London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Street Risley.


THERE is but person in London who goes about the street doing what is termed "The Risley performance," and even he is rarely to be met with.

Of all the street professionals whom I have seen, this man certainly bears off the palm for respectability of attire. He wore, when he came to me, a brown Chesterfield coat and black continuations, and but for the length of his hair, the immense size of his limbs, and the peculiar neatness of his movements, it would have been impossible to have recognized in him any of those characteristics which usually distinguish the street performer. He had a chest which, when he chose, he could force out almost like a pouter pigeon. The upper part of his body was broad and weightylooking. He asked me to feel the muscle of his arm, and doubling it up, a huge lump rose, almost as if he had a cocoa-nut under his sleeve; in fact, it seemed as fully developed as the gilt arms placed as signs over the goldbeaters" shops.



Like most of the street professionals, he volunteered to exhibit before me some of his feats of strength and agility. He threw his head back (his long hair tossing about like an Indian fly-whisk) until his head touched his heels, and there he stood bent backward, and nearly double, like a strip of whalebone. Then he promenaded round the room, walking on his hands, his coat-tails falling about his shoulders, and making a rare jingle of halfpence the while, and his legs dangling in front of him as limp as the lash of a cart-whip. I refused to allow him to experiment upon me, and politely declined his obliging offer to raise me from the ground, "and hold me at arm"s-length like a babby."

When he spoke of his parents, and the brothers who performed with him, he did so in most affectionate terms, and his descriptions of the struggles he had gone through in his fixed determination to be a tumbler, and how he had worked to gain his parents" consent, had a peculiarly sorrowful touch about them, as if he still blamed himself for the pain he had caused them. Farther, whenever he mentioned his little brothers, he always stopped for or minutes to explain to me that they were the cleverest lads in London, and as true and kind-hearted as they were talented.

He was more minute in his account of himself than my space will permit him to be; for as he said, "he had a wonderful rememoryation, and could recollect anything."

With the omission of a few interesting details, the following is the account of the poor fellow"s life:—

"My professional name is Signor Nelsonio, but my real is Nelson, and my companions know me as "Leu," which is short for Lewis. I can do plenty of things beside the Risley business, for it forms only part of my entertainment. I am a strong man, and a fire-king, and a stone-breaker by the fist, as well as being sprite, and posturer, and doing "la perche."

Last Christmas () I was, along with my brothers, engaged at the Theatre Royal, Cheltenham, to do the sprites in the pantomime. I have brought the bill of the performances with me to show it you. Here you see the pantomime is called "THE IMP OF THE NORTH, or THE GOLDEN BASON; and HARLEQUIN and THE MILLER"S DAUGH- TER." In the pantomimical transformations it says, "SPRITES—BY THE NELSON FAMILY:" that"s me and my brothers.

The reason why I took to the Risley business was this. When I was a boy of seven I went to school, and my father and mother would make me go; but, unfortunately, I was stubborn, and would not. I said I wanted to do some work. "Well," said they, "you shan"t do any work not yet, till you"re thirteen years old, and you shall go to school." Says I, "I will do work." Well, I wouldn"t; so I plays the truant. Then I goes to amuse myself, and I goes to Haggerstone-fields in the Hackneyroad, and then I see some boys learning to tumble on some dung there. So I began to do it too, and I very soon picked up two or three tricks. There was a man who was in the profession as tumbler and acrobat, who came there to practise his feats, and he see me tumbling, and says he, "My lad, will you come along with me, and do the Risley business, and I"ll buy you your clothes, and give you a shilling a-week besides?" I told him that perhaps mother and father wouldn"t let me go; but says he, "O, yes they will." So he comes to our house; and says mother, "What do you want along with my boy?" and he says, "I want to make a tumbler of him." But she wouldn"t.

My father is a tailor, but my uncle and all the family was good singers. My uncle was leader of the Drury-lane band, and Miss Nelson, who came out there, is my cousin. They are out in Australia now, doing very well, giving concerts day and night, and clearing by both performances one hundred and fifty pounds, day and night (and sooner, more than less), as advertised in the paper which they sent to us.

One day, instead of going to school, I went along with this man into the streets, and then he did the Risley business, throwing me about on his hands and feet. I was about thirteen years old then. Mother asked me at night where I had been, and when I said I had been at school, she went and asked the master and found me out. Then I brought home some dresses once, and she tore them up, so I was forced to drop going out in the streets. I made some more dresses, and she tore those up. Then I got chucking about, à la Risley, my little brother, who was about seven years old; and says mother, "Let that boy alone, you"ll break his neck." "No, I shan"t," say I, and I kept on doing till I had learnt him the tricks.

One Saturday night, father and mother and my eldest brother went to a concert-room. I had no money, so I couldn"t go. I asked my little brother to go along with me round some tap-rooms, exhibiting with me. So I smuggled him out, telling him I"d give him lots of cakes; and away we went, and we got about seven shillings and sixpence. I got home before father and mother come home. When they returned, father says, "Where have you been?" Then I showed the money we had got; he was regular astonished, and says he "How is this? you can do nothing, you ain"t clever!" I says, "Oh, ain"t I? and it"s all my own learning:" so then he told me, that since he couldn"t do nothing else with me, I should take to it as my profession, and stick to it.

Soon after I met my old friend the swallower again, in Ratcliffe highway. I was along with my little brother, and both dressed up in tights and spangled trunks. Says he, "Oh, you will take to tumbling will you? Well, then, come along with me, and we"ll go in the country." Then he took us down to Norwich (to Yarmouth); then he beat me, and would give me no clothes or money, for he spent it to go and get drunk. We not sending any money home, mother began to wonder what had become of me; so one night, when this man was out with a lot of girls getting drunk, I slipt away, and walked thirty miles that night, and then I began performing at different public-houses, and so worked my way till I got back to London again. My little brother was along with me, but I carried him on my shoulders. One day it came on to rain awful, and we had run away in our dresses, and then we was dripping. I was frightened to see little Johnny so wet, and thought he"d be ill. There was no shed or barn or nothing, and only the country road, so I tore on till we came to a roadside inn, and then I wrung his clothes out, and I only had fourpence in my pocket, and I ordered some rum and water hot, and made him drink. "Drink it, it"ll keep the cold out of you." When we got out he was quite giddy, and kept saying, "Oh, I"m so wet!" With all these misfortunes I walked, carrying the little chap across my shoulders. One day I only had a halfpenny, and Johnny was crying for hunger, so I goes to a fellow in a orchard and say I, "Can you make me a ha"path of apples?" He would take the money, but he gave a cap-full of fallings. I"ve walked thirty-eight miles in one day carrying him, and I was awfully tired. On that same day, when we got to Colchester, we put up at the Blue Anchor, and I put Johnny into bed, and I went out myself and went the round of the public-houses. My feet was blistered, but I had my light tumbling slippers on, and I went to work and got sixteen pence-halfpenny. This got us bread and cheese for supper and breakfast, and paid threepence each for the bed; and the next day we went on and performed in a village and got three shillings. Then, at Chelmsford we got eight shillings. I bought Johnny some clothes, for he had only his tights and little trunks, and though it was summer he was cold, especially after rain. The nearer we got to London the better we got off, for they give us then plenty to eat and drink, and we did pretty well for money. After I passed Chelmsford I never was hungry again. When we got to Romford, I waited two days till it was market-day, when we performed before the country people and got plenty of money and beer; but I never cared for the beer. We took four shillings and sixpence. I wouldn"t let Johnny take any beer, for I"m fond of him, and he"s eleven now, and the cleverest little fellow in England; and I learnt him everything he knows out of my own head, for he never had no master. We took the train to London from Romford (one shilling and sixpence each), and then we went home.

When we got back, mother and father said they knew how it would be, and laughed at us. They wanted to keep us at home, but I wouldn"t, and they was forced to give way. In London I stopped still for a long time, at last got an engagement at two shillings anight at a penny gaff in Shoreditch. It was Sambo, a black man, what went about the streets along with the Demon Brothers— acrobats—that got me the engagement.

One night father and mother came to see me, and they was frightened to see me chucking my brother about; and she calls out, "Oh, don"t do that! you"ll break his back." The people kept hollaring out, "Turn that woman out!" but she answers, "They are my sons— stop "em!" When I bent myself back"ards she calls out, "Lord! mind your bones."

After this I noticed that my other brother, Sam, was a capital hand at jumping over the chairs and tables. He was as active as a monkey; indeed he plays monkeys now at the different ballets that comes out at the chief theatres. It struck me he would make a good tumbler, and sure enough he is a good one. I asked him, and he said he should; and then he see me perform, and he declared he would be one. He was at my uncle"s then, as a carver and gilder. When I told father, says he, "Let "em do as they like, they"ll get on." I said to him one day, "Sam, let"s see what you"re like: so I stuck him up in his chair, and stuck his legs behind his head, and kept him like that for five minutes. His limbs bent beautiful, and he didn"t want no cricking.

I should tell you, that before that he done this here. You"ve heard of Baker, the red man, as was performing at the City of London Theatre; well, Sam see the cut of him sitting in a chair with his legs folded, just like you fold your arms. So Sam pulls down one of the bills with the drawing on it, and he says, "I can do that," and he goes home and practises from the engraving till he was perfect. Then he showed me, and says I, "That"s the style! it"s beautiful! you"ll do."

Then we had two days" practice together, and we worked the double-tricks together. Then, I learned him style and grace, what I knowed myself; such as coming before an audience and making the obedience; and by and by says I to him, "We"ll come out at a theatre, and make a good bit of money."

Well, we went to another exhibition, and we came out all three together, and our salary was twenty-five shillings a-week, and we was very successful. Then we got outside Peter"s Theatre at Stepney fair, the last as ever was, for it"s done away with now; we did very well then; they give us twelve shillings a-day between us for three days. We did the acrobating and Risley business outside the parade, and inside as well. Sam got on wonderful, for his mind was up to it, and he liked the work. I and my brothers can do as well as any one in this business, I don"t Garret-Master; or Cheap Furniture Maker. [From a Sketch.] care who comes before us. I can do upwards of one hundred and twenty-one different tricks in tumbling, when I"m along with those little fellows. We can do the hoops and glasses— putting a glass of beer on my forehead, and going through hoops double, and lying down and getting up again without spilling it. Then there"s the bottle-sprite, and the short stilts, and globe running and globe dancing, and chair tricks; perform with the chairs; and the pole trick—la perche—with two boys, not one mind you.

We"ve been continuing ever since at this Risley business. I lay down on a carpet, and throw then summersets from feet to feet. I tell you what the music plays to it,—it"s the railway overtime, and it begins now and then quicker and quicker, till I throw them fast as lightning. Sam does about fifty-four or fiftyfive of these summersets one after another, and Johny does about twenty-five, because he"s littler. Then there"s standing upright, and stand "em one in one hand and one on the other. Then I throws them up in summersets, and catch "em on my palm, and then I chuck "em on the ground.

The art with me lying on the ground is that it takes the strength, and the sight to see that I catch "em properly; for if I missed, they might break their necks. The audience fancies that it"s most with them tumbling, but every thing depends upon me catching them properly. Every time they jump, I have to give "em a jerk, and turn "em properly. It"s almost as much work as if I was doing it myself. When they learn at first, they do it on a soft ground, so as not to hurt theirselves. It don"t make the blood come to the head lying down so long on my back—only at first.

I"ve done the Risley business first at penny exhibitions, and after that I went to fairs; then I went round the country with a booth — a man named Manly it was; but we dropped that, "cos my little brother was knocked up, for it was too hard work for the little fellow building up and taking down the booth sometimes twice in a-day, and then going off twenty miles further on to another fair, and building up again the next day. Then we went pitching about in the main streets of the towns in the country. Then I always had a drum and pipes. As soon as a crowd collected I"d say, "Gentlemen, I"m from the principal theatres in London, and before I begin I must have five shillings in the ring." Then we"d do some, and after that, when half was over, I"d say, "Now, gentlemen, the better part is to come, and if you make it worth my while, I go on with this here entertainment;" then, perhaps, they"d give me two shillings more. I"ve done bad and done good in the country. In one day I"ve taken two pounds five shillings, and many days we"ve not taken eight shillings, and there was four of us, me and my two brothers and the drummer, who had two-and-sixpence a-day, and a pot of beer besides. Take one week with another we took regular two pounds five shillings, and out of that I"d send from twenty to thirty shillings a-week home to my parents. Oh, I"ve been very good to my parents, and I"ve never missed it. I"ve been a wild boy too, and yet I"ve always taken care of father and mother. They"ve had twelve in family and never a stain on their character, nor never a key turned on them, but are upright and honourable people.

At a place called Brenford in Norfolk— where there"s such a lot of wild rabbits—we done so well, that we took a room and had bills printed and put out. We charged threepence each, and the room was crowded, for we shared twenty-five shillings between us. When the people see"d me and my brothers come on dressed all in red, and tumble about, they actually swore we were devils, and rushed out of the place; so that, though there was a room full, there was only two stopped to see the performances. One old man called out, "O wenches" —they call their wives wenches—"come out, they be devils." We came out with red faces and horns and red dresses, and away they went screaming. There was one woman trampled on and a child knocked out of her arms. In some of these country towns they"re shocking strict, and never having seen anything of the kind, they"re scared directly.

About six months ago I went to Woolwich with the boys, and there was a chap that wanted to fight me, because I wouldn"t go along with him. So, I says, "We won"t have no fighting;" so I went along with him to Gravesend, and then we asked permission of the mayor, "cos in country towns we often have to ask the mayor to let us go performing in the streets. There we done very well, taking twenty-five shillings in the day. Then we worked up by Chatham, and down to Hernebay, and Ramsgate; and at Ramsgate we stopped a week, doing uncommon well on the sands, for the people on the chairs would give sixpence and a shilling, and say it was very clever, and too clever to be in the streets. We did Margate next, and then Deal, and on to Dover by the boat. At Dover, the mayor wouldn"t let us perform, and said if he catched us in the streets he"d have us took up. We were very hard up. So I said to Sam, "You must go out one way and I and Johnny the other, and busk in the public-house." Sam got eight shillings and sixpence and I four shillings. But I had a row with a sailor, and I was bruised and had to lay up. When I was better we moved to Folkestone. There was the German soldiers there, and we did very well. I went out one day with our carpet to a village close by, and some German officers made us perform, and gave us five shillings, and then we went the round of the beer-shops, and altogether we cleared five pounds before we finished that day. We also went up to the camp, where the tents was, and I asked the colonel to let me perform before the men, and he said, "Well it ain"t usual, but you may if you like." The officers we found was so pleased they kept on giving us two-shilling pieces, and besides we had a lot of foreign coin, which we sold to a jeweller for ten shillings.

I worked my way on to Canterbury and Winchester, and then, by a deal, of persuasion I got permission to perform in the back-streets, and we done very well. Then we went on to Southampton. There was a cattle fair, on— Celsey fair is, I think, the name of it; and then I joined another troupe of tumblers, and we worked the fair, and after that went on to Southampton; and when we began working on the Monday, there was another troupe working as well. After we had pitched once or twice, this other troupe came and pitched opposition against us. I couldn"t believe it at first, but when I see which was their lay, then says I, "Now I"ll settle this." We was here, as it was, and they came right on to us—there, as it may be. So it was our dinner-time, and we broke up and went off. After dinner we came out again, and pitched the carpet in a square, and they came close to us again, and as soon as they struck up, the people run away to see the new ones. So I said "I don"t want to injure them, but they shan"t injure us." So I walked right into the middle of their ring, and threw down the carpet, and says I, "Now, ladies and gentlemen, the best performance is the one that deserves best support, and I"ll show you what I can do." I went to work with the boys, and was two hours doing all my tumbling tricks. They was regularly stunned. The silver and the halfpence covered the carpet right over, as much as it would hold. I think there was three pounds. Then I says, "Now you"ve seen the tumbling, now see the perche." They had a perche, too; it was taller than mine; but, as I told them, it was because I couldn"t get no higher a one. So I went to work again, and cries I, "Now, both boys up;" though I had only stood one on up to that time, and had never tried two of "em. Up they goes, and the first time they come over, but never hurt theirselves. It was new to me, you see. "Up again, lads," says I; and up they goes, and did it beautiful. The people regular applauded, like at a theatre. Down came the money in a shower, and one gentleman took his hat round, and went collecting for us. Says I to this other school, "You tried to injure us, and what have you got by it? I beat you in tumbling, and if you can match the perche, do it." Then they says, "We didn"t try to injure you; come and drink a gallon of beer." So off we went, and the police told "em to choose their side of the town and we would take ours. That settled the opposition, and we both done well.

I"ve done the Risley in the streets of London, more so than at theatres and concerts. The stone paving don"t hurt so much as you would think to lie down. We don"t do it when it"s muddy. The boys finds no difference whatsumever in springing off the stones. It pays very well at times, you know; but we don"t like to do it often, because afterwards they don"t like to appreciate you in concerts and theatres, and likewise penny exhibitions.

My brother Sam can jump like a frog, on his hands, through his legs, out of a one-pair window; and little Johnny throws out of a one-pair-of-stairs window a back summerset.

It"s astonishing how free the bones get by practice. My brother Sam can dislocate his limbs and replace them again; and when sleeping in bed, I very often find him lying with his legs behind his neck. It"s quite accidental, and done without knowing, and comes natural to him, from being always tumbling. Myself, I often in my dreams often frighten my wife by starting up and half throwing a summersault, fancying l"m at the theatre, and likewise I often lie with my heels against my head.

We are the only family or persons going about the streets doing the Risley. I"ve travelled all through England, Scotland, and Wales, and I don"t know anybody but ourselves. When we perform in the London theatres, which we do when we can get an engagement, we get six or seven pounds aweek between us. We"ve appeared at the Pavilion two seasons running; likewise at the City of London, and the Standard, and also all the cheap concerts in London. Then we are called "The Sprites" by the Nelson family will appear; "or, The Sprites of Jupiter;" or, "Sons of Cerea;" or, "Air-climbers of Arabia!"

Taking all the year round, I dare say my income comes to about thirty-five shillings or two pounds, and out of that I have to find dresses.

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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