London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry

1851

Punch.

THE performer of Punch that I saw was a short, dark, pleasant-looking man, dressed in a very greasy and very shiny green shootingjacket. This was fastened together by button in front, all the other button-holes having been burst through. Protruding from his bosom, a corner of the pandean pipes was just visible, and as he told me the story of his adventures, he kept playing with the band of his very limp and very rusty old beaver hat. He had formerly been a gentleman"s servant, and was especially civil in his manners. He came to me with his hair tidily brushed for the occasion, but apologised for his appearance on entering the room. He was very communicative, and took great delight in talking like Punch, with his call in his mouth, while some young children were in the room, and who, hearing the well-known sound of Punch"s voice, looked all about for the figure. Not seeing the show, they fancied the man had the figure in his pocket, and that the sounds came from it. The change from Punch"s voice to the man"s natural tone was managed without an effort, and instantaneously. It had a very peculiar effect.

I am the proprietor of a Punch"s show," he said. "I goes about with it myself, and performs inside the frame behind the green baize. I have a pardner what plays the music—the pipes and drum; him as you see"d with me. I have been five-and-twenty year now at the business. I wish I"d never seen it, though it"s been a money-making business—indeed, the best of all the street hexhibitions I may say. I am fifty years old. I took to it for money gains—that was what I done it for. I formerly lived in service— was a footman in a gentleman"s family. When I first took to it, I could make two and three pounds a-day—I could so. You see, the way in which I took first to the business was this here—there was a party used to come and "cheer" for us at my master"s house, and her son having a hexhibition of his own, and being in want of a pardner, axed me if so be I"d go out, which was a thing that I degraded at the time. He gave me information as to what the money-taking was, and it seemed to me that good, that it would pay me better nor service. I had twenty pounds a-year in my place, and my board and lodging, and two suits of clothes, but the young man told me as how I could make one pound a-day at the Punch-and- Judy business, after a little practice. I took a deal of persuasion, though, before I"d join him—it was beneath my dignity to fall from a footman to a showman. But, you see, the French gennelman as I lived with (he were a merchant in the city, and had fourteen clerks working for him) went back to his own country to reside, and left me with a written kerrackter; but that was no use to me: though I"d fine recommendations at the back of it, no one would look at it; so I was five months out of employment, knocking about—living first on my wages and then on my clothes, till all was gone but the few rags on my back. So I began to think that the Punch-and-Judy business was better than starving after all. Yes, I should think anything was better than that, though it"s a business that, after you"ve once took to, you never can get out of— people fancies you know too much, and won"t have nothing to say to you. If I got a situation at a tradesman"s, why the boys would be sure to recognise me behind the counter, and begin a shouting into the shop (they must shout, you know): "Oh, there"s Punch and Judy—there"s Punch a-sarving out the customers!" Ah, it"s a great annoyance being a public kerrackter, I can assure you, sir; go where you will, it"s "Punchy, Punchy!" As for the boys, they"ll never leave me alone till I die, I know; and I suppose in my old age I shall have to take to the parish broom. All our forefathers died in the workhouse. I don"t know a Punch"s showman that hasn"t. One of my pardners was buried by the workhouse; and even old Pike, the most noted showman as ever was, died in the workhouse—Pike and Porsini. Porsini was the first original street Punch, and Pike was his apprentice; their names is handed down to posterity among the noblemen and footmen of the land. They both died in the workhouse, and, in course, I shall do the same. Something else might turn up, to be sure. We can"t say what this luck of the world is. I"m obliged to strive very hard—very hard indeed, sir, now, to get a living; and then not to get it after all —at times, compelled to go short, often.

Punch, you know, sir, is a dramatic performance in two hacts. It"s a play, you may say. I don"t think it can be called a tragedy hexactly; a drama is what we names it. There is tragic parts, and comic and sentimental parts, too. Some families where I performs will have it most sentimental—in the original style; them families is generally sentimental theirselves. Others is all for the comic, and then I has to kick up all the games I can. To the sentimental folk I am obliged to perform werry steady and werry slow, and leave out all comic words and business. They won"t have no ghost, no coffin, and no devil; and that"s what I call spiling the performance entirely. It"s the march of hintellect wot"s a doing all this—it is, sir. But I was a going to tell you about my first jining the business. Well, you see, after a good deal of persuading, and being drew to it, I may say, I consented to go out with the young man as I were aspeaking about. He was to give me twelve shillings a-week and my keep, for two years certain, till I could get my own show things together, and for that I was to carry the show, and go round and collect. Collecting, you know, sounds better than begging; the pronounciation"s better like. Sometimes the people says, when they sees us a coming round, "Oh, here they comes a-begging"—but it can"t be begging, you know, when you"re a hexerting yourselves. I couldn"t play the drum and pipes, so the young man used to do that himself, to call the people together before he got into the show. I used to stand outside, and patter to the figures. The first time that ever I went out with Punch was in the beginning of August, 1825. I did all I could to avoid being seen. My dignity was hurt at being hobligated to take to the streets for a living. At fust I fought shy, and used to feel queer somehow, you don"t know how like, whenever the people used to look at me. I remember werry well the first street as ever I performed in. It was off Gray"s Inn, one of them quiet, genteel streets, and when the mob began to gather round I felt all-overish, and I turned my head to the frame instead of the people. We hadn"t had no rehearsals aforehand, and I did the patter quite permiscuous. There was not much talk, to be sure, required then; and what little there was, consisted merely in calling out the names of the figures as they came up, and these my master prompted me with from inside the frame. But little as there was for me to do, I know I never could have done it, if it hadn"t been for the spirits—the false spirits, you see (a little drop of gin), as my master guv me in the morning. The first time as ever I made my appearance in public, I collected as much as eight shillings, and my master said, after the performance was over, "You"ll do!" You see I was partly in livery, and looked a little bit decent like. After this was over, I kept on going out with my master for two years, as I had agreed, and at the end of that time I had saved enough to start a show of my own. I bought the show of old Porsini, the man as first brought Punch into the streets of England. To be sure, there was a woman over here with it before then. Her name was—— I can"t think of it just now, but she never performed in the streets, so we consider Porsini as our real forefather. It isn"t much more nor seventy years since Porsini (he was a werry old man when he died, and blind) showed the hexhibition in the streets of London. I"ve heerd tell that old Porsini used to take very often as much as ten pounds a-day, and he used to sit down to his fowls and wine, and the very best of everything, like the first gennelman in the land; indeed, he made enough money at the business to be quite a tip-top gennelman, that he did. But he never took care of a halfpenny he got. He was that independent, that if he was wanted to perform, sir, he"d come at his time, not your"n. At last, he reduced himself to want, and died in St. Giles"s workhouse. Ah, poor fellow! he oughtn"t to have been allowed to die where he did, after amusing the public for so many years. Every one in London knowed him. Lords, dukes, princes, squires, and wagabonds —all used to stop to laugh at his performance, and a funny clever old fellow he was. He was past performing when I bought my show of him, and werry poor. He was living in the Coal-yard, Drury-lane, and had scarcely a bit of food to eat. He had spent all he had got in drink, and in treating friends,—aye, any one, no matter who. He didn"t study the world, nor himself neither. As fast as the money came it went, and when it was gone, why, he"d go to work and get more. His show was a very inferior one, though it were the fust—nothing at all like them about now —nothing near as good. If you only had four sticks then, it was quite enough to make plenty of money out of, so long as it was Punch. I gave him thirty-five shillings for the stand, figures and all. I bought it cheap, you see, for it was thrown on one side, and was of no use to any one but such as myself. There was twelve figures and the other happaratus, such as the gallows, ladder, horse, bell, and stuffed dog. The characters was Punch, Judy, Child, Beadle, Scaramouch, Nobody, Jack Ketch, the Grand Senoor, the Doctor, the Devil (there was no Ghost used then), Merry Andrew, and the Blind Man. These last two kerrackters are quite done with now. The heads of the kerrackters was all carved in wood, and dressed in the proper costume of the country. There was at that time, and is now, a real carver for the Punch business. He was dear, but werry good and hexcellent. His Punch"s head was the best as I ever seed. The nose and chin used to meet quite close together. A set of new figures, dressed and all, would come to about fifteen pounds. Each head costs five shillings for the bare carving alone, and every figure that we has takes at least a yard of cloth to dress him, besides ornaments and things that comes werry expensive. A good show at the present time will cost three pounds odd for the stand alone —that"s including baize, the frontispiece, the back scene, the cottage, and the letter cloth, or what is called the drop-scene at the theatres. In the old ancient style, the back scene used to pull up and change into a gaol scene, but that"s all altered now.

We"ve got more upon the comic business now, and tries to do more with Toby than with the prison scene. The prison is what we calls the sentimental style. Formerly Toby was only a stuffed figure. It was Pike who first hit upon hintroducing a live dog, and a great hit it were—it made a grand alteration in the hexhibition, for now the performance is called Punch and Toby as well. There is one Punch about the streets at present that tries it on with three dogs, but that ain"t much of a go—too much of a good thing I calls it. Punch, as I said before, is a drama in two hacts. We don"t drop the scene at the end of the first—the drum and pipes strikes up instead. The first act we consider to end with Punch being taken to prison for the murder of his wife and child. The great difficulty in performing Punch consists in the speaking, which is done by a call, or whistle in the mouth, such as this here." (He then produced the call from his waistcoat pocket. It was a small flat instrument, made of two curved pieces of metal about the size of a knee-buckle, bound together with black thread. Between these was a plate of some substance (apparently silk), which he said was a secret. The call, he told me, was tuned to a musical instrument, and took a considerable time to learn. He afterwards took from his pocket two of the small metallic plates unbound. He said the composition they were made of was also one of the "secrets of the purfession." They were not tin, nor zinc, because "both of them metals were poisons in the mouth, and hinjurious to the constitution.") "These calls," he continued, "we often sell to gennelmen for a sovereign a-piece, and for that we give "em a receipt how to use them. They ain"t whistles, but calls, or unknown tongues, as we sometimes names "em, because with them in the mouth we can pronounce each word as plain as any parson. We have two or three kinds —one for out-of-doors, one for in-doors, one for speaking and for singing, and another for selling. I"ve sold many a one to gennelmen going along, so I generally keeps a hextra one with me. Porsini brought the calls into this country with him from Italy, and we who are now in the purfession have all learnt how to make and use them, either from him or those as he had taught "em to. I larnt the use of mine from Porsini himself. My master whom I went out with at first would never teach me, and was werry partickler in keeping it all secret from me. Porsini taught me the call at the time I bought his show of him. I was six months in perfecting myself in the use of it. I kept practising away night and morning with it, until I got it quite perfect. It was no use trying at home, "cause it sounds quite different in the hopen hair. Often when I"ve made "em at home, I"m obliged to take the calls to pieces after trying "em out in the streets, they"ve been made upon too weak a scale. When I was practising, I used to go into the parks, and fields, and outof- the-way places, so as to get to know how to use it in the hopen hair. Now I"m reckoned one of the best speakers in the whole purfession. When I made my first appearance as a regular performer of Punch on my own account, I did feel uncommon narvous, to be sure: though I know"d the people couldn"t see me behind the baize, still I felt as if all the eyes of the country were upon me. It was as much as hever I could do to get the words out, and keep the figures from shaking. When I struck up the first song, my voice trembled so as I thought I never should be able to get to the hend of the first hact. I soon, however, got over that there, and at present I"d play before the whole bench of bishops as cool as a cowcumber. We always have a pardner now to play the drum and pipes, and collect the money. This, however, is only a recent dodge. In older times we used to go about with a trumpet—that was Porsini"s ancient style; but now that"s stopped. Only her majesty"s mails may blow trumpets in the streets at present. The fust person who went out with me was my wife. She used to stand outside, and keep the boys from peeping through the baize, whilst I was performing behind it; and she used to collect the money afterwards as well. I carried the show and trumpet, and she the box. She"s been dead these five years now. Take one week with another, all through the year, I should say I made then five pounds regular. I have taken as much as two pounds ten shillings in one day in the streets; and I used to think it a bad day"s business at that time if I took only one pound. You can see Punch has been good work—a money-making business—and beat all mechanics right out. If I could take as much as I did when I first began, what must my forefathers have done, when the business was five times as good as ever it were in my time? Why, I leaves you to judge what old Porsini and Pike must have made. Twenty years ago I have often and often got seven shillings and eight shillings for one hexhibition in the streets: two shillings and three shillings I used to think low to get at one collection; and many times I"d perform eight or ten times in a day. We didn"t care much about work then, for we could get money fast enough; but now I often show twenty times in the day, and get scarcely a bare living at it arter all. That shows the times, you know, sir—what things was and is now. Arter performing in the streets of a day we used to attend private parties in the hevening, and get sometimes as much as two pounds for the hexhibition. This used to be at the juvenile parties of the nobility; and the performance lasted about an hour and a half. For a short performance of half-an-hour at a gennelman"s house we never had less than one pound. A performance outside the house was two shillings and sixpence; but we often got as much as ten shillings for it. I have performed afore almost all the nobility. Lord —— was particular partial to us, and one of our greatest patronizers. At the time of the Police Bill I met him at Cheltenham on my travels, and he told me as he had saved Punch"s neck once more; and it"s through him principally that we are allowed to exhibit in the streets. Punch is exempt from the Police Act. If you read the hact throughout, you won"t find Punch mentioned in it. But all I"ve been telling you is about the business as it was. What it is, is a werry different consarn. A good day for us now seldom gets beyond five shillings, and that"s between myself and my pardner, who plays the drum and pipes. Often we are out all day, and get a mere nuffing. Many days we have been out and taken nuffing at all—that"s werry common when we dwells upon horders. By dwelling on horders, I means looking out for gennelmen what want us to play in front of their houses. When we strike up in the hopen street we take upon a haverage only threepence a show. In course we may do more, but that"s about the sum, take one street performance with another. Them kind of performances is what we calls "short showing." We gets the halfpence and hooks it. A "long pitch" is the name we gives to performances that lasts about half--an hour or more. Them long pitches we confine solely to street corners in public thoroughfares; and then we take about a shilling upon a haverage, and more if it"s to be got—we never turns away nuffing. "Boys, look up your fardens," says the outside man; "it ain"t half over yet, we"ll show it all through." The short shows we do only in private by-streets, and of them we can get through about twenty in the day; that"s as much as we can tackle —ten in the morning, and ten in the afternoon. Of the long pitches we can only do eight in the day. We start on our rounds at nine in the morning, and remain out till dark at night. We gets a snack at the publics on our road. The best hours for Punch are in the morning from nine till ten, because then the children are at home. Arter that, you know, they goes out with the maids for a walk. From twelve till three is good again, and then from six till nine; that"s because the children are mostly at home at them hours. We make much more by horders for performance houtside the gennelmen"s houses, than we do by performing in public in the hopen streets. Monday is the best day for street business; Friday is no day at all, because then the poor people has spent all their money. If we was to pitch on a Friday, we shouldn"t take a halfpenny in the streets, so we in general on that day goes round for horders. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday is the best days for us with horders at gennelmen"s houses. We do much better in the spring than at any other time in the year, excepting holiday time, at Midsummer and Christmas. That"s what we call Punch"s season. We do most at hevening parties in the holiday time, and if there"s a pin to choose between them, I should say Christmas holidays was the best. For attending hevening parties now we generally get one pound and our refreshments—as much more as they like to give us. But the business gets slacker and slacker every season. Where I went to ten parties twenty years ago, I don"t go to two now. People isn"t getting tired of our performances, but stingier—that"s it. Everybody looks at their money now afore they parts with it, and gennelfolks haggles and cheapens us down to shillings and sixpences, as if they was guineas in the holden time. Our business is werry much like hackney-coach work; we do best in vet vether. It looks like rain this evening, and I"m uncommon glad on it, to be sure. You see, the vet keeps the children in-doors all day, and then they wants something to quiet "em a bit; and the mothers and fathers, to pacify the dears, gives us a horder to perform. It mustn"t rain cats and dogs—that"s as bad as no rain at all. What we likes is a regular good, steady Scotch mist, for then we takes double what we takes on other days. In summer we does little or nothing; the children are out all day enjoying themselves in the parks. The best pitch of all in London is Leicester-square; there"s all sorts of classes, you see, passing there. Then comes Regentstreet (the corner of Burlington-street is uncommon good, and there"s a good publican there besides). Bond-street ain"t no good now. Oxford-street, up by Old Cavendishstreet, or Oxford-market, or Wells-street, are all favourite pitches for Punch. We don"t do much in the City. People has their heads all full of business there, and them as is greedy arter the money ain"t no friend of Punch"s. Tottenham-court-road, the New-road, and all the henvirons of London, is pretty good. Hampstead, tho", ain"t no good; they"ve got too poor there. I"d sooner not go out at all than to Hampstead. Belgrave-square, and all about that part, is uncommon good; but where there"s many chapels Punch won"t do at all. I did once, though, strike up hopposition to a street preacher wot was a holding forth in the New-road, and did uncommon well. All his flock, as he called "em, left him, and come over to look at me. Punch and preaching is two different creeds—hopposition parties, I may say. We in generally walks from twelve to twenty mile every day, and carries the show, which weighs a good half-hundred, at the least. Arter great exertion, our woice werry often fails us; for speaking all day through the "call" is werry trying, "specially when we are chirruping up so as to bring the children to the vinders. The boys is the greatest nuisances we has to contend with. Wherever we goes we are sure of plenty of boys for a hindrance; but they"ve got no money, bother "em! and they"ll follow us for miles, so that we"re often compelled to go miles to awoid "em. Many parts is swarming with boys, such as Vitechapel. Spitalfields, that"s the worst place for boys I ever come a-near; they"re like flies in summer there, only much more thicker. I never shows my face within miles of them parts. Chelsea, again, has an uncommon lot of boys; and wherever we know the children swarm, there"s the spots we makes a point of awoiding. Why, the boys is such a hobstruction to our performance, that often we are obliged to drop the curtain for "em. They"ll throw one another"s caps into the frame while I"m inside on it, and do what we will, we can"t keep "em from poking their fingers through the baize and making holes to peep through. Then they will keep tapping the drum; but the worst of all is, the most of "em ain"t got a farthing to bless themselves with, and they will shove into the best places. Soldiers, again, we don"t like, they"ve got no money—no, not even so much as pockets, sir. Nusses ain"t no good. Even if the mothers of the dear little children has given "em a penny to spend, why the nusses takes it from "em, and keeps it for ribbins. Sometimes we can coax a penny out of the children, but the nusses knows too much to be gammoned by us. Indeed, servants in generally don"t do the thing what"s right to us—some is good to us, but the most of "em will have poundage out of what we gets. About sixpence out of every half-crown is what the footman takes from us. We in generally goes into the country in the summer time for two or three months. Wateringplaces is werry good in July and August. Punch mostly goes down to the sea-side with the quality. Brighton, though, ain"t no account; the Pavilion"s done up with, and therefore Punch has discontinued his visits. We don"t put up at the trampers" houses on our travels, but in generally inns is where we stays; because we considers ourselves to be above the other showmen and mendicants. At one lodging-house as I stopped at once in Warwick, there was as many as fifty staying there what got their living by street performances—the greater part were Italian boys and girls. There are altogether as many as sixteen Punch-and-Judy frames in England. Eight of these is at work in London, and the other eight in the country; and to each of these frames there are two men. We are all acquainted with one another; are all sociable together, and know where each other is, and what they are a-doing on. When one comes home, another goes out; that"s the way we proceed through life. It wouldn"t do for two to go to the same place. If two of us happens to meet at one town, we jine, and shift pardners, and share the money. One goes one way, and one another, and we meet at night, and reckon up over a sociable pint or a glass. We shift pardners so as each may know how much the other has taken. It"s the common practice for the man what performs Punch to share with the one wot plays the drum and pipes—each has half wot is collected; but if the pardner can"t play the drum and pipes, and only carries the frame, and collects, then his share is but a third of what is taken till he learns how to perform himself. The street performers of London lives mostly in little rooms of their own; they has generally wives, and one or two children, who are brought up to the business. Some lives about the Westminster-road, and St. George"s East. A great many are in Lock"sfields—they are all the old school that way. Then some, or rather the principal part of the showmen, are to be found about Lissongrove. In this neighbourhood there is a house of call, where they all assembles in the evening. There are a very few in Brick-lane, Spitalfields, now; that is mostly deserted by showmen. The West-end is the great resort of all; for it"s there the money lays, and there the showmen abound. We all know one another, and can tell in what part of the country the others are. We have intelligence by letters from all parts. There"s a Punch I knows on now is either in the Isle of Man, or on his way to it.

 
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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