Sunday, 12 September 2010

Remember the Grotto!

Henry Mayhew wrote in the 1840s that "the number of oysters sold by the costermongers amounts to 124,000,000 a year. These, at four a penny, would realise the large sum of £129,650. We may, therefore, safely assume that £125,000 is spent yearly in oysters in the streets of London." In the mid-century, oysters were a cheap food, plentiful in supply, which were consumed largely by the poor. This from the Pickwick Papers:

“Not a very nice neighbourhood this, sir” said Sam, with a touch of the hat, which always preceded his entering into conversation with his master.
“It is not indeed,Sam,” replied Mr Pickwick, surveying the crowded and filthy street through which they were passing.
“It’s a very remarkable circumstance, sir,” said Sam,“that poverty and oysters always seems to go together.”
“I don’t understand, Sam,” said Mr. Pickwick.
“What I mean, sir,” said Sam, “is, that the poorer a place is, the greater call there seems to be for oysters. Look here, sir; here’s a oyster stall to every half dozen houses. The streets lined vith ‘em. Blessed if I don’t think that ven a man’s wery poor, he rushes out of his lodgings and eats oysters in reg’lar desperation.”

However, oysters eventually grew scarce due to over-fishing and pollution. Here's a quote from Living London (1900):

The oyster shop is not as common as it was in the days when natives were sixpence a dozen. But there are many scattered about London still. The great oyster rooms are at the west. At one you can have fish in every variety, and lobster salad and dressed crabs are a specialty. There is one famous establishment near Regent Street whose oysters and fish sandwiches attract the highest in the land. Here during the afternoon one may see a Field-Marshal and a Cabinet Minister, an ambassador and a Duke, taking their "half-dozen" side by side. But the ordinary oyster shop makes a specialty of the Anglo-Dutch and other varieties which can be sold at a moderate rate. The arrangement of the window of the ordinary London oyster shop is of the aquarium order. Many exhibit a large specimen of the shell which we used to put to our ears as children in order to hear the ocean roar. Some shade the window light with a brilliant green globe, others prefer a pink effect. Seaweed is occasionally used to decorate a hearthstone-coloured combination which is supposed to represent the bed of the ocean.

One by-product of the decline (rise?) from poor man's tasty snack, to rich man's luxury delicacy, is the disappearance of an unofficial London festivity, 'oyster day' or 'grotto day'. Read the Leisure Hour from 1856:


THE beginning of August is signalised among the small boys, urchins, and children of London, as Grotto Day. No sooner do you walk out in the morning, in whatever direction you will, than you are saluted with the cry of, "Please to remember the Grotto," emanating from some unwashed, untended little wanderer, who runs capering before you, clutching in his dirty fingers an oyster-shell, which serves him as a begging-dish. If you escape from one, it is only to fall into the hands of another, or of a dozen or a score of others, awaiting you round the corner. All boy-dom is in a conspiracy to-day to whine and wheedle you out of your coppers. "Remember the Grotto" meets you at every turn "Remember the Grotto" is behind you is before you is on the right hand is on the left; and as to forgetting the grotto, we defy you to do it for some time to come, even were you dull and oblivious "as the fat weed that grows on Lethe's brink."
    "But where is the grotto?" a stranger to London might say; "what is it all about? I should like to see the grotto. 'Grotto' has a refreshingly cool sound, and just now I am distressingly hot. Whew! how I do perspire, to be sure. Introduce me to the grotto, my lad, by all means, just for a cooler!"
    "Here's the grotto, sir! here's the grotto!"
    "That a grotto! four and twenty oyster-shells Call that a grotto?"
    Yes, my rural friend, that's the only species of grotto you will find in London. Of moss-clad rocks and caverns in leafy and umbrageous nooks we have none; we make our grottoes, or the boys make them for us, here, out of oyster-shells; and the first of August is celebrated and solemnised as Grotto Day, because it is, according to immemorial custom, the first day of the oyster season. Oysters, in the opinion of the provincial eater, are good only during those eight months which are spelled with an R, that is, from September to April, inclusive, and so far as he is concerned, they might lie quietly at rest in their beds during the other four months : but your Londoner, who never dines nor lunches by orthographical authority, chooses to commence the oyster campaign in August. The amount of them devoured in the metropolis during the ensuing nine months, would furnish a problem for the energies of a calculating machine. Whether they be scarce and dear, or plentiful and cheap, during the first month of eating, one can form a pretty accurate judgment by the condition of the street grottoes. The young architects who build these emulate each other in the size and stability of their structures, and haunt the stalls and luncheon sheds pretty constantly in search of the necessary material, which they are too apt to squabble over before lugging it off to the building ground.
    The grotto, which begins with "four-and-twenty oyster-shells," does not by any means stop there. As fast as fresh oysters are swallowed, new material is appropriated, and in a little time the grotto edifice begins to assume a definite form. Occasionally a considerable degree of ingenuity is manifested in its structure. Now you shall see it, consisting only of a couple of walls, without a roof , then the roof shall be covered in; anon it is pulled down, and rises again in the form of a bee-hive. Sometimes it is built in a corner, the angle of a brick wall serving for a couple of the sides ; some- times the wall only forms the back ; and, lastly, it will rise, under the hands of a clever architect, to the height of three or four feet, shaped like the dome of St. Paul's, with a flagstaff in the centre, bearing for a banner a pocket handkerchief a foot square, adorned with a print of the battle of the Alma. Such an erection as this, fitly placed in a populous court or back-way thoroughfare, never appeals in vain to the generosity of a peculiar class.
    At night you may chance to come at the grotto illuminated. Now it shall be a model kitchen, furnished with a toy range, table and chairs, an end of candle burning on the table, and real smoke coming out of the chimney. Or another time it shall be a church, with a piece of glass built in for the great oriel window ; a pile, a yard high, heaped round a stick stuck in the ground, wad pointed with a whelk, to represent the spire, and as many bits of taper burning inside as the united company of freemasons can muster among them. The flame, flickering through the interstices in the several layers, renders such an object illustriously luminous, and a great source of attraction to the juveniles during the dark hours. The most remarkable exploit of grotto work which we remember to have witnessed, was performed in Lambeth many years back. A London gamin, who had for some days, by the aid of his companions, rung all the changes upon oyster-shell architecture of which it seemed capable, wound up with the following climax. Seating himself on the ground, and , clasping his knees with his hands, he gave directions for piling the shells around him, and having himself completely domed in. When this was effectually accomplished, he struck up a stave of some popular ditty, continuing the strain until an unusual crowd had gathered round him. Then he rose suddenly, scattering the debris about on all sides, and, hat in hand, levied a contribution upon his admirers. The performance was probably remunerative, as we left him submitting second time to the process.
    About twenty-five years ago, the following story which appears to have been well founded, and which is apropos of London grottoes and Grotto Day, ran the round of the newspapers. Some young children of a widow woman living on the south side of the river, having collected shells to build a grotto, set about executing their plan. To make the grotto as attractive as possible, they brought, during the mother's absence from hone; some few ornaments from her cottage to place temporarily within it. Among the rest was a small painting, dark and dingy with age. This they placed against the wall, and heaped up their shell work around, leaving an opening in front to show the picture. When all was prepared, they began, as usual, with " Please to remember the Grotto" to every passer-by. A Jew journeying that way caught sight of the painting. " Please to remember the Grotto," said the builder. " Shan't give anything to the grotto," said the Jew ; " I'll give you a shilling for the picture." The boys consulted together, and in the end, unmindful of the mother's authority, sold the picture and spent the shilling. The poor woman, working early and late for daily bread, never missed the picture, and the boys kept the secret to themselves. In the meanwhile the cunning buyer had the painting cleansed from its accumulations of filth, and suspecting that it was of value, set cautiously about ascertaining what that value might be. He carried his prize from one good judge to another, and from their report his surmises were at last fully confirmed. The picture was now offered for We at a price of more hundreds than is safe to mention, and at length came under the notice of a distinguished collector. This gentleman was willing to give the sum demanded for it, but naturally desired, before disbursing so large an amount, to know whence the picture came, and to be sure of the seller's right to dispose of it. When the man was questioned on this subject, his answers, not being the truth, were so unsatisfactory that he was threatened with loss both of picture and purchase-money, unless he would communicate the source from whence he obtained it. Under this pressure he confessed the truth, and, at the suggestion of the collector, consented to share the proceeds of the sale with the mother of the boys from whom he had purchased the picture. The buyer appointed a trustworthy agent to see the division made. The reader may imagine the feelings of the mother when the hundreds were poured into her lap, and she had the means of educating her young truants, and teaching them something better than grotto building. But " Please to remember the Grotto !" What shall we say to that never-ending appeal during these first few days of August? Are we to remember the grotto in the way the petitioners would have us, and scatter our coppers among them till we have not a copper left? Or are we to turn a deaf ear to the universal chorus, and, voting them a bore and a nuisance, shake them from our skirts as so many hindrances to business ? Neither. There is reason in the scattering of coppers and we ought not to think it beneath us to exercise discrimination even in such a small matter as this. When the artisan's child, who should be brought up with a decent sense of independence and the dignity of labour, comes whining to me with an oyster-shell for the donation of a halfpenny, he shall not get it, whine as he may. But if I find a poor penniless boy out of work, raising his oyster-pile to win a meal by the revival of a time-honoured custom, because he has nothing better to do, I will give him a copper, if I like, nor think it thrown away, especially if I can accompany the gift to him with the address of some ragged school, where he may get instructions and principles that will give him a new start in life.

Perhaps our modern urchins could do something similiar with KFC buckets?

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