Taking the family on a Dickens walk today (no, really), we were accosted on Newman Street - not far from the reprieved Cleveland Street Workhouse, and Charles Dickens' teenage home, opposite the former Middlesex Hospital - by a Victorian gentleman, albeit in modern guise.
His manner was polite and fairly engaging. He spoke unhurriedly but with a mildly pained expression.
'Excuse me,' he said, 'I'm sorry to trouble you, but I've just fallen off my bike, and I need to get to the A&E at Homerton Hospital. Look ...'
He rolled up the sleeve of his jackets- with remarkable ease, it must be said - and grimaced at the bloodied forearm beneath.
At least, it was certainly the colour and texture of dried blood; and one did not wish to enquire too closely.
A kinder soul might have offered to help; they might have rung 999, or if he was too proud to call an ambulance, they might have given him the money for the bus or taxi that would, plainly, be required.
At least, that was the idea.
For my part, I briskly directed him to the A&E of University College Hospital, a brisk five minutes' walk from the spot, rather than distant Homerton (some four or five miles distant, where, as it happens, my infant phenomenon was born). If I was made of sterner stuff, I might have added a few choice words. For I knew this gentleman, not in person, but from the works of Henry Mayhew, c.1861:
First, then, as to those having real or pretended sores. As I have said,
there are few beggars of this class left. When the officers of the
Mendicity Society first directed their attention to the suppression of
this form of mendicancy, it was found that the great majority of those who exhibit sores were unmitigated
impostors. In nearly all the cases investigated the sores did not
proceed from natural causes, but were either wilfully produced or
simulated. A few had lacerated their flesh in reality; but the majority
had resorted to the less painful operation known as the "Scaldrum
Dodge." This consists in covering a portion of the leg or arm with soap
to the thickness of a plaister, and then saturating the whole with
vinegar. The vinegar causes the soap to blister and assume a festering
appearance, and thus the passer-by is led to believe that the beggar is
suffering from a real sore. So well does this simple device simulate a
sore that the deception is not to be detected even by close inspection.
The "Scaldrum Dodge" is a trick of very recent introduction among the
London beggars. It is a concomitant of the advance of science and the
progress of the art of adulteration. It came in with penny postage,
daguerreotypes, and other modern innovations of a like description.
The clues, of course, were in the question. Why would someone want to go several miles across London to Homerton, if they had just fallen off their bike? Fine, perhaps they lived in Hackney, like myself. But why would a recently bloodied wound be concealed by a pristine (and quite smart) jacket? And why on the upper part of the forearm - easily displayed to the general public - with no injury to the head or face? I'm no expert, but it didn't look like an injury from falling off a bike.
Yet, of course, some doubt remained. It smacked of the scaldrum dodge, yet would anyone really go to that trouble, in this day and age, just to scam a bus fare?
Naturally, the internet provides the answer ... apparently the scaldrum dodger has moved from his habitual pitch of Bethnal Green. [click here for details]
Has he been moving round London these last few years?
Does he lacerate his arm, or is the 'blood' merely an artful concoction of his own making?
I now feel I really should have given him his 'bus fare', if only for recreating a Victorian experience in the heart of the metropolis. On the other hand, it is something of a cruel hoax, calculated to deplete one's trust in one's fellow man; so perhaps not.
I wonder, does anyone actually know this man?
If you have met the scaldrum dodger, I should like to hear from you.