London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Acrobat, or Street-Posturer.


A MAN who, as he said, "had all his life been engaged in the profession of Acrobat," volunteered to give me some details of the life led and the earnings made by this class of streetperformers.

He at the present moment belongs to a "school" of , who are dressed up in fanciful and tight-fitting costumes of white calico, with blue or red trimmings; and who are often seen in the quiet by-streets going through their gymnastic performances, mounted on each other"s shoulders, or throwing somersaults in the air.

He was a short, wiry-built man, with a broad chest, which somehow or another seemed unnatural, for the bones appeared to have been forced forward and dislocated. His general build did not betoken the great muscular strength which must be necessary for the various feats which he has to perform; and his walk was rather slovenly and loutish than brisk and springy, as would have expected. He wore the same brown Chesterfield coat which we have all seen him slip over his professional dress in the street, when moving off after an exhibition.

His yellow hair reached nearly to his shoulders, and not being confined by the ribbon he usually wears across his forehead in the public thoroughfare, it kept straggling into his eyes, and he had to toss it back with a jerk, after the fashion of a horse with his nose-bag.

He was a simple, "good-natured" fellow, and told his story in a straightforward manner, which was the more extraordinary, as he prefaced his statement with a remark, "that all in his "school," (the professional term for a gang or troop,) were terribly against his coming; but that as all he was going to say was nothing but the truth, he didn"t care a fig for any of "em."

It is a singular fact, that this man spoke fluently both the French and German languages; and, as will be seen in his statement, he has passed many years of his life abroad, performing in several circuses, or "pitching" (exhibiting in the streets) in the various large towns of Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, Switzerland, and France.

The following is the history of his life, from his earliest remembrance,—from years old, indeed,—down to his present age, thirtysix:—

"I am what is known as a street-posturer, or acrobat. I belong to a school of , and we go about the streets doing pyramids, bending, juggling, and la perche.

I"ve been at acrobating for these years, in London and all parts of England, as well as on the Continent, in France and Germany, as well as in Denmark and Sweden; but only in the principal towns, such as Copenhagen and Stockholm; but only a little, for we come back by sea almost directly. My father was a tumbler, and in his days very great, and used to be at the theatres and in Richardson"s show. He"s acted along with Joe Grimaldi. I don"t remember the play it was in, but I know he"s acted along with him at Sadler"s Wells Theatre, at the time there was real water there. I have heard him talk about it. He brought me regular up to the profession, and when I came out I wasn"t above years old, and father used to dance me on my hands in Risley"s style, but not like Risley. I can just recollect being danced in his hands, but I can"t remember much about it, only he used to throw me a somersault with his hand. The time I ever come out by myself was in a piece called "Snowball," when I was introduced in a snowball; and I had to do the splits and strides. When father trained me, it hurt my back awfully. He used to take my legs and stretch them, and work them round in their sockets, and put them up straight by my side. That is what they called being "cricked," and it"s in general done before you eat anything in the morning. O, yes, I can remember being cricked, and it hurt me terrible. He put my breast to his breast, and then pulled my legs up to my head, and knocked "em against my head and cheeks about a dozen times. It seems like as if your body was broken in , and all your muscles being pulled out like India rubber.

I worked for my father till I was years of age, then I was sold for years to a man of the name of Tagg, another showman, who took me to France. He had to pay father a-year, and keep me respectable. I used to do the same business with him as with father,—splits, and such-like,—and we acted in a piece that was wrote for us in Paris, called "Les deux Clowns anglais," which was produced at the Porte St. Antoine. That must have been about the year . We were dressed up like English clowns, with our faces painted and all; and we were very successful, and had plenty of flowers thrown to us. There was Barnet Burns, who was showing in the Boulevards, and called the New Zealand Chief, who was tattooed all over his body. He was very kind to me, and made me a good many presents, and some of the ladies were kind to me. I knew this Barnet Burns pretty well, because my master was drunk all day pretty well, and he was the only Englishman I had to speak to, for I didn"t know French.

I ran away from Tagg in Paris, and I went with the "Frères de Bouchett," rope-dancers, brothers who were so called, and I had to clown to the rope. I stopped with them


years, and we went through Belgium and Holland, and done very well with them. They was my masters, and had a large booth of their own, and would engage paraders to stand outside the show to draw the people; but they did all the performances themselves, and it was mostly at the fairs.

From them I came to England, and began pitching in the street. I didn"t much like it, after being a regular performer, and looked upon it as a drop. I travelled right down by myself to Glasgow fair. I kept company with Wombwell"s show,—only working for myself. You see they used to stop in the towns, and draw plenty of people, and then I"d begin pitching to the crowd. I wasn"t lonely because I knew plenty of the wild-beast chaps, and, besides, I"ve done pretty well, taking or a day, and on a Saturday and Monday generally or . I had a suit of tights, and a pair of twacks, with a few spangles on, and as soon as the people came round me I began to work.

At Glasgow I got a pound a day, for I went with Mr. Mumford, who had some dancing dolls showing at the bottom of the . The fair is a week. And after that of our chaps wrote to me that there was a job for me, if I liked to go over to Ireland and join Mr. Batty, who had a circus there. They used to build wooden circuses in them days, and hadn"t tents as now. I stopped a twelvemonth with him, and we only went to towns, and the troupe did wonders. Mr. Hughes was the manager for Mr. Batty. There was Herr Hengler, the great rope-dancer among the troupe, and his brother Alfred, the great rider, as is dead now, for a horse kicked him at Bristol, and broke his arm, and he wouldn"t have it cut off, and it mortified, and he died.

When I left Ireland I went back to Glasgow, and Mr. David Miller gave the school I had joined an engagement for months. We had a-week between of us, besides a benefit, which brought us each more. Miller had a large penny booth, and had taken about or a-night. There was acting, and our performances. Alexander, the lessee of the Theatre Royal, prevented him, for having acted, as he also did Anderson the Wizard of the North, who had the Circus, and acted as well, and Mumford; but they won the day.

I left Glasgow with another chap, and we went to Edinburgh and then to Hamburgh, and then we played at the Tivoli Gardens. I stopped abroad for years, performing at different places through France and Switzerland, either along with regular companies or else by ourselves, for there was on us, in schools. After Hamburgh, we went to Copenhagen, and then we joined the brother Prices, or, as they call "em there, Preece. We only did tumbling and jumping up on each other"s shoulders, and dancing the the pole on our feet, what is called in French "trankr." From there we joined the brothers Layman,—both Russians they was,—who was very clever, and used to do the "pierrot;" the French clown, dressed all in white,—for their clown is not like our clown,—and they danced the rope and all. The troupe was called the Russian pantomimists. There we met Herr Hengler again, as well as Deulan the dancer, who was dancing at the Eagle and at the theatres as Harlekin; and Anderson, who was of the clowns of the day, and a good comic singer, and an excellent companion, for he could make puns and make poems on every body in the room. He did, you may recollect, some few years ago, throw himself out of winder, and killed himself. I read it in the newspapers, and a mate of mine afterwards told me he was crazy, and thought he was performing, and said, "Hulloa, old feller! I"m coming!" and threw himself out, the same as if he"d been on the stage.

In Paris and all over Switzerland we performed at the fairs, when we had no engagements at the regular theatres, or we"d pitch in the streets, just according. In Paris we was regular stars. There was only me and R——, and we was engaged for months with Mr. Le Compte, at his theatre in the Passage Choiseul. It"s all children that acts there; and he trains young actors. He"s called the "Physician to the King;" indeed, he is the king"s conjurer.

I"m very fond of France; indeed, I went to school there, when I was along with Tagg. You see I never had no schooling in London, for I was so busy that I hadn"t no time for learning. I also married in France. My wife was a great bender (used to throw herself backwards on her hands and make the body in a harch). I think she killed herself at it; indeed, as the doctors telled me, it was nothing else but that. She would keep on doing it when she was in the family way. I"ve many a time ordered her to give over, but she wouldn"t; she was so fond of it; for she took a deal of money. She died in childbed at St. Malo, poor thing!

In France we take a deal more money than in England. You see they all give; even a child will give its mite; and another thing, anybody on a Sunday may take as much money as will keep him all the week, if they like to work. The most money I ever took in all my life was at Calais, the Sunday cavalcade after Lent: that is the Sunday after Mardi-gras. They go out in a cavalcade, dressed up in carnival costume, and beg for the poor. There was me, Dick S——, and Jim C—— and his wife, as danced the Highland fling, and a chap they calls Polka, who did it when it came up. We pitched about the streets, and we took francs all in halfpence — that is, — on Sunday: and you mustn"t work till after o"clock, that is grand mass. There were liards and centimes, and half-sous, and all kinds of copper


money, but very little silver, for the Frenchmen can"t afford it; but all copper money change into -franc pieces, and it"s the same to me. The other chaps didn"t like the liards, so I bought "em all up. They"re like buttonheads, and such-like; and they said they wouldn"t have that bad money, so I got more than my share: for after we had shared I bought the heap of liards, and gave francs for the heap, and I think it brought me in francs; but then I had to run about to all the little shops to get -franc pieces. You see, I was the only chap that spoke French; so, you see, I"m worth a double share. I always tell the chaps, when they come to me, that I don"t want nothink but my share; but then I says, "You"re single men, and I"m married, and I must support my children;" and so I gets a little out of the hôtel expenses, for I charges them a-day, and at the -rate hôtels I can keep them for a shilling. There"s or schools now want me to take them over to France. They calls me "Frenchy," because I can talk French and German fluently—that"s the name I goes by.

I used to go to all the fêtes in Paris along with my troupe. We have been and we have been in troupe, but our general number is , for we don"t want any more than ; for we can do the high and the spread, and that"s the principal thing. Our music is generally the drum and pipes. We don"t take them over with us, but gets Italians to do it. Sometimes we gets a German band of to come for a share, for you see they can"t take money as we can, for our performance will cause children to give, and with them they don"t think about it, not being so partial to music.

Posturing to this day is called in France "Le Dislocation anglais;" and indeed the English fellows is the best in the world at posturing: we can lick them all. I think they eat too much bread; for though meat"s so cheap in the south of France ( a-lb.), yet they don"t eat it. They don"t eat much potatoes either; and in the south they gives them to the pigs, which used to make me grumble, I"m so fond of them. Chickens, too, is the pair, and you may drink wine at the horn.

At St. Cloud fête we were called "Les Quatre Frères anglais," and we used to pitch near the Cascade, which was a good place for us. We have shared our each a-day then easy; and a great deal of English money we got then, for the English is more generous out of England. There was the fête St. Germain, and St. Denis, and at Versailles, too; and we"ve done pretty well at each, as well as at the Champs Elysées on the , as used to be the fête Louis-Philippe. On that fête we were paid by the king, and we had francs a man, and plenty to eat and drink on that day; and every poor man in Paris has of sausages and of bread, and bottles of wine. But we were different from that, you know. We had a , with fish, flesh, and fowl, and a dinner fit for a king, both brought to us in the Champs Elysées, and as much as ever we liked to drink all day long—the best of wine. We had to perform every alternate half-hour.

I was in Paris when Mr. Macready come to Paris. I was engaged with my troupe at the Porte St. Martin, where we was called the Bedouin Arabs, and had to brown our faces. I went to see him, for I knew of the actors. He was very good, and a beautiful house there was—splendid. All my other partners they paid. The price was halfa- guinea to the lowest place. The French people said he was very good, but he was mostly supported by the English that was there. An engagement at the Porte St. Martin was francs a-week for of us; but of course we had to leave the streets alone during the weeks we was at the theatre.

I was in Paris, too, at the revolution in , when Louis-Philippe had to run off. I was in bed, about o"clock in the morning, when those that began the revolution was coming round—men armed; and they come into everybody"s bed-room and said, "You must get up, you"re wanted." I told them I was English; and they said, "It don"t matter; you get your living here, and you must fight the same as we fight for our liberty." They took us— English as was in the same gang as I was with—to the Barrière du Trône, and made us pick up paving-stones. I had to carry them; and we formed barricades right up to the Faubourg St. Antoine, close to the Bastille. We had sometimes a bit of bread and a glass of wine, or brandy, and we was nights and days working. There was a great deal of chaff going on, and they called me "le petit Supplier" posturer, you know—but they was of all countries. We was put in the back-ground, and didn"t fire much, for we was ordered not to fire unless attacked; and we had only to keep ground, and if anything come, to give warning; but we had to supply them with powder and ammunition of sort and another. There was woman—a very clever woman —from Normandy, who used to bring us brandy round. She died on the barricade; and there"s a song about her now. I was present when part of the throne was burned. After that I went for a tour in Lorraine; and then I was confined in Tours for days, for the Republicans passed a bill that all foreigners were to be sent home to their own countries; and, indeed, several manufactories where English worked had to stop, for the workmen was sent home.

I came back to England in , and I"ve been pitching in the streets ever since. I"ve changed gangs or times since then; but there"s in our gang now. There"s high for "pyramids," and "the Arabs


hang down;" that is, a-top of his shoulders, and hanging down from his neck; and "the spread," that"s on the shoulders, and hanging from each hand; and "the Hercules," that is, on the ground, supporting himself on his hands and feet; whilst stands on his knees, another on his shoulders, and the other a-top of them , on their shoulders. There"s loads of tricks like them that we do, that would a"most fill up your paper to put down. There"s of our gang dances, an Englishman, whilst the plays the drum and pipes. The dances are mostly comic dances; or, as we call them, "comic hops." He throws his legs about and makes faces, and he dresses as a clown.

When it"s not too windy, we do the perch. We carry a long fir pole about with us, twentyfour feet long, and Jim the strong man, as they calls me, that is I, holds the pole up at the bottom. The that runs up is called the sprite. It"s the bottom man that holds the pole that has the dangerous work in la perche. He"s got all to look to. Anybody, who has got any courage, can run up the pole; but I have to guide and balance it; and the pole weighs some lbs., and the man about stone. When it"s windy, it"s very awkward, and I have to walk about to keep him steady and balance him; but I"m never frightened, I know it so well. The man who runs up it does such feats as these; for instance, "the bottle position," that is only holding by his feet, with his arms extended; and then "the hanging down by toe," with only foot on the top of the pole, and hanging down with his arms out, swimming on the top on his belly; and "the horizontal," as it is called, or supporting the body out sideways by the strength of the arms, and such-like, winding up with coming down head fust.

The pole is fixed very tightly in a socket in my waistband, and it takes men to pull it out, for it gets jammed in with his force on a-top of it. The danger is more with the bottom than the a-top, though few people would think so. You see, if he falls off, he is sure to light on his feet like a cat; for we"re taught to this trick; and a man can jump off a place feet high, without hurting himself, easy. Now if the people was to go frontwards, it would be all up with me, because with the leverage and its being fixed so tight to my stomach, there"s no help for it, for it would be sure to rip me up and tear out my entrails. I have to keep my eyes about me, for if it goes too fur, I could never regain the balance again. But it"s easy enough when you"re accustomed to it.

The that goes up the pole can always see into the drawing-rooms, and he"ll tell us where it"s good to go and get any money, for he can see the people peeping behind the curtains; and they generally give when they find they are discovered. It"s part of his work to glance his eyes about him, and then he calls out whilst he is up, "to the right," or "the left," as it may be; and although the crowd don"t understand him, we do.

Our gang generally prefer performing in the West-end, because there"s more "calls" there. Gentlemen looking out of window see us, and call to us to stop and perform; but we don"t trust to them, even, but make a collection when the performance is half over; and if it"s good we continue, and make or collections during the exhibition. What we consider a good collection is or ; and for that we do the whole performance. And besides, we get what we call "ringings" afterwards; that"s halfpence that are thrown into the ring. Sometimes we get altogether, and sometimes more and sometimes less; though it"s a very poor pitch if it"s not up to I"m talking of a big pitch, when we go through all our "slang," as we say. But then we have our little pitches, which don"t last more than a quarter of an hour—our flying pitches, as we call them, and for them is an out-and-outer, and we are well contented if we get half-a-crown. We usually reckon about pitches a-day, that"s before dinner and after. It depends greatly upon the holidays as to what we makes in the days. If there"s any fairs or feasts going on we do better. There"s days in the week we reckon nothing, that"s Friday and Saturday. Friday"s little good all day long, and Saturday"s only good after o"clock, when wages have been paid. My share may on the average come to this:—Monday, about or , and the same for Tuesday. Then Wednesday and Thursday it falls off again, perhaps or ; and Friday ain"t worth much; no more is Saturday. We used to go to Sydenham on Saturdays, and we would find the gents there; but now it"s getting too late, and the price to the Palace is only , when it used to be , and that makes a wonderful difference to us. And yet we like the poor people better than the rich, for it"s the halfpence that tells up best. Perhaps we might take a half-sovereign, but it"s very rare, and since I don"t remember taking more than of them. There was a Princess—I"m sure I"ve forgotten her name, but she was German, and she used to live in Grosvenorsquare—she used to give us half-a-sovereign every Monday during months she was in London. The servants was ordered to tell us to come every Monday at o"clock, and we always did; and even though there was nobody looking, we used to play all the same; and as soon as the drum ceased playing, there was the money brought out to us. We continued playing to her till we was told she had gone away. We have also had sovereign calls. When my gang was in the Isle of Wight, Lord Y——has often give us a sovereign, and plenty to eat and drink as well.

I can"t say but what it"s as good as a


a-year to me; but I can"t say, it"s the same with all posturers: for you see I can talk French, and if there"s any foreigners in the crowd I can talk to them, and they are sure to give something. But most posturers make a good living, and if they look out for it, there are few but make a-week.

Posturing as it is called (some people call it contortionists, that"s a new name; a Chinese nondescript — that"s the name it came out as, although what we calls posturing is a man as can sit upon nothing; as, for instance, when he"s on the back of chairs and does a split with his legs stretched out and sitting on nothing like) —posturing is reckoned the healthiest life there is, because we never get the rheumatics; and another thing, we always eat hearty. We often put on wet dresses, such as at a fair, when they"ve been washed out clean, and we put them on before they"re dry, and that"s what gives the rheumatism; but we are always in such a perspiration that it never affects us. It"s very violent exercise, and at night we feels it in our thighs more than anywhere, so that if it"s damp or cold weather it hurts us to sit down. If it"s wet weather, or showery, we usually get up stiff in the morning, and then we have to "crick" each other before we go out, and practise in our bed-rooms. On the Sunday we also go out and practise, either in a field, or at the "Tan" in . We used to go to the "Hops" in , but that"s done away with now.

When we go out performing, we always take our dresses out with us, and we have our regular houses appointed, according to what part of the town we play in, if in London; and we have one pint of beer a man, and put on our costume, and leave our clothes behind us. Every morning we put on a clean dress, so we are obliged to have two of them, and whilst we are wearing one the other is being washed. Some of our men is married, and their wives wash for them, but them as isn"t give the dress to anybody who wants a job.

Accidents are very rare with posturers. We often put our hip-bone out, but that"s soon put right again, and we are at work in a week. All our bones are loose like, and we can pull one another in, without having no pullies. One of my gang broke his leg at Chatham race-course, through the grass being slippery, and he was pitched down from three high; but we paid him his share, just the same as if he was out with us; — it wouldn"t do if we didn"t, as a person wouldn"t mount in bad weather. That man is getting on nicely, — he walks with a crutch though,—but he"ll be right in another month, and then he"ll only be put to light work till he"s strong. He ought not to be walking out yet, but he"s so daring there"s no restraining him. I, too, once broke my arm. I am a hand-jumper; that is, I a"most always light on my hands when I jump. I was on a chair on a top of a table, and I had to get into the chair and do what we call the frog, and jump off it, coming down on my hands. Everything depends upon how you hold your arms, and I was careless, and didn"t pay attention, and my arm snapped just below the elbow. I couldn"t work for three months. I was at Beauvais, in France, at the time, but the circus I was with supported me.

My father"s very near seventy-six, and he has been a tumbler for fifty years; my children are staying with him, and he"s angry that I won"t bring them up to it: but I want them to be some trade or another, because I don"t like the life for them. There"s so much suffering before they begin tumbling, and then there"s great temptation to drink, and such-like. I"d sooner send them to school, than let them get their living out of the streets. I"ve one boy and two girls. They"re always at it at home, indeed; father and my sister-in-law say they can"t keep them from it. The boy"s very nimble.

In the winter time we generally goes to the theatres. We are a"most always engaged for the pantomimes, to do the sprites. We always reckon it a good thirteen-weeks" job, but in the country it"s only a month. If we don"t apply for the job they come after us. The sprites in a pantomime is quite a new style, and we are the only chaps that can do it,— the posturers and tumblers. In some theatres they find the dresses. Last winter I was at Liverpool, and wore a green dress, spangled all over, which belonged to Mr. Copeland, the manager. We never speak in the play, but just merely rush on, and throw somersaults, and frogs, and such-like, and then rush off again. Little Wheeler, the greatest tumbler of the day, was a posturer in the streets, and now he"s in France doing his 10l. a-week, engaged for three years.

This object is in collection Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
TARC Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights
View all images in this book
 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