Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXXII - 'Ole Pippin'

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I WAS one day in Mrs Phipps's shop, when a hale-looking old man came in to dispose of a bagful of metallic odds and ends. He was a cheery old fellow, with full ruddy cheeks, and almost silvery hair; but he had a habit of casting his eyes down and prying about whilst he was talking that made me suspicious of him at first; when, however, I did catch sight of his clear blue eyes, there was such an honest look in them that I felt I must have made a mistake in his case as well as Mrs Phipps's in my first reading of character. We often do make such mistakes when we trust solely to conventionally accepted symptoms of dishonesty Almost every calling engenders some trick of manner which may possibly admit of an unfavourable interpretation, if the observer rigidly applies to it his abstract notions of the way in which all kinds of people ought to behave. Persons who pride themselves [-393-] upon their knowledge in the matter of insight into character - their ability, as they phrase it, to 'take stock of a fellow at first sight,' are often ludicrously self-misled. Witness the false scents which detectives who have brought themselves to believe that everybody is a more or less cunning rogue often run off upon, with a comically earnest certainty that they are at the heels of the rascal who is 'wanted.' They hunt in London, whilst he is half way across the Atlantic. They rush to take the Cunard boat at Liverpool, and possibly brush against the man they are in quest of in the Strand, whilst they are entering the Hansom they have hailed in a hurry to convey them at a gallop to Euston Square, merely 'confounding' their quarry for getting in their way. The old man's habit of casting down his eyes, I soon found, was one of these trade-caused tricks of manner - as innocent as the soberest sailor's roll on shore.
    'Who is he, Mrs Phipps?' I asked when the old man had gone out with the money she had paid him for his metal.
    'Oh! that's ole Pippin, sir.'
    'And what is Mr Pippin's business?'
    The title I had given him greatly tickled Mrs Phipps. When she had finished laughing, she answered, 'Bless you, sir, he ain't Mr Pippin' (bursting out in laughter again at the title she had emphasized). 'Pippin ain't his name - surname or Chris'n name. It's the name he goes by. I can't rightly say what his real name is. Though if you'd mind the neighbours, you'd say I'd ought to. Accordin' to them, me and ole Pippin's goin' to [-394-] make a match of it. A likely thing, and him old enough to be my father! Though he's a fine ole chap, ain't he, sir, for his years? And he don't do badly neither. He ain't like the rest o' them shore-workers - a haul to-day, drunk as a sow to-morrer, and not a penny in their pockets day after. He's a righter notion o' the vally o' money than that, and he makes a sight, they say; but then he's burdened hisself with sich a lot to spend it on that I might as well marry a viddiver as wanted somebody to 'elp keep a lot o' kids, as ole Pippin; an' that oodn't suit my book, let alone his years, though no one can deny he carries 'em better than lots as ain't 'alf his age. I've got on a deal better since my fust ole man died than ever I did while he was livin', so I ain't a-goin to git another, 'cept I can better myself. What I make now I have; and can do as I like with; but law, it's foolish nonsense talkin' like that. Ole Pippin's a deal too much sense to think o' sich a thing.'
    At that time I did not know what 'shore-worker' meant, and so I had to ask for an explanation, which was thus given:-
    'Them as goes grubbin' in the shores, when the tide will let 'em in, pickin' up whatever they can get old on. It seems a queer life, don't it, sir? P'r'aps there's some on 'em routin' about under our feet now, jest like the rats. And the rats is wery dangerous, too, at times, down there, I've heared. It's a queer life, but there's money to be made at it, if the silly fellers had only the wit to keep it. All kind o' things - shillin's an' gold, too - they find in that filthy muck. But if you want to 'ear about that, you [-395-] should go an' 'ave a talk with ole Pippin. There ain't many's been at it longer than he aye, an' he's a pleasant ole feller to talk to, an' don't by any means objec' to the sound of his own woice.'
    I was then comparatively unfamiliar with the strange variety of modes in which the inhabitants of this huge city pick up a living. The information that there was a class of men who earned what, but for their folly, would be a good living by groping about in the foul darkness of the London sewers excited my curiosity; and I willingly availed myself of Mrs Phipps's offer to make me acquainted with old Pippin.
    In spite of his vagabondish calling and our common friend's little sneer at his loquacity, I found him to be an old man deserving of respect in more ways than one; and I think therefore that a brief account of his life and adventures may interest my readers.
    I should premise that at the time of which I write the scientific modern system of metropolitan drainage was only dreamt of: a gigantic system which would be cheap even at its gigantic cost - if only, after having taken so much pains to purify one part of our river, we were not satisfied with defiling it a little lower down; if after having collected our sewage so that it could be utilized, we still did not utilize it, except in an infinitesimal degree - still treating as rubbish to be got rid of anyhow what might be made to produce wealth in comparison with which the richest hauls the old shore-workers ever fished out of the filthy flood would be trifles not worth counting.
    [-396-] Old Pippin's real name I found to be Frederick Smith. Why he was called Pippin he could not tell me - except that most in his line went by a 'by-name;' he had gone by his so long that when I used his real name he seemed uncertain whether he was the person addressed. I found him in occupation of two ground-floor rooms. Neither the rooms nor the locality in which they were situated would have suggested the idea that the tenant made, in Mrs Phipps's phrase, 'a sight o' money,' but old Pippin's rooms were exceptionally good in such a quarter, and still more exceptionally furnished. There was no lack of anything necessary for his large adopted family, but the place was in a sad muddle. His housekeeper was his niece, a good-looking but rather sour-looking widow of two or three and thirty, with a swarm of children. The youngsters, I could see, tyrannized over their good-natured grand-uncle, but they were also very fond of him. The mother likewise tyrannized over the old man, but she did not seem at all fond of him. On the other hand, she seemed to cherish a chronic grudge against him. She was plainly angry that a stranger should see how fond her children were-in spite of their teazing ways - of the old man who supported her and them. She interrupted our chat as often as she durst with hints about the tide, and muttered soliloquies at her uncle for dawdling at home instead of being at work. She tried to enlist my sympathies by insinuating that her uncle had done her some irreparably grievous wrong, but when she found that I reserved my pity for the old fellow who bore her ingratitude so cheerfully, she went off in a huff; and I was [-397-] by no means sorry to be left to continue my talk with old Pippin without further interruption than recurrent inrushings of the noisy children. I learnt the exact nature of old Pippin's relations to his niece, soon after she had flounced out to gossip in the court (banging the door after her, boxing the ears of one of her little boys for letting it jam his fingers, and then putting her angry face into the room again to make her uncle responsible, in some incomprehensible manner, for the poor little fellow's bellowing). But I will give old Pippin's history as concisely as I can ab ovo.
    Nearly eighty years before the time in which I had my first talk with him, he had been born in Limehouse. His father was a lighterman, and as soon as Fred could run alone he was almost all day long on, or in, or on the shore of the water. 'I should feel lost, sir,' he said, in reply to an inquiry whether he could not find some employment more suitable for his advanced age, 'if I was put anywheres where I couldn't see the river.' As soon as his little brother Jack, who was two years younger, could splash about with Fred, he was left almost entirely to Fred's care. 'It was a queer way to bring up children, but I liked it. Jack didn't. He was always weakly, poor chap, an' that made him peevish. Many a lickin' I've got takin' his part. I could ha' got on with the other boys, but poor Jack had a way of rilin' 'em, and then he'd come running to me.'
    When the boys were seven and five both their parents died. I don't like to speak ill of my own father and mother, but tworn't much they'd ever done for us. 'Cept  [-398-] that we'd to sleep where we could, their bein' dead didn'tĚ make much odds to us. We'd begun to pick up such a livin' as we could before they was dead, and so we'd only to go on doin' it when they was dead. It was a bad thing for two boys to be left to theirselves like that. I'm afraid we should ha' gone to the bad, if it hadn't been for an old woman we often come across down by the river. It worn't anything she could do for us in the way of food and that, for she'd to work hard for her own livin', poor old gal, and it worn't much of a one when she'd got it. But she'd give us a stitch now and then, and what's better, she tried to mend our manners for us. Of a Sunday evenin' she'd have us into her room, and tell us about what was good. It worn't much she knowed, perhaps, poor old gal, but what she did, she acted up to. You never heard her say a bad word, and she was the forgivin'est old creatur' I ever come across. The boys would tease her, and them as were old enough to know better were downright cruel to her sometimes; but she never bore 'em a grudge, and was as ready to do a good turn to them as she was to anybody else. She was such a cheery old bird, too. If anybody had a right to growl, she had, you might say; for she hadn't a soul in the world to look after her, and she was often ailing, and when she was about, she could never do much more than just make enough to keep soul and body together; but, catch Molly grumblin'! "I've got a friend up there," she'd use to say, pointin' to the sky; "and if things is a bit hard, I shall enjy heaven all the more, when I get to it. My friend's gone afore to prepare a place for me - them's his own [-399-] words." I declare one evening when I went round to her place, and heard the poor old woman was dead and buried, I was a deal more cut up than I was when my own mother died. That must be seventy years ago and more, and yet I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a Sunday evening. The bells was ringing, and the sun was shinin' on the river and the ships, and poor Jack was in the workhouse. He'd never been bad enough to be took in before. I felt lonely somehow, and thought I'd go round and have a chat with Molly, and there, when I got there, she was dead, you see. I've reason to remember her, for if it hadn't been for her, I might never ha' had the happy life I have. It was through her I got into the right way o' lookin' at things. And what she'd told me stuck to me somehow. I don't say I never did wrong  - there ain't many can say that, I fancy. But I was ashamed of myself afterwards - I couldn't take a pride in it as some poor fellers does. And now for many a year I've felt that I've got a friend up there, too. It's a pleasant thing to think of when you're grubbin' about in the dark. Sayin' a prayer to yourself's better than swear- in' down there.'
    When Jack was discharged from the infirmary, the parish found employment for him as a shopkeeper's errand-boy, whilst Fred continued to pick up his crust anyhow on the river's bank. I gathered from the old man's hurt tone that at this time the better-fed and better-clad Jack grew ashamed of his ragged elder brother. 'But, of course,' added the old man in excuse, 'it wouldn't ha' done for Jack to ha' kept much company with me then. His [-400-] master would ha' thought that he was robbin' the till, and me a-helpin' him.'
    After a time Fred made the acquaintance of some of the 'toshers' - men who hunt for 'marine stores,' old metal, &c., in the river's mud, turn over builders' dry rubbish, and used, at any rate, to explore the sewers, in search of the same, and any more literal valuables that may be buried in such apparently unlikely places. He soon became a proficient in the strange calling, and had followed it with more or less success ever since-much to the benefit of his brother and his family. Jack had married young, and soon had a great many children, with very small means of keeping them. Old Pippin had almost supported them whilst they were children, and had often had to help them after their marriage. His youngest niece, on her mother's death, had come back to her father's to keep his house. She was a widow, and had brought a brood of children with her. When her father died, old Pippin had set up 'housekeeping,' as he phrased it, in order to give his niece and her family a home. When I hinted that, considering the obligations under which she lay to him, I thought that she might be a little more gracious in her manner to him, he answered with a laugh, 'Ah, well, poor gal, her temper's short, there's no denyin' - but then, you see, sir, she's got it into her head that it's my fault that she's a widdy. She says that she could ha' done a deal better for herself if it hadn't been for me.'
    'But what nonsense!'
    'Well, no, sir, in a sort o' way there's some truth in it - [-401-] anyhow about her bein' a widdy. It was me as got her to marry her husband. Leastways I talked to her parents. And a very worthy young man he was, though he did die at a ill-conwenient time. He couldn't help that, poor feller! You see there was another chap that was after her, that didn't mean no good. But he give himself airs as if he was a gen'leman, and she liked him best because of his fine clothes, and he could make her believe anything he liked, poor lass. So I spoke to Jack, and got her married to the t'other to keep her out o' harm's way. I meant well, but she don't seem to see it - and 'tis tryin', no doubt, to a fine young woman like her to be left as she is with such a lot of kids as is pretty sure to scare off any other man from makin' up to her - but the little uns are a great comfort to me, poor dears - I should miss 'em, if they was took away from me.'
    Old Pippin made very light of the disagreeables of his subterranean rambles. When I asked him how he could stand the malodour, he answered, 'Oh, I don't mind it a bit - I don't take no notice of it 'cept where it's special strong - and not then much if I takes a pipe. Some says the air in the shores is strengthenin'. I s'pose that's nonsense, but anyhow it ain't weakenin'. Look at me. I don't look much like a in-walid, do I, sir? And I've been up the shores, as often as the tides 'ud serve, ever since I was fifteen. If poor Jack had taken to the shores, instead of stickin' in a shop, he might ha' been alive and hearty now. Of course, there's foul air in places, as there is in the mines, that'll put your light out and  choke a man in no time. It's a dangerous life - I'm not denyin' that. [-402-] When you can get through the muck, you don't mind a bit about it - you're thinking of what you'll fish out of it. But there's holes full of slush that d take you in over head and ears twice over. And if you don't look sharp, the tide may come in and drownd ye, or the flashers may open a sluice close by, and so again you'd get drownded. Of course, they couldn't be expected to shout out, "By your leave," even if they knew we was there. We're looked on as a kind o' antelopers, though I can't see there's any harm we do - pickin' up what nobody would get if we didn't grub after it. Of course the people the money we pick up now and then belonged to would like to have it back, but who could find 'em out? So who's a better right to it than us as wenturs our lives for it? Tain't half as much as people make out. And it's good we do in searchin' after it - we help clean the shores, and pay ourselves. It's an honest life, ours is. The wonder to me is how any one as hasn't the fear of God before his eyes can take to it. Besides what I've told you, sir, there's places so rotten that if you was to touch a brick, you'd have a cartload down on ye, and there's places so narrer, that if you wentur up too far you may get stuck in 'em, and if a new hand gets away from his mates - and old hands, too, in places they ain't up to - they may just wander on till they drops down dead, or the rats tackles them. The rats is wery vicious if you corners 'em. They do say there's wild pigs almost as big as bears in some shores. I don't know about that. Anyways, I never come across none, or anybody as had. But there's no doubt about the rats. They've pulled men down, and [-403-] worried 'em, and picked their bones as clean as a washed plate. The rats nearly did for me once. I'd heard a lot of 'em scuttling up before me, but I didn't care about that. They must be uncommon sharp-set to tackle a man, if they can get away from him. I didn't know that I'd got into what we call a dead-ender - that's a shore with a dead wall at the end of it - a kind of no admission, you understand, sir, except on business, and not much of that, for when you do get into 'em you'll find the muck dangling from the roofs like candles in a chandler's shop. All of a sudden, the warmin turned and came at me - scores of 'em - hundreds of 'em, I expect. I backed as fast as ever I could, and hit out with my hoe as well as I could, but the roof was so low I couldn't get a fair swing. Thankful enough, I can tell you, sir, I was when I got back to the main, and felt the rats rushing up and down it between my legs, without offerin' to bite me. I should like to die in my bed, and be buried like a Christian. And I thank God there seems a chance of it. It ain't likely anything will happen to me in the shores now, after what might ha' happened, and hasn't happened. After all, though, it don't matter much. If you believe in Him as has given you a chance o' gettin' there, you can go as straight to heaven out o' the shores as you could off your own bed. That's often been a quietin' thought to me when I've been in a fix.'