Sunday 26 September 2010

Street Life

More from the Leisure Hour ... an 1859 study of items sold by pedlars, who were a common feature of the street-scene in poor areas:


A GENUINE dead wall, mind! with not so much as a remnant of a placard or an atom of bill-stickers' paste adhering to it, but all virgin brick and mortar, barring the soot and the "blacks," from one end to the other, comprising a length of a hundred yards at least. Now such a dead wall, whenever it occurs in London fronting a public way, being a sort of "No Man's Land," becomes, by a species of prescription which is more easily imagined than described, any man's land who can manage to locate himself upon it ; and, once that he is fairly established there, you don't turn the squatter out by any individual efforts, whatever pretences, manorial, territorial, or other, you may advance against his claim. The enterprising street-trader is not to be ousted in that way, whatever you may think of it; he will appeal from the objecting individual to the consenting and encouraging public, and will submit to be moved by nothing short of the "pressure from without," which moves the prime minister. Hence the dead wall sometimes becomes it species of property, a kind of freehold or entail, descending from father to son - one generation coming into it after another has gone out. We know that to be a fact; for this dead wall of ours is a twenty years' familiar acquaintance, and we have seen Jinks junior succeed Jinks senior on the muddy little manor of seven feet by four, and a third generation of little Jinkses toddling about between the wall and the gutter, any one of then likely to succeed Jinks the second when the fated hour shall arrive.
    Having resolved that our dead wall shall sit for its portrait under what we conceive to be its most characteristic aspect, we walk forth to look at it just as the setting sun is gilding the chimney-pots in the long suburban road, and flashing a fiery farewell at the attic windows, which throw hack the dazzling sheen, reddened with the haze and the smother in crimson ribands, showing in perspective like a begemmed and glorified girdle of flame.
    First in the rank of dead wall settlers stuck there much against her will, and exhibiting just now a mournfully angry face, sits Mrs. Maggs on low three-leaned stool, behind a parallelogrammic trestle, loaded heavily with sets of stumpy printing types, and brass frames to hold them, and little pots of marking ink - all for the purpose of marking linen or the fly-sheets of books. Mrs. Maggs, contrary to her domestic habits and instincts, does not open her mouth to solicit custom, but sits there, with that forbidding face, as if she were rather afraid of a customer than otherwise. The truth is, that she is afraid ; she knows that if any one came with what she calls a gimcrack name, such as Mr. Mackirkincroft, for instance, she would no more be able to spell it than she could fly; and she feels almost savage with Maggs for subjecting her to the chance of such a test, and because, instead of giving her the money for the morrow's provisions when she came for it, he has stuck her there on the stool, while he is off to the public-house.
    "Real meerschaums at twopence a-piece, and prime brown uns at thruppens, short pipes a penny!" Such is the appeal of the boy-proprietor of the next little board. The juvenile amateurs of short pipes and stinking tobacco are clustering round him, and greasy cuffs and ragged elbows are pottering among his heterogeneous wares. Jem, Jack, and Bob suck away at the pipes, on the "try 'em before you buy 'em" principle, to see if they will "draw;" amber-mouthed pieces are fitted to innumerable mouths before they finally go off; and pipes are bought and lighted, and the, smell of German tinder mingles with the reek of "shag," as the buyers march off under a cloud of their own raising.
    A forest of walking-sticks comes next, thousands in number, and comprising every modification of the article, from the cudgel of the cattle-drover to the supple-jack or the gutta percha whiptail for tucking under the arm. Cheap as dirt they are - a substantial truncheon for a penny, if you want it ; or, on the other hand, choice and ornate, with carved heads, silver ferules, ivory handles, or even alabaster ones, if you prefer them. Here is the old-fashioned ground-ash, such a favourite with our grandsires ; and here is the smart, stiff column of ebony, which consorts so well with the mourning suit or the clerical garb. There is a fashion in walking-sticks, as in everything else, but call the fashions, whatever they are or were, you shall find at the dead wall, and if you are only reasonably sharp, your philosophy shall not be wounded by your finding yourself cheated overmuch.
    What is this? Halfpenny ices ! strawberry ices for a halfpenny ! So says the placard; and lo! there stand the boys and girls spooning the rose-coloured pyramids out of egg-cups, and cooling their jaws, with a rather mystified expression, we must say, at the unwonted delicacy. And there stands the ice-man, digging the frigid paste out of his japanned jars, and replenishing the empty cups as fast as they are spooned dry. Think of that, my Lady Fairacres ! ices for the million - the refined delicacies of the drawing-room and the soirĂ©e dealt out on the kerbstone to one-pennied Jack and no-pennied Jill, whom Jack can afford to treat! See what your march of luxury has led to, and whither it is leading. Will you go on eating ices now or will you abandon them to the "vulgar" classes?
    Passing a display of lyrical literature and of art, emanating from the Seven Dials, consisting of nigger song-books with coloured frontispieces, on discarded tea-board, and a collection of mixed engravings in an inverted umbrella, all under the charge of a voiceless, toothless minstrel of London's bye-ways, whose days of song have long been past, and who now ekes out a sorry living by selling what he can no longer sing ; this rather melancholy display, we are landed in a bower. Flowers and flowering shrubs, garden roots of every kind that blow, carnations by the hundred, and pinks by the thousand ; Tom Thumb geraniums, calceolarias, cactuses, fuchsias, American primroses, stocks, hydrangeas, foxgloves, and a dense mass of fifty others, are crowded, heaped, and piled one upon another such is the bower; forming a standing floral quarry, from which the London garden-loving population can recruit their square patches of smoke-dried ground, their sunless back parlour conservatories, their window-sills and area-fronts, with the blossoming hues of summer. But flowers are not all; in addition to potted geraniums and balsams at twopence a piece, and ten thousand roots at any price, there are young trees for planting willows and poplin's, ashes and sycamores, oaks from the acorn, and pines from the cone; and, what is more, there are gooseberry trees thick with the green berries, and currant-trees torn up by the roots, and loaded with currants ripe and red, and fit for gathering. Altogether, there is enough to load a waggon, and Tom Forester, who expects to get them all off his hands to-night, is bothered with customers right and left, and has no occasion to trumpet his wares, the whole of them, from the rate at which they are filing off, appearing to be under quick marching orders.
    Under the lee of Tom Forester's bower, a very quiet-faced, rusty, sandy looking subject has ensconced himself with a species of portable prison, wire-fronted, and adorned with a bold-looking placard announcing that the quiet-faced proprietor aforesaid sells "door-mice," hedgehogs for killing beetles, magpies, owls and starlings - and  there, in the several compartments of the prison, they are, sure enough. Mag is saucy, and the starling in high spirits; but the owl will hardly show his solemn face, and we have to take the good man's word for the hedgehogs and the "door-mice," who refuse to show at all, for which we are far from blaming them, looking to the uproar that prevails just now in the locality.
    The next sample of dead-wall fruit that challenges attention is a rather grotesque collection of musical instruments, and the appendages of musical instruments, which look like the agglomerated sweepings of half a century from some wholesale manufactory. There are fiddles, tenors, and fiddle-bows in all stages of decay ; there are finger-boards of violoncellos, fiddle-pegs, fiddle-bridges, fiddle-lutes, fiddle-strings, and fiddlers' resin. There are fifes and German flutes, thirds, fourths, fifths, octaves and picolos all or most either deficient in a key or two, or split in the cylinders. There are tuning-hammers, tuning-forks, and pitch-pipes; odd octaves of piano-forte keys, coils of German wire and spun bass-strings, bunches of pianoforte hammers, bundles of buffing, and trays of pianoforte pegs not to mention a whole faggot of cashiered pianoforte stickers. There is an antiquated oboe that might have piped at Ranelagh in the days of Sir Roger de Coverley; a theorbo just as ancient, which has been metamorphosed into a nigger banjo ; an AEolian harp, a machine-headed guitar, and a dancing-master's pocket kit. And in addition to all these, there is that identical keyed-bugle with which the rubicund guard of the Exeter mail used to break the hearts of the spinster bar-maids to the tune of "O Nannie wilt thou gang wi' me," ere the railways swept the coaches from the road, and the cornopeans put the keyed bugles' noses out of joint, and condemned them to the destiny of old metal. What else there is we can hardly say, save that, with the fragments of musical instruments, there is also a fragmentary collection of music, which we want the courage to overhaul, being scared by the name of Dr. Harrington, who composed three thousand works, not one of which is now remembered glorious and glorified as was the doctor when he controlled the harmonies of Bath.
    A boy and girl preside over the next motley gathering, in which a pile of mirrors in metal frames reflect an assemblage of cups and saucers, mugs for good boys and girls, packs of conjuring cards, boxes of toys, tin canisters, graters, shaving-brushes and boxes, pincushions and needle-cases, and various minor matters useful in the poor man's household — all of which the boy is vociferous in publishing to all passers-by at a penny a-piece, while the girl, smiling pleasantly, does her best to keep them all neat and clean and in apple-pie order.
    Passing another bower of greenery, which belongs to Jinks the second, and not to Tom Forester, we emerge upon the ghost of a book-stall—books at three-half-pence a volume. "Pick 'em and choose 'em where you like," says the grimy-looking biblio-pole, who sits puffing a short pipe - "at three-ha'pence an' no 'batement." It is not much of a choice after all —odd numbers of defunct magazines odd volumes of the "Tatler," "Rambler," the "Guardian," and the "Turkish Spy,"— old hymn books dirty and dogs-eared — prayer-books to match — Ready Reckoners, "Latin Grammar" and "Hayley's Triumph of Temper:" such and such like is the staple of the older works. As for the new ones, we should be getting into hot water were we to copy their title-pages here, as their authors would not thank us for fidelity in this matter. So we pass on.
    Next to the literature positively we are ashamed of the juxtaposition, but we must set down the fact nevertheless next to the literature, then, we come plump upon a stall of—of—really it is too bad —of sheep's trotters. There they lie, the poor little turned-up toes of the muttons, right under the shadow of Sir Charles Grandison bound in faded morocco. If we are guilty of any indelicacy in recording this chance companionship, let us be pardoned on account of our reticence with respect to all the speculations which such an accident sets simmering in one's brain. Only think what we might say on it — how many columns we might indite (that is, if the editor would stand them) with such a text to start from. But we won't even begin, but revenous a nos moutons, that is, to the trotters at once. We have no idea what sort of a dish sheep's trotters make, and, not intending to buy, do not venture to ask the price. Behind the trotters sits a pale-faced woman, a new-made widow, as is evident from the lines of grief in her countenance, and the new widow's cap, to which she seems hardly familiarised. Perhaps it is her first venture in the arena of commerce, and she may have little ones at home dependent on her success in this the smallest speculation with which hard necessity can confront a friendless fate. We are glad to see that she is not without customers, and that the trotters trot off at a rate that promises well.
    The good man to the left of the trotters is picking a trotter with his teeth as we come past. He is a weather-beaten jovial-looking fellow, free of the wall any day this ten years, and sells dog-collars, of which there hangs a long chain linked together for a full fathom above his head; then he has padlocks, straps, suspenders, slippers, some pairs of gaiters, and various other odds and ends useful to dog and man, for both of whom he seems to have a special regard.
    Next to him, a plump woman, whom we take to be his wife, makes a sparkling show with buttons, tapes, laces, bobbins, studs, needles and pins, mid a valuable collection besides, of Birmingham Cameos, brooches and bracelets, at sixpence a piece, which glitter like a jeweller's shop.
    Then comes a seller of gardening implements, spades, rakes, hoes, wheelbarrows on a small scale, axes, bill-hooks, trowels, dibbers, pruning-knives, flower-supports, etc. etc. And after him there is a vender of photograph frames, with stereoscopes and slides. And then there is a huge platform full of toys, dolls, telescopes, microscopes, kaleido-scopes, and a series of marvels in india-rubber, which assume all manner of shapes as they dance and twist and writhe and wriggle about in the proprietor's hands, as he manipulates them, to the astonishment of the gaping public. Lastly, at the terminus of the dead wall stands a well-frequented board, bountifully furnished with fried soles, brown as the roast sirloin, with piles of savoury whelks corkscrewed from their shells, and with small circular dishes of stewed eels. Here a class for whom the table is rarely spread at home, take their al-fresco suppers at this pleasant summer time, and this being the hour of their repast, we find them enjoying it with gusto.
    Meanwhile, opposite the dead wall, on the kerb-stone, stands a queer, self-asserting countryman in a wide-awake hat, and with the half of an old hamper slung round his waist. To look into his basket, you would wonder what he sells, for it seems more like a collection of nondescript reptiles than anything else ; but look at what he is doing, and you see a very pretty sight. The imaginary reptiles are the black heads and stalks of so many water-lilies, with the blossoms tightly closed up, as they always are ere nightfall ; and the man takes them out one by one, and deliberately pulls open the petals, a petal at a: time; until their whole flower is displayed, as beautiful as the finest camellia, and white, save the golden stamens in the centre, as the driven snow. As fast as he opens them, he sells them at a halfpenny each, and, to all appearance, will dispose of some hundreds before his market is over. Some persons buy them open, some prefer to open them themselves, or for the amusement of their children, to whom it must afford a really charming spectacle.
    It has been growing dark while we have been limning the dead wall, and the squatters meanwhile have been lighting up. This they do, for the most part, by means of long funnel-shaped iron lamps, fed with naphtha, which burns furiously, and flares like gas, and yields as good a light. As we take our leave, the whole wall is blazing with this species of illumination, and the bowers, the walking-sticks, the toys, the musical instruments, and the other countless etceteras, all look bright and brilliant under the fitful gleam of the flickering flames. For three hours longer the stream of life will flow in a continuous current towards the dead wall, and there it will pause and stagnate for a while, and, on passing on, it will bear away with it portions of the manifold materials we have been summing up. Come this way to-morrow, when you church bell is tolling, and the Sunday sun is shining on the spot, and you shall see not a vestige of all this life and traffic — nothing but a void area and a veritable Dead Wall.

1 comment:

  1. This is so brilliantly descriptive - a 'wide-awake' hat 'poor little turned up toes of the muttons'. I learn a lot from your post, but this is the best...