London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Exhibitor of the Microscope.


I EXHIBIT with a microscope that I wouldn"t take fifty guineas for, because it suits my purpose, and it is of the finest quality. I earn my living with it. If I were to sell it, it wouldn"t fetch more than 15l. It was presented to me by my dear sister, who went to America and died there. I"ll show you that it is a valuable instrument. I"ll tell you that one of the best lens-makers in the trade looked through it, and so he said, "I think I can improve it for you;" and he made me a present of a lens, of extreme high power, and the largest aperture of magnifying power that has ever been exhibited. I didn"t know him at the time. He did it by kindness. He said, after looking through, "It"s very good for what it professes, but I"ll make you a present of a lens made out of the best Swiss metal." And he did so from the interest he felt in seeing such kinds of exhibitions in the streets. With the glass he gave me I can see cheese-mites as distinctly as possible, with their eight legs and transparent bodies, and heads shaped like a hedgehog"s. I see their jaw moving as they eat their food, and can see them lay their eggs, which are as perfect as any fowl"s, but of a bright blue colour; and I can also see them perform the duties of nature. I can also see them carry their young on their backs, showing that they have affection for their offspring. They lay their eggs through their ribs, and you can tell when they are going to lay for there is a bulging out just by the hips. They don"t sit on their eggs, but they roll them about in action till they bring forth their object. A million of these mites can walk across a flea"s back, for by Lardner"s micrometer the surface of a flea"s back measures 24 inches from the proboscis to the posterior. The micrometer is an instrument used for determining microscopic power, and it is all graduated to a scale. By Lardner"s micrometer the mite looks about the size of a large black-beetle, and then it is magnified 100,000 times. This will give you some idea of the power and value of my instrument. Three hundred gentlemen have viewed through it in one week, and each one delighted; so much so, that many have given double the money I have asked (which was a penny), such was the satisfaction my instrument gave.

My father was a minister and local preacher in the Wesleyan Methodists. He died, poor fellow, at 27 years of age, therefore I never had an opportunity of knowing him. He was a boot and shoe maker. Such was the talent which he possessed, that, had it not been for his being lamed of one foot (from a fall off a horse), he would have been made a travelling minister. He was a wonderful clever man, and begun preaching when he was 21. He was the minister who preached on the occasion of laying the foundation-stone of Hoxton Chapel, and he drew thousands of people. I was only two years old when he died, and my mother was left with five of us to bring up. She was a visitor of the sick and the dying for the Strangers" Benevolent Fund, and much respected for her labours. After my father"s death she was enabled to support her family of one son and four daughters by shoe-binding. She was married twice after my father"s death, but she married persons of quite opposite principles and opinions to her own, and she was not comfortable with them, but left them, and always found shelter under her son"s roof, where she died triumphantly happy.

I was apprenticed when I was 13 years of age to a shoemaker, who was a profound philosopher, and very fond of making experiments and of lecturing on various branches of science. I could produce bills—I have them at home—such as that at the Friar"s-mount Sunday-school, some six or seven years ago, where it states that William Knock, minister and lecturer, will lecture on zoology and natural history. He"s about 70 now. Electricity is his favourite science. Whilst I was his apprentice, he had an observatory built at the top of his house in Underwood-street, Spitalfields, for the purpose of taking astronomical observations. My being in his house, and seeing him so busy with his instruments, gave me a great taste for science. I was his assistant when he went lecturing. I was apprenticed with him for five years. He was a kind and good master, and very affectionate. He encouraged me in my scientific studies, and gave me access to his library, which was immense, and consisted of 3000 volumes. Amongst other employment I used to copy out sermons for him, and he gave me a penny each, which by saving up enabled me to buy a watch of him for 5l. 5s. He was a shoemaker and manufacturer of ladies and children"s boots and shoes, so that he might have made from his 2l. to 3l. a-week, for he was not a journeyman, but an employer.

After I was out of my time I went to Mr. Children, a bootmaker of Bethnal-green-road, well known in that locality. My master had not sufficient employment for me. One night this Mr. Children went to hear a lecture on astronomy by Dr. Bird, and when he came home he was so delighted with what he had seen, that he began telling his wife all about it. He said, "I cannot better explain to you the solar system, than with a mop," and he took the mop and dipped it into a pail of water, and began to twirl it round in the air, till the wet flew off it. Then he said, "This mop is the sun, and the spiral motion of the water gives the revolutions of the planets in their orbits." Then, after a time, he cried out, "If this Dr. Bird can do this, why shouldn"t I?" He threw over his business directly, to carry out the grand object of his mind. He was making from 3l. to 4l. a-week, and his wife said, "Robert, you"re mad!" He asked me if I knew anything of astronomy, and I said, "Sir, my old master was an astronomer and philosopher." Then I got books for him, and I taught him all I knew of the science of astronomy. Then he got a magic-lantern with astronomical slides. The bull"s-eye was six inches in diameter, so they were very large, so that they gave a figure of twelve feet. For the signs of the zodiac he had twelve separate small lanterns, with the large one in the centre to show the diverging rays of the sun"s light. He began with many difficulties in his way, for he was a very illiterate man, and had a vast deal to contend with, but he succeeded through all. He wrote to his father and got 500l., which was his share of the property which would have been left him on his parent"s death. At his first lecture he made many mistakes, such as, "Now, gentlemen, I shall present to your notice the consternations," at which expression the company cried, "Hear, hear," and one said, "We are all in a consternation here, for your lamp wants oil." Yet he faced all this out. I was his assistant. I taught him everything. When I told him of his mistake he"d say, "Never mind, I"ll overcome all that." He accumulated the vast sum of 6000l. by lecturing, and became a most popular man. He educated himself, and became qualified. When, he went into the country he had Archbishops and Bishops, and the highest of the clergy, to give their sanction and become patrons of his lectures. He"s now in America, and become a great farmer.

After I left Mr. Children, I connected myself with a Young Men"s Improvement Meeting. Previous to that, I had founded a Sundayschool in the New Kent-road. Deverell-street Sabbath-schools were founded by me, and I was for fourteen years manager of it, as well as performer of the funeral service in that place; for there was a chapel, and burying-ground and vaults, attached to the schools, and I became the officiating minister for the funeral service. Three thousand children have been educated at these schools, and for fourteen years I lectured to them every Sunday on religious subjects. With the tutors and the eldest scholars I formed a Young Men"s Improvement Meeting. I became the president of that meeting, and their lecturer. I lectured on the following subjects,—Natural History, Electricity, Astronomy, and Phrenology.

At this time I was a master-shoemaker, and doing a business of fifty guineas a-week, of which ten were profit. I built large workshops at the back of my house, which cost me 300l. Unfortunately, I lent my name to a friend for a very large amount, and became involved in his difficulties, and then necessity compelled me to have recourse to streetexhibitions for a living. When I was in affluent circumstances I had a library of 300 volumes, on scientific subjects mostly, and from them I have gleaned sufficient information to qualify me for street-exhibition, and thereby enable me to earn more money than most individuals in such circumstances.

I began my street-life with exhibiting a telescope, and here is the origin of my doing so. I had a sister living at the west-end of the town who was a professed cook, and I used to visit her three times a-week. One night I saw a man in the Regent-circus exhibiting a telescope. I went up to him, and I said, "Sir, what is the object to-night?" And he told me it was Jupiter. I was very much interested with looking at Jupiter, and I stopped with that man for two hours, conversing with him, and I saw exactly how much he took. Then I thought, "Why shouldn"t I do this?" So I wrote to my brother-in-law, and I told him this man was taking at the rate of 1d. per minute, and I offered, if he would provide me with a telescope, that I should be very happy and contented to take half of the receipts as my share, and give him the other for the use of his instrument. He did so, and bought a telescope which cost him 14l. I took up my stand on London-bridge, and did very well, taking on the average 6s. a-night. I gave up the telescope for this reason,—my brother-in-law was going to America, and was anxious to call in all his money. The telescope was sold, and my sister, the professed cook, fearing that I should be left without a means of living, bought for me a microscope out of her own earnings, which cost her 5l. She said to me, "The microscope is better than the telescope, for the nights are so uncertain." She was quite right, for when the telescopes have been idle for three months at a time, I can exhibit my microscope day and night. She gave it to me as a mark of her respect. She died in America, just after she arrived. That instrument has enabled me to support an afflicted and aged mother, and to bury her comfortably when she died.

My microscope contains six objects, which are placed on a wheel at the back, which I turn round in succession. The objects are in cell-boxes of glass. The objects are all of them familiar to the public, and are as follows:—1. The flea. 2. The human hair, or the hair of the head. 3. A section of the old oak tree. 4. The animalculæ in water. 5. Cheese-mites. And 6. The transverse section of cane used by schoolmasters for the correction of boys.

I always take up my stand in the day-time in Whitechapel, facing the London Hospital, being a large open space, and favourable for the solar rays—for I light up the instrument by the direct rays of the sun. At nighttime I am mostly to be found on Westminsterbridge, and then I light up with the best sperm oil there is. I am never interfered with by the police; on the contrary, they come and have a look, and admire and recommend, such is the interest excited.

The first I exhibit is the flea, and I commence a short lecture as follows:—"Gentlemen," I says, "the first object I have to present to your notice is that of a flea. I wish to direct your attention especially to the head of this object. Here you may distinctly perceive its proboscis or dart. It is that which perforates the cuticle or human skin, after which the blood ascends by suction from our body into that of the flea. Thousands of persons in London have seen a flea, have felt a flea, but have never yet been able by the human eye to discover that instrument which made them sensible of the flea about their person, although they could not catch the old gentleman. This flea, gentlemen, by Dr. Lardner"s micrometer, measures accurate 24 inches in length, and 11 across the back. My instrument, mark you, being of high magnifying power, will not show you the whole of the object at once. Mark you, gentlemen, this is not the flea of the dog or the cat, but the human flea, for each differ in their formation, as clearly proved by this powerful instrument. For they all differ in their form and shape, and will only feed upon the animal on which they are bred. Having shown you the head and shoulders, with its dart, I shall now proceed to show you the posterior view of this object, in which you may clearly discover every artery, vein, muscle and nerve, exact like a lobster in shape, and quite as large as one at 2s. 6d." That pleases them, you know; and sometimes I add, to amuse them, "An object of that size would make an excellent supper for half-a-dozen persons." That pleases them.

One Irishwoman, after seeing the flea, threw up her arms and screamed out, "O J——! and I"ve had hundreds of them in my bed at once." She got me a great many customers from her exclamations. You see, my lecture entices those listening to have a look. Many listeners say, "Ain"t that true, and philosophical, and correct?" I"ve had many give me 6d. and say, "Never mind the change, your lecture is alone worth the money."

I"ll now proceed to No. 2. "The next object I have to present to your notice, gentlemen, is that of the hair of the human head. You perceive that it is nearly as large as yonder scaffolding poles of the House of Lords." I say this when I am on Westminster-bridge, because it refers to the locality, and is a striking figure, and excites the listeners. "But mark you, it is not, like them, solid matter, through which no ray of light can pass." That"s where I please the gentlemen, you know, for they say, "How philosophical!" "You can readily perceive, mark you, that they are all tubes, like tubes of glass; a proof of which fact you have before you, from the light of the lamp shining direct through the body of the object, and that light direct portrayed in the lens of your eye, called the retina, on which all external objects are painted." "Beautiful!" says a gentleman. "Now, if the hair of the head be a hollow tube, as you perceive it is, then what caution you ought to exercise when you place your head in the hands of the hairdresser, by keeping your hat on. or else you may be susceptible to catch cold; for that which we breathe, the atmosphere, passing down these tubes, suddenly shuts to the doors, if I may be allowed such an expression, or, in other words, closes the pores of the skin and thereby checks the insensible perspiration, and colds are the result. Powdering the head is quite out of date now, but if a little was used on those occasions referred to, cold in the head would not be so frequent." What do you think of that? I never had an individual complain of my lecture yet.

Now comes No. 3. "This, gentlemen, is the brave old oak, a section of it not larger than the head of a pin. Looking at it through this powerful instrument, you may accurately perceive millions of perforations, or pores, through which the moisture of the earth rises, in order to aid its growth. Of all the trees of the forest, none is so splendid as the brave old oak. This is the tree that braves the battle and the breeze, and is said to be in its perfection at 100 years. Who that looks at it would not exclaim, in the language of the song, "Woodman, spare that tree, and cut it not down?" Such is the analogy existing between vegetable and animal physiology, that a small portion of the cuticle or human skin would present the same appearance, for there are millions of pores in the human skin which a grain of sand is said to cover; and here are millions of perforations through which the moisture of the earth is said to rise to aid the growth of the tree. See the similitude between the vegetable and animal physiology. Here is the exhibition of nature—see how it surpasses that of art. See the ladies at the Great Exhibition admiring the shawls that came from India: yet they, though truly deserving, could not compare with this bit of bark from the brave old oak. Here is a pattern richer and more deserving than any on any shawl, however wonderful. Where is the linendraper in this locality that can produce anything so beautiful as that on this bit of bark? Such are the works of art as compared with those of nature."

No. 4 is the animalculæ in water. "Gentlemen, the object now before you is a drop of water, that may be suspended on a needle"s point, teeming with millions of living objects. This one drop of water contains more inhabitants than the globe on which I stand. See the velocity of their motion, the action of their stomachs! the vertebræ is elegantly marked, like the boa-constrictor in the Zoological Gardens. They are all moving with perfect ease in this one drop, like the mighty monsters of the vast deep."

On one occasion a gentleman from St. Thomas"s Hospital disputed my statement about it"s being only one drop of water, so I said to the gent: "If you will accompany me to some coffee-house the drop of water shall be removed, and perhaps what you see you may believe," which he did, and he paid me 1s. for my experiment. He told me he was a doctor, and I told him I was surprised that he was not better acquainted with the instrument; for, said I, "how can you tell the effects of inoculation on the cuticle, or the disease called the itch, unless you are acquainted with such an instrument?" He was quite ashamed as he paid me for my trouble. I tell this anecdote on the bridge, and I always conclude with, "Now, gentlemen, whilst I was paid 1s. by the faculty for showing one object alone, I am only charging you 1d. for the whole six." Then I address myself to the person looking into the microscope, and say, "What do you think of this one drop of water, sir?" and he says, "Splendid!" Then I add, "Few persons would pass and re-pass this instrument without having a glance into it, if they knew the wonders I exhibit;" and the one looking says, "That"s true, very true."

The next object is the cheese-mite—No. 5. I always begin in this way,—"Those who are unacquainted with the study of entomology declare that these mites are beetles, and not mites; but could I procure a beetle with eight legs, I should present it to the British Museum as a curiosity." This is the way I clench up the mouths of those sceptics who would try to ridicule me, by showing that I am philosophic. "Just look at them. Notice, for instance, their head, how it represents the form of an hedgehog. The body presents that of the beetle shape. They have eight legs and eight joints. They have four legs forward and four legs back; and they can move with the same velocity forwards as they can back, such is their construction. They are said to be moving with the velocity of five hundred steps in one minute. Read Blair"s "Preceptor," where you may see a drawing of the mite accurately given, as well as read the description just given." A cheesemonger in Whitechapel brought me a few of these objects for me to place in my microscope. He invited his friends, which were taking supper with him, to come out and have a glance at the same objects. He gave me sixpence for exhibiting them to him, and was highly gratified at the sight of them. I asked him how he could have the impudence to sell them for a lady"s supper at 10d. a-pound. The answer he gave me was,—"What the eye cannot see the heart never grieves." Then I go on,— "Whilst this lady is extending her hand to the poor, and doing all the relief in her power, she is slaying more living creatures with her jaw-bone than ever Samson did with his." If it"s a boy looking through, I say, "Now, Jack, when you are eating bread and cheese don"t let it be said that you slay the mites with the jaw-bone of an ass. Cultivate the intellectual and moral powers superior to the passions, and then you will rise superior to that animal in intellect." "Good," says a gentleman, "good; here"s sixpence for you;" and another says, "Here"s twopence for you, and I"m blessed if I want to see anything after hearing your lecture." Then I continue to point out the affection of the mite for its young. "You see fathers looking after their daughters, and mothers after their sons, when they are taking their walks; and such is their love for their young, that when the young ones are fatigued with their journey the parents take them up on their backs. Do you not see it?" And then some will say, "I"ll give a penny to see that;" and I"ve had four pennies put in my hand at once to see it. Excitement is everything in this world, sir.

Next comes the cane—No. 6. "The object before you, gentlemen, is a transverse section of cane,—common cane,—such, mark you, as is used by schoolmasters for the correction of boys who neglect their tasks, or play the wag." I make it comic, you know. "This I call the tree of knowledge, for it has done more for to learn us the rules of arithmetic than all the vegetable kingdom combined. To it we may attribute the rule of three, from its influence on the mind,"— that always causes a smile,—"just look at it for one moment. Notice, in the first place, its perforations. Where the human hand has failed to construct a micrometer for microscopic or telescopic purposes, the spider has lent its web in one case, and the cane in the other. Through the instrumentality of its perforations, we may accurately infer the magnifying power of other objects, showing the law of analogy. The perforations of this cane, apart from this instrument, would hardly admit a needle"s point, but seem now large enough for your arm to enter. This cane somewhat represents a telescopic view of the moon at the full, when in conjunction with the sun, for instance. Here I could represent inverted rocks and mountains. You may perceive them yourself, just as they would be represented in the moon"s disc through a powerful telescope of 250 times, such as I have exhibited to a thousand persons in St. Paul"s Churchyard. On the right of this piece of cane, if you are acquainted with the science of astronomy, you may depicture very accurately Mount Tycho, for instance, representing a beautiful burning mountain, like Mount Vesuvius or Etany, near the fields of Naples. You might discover accurately all the diverging streaks of light emanating from the crater. Further on to the right you may perceive Mount St. Catherine, like the blaze of a candle rushing through the atmosphere. On the left you may discover Mount Ptolemy. Such is a similar appearance of the moon"s mountainous aspect. I ask you, if the school-boy had but an opportunity of glancing at so splendid an object as the cane, should he ever be seen to shed a tear at its weight?"

This shows that I am scientific, and know astronomy. The last part makes them laugh.

This is the mode in which I exhibit my instrument, and such is the interest been excited in the public mind, that though a penny is the small charge which I make, that amount has been doubled and trebled by gentlemen who have viewed the instrument; and on one occasion a clergyman in the Commercial-road presented me with half-a-sovereign, for the interest he felt at my description, as well as the objects presented to his view. It has given universal satisfaction.

I don"t go out every night with my instru- ment. I always go on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, for those are the nights when I take most money, especially on the Monday and Saturday. The Monday and Saturday are generally 6s., Tuesdays about 5s., and Wednesdays about 2s. 6d. Then the Thursday averages 1s. 8d., and the Fridays, in some localities, where the men are paid on that night, are equal to Saturday. Such are the benefits arising from night exhibition. In the day it comes to rather more. I"ve been to Greenwich, and on the One-tree Hill I"ve done more with the sun light than the night light. Taking the changes of weather, such as rain and cold bleak nights, and such weather as isn"t suitable to such an exhibition, I may say safely that my income amounts to 80l. a-year. The capital required for such a business amounts to from 10l. to 20l. My instrument only cost 5l.; but it was parted with to raise money;—and I wouldn"t take 50l. for it. It was my sister"s son-in-law who sold it. It was a gift more than a sale. You can buy a very good microscope for 10l., but a great deal, of course, is required in choosing it; for you may buy a thing not worth 20s. You"d have an achromatic microscope for 20l. It costs me about 4d. a-week for oil, the best sperm, at 1s. 4d. the pint; and a quarter of a pint will last me the week. I get my specimens in London. I prepare them all myself, and always keep a stock by me. For the sake of any gentleman who may have any microscope, and wish to procure excellent living specimens of mites and animalculæ in water, may do so in this way. (This is a secret which I give from a desire which I feel to afford pleasure to gentlemen of a scientific mind.) Get mites from a cheesemonger. Mites differ in their shape and form, according to the cheese they are taken from. The Stilton-cheese differs from the Dutch-cheese mite, and so does that of the aristocratic Cheshire, as I call it. In order to rise them clear and transparent, take a wooden box, of 2 1/2 inches deep and 2 1/2 inches in diameter, with a thick screw-lid, and let the lid take off half-way down. Place the dust in the bottom of the box, damp the thread of the screw-lid, to make it air-tight. The mites will ascend to the lid of the box. Four or five hours afterwards unscrew the lid gently, and, removing it, let it fall gently on a piece of writing paper. The mites crawl up to the lid, and by this way you get them free from dust and clean. To make the animalculæ water, I draw from the bottom of the water-tub a small quantity of water, and I put about a handful of new hay in that water. I expose it to the influence of the solar light, or some gentle heat, for three or four hours. Skim off its surface. After washing your hands, take your finger and let one drop of the hay-water fall on the glass, and then add to it another drop of pure water to make it more transparent. This information took me some years of experience to discover. I never read it or learnt it from any one, but found it out myself; but all liberal scientific men like to share their information.

It"s impossible for me to say how many people have looked through my instrument, but they must be counted by tens of thousands. I have had 160 looking through in one night, or 13s. 4d. worth. This was on a peculiar occasion. They average about 6s. worth. If I could get out every night I should do well. As it is, I am obliged to work at my trade of shoemaking to keep myself: for you must take it into consideration, that there are some nights when I cannot show my exhibition. Very often I have a shilling or sixpence given to me as a present by my admirers. Many a half-crown I"ve had as well.

One night I was showing over at the Elephant and Castle, and I saw a Quaker gentleman coming along, and he said to me, "What art thee showing to night, friend?" So I told him; and he says, "And what doth thee charge, friend?" I answered, "To the working man, sir, I am determined to charge no more than a penny; but to a gentleman, I always leave it to their liberality." So he said, "Well, I like that, friend; I"ll give thee all I have." And he put his hand into his pocket, and he pulled out five penny pieces. You see that is what I always do; and it meets with its reward.

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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