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Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert
Smith et. al.,  - Acrobats
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SKETCHES OF LONDON LIFE & CHARACTER
BY ALBERT SMITH
ROBERT B. BROUGH. J. STIRLING COYNE.
SHIRLEY BROOKES. HORACE MAYHEW.
CHARLES KENNEY. JOHN OXENFORD.
JAMES HANNAY. T.MILLER.
ANGUS B. REACH.
EDITED BY ALBERT SMITH
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY GAVARNI
DEAN & SON, 11, LUDGATE HILL.
As you pass through one of
those low, densely-populated districts of London where narrow dirty streets show
the openings of noisome courts, narrower and dirtier still, and these again
conduct to alleys, so dark and close, that sunlight never comes lower down the
houses than the parapets of their roofs, you will be struck, above all things,
by the swarms of children everywhere collected. They scuffle about, and run
across your path, and disappear, like rabbits in a warren, in obscure holes.
They wait on the kirb until a cab approaches, and run under the very knees of
the horse. They collect round the open water plug, and spend the entire day
there, all returning wet through to the skin. They form the great proportion of
Mr. Punch's audience, when his scream is heard in the adjacent large
thoroughfare. The barrage of the Nile is rivalled by their indefatigable
attempts to obstruct the gutters with rubbish, and form basins in which to
launch their walnut shells.
These children are not altogether the results of
overfecundity of the inhabitants, for the families thereabouts abiding are by no
means large. You occasionally see a girl of seven or eight years staggering
under the weight of a baby whose sole nurse she is; but seldom find them with
brothers and sisters. They are only [-2-] acquaintances. Their parents live
huddled up in dirty single rooms, repelling all attempts to improve their
condition - for "The People," we regret to say, are naturally fond of
dirt - and whenever the rain is not actually pouring down in torrents, they turn
their children out to find means of amusement and subsistence, at the same time,
in the streets.
Of all their favourite haunts, there is not one more popular
than the bit of open ground where a mass of houses hare been pulled down to make
room for a new street or building. If they find an old beam of timber, so much
the better. They unite their pigmy forces to turn it into a see-saw, and, this
accomplished, a policeman is the only power that can drive them from the spot.
They build forts with brick-bats. They scuffle the mounds of rubbish perfectly
smooth by running, or being dragged up and down them; they excavate eaves, and
make huts; and know of nothing in the world capable of affording such delight,
except it be the laying down, or taking up, of some wooden pavement.
Picture such a bit of ground, on a fine afternoon, alive with
children. Amongst the revellers there is a boy, who for the last five minutes
has been hanging by his legs to a bit of temporary railing, with his hair
sweeping the ground. Others would have had a fit long before, but this appears
to be his natural position. On quitting it, without caring for the empty
applause of the crowd, he goes to a retired corner of the plot, and, gravely
putting his head and hands upon the ground, at a short distance from the wall,
turns his heels up in the air, until he touches the house with his feet. This
accomplished, he whistles a nigger melody, claps [-3-] his shoeless soles
together, goes through certain telegraphic evolutions with his legs, and then
calmly resumes his normal position, and walks away, not caring whether anybody
regards him or not.
This boy is destined to become an Acrobat - at a more
advanced period of his life to perform feats of suppleness and agility in the
mud of the streets, the sawdust of the circus, or the turf of a race-course. His
life will pass in a marvellous series of positions, and its ordinary level
course will be unknown to him. He will look upon chairs as articles of furniture
only used to support people with the crown of their heads on the top back rail,
or their legs on the seats of two stretched out to the utmost extent allowed by
their length. Ladders, with him, will in future only be ascended by twisting in
and out the rounds like a serpent; and his fellow-tumblers will be regarded
merely as component parts of the living pedestal which is to elevate him, when
required, to the level of the first-floor windows.
The young Olympian gradually learns his business. He first of
all runs away from home and joins a troop of these agile wanderers - these
British Bedouins of the wilds and common-lands - to whom he serves an
apprenticeship. It is his task, whilst sufficiently. light and slender, to be
tossed about on the elevated feet of a "Professor" - to form the top
figure of the living column or pyramid, or to have his heels twisted round his
neck, and then to be thrown about or worn as a turban by the strongest man of
the party - he with the stalwart arms and wonderful external muscles of the
thigh, which are set like bands of iron when he is supporting his fellows. Next,
in his hobbledehoy state of transition - when he has grown too tall for the
business [-4-] just named, but not sufficiently matured in his limbs to undertake
the leading tumbling - his office is to clear the ring with the large balls at
the ends of a cord, and to solicit the contributions of the spectators whilst
the others are preparing for some feat more frightful than any yet witnessed.
And finally, he proves his fibres to be as firmly braced as those of his
companions, and comes out in the ochred cotton tights, the rusty-spangled
braces, and the fillet of blackened silver-cord, as the perfect Acrobat.
Henceforth his life is one of the severest labour- unsettled,
wandering, and devil-may-care as his disposition may be, he cannot be called
idle. The powers of enduring physical exertion which these people acquire, by
the constant exercise of their limbs, is extraordinary. In the months of the
races near London - which period forms their "season" par excellence
- you will see them on the road to Epsom, Moulsey, Egham, or Ascot
even, long before the rush begins, in the grey morning, and whilst the dew-drops
still sparkle on the blades of grass at the way-side, to be turned into pellets
of mud by the dust in a few hours. They are all ready attired for the course,
but their finery is concealed by the ragged great-coat and second-hand
tweed-wrapper of their domestic life. One carries the drum upon his back;
another has, tolled up under his arm, the old piece of stair-carpet inseparable
from all street- tumblers and dancers, the parallel pattern of which is never
seen anywhere else, except in the second floors of lodging-houses.
Following them is a thinly-clad haggard woman, with a child at her breast, and
carrying, in addition, two or three foils, or swords, which are the
"properties" of one of the most daring feats [-5-] in the somersault and
trampoline line. She intends likewise to ply a double line of business, for she
carries some of the cards, wherewith to tempt the "noble sportsmen" of
the hot noontide. Apropos of these race-course frequenters, it is
difficult to conceive what are their means of existence at other seasons. Their
being appears to be inseparably connected with booths, flags, bad cigars,
betting-stands, parasols, and carriages That they live out the winter, is
evident from their re-appearances during the next summer; but where they
hybernate has never been ascertained. We expect there is some secret island to
which dwarfs, giants, and gipsies; jockeys, thimble-riggers, snuff-box throwers
and imperfect sailors; together with Messrs. Dorling, Lindsey, Oxley, and Wetton
- first in the lists - all go off, and there abide together until the
announcement of the First Spring Meeting recalls them to the world again.
To our Acrobats, however: whom we ran away from on the road
to the races at early morning. Well, they walk this distance, which would be, in
itself, a fair day's exercise for a man of average health; and at eleven o'clock
begin a series of extraordinary performances, which continue until six, their
intervals of repose being the time between the second bell for clearing the
course and the end of the race. They never show signs of weariness; their last
performance is as wonderful as their first; and as long as a solitary carriage
remains at the ropes, so long do they keep up their exhibition At night they are
proudly independent of a tiled or slated roof. If it is fine and warm, they
bivouac in the warren or on the heath, where the hurdles trimmed with fern,
which helped to shelter the horses or the [-6-] tubs from the heat, make a very
good shelter; if the night is dewy or cold - and their great exertions have made
them very susceptible - the corner of some canvas hostel is always open to them.
They sleep long and heavily. The sun is high up before they rise the next
The Acrobats are generally seen in London after the racing
season, or when the metropolis lies in their way from one course to another.
Some go to the sea-side - that is to say, to Thanet Tivolis and Ranelagh; and we
have encountered a party of English tumblers at Boulogne. Others join travelling
companies of equestrians, who go from town to town with a moveable circus - the
followers of the mountebanks who visited the villages in our young days. But
still the number of summer flip-flap throwers is not accounted for. Without
doubt they lie by to practise fresh feats; but in what lodging they can perfect
themselves in standing three high upon one another's heads - in what building
even, except Westminster Hall - is puzzling to imagine.
When the pantomimes begin, the Acrobats find a new field for
employment. In the slim spangled figures introduced in festival scenes, as
"The Mexican Wonders," or "The Thomsoni Family," you would
hardly recognise your old acquaintances of the race-course. They do not,
however, always have the good fortune to appear as principals. The majority
engage as supernumeraries: and it is not until the stage-manager at rehersal
wants some daring spirit to tumble from the sky-borders on to the stage; to go
round on the sails of a windmill amidst fireworks; or to be knocked through a
door, or out of a window, or down a trap, that a pale [-7-] man, in an old coat
that you have seen before, steps forward from the crowd at the wings, and says
that he will undertake it, and that he can do any tumbling business required,
for he is an Acrobat.
This is the boy who stood upon his head, on the plot of
improvement ground - the youth who cleared the ring for the street performance -
the man who threw his legs over his shoulders and hopped upon his hands, on the
race-course. He is, perhaps, found to be a useful fellow and kept in the
theatre, until he becomes a sine qua non of the pantomime, and in the
decline of life, the old nobleman of a ballet. And in the constant employment of
welcoming guests to village festivals, making hopeless love to the heroines, and
expressing every known passion to order, upon the shortest notice, his life
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