Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - "Bummarees"

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THE title of this paper will, doubtless, be more or less an enigma to the vast majority of readers. The origin of the name is involved in deep mystery. Who the first Bummaree was I am not in a position to state; but he has left a goodly progeny behind, not one of whom, however, so far as I am aware, is able to throw any light on the circumstances from which his peculiar name is derived. We are left, therefore, simply to accept the Bummaree as an established fact, and, antiquarian research on the subject of his appellation failing us, to look at him as he is - a link in the chain through which London is supplied with an all-important article of consumption.
    The Bummaree is not widely and casually diffused over the metropolis. Indeed, the fraternity are all concentrated in one locality, and that locality is not one affected from special choice by any great proportion of the reading population of London. Nor is he, even there, visible to the naked eye at any hour of the day we may choose to go in search of him In fact, he has left the scene of his labours before many of us have finished our matutinal tea and toast, and long before noon he has vanished for the day and left not a trace behind. If we want to see him in all his glory, a task of no ordinary magnitude is before us-a task only to be accomplished by a stern resolve.
    Four o'clock in the morning must see us out of bed, and on the way to study this variety of the human species. One word [-80-] of caution is necessary before leaving home. It will be prudent in more than one sense that we put on the very worst garments our wardrobe can furnish. Special precaution is needful in the article of head covering. The conventional tall hat must be abjured peremptorily, for various cogent reasons which will appear hereafter, and a cap of the most tight-fitting type will be found the most correct and comfortable wear under the circumstances. Thin boots, too, are to be repudiated. A pair of long thigh boots, if we have them, will stand us in excellent stead, in default whereof our thickest pair of ankle boots, surmounted by a pair of leather knickerbockers, will tend materially to comfort and cleanliness.
    Billingsgate is the theatre of our observation of the Bummaree. Arriving here about half-past four o'clock, we find the market just awakening into full life. The approaches to it are blocked half a mile each way by railway vans piled high with fish hampers and salmon boxes. Two or three smacks, countless lighters, and a screw steamer are fast to the jetty, and the market porters busily engaged in conveying into the market the fish with which they are laden. They deposit their burdens on and around the various stands of the fish auctioneers, who have not yet commenced business, but whose men are in attendance seeing to the correct disposal of the various consignments. Strange, amphibious-looking individuals are, without much apparent aim, dodging about in the open unoccupied space of the market; but soon we find them doff their coats, and having seized on a coign of vantage, proceed to erect a rampart of baskets round the position they have taken up.
    Suddenly a discordant bell rings out with a harsh "cling, clang," the market is opened, and everybody starts into activity, and becomes preternaturally wide awake. Porters rush about frantically with huge loads on their heads, and now you bless your stars that your chimney-pot hat is safe at home. You are hustled on one side by a Colossus with a salmon-box on [-81-] his head, who imagines that the magic words "By your leave!" give him full license to butt you out of his path. Getting out of his way rather precipitately, you are brought up by an attack of fish-baskets on the stomach; an urchin with a wicker stack on his head is running a muck, and you are the victim.
    In much discomfiture you take refuge in a comparatively quiet corner by one of the pillars, and are congratulating your self that you are out of harm's way when a sudden slam on the sloppy pavement about an inch in front of you of a ponderous box, accompanied with the warning shout of "Toes," rudely dispels this belief, and sends you backward with an impetus which probably procures you a volley of oaths both loud and deep from the lips of some unfortunate you have cannoned against. The auctioneers are by this time in their rostrums, selling away with desperate rapidity and wonderful power of lung. "Turbot! turbot! turbot!" is shouted in stentorian tones from one pulpit; loud roars of "Salmon! salmon! salmon!" emanate from the opposite one; the shouts of the auctioneer mingle with the responsive yells of the buyers; the din becomes tremendous, and you feel you would give anything for peace. The leathern-throated auctioneers bellow louder, their men vie with them in the din, the buyers get excited and "bid out" vociferously; the rush of porters gets more bewildering, the general turmoil and burly-burly more wildly confusing.
    It is not unlikely that after having been jostled, trodden on, plentifully besprinkled with fishy water, sworn at, chaffed, and utterly deafened, you will be sorely tempted to spurn the mud of Billingsgate from off your feet and rush impetuously from the scene of your tribulation up one of the many narrow lanes which lead out of it. But if you lose courage at this stage, and suffer yourself to be disheartened thus on the threshold, you will lose your golden opportunity of making acquaintance with and studying the idiosyncracies of the very men you are in search  [-82-] of - the Bummarees. Wherefore, buffeted one, take heart and keep your eyes open, and see what manner of men they are who are thronging round the auctioneers' stands. The contrast between the auctioneers and those who surround them, you will observe, is very strongly marked. The former are sprightly, well-dressed, gentlemanly-looking fellows, most of them gifted with brazen throats, and with a volubility which would almost put Mr. Charles Mathews in the shade, but evidently the patrons of fashionable tailors of a sort, and not insensible to a weakness for well-fitting kid-gloves, and the latest pattern in shirt collars and the newest thing in neckties.
    The latter are of a different stamp altogether. They may be classed under three heads : Rough, rougher-roughest. Great burly fellows the majority, with bluff faces, deep chests, and still deeper voices, with a smack of the waterman about them, a lingering suspicion of the costermonger, and a faculty for mental arithmetic which is perfectly surprising. These, good reader, are Bummarees and Bummarees' men. They fill an important niche in the economy of the fish market. The leading fishmongers, who have a large demand for the different kinds of fish, no doubt come in person or by deputy to the auctioneer's stand, and are purchasers at first hand of the large quantities they require to meet their extensive custom. But they are the exception. The great bulk of fishmongers and the whole fraternity of costermongers do not require fish in parcels so large as those sold by the auctioneers, and here the Bummaree steps in and makes his livelihood by acting as middleman between the large salesman and the retailer. He buys in the bulk from the auctioneer, and removing to his own "pitch" the fish so bought he sorts it into convenient parcels such as his experience tells him will meet the requirements of the class of customers he cares to attract. Of course he does not do this for nothing. Let us take the case of salmon, for instance. The Bummaree buys half a dozen boxes from the [-83-]  auctioneer, sends them to his own pitch, and lots them out into various qualities and sizes, according to the contents of each box.
    The market price for salmon is fixed early in the morning by a sort of committee of the leading salesmen, and this the Bummaree pays to the auctioneer for his wholesale purchase. He puts a price on his assorted goods sufficient to recoup him and leave a fair profit besides. The profit in the case of salmon is a penny to three-halfpence per pound, or as high as twopence if the customer make but a small investment. This increase in the cost the fishmongers find it their interest to submit to, and in preference deal with the Bummaree rather than with the auctioneer, because the latter sells in the pile and with all faults, so that the purchaser from him, in addition to having to make a large investment, has to take his purchase as it comes, good, bad, and indifferent all together, when perhaps he has a market for only one quality. The Bummaree, with one or another customer, has the means of disposing of all kinds; therefore, it suits his purpose to sort the large parcels, and he is accordingly patronized in preference by the retailer, whether he is a swell suburban fishmonger or a Whitechapel costermonger. I say in preference; but the truth is that a dealing with him in many cases is without choice, as when, from whatever cause - whether it be a limited requirement or a slender purse - a smaller purchase is desired than one of the large lots put up by the auctioneers.
    A Bummaree's judgment of fish in the bulk must be not only accurate, but has to be arrived at with a promptitude which in the midst of the hurry-skurry of the market, and formed, as it apparently is, at little more than a simple glance, is something perfectly wonderful to the uninitiated. Besides, he is, from the nature of his business, an habitual speculator. Fish is one of the few articles in which supply and demand do not bear a reliable relation to each other, and the Bummaree who buys incautiously may find himself at the close of the morning's [-84-] transaction in danger of being left with a large unsaleable stock of a very perishable nature on his hands. Rather than do this, towards the close of the market he takes for his motto "No reasonable offer refused," and then is the time for the wary and astute costermonger, who has studied the signs of the times, to make a cent. per cent. bargain, long after his more impetuous fellows have supplied themselves at much higher rates or with other varieties, and are off on their rounds.
    There are grades in this profession of the curious name. There is the swell Bummaree, whom you can hardly tell from the auctioneer (the aristocrat of the market), and who "bids out" freely for the choicest consignment of turbot and the highest-priced parcels of Tweed and Severn salmon, knowing that he will make his money out of West-End fishmongers, who must buy the pick of the market, no matter what the price may be. He doesn't trouble himself with the lower and cheaper classes of fish, but confines himself to the higher qualities, and the fishmongers mostly clear him out by eight or half-past. The second-rate Bummaree, again, leaves alone sturgeon and turbot, and mullet, and salmon, and goes in for soles, whitings, haddocks, and herrings. His harvest is not over so early. About eight o'clock there comes a fresh incursion into the market in the shape of small vendors, stall keepers, and costermongers, rough of speech and gesture, frill of strange oaths and practical jokes, "hail fellow, well met" with every one in a good-humoured way; and these are the chief customers of the second-rate Bummaree. He doesn't do badly with them, although they have not so much money as the West-End fishmongers; but they are ready, eager buyers, and the class of fish they deal in is always in demand.
    There is a casual Bummaree lower still in the scale. He is a "coster" who has made a little money, or perhaps he is a broken-down fishmonger who is turning his experience to account. Knowing the sort of fish likely to be most in [-85-] demand, he "throws in" for a single lot (all he can afford) at the auctioneer's rostrum, and then removes his purchase to some pitch he has previously fixed on-perhaps had to fight for; and having sorted it into the quantities he knows will suit the twopenny-halfpenny customers who are all he can hope for, takes his chance of making a profit out of them. These casual Bummarees are principally found about the pillars supporting the water-front of the market, and are objects of the special vigilance of the market constable, who often finds it a matter of some difficulty to extract from them the market fee of sixpence, to which every one makes himself liable who takes up a pitch within the market boundaries.