London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Sewerman.

HE is a broad-shouldered, strongly-built man, with a stoop in his shoulders, and a rather dull cast of features; from living so much in the "shores" (sewers), his eyes have assumed a kind of look, that is quite rat-like in its furtiveness.

He answered our questions with great good humour, but in short monosyllabic terms, peculiar to men who have little communion with their fellows.

The "parlour" in which the man lives was literally swarming with children when we paid him a visit (they were not all "belonging" to him). Nor was it quite pleasant to find that the smell of the tea, which had just been made, was overpowered by the odour of the rats which he keeps in the same room.

The week"s wash was hanging across the apartment, and gave rather a slovenly aspect to the room, not otherwise peculiar for its untidyness; against the wall were pasted some children"s "characters," which his son, who is at the coal-shed, has a taste for, and which, as the "shoreman" observed, "is better than sweet-stuff for him, at all events."

A little terrier was jumping playfully about the room, a much more acceptable companion than the bull-dog whose acquaintance we had been invited to make (in the same court) by the "rat-killer."

The furniture and appointments of the "parlour" were extremely humble—not to say meagre in their character. After some trouble in getting sufficiently lucid answers, the following was the result:—

There are not so many rats about as there used to be—not a five-hundredth part so many. I"ve seen long ago twenty or thirty in a row near where the slaughter-houses are, and that like. I ketch them all down the shores. I run after them and pick them up with my hand, and I take my lantern with me.

I have caught rats these six or seven years. When the money got to be lowered, I took to ketching on them. One time I used to take a dog with me, when I worked down St. John"s-wood way.

They fetches all prices, does rats; some I get threepence a-piece for, some twopence, some twopence-halfpenny—"cordin" who has "em.

I works on the shores, and our time to leave off is four. I comes home and gets my tea, and if there"s sale for them, why I goes out and ketches a few rats. When I goes out I can ketch a dozen; but, years ago, I could ketch two or three dozen without going so far, and that shows there"s not so many now about.

I finds some difficulty in ketching on them. If they gets into the drain you can"t get "em. Where the drains lay low to the shore it"s most difficult, but where the drain is about two feet and a-half from the shore you gets a better chance.

Three or four dozen I used to ketch, but I haven"t ketched any this last two or three weeks. In this hot weather people don"t like to be in a room where "killing" is going on; but in the winter time a man will have his pint of beer and see a little sport that way. Three or four year ago I did ketch a good many; there was a sale for "em. I could go and ketch two dozen in three hours, and that sooner than I can do a dozen now. It"s varmint as wants to be destroyed.

Rats"ll turn round when they finds theirselves beat, and sometimes fly at your hand. Sometimes I"ve got bit—not very badly, though. To tell the truth, I don"t like it. When they grip, they do holt so tight before they"ll let go.

I"ve been a shoreman these fifteen or sixteen year, ever since this flushing commenced. I was put on by the Commissioners in Hatting Garding; but the Commissioners is all done away with since Government took to it. I"m employed by the parish now. Every parish has to do its own flushing.

We cleanses away all the soil what"s down below, and keeps the shore as sweet as what we possibly can.

Before I took to this life I was what they call a navvy; I used to help to make the shores, and before that, I was in the country at farmers" work.

Ketching them rats ain"t all profit, "cause you have to keep "em and feed "em. I"ve some here, if I was to get sixpence a-piece for, why it wouldn"t pay me for their feed. I give them barley generally, and bits of bread.

There"s a many about now ketchin" who does nothink else, and who goes down in the shores when they have no business there at all. They does well by rats when they"ve good call for "em. They can go down two or three times a-day, and ketch a dozen and a half a time; but they can"t do much now, there"s no killing going on. They takes "em to beer-shops, and sells "em to the landlords, who gets their own price for "em if there"s a pit.

Time ago you couldn"t get a rat under sixpence. But the tax on dogs has done away wonderful with rat-killing. London would swarm with rats if they hadn"t been ketched as they has been. I can go along shores and only see one or two now, sometimes see none. Times ago I"ve drove away twenty or thirty afore me. Round Newport-market I"ve seen a hundred together, and now I go round there and perhaps won"t ketch one.

As for poisonin" "em under buildings, that"s wrong; they"re sure to lay there and rot, and then they smells so. No, pisoning a"n"t no good, specially where there"s many on "em.

I"ve sold Jack Black a good many. He don"t ketch so many as he gets killed. He"s what they call rat-ketcher to her Majesty.

When I goes rat-ketching, I generally takes a bag with me; a trap is too much to lug about.

Some parts of the shores I can find my way about better than I can up above. I could get in nigh here and come out at High Park; only the worst of it is, you"re always on the stoop. I never heerd talk of anybody losing theirselves in the shores, but a stranger might.

There"s some what we calls "gullyhun- ters" as goes about with a sieve, and near the gratings find perhaps a few ha"pence. Years ago we used to find a little now and then, but we may go about now and not find twopence in a week. I don"t think any shoreman ever finds much. But years ago, in the city, perhaps a robbery might be committed, and then they might be afraid of being found out, and chuck the things down the drains.

I come from Oxfordshire, about four miles from Henley-"pon-Thames. I haven"t got now quite so many clods to tramp over, nor so many hills to climb.

I gets two shillings a-dozen if I sells the rats to a dealer, but if I takes "em to the pit myself I gets three shillings. Rats has come down lately. There"s more pits, and they kills "em cheaper; they used to kill "em at six shillings a-dozen.

I"ve got five children. These here are not all belonging to me. Their mother"s gone out a-nussing, and my wife"s got to mind "em.

My oldest son is sixteen. He"s off for a sailor. I had him on me for two years doin" nothink. He couldn"t get a place, and towards the last he didn"t care about it. He would go to sea; so he went to the Marine School, and now he"s in the East Ingy Sarvice. My second is at a coal-shed. He gets three shillings a-week; but, Lord, what"s that? He eats more than that, let alone clothes, and he wears out such a lot of shoe-leather. There"s a good deal of wear and tear, I can tell yer, in carrying out coals and such-like.

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