London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry
1851

Street Ballad-Singers, or Chaunters.

Street Ballad-Singers, or Chaunters.

THE street classes that are still undescribed are the lower class of street singers, the Street Artists, the Writers without Hands, and the Street Exhibition-keepers. I shall begin with the Street Singers.

Concerning the ordinary street ballad-singers, I received the following account from one of the class:—

"I am what may be termed a regular street ballad-singer—either sentimental or comic, sir, for I can take both branches. I have been, as near as I can guess, about fiveand- twenty years at the business. My mother died when I was thirteen years old, and in consequence of a step-mother home became too hot to hold me, and I turned into the streets in consequence of the harsh treatment I met with. My father had given me no education, and all I know now I have picked up in the streets. Well, at thirteen years, I turned into the streets, houseless, friendless. My father was a picture-frame gilder. I was never taught any business by him—neither his own nor any other. I never received any benefit from him that I know. Well then, sir, there was I, a boy of thirteen, friendless, houseless, untaught, and without any means of getting a living— loose in the streets of London. At first I slept anywhere: sometimes I passed the night in the old Covent-garden-market; at others, in shutter-boxes; and at others, on door-steps near my father"s house. I lived at this time upon the refuse that I picked up in the streets — cabbage-stumps out of the market, orangepeel, and the like. Well, sir, I was green then, and one of the Stamp-office spies got me to sell some of the Poor Man"s Guardians, (an unstamped paper of that time), so that his fellow-spy might take me up. This he did, and I had a month at Coldbath-fields for the business. After I had been in prison, I got in a measure hardened to the frowns of the world, and didn"t care what company I kept, or what I did for a living. I wouldn"t have you to fancy, though, that I did anything dishonest. I mean, I wasn"t particular as to what I turned my hand to for a living, or where I lodged. I went to live in Church-lane, St. Giles"s, at a threepenny house; and having a tidy voice of my own, I was there taught to go out balladsinging, and I have stuck to the business ever since. I was going on for fifteen when I first took to it. The first thing I did was to lead at glee-singing; I took the air, and two others, old hands, did the second and the bass. We used to sing the "Red Cross Knight," "Hail, smiling Morn," and harmonize "The Wolf," and other popular songs. Excepting when we needed money, we rarely went out till the evening. Then our pitches were in quiet streets or squares, where we saw, by the light at the windows, that some party was going on. Wedding-parties was very good, in general quite a harvest. Public-houses we did little at, and then it was always with the parlour company; the tap-room people have no taste for glee-singing. At times we took from 9s. to 10s. of an evening, the three of us. I am speaking of the business as it was about two or three-and-twenty years ago. Now, gleesinging is seldom practised in the streets of London: it is chiefly confined to the provinces, at present. In London, concerts are so cheap now-a-days, that no one will stop to listen to the street glee-singers; so most of the "schools," or sets, have gone to sing at the cheap concerts held at the public-houses. Many of the glee- singers have given up the business, and taken to the street Ethiopians instead. The street glee-singers had been some of them brought up to a trade, though some had not. Few were so unfortunate as me—to have none at all. The two that I was with had been a ladies" shoemaker and a paper-hanger. Others that I knew had been blacksmiths, carpenters, linendrapers" shopmen, bakers, Frenchpolish- ers, pastrycooks, and such-like. They mostly left their business and took to glee-singing when they were young. The most that I knew were from nineteen to twenty-two years old; that had in general been a little rackety, and had got stage-struck or concert-struck at public-houses: they had got praised for their voices, and so their vanity led them to take to it for a living, when they got hard up. Twenty years ago there must have been at the east and west ends at least fourteen different sets, good and bad; and in each set there was, on an average, three singers: now I don"t think there is one set at work in London streets. After I had been three years glee-singing in the streets, I took up with the ballad business, and found it more lucrative than the glee line. Sometimes I could take 5s. in the day, and not work heavily for it either; but at other times I couldn"t take enough to pay my lodging. When any popular song came up, that was our harvest. "Alice Gray," "The Sea," "Bridal Ring," "We met," "The Tartar Drum," (in which I was well known,) "The Banks of the Blue Moselle," and such-like, not forgetting "The Mistletoe Bough;" these were all great things to the ballad-singers. We looked at the bill of fare for the different concert-rooms, and then went round the neighbourhood where these songs were being sung, because the airs being well known, you see it eased the way for us. The very best sentimental song that ever I had in my life, and which lasted me off and on for two years, was Byron"s "Isle of Beauty." I could get a meal quicker with that than with any other. "The Mistletoe Bough" got me many a Christmas dinner. We always works at that time. It would puzzle any man, even the most exactest, to tell what they could make by ballad-singing in the street. Some nights it would be wet, and I should be hoarse, and then I"d take nothing. I should think that, take one week with another, my earnings were barely more than 10s. a-week: 12s. a-week on the average, I should think, would be the very outside. Street ballad-singers never go out in costume. It is generally supposed that some who appear without shoes and wretchedly clad are made up for the purpose of exciting charity; but this the regular street balladsinger never does.

He is too independent to rank himself with the beggars. He earns his money, he fancies, and does not ask charity. Some of the ballad-singers may perhaps be called beggars, or rather pensioners—that is the term we give them; but these are of the worst de- scription of singers, and have money given to them neither for their singing nor songs, but in pity for their age and infirmities. Of these there are about six in London. Of the regular ballad-singers, sentimental and comic, there are not less than 250 in and about London. Occasionally the number is greatly increased by an influx from the country. I should say that throughout England, Wales, and Scotland, there is not less than 700 who live solely by ballad-singing, and selling ballads and song-books. In London the ballad-singers generally work in couples— especially the comic singers. The sentimental generally go alone; but there are very few in London who are merely sentimental ballad-singers—not more than a dozen at the very outside. The rest sing whatever comes up. The tunes are mostly picked up from the street bands, and sometimes from the cheap concerts, or from the gallery of the theatre, where the street ballad-singers very often go, for the express purpose of learning the airs. They are mostly utterly ignorant of music, and some of them get their money by the noise they make, by being paid to move on. There is a house in the Blackfriars"road where the people has been ill for the last 16 years, and where the street balladsinger always goes, because he is sure of getting 2d. there to move on. Some, too, make a point of beginning their songs outside of those houses where the straw is laid down in front; where the knockers are done up in an old glove the ballad-singer is sure to strike up. The comic songs that are popular in the street are never indecent, but are very often political. They are generally sung by two persons, one repeating the two first lines of the verse, and the other the two last. The street-ballads are printed and published chiefly in the Seven Dials. There are four balladpublishers in that quarter, and three at the East-end. Many ballads are written expressly for the Seven-Dials press, especially the Newgate and the political ones, as well as those upon any topic of the day. There are five known authors for the Dials press, and they are all street ballad-singers. I am one of these myself. The little knowledge I have I picked up bit by bit, so that I hardly know how I have come by it. I certainly knew my letters before I left home, and I have got the rest off the dead walls and out of the ballads and papers I have been selling. I write most of the Newgate ballads now for the printers in the Dials, and, indeed, anything that turns up. I get a shilling for a "copy of verses written by the wretched culprit the night previous to his execution." I wrote Courvoisier"s sorrowful lamentation. I called it, "A Woice from the Gaol." I wrote a pathetic ballad on the respite of Annette Meyers. I did the helegy, too, on Rush"s execution. It was supposed, like the rest, to be written by the culprit himself, and was particular penitent. I didn"t write that to order—I knew they would want a copy of verses from the culprit. The publisher read it over, and said, "That"s the thing for the street public." I only got a shilling for Rush. Indeed, they are all the same price, no matter how popular they may be. I wrote the life of Manning in verse. Besides these, I have written the lament of Calcraft the hangman on the decline of his trade, and many political songs. But song and Newgate balladwriting for the Dials is very poor work. I"ve got five times as much for writing a squib for a rag-shop as for a ballad that has taken me double the time."

THE street classes that are still undescribed are the lower class of street singers, the Street Artists, the Writers without Hands, and the Street Exhibition-keepers. I shall begin with the Street Singers.

Concerning the ordinary street ballad-singers, I received the following account from of the class:—

"I am what may be termed a regular street ballad-singer—either sentimental or comic, sir, for I can take both branches. I have been, as near as I can guess, about fiveand- years at the business. My mother died when I was years old, and in consequence of a step-mother home became too hot to hold me, and I turned into the streets in consequence of the harsh treatment I met with. My father had given me no education, and all I know now I have picked up in the streets. Well, at years, I turned into the streets, houseless, friendless. My father was a picture-frame gilder. I was never taught any business by him—neither his own nor any other. I never received any benefit from him that I know. Well then, sir, there was I, a boy of , friendless, houseless, untaught, and without any means of getting a living— loose in the streets of London. At I slept anywhere: sometimes I passed the night in the old Covent-garden-market; at others, in shutter-boxes; and at others, on door-steps near my father"s house. I lived at this time upon the refuse that I picked up in the streets — cabbage-stumps out of the market, orangepeel, and the like. Well, sir, I was green then, and of the Stamp-office spies got me to sell some of the , (an unstamped paper of that time), so that his fellow-spy might take me up. This he did, and I had a month at Coldbath-fields for the business. After I had been in prison, I got in a measure hardened to the frowns of the world, and didn"t care what company I kept, or what I did for a living. I wouldn"t have you to fancy, though, that I did anything dishonest. I mean, I wasn"t particular as to what I turned my hand to for a living, or where I lodged. I went to live in , St. Giles"s, at a threepenny house; and having a tidy voice of my own, I was there taught to go out balladsinging, and I have stuck to the business ever since. I was going on for when I took to it. The thing I did was to lead at glee-singing; I took the air, and others, old hands, did the and the bass. We used to sing the "Red Cross Knight," "Hail, smiling Morn," and harmonize "The Wolf," and other popular songs. Excepting when we needed money, we rarely went out till the evening. Then our pitches were in quiet streets or squares, where we saw, by the light at the windows, that some party was going on. Wedding-parties was very good, in general quite a harvest. Public-houses we did little at, and then it was always with the parlour company; the tap-room people have no taste for glee-singing. At times we took from to of an evening, the of us. I am speaking of the business as it was about or -and- years ago. Now, gleesinging is seldom practised in the streets of London: it is chiefly confined to the provinces, at present. In London, concerts are so cheap now-a-days, that no will stop to listen to the street glee-singers; so most of the "schools," or sets, have gone to sing at the cheap concerts held at the public-houses. Many of the glee-

196

singers have given up the business, and taken to the street Ethiopians instead. The street glee-singers had been some of them brought up to a trade, though some had not. Few were so unfortunate as me—to have none at all. The that I was with had been a ladies" shoemaker and a paper-hanger. Others that I knew had been blacksmiths, carpenters, linendrapers" shopmen, bakers, Frenchpolish- ers, pastrycooks, and such-like. They mostly left their business and took to glee-singing when they were young. The most that I knew were from to years old; that had in general been a little rackety, and had got stage-struck or concert-struck at public-houses: they had got praised for their voices, and so their vanity led them to take to it for a living, when they got hard up. years ago there must have been at the east and west ends at least different sets, good and bad; and in each set there was, on an average, singers: now I don"t think there is set at work in London streets. After I had been years glee-singing in the streets, I took up with the ballad business, and found it more lucrative than the glee line. Sometimes I could take in the day, and not work heavily for it either; but at other times I couldn"t take enough to pay my lodging. When any popular song came up, that was our harvest. "Alice Gray," "The Sea," "Bridal Ring," "We met," "The Tartar Drum," (in which I was well known,) "The Banks of the Blue Moselle," and such-like, not forgetting "The Mistletoe Bough;" these were all great things to the ballad-singers. We looked at the bill of fare for the different concert-rooms, and then went round the neighbourhood where these songs were being sung, because the airs being well known, you see it eased the way for us. The very best sentimental song that ever I had in my life, and which lasted me off and on for years, was Byron"s "Isle of Beauty." I could get a meal quicker with that than with any other. "The Mistletoe Bough" got me many a Christmas dinner. We always works at that time. It would puzzle any man, even the most exactest, to tell what they could make by ballad-singing in the street. Some nights it would be wet, and I should be hoarse, and then I"d take nothing. I should think that, take week with another, my earnings were barely more than a-week: a-week on the average, I should think, would be the very outside. Street ballad-singers never go out in costume. It is generally supposed that some who appear without shoes and wretchedly clad are made up for the purpose of exciting charity; but this the regular street balladsinger never does.

He is too independent to rank himself with the beggars. He earns his money, he fancies, and does not ask charity. Some of the ballad-singers may perhaps be called beggars, or rather pensioners—that is the term we give them; but these are of the worst de- scription of singers, and have money given to them neither for their singing nor songs, but in pity for their age and infirmities. Of these there are about in London. Of the regular ballad-singers, sentimental and comic, there are not less than in and about London. Occasionally the number is greatly increased by an influx from the country. I should say that throughout England, Wales, and Scotland, there is not less than who live solely by ballad-singing, and selling ballads and song-books. In London the ballad-singers generally work in couples— especially the comic singers. The sentimental generally go alone; but there are very few in London who are merely sentimental ballad-singers—not more than a dozen at the very outside. The rest sing whatever comes up. The tunes are mostly picked up from the street bands, and sometimes from the cheap concerts, or from the gallery of the theatre, where the street ballad-singers very often go, for the express purpose of learning the airs. They are mostly utterly ignorant of music, and some of them get their money by the noise they make, by being paid to move on. There is a house in the Blackfriars"road where the people has been ill for the last years, and where the street balladsinger always goes, because he is sure of getting there to move on. Some, too, make a point of beginning their songs outside of those houses where the straw is laid down in front; where the knockers are done up in an old glove the ballad-singer is sure to strike up. The comic songs that are popular in the street are never indecent, but are very often political. They are generally sung by persons, repeating the lines of the verse, and the other the last. The street-ballads are printed and published chiefly in the Dials. There are balladpublishers in that quarter, and at the East-end. Many ballads are written expressly for the -Dials press, especially the Newgate and the political ones, as well as those upon any topic of the day. There are known authors for the Dials press, and they are all street ballad-singers. I am of these myself. The little knowledge I have I picked up bit by bit, so that I hardly know how I have come by it. I certainly knew my letters before I left home, and I have got the rest off the dead walls and out of the ballads and papers I have been selling. I write most of the Newgate ballads now for the printers in the Dials, and, indeed, anything that turns up. I get a shilling for a "copy of verses written by the wretched culprit the night previous to his execution." I wrote Courvoisier"s sorrowful lamentation. I called it, "A Woice from the Gaol." I wrote a pathetic ballad on the respite of Annette Meyers. I did the helegy, too, on Rush"s execution. It was supposed, like the rest, to be written by the culprit himself, and was

197

particular penitent. I didn"t write that to order—I knew they would want a copy of verses from the culprit. The publisher read it over, and said, "That"s the thing for the street public." I only got a shilling for Rush. Indeed, they are all the same price, no matter how popular they may be. I wrote the life of Manning in verse. Besides these, I have written the lament of Calcraft the hangman on the decline of his trade, and many political songs. But song and Newgate balladwriting for the Dials is very poor work. I"ve got times as much for writing a squib for a rag-shop as for a ballad that has taken me double the time."

 
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 Title Page
collapseChapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
collapseOur Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
collapseChapter III: - Street Musicians
collapseChapter IV: - Street Vocalists
collapseChapter V: - Street Artists
collapseChapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
collapseChapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
collapseChapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
collapseChapter IX: - Ballast-Men
collapseChapter X: - Lumpers
collapseChapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
collapseChapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
collapseChapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
collapseChapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
collapseChapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
collapseChapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
collapseChapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men
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