Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - 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.
&c.

EDITED BY ALBERT SMITH

WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY GAVARNI

LONDON:
DEAN & SON, 11, LUDGATE HILL. 

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ACROBATS.

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 morning.
    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 passes away.

ALBERT SMITH.

[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]