London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Street Juggler.

THE juggler from whom I received the following account, was spoken of by his companions and friends as " of the cleverest that ever came out." He was at this time performing in the evening at of the chief saloons on the other side of the water.

He certainly appears to have been successful enough when he appeared in the streets, and the way in which he squandered the amount of money he then made is a constant source of misery to him, for he kept exclaiming in the midst of his narrative, "Ah! I might have been a gentleman now, if I hadn"t been the fool I was then."

As a proof of his talents and success he assured me, that when Ramo Samee came out, he not only learned how to do all the Indian"s tricks, but also did them so dexterously, that when travelling "Samee has often paid him not to perform in the same town with him."

He was a short man, with iron-grey hair, which had been shaved high upon the temples to allow him to assume the Indian costume. The skin of the face was curiously loose, and formed deep lines about the chin, whilst in the cheeks there were dimples, or rather hollows, almost as deep as those on a sofa cushion. He had a singular look, from his eyebrows and eyes being so black.

His hands were small and delicate, and when he took up anything, he did it as if he were lifting the cup with the ball under it.

I"m a juggler," he said, "but I don"t know if that"s the right term, for some people call conjurers jugglers; but it"s wrong. When I was in Ireland they called me a "manulist," and it was a gentleman wrote the bill out for me. The difference I makes between conjuring and juggling is, one"s deceiving to the eye and the other"s pleasing to the eye —yes, that"s it—it"s dexterity.

I dare say I"ve been at juggling 40 years, for I was between 14 and 15 when I begun, and I"m 56 now. I remember Ramo Samee and all the first process of the art. He was the first as ever I knew, and very good indeed; there was no other to oppose him, and he must have been good then. I suppose I"m the oldest juggler alive.

My father was a whitesmith, and kept a shop in the Waterloo-road, and I ran away from him. There was a man of the name of Humphreys kept ariding-school in the Waterlooroad (there was very few houses there then, only brick-fields—aye, what is the Victoria theatre now was then a pin-factory and a hatter"s; it wasn"t opened for performance then), and I used to go to this riding-school and practise tumbling when the horse-dung was thrown out, for I was very ambitious to be a tumbler. When I used to go on this here dung-heap, sometimes father would want me to blow the fire or strike for him, and he"d come after me and catch me tumbling, and take off his apron and wallop me with it all the way home; and the leather strings used to hurt, I can tell you.

I first went to work at the pin-factory, where the Coburg"s built now, and dropped tumbling then. Then I went to a hatter"s in Oakley-street, and there I took to tumbling again, and used to get practising on the woolpacks (they made the hats then out of wool stuff and hare-skins, and such-like, and you couldn"t get a hat then under 25s.); I couldn"t get my heart away from tumbling all the time I was there, for it was set on it. I"d even begin tumbling when I went out on errands, doing hand-spring, and starts--up (that"s laying on your back and throwing yourself up), and round-alls (that"s throwing yourself backwards on to your hands and back again to your feet), and walking on my hands. I never let any of the men see me practise. I had to sweep the warehouse up, and all the wool was there, and I used to have a go to myself in the morning before they was up.

The way I got into my professional career was this: I used to have to go and get the men"s beer, for I was kept for that. You see, I had to go to the men"s homes to fetch their breakfasts, and the dinners and teas—I wish I had such a place now. The men gave me a shilling a-week, and there was twelve of them when in full work, and the master gave me 4s. 6d. Besides that they never worked on a Monday, but I was told to fetch their food just the same, so that their wives mightn"t know; and I had all their twelve dinners, breakfasts, and so on. I kept about six of the boys there, and anybody might have the victuals that liked, for I"ve sometimes put "em on a post for somebody to find.

I was one day going to fetch the men"s beer when I meets another boy, and he says, "You can"t walk on your hands." "Cant I!" says I, and I puts down the cans and off I started, and walked on my hands from one end of the street to the other, pretty nigh. Mr. Sanders, the rider, one of the oldest riders that was (before Ducrow"s time, for Ducrow was a "prentice of his, and he allowed Sanders 30s. a-week for all his lifetime), was passing by and he see me walking on my hands, and he come up and says, "My boy, where do you belong to?" and I answers, "My father;" and then he says, "Do you think he"d let you come along with me?" I told him I"d go and ask; and I ran off, but never went to father—you"ll understand—and then in a minute or two I came back and said, "Father says yes, I may go when I thinks proper;" and then Mr. Sanders took me to Lock"sfields, and there was a gig, and he drove me down to Ware, in Hertfordshire.

You may as well say this here. The circusses at that time wasn"t as they are now. They used to call it in the profession moulding, and the public termed it mountebanking. Moulding was making a ring in a field, for there was no booths then, and it comes from digging up the mould to make it soft for the horses" feet. There was no charge for seeing the exhibition, for it was in a field open to the public; but it was worked in this way: there was prizes given away, and the tickets to the lottery were 1s. each, and most of the people bought "em, though they weren"t obligated to do so. Sometimes the prizes would be a five-pound note, or a silver watch, maybe, or a sack of flour, or a pig. They used to take the tickets round in a hat, and everybody saw what they drawed. They was all prizes—perhaps a penny ring—but there was no blanks. It was the last night that paid best. The first and second nights Sanders would give them a first-rate prize; but when the last night came, then a half-crown article was the highest he"d give away, and that helped to draw up. I"ve know"d him give 4l. or 5l. away, when he"d not taken 2l. Mr. Sanders put me to tumbling in the ring. I could tumble well before I went with him, for I"d practised on this dung-heap, and in this hatter"s shop. I beat all his apprentices what he had. He didn"t give me anything a-week, only my keep, but I was glad to run away and be a showman. I was very successful in the ring-tumbling, and from that I got to be clever on the stilts and on the slack-rope, or, as they call it in the profession, the waulting-rope. When I was ragged I used to run home again and get some clothes. I"ve many a time seen him burst out into tears to see me come home so ragged. "Ah," he"d say, "where have you been now?—tumbling, I suppose." I"d answer, "Yes, father;" and then he"d say, "Ah, your tumbling will bring you to the gallows." I"d stop with him till he gave me some fresh clothes, and then I"d bolt again. You see I liked it. I"d go and do it for nothing. Now I dread it; but it"s too late, unfortunately.

I ran away from Sanders at last, and went back to father. One night I went to the theatre, and there I see Ramo Samee doing his juggling, and in a minute I forgot all about the tumbling, and only wanted to do as he did. Directly I got home I got two of the plates, and went into a back-room and began practising, making it turn round on the top of a stick. I broke nearly all the plates in the house doing this—that is, what I didn"t break I cracked. I broke the entire set of a dozen plates, and yet couldn"t do it. When mother found all her plates cracked, she said, "It"s that boy;" and I had a good hiding. Then I put on my Sunday suit and bolted away again. I always bolted in my best clothes. I then went about tumbling in the public-houses, till I had got money enough to have a tin plate made with a deep rim, and with this tin plate I learnt it, so that I could afterwards do it with a crockery one. I kept on my tumbling till I got a set of wooden balls turned, and I stuck brass coffinnails all over them, so that they looked like metal when they was up; and I began teaching myself to chuck them. It took a long time learning it, but I was fond of it, and determined to do it. I was doing pretty well with my tumbling, making perhaps my 3s. or 4s. a-night, so I was pretty well off. Then I got some tin knives made, and learnt to throw them: and I bought some iron rings, and bound them with red and blue tape, to make them look handsome; and I learnt to toss them the same as the balls. I practised balancing pipes, too. Every time I went into a publichouse I"d take a pipe away, so it didn"t cost me anything. I dare say I was a twelvemonth before I could juggle well. When I could throw the three balls middling tidy I used to do them on the stilts, and that was more than ever a man attempted in them days; and yet I was only sixteen or seventeen years of age. I must have been summut then, for I went to Oxford fair, and there I was on my stilts, chucking my balls in the public streets, and a gentleman came up to me and asked me if I"d take an engagement, and I said "Yes, if it was a good un"—for I was taking money like smoke; and he agreed to give me a pound a-day during the fair; it was a week fair. I had so much money, I didn"t know what to do with it. I actually went and bought a silk neckerchief for every day in the week, and flash boots, and caps, and everything I could see, for I never had so much money as in them days. The master, too, made his share out of me, for he took money like dirt.

From Oxford I worked my way over to Ireland. I had got my hand into juggling now, but I kept on with my old apparatus, though I bought a new set in Dublin. I used to have a bag and bit of carpet, and perform in streets. I had an Indian"s dress made, with a long horse-hair tail down my back, and white bagtrousers, trimmed with red, like a Turk"s, tied right round at the ankles, and a flesh-coloured skull-cap. My coat was what is called a Turkish fly, in red velvet, cut off like a waistcoat, with a peak before and behind. I was a regular swell, and called myself the Indian Juggler. I used to perform in the barracks twice a-day, morning and evening. I used to make a heap of money. I have taken, in one pitch, more than a pound. I dare say I"ve taken 3l. a-day, and sometimes more indeed; I"ve saved a waggon and a booth there,— a very nice one,—and the waggon cost me 14l. second-hand; one of Vickry"s it was, a wild-beast waggon. I dare say I was six months in Dublin, doing first-rate. My performances was just the same then as they is now; only I walked on stilts, and they was new then, and did the business. I was the first man ever seed in Ireland, either juggling or on the stilts.

I had a drum and pipes, and I used to play them myself. I played any tune,—anythink, just what I could think of, to draw the crowd together; then I"d mount the stilts and do what I called "a drunken frolic," with a bottle in my hand, tumbling about and pretending to be drunk. Then I"d chuck the balls about, and the knives, and the rings, and twirl the plate. I wound up with the ball, throwing it in the air and catching it in a cup. I didn"t do any balancing pipes on my nose, not whilst on the stilts.

I used to go out one day on the stilts and one on the ground, to do the balancing. I"d balance pipes, straws, peacocks" feathers, and the twirling plate.

It took me a long time learning to catch the ball in the cup. I practised in the fields or streets; anywhere. I began by just throwing the ball a yard or two in the air, and then went on gradually. The first I see do the ball was a man of the name of Dussang, who came over with Ramo Samee. It"s a very dangerous feat, and even now I"m never safe of it, for the least wind will blow it to the outside, and spoil the aim. I broke my nose at Derby races. A boy ran across the ring, and the ball, which weighs a quarter of a pound, was coming right on him, and would have fallen on his head, and perhaps killed him, and I ran forward to save him, and couldn"t take my aim proper, and it fell on my nose, and broke it. It bled awfully, and it kept on for near a month. There happened to be a doctor looking on, and he came and plastered it up; and then I chucked the ball up again, (for I didn"t care what I did in them days), and the strain of its coming down made it burst out again. They actually gived me money not to throw the ball up any more. I got near a sovereign, in silver, give me from the Grand Stand, for that accident.

At Newcastle I met with another accident with throwing the ball. It came down on my head, and it regularly stunned me, so that I fell down. It swelled up, and every minute got bigger, till I a"most thought I had a double head, for it felt so heavy I could scarce hold it up. I was obliged to knock off work for a fortnight.

In Ireland I used to make the people laugh, to throw up raw potatoes and let them come down on my naked forehead and smash. People give more money when they laugh. No, it never hurt my forehead, it"s got hardened; nor I never suffered from headaches when I was practicing.

As you catch the ball in the cup, you are obliged to give, you know, and bend to it, or it would knock the brains out of you pretty well. I never heard of a man killing himself with the ball, and I"ve only had two accidents.

I got married in Ireland, and then I started off with the booth and waggon, and she used to dance, and I"d juggle and balance. We went to the fairs, but it didn"t answer, and we lost all; for my wife turned out a very bad sort of woman. She"s dead now, through drink. I went to the Isle of Man from Ireland; I had practised my wife in the stilts, and learnt her how to use them, and we did well there. They never see such a thing in their lives, and we took money like dirt. They christened us the "Manx Giants." If my wife had been like my present one, I should be a made gentleman by this time; but she drank away my booth, and waggon, and horse, and all.

I saved up about 20l. in the Isle of Man; and from there we went to Scotland, and there my wife died,—through drink. That took away all the money I had saved. We didn"t do much in Scotland, only in one particular town,—that"s Edinburgh,—on New-year"s day. We took a good deal of money, 2l. I think; and we carried coppers about in a stocking with me.

I travelled about in England and Wales when I married my second wife. She"s a strong woman, and lifts 700 lbs. by the hair of her head.

When I got back to London I hadn"t a shilling in my pocket, though my wife was very careful of me; but times got bad, and what not. We got a situation at 12s. a day, and all collections, at Stepney fair, which would sometimes come to a pound, and at others 30s.; for collections is better than salary any days: that set us up in a little house, which we"ve got now.

I"m too old now to go out regularly in the streets. It tires me too much, if I have to appear at a penny theatre in the evening. When I do go out in the streets, I carry a mahogany box with me, to put my things out in. I"ve got three sets of things now, knives, balls, and cups. In fact, I never was so well off in apparatus as now; and many of them have been given to me as presents, by friends as have gi"n over performing. Knives, and balls, and all, are very handsome. The balls, some a pound, and some 2 lbs. weight, and the knives about 1 1/2 lbs.

When I"m out performing, I get into all the open places as I can. I goes up the Commercial-road and pitches at the Mile-end-gate, or about Tower-hill, or such-like. I"m well known in London, and the police knows me so well they very seldom interfere with me. Sometimes they say, "That"s not allowed, you know, old man!" and I say, "I shan"t be above two or three minutes," and they say, "Make haste, then!" and then I go on with the performance.

I think I"m the cleverest juggler out. I can do the pagoda, or the canopy as some calls it; that is a thing like a parasol balanced by the handle on my nose, and the sides held up by other sticks, and then with a pea-shooter I blow away the supports. I also do what is called "the birds and bush," which is something of the same, only you knock off the birds with a pea-shooter. The birds is only made of cork, but it"s very difficult, because you have to take your balance agin every bird as falls; besides, you must be careful the birds don"t fall in your eyes, or it would take away your sight and spoil the balance. The birds at back are hardest to knock off, because you have to bend back, and at the same time mind you don"t topple the tree off.

These are the only feats we perform in balancing, and the juggling is the same now as ever it was, for there ain"t been no improvements on the old style as I ever heerd on; and I suppose balls and knives and rings will last for a hundred years to come yet.

I and my wife are now engaged at the "Temple of Mystery" in Old Street-road, and it says on the bills that they are "at present exhibiting the following new and interesting talent," and then they calls me "The Renowned Indian Juggler, performing his extraordinary Feats with Cups, Balls, Daggers, Plates, Knives, Rings, Balancing, &c. &c."

After the juggling I generally has to do conjuring. I does what they call "the pile of mags," that is, putting four halfpence on a boy"s cap, and making them disappear when I say "Presto, fly!" Then there"s the empty cups, and making "taters come under "em, or there"s bringing a cabbage into a empty hat. There"s also making a shilling pass from a gentleman"s hand into a nest of boxes, and such-like tricks: but it ain"t half so hard as juggling, nor anything like the work.

I and my missis have 5s. 6d. a-night between us, besides a collection among the company, which I reckon, on the average, to be as good as another pound a-week, for we made that the last week we performed.

I should say there ain"t above twenty jugglers in all England—indeed, I"m sure there ain"t—such as goes about pitching in the streets and towns. I know there"s only four others besides myself in London, unless some new one has sprung up very lately. You may safely reckon their earnings for the year round at a pound a-week, that is, if they stick to juggling; but most of us joins some other calling along with juggling, such as the wizard"s business, and that helps out the gains.

Before this year, I used to go down to the sea-side in the summer, and perform at the watering-places. A chap by the name of Gordon is at Ramsgate now. It pays well on the sands, for in two or three hours, according to the tides, we picks up enough for the day.

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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