Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 20 - A Pair of Mudlarks

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THE river no longer lapped against the lower stairs; the raised stone causeway, that sloped from their foot to the water, rose bare above the pebbly hard, and green-brown mud. One wherry had been dragged down to the foot of the causeway, in readiness for almost despaired of passengers; half-a-dozen others were huddled high and dry at the foot of the stairs; another lay, bottom upwards, at the top. By it stood an old waterman, in a glazed round hat, sleeved brass-buttoned waistcoat, and brown pair of breeches patched in places with canvas. Occasionally he removed his hands from his pockets, in order to take his pipe from his mouth and adjust the tobacco. On these occasions he growled down a word or two to another smoking ancient mariner; attired in a chapped sou'-wester, a faded comforter, a pea-jacket with only two of its big horn-buttons on it, and a pair of blue breeches patched with green cloth at the knees, who sat upon the gunwale of one of the boats, kicking his heels against its side. When ad-[-285-]dressed, the second waterman, without taking his pipe from his mouth, growled a few words in reply, and then went on kicking his heels; whilst the first, having replaced his pipe, began again to stamp his feet in a "Bruin-dance" to warm his numb toes - for a biting north-east wind, threatening frost, was blowing across the river. "L'âge d'or, qu'une aveugle tradition a placé jusqu'ici dans le passé," says St. Simon, "est devant nous ;" but London watermen are no St. Simonians. The old fellows were lamenting their lost golden age, when watermen took more in a day than now they earn in a fortnight. "Might jist as well be a mudlark," growled one old boy.
    "Poor beggars!" answered his comrade, with a mingled contempt and pity in his tone which showed that he thought that, after all, watermen had not sunk quite so low as that. Some baker's dozen of mudlarks could be seen from the stairs: an old man dressed in what seemed to have been once a woman's caped cloak, the black stripes and the green ground of the pattern equally almost obliterated by grease; an old woman with a nut-cracker nose and chin, which almost dipped into the filthy slush into which she peered, and dirty flesh as well as a scrap or two of dirty linen showing through the slashes of her burst gown, over which, for "warmth's sake," she wore a tippet of ragged sack-cloth; and a flock of frowsy, touzled-headed youngsters [-286-] - a good many with no covering to the touzled heads - of every variety of grimy tatteredness: some with their petticoats kilted or their trousers tucked up mid-thigh high, but most with petticoats and trousers which saved their owners trouble in that way, through being normally abbreviated to the regulation wading-measure. With their bags and their baskets - both, but for scraps of miscellaneous material put in loose to stop the leaks, very much like Danaidian buckets - with their old hats, and kettles, and pots and pans - the mudlarks, young and old, groped backwards and forwards along the hard, which plum-pudding-stoned their bare feet with little pebbles, paddled in the chilly slush, or splashed like shrimpers in the margin of the water.
    Everything almost seemed fish that came to their very miserable nets. If any one wants to know the value of seeming rubbish, the straits to which people are put sometimes to procure a subsistence in this vast "London" - whose very vastness, however, through the multitude of paltry waifs which it furnishes, enables a little army of human strays to live after a fashion: a miserable fashion, but nowhere else could such a multitude of such people live in any fashion - let him take his seat in one of those queer beer-and-tobacco-scented, many-angled, notched-tabled rooms of public-houses, often weather-boarded, whose backs give on the river, [-287-] and watch mudlarks at work. They pounce on little knobs of coal as if they were "real Whitby jet" brooches; lovingly coil up limp lengths of sodden rope that look like drowned, putrefying snakes; wrangle over broken bones which starving dogs would relinquish to one another without a snarl; make prize of bits of wood which seem about as valuable; exult over a rusty iron bolt or lock, and can scarce believe their delighted eyes when their grubby hands have fished up half a dozen verdigrised copper nails.
    Watch the poor creatures clustering about that heeled-over schooner, out of which coal is being whipped; see them clambering up the stranded black-coal lighters, which, though "empty," may still hold coal that will be worth their taking; feeling in the muddy channel meandering in front of the shipwrights' closed dock, and reproachfully eyeing the shut gates which bar them out from precious spoil; creeping as near as the indignantly barking dogs on board will permit, to the high-piled hay-and-straw and other craft beached stern on in ranks upon the hards, lying broadside and lobside beneath the dangling crane-chains of many-floored warehouses and mills, flush with the water when the tide is in, or jammed into dark clefts between those towering piles. And what do the poor creatures get for their dismal groping in all weathers? If a mudlark clears six-[-288-]pence in a day, he thinks himself a most lucky mudlark - often he gets far less than that- sometimes he gets nothing.
    The incoming tide gradually drives the mudlarks ashore. They tramp in file up the stairs, printing fresh muddy footprints on the stones, and sprinkling them with unfragrant drippings from their drenched garments.
    "What luck, old gal?", asks a waterman of the nut-cracker-visaged old woman.
    "Same's ever," she answers at once, without looking round, in a tone almost too sleepy to be peevish.
    Her bag looks full, but if her luck to-day has only been her usual fortune, the bulky find under which she bends cannot be very valuable - if one may judge by her appearance.
    She slinks off to her lair, followed by an imp bearing a rusty crumpled colander, piled with its find. Its sex is indistinguishable. It has long mud-hued hair hanging down in a mat over its shoulders. Through the hair one gets a glimpse of a never-washed little face, whose only sign of intelligence is an occasional glance of wicked knowingness. The imp is clad in a corduroy waistcoat, sleeved like the round-hatted old waterman's; the sleeves are turned back at the wrists, to enable the grubby little hands at the end of stick-like little arms to find their way out. What other clothes, if any, the imp has on, it is impossible to say, since [-289-] the waistcoat comes down to its kibed little heels - bare of everything except ingrained dirt, thickly lacquered with a fresh layer of malodorous slime - like the Ulster great-coats in which men make Noah's-ark guys of themselves now-a-days; and though some of the bone buttons are off, the capacious overlapping double breast quite hides the no doubt skinny little frame within.
    "Poor ole Sue!" said the round-hatted old waterman; "an' yet she worn't a bad-looking young 'ooman once upon a time."
    "Well, you ain't a chicken, but that must ha' been long afore your time, Sam," interjected a younger comrade who had joined Sam on the stairs-head.
    "No, tain't," answered Sam. "I don't mean as I can remember her so's to 've kep' company wi'er, or the like o' that; but when I was about 'alf way through my 'prenticeship, she come to live 'ere. She were fresh from the country, jist married, an' an unkimmon pretty young wife she were, though she do look a deal more like a guy now, or a Punch-and-Judy show."
    "Boat, sir-boat?" the waterman had greeted me with, when I first made my appearance on the stairs, and they had naturally looked rather grumpy when they found that I did not want one, especially since they could not make out what I did want-except to stare at the river, [-290-] and perhaps listen to them. The round-hatted old fellow answered me civilly enough however when, interested by what he had said, I tried to get into conversation with him.
    "About ole Sue? Oh, yes, I can tell ye all I know about her, sir, if you want to know it, but I can do talkin' as well walkin' as standin'. I was jist thinkin' o'goin' 'ome to git a bit of a warm, for it's, no good waitin' about 'ere any longer sich a day as this."
    I proposed that, instead of going home for his "warm," he should have a drop of hot spiced beer in the river-side room from which I had recently issued.
    He accepted my invitation nothing loth, and thus discoursed over his steaming pewter - 
    "As I was a-sayin', sir, I remember poor old Sue when she was fust married. From the country she come. The chap she was married to was a ship's butcher, leastways, the son o' one, and went down into the country to look arter beasts an' so on, an' that's 'ow he fell in wi' 'er. There was a good many young, chaps enwied him his luck when they saw the wife he'd got, but there was never a word said agin 'er  - not that way. They was like a pair o' turtle-doves or two young pigeons, as the Scriptur' says, when they was fust married, and a nice little family they ad - most on 'em gals, as took arter their mother in their looks. The young chap went pardners wi' his father, an' [-291-] they was goin' ahead like steam, when all of a suddint they blew up, jist like one o' them precious kittles that's sp'ilt our trade. The ole feller never 'eld his 'ead hup agin. The young chap 'ired hisself as journeyman to another butcher, but he'd 'ad one for 'isself too. To keep his sperrits up he took to drinkin', an' beat his wife an' starved his children. At last he went downright to the bad - ran away an' was never heerd on arterwards; an' nobody missed him, 'cept twas Sue. His youngsters had got to 'ate him, an' make game on him when. he were too far gone to drab 'em; but she'd stuck to him through all, an' kep' fond on him, some'ow, for all his drubbin's. They're queer cattle, is women. There's my ole 'ooman, now, as I never laid a finger on, or crossed 'er -  not to speak on - in a single thing she wished; an' yet she hain't 'alf the respec' for me as them as has cotched Tartars has for them. She wouldn't order me about as she do, if I'd given 'er every now and then a jolly good beatin'.
    " 'A 'ooman, a dog, and a walnut-tree,
        The more you hit 'em, the better they be.'
    "I don't old, though, with them as is for ever thrashin' their missises. They gits used to it, and so it loses its effec' - but now and again it's as well to let a 'ooman feel the weight o' your and, jist to show 'er who's master.
    I quoted the well-known sentiment, "The man who lays," etc
    [-292-] "Oh, yes," continued the old man, at first in a tone of contemptuous offendedness, "I've heerd the sailor chap a-spoutin' that at the theaytur. That's all ~very well in a play, but sailors is as free wi' their fists as other folks when a 'ooman riles 'em, an' if you was to know 'ow haggerawatin' our wives sometimes is - I don't know 'ow 't may be wi' ladies - you'd wonder they didn't git wolloped horfener than they does. It's all wery fine to talk about not layin' yer 'and on a 'ooman, but what are you to do, if you can't keep the 'ooman from layin' of 'er 'ands on you? But I was a-talkin' about Sue, poor ole gal. There she were left wi' all them bairns to look arter, an' 'ard she tried. Work her fingers off, she would, but as they growed hup they was no comfort to 'er. She'd no time to look arter 'em, you see, when she was a-slavin' at the wash-tub. They run about the streets, an' did as they liked. There was on'y two boys. One on 'em went to sea, an we never heerd no more on him. I don't know what become o' t'other. There was 'alf a dozen gals or so. None on 'em come to no good. Some on 'em married, an' some on 'em didn't, but there worn't much to choose betwixt 'em. 'Tain't to be wondered at that Sue got to be a bit too fond o' drink, when she could git it, poor ole girl. You see, they give it 'er at the 'ouses where she went washin' an' sich, an' so she got to know the comfort on it. Folks [-293-] said as she drank when she was fust married, but it's my belief as twas all a fib. It was the women as said it, as was enwious of the colour she 'ad. A fine 'igh colour it were, but not a bit more like drinkin' nor a rose is like a radish. She were fair druv to drinking, was poor ole Sue, by her 'ard life, an' then the wery folks as 'ad give her the gin at their 'ouses wouldn't give her no more work. She couldn't git no more washin', nor charin', nor nuffink. Down she sunk, poor ole gal, till she come to mudlarkin', and that she've been starvin' at this ten year.  'Ow she olds hout's a myst'ry to me - a frost'll finish her hoff some night, I expec'- but she must ha' 'ad a rare constitooshun to stand all she's stood - sorrer, an' slavin', an' drinkin', an' starvin'. A gran' thing is a fine constitooshun, sir; but them as has got 'em is mostly fools - they takes liberties with theirselves. If they didn't, it's my belief as they'd live pretty nigh for ever, if they didn't git drownded, or killed by axedint some'ow.
    "Oh, that young limb," my informant proceeded, when I asked about the old woman's young companion. "That's poor ole Sue's youngest daughter's youngest. A reg'lar character he is, the owdacious young toad! I guess he's forgotten more wickedness than you ever knowed, sir. He 'on't be a mudlark long arter poor old Sue's gone. A thief, an' wuss, that's what he'll he. He's tried his and at it a'ready, [-294-] the sarcy young rascal! Poor old Sue might be comfor'bler if she'd let him steal, but that she won't, an' the on'y good thing about the young scamp is that he minds his granny. 
    "If you'd like to see where the ole 'ooman lives, there it is," said my waterman, pointing up the lane, when we were parting at the door of the hostelry.
    What he pointed at was the dilapidated, pigsty-like, built-out back-kitchen of a tumbledown house, which could find no paying tenants even in that densely-populated neighbourhood, and had been appropriated accordingly by squatters.
    "An' if the ole 'ooman's in as you go by, an' you've a shillin' to spare, you might do wuss than if you give it to her, sir," the old man, who had grown sentimental over his spiced beer, remarked in conclusion. "She were a wery fine young 'ooman once upon a time."

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