He did the same with equal fluency with a Bible Society copy of the Hebrew New Testament, and plainly showed, by his remarks on what he read, that the contents were entirely new to him.
    Not very long ago, a picturesque-looking figure, stately and erect as a young oak, but grizzled with the frost of near seventy winters, knocked with his knuckles at my window, as I sat tapping at the outer wall of my brain, to try if any ideas were within, and civilly requested to know if I had any umbrellas to mend. There was something in the man's face which forbade the abrupt negative that was already upon my lips: age, honesty, suffering, and something besides that is indefinable, compelled me to comply with his desire. He was clad in a garb which bore very solid pretensions to antiquity - smooth and shining with the unctuous friction of years, yet carefully stitched and mended throughout. I judged him to be an old soldier; and mindful of the tale of the "ancient mariner," I found the means of setting him to work upon a job which occupied him for three-quarters of an hour, during which, in compliance with the inquiries I plied him with, he delivered himself at intervals to the following effect : - "This here's a French humrellar: I know'd he was a Frenchman afore I laid hold of him. I knows the make of that sort well enough. Ha - I reklect the time when we used to get five or six-and thirty shillin' for a good silk un. Free-trade in humrellars and free-trade in bread! Well, one tells up agin t'other, I s'pose. I had a pretty good taste of the French once in my time."
    "Have you lived in France?"
    "Four year two months and twenty-seven days."
    "You have kept a pretty exact account. I hope you enjoyed your sojourn there?"
    "Not a bit of it; bein' I went there again' my will, and was a prisoner of war pretty well the whole time."
    "Pray, how came that about?"
    "Why, you see tis more nor forty years agone now - full that since I first went and listed in the army. About the end of 1810 I were servant to an officer, and sailed with my master from Lisbon to join the garrison of English and Spaniards as lay beleaguered by the French in Cadiz. I was onfortnitly took ill of a fever the very day as I stepped aboard, and confined to my berth all the voyage. Having the weather again' us, we were sixteen days at sea afore we came in sight of the Isle of Leon. But we never got there: a bad storm druv us ashore full ten miles or more to the west of Cadiz, and we was wrecked. While all hands was trying what they knowed to save the crew and transports, the French kept firing on us all the time."
    "Are you sure of that? Such cruelty is not customary in civilized warfare."
    "I says nothin' but what's true. You see we had been driving in the storm under bare poles, and hadn't got a flag to strike; so that we couldn't show no surrender: besides, twasn't the reglar French army as took us, but a gang of irreglars as worked on their own account again' the British. The want of a flag to strike cost us a good many of our men killed by their shots. There was a good many sick besides myself, for the fever had spread a good deal on board; and when the enemy seen our hands a-gettin' the sick men out in their hammocks, and lowering em into the boats, they left off firing; and though they didn't offer no assistance, they allowed us to land as well as we could. We all got ashore pretty nigh, but every one on us was made prisoners to a gang of fellows made up of the raff of all nations-French, Italian, and Irish volunteers for the most part - fighting for the sake of prize-money under the patronage of Marshal Victor. They forced the Portuguese sailors, and a lot of our own fellows too, to bear a hand in plundering the vessel; and when they had got all they could out of her, they set fire to her. I see her blow up as I lay shiverin' in my hammock under a ledge of a rock in the middle of the night. I was dreadful bad for a long time while we lay in prison that winter, wi' nothin' better than straw for a bed, and that most times wet. They turned the sick out of their hammocks, and bundled us all together upon one heap of rotten straw. But our lads stood by one another, and my master done what he could to have me took care of, though he could not come and see me.
    "As the spring come on I got better, along o' many more; though some of the poor fellows died just when they should have got well, for want of warmth and nourishment. The Frenchmen wanted us to work in the trenches, and we might have got out of prison if we would ha' done it. But that didn't suit us, and we were allowed to decline it, preferring to be marched off to prison to France. If I was to live for a thousand years - which, thank Heaven, I shan't - I shouldn't forget that there miserable march. We was seven months on the route, sometimes a target for grilly fighters, who never showed their faces till they sent a volley of shot among us - sometimes short of victuals and water - sometimes camped for the night on the top of a frosty rock without a bit o' coverin' beyond our own flutterin' rags. There was ne'er a bit of shoe or stocking among us by the time we had been a month on the route - no change o' linen - no victuals fit to keep the soul in a man s body - and no bed to lie on arter the horrible fatigue of a march wi' bare feet over a mountaynous country. Many times we was all druv together  into a hole where half on us couldn't lie down at once. A good number of the prisoners got so badly knocked up on the road before we had crossed the mountains, that they was forced to be left behind, where some died, and some got well, and was exchanged, and joined the duke's army. If it hadn't been a little better travellin' in France than it was in Spain, I'm pretty sure I should have left my bones there. We marched all through France into French Flanders. When at last we got to Cambray, there wasn't much more than seventy of us out of well nigh two hundred that escaped out of the vessel. My master was left behind on parole, and was exchanged, and, worse luck for me and him too, poor man, was killed in battle before I got my liberty. Tis a bad thing to go to prison, but twas the happiest day of my life, 'cept the day as I got out, when I first got into the prison at Cambray, and had a good bed of clean straw to lie upon, and a mouthful of decent victuals to comfort me. I stayed here near three years, and, considerin' all things, wasn't very badly off. My master, while he lived, didn't forget me, and through a French officer as he had made his friend, I got many indulgences and many a good ration from the governor. Perhaps I might have broke out o' prison, and found my way to the coast, as some of my comrades did - though whether they ever reached home I can't tell - but it wouldn't have been handsome in me to return the kindness of the governor by giving him the slip. There came a release for us all when Boney had lost the game.
    "Did you get pay for all the time you were in prison?"
    "I did; every penny of it, and spent it, like a fool, in double-quick time."
    "Was that the end of your soldiership?"
    "No. I was transferred to the 2 1st, and before the end of the year had landed on the shores of the Mississippi, where I got into a worse mess than the tother."
    "You mean the affair of New Orleans?"
    "I do - I was in it. There ain't much talk o' that in England. Twas a shameful bad business."
    "It was a fearfully fatal one to the British."
    "All owin' to stupid management, sir - nothin' else. We should ha' done the business proper enough if we'd a been well officered. Our generals thought, I s'pose, that we could all eat up half-a-dozen Merricans a-piece; but they took care we shouldn't get at 'em, by leaving the scalin' ladders behind. So there we stood at daybreak, close up to their heavy guns, while every shot riddled us through. As it was, we might ha' stood some sort o' chance if we'd a been brought up in line; but in close column as we was, thousands of our men was cut down in next to no time. I hadn't been standin' there three minutes afore I could ha' walked over the muddy canal in front of us, which was about four foot deep, on top o' the dead bodies o' the 44th. I could see an old nigger, not twenty paces in front, grinning at us wi' his white teeth through the fassins, and cramming heavy bags of musket-shot into the muzzle of a thirty-two pounder, and sending certain death to hundreds at every discharge. I would have gave my two arms to have got at the leering devil wi' my teeth. I see Paknum killed by a rifle-shot, and I was druv myself wi' a lot more, smack agin the fassins by the rush o' the 93rd Highlanders, who scrambled over us into the enemy's works; but not a man of 'em come back to tell what luck he found there. We stood there till more than half of us had nothing to stand on, and then Lambert ordered the retreat to be sounded. It made me sick to stagger back through the piles of dead and dying men, whose brave lives had been fooled away from the want of a little common prudence. If we had been led on by a Merrican, we should ha' done just what we did do - that is, walked into the jaws of the very trap that had been so long getting ready for us. Our bad management, and the want of a little respect for the enemy, cost us some thousands of lives, and spiled the success of Colonel Thornton, who carried the battery on the tother side o' the river, but was also obliged to retreat, because the whole force was blown to pieces, and there was nothing left to back him. If we had mastered that battery before we did anything else, and reduced the town first on that side of the water, we should have had a different tale to tell about New Orleans at this time o' day. After all, the Merricans had no pluck. They might ha' druv us into the river if they had the sperrit to come arter us. They had more than ten thousand men, and we was reduced to two thousand effectives; but they let us retreat in order, with guns and baggage, to our vessels fifteen miles off. That scan'lons affair was the first and last of my military service in Merriky. Soon arter that the peace was made, and I got my discharge, along of a bad roomatiz picked up through campin' in the swamps of the Mississippi."
    "Of course you have got a pension ?"
    "No, I han't - no pension, nor no medal, nor no nothin' !"
    "How comes that about?"
    "I can't tell xactly. If I harn't got it, taint for want of asking for it. But it seems I didn't take steps as I knowed nothin' about. If I'd done a sartin thing at a sartin time, they tell me that every two years of my service would ha' counted for three, and then the government would ha' had a right to ha' made me a pensioner. They are very sorry, of course, and so am I; but it can't be helped now."
    "It is well, then, that you have a resource in your trade. I suppose you learned that after your discharge?"
    "No, I didn't, sir. I served my time regularly to the business in that very house that fell down the tother day in Graysher Street, and killed poor Hoolagan, and more besides. Here's your humrellar, sir; I must charge you ninepence for it, and hope you won't think it too much. You see I have new-tipped all the bones, put on a new ferrule and new cap, repaired the spring, and fastened the handle, which was loose.-Thank'ee, Sir - much obliged - proud to do anything for you, sir, at any time. I often comes round this way; if you'd lay by any little jobs for me, sir, you won't say it does em badly, sir, or overcharges."
    Exit old soldier, carefully closing the garden-gate after him; then, making a speaking-trumpet of his hand, slowly marching off to the tune of "Humrellars to mend! AINY humrellars to me-e-e-end!"

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