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Samuel Pepys
Elizabeth I
London's Underworld
Fleet Marriages.
The Cries of London

London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irrestibly drained.

-- Arhtur Conan Doyle 1888

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London Street Musicians Part 1
Posted on Jun 12, 2003 - 09:00 AM by Bill McCann

The Strand Magazine was first published in 1891 and survived until after the Second World War. It published a mixture of fiction and factual studies of contemporary life. This series of five articles presents its summary of the musicians one might find on the streets of London in the 1890s. The additional notes are by Bill McCann.

The Fiddle, The tin whistle and The Bagpipes

usic "hath charms to soothe" we admit but not all music and not at all times; and it is this modification of the soothing effects of music that our street minstrels, both vocal and instrumental, seem to be unwilling or unable to comprehend.

Yet the street minstrelsy of today is nothing like so outrageously annoying and worrying as it was twenty years ago. Occasionally only do we hear one of those wretched barrel-organs which helped to drive Parliament to pass the Act of 1863. That enactment was intended to minimise, or, at least, to modify, the annoyance caused by the so-called music of the streets, and it has succeeded.

Speaking generally, there are two kinds of street musicians - the tolerable and the intolerable. Amongst the former, we may include the poor fiddler who tells us that when he is "on the job" he manages top scrape together a decent livelihood. After ten years he has become weather hardened, and his long-tailed frock coat serves for winter or summer, with the only variation of being buttoned or unbuttoned. He has his regular patrons, who look out for him once a week. On old spinster, who lives in a suburban villa, is always "good for a bob" when he plays "I dreamt that I dwelt in Marble Halls." [Note 1]

Now and then you may hear the old girl warbling out the ballad with the window wide open, much to the amusement of passers-by. A few doors off lives an old sea captain, whose grandson has always to dance a hornpipe when the fiddler comes round, and the old salt immediately sends out hot rum and water, whatever the time of year.

When the fiddler tries a new locality, he begins with, "The Heart Bowed Down"[Note 2] which scarcely ever fails to bring a sympathetic someone to the window. His average daily takings are from four to five shillings. In the autumn he plays himself down to Margate, and gets a mouthful of fresh air, and plenty of "recognition".

The last Rose of Summer

It was an accident that made him take to the tin whistle, or the "American flageolet" as he calls it. Bad luck had compelled him to pawn his fiddle, and, till he could raise the money to get it out again, he had recourse to the cheapest instrument he could think of, and that was the penny tin whistle. He certainly does get some capital tone out of it, and at a distance it may be mistaken for the piccolo. He did not, however, made much of his playing till he had the whistle soldered on to a tin coffee pot instead of the spout. This took immensely and the coffee-pot brought in more pence than the fiddle, sometimes as much as eight or nine shillings a day.

Another penny whistler is a blind man, who morning, noon, and night tootles out "The Last Rose of Summer,"[Note 3] alternated with a doleful hymn tune. What little money the poor fellow gets is given more out of compassion for his affliction than for any pleasure that his music affords.

Conscious perhaps that his bag-pipes alone would not bring in the bawbees, Sandy MacTosh adds the attraction of a Scotch reel or pipe-dance. Dressed in full highland costume, a little bit frowsy, the piper and his boy march along the quite suburban roads, playing the pipes to attract attention, and stopping at a convenient spot to give the dance. He gets very little encouragement, however, except, from his own country people; but he has found out their homes and to them he pays regular visits.

Sandy Mactosh
There is one real old Mac who invariably celebrates his birthday with a feast of haggis and shepherd's pie, and sandy MacTosh always attends with his pipes to "play in" the haggis. What is a haggis without the accompaniment of a Highland skreel? As food and music, the pudding and the pipes match each other admirably, and by the time the feast is finished, and the Athol Brose has been tipped off, both Mac and the piper are equally ready to sing "We are na fou." But for the Highland families - the Lowlanders do not like the pipes - Sandy MacTosh and his tribe would starve. There are in London, perhaps half a dozen other Highland bag-pipers and a few Frauds:-

"These are Mile-enders,
Dressed up as Highlanders,
Shiv'ring in kilts."

For the "Killim Kallam" two long church warden pipes are used instead of the crossed swords. The dancing is just as difficult over the clays as over the claymores and there is no danger of cutting the toes. Saturday night is the most profitable, then Monday, and Friday is the least. Pipers do not often get molested, except by tipsy men, who always want to dance; but Sandy then turns on the dreary-sounding drone and plays a doleful tune in extra slow time, so the drunken toper has to do an English instead of a Scotch reel.


1 [From the Opera The Bohemian Girl (1843) by Balfe. Soprano aria which was very popular in the second half of the 19th century. Victoria herself was fond of it. It is one of those stage pieces to which superstition has become attached. It is bad luck for a soprano to rehearse it in her dressing room or anywhere backstage.] Back

2 [An aria for bass, also from the Bohemian Girl. ] Back

3 [From Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies but used by Flotow as the theme-song for his opera Martha (1847) which was also a great favourite at Drury Lane.] Back

The following looped links will allow you to scroll through the series.


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