Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - The Day's Work of a London "Cadger"

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THAT there is a "season" for oysters, for operas, for sea-bathing, for hopping, and a score of other of our social institutions, every one knows; but it was not until very recently that I made the discovery that there is a fixed time of the year when the "cadging" season commences, and when the hundreds who are addicted to that humble, though lucrative, branch of industry set out for the commencement of the winter campaign. It was quite by accident that I made the discovery. I need not trouble the reader with details of why and wherefore; but a few evenings since, happening to be in that shady locality known as the "Mint," Southwark, a public house, bearing the sign of the Black Boy, came in my way.
    Now the Black Boy has a reputation of a sort, and having at all times a hankering for strange fish, the temptation to halt, to cast a line in its murky waters for a few minutes, was irresistible. There was no danger in doing so, the Black Boy being one of the most strictly conducted public-houses in the parish. Were it not so, it would not be permitted to exist for a single day. All manner of questionable characters resort thither, including many who rely for a livelihood on their dexterity as pickers and stealers. It must not be inferred from this, however, that the Black Boy is a den where congregate grim-muzzled ruffians, with close-fitting peaked caps pulled close down on their bullet [-268-] heads, while their ample coats have cunning inner pockets, in which are stowed the life-preserver, the "jemmy," the skeleton keys, the matches, and the bit of candle, all so necessary to the successful prosecution of business.
    It must not be supposed that the Black Boy is a house where villains of this breed meet and arrange their midnight maraudings, or that it is even a likely place for a desperado fleeing from the huntsmen of Scotland Yard to seek and find safe harbourage until the ill-wind has blown over, and the huntsmen are put off the scent. They are but a poor twopenny lot of robbers, lean, hard-worked and half-starved wretches, these Black Boy revellers, on whom the very beggars and cadgers, who are our landlord's best customers, look down with pity. They are the most meekly enduring mortals it is possible to imagine. There are men who are never worth their salt, as the saying is, whatever trade they may turn their hands to, and so, without doubt, it is in the profession of thieving. No matter though they serve the full term of apprenticeship, they turn out no better than cobblers, and all their industry is barely sufficient to provide them bread to eat and a shirt to wear. The marvel is that they are not driven back to honesty in sheer desperation. It was curious to observe the abject cringing with which these petty thieves, as they entered the Black Boy to make their way to the common room, saluted the young lady behind the bar, and the haughty and disdainful nod of the head with which she acknowledged the act of homage. The very potboy tyrannises over them, and, I have no doubt, conveys to them in the tap-room, instead of the sixpenny they have ordered  and paid for, common fourpenny, and pockets the twopence.
    Hawkers, as well as cadgers and beggars, swarm in the vile courts and alleys of this delightful neighbourhood, and, like them, "drop in" of evenings to partake of the social glass and discuss the state of trade. At the time I entered the doors of the Black Boy several customers of ungenteel aspect were crowd-[-269-]ing about the dingy narrow bar, and amongst them two individuals who, judging from the baskets by their sides, were of the hawking class. At first sight the said baskets appeared as though filled with huge crimson sausages, but a closer inspection showed that they were what are known as "window-bags," a sort of long pocket, made of red cloth and stuffed with sand, used as draft excluders for ricketty casements. The men were engaged, as they partook of rum out of one measure, in discoursing on the slackness of trade. "It's owing to the back'ardness of the season, I s'pose," one remarked; "it's the most back'ard season, bust it, as ever I knowed. It was always understood that when the leaves fell off the trees sandbags would sell, but, bust 'em, it ain't so this ear. A man might as well hawk horniments-for-yer-fire-stove or ketch-'em-live-oh's, and think to sell 'em."
    "Oh, it'll be all right by-and-by," returned his more hopeful comrade; "it's the wind what's agin us. What we want is a out-and-out cuttin' east wind-a regler marrow freezer. Lord send that one would spring up to-night, and last a whole month. I'd give 'arf-a-crown to see it. Here's t'-ords it;" and so saying, he finished his rum at a draught.
    I was standing within two yards of the man, and while as yet unrecovered from my amazement that a native of a country where neuralgia and rheumatism are so well known could find it in his heart to utter so diabolical a wish, a lanky cadaverous-looking individual at my elbow remarked to another with whom he was drinking, "There you are! Now you hear it from somebody else p'r'aps you'll believe it."
    "Yes; but his 'lay' ain't like jours. You ain't got nothing to sell."
    "It don't make no difference," urged the cadaverous man, who was a dirty, lazy-looking wretch, "it all hangs on the same hook. I'll turn out sharp enough when the weather breaks, no fear ; and so'll the missus."
    [-270-] "Well, weather break or not, you don't lodge at my place after to-night," returned the other, who was more decently dressed than the dirty man. "You know very well that I've trusted you for grub as well as lodging all along on the strength of your turnin' out at the reglar time, and here's nearly the end of the third week in October, and you ain't turned out yet - you, who can turn your eight and nine bob a day, too! I feel reglar ashamed of yer."
    "And so I can earn it, if you give me the right sort of weather," said the dirty man, sulkily, but with some pride in his tone, too; "but what can a feller in my line do while it keeps so thunderin' fine?"
    "Well, I've had my say," remarked the lodging-house keeper, "and I'll keep my word."
    The dirty man pondered the matter for a few moments, with his elbows on the counter, and his ragged sleeves dabbling in the spilt liquor. Suddenly he seemed to make up his mind.
    "Look here," said he; "stand another quartern, and lend me a shillin' for a startin' drain, and me and the old woman'll start in the mornin', rain or shine."
    "That's a bargain," replied the man who let lodgings. And a shilling changed hands, and the gin measure was promptly refilled.
    "And what does all that mean?" I whispered my unobtrusive but terribly knowing companion.
    "Simply this," he replied, laughing; "it means that that rascal and his wife are street singers and cadgers of the sort known as 'mud-plungers.' Fine weather don't suit 'em; they can't come out strong enough. Give em a soaking wet day, with the mud over their naked toes, or a freezing cold one, with a good breeze to set their rags flying, and I'll be bound that they make as much in a day as the sum you heard mentioned, and more, too. This 'second summer' that we've had since the middle of September has played the deuce with chaps of his breed. Put 'em back a fortnight, at least."
    [-271-] "Is there a regular time of year, then, for street-singers and cadgers to commence business ?"
    "Yes; the middle of October is the time."
    "And you think that this fellow will keep his word, and make a start with his wife to-morrow morning ?"
    "I have very little doubt about it. He's in debt at the place where he lodges, as you heard him say. That's his landlord he was talking with. Oh, yes; if you were coming this way about ten in the morning you'd see the precious pair going to work."
    I at once resolved that I would be coming that way in the morning, and, if I was so fortunate as to catch my mud-plunging friends going to work, to do my best to keep them in sight for a while, with a view to ascertaining how they set about it, and how, as a business speculation, it was made to answer.
    To my great satisfaction, the following morning proved to be as wretched as the most inveterate "mud-plunger" could desire. It was cold, it was windy - the clouds were leaden, and a fine rain was falling with sullen persistency. Warmly buttoned in my unremarkable old coat of many winters, and with a change of caps in a pocket thereof, by half-past nine I was in Lant-street, in the Borough, that being, as my friend assured me, the way the chanting cadgers would come if they came at all. As I anticipated, it was much too promising a morning to be neglected. Just as St. George's Church was chiming ten, a couple came along the street, and I had no difficulty in recognising the man as the individual who, on the previous night, had borrowed a shilling of his landlord, on the promise of "going to work, rain or shine." I was considerably disappointed at his appearance, however, as well as at the woman's. Had a night's reflection resolved him to abandon his cadging courses and seek honest employment? Moreover, the man had on a shirt that, compared with the rag I had seen him in yesterday, was a clean shirt, and his feet were encased in a comfortable [-272-] pair of shoes. The woman carried a capacious handbasket, and she and the man, who was cheerfully puffing at his morning pipe, stepped along briskly, looking so little like beggars that, meeting them promiscuously, I should have no more thought of bestowing a penny on them for charity's sake than of asking them for one.
    The drizzling rain still continuing, the pair made their way, at so nimble a pace that it was not the easiest thing in the world to keep up with them, down the Borough, towards Newington-causeway, and up the Kennington-road. Suddenly turning a corner at Kennington-cross, I missed them. There was a public-house at the corner, with a convenient side door, and the sight of it, coupled with their disappearance, recalled to my mind the words the man had used the night before as to the purpose to which the borrowed shilling was to be applied. There was another side-entrance at the other side of the corner public-house, and this I availed myself of, calling for a glass of ale. The morning's newspaper lay on the counter, and, taking it up, I had the pleasure of making out in the opposite compartment my friends of the Mint, partaking of two fourpenn'orths of hot rum-and-water and an Abernethy biscuit. I. read at least half a column, and when I ventured a glance in the direction of the opposite compartment it was empty! Somehow they had stealthily slipped out, and I had again lost them!
    In three seconds I was in the street looking to the left and right; but no-they were clean gone, and I had had my three- quarters of an hour's tramp through the rain and mire for nothing. But hark! was not that the sound of plaintive singing? At a distance of fifty yards or so, and opening out of the main street, there was a square or crescent and hurrying thither, lo! there I beheld my friends, but how miraculously altered! How had the metamorphosis been accomplished? Ten minutes ago the man in the patched jacket [-273-] might well have passed, as I have remarked, as some honest poor fellow in quest of a job; but he had moulted since then, and become what I now beheld him - a scarecrow; a shoeless, shivering outcast, gingerly progressing with his naked toes through the squelching mud, as though constitutionally he had as great an aversion for it as a cat has; a much-to-be-pitied, consumptive wretch, judging from the frequency with which he was compelled to pause in the middle of the top notes of the touching hymn he was chanting to give utterance to a hollow cough, and press against his aching side the crochet nightcaps he was offering for sale. The woman, too, was amazingly transformed. But hungry, benumbed with cold, and wet as she was, she was not idle. No! as she walked, clinging close to his side, her shaking hands grasped the crochet needles, and with all her might she spun another nightcap from the ball of cotton concealed at her bosom. It was very astonishing - but stay, there was the capacious basket!
    It was then ten minutes to eleven, and still raining, though not so fast. After all, there were beyond denial the naked feet dabbling in the cold kennel; there were the naked limbs exposed to the chilly blast - limbs that, of course, were not proof against rheumatic pains and penalties. These and other drawbacks considered, I must say that it did not strike me as being ample and handsome compensation that during that ten minutes of hymn-singing and shivering three compassionate persons were moved to bestow relief on the afflicted pair. I cannot, of course, say what in each case was the sum given, but submit that it is not unreasonable to set down the total at twopence-two halfpennies and one penny. This is not much. One would hardly care to do it at the price. But then it is not only for one ten minutes that these professional cadgers are so employed, but for hours together. As before remarked, although I continued to keep my Mint-street friends well in sight, it was impossible to tell the amounts they received.
    [-274-] There was nothing but their number to go by, and from ten minutes past eleven until a quarter past twelve the number of times the woman - she was the money-taker-found occasion to dart out of the middle of the road to the pavement, with her shaking hand extended to receive alms, and fervently ejaculate, "May-Gord-bless-and-thank-yer-mum," was twenty-three, included amongst the contributions being two gifts of bread and meat. The latter consisted of the bone of a ham, an angular and awkward joint, which was not without difficulty, and, I am afraid - notwithstanding that he still kept singing "a day's march nearer 'ome " - several maledictions, thrust into the basket by the "starving hoperative," as in the course of the neat little speech, at stated times delivered, the man announced himself to be. The ham-bone appeared to be a difficulty. Its meaty knuckle would protrude between the lid and the body of the basket, and threw suspicion on the statement that the famished pair had divided their last "kerrust" with their starving "horfspring" ere they quitted the wreck of their broker-demolished home at an early hour that morning. Possibly it was the aggravating bone that decided the mud-plungers to retire for luncheon at an earlier hour than was contemplated. Anyhow they did retire. Entering a chandler's shop the woman purchased a small quantity of the best old Cheshire cheese and a small crusty loaf (they had several thick slices of bread in the basket, but possibly it was stale), and so provided they adjourned to a public-house.
    It was past one o'clock ere they emerged therefrom, and a glance at the basket convinced me at once that the objectionable ham-bone had somehow been disposed of. The man was smoking his pipe, and, from the cheerful tone of his discourse with the woman as they came up the street, it was evident that he had not stinted himself of ale. Merry as he might be, however, he was not unwise. With his poor wife, who "had been delekit and hailing since her last kon-fine-ment," he [-275-] made his way back to the mews, where there were several barrows and carts, and disappearing amongst them for a few moments, the pair once more came forth to view, the same deplorable-looking objects they were before luncheon.
    They did not, however, recommence business immediately. They hurried still Kennington-ward for fully a quarter of a mile, and then diverging into a quiet street again took to the mud. In one street-a long one, certainly, and composed of houses of a superior kind - I took note, and estimated that the outcast pair received no less than nineteen donations, and this in the space of twenty-five minutes! It was not, however, in these instances of almsgiving that the cruelty of the imposition appealed most strongly to one's feelings of indignation. The occasion on which I felt most inclined to interfere was when some poor soul, who, judging from the two peculiar-shaped loaves she was carrying half concealed under her shawl, had just come from Lambeth workhouse with her weekly dole, compassionately stopped and bestowed more than one coin - for I heard the jingling - on the villanous cadgers. "I'm poor enough, God knows," said the widow woman, "but you!" "May-Gord-bless-and-thank-yer-mum," croaked the female bird of prey with a bob that dipped her draggletail in the gutter, and the widow's mite was dropped into the capacious pocket, already gorged with copper money.
    It was after one o'clock when my friends of the Mint began their second turn, and I kept them in sight until nearly four. I cannot, of course, be quite sure, but to the best of my knowledge, the number of times their pathetic appeals exacted charitable responses was one hundred and eight. This, with the twenty-three contributions received before luncheon, brought the total to one hundred and thirty one. It is perhaps scarcely fair to the calculation to put it that half this number of gifts was in halfpennies and the remainder in pennies. Probably three-fourths were pennies; but taking the [-276-] first computation, it will be seen that the day's work of the two cadgers amounted to over eight shillings, exclusive of bread and meat. It was not very surprising, therefore, that come four o'clock-ten to four are the cadger's business hours, I presume - they should, after having availed themselves of the dinginess of a gateway to resume their boots, &c., think themselves entitled to a stiff glass of rum and water each before they returned to a nice hot dinner at their lodgings in the Mint.