Thursday 10 March 2011

Penny Pastimes

An article from the Leisure Hour of July 1867, which gives a great insight into the sideshows and cheap entertainment available to the lower classes:


In the days of our boyhood, which were the days of the chap books, of the wandering mummers and field mountebanks, of the crippled parish constables and the septuagenarian London "Charleys"—in those days the only species of penny pastime which we can recall to mind was that which was popularly denominated "threesticks-a-penny." Unlike some other venerable institutions of an analogous nature, that popular diversion still retains its hold and its fascination upon the pence-paying public. At present it is not, as it formerly was, in the exclusive possession of the gipsies: other innovators have asserted and established their claim to share in its profits; and, though the gipsies have materially diminished in number since the time referred to, their peculiar and profitable pastime has suffered no declension, but is sure to be found in favour with boys and lads at all fairs and festal gatherings, either rural or suburban. We need hardly describe the game. Everybody knows that it consists of throwing stout sticks at three slender ones stuck in deep holes in the ground, and surmounted each with a tin tobacco-box or other bauble, which becomes the prize of the player whenever it is knocked off and does not fall into the hole beneath; a consummation which looks the easiest thing possible to achieve, but which in practice very rarely happens. We suspect that the real charm of the game is in some way connected with the combative instincts of the players, whose earnestness, as we have remarked again and again, invariably rises with their ill-luck; so that, by the time their coppers run low, their muscular vigour mounts high, and the truncheons are apt to fly about in a manner perilous to the limbs of lookers-on. Of late years, be it observed, this spirited game has not been allowed to be monopolized by the penny-paying class, but, first having undergone some modification, and been submitted to a change of name, is pursued with characteristic eagerness by the ladies and gentlemen of the fashionable world—the only essential difference being, that instead of "shying " their truncheons at tin tobacco-boxes, the players launch them at the head of "Aunt Sally," with the amiable intention of knocking off her nose.
    Among the novel pastimes which have sprung up with the present generation is that of being weighed for a penny, and receiving from the weigh-master a document, duly worded and signed, setting forth your weight at a given day and hour. A philosopher might perhaps wonder what possible pastime there can be in sitting in a chair in counterbalance to so many pounds avoirdupois; but the pence-paying public are not philosophers, and their ideas on the subject of their weight of flesh do not agree precisely with those of Mr. Banting. As a rule, they have no liking for the unfattening art, but are apt to compliment themselves and one another, as the Chinese do, upon any very palpable and ponderable increase in bodily substance. They do not like to lose flesh; with them stoutness and sturdiness are the symbols of health, and the idea of going back or falling away from any maximum they may have attained is an unwelcome one. We confess, however, that the prevalence of these notions seems hardly sufficient to account for the popularity of the weighing business, and does not sufficiently explain the fact that these weighing-machines are found in all places of cheap recreation, and maintain their ground year after year.
    There is no mystery at all about the pastime that comes next, which is so essentially British in its nature as to be intelligible to every one. It is embodied in an image of rather robust proportions, and clad in coarse canvas, which stands opposed to you on a fair stage, and propped in the rear by an upright beam. The image presents his broad breast to your blows: you pay your penny, and you "pitch into" him with your fist as hard as you like, or as hard as you can. The proof of your manly vigour is immediately visible in the countenance of your adversary—not in grins or contortions of pain, for the much-enduring monster preserves a uniformly apathetic expression, but by the motion of a kind of minute-hand in the centre of his forehead, which, set in action by the force of your blow, runs round a graduated dial and stops at the figure which corresponds with the momentum of your blow, in pounds. The fact is, the thorax of the monster (we notice that aspiring experimenters usually call it the " bread-basket") is furnished with viscera of elastic steel and clock-work, ingeniously contrived to register the assaulting force. The experiment is quite safe—the foe having his breast thoroughly well padded to save your knuckles, and he is never known to return the compliments paid him. Of all possible pugilistic encounters this is certainly the most justifiable and satisfactory—nobody is hurt by it, while the assailant gains a little self-knowledge at a mere nominal cost.
    Somewhat similar to the above, at least in principle, is a new invention which we discovered but the other day while observantly perambulating one of the Saturday-night markets of a London suburb. There, at the corner of a lane, amidst a throng of vegetable stalls, fish-barrows, piles of crockery, heaps of hardware, and collections of kitchen wares, arose a gorgeous-looking temple, in which the architect seemed to have blended together the forms of an Italian basilica and a Chinese pagoda, crowding it over with finials and filigree work in most lavish profusion, and adorning the salient points and angles with abundance of polish and gilding. From the lower part of the edifice proceeded a long flexible tube, the extremity of which the proprietor held in his hand, while he looked round inquiringly among the crowd, encouraging them from time to time with "Now, gentlemen, don't be backward in coming forward! You don't know what you can do till you try." We were wondering what might be the nature of the exhibition got up with such elaborate splendour, when a lad of sixteen or seventeen, in a paper cap and fustian jacket, elbowed his way rather demonstratively through the crowd, and, throwing down a copper, laid hold of the proffered tube, and, clapping the end in his mouth, inflated his buccinator muscles, and began one long and forcible expiration through it. His pale face became red, the red grew crimson, the crimson waxed purple, and still the young fellow blew and blew, while his eyes seemed starting from their sockets. And lo! as he blew all eyes were directed to a white clock-face, over the portico of the temple, on which the arrow-headed index was moving slowly from figure to figure, and showing by its progress the amount of the blast from the experimenter's lungs. Ere long the slow movement of the index changed to a sort of convulsive quivering, which showed that the performer had exhausted his powers, and the next instant flew back to zero, as the lad relinquished the blow-pipe with a portentous gasping inhalation. From the fact that this operator was followed by a number of others, who strove in vain to puff themselves up to his mark, and that he, evidently with much relish, renewed his endeavours as soon as he had recovered breath, we came to the conclusion that there is no emulative contest of any imaginable kind open to the populace which would fail to find countenance and encouragement among them.
    A pastime that is not only cheap, but is at the same time scientific, especially if it is incomprehensible by the mass, is sure to meet with more than ordinary favour. Hence it is that what is sometimes termed the "galvanic grip" is an acceptable amusement to the million. The instrument used is a small magnetic battery, somewhat more powerful than those in domestic use, and the intensity of which the proprietor can increase or diminish at his pleasure. He is usually pretty liberal in the force he turns on, and that for an obvious reason ; as it would not pay him to be administering galvanism for any length of time at a penny or a half-penny the dose, by laying on a powerful stream he gives the experimenter enough of it in a short time, and is ready for a new-comer. You pay your copper, and are presented with two handles, forming the terminations of the electric wire; you grasp these as tight as you can, one in either palm, and you hold on as long as you choose, while the proprietor grinds away at the machine and sends the galvanic current into you. The longer you hold on, the greater the return you get for your money. Of course, on the principle of getting a good pennyworth, a man must be a booby to relinquish his grasp so long as he can possibly retain it; because, if he lets go his hold, he must pay again before he can resume the experiment! It is amusing at times to witness the effect of this economical consideration, as shown in the conduct of the experimenters, some of whom, intending only to retain their hold until satisfied that they have bad a fair return for their investment, are held fast against their will, till they sorely rue their bargain. The most regular customers to the street galvanist are working people troubled with rheumatism, some of whom, from long practice, can withstand the force of prolonged and powerful shocks, from which they profess to derive, and it may he do really derive, some relief from rheumatic pains.
    A common pastime, but which is far from being commonly appreciated, is that of shooting with a rifle at a target. There is no gunpowder used. What the weapon is charged with is not apparent, but there is something sufficient to propel a small arrowy pellet towards the mark. The marksman who, first paying his copper, hits the bull's-eve, wins a small prize, generally fruit of some kind; but the bull's-eye is rarely struck, the riffle being ingeniously contrived so that the better the aim the worse shall be the shot. It is true that, by repeated firing, a marksman may succeed at length in discovering the course his shot is likely to take; but, long before he has made the discovery, he will have expended far more than it is likely to be worth to him. Shooting at a target with a feathered dart, propelled by the breath through a blow-tube, is an analogous kind of pastime, but does not seem to be very generally practised.
   The last of these odd pastimes we shall notice is the practice which prevails in certain English counties, of taking physic in public. In the course of our wanderings through the mining and manufacturing districts of the north, we have come, again and again, upon open-air medicinal booths or standings, at which medicine is dispensed for the cure of all kinds of ailments, at the low charge, so far as our observation serves us, of a penny a dose. Properly speaking, taking physic is, of course, not a pastime; but when those who swallow it in public choose to make it so, and show, by the evident relish and gusto with which they gulp down the most nauseous compounds that the exercise is a real pleasure to them, we feel ourselves justified in ranking this recreation in the same category with the others. The medicaments thus consumed are for the most part not such as will be found in the pharmacopoeia; they are rather simples, or distillations from, or infusions of, herbs and plants, the virtues of which have passed by tradition from one generation to another, and which are gathered, prepared, and dispensed by professors of either sex, unburthened with license or diploma. The pleasure which the swallowers seem to derive from imbibing them may be assumed for aught we know, or, being real, must spring from some secondary source; it may perhaps be referred to the compensating principle in the human mind, by the action of which small trials are more than repaid by the inward satisfaction one feels in the capacity of ignoring them.


  1. Flea exhibits must have been much more highbrow, I've not seen one for less than a shilling!


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