Thursday 23 September 2010

A Halfpenny Shave

Here's some accumulated wisdom on barbers in Victorian London.

First we have the 'half-penny shaver' courtesy of Charles Manby Smith's Little World of London (1857):

"....we come upon the establishment of dapper little Dennison, who keeps the "halfpenny shaving shop." A half-penny is the standard price for a shave in Crocodile Court, and no one wearing a beard would think of paying more ; and, what is worse for Denny, there is not a single beard among his customers that submits to the operation more than once a week - on Saturday night, that is, or on early Sunday morning. The population of the court includes, it is probable, above two hundred beards, and with very few exceptions, Denny has the handling of the lot and, moreover,  there are the dwellers in the lane, who patroinse him to a certain extent, so that between five o'clock on the Saturday and noon on the Sunday (for in Crocodile Court no day of rest dawns), upon a moderate estimate he lathers and reaps three hundred chins. He is an active little man, and so he had need be to get through his grand field-day in creditable style. Of course, he does them in bulk, lathering four or five in succession, and leaving the first lathered to soften in the saponaceous cream while he proceeds with the rest. He is rich in a peculiar kind of experience - talks learnedly of the Irish epidermis, and of the deadly effect upon razors of the grit that gets into bricklayers' chins. He chooses his blades, he will tell you, for their substance, preferring at least a third of an inch in the back - "you can't shave a dustman with a thin blade - for why? the edge will be sure to turn up wiry." . . . . . What the halfpenny shaver does with himself all the rest of the week does not appear. He can't keep birds, as many barbers do, for the birds have taken a prejudice against living in Crocodile Court, and if you bring them there they die. There is but little hair-cutting in his domain, and not much to be got by the dressing of ladies' fronts where the ladies are in the habit of carrying fruit, fish, and vegetables on their heads - and he is not skilful in the manufacture of wigs. We have a notion that he spends the bulk of his time in spelling over every newspaper he can lay hold of, and in honing and strapping his stock of razors for the weekly harvest of beards."

The same book also yields this on hair products:

"Next door to our baker lives a barber, who tells us that half the barbers in London are London born, but that a good many of the fashionable hairdressers are from the watering-places and genteel towns. Both classes of workmen, he says, have a good character in town, and are sure of employment. People imagine that London sends hairdressers to all parts of the kingdom ; but the fact is that every barber in the country comes to London, at some time or other, to improve, working for nothing the while, for the sake of learning the ladies' department. "After their return," says our oracle, "they announce themselves as 'from London,' finding their account in so doing. Some of the London hairdressers dub themselves Professors, and make large incomes by grease, cosmetics, and hair-dye, which latter, if once used, must always be used, and is generally sold at half-a-guinea the bottle, and costs a premium of a guinea to be taught how to use it. Sometimes, from constitutional peculiarity, it turns the hair green ; and then, mayhap, a young lady of sixty requires to have her head shaved, and to shut herself up while a fresh crop is growing. Immense sums are made by hair-dye, some of the professors having a European connection, and travelling express to foreign capitals, disseminating youthfulness and beauty wherever they go."

Note the mention of grease. Bear's grease was the most desirable oil for curing baldness (made from real bears, folks), although some took things a little too far:

"In hairdressers' windows and over barbers' shops notices relating to bears' grease were perpetually seen, such as, "Bears' grease fresh this week"; "Bears' grease personally prepared" ; "Try our special Bears' grease." And less frequently, "We kill a bear this week." In the 1850s it was an article of faith that even as beer nourished the muscles so did bears' fat nourish the scalp and what was rooted therein. The benighted early Victorians, poor souls, knew not the late G. R. Sims nor Tatcho, and when they wanted hair went - shall I say bare-headed? - for bears' grease. The barbers naturally fostered the delusion and sold sweet-smelling unguent in pellucid china pots, nicely packed in lead paper, at the rate of about 2s. 6d. per ounce. This was inscribed "Refined bears' grease" usually on a semi-circular label surmounting the picture of a bear - sometimes a grizzly on a peak of the Rockies, sometimes an Arctic bruin on an ice-berg. Even those not given to scepticism might have doubted the power of fat from two such dissimilar creatures to produce analogous effects but then Nature is very wonderful.
    Some barbers even pretended to kill their own bears, they were so very particular and conscientious. One day we heard that a barber on Oakley Terrace had a live bear on view which was doomed to slaughter on the proximate Saturday. We proceeded there "non-stop" and found a small crowd gazing down a cellar grating in front of the shop windows, in which was a notice that a bear of pure race had been acquired at enormous expense and would be killed for the benefit of the firm's customers. As only a limited quantity of refined grease could be prepared from even the largest animal it was considerately suggested that it would be good business for intending purchasers to give in their orders immediately.
    Down in the area beneath was a poor lean greyish bear, llarge certainly, but quite incapable, one would think, of yielding any grease. He sat on his haunches and sniffed. There was a baker's shop almost next door and perhaps be smelt the buns, although I doubt it - he had such a strong scent of his own."

Here's another good description of a barber-shop from the Leisure Hour of 1859:

"Gills's pole hangs out in a fourth-rate street lying at right angles with the omnibus route, and leading to nowhere particular, unless it he to some small labyrinthine turnings among dead walls flanking a brewery, a distillery, a coal-department, and saw- mills, among the operative denizens of which establishments lies the chief part of Gills's connection. Not to lose a chance, however, he has depressed his pole to as obtuse an angle as is consistent with a due regard to the heads of the passers-by, and once a year he gives it a new coat of white paint, with emerald-green bands, that it may attract from far the eye of any fugitive traversing the streets in search of a clean shave. The shop window is innocent of plate-glass, but has within the clouded greenish panes a rather multitudinous and unassorted collection of materials of a useful kind. In the centre stands a black Brutus on a brown block, and dependant from cross lines hangs a series of scalps, fronts, side-curls, whiskers and mustachios, half veiling a motley assemblage of oils, perfumes, pomatums, bear's-grease, strops, razors, shaving apparatus, brushes, combs, scented soaps, curling-tongs, etc. etc. The door, which. is in two pieces, the upper half sashed, stands generally open, and indeed is never closed by day, save when some over-sensitive shavee objects to exhibit himself in lather, for the delectation of the numerous small fry of the district, who are apt to congregate around, to witness the spectacle, and diversify the operation with their original comments. A row of seats round the walls, three or four chairs, and a small portable stove, constitute the furniture ; but there is life within the confined area, even when there are no customers, little Gills having a colony of feathered companions of the very choicest description, who not only serve to solace his lonely hours, but now and then add something considerable to his pecuniary gains."

What gains? Birds were frequently kept by the working-classes for entering into 'singing' competitions with each other, and trapping and breeding such birds was one way of earning a living. Barbers basically earned their principal living at the weekends, and often had some second source of income to supplement their wages.

James Greenwood in Unsentimental Journeys (1867) remembers a barber's of his youth:

"a queer little place, that barber's shop. Round the walls were fixed seats, and the floor was thickly strewn with red sand, which blinked and winked strangely in the ruddy glow of the charcoal in the brazier, over which was kept hot the shaving-water. In the centre of the room were two chairs, and about the legs of one of them, and matted in the red sand, were shreds of human hair - auburn, and black, and grey."

but also describes a 'shaving-shop', a rather well-organised establishment:

" ... having carefully treasured the address of him whom my friend of Wapping Wall asserted to be the most flourishing barber in London, I set out on Saturday evening - as likely to be the busiest time in the week - and about six o'clock found myself in a dismal little street in Walworth, and ascending the well-worn steps of "Flight's Halfpenny Shaving-shop."
   As soon as I put my head inside the door (which was kept on the swing by a strap), I had misgivings as to the truth of the information derived from Wapping Wall. It was such a little place! Evidently it had, at one time, been an ordinary front-parlour. The sitting accommodation consisted of three forms, four chairs, and the three bottom stairs of a flight that led to an upper apartment: certainly not more than twenty persons could possibly have found seats.
   The secret, however, was that they were always occupied. I sat there for at least an hour (under pretence of waiting for a party), and I can safely say that no one seat was ever empty for the space of half a minute.
   Mr. Flight's establishment consisted of himself, two young men, and an apprentice-boy. Only one of the two young men, however, was available for shaving purposes; the other one undertook the hair-cutting, and passed from poll to poll with amazing rapidity. About the centre of the room were placed five chairs, all in a row; and the labour of shaving was divided amongst Mr. Flight and his three helpers in the following very methodical manner.
   As soon as one of the five chairs became vacant, and a fresh customer sat down, the young man, leaving for an instant his occupation of stropping, rushed forward, pinned a cloth round the neck of the unshaven one, and immediately returned to his corner. Then the "soapboy" (who has just finished lathering the last man) takes him in hand.
   Armed with a dirty soap-bowl and a big brush, he crosses over to the hob, and plunges the brush into an indescribable brew that simmers there in a saucepan. Then, having dabbed it (the brush) two or three times on the soap, he commences scrubbing away with it at the man's face, much as though it had been dirty wainscot, and he was under orders to renovate the paint. Backwards and forwards, and round and round, darting fiercely at his victim's nostrils, twirling amongst his whiskers, changing the brush deftly from the right hand to the left, working about the man's lips and chin with his fingers, and finishing off by scooping the unnecessary suds from between the man's lips with his thumb-nail - it was certainly a nasty and a most barbarous exhibition.
   It seemed to be the boy's special business to keep the individual whom Mr. Flight intended to operate on next "moist" till he was wanted; and, being a sharp boy, he generally managed to keep at least two in reserve - so that Mr. Flight always found a customer ready napkined and lathered to his hand. In nine strokes Mr. Flight finished him. During the time I sat there, I counted at the rate of thirteen shaven faces pass out every ten minutes! "

Most interesting, perhaps, is Thomas Wright's description, in Habits and Customs of the Working Classes (1867) which emphasises the social nature of a visit to the barber's, and explains one reason why it was popular on a Sunday morning:

"But, "sweeter than this, than these, than all," than the discussion of general news or local events, the criticising of dramatic performances, the chaffing of acquaintances or the generally pleasant whiling away of an hour, is the Sunday morning attraction to some barbers' shops in the shape of various cunningly concocted "revivers," which are euphemistically styled medicines, and are privately retailed at threepence per dose to those with whom the barber is personally acquainted, or patients who are introduced by persons on whom he can rely. The disease for which these medicines are supposed to be specifics is that known as "Hot coppers," and it generally supervenes upon having had a drop too much overnight; or in the case of working men having, while in a state of thirst, drank even a moderate quantity of the "Saturday night particular," sold in and about cheap places of amusement. Its symptoms are a more or less violent headache and unusual thirst. The medicines dispensed by barbers on Sunday mornings, for the remedy of this complaint, really to a certain extent act as revivers, and instead of producing wry faces and exclamations of abhorrence from the sufferers, give rise to lip-smacking and sighs of pleasure. Patients will often, of their own accord, call for a second dose immediately after taking the first; a state of things sufficiently accounted for by the fact, that in taste the medicines are curiously like sweetened and spiced rum or brandy; or should the patient prefer to have a colourless draught, gin or whisky. From some or all of these reasons Sunday morning is the busiest and most entertaining time in the establishments of those barbers who ply their craft on the chins and heads of "the working man."


  1. Mayfair is an excellent place to go for a shave, particularly the one on Curzon Street, the name of which escapes me.

    Expensive, but an experience!

  2. Thanks for this informative article.- london barber