Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 3 - Street Types of the 1850s

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Policemen - Experiences humorous and tragic - Postmen - Old clo' man - Skin merchant - "Skin 'em alive oh!" - Milkmen - Butchers' boys - Volunteers - Street banter.

OUR street was a quiet one, but still it provided plenty of scope for observation. In some ways it was a bit of quite a different world from the London of to-day, for types of people encountered in it are not to be met with now. I shall endeavour to describe some of them, but it must be understood that these mental notes are the fruit of all the five years from 1855 to 1860, so that the memories recorded are those rather of a boy of ten than of five years.
    The respect due to the majesty of the law decrees first place to its custodian,  the policeman. He differed in appearance from his successor of 1924. The old watchmen, immediate precursors of the new police, had been called Charlies, and the modern force was already familiarly known by names still current, Robert, Bobby, Peeler and Copper. The first three appellations were derived from Sir Robert Peel, who had conducted the Police Bill of 1830 through Parliament; the fourth from the slang verb "to cop," i.e. to catch. In addition, he was sometimes called a Bluebottle, by way of graceful allusion to the colour scheme of his uniform; but this, I fancy, has not survived. Yet another name was "Slop," probably purely slang.
    The originator of the idea of the new police was not, however, Sir Robert Peel at all, but Vincent George Dowling, editor of the sporting newspaper Bell's Life in London, who had suggested and advocated it years before. Strange freak that caused a rebirth of law and order to proceed [-35-] from a spokesman of a reputedly lawless community! V.G.D. certainly modified life in London by this reform. Had not that erring jade, popular opinion, wrongfully acclaimed Peel as the author, the new enemies of turbulence would probably have been baptized Georges or Dowlers.
    The new policeman wore a tall "pot hat," built strongly of varnished leather and warranted to withstand all sorts of assaults and batteries; a brass-buttoned, bob-tailed, stiff-collared coat, and large-legged trousers, all dark blue, although I seem to have some recollection of white unmentionables for summer wear. A black-varnished belt with truncheon, lamp, and rattle completed the awe-inspiring getup, which in winter was concealed under a long overcoat. The rattle, an inheritance from the old Charlies replaced, in recent times, by a whistle, was a noise-creating device consisting of a tongue pressed by a spring against a wooden ratchet-wheel which when swung round by means of a handle gave out an ear-splitting but distinctive and penetrating sound. It told constables near and far that a comrade needed help. In the Police Court Records of the 1850s and 1860s the expression "the policeman sprung his rattle," or "proceeded to spring his rattle" constantly occurred.
    That there were pockets in those dark blue bob-tails I can avouch, on oath if need be. About 1859, when I and my next younger brother were able and permitted to make excursions to some distance - conditionally on avoiding certain thoroughfares, like East Street, Walworth, and Kent Street (now Tabard Street), Southwark, both strictly taboo - we were one day caught in a shower in High Street, Borough, near St. George's Church. An arched passage by the side of a public-house offered shelter, and we took it. Into the passage a swing-door of the tavern opened. While we were standing up a policeman came under the arch, and, whistling unconcernedly, placed himself with his back close to this door. Sheltering, too, we thought. But while we respectfully watched the commissioner of justice, one of the door-flaps opened slightly and a hand slid forth holding a flat flask. The fingers furtively parted the coat-tails, seemed to linger a second or [-36-] two, and then withdrew-minus the flask. He of the pot-hat, still whistling softly, immediately stepped into the Borough (so the High Street was familiarly called) and resumed his beat. We had no time to tell him that somebody had been taking liberties with his coattails. Could such a thing happen nowadays?
    Perhaps a couple of years earlier we had had an adventure, terrifying at the time, but subsequently amusing enough, with one of these guardians of innocence, which was remarkable because long, long afterwards I was told that Punch had once had a picture depicting a similar incident. I think a boy was made to request a policeman to ring a door-bell for him and then ran away, leaving Robert to interview the householder. Ours was not quite like that, and has the advantage of having really happened. One afternoon, returning from school, my brother and I stopped close to a door in a garden wall, in our street, but a good way from our house and on the opposite side of the road, to discuss some matter that was interesting us, marbles or buttons, perhaps, when a policeman whom we knew very well by sight, and who probably had also seen us about, sauntered up and noticing us standing under the bell-handle said: "Can't you reach the bell, my little chaps?" and without waiting for an answer gave the knob a vigorous pull. Startled, we looked up, then at each other and - was it telepathy? - without a word simultaneously took to our heels and ran homeward for all we were worth. Looking back from a safe distance we perceived a white apron in the doorway and the constable evidently holding converse with its owner. We avoided that officer long afterwards, dodging out of his way when we saw him coming, albeit our consciences were as the untrodden snow of Hohenlinden. When at last we met him without the possibility of evasion he gave no evidence of recognition. Now, on which side was the real laugh? Suppose his pull at the bell was a Machiavellian dodge to open communication with that particular servant girl ? If so, that officer was wasted as a mere patrol - his place was with the detectives.
    One more little recollection of the force. I approached a crowd one afternoon just as it opened a bit and revealed a dreadful sight. A policeman was supporting in a sitting posture a man whose head was hanging forward on his chest and whose throat was evidently cut, for the whole front of his breast was covered with what looked like a cascade of blood, the ripples being caused by the sinuosities of his clothes, which descended into his lap and thence on to the roadway. Other constables stood by with a man in black, who, I heard, was a doctor, although he looked to me more like an undertaker. It was the first corpse I had ever seen. Shocked, I proceeded on my way after a very brief pause, and had got perhaps two or three hundred yards, when I heard a hasty step behind and, turning, saw the policeman who had been holding the suicide - for such I had learned he was - hurrying along. His face was deathly pale, and he wore a look that was new to me but which was still eloquent of horror and disgust. He passed and turned into the private bar of a public-house which stood a few yards ahead on the left, wiping his mouth with the back of his left hand, as if to get all ready for action, as he did so. No doubt he felt the need of a glass of something after his uncanny ordeal, and well, I think, he deserved one, whether the publican felt justified in serving a constable on duty or not.
    In the late sixties the leathern pot-hat of the Dowler police was replaced by the familiar classic helmet of to-day. Not long afterwards I met a son of the hatter who for many years had held the contract for the supply of "toppers" to the force. His soul was sad. He said that the old tall hat as made by his father would turn or withstand the heaviest blow, whereas the new-fangled helmet was easily bulged in - and England, he feared, was going to Fra Diavolo, and that at top-knot speed.
        "Every morning at nine o'clock
        Somebody hears the postman's knock,"
declared a very popular song of the period. So way for Her Majesty's postman! A swell he was, and no mistake. [-38-] A bright scarlet coat, of, I think, the frock variety, with gay buttons and ornamental cuffs, all pinnacled by a shining pot-hat with, if I remember rightly, a gold-coloured band round it. Who would have supposed that the humble penny post could have produced such a gorgeous offspring? No wonder the servant maids looked out for the postman and watched him flitting from gate to gate like a dragon-fly in the brightest of sunshine! How splendid and how appropriate, they must have thought, for Vice-Cupid who, as Love's harbinger, had to deliver Valentines by the ton every 14th day of February. Oh, St. Valentine! How ever came you to be abolished? You and Twelfth Night, with its sugared cakes seemed to decline, fall and ultimately vanish together. Shops full of Valentines and shops full of cakes were your yearly heralds until the early sixties, and now you are both as dead as Oak Apple day and the service in the old Prayer Books for King Charles the Martyr. Yet maids and eke postmen contrive still to love. It will be remembered that Thackeray' s fairy tale, The Rose and the Ring, written in 1853, was, as its preface discloses, a Twelfth Night story.
    The scarlet uniform yet lingers, I believe, in the Post Office, or did a few years back, as I have observed men so attired waiting for the mails at Euston and other termini. When I visited Denmark in after-years I was surprised to find the postmen of Copenhagen sporting a similar ruddy costume. There must be something in ancestry. The British and Danish armies were the last to dress in red and the fact that their postmen followed the same crimson tradition constitutes evidence of identity of ideas and tastes if not of common origin of species. But splendour of dress did not elevate the postman above mundane considerations - he was keen on the subject of Christmas tips. His loud double-rap of today was in use then, but telegrams were few and not in Post Office hands, so the additional knock indicative of a, "wire" was unknown. When he had a registered letter - there was no parcel post - he doubled a double rat-tat.
   I will take the Jewish old clo' man next so as not to [-39-] interrupt the continuity of pot-hats. In those days Jews used to go about London buying old clothes, hats, clocks, dripping, almost anything, from thrifty housewives. They invariably carried, in addition to a big bag, a small Dutch clock under the left arm, the bell of which was continually twanged as they went along, the sound, sometimes reinforced by a cry of "Old clo'!" serving as a trade advertisement to all and sundry. A pot-hat was always worn, and when another article of the kind was bought it was stuck on the top of the first. So as the day went on and purchases accumulated, they, like his Holiness of Rome, frequently wore a triple tiara and sometimes more, for pot-hats were mightily in vogue and formed a fecund article of commerce. Such a Jew made his daily rounds through our street, Dutch clock, tiara, and all. He was ill-kempt, sallow, black-bearded, large-mouthed and yellow-toothed, but not ill-natured, for he bore the chaff with which vulgar boys often assailed him with apparent good-humour. The business must have been profitable, for he persisted year after year.
    From "beavers" to hare- and rabbit-skins ought to prove an easy transition, so I will take the merchant in those commodities next. He wore a pot-hat, too, and went with a pole hung with skins over his shoulder. He called out - at least our local man did - loudly and clearly: "Hare- and rabbit-skins!" and was often summoned to door-step bargains. I believe similar merchants in other parts of London sometimes invested their call with a musical cadence. These men were credited with being open to buy cat-skins also, and there was a dark rumour that they were accustomed to sally forth at night armed with a spike and a sharp knife for the fell purpose of catching pussies and skinning them alive, furs taken in that fashion preserving their lustre longer and commanding a higher market value. The unfortunate cat when captured was placed between the knees, the spike, driven into the back of the neck, preventing inconvenient reprisals. Dexterous and cunning incisions were then made and the animal reversed with a jerk that only experts could give, and lo! the cat was on the ground entirely destitute both [-40-] of skin and fight, but otherwise uninjured. Pathetic stories were told of pussies in this deplorable condition running home and mewing to be let in. One was said to have even reached the drawing-room where its mistress was holding a reception and jumped on her lap.
    These tales may have been exaggerated, but in March 1857 a woman got three months' hard labour for skinning several cats alive. They were found by a policeman still moving. This officer was a clever one, as he informed the magistrates that he could tell cat's blood from human, a degree of proficiency in the discrimination of mammalian vital fluids that was not attained by mere scientific men for many years afterwards. The skins were worth 2s. 2d. each. However, I did not believe that our man did such things, for we were told by our washerwoman that he was a member of the Church of England and had a son who had been confirmed by a bishop and blew the organ-bellows at St. George's (Camberwell) Church every Sunday.
   Milkmen in those days wore glazed pot-hats and white countrymen's smocks, and went with two covered pails hung round with measures and suspended by chains and hooks from a stout wooden yoke fashioned to fit the shoulders. When girls were employed, as they sometimes were, they also wore smocks and carried yokes. Neither carts nor barrows were as yet much in evidence in the suburbs, and the London milkman was still a genuine son of toil.
    Now and then, a man and girl driving a couple of very clean cows came round and drew milk from the udder straight into customers' jugs, or at least into a measure that was at once emptied into the jugs. That might be supposed to be a very direct, honest procedure, calculated to render adulteration laws vain and nugatory; but our milkman said that if people could only see the quantity of water "them poor cows" were compelled to drink before starting, they would cease to wonder that the milk was so thin and blue. For many years after this - into the 1880s, I believe - cows were kept at a stand in St. James's Park and milked as required for customers, who were chiefly nurses and children.
    [-41-] Butchers' boys were numerous, cheeky, noisy, blusterous and aggressive. They called for orders after breakfast, and brought the meat during the forenoon in baskets or in wooden trays carried on the shoulder. No sort of cover was provided, and wet days or sultry days, the joints, chops, and steaks gathered all the dust, soot and flies that happened to be going. Perhaps the largest butchers possessed carts, but the days of the flying butchers' boy with a fast pony and trap - the immediate forerunner of the telephone - were still some ten years ahead. I imagine that the Telephone Exchange, aided by the School Board Inspector, has had a good share in flattening out the mid-Victorian butcher's boy.
    The meat came with the name and address of the customer written in bright blue ink on a tiny piece of paper jabbed on with a wooden skewer. Butchers and their assistants affected light-blue smocks, dark-blue aprons and bright-blue ink. Customers' books and accounts were always in cerulean script. Sometimes chops and other small matters were wrapped in paper, and it was from a blood-stained envelope of this kind, which I long treasured, that I gathered my first knowledge of the inside of a locomotive, it being a leaf from some periodical with the picture of an engine in sections, boiler, fire-box, tubes, cylinders, pistons, etc., all lettered and described. What an ass the butcher was to give that away, I thought.
    Butchers' boys were always ready to fight - it was a sparring age, remember - and would "put up" their hands for next to nothing, nothing at all, and even less than nothing, for they would insult and provoke boys of about their own age in a way that could only have one result with a lad of spirit. But I believe they always fought fairly; the rules of the prize-ring they admired so hugely ordained that much in no uncertain tone. To hit an opponent when down, kick, strike below the belt, or take any other mean advantage was not to be thought of. Policemen they derided to the very limit of safety; chevied cats, and set dogs on to fight.
    When the Volunteer movement of 1859 matured and riflemen in green or grey uniforms, in shakoes and cooks' [-42-] plumes, appeared in the streets they amused many people, for few took them seriously or believed that they would ever fight Napoleon III or anybody else. Quite early in the Volunteer days a rifleman was said by public rumour to have shot his ramrod (the rifles of those days were muzzle- loading and had percussion caps) through a dog, with the consequence that gallant members of the patriotic corps were saluted in the streets wherever they went with the cry of, "Who shot the dog?" And the butchers' boys, with an insatiable if misdirected thirst for knowledge, pressed this unseemly interrogation home. The Volunteers, in fact, were born into an atmosphere of popular, or rather lower-class, ridicule, and it was very wonderful how they lived it down and developed, as they did, into such a numerous and useful body.
    These boys and others also made a point of demanding, "Who's your hatter?" of anyone whose "tie" departed a hair's breadth from the strictest precepts of custom. A pedestrian in a white top-hat found his lines cast in hard places, and even the sanctity of a reverend bishop was not held to extend to his chimney - or, as the vulgar youth of that day had it - "chimbley"-pot. "Does your mother know you're out?" and "How's your poor feet?" were other public interrogations calculated to disturb the complacency of stylishly dressed personages of either sex.
    "Taking a sight" was an accomplishment possessed of all rude boys of the period; it consisted in placing a thumb to the nose and spreading out its accompanying four fingers in the direction of the person to be satirised or derided. Similarly opening the other hand and placing it in advance of the first constituted the very acme of sarcasm and contempt beyond which the sons of Adam were powerless to go.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924