Wednesday 18 May 2011

A Coster on Marriage

James Greenwood, writing in 1869, wonders whether Home Missionaries in the slums should actually offer 'free' marriage services. He interviews a coster, who provide one reason against the practice:

But what, probably, is the upshot of the good missionary's endeavours and triumph? In a very little time the gilt with which the honest adviser glossed the chain that was to bind the man irrevocably to marriage and morality wears off. The sweat of his brow will not keep it bright; it rusts it. He feels, in his own vulgar though expressive language, that he has been "bustled" into a bad bargain. "It is like this 'ere," a matrimonial victim of the class once confided to me; "I don't say as she isn't as good as ever, but I'm blowed if she's all that better as I was kidded to believe she would be."
    "But if she is as good as ever, she is good enough."
    "Yes, but you haven't quite got the bearing of what I mean, sir, and I haint got it in me to put it in the words like you would. Good enough before isn't good enough now, cos it haint hoptional, don't you see? No, you don't. Well, look here. S'pose I borrer a barrer. Well, it's good enough and a conwenient size for laying out my stock on it. It goes pooty easy, and I pays eighteen pence a week for it and I'm satisfied. Well, I goes on all right and without grumbling, till some chap he ses to me, 'What call have you got to borrer a barrer when you can have one of your own; you alwis want a barrer, don't you know, why not make this one your own?' 'Cos I can't spare the money,' I ses. 'Oh,' he ses, 'I'll find the money and the barrer's yourn, if so be as you'll promise and vow to take up with no other barrer, but stick to this one so long as you both shall live.' Well, as aforesaid, it's a tidy, useful barrer, and I agrees. But soon as it's mine, don't you know, I ain't quite so careless about it. I overhauls it, in a manner of speaking, and I'm more keerful in trying the balance of it in hand when the load's on it. Well, maybe I find out what I never before troubled myself to look for. There's a screw out here and a bolt wanted there. Here it's weak, and there it's ugly. I dwells on it in my mind constant. I've never got that there barrer out of my head, and p'raps I make too much of the weak pints of it. I gets to mistrust it. 'It's all middling right, just now, old woman — old barrer, I mean,' I ses to myself, 'but you'll be a playing me a trick one day, I'm afraid.' Well, I go on being afraid, which I shouldn't be if I was only a borrower."


  1. An interesting point of view and almost poetic in the way it draws a comparison between a "barrer" and a woman. And that's the problem for me: it's just a little too pat. The coster may have said something along these lines but the finished version is the work of the author, masquerading as a coster.

    I can see how you could "borrer" a "barrer" but how do you "borrer" a woman? Take her without benefit of clergy? Still not the same thing, is it?

    I think we're being taken for a ride here.

  2. Impossible to be sure, of course. To what extent did authors like Greenwood 'invent' their tales of the poor? They were journalists and so - as today - it's impossible to tell what is pure reportage and what's embellished; every journalist has an eye for creating a good story, I suspect.