London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


"Catch-'Em-Alive" Sellers.

I DISCOVERED a colony of "catch"--em-alive" boys residing in Pheasant-court, Gray"sinn- lane.

From the pleasing title given to this alley, might almost be led to imagine it was a very delightful spot, though it is only necessary to look down the little bricken archway that marks its entrance, and see the houses— dirty as the sides of a dust-bin, and with the patched counterpanes and yellow sheets hanging from the windows—to feel assured that it is of the most squalid of the many wretched courts that branch out from Gray"sinn-lane.

I found the lads playing at "pitch and toss" in the middle of the paved yard. They were all willing enough to give me their statements; indeed, the only difficulty I had was in making my choice among the youths.

"Please, sir, I"ve been at it longer than him," cried with teeth ribbed like celery.

Please, sir, he ain"t been out this year with the papers," said another, who was hiding a handful of buttons behind his back.

He"s been at shoe-blacking, sir; I"m the only reg"lar fly-boy," shouted a , eating a piece of bread as dirty as London snow.

A big lad with a dirty face, and hair like


hemp, was the of the "catch-"em-alive" boys who gave me his account of the trade. He was a swarthy featured boy, with a broad nose like a negro"s, and on his temple was a big half-healed scar, which he accounted for by saying that "he had been runned over" by a cab, though, judging from the blackness of eye, it seemed to have been the result of some street-fight. He said:—

I"m an Irish boy, and near turned sixteen, and I"ve been silling fly-papers for between eight and nine year. I must have begun to sill them when they first come out. Another boy first tould me of them, and he"d been silling them about three weeks before me. He used to buy them of a party as lives in a back-room near Drury-lane, what buys paper and makes the catch "em alive himself. When they first came out they used to charge sixpence a-dozen for "em, but now they"ve got "em to twopence ha"penny. When I first took to silling "em, there was a tidy lot of boys at the business, but not so many as now, for all the boys seem at it. In our court alone I should think there was above twenty boys silling the things.

At first, when there was a good time, we used to buy three or four gross together, but now we don"t do more than half a gross. As we go along the streets we call out different cries. Some of us says, "Fly-papers, flypapers, ketch "em all alive." Others make a kind of song of it, singing out, "Fly-paper, ketch "em all alive, the nasty flies, tormenting the baby"s eyes. Who"d be fly-blow"d, by all the nasty blue-bottles, beetles, and flies?"

People likes to buy of a boy as sings out well, "cos it makes "em laugh.

I don"t think I sell so many in town as I do in the borders of the country, about Highbury, Croydon, and Brentford. I"ve got some regular customers in town about the Cityprison and the Caledonian-road; and after I"ve served them and the town custom begins to fall off, then I goes to the country.

We goes two of us together, and we takes about three gross. We keep on silling before us all the way, and we comes back the same road. Last year we sould very well in Croydon, and it was the best place for gitting a price for them; they"d give a penny a-piece for "em there, for they didn"t know nothing about them. I went off one day at tin o"clock and didn"t come home till two in the morning. I sould eighteen dozen out in that d"rection the other day, and got rid of them before I had got half-way.

But flies are very scarce at Croydon this year, and we haven"t done so well. There ain"t half as many flies this summer as last.

Some people says the papers draws more flies than they ketches, and that when one gets in, there"s twenty others will come to see him.

It"s according to the weather as the flies is about. If we have a fine day it fetches them out, but a cold day kills more than our papers.

We sills the most papers to little cookshops and sweetmeat-shops. We don"t sill so many at private-houses. The publichouses is pretty good customers, "cos the beer draws the flies. I sould nine dozen at one house—a school—at Highgate, the other day. I sould "em two for three-ha"pence. That was a good hit, but then t"other days we loses. If we can make a ha"penny each we thinks we does well.

Those that sills their papers at three a-penny buys them at St. Giles"s, and pays only three-ha"pence a dozen for them, but they an"t half as big and good as those we pays tuppence-ha"penny a dozen for.

Barnet is a good place for fly-papers; there"s a good lot of flies down there. There used to be a man at Barnet as made "em, but I can"t say if he do now. There"s another at Brentford, so it ain"t much good going that way.

In cold weather the papers keep pretty well, and will last for months with just a little warming at the fire; for they tears on opening when they are dry. You see we always carry them with the sticky sides doubled up together like a sheet of writing-paper. In hot wither, if you keep them folded up, they lasts very well; but if you opens them, they dry up. It"s easy opening them in hot weather, for they comes apart as easy as peeling a horrange.

We generally carries the papers in a bundle on our arm, and we ties a paper as is loaded with flies round our cap, just to show the people the way to ketch "em. We get a loaded paper given to us at a shop.

When the papers come out first, we used to do very well with fly-papers; but now it"s hard work to make our own money for "em. Some days we used to make six shillings a-day regular. But then we usen"t to go out every day, but take a rest at home. If we do well one day, then we might stop idle another day, resting. You see, we had to do our twenty or thirty miles silling them to get that money, and then the next day we was tired.

The silling of papers is gradual fallen off. I could go out and sill twenty dozen wonst where I couldn"t sill one now.

I think I does a very grand day"s work if I yearns a shilling. Perhaps some days I may lose by them. You see, if it"s a very hot day, the papers gets dusty; and beside, the stuff gets melted and oozes out; though that don"t do much harm, "cos we gets a bit of whitening and rubs "em over.

Four years ago we might make ten shillings a-day at the papers, but now, taking from one end of the fly-paper sason to the other, which is about three months, I think we makes about one shilling a-day out of papers, though even that aint quite certain. I never goes out without getting rid of mine, somehow or another, but then I am obleeged to walk quick and look about me.

When it"s a bad time for silling the papers, such as a wet, could day, then most of the flypaper boys goes out with brushes, cleaning boots. Most of the boys is now out hopping. They goes reg"lar every year after the sason is give over for flies.

The stuff as they puts on the paper is made out of boiled oil and turpentine and resin. It"s seldom as a fly lives more than five minutes after it gets on the paper, and then it"s as dead as a house. The blue-bottles is tougher, but they don"t last long, though they keeps on fizzing as if they was trying to make a hole in the paper. The stuff is only p"isonous for flies, though I never heard of any body as ever eat a fly-paper.

The lad I chose from among the group of applicants was of a middle age, and although the noisiest when among his companions, had no sooner entered the room with me, than his whole manner changed. He sat himself down, bent up like a monkey, and scarcely ever turned his eyes from me. He seemed as nervous as if in a witness-box, and kept playing with his grubby fingers till he had almost made them white.

They calls me "Curley." I come from Ireland too. I"m about fourteen year, and have been in this line now, sir, about five year. I goes about the borders of the country. We general takes up the line about the beginning of June, that is, when we gets a good summer. When we gets a good close dull day like this, we does pretty well, but when we has first one day hot, and then another rainy and could, a" course we don"t get on so well.

The most I sould was one day when I went to Uxbridge, and then I sould a gross and a half. I paid half-a-crown a gross for them. I was living with mother then, and she give me the money to buy "em, but I had to bring her back again all as I took. I al"us give her all I makes, except sixpence as I wants for my dinner, which is a kipple of pen"orth of bread and cheese and a pint of beer. I sould that gross and a half I spoke on at a ha"penny each, and I took nine shillings, so that I made five and sixpence. But then I"d to leave London at three or four o"clock in the morning, and to stop out till twelve o"clock at night. I used to live out at Hammersmith then, and come up to St. Giles"s every morning and buy the papers. I had to rise by half-past two in the morning, and I"d get back again to Hammersmith by about six o"clock. I couldn"t sill none on the road, "cos the shops wasn"t open.

The flies is getting bad every summer. This year they a"n"t half so good as they was last year or the year before. I"m sure I don"t know why there aint so many, but they aint so plentiful like. The best year was three year ago. I know that by the quantity as my customers bought of me, and in three days the papers was swarmed with flies.

I"ve got regular customers, where I calls two or three times a week to "em. If I was to walk my rounds over I could at the lowest sell from six to eight dozen at ha"penny each at wonst. If it was nice wither, like to-day, so that it wouldn"t come wet on me, I should make ten shillings a-week regular, but it depends on the wither. If I was to put my profits by, I"m sure I should find I make more than six shillings a-week, and nearer eight. But the season is only for three months at most, and then we takes to boot-cleaning. Near all the poor boys about here is fly-paper silling in the hot weather, and boot-cleaners at other times.

Shops buys the most of us in London. In Barnet I sell sometimes as much as six or seven dozen to some of the grocers as buys to sell again, but I don"t let them have them only when I can"t get rid of"em to t"other customers. Butchers is very fond of the papers, to catch the blue-bottles as gets in their meat, though there is a few butchers as have said to me, "Oh, go away, they draws the flies more than they ketches "em." Clothes-shops, again, is very fond of"em. I can"t tell why they is fond of "em, but I suppose "cos the flies spots the goods.

There"s lots of boys going silling "ketch "em alive oh"s" from Golden-lane, and Whitechapel, and the Borough. There"s lots, too, comes out of Gray"s-inn-lane and St. Giles"s. Near every boy who has nothing to do goes out with fly-papers. Perhaps it aint that the flies is falled off that we don"t sill so many papers now, but because there"s so many boys at it.

The most intelligent and the most gentle in his demeanour was a little boy, who was scarcely tall enough to look on the table at which I was writing. If his face had been washed, he would have been a pretty-looking lad; for, despite the black marks made by his knuckles during his last fit of crying, he had large expressive eyes, and his features were round and plump, as though he were accustomed to more food than his companions.

Whilst taking his statement I was interrupted by the entrance of a woman, whose fears had been aroused by the idea that I belonged to the Ragged School, and had come to look after the scholars. "It"s no good you"re coming here for him, he"s off hopping to-morrow with his mother, as has asked me to look after him, and it"s only your saxpence he"s wanting."

It was with great difficulty that I could get rid of this lady"s company; and, indeed, so great appeared to be the fear in the court that the object of my visit was to prevent the young gentlemen from making their harvest trip into the country, that a murmuring crowd began to assemble round the house where I was, determined to oppose me by force, should I leave the premises accompanied by any of the youths.

I"ve been longer at it than that last boy, though I"m only getting on for thirteen, and he"s older than I"m; "cos I"m little and he"s big, getting a man. But I can sell them quite as well as he can, and sometimes better, for I can holler out just as loud, and I"ve got reg"lar places to go to. I was a very little fellow when I first went out with them, but I could sell them pretty well then, sometimes three or four dozen a-day. I"ve got one place, in a stable, where I can sell a dozen at a time to countrypeople.

I calls out in the streets, and I goes into the shops, too, and calls out, "Ketch "em alive, ketch "em alive; ketch all the nasty blackbeetles, blue-bottles, and flies; ketch "em from teazing the baby"s eyes." That"s what most of us boys cries out. Some boys who is stupid only says, "Ketch "em alive," but people don"t buy so well from them.

Up in St. Giles"s there is a lot of fly-boys, but they"re a bad set, and will fling mud at gentlemen, and some prigs the gentlemen"s pockets. Sometimes, if I sells more than a big boy, he"ll get mad and hit me. He"ll tell me to give him a halfpenny and he won"t touch me, and that if I don"t he"ll kill me. Some of the boys takes an open fly-paper, and makes me look another way, and then they sticks the ketch "em alive on my face. The stuff won"t come off without soap and hot water, and it goes black, and looks like mud. One day a boy had a broken fly-paper, and I was taking a drink of water, and he come behind me and slapped it up in my face. A gentleman as saw him give him a crack with a stick and me twopence. It takes your breath away, until a man comes and takes it off. It all sticked to my hair, and I couldn"t rack (comb) right for some time.

When we are selling papers we have to walk a long way. Some boys go as far as Croydon, and all about the country; but I don"t go much further than Copenhagen-fields, and straight down that way. I don"t like going along with other boys, they take your customers away; for perhaps they"ll sell "em at three a-penny to "em, and spoil the customers for you. I won"t go with the big boy you saw "cos he"s such a blackgeyard; when he"s in the country he"ll go up to a lady and say, "Want a fly-paper, marm?" and if she says "No," he"ll perhaps job his head in her face—butt at her like.

When there"s no flies, and the ketch "em alive"s is out, then I goes tumbling. I can turn a cat"enwheel over on one hand. I"m going to-morrow to the country, harvesting and hopping—for, as we says, "Go out hopping, come in jumping." We start at three o"clock to-morrow, and we shall get about twelve o"clock at night at Dead Man"s Barn. It was left for poor people to sleep in, and a man there was buried in a corner. The man had got six farms of hops; and if his son hadn"t buried him there, he wouldn"t have had none of the riches.

The greatest number of fly-papers I"ve sold in a day is about eight dozen. I never sells no more than that; I wish I could. People won"t buy "em now. When I"m at it I makes, taking one day with another, about ten shilling a-week. You see, if I sold eight dozen, I"d make four shillings. I sell them at a penny each, at two for three-ha"pence, and three for twopence. When they gets stale I sells "em at three a-penny. I always begin by asking a penny each, and perhaps they"ll say, "Give me two for three-ha"pence." I"ll say, "Can"t, ma"am," and then they pulls out a purse full of money and gives a penny.

The police is very kind to us, and don"t interfere with us. If they sees another boy hitting us they"ll take off their belts and hit "em. Sometimes I"ve sold a ketch "em alive to a policeman; he"ll fold it up and put it in his pocket to take home with him. Perhaps he"s got a kid, and the flies teazes its eyes.

Some ladies like to buy fly-cages better than ketch "em alive"s, because sometimes when they"re putting "em up they falls in their faces, and then they screams.

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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