London has always been a noisy place. Amongst the cachophony of sound in the Victorian streets was the chanting of the “Patterers”, either moving or stationary. In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew devoted an entire chapter to an investigation of the artistry, lives and habits of these Londoners. An extensive section of the chapter gives us a very detailed description of the lifestyle and con tricks of the pattering class. In our seventh instalment we hear “OF THE CHILDREN IN LOW LODGINGHOUSES” – whose prospects are bleak indeed.
The informant whose account of patterers and of vagrant life in its other manifestations I have already given, has written from personal knowledge and observation the following account of the children in low lodging-houses:”Of the mass of the indigent and outcast,” he says, “of whom the busy world know nothing, except from an occasional paragraph in the newspaper, the rising generation, though most important, is perhaps least considered. Every Londoner must have seen numbers of ragged, sickly, and ill-fed children, squatting at the entrances of miserable courts, streets, and alleys, engaged in no occupation that is either creditable to themselves or useful to the community. These are, in many cases, those whose sole homes are in the low lodging houses; and I will now exhibit a few features of the ‘juvenile performers’ among the ‘London Poor.'”In many cases these poor children have lost one of their parents; in some, they are without either father or mother; but even when both parents are alive, the case is little mended, for if the parents be of the vagrant or dishonest class, their children are often neglected, and left to provide for the cost of their food and lodging as they best may. The following extract from the chaplain’s report of one of our provincial jails, gives a melancholy insight into the training of many of the families. It is not, I know, without exception; but, much as we could wish it to be otherwise, it is so general an occurrence, varied into its different forms, that it may be safely accounted as the rule of action.” ‘J. G. was born of poor parents. At five years old his father succeeded to a legacy of £500. He was quiet, indolent, fond of drink, a good scholar, and had twelve children. He never sent any of them to school! “Telling lies,” said the child, “I learned from my mother; she did things unknown to father, and gave me a penny not to tell him!” The father (on leaving home) left, by request of the mother, some money to pay a man; she slipped up stairs, and told the children to say she was out.” ‘From ten to twelve years of age I used to go to the ale-house. I stole the money from my father, and got very drunk. My father never punished me for all this, as he ought to have done. In course of time I was apprenticed to a tanner; he ordered me to chapel, instead of which I used to play in the fields. When out of my time I got married, and still carried on the same way, starving my wife and children. I used to take my little boy, when only five years old, to the public-house, and make him drunk with whatever I drank myself. A younger one could act well a drunken man on the floor. My wife was a sober steady women; but, through coming to fetch me home she learned to drink too. One of our children used to say, “Mam, you are drunk, like daddy.” ‘”It may be argued that this awful ‘family portrait’ is not the average character, but I have witnessed too many similar scenes to doubt the general application of the sad rule.”Of those children of the poor, as has been before observed, the most have either no parents, or have been deserted by them, and have no regular means of living, nor moral superintendance on the part of relatives or neighbours; consequently, they grow up in habits of idleness, ignorance, vagrancy, or crime. In some cases they are countenanced and employed. Here and there may be seen a little urchin holding a few onions in a saucer, or a diminutive sickly girl standing with a few laces or a box or two of lucifers. But even these go with the persons who have ‘set them up’ daily to the public house (and to the lodging-house at night); and after they have satisfied the cravings of hunger, frequently expend their remaining halfpence (if any) in gingerbread, and as frequently in gin. I have overheard a proposal for ‘half-a-quartern and a two-out’ (glass) between a couple of shoeless boys under nine years old. One little fellow of eleven, on being remonstrated with, said that it was the only pleasure in life that he had, and he weren’t a-going to give that up. Both sexes of this juvenile class frequent, when they can raise the means, the very cheap and ‘flash’ places of amusement, where the precocious delinquent acquires the most abandoned tastes, and are often allured by elder accomplices to commit petty frauds and thefts.”Efforts have been made to redeem these young recruits in crime from their sad career, with its inevitable results. In some cases, I rejoice to believe that success has crowned the endeavour. There is that, however, in the cunning hardihood of the majority of these immature delinquents, which presents almost insuperable barriers to benevolence, and of this I will adduce an instance.“A gentleman, living at Islington, who attends one of the city churches, is in the habit of crossing the piece of waste ground close to Saffron-hill. Here he often saw (close to the ragged school) a herd of boys, and as nearly as he could judge always the same boys. One of them always bowed to him as he passed. He thought – and thought right – that they were gambling, and after, on one occasion, talking to them very seriously, he gave each of them twopence and pursued his way. However, he found himself followed by the boy before alluded to, accompanied by a younger lad, who turned out to be his brother. Both in one breath begged to know if ‘his honour’ could please to give them any sort of a job. The gentleman gave them his card, inquired their place of residence (a low lodging-house) and the next morning, at nine o’clock, both youths were at his door. He gave them a substantial breakfast, and then took them into an outhouse where was a truss of straw, and having himself taken off the band, he desired them to convey the whole, one straw at a time, across the garden and deposit it in another out-house. The work was easy and the terms liberal, as each boy was to get dinner and tea, and one shilling per day as long as his services should be required. Their employer had to go to town, and left orders with one of his domestics to see that the youths wanted nothing, and to watch their proceedings; their occupation was certainly not laborious, but then it was work, and although that was the first of their requests, it was also the last of their wishes.”Taking advantage of an adjoining closet, the servant perceived that the weight even of a straw had been too much for these hopeful boys. They were both seated on the truss, and glibly recounting some exploits of their own, and how they had been imposed upon by others. The eldest – about fourteen – was vowing vengeance upon ‘Taylor Tom’ for attempting to ‘walk the barber’ (seduce his ‘gal’); while the younger – who had scarcely seen eleven summers – averred that it was ‘wery good of the swell to give them summut to eat,’ but ‘precious bad to be shut up in that crib all day without a bit o’ backer’). Before the return of their patron they had transported all the straw to its appointed designation; as it was very discernible, however, that this had been effected by a wholesale process, the boys were admonished, paid, and dismissed. They are now performing more ponderous work in one of the penal settlements. Whether the test adopted by the gentleman in question was the best that might have been resorted to, I need not now inquire.”It would be grateful to my feelings if in these disclosures I could omit the misdemeanors of the other sex of juveniles; but I am obliged to own, on the evidence of personal observation, that there are girls of ages varying from eleven to fifteen who pass the day with a ‘fakement’ before them (‘Pity a poor orphan’), and as soon as evening sets in, loiter at shop-windows and ogle gentlemen in public walks, making requests which might be expected only from long-hardened prostitution. Their nights are generally passed in a low lodging-house. They frequently introduce themselves with ‘Please, sir, can you tell me what time it is?’ If they get a kindly answer, some other casual observations prepare the way for hints which are as unmistakeable as they are unprincipled.