London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Strong Man.


I HAVE been in the profession for about thirteen years, and I am thirty-two next birthday. Excepting four years that I was at sea, I"ve been solely by the profession. I"m what is termed a strong man, and perform feats of strength and posturing. What is meant by posturing is the distortion of the limbs, such as doing the splits, and putting your leg over your head and pulling it down your back, a skipping over your leg, and such-like business. Tumbling is different from posturing, and means throwing summersets and walking on your hands; and acrobating means the two together, with mounting three stories high, and balancing each other. These are the definitions I make.

I was nineteen before I did anything of any note at all, and got what I call a living salary. Long before that I had been trying the business, going in and out of these free concerts, and trying my hand at it, fancying I was very clever, but disgusting the audience, for they are mostly duffers at these free concerts; which is clearly the case, for they only do it for a pint every now and then, and depend upon passing the hat round after their performance. I never got much at collections, so I must have been a duffer.

My father is an architect and builder, and his income now is never less than a thousand a-year. Like a fool, I wouldn"t go into his office: I wish I had. I preferred going to sea. I was always hankering after first one vessel and then another. I used to be fond of going down to the docks, and such-like, and looking at the vessels. I"d talk with the sailors about foreign countries, and such-like, and my ambition was to be a sailor. I was the scabby sheep of the family, and I"ve been punished for it. I never went into the governor"s office; but when I was about fourteen I was put to a stonemason, for I thought I should like to be a carver, or something of that sort. I was two years there, and I should have done very well if I had stayed, for I earned a guinea a-week when I left.

Before I went to the stonemason I was at the Victoria, taking checks—when there was any. I had an uncle there who kept the saloon there. I was always very partial to going to the theatre, for all our people are chapel people, and that I never liked. My father"s parlour is always smothered with ministers, and mine with tumblers, and that"s the difference. I used to go and see my uncle at the Vic., so as to get to the theatre for nothing. I wasn"t paid for taking the checks, but I knew the check-taker, and he"d ask me to help him, and I was too glad to get inside a theatre to refuse the job. They were doing dreadful business. It was under Levi, and before Glossop"s time. It was before the glass curtain come out. The glass curtain was a splendid thing. It went straight up, never wound. You can even now see where the roof was highered to receive it. Levi has got the Garrick now. They say he"s not doing much.

The first thing I did was at a little beershop, corner of Southwark-bridge-road and Union-street. I had seen Herbert do the Grecian statues at the Vic., in "Hercules, King of Clubs," and it struck me I could do "em. So I knew this beer-shop, and I bought half-a-crown"s worth of tickets to be allowed to do these statues. It was on a boxing-night, I remember. I did them, but they were dreadful bad. The people did certainly applaud, but what for, I don"t know, for I kept shaking and wabbling so, that my marble statue was rather ricketty; and there was a strong man in the room, who had been performing them, and he came up to me and said that I was a complete duffer, and that I knew nothing about it at all. So I replied, that he knew nothing about his feats of strength, and that I"d go and beat him. So I set to work at it; for I was determined to lick him. I got five quarter-of-hundred weights, and used to practice throwing them at a friend"s back-yard in the Waterloo-road. I used to make myself all over mud at it, besides having a knock of the head sometimes. At last I got perfect chucking the quarter hundred, and then I tied a fourteen pound weight on to them, and at last I got up half-hundreds. I learnt to hold up one of them at arm"s length, and even then I was obliged to push it up with the other hand. I also threw them over my head, as well as catching them by the ring.

I went to this beer-shop as soon as I could do, and came out. I wasn"t so good as he was at lifting, but that was all he could do; and I did posturing with the weights as well, and that licked him. He was awfully jealous, and I had been revenged. I had learnt to do a split, holding a half-hundred in my teeth, and rising with it, without touching the ground with my hands. Now I can lift five, for I"ve had more practice. I had tremendous success at this beer-shop.

It hurt me awfully when I learnt to do the split with the weight on my teeth. It strained me all to pieces. I couldn"t put my heels to the ground not nicely, for it physicked my thighs dreadful. When I was hot I didn"t feel it; but as I cooled, I was cramped all to bits. It took me nine months before I could do it without feeling any pain.

Another thing I learnt to do at this beershop was, to break the stone on the chest. This man used to do it as well, only in a very slight way — with thin bits and a cobbler"s hammer. Now mine is regular flagstones. I"ve seen as many as twenty women faint seeing me do it. At this beer-shop, when I first did it, the stone weighed about three quarters of a hundred, and was an inch thick. I laid down on the ground, and the stone was put on my chest, and a man with a sledge hammer, twenty-eight pounds weight, struck it and smashed it. The way it is done is this. You rest on your heels and hands and throw your chest up. There you are, like a stool, with the weight on you. When you see the blow coming, you have to give, or it would knock you all to bits.

When I was learning to do this, I practised for nine months. I got a friend of mine to hit the stone. One day I cut my chest open doing it. I wasn"t paying attention to the stone, and never noticed that it was hollow; so then when the blow came down, the sharp edges of the stone, from my having nothing but a fleshing suit on, cut right into the flesh, and made two deep incisions. I had to leave it off for about a month. Strange to say, this stone-breaking never hurt my chest or my breathing; I rather think it has done me good, for I"m strong and hearty, and never have illness of any sort.

The first time I done it I was dreadful frightened. I knew if I didn"t stop still I should have my brains knocked out, pretty well. When I saw the blow coming I trembled a good bit, but I kept still as I was able. It was a hard blow, for it broke the bit of Yorkshire paving, about an inch thick, into about sixty pieces.

I got very hard up whilst I was performing at this beer-shop. I had run away from home, and the performances were only two nights a-week, and brought me in about six shillings. I wasn"t engaged anywhere else. One night, a Mr. Emanuel, who had a benefit at the Salmon Saloon, Union-street, asked me to appear at his benefit. He had never seen me, but only heard of my performances. I agreed to go, and he got out the bills, and christened me Signor C——; and he had drawings made of the most extravagant kind, with me holding my arms out with about ten fifty-six pound weights hanging to them by the rings. He had the weights, hammers, and a tremendous big stone chained outside the door, and there used to be mobs of people there all day long looking at it.

This was the first success I made. Mr. Emanuel gave five shillings for the stone, and had it brought up to the saloon by two horses in a cart to make a sensation. It weighed from four to five hundred weight. I think I had such a thing as five men to lift it up for me.

I had forgotten all about this engagement, and I was at the coffee-house where I lodged. The fact was, I was in rags, and so shabby I didn"t like to go, and if he hadn"t come to fetch me I should not have gone. He drove up in his chaise on the night in question to this coffee-shop, and he says, "Signor C——, make haste; go and change your clothes, and come along." I didn"t know at first he was speaking to me, for it was the first time I had been Signor C——. Then I told him I had got my best suit on, though it was very ragged, and no mistake about it, for I remember there was a good hole at each elbow. He seemed astonished, and at last proposed that I should wear his great-coat; but I wouldn"t, because, as I told him, his coat would be as well known at the saloon as he himself was, and that it didn"t suit me to be seen in another"s clothes. So he took me just as I was. When we got there, the landlady was regularly flabbergastered to see a ragged fellow like me come to be star of the night. She"d hardly speak to me.

There was a tremendous house, and they had turned above a hundred away. When I got into the saloon, Emanuel says, "What"ll you have to drink?" I said, "Some brandy;" but my landlord of the coffee-house, who had come unbeknown to me, he grumbles out, "Ask him what he"ll have to eat, for he"s had nothing since the slice of bread-and-butter for breakfast." I trod on his toe, and says, "Keep quiet, you fool!" Emanuel behaved like a regular brick, and no mistake. He paid for the supper and everything. I was regularly ashamed when the landlord let it out though. That supper put life into me, for it almost had the same effect upon me as drink.

It soon got whispered about in the saloon that I was the strong man, and everybody got handing me their glasses; so I was regularly tipsy when it was time to go on, and they had put me off to the last on purpose to draw the people and keep them there drinking.

I had a regular success. When the women saw the five men put the stone on my chest, they all of them called out, "Don"t! don"t!" It was a block like a curb, about a foot thick, and about a four feet six inches long. I went with Emanuel to buy it. I had never tried such a big one before, It didn"t feel so heavy on the chest, for, you see, you"ve got such outand-out good support on your hands and heels. I"ve actually seen one man raise a stone and another a waggon. It"s the purchase done it. I"ve lifted up a cart-horse right off his legs.

The stone broke after six blows with a twenty-eight pound sledge-hammer. Then you should have heard the applause. I thought it would never give over. It smashed all to atoms, just like glass, and there was the people taking away the bits to keep as a remembrance.

As I went out the landlady asked me to have a bottle of soda-water. The landlady was frightened, and told me she had felt sure I should be killed. I was the second that ever done stone-breaking in England or abroad, and I"m the first that ever did such a big one. The landlady was so alarmed that she wouldn"t engage me, for she said I must be killed one of the nights. Her behaviour was rather different as I went out to when I came in.

I, of course, didn"t go on in my rags. I had a first-rate stage dress.

After this grand appearance I got engaged at Gravesend fair by Middleton, and there I had eight shillings a-day, and I stopped with him three weeks over the fair. I used to do my performances outside on the parade, never inside. I had to do the stone-breaking about nine or ten times a-day. They were middling stones, some larger and some smaller, and the smaller ones about half-a-hundred weight, I suppose. Any man might bring his stone and hammer, and break it himself. The one who struck was generally chosen from the crowd; the biggest chap they could find. I"ve heard "em say to me, "Now, old chap, I"ll smash you all to bits; so look out!" The fact is, the harder they strike the better for me, for it smashes it at once, and don"t keep the people in suspense.

It was at Gravesend that I met with my second and last accident. With the cutting of the chest, it is the only one I ever had. The feller who came up to break the stone was half tipsy and missed his aim, and obliged me by hitting my finger instead of the stone. I said to him, "Mind what you are doing," but I popped my hand behind me, and when I got up I couldn"t make out what the people was crying out about, till I looked round at my back and then I was smothered in blood. Middleton said, "Good God! what"s the matter?" and I told him I was hit on the finger. When the cry was given of "All in to begin," I went into a booth close by and had some brandy, and got a doctor to strap up the finger, and then I went on with the parade business just the same. It didn"t pain me nothing like what I should have thought. It was too hard a knock to pain me much. The only time I felt it was when the doctor dressed it, for it gave me pepper taking the plaster off.

I was at Gravesend some time, and I went to work again stone-masoning, and I had a guinea a-week, and in the evening I used to perform at the Rose Inn. I did just as I liked there. I never charged "em anything. I lived in the house and they never charged me anything. It was a first-rate house. If I wanted five shillings I"d get it from the landlord. I was there about eleven months, and all that time I lived there and paid nothing. I had a benefit there, and they wouldn"t even charge me for printing the bills, or cards, or anything. It was quite a clear benefit, and every penny taken at the doors was given to me. I charged a shilling admittance, and the room was crowded, and they was even on the stairs standing tip-toe to look at me. I wanted some weights, and asked a butcher to lend "em to me, and he says, "Lend "em to you! aye, take the machine and all if it"ll serve you." I was a great favourite, as you may guess.

After Gravesend I came up to London, and went and played the monkey at the Bower Saloon. It was the first time I had done it. There was all the monkey business, jumping over tables and chairs, and all mischievous things; and there was climbing up trees, and up two perpendicular ropes. I was dressed in a monkey"s dress; it"s made of some of their hearth-rugs; and my face was painted. It"s very difficult to paint a monkey"s face. I"ve a great knack that way, and can always manage anything of that sort.

From the Bower I went on to Portsmouth. I"d got hard up again, for I"d been idle for three months, for I couldn"t get any money, and I never appear under price. I walked all the way to Portsmouth, carrying a halfhun- dred weight, besides my dress, all the way; I played at the tap-rooms on the road. I did pretty middling, earned my living on the road, about two shillings a-day. When I got to Portsmouth I did get a job, and a good job it was, only one shilling and sixpence a-night; but I thought it better to do that than nothing. I only did comic singing, and I only knew two songs, but I set to and learnt a lot. I am very courageous, and if I can"t get my money one way, I will another. With us, if you"ve got a shilling, you"re a fool if you spend that before you have another. I stopped at this public- house for two months, and then a man who came from Portsea, a town close by, came one night, and he asked me what I was doing. He had heard of what I could do, and he offered me two pounds a-week to go with him and do the strong business. He kept the Star Inn at Portsea. I stopped there such a thing as two years, and I did well. I had great success, for the place was cramm"d every night. For my benefit, Major Wyatt and Captain Holloway gave me their bespeak, and permission for the men to come. The admission was sixpence. Half the regiment marched down, and there was no room for the public. I was on the stage for two hours during my performances. I was tired, and fainted away as dead as a hammer after the curtain fell.

Among other things I announced that I should, whilst suspended from the ceiling, lift a horse. I had this horse paraded about the town for a week before my night. There was such a house that numbers of people was turned away, and a comic singer who was performing at a house opposite, he put out an announcement that he too would lift a horse, and when the time came he brought on a clothes-horse.

The way I did the horse was this: I was hanging by my ankles, and the horse was on a kind of platform under me. I had two sheets rolled up and tied round the horse like bellybands, and then I passed my arms through them and strained him up. I didn"t keep him long in the air, only just lifted him off his legs. In the midst of it the bandage got off his eyes, and then, what with the music and the applauding, the poor brute got frightened and begun plunging. I couldn"t manage him at all whilst he was kicking. He got his two hind legs over the orchestra and knocked all the float-lights out. They kept roaring, "Bring him out! bring him out!" as if they thought I was going to put him under my arm—a thundering big brute. I was afraid he"d crack his knees, and I should have to pay for him. The fiddler was rather uneasy, I can tell you, and the people began shifting about. I was frightened, and so I managed to pop part of the sheet over his head, and then I gave a tremendous strain and brought him back again.

How the idea of lifting a horse ever came into my head, I don"t know. It came in a minute; I had never tried it before. I knew I should have a tremendous purchase. The fact is, I had intended to do a swindle by having lines passed down my dress, and for somebody behind to pull the ropes and help me. The town was in an uproar when I announced I should do it.

It was at my benefit that I first broke stones with my fist. I don"t know whose original notion it was. I was not the first; there"s a trick in it. It"s done this way: anybody can do it. You take a cobbler"s lapstone, and it"s put on a half-hundred weight; you must hold it half an inch above, and then the concussion of the fist coming down smashes it all to bits. Any one can do it.

I cleared about eight pounds by my benefit. I was a regular swell in those days. The white coats had just come up, and I had one made with two-shilling pieces for buttons, and with polished-leather Wellington"s I"d walk about the town, the king of the place.

I"ve been down to Manchester performing. I"ve been, too, to the Standard Theatre as well as the Victoria and the Marylebone. People won"t believe I really do break the stone on my chest. Some ask me what I wear under my dress, though the fact is, that if I had anything hard there, it would just about kill me, for it"s by yielding to the blow that I save myself. I actually gammoned one chap that the stones were made of small pieces stuck together with paste, and he offered to give me any sum to tell him what the paste was made of.

When I"m engaged for a full performance I do this. All the weights, and the stone and the hammer, are ranged in front of the stage. Then I come on dressed in silk tights with a spangled trunk. Then I enter at the back of the stage, and first do several feats of posturing, such as skipping through my leg or passing it down my back, or splits. Then I take a ladder and mount to the top, and stand up on it, and hold one leg in my hand, shouldering it; and then I give a spring with the other leg, and shoot off to the other side of the stage and squash down with both legs open, doing a split. It"s a very good trick, and always gets a round. Then I do a trick with a chair standing on the seat, and I take one foot in my hand and make a hoop of the leg, and then hop with one leg through the hoop of the other, and spring over the back and come down in a split on the other side. I never miss this trick, though, if the chair happens to be ricketty, I may catch the toe, but it doesn"t matter much.

Then I begin my weight business. I take one half-hundred weight and hold it up at arm"s-length; and I also hold it out perpendicularly, and bring it up again and swing it two or three times round the head, and then throw it up in the air and catch it four or five times running; not by the ring, as others do, but in the open hand.

The next trick is doing the same thing with both hands instead of one, that is with two weights at the same time; and then, after that, I take up a half-hundred by the teeth, and shouldering the leg at the same, and in that style I fall down into the splits. Then I raise myself up gradually, till I"m upright again. After I"m upright I place the weight on my forehead, and lay down flat on my back with it, without touching with the hands. I take it off when I"m down and place it in my mouth, and walk round the stage like a Greenwich-pensioner, with my feet tucked up like crossing the arms, and only using my knees. Then I tie three together, and hold them in the mouth, and I put one in each hand. Then I stand up with them and support them. It"s an awful weight, and you can"t do much exhibiting with them.

When I was at Vauxhall, Yarmouth, last year, I hurt my neck very badly in lifting those weights in the mouth. It pulled out the back of my neck, and I was obliged to give over work for months. It forced my head over one shoulder, and then it sunk, as if I"d got a stiff neck. I did nothing to it, and only went to a doctor-chap, who made me bathe the neck in hot water. That"s all.

One of my most curious tricks is what I call the braces trick. It"s a thing just like a pair of braces, only, instead of a button, there"s a half-hundred weight at each end, so that there are two behind and two in front. Then I mount on two swinging ropes with a noose at the end, and I stretch out my legs into a split, and put a half-hundred on each thigh, and take up another in my mouth. You may imagine how heavy the weight is, when I tell you that I pulled the roof of a place in once at Chelsea. It was a exhibition then. The tiles and all come down, and near smothered me. You must understand, that in these tricks I have to put the weights on myself, and raise them from the ground, and that makes it so difficult.

The next, and the best, and most difficult trick of all is, I have a noose close to the ceiling, in which I place one of my ankles, and I"ve another loose noose with a hook at the end, and I place that on the other ankle. Two half-hundreds are placed on this hook, and one in each hand. The moment these weights are put on this ankle, it pulls my legs right apart, so that they form a straight line from the ceiling, like a plumb-line, and my body sticks out at the side horizontally, like a T-square sideways. I strike an attitude when I have the other weights in my hand, and then another half-hundred is put in my mouth, and I am swung backwards and forwards for about eight or twelve times. It don"t hurt the ankle, because the sling is padded. At first it pulls you about, and gives you a tremendous ricking. After this ropeperformance I take a half-hundred and swing it round about fifty times. It goes as rapidly as a wheel, and if I was to miss my aim I should knock my brains out. I have done it seventy times, but that was to take the shine out of an opposition fellow.

I always wind up with breaking the stone, and I don"t mind how thick it is, so long as it isn"t heavy enough to crush me. A common curb-stone, or a Yorkshire-flag, is nothing to me, and I"ve got so accustomed to this trick, that once it took thirty blows with a twentyeight pound sledge-hammer to break the stone, and I asked for a cigar and smoked it all the while.

I"ll tell you another trick I"ve done, and that"s walking on the ceiling. Of course I darn"t do it in the Professor Sands" style, for mine was a dodge. Professor Sands used an air-exhausting boot, on the model of a fly"s foot, and it was a legitimate performance indeed; he and another man, to whom he gave the secret of his boots, are the only two who ever did it. The chap that came over here wasn"t the real Sands. The fact is well known to the profession, that Sands killed himself on his benefit night in America. After walking on the marble slab in the Circus, somebody bet him he couldn"t do it on any ceiling, and he for a wager went to a Town-hall, and done it, and the ceiling gave way, and he fell and broke his neck. The chap that came over here was Sands" attendant, and he took the name and the boots, and came over as Professor Sands.

The first who ever walked on the ceiling, by a dodge, was a man of the name of Herman, a wizard, who wound up his entertainment at the City of London by walking on some planks suspended in the air. I was there, and at once saw his trick. I knew it was a sleight-of-hand thing. I paid great attention and found him out.

I then went to work in this way. I bought two planks about thirteen foot long, and an inch thick. In these planks I had small traps, about two inches long by one inch wide, let into the wood, and very nicely fitted, so that the cracks could not be seen. The better to hide the cracks, I had the wood painted marble, and the blue veins arranged on the cracks. These traps were bound on the upper side with iron hooping to strengthen them. Then I made my boots. They were something like Chinese boots, with a very thick sole, made on the principle of the bellows of an accordion. These bellows were round, about the size of a cheese-plate, and six inches deep. To the sole of the boot I had an iron plate and a square tenter-hook riveted in.

Then came the performance. There was no net under me, and the planks was suspended about twenty feet from the stage. I went up on the ladder and inserted the hook on one boot into the first trap. The sucker to the boot hid the hook, and made it appear as if I held by suction. The traps were about six inches apart, and that gave me a very small step. The hooks being square ones—tenterhooks—I could slip them out easily. It had just the same appearance as Sands, and nobody ever taught me how to do it. I did this feat at the Albion Concert-rooms, just opposite the Effingham Saloon. I had eighteen shillings a-week there for doing it. I never did it anywhere else, for it was a bother to carry the planks about with me. I did it for a month, every night three times. One night I fell down. You see you can never make sure, for if you swung a little, it worked the hook off. I always had a chap walking along under me to catch me, and he broke my fall, so that I didn"t hurt myself. I ran up again, and did it a second time without an accident. There was tremendous applause. I think I should have fallen on my hands if the chap hadn"t been there.

If the Secretary of State hadn"t put down the balloon business, I should a made a deal of money. There is danger of course, but so there is if you"re twenty or thirty feet. They do it now fifty feet high, and that"s as bad as if you were two hundred or a mile in the air. The only danger is getting giddy from the height, but those who go up are accustomed to it.

I sold the ceiling-walking trick to another fellow for two pounds, after I had done with it, but he couldn"t manage it. He thought he was going to do wonders. He took a halfhundred weight along with him, but he swung like a pendulum, and down he come.

Why this walking on the ceiling of mine was very near the same as what Harvey Leach did at the Surrey as the gnome fly. He was a tremendous clever fellow. His upper part of the body was very perfectly made, but his legs was so short, they weren"t more than eighteen inches long. That"s why he walked as much on his hands as his legs. That "What is It," at the Egyptian Hall killed him. They"d have made a heap of money at it if it hadn"t been discovered. He was in a cage, and wonderfully got up. He looked awful. A friend of his comes in, and goes up to the cage, and says, "How are you, old fellow?" The thing was blown up in a minute. The place was in an uproar. It killed Harvey Leach, for he took it to heart and died.

I reckon Astley"s is the worst money for any man. If a fellow wants to be finished up, let him go there. It doesn"t pay so well as the cheap concerts, unless a man is a very great star, and they must give him his money.

There are six men, including myself, who do the strong business. That"s all I"m beware of in London, or England. Sometimes they change their names, and comes out as Herrs, or Signors, or Monsieurs, but they are generally the same fellows. Most of our foreigners in England come out of Tower-street. There was a house of call there for professionals of all nations, but that "public" is done up now, and they mostly go to the Cooper"s Arms now.

If a strong man properly understands his business, and pays attention to his engagements, his average earnings will be about two pounds ten shillings a-week. As it is, they now make less than thirty shillings, but they spend it so readily that it doesn"t go so far as a working man"s pound. There"s plenty of people to ask you, "What"ll you have?" but if you"re anything of a man you"re obliged to return the compliment at some time. The swells get hold of you. Perhaps a bottle of wine is called for, and then another; well, then a fellow must be no good if he doesn"t pay for the third when it comes, and the day"s money don"t run to it, and you"re in a hole.

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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