London Labour and the London Poor, extra volume

Mayhew, Henry
1851

Distressed Operative Beggars.

Distressed Operative Beggars.

All beggars are ingenious enough to make capital of public events. They read the newspapers, judge the bent of popular sympathy, and decide on the "lay" to be adopted. The "Times" informs its readers that two or three hundred English navigators have been suddenly turned adrift in France. The native labourers object to the employment of aliens, and our stalwart countrymen have been subjected to insult as well as privation. The beggar's course is taken; he goes to Petticoat Lane, purchases a white smock frock, a purple or red plush waistcoat profusely ornamented with wooden buttons, a coloured cotton neckerchief, and a red nightcap. If procurable "in the Lane," he also buys a pair of coarse-ribbed grey worstedstock- ings, and boots whose enormous weight is increased by several pounds of iron nails in their thick soles; even then he is not perfect, he seeks a rag and bottle and old iron shop—your genuine artist-beggar never asks for what is new, he prefers the worn, the used, the ragged and the rusty—and bargains for a spade. The proprietor of the shop knows perfectly well that his customer requires an article for show, not service, and they part with a mutual grin, and the next day every street swarms with groups of distressed navigators. Popular feeling is on their side, and halfpence shower round them. Meanwhile the poor fellows for whom all this generous indignation is evoked are waiting in crowds at a French port till the British Consul passed them over to their native soil as paupers.

The same tactics are pursued with manufactures. Beggars read the list of patents, and watch the effect of every fresh discovery in mechanics on the operatives of Lancashire and Yorkshire. A new machine is patented. So many hands are thrown out of work. So many beggars, who have never seen Lancashire, except when on the tramp, are heard in London. A strike takes place at several mills, pretended "hands" next day parade the streets. Even the variability of our climate is pressed into the "cadging" service; a frost locks up the rivers, and hardens the earth, rusty spades and gardening tools are in demand, and the indefatigable beggar takes the pavement in another "fancy dress." Every social shipwreck is watched and turned to account by these systematic land-wreckers, who have reduced false signals to a regular code, and beg by rule and line and chart and compass.

Starved-Out Manufacturersparade in gangs of four and five, or with squalid wives and a few children. They wear paper-caps and white aprons with "bibs" to them, or a sort of cross-barred pinafore, called in the manufacturing districts a "chequer-brat." Sometimes they make a "pitch," that is, stand face to face, turning their backs upon a heartless world, and sing. The well-known ditty of We are all the way from Manches-ter And we've got no work to do! set to the tune of, "Oh let us be joyful," was first introduced by this class of beggars. Or they will carry tapes, stay-laces, and papers of buttons, and throw imploring looks from side to side, and beg by implication. Or they will cock their chins up in the air, so as to display the unpleasantly prominent apples in their bony throats, and drone a psalm. When they go out "on the blob," they make a long oration, not in the Lancashire or Yorkshire dialects, but in a cockney voice, of a strong Whitechapel flavour. The substance of the speech varies but slightly from the "patter" of the hand-loom weaver; indeed, the Nottingham "driz" or lace-man, the hand on strike, the distressed weaver, and the "operative" beggar, generally bear so strong a resemblance to each other, that they not only look like but sometimes positively are one and the same person.

Unemployed agriculturists and Frozen-Out Gardenersare seen during a frost in gangs of from six to twenty. Two gangs generally "work" together, that is, while one gang begs at one end of a street, a second gang begs at the other. Their mode of procedure their "programme," is very simple. Upon the spades which they carry is chalked "frozen-out!" or "starving!" and they enhance the effect of this "slum or fake- ment," by shouting out sturdily "frozen out," "We're all frozen-out!" The gardeners differ from the agriculturists or "navvies" in their costume. They affect aprons and old straw hats, their manner is less demonstrative, and their tones less rusty and unmelodious. The "navvies" roar; the gardeners squeak. The navvies' petition is made loud and lustily, as by men used to work in clay and rock; the gardeners' voice is meek and mild, as of a gentle nature trained to tend on fruits and flowers. The young bulky, sinewy beggar plays navvy; the shrivelled, gravelly, pottering, elderly cadger performs gardener. There can be no doubt that in times of hardship many honest labourers are forced into the streets to beg. A poor hardworking man, whose children cry to him for food, can feel no scruple in soliciting charity,—against such the writer of these pages would urge nothing; all credit to the motive that compels them unwillingly to ask alms; all honour to the feeling that prompts the listener to give. It is not the purpose of the author of this work to write down every mendicant an impostor, or every almsgiver a fool; on the contrary, he knows how much real distress, and how much real benevolence exist, and he would but step between the open hand of true charity, and the itching palm of the professional beggar, who stands between the misery that asks and the philanthropy that would relieve. The winter of 1860-61 was a fine harvest for the "frozen out" impostors, some few of whom, happily, reaped the reward of their deserts in the police-courts. Three strong hearty men were brought up at one office; they said that they were starving, and they came from Horselydown; when searched six shillings and elevenpence were found upon them; they reiterated that they were starving and were out of work, on which the sitting magistrate kindly provided them with both food and employment, by sentencing them to seven days' hard labour. The "profits" of the frozen-out gardener and agriculturist are very large, and generally quadruples the sum earned by honest labour. In the February of 1861, four of these "distressed navvies" went into a public-house to divide the "swag" they had procured by one day's shouting. Each had a handkerchief filled with bread and meat and cheese. They called for pots of porter and drank heartily, and when the reckoning was paid and the spoils equally divided, the share of each man was seven shillings. The credulity of the public upon one point has often surprised me. A man comes out into the streets to say that he is starving, a few halfpence are thrown to him. If really hungry he would make for the nearest baker's shop; but no, he picks up the coppers, pockets them, and proclaims again that he is starving, though he has the means of obtaining food in his fingers. Not that this obvious anachronism stops the current of benevolence or the chink of coin upon the stones—the fainting, famished fellow walks leisurely up the street, and still bellows out in notes of thunder, "I am starving!" If one of my readers will try when faint and exhausted to produce the same tone in the open air, he will realize the impossibility of shouting and starving simultaneously.

Hand-Loom Weavers and Others Deprived of their Living by Machinery.As has been before stated, the regular beggar seizes on the latest pretext for a plausible tale of woe. Improvements in mechanics, and consequent cheapness to the many, are usually the causes of loss to the few. The sufferings of this minority is immediately turned to account by veteran cadgers, who rush to their wardrobes of well-chosen rags, attire themselves in appropriate costume, and ply their calling with the last grievance out. When unprovided with "patter," they seek the literati of their class, and buy a speech; this they partly commit to memory, and trust to their own ingenuity to improvise any little touches that may prove effective. Many "screevers, slum-scribblers, and fakementdodgers" eke out a living by this sort of authorship. Real operatives seldom stir from their own locality. The sympathy of their fellows, their natural habits, and the occasional relief afforded by the parish bind them to their homes, and the "distressed weaver" is generally a spurious metropolitan production. The following is a copy of one of their prepared orations: "My kind Christian Friends, We are poor working-men from —— which cannot obtain bread by our labour, owing to the new alterations and inventions which the master-manufacturers have introduced, which spares them the cost of employing hands, and does the work by machinery instead. Yes, kind friends, machinery and steam-engines now does the work, which formerly was done by our hands and work and labour. Our masters have turned us off, and we are without bread and knowing no other trade but that which we was born and bred to, we are compelled to ask your kind assistance, for which, be sure of it, we shall be ever grateful. As we have said, masters now employs machinery and steam-engines instead of men, forgetting that steamengines have no families of wives or children, and consequently are not called on to provide for them. We are without bread to put into our mouths, also our wives and children are the same. Foreign competition has drove our masters to this step, and we working-men are the sufferers thereby. Kind friends, drop your compassion on us: the smallest trifle will be thankfully received, and God will bless you for the relief you give to us. May you never know what it is to be as we are now, drove from our work, and forced to come out into the streets to beg your charity from door to door. Have pity on us, for our situation is most wretched. Our wives and families are starving, our children cry to us for bread, and we have none to give them. Oh, my friends, look down on us with compassion. We are poor working-men, weavers from ——— which cannot obtain bread by our labour owing to the new inventions in machinery, which, &c. &c. &c. In concluding this section of our work, I would commend to the notice of my readers the following observations on almsgiving:— The poor will never cease from the land. There always will be exceptional excesses and outbreaks of distress that no plan could have provided against, and there always will be those who stand with open palm to receive, in the face of heaven, our tribute of gratitude for our own happier lot. Yet there is a duty of the head as well as of the heart, and we are bound as much to use our reason as to minister of our abundance. The same heaven that has rewarded our labours, and filled our garners or our coffers, or at least, given us favour in the sight of merchants and bankers, has given us also brains, and consequently a charge to employ them. So we are bound to sift appeals, and consider how best to direct our benevolence. Whoever thinks that charity consists in mere giving, and that he has only to put his hand in his pocket, or draw a check in favour of somebody who is very much in want of money, and looks very grateful for favours to be received, will find himself taught better, if not in the school of adversity, at least by many a hard lesson of kindness thrown away, or perhaps very brutishly repaid. As animals have their habits, so there is a large class of mankind whose single cleverness is that of representing themselves as justly and naturally dependent on the assistance of others, who look paupers from their birth, who seek givers and forsake those who have given as naturally as a tree sends its roots into new soil and deserts the exhausted. It is the office of reason—reason improved by experience—to teach us not to waste our own interest and our resources on beings that will be content to live on our bounty, and will never return a moral profit to our charitable industry. The great opportunities or the mighty powers that heaven may have given us, it never meant to be lavished on mere human animals who eat, drink and sleep, and whose only instinct is to find out a new caterer when the old one is exhausted.

All beggars are ingenious enough to make capital of public events. They read the newspapers, judge the bent of popular sympathy, and decide on the "lay" to be adopted. The "Times" informs its readers that or English navigators have been suddenly turned adrift in France. The native labourers object to the employment of aliens, and our stalwart countrymen have been subjected to insult as well as privation. The beggar's course is taken; he goes to , purchases a white smock frock, a purple or red plush waistcoat profusely ornamented with wooden buttons, a coloured cotton neckerchief, and a red nightcap. If procurable "in the Lane," he also buys a pair of coarse-ribbed grey worstedstock- ings, and boots whose enormous weight is increased by several pounds of iron nails in their thick soles; even then he is not perfect, he seeks a rag and bottle and old iron shop—your genuine artist-beggar never asks for what is new, he prefers the worn, the used, the ragged and the rusty—and bargains for a spade. The proprietor of the shop knows perfectly well that his customer requires an article for show, not service, and they part with a mutual grin, and the next day every street swarms with groups of distressed navigators. Popular feeling is on their side, and halfpence shower round them. Meanwhile the poor fellows for whom all this generous indignation is evoked are waiting in crowds at a French port till the British Consul passed them over to their native soil as paupers.

The same tactics are pursued with manufactures. Beggars read the list of patents, and watch the effect of every fresh discovery in mechanics on the operatives of Lancashire and Yorkshire. A new machine is patented. So many hands are thrown out of work. So many beggars, who have never seen Lancashire, except when on the tramp, are heard in London. A strike takes place at several mills, pretended "hands" next day parade the streets. Even the variability of our climate is pressed into the "cadging" service; a frost locks up the rivers, and hardens the earth, rusty spades and gardening tools are in demand, and the indefatigable beggar takes the pavement in another "fancy dress." Every social shipwreck is watched and turned to account by these systematic land-wreckers, who have reduced false signals to a regular code, and beg by rule and line and chart and compass.