London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Street Conjurer.

I CALL myself a wizard as well; but that"s only the polite term for conjurer; in fact, I should think that wizard meant an astrologer, and more of a fortune-teller. I was fifteen years of age when I first began my professional life; indeed I opened with Gentleman Cooke at the Rotunda, in Blackfriars"--road, and there I did Jeremiah Stitchem to his Billy Button.

My father held a very excellent situation in the Customs, and lived at his ease, in very affluent circumstances. His library alone was worth two hundred pounds. I was only ten years of age when my father died. He was a very gay man, and spent his income to the last penny. He was a very gay man, very gay. After my mother was left a widow, the library was swept off for a year"s rent. I was too young to understand it"s value, and my mother was in too much grief to pay attention to her affairs. Another six-months" rent sold up the furniture. We took a small apartment close in the neighbourhood. My mother had no means, and we were left to shift for ourselves. I was a good boy, and determined to get something to do. The first day I went out I got a situation at four shillings a-week, to mind the boots outside a boot-maker"s shop in Newington Causeway. The very first week I was there I was discharged, for I fell asleep on my stool at the door, and a boy stole a pair of boots. From there I went to a baker"s, and had to carry out the bread, and for four years I got different employments, as errand boy or anything.

For many years the mall opposite Bedlam was filled with nothing else but shows and show-people. All the caravans and swingboats, and what not, used to assemble there till the next fair was on. They didn"t perform there, it was only their resting-place. My mother was living close by, and every opportunity I had I used to associate with the boys belonging to the shows, and then I"d see them practising their tumbling and tricks. I was so fond of this that I got practising with these boys. I"d go and paint my face as clown, and although dressed in my ordinary clothes I"d go and tumble with the rest of the lads, until I could do it as well as they could. I did it for devilment, that"s what I call it, and that it was which first made me think of being a professional.

From there I heard of a situation to sell oranges, biscuits, and ginger-beer, at the Surrey Theatre. It was under Elliston"s management. I sold the porter up in the gallery, and I had three-halfpence out of every shilling, and I could make one shilling and sixpence a-night; but the way I used to do it at that time was this: I went to fetch the beer, and then I"d get half-a-gallon of table-beer and mix it with the porter; and I tell you, I"ve made such a thing as fifteen shillings of a boxing-night. I alone could sell five gallons of a night; but then their pints at that time was tin measures, and little more than halfa- pint: besides, I"d froth it up. It was threepence a pint, and a wonderful profit it must have been. From there I got behind the scenes as supernumerary, at the time Nelson Lee was manager of the supers.

At this time the Rotunda in the Blackfriars"road was an hotel kept by a Mr. Ford. Mr. Cook rented certain portions of the building, and went to a wonderful expense building a Circus there. The history of the Rotunda is that at one time it was a museum, and the lecture-hall is there to the present day. It"s a beautiful building, and the pillars are said to be very valuable, and made of rice. It"s all let to one party, a Frenchman, but he keeps the lecture-hall closed. When Cook took the Rotunda I asked him for an engagement, and he complied. I was mad for acting. I met with great success as Jeremiah Stitchem; and the first week he gave me one pound. Cook didn"t make a good thing of it. Nobody could get their money, and the circus was closed. Then a Mr. Edwards took it. He was an optician, and opened it as a penny exhibition, with a magic lantern and a conjurer. Now comes how I became a conjurer. I couldn"t tear myself away from the Rotunda. I went there and hovered about the door day and night. I wanted to get a situation there. He knew me when I was in the circus, and he asked me what I was a-doing of. I said, "Nothing, sir." Then he offered to give me one of the door-keeper"s places, from ten in the morning till eleven at night, for three shillings a-day, and I took it. One day the conjurer that was there didn"t come, but they opened the doors just the same, and there was an immense quantity of people waiting there. They couldn"t do nothing without the conjurer. He always left his apparatus there of a night, in a bag. Well, this Edwards, knowing that I could do a few tricks, he came up to me and asks whether I knew where the wizard lived. I didn"t, and Edwards says, "What am I to do? I shall have to return this money: I shall go mad." I said I could do a few tricks; and he says, "Well, go and do it." The people was making a row, stamping and calling out, "Now then, is this here wizard coming?" When I went in, I give great satisfaction. I went and did all the tricks, just as the other had done it. At that time it was the custom to say after each performance, "Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to inform you that I get no salary here, and only have to rely upon your generosity for a collection." When the plate went round I got one shilling and sixpence. "Hulloa!" I said to myself, "is this the situation?" Then I sold some penny books, explaining how the tricks was done, and I got sixpence more. That was two shillings. I had four shillings a-day besides, and they would have sometimes twenty houses of a day, and I have seen thirty. The houses were not always very good. Sometimes we"d perform to seven or to twenty. It all told up. It was at night we did the principal work,—crowded upwards of two hundred there. We weren"t in the Circus, but in the Rotunda. I"d make fifteen shillings a-night then. I got a permanent engagement then. I made too much money. I went and bought a pack of cards and card-boxes, and a pea-caddy for passing peas from a handkerchief to a vase, and linking-rings, and some tape. That, with tying knots in a silk handkerchief, concluded the whole of my performances. In fact, it was all I knew. My talking helped me immensely, for I could patter well to them, and the other wizard couldn"t.

I left the Rotunda in consequence of the party having other novelties. He had Ambrosini, who done the sticks and string balls; but I was there three or four years, and that"s a long time to be at one place. Then I joined a street-performer. He used to do the fire-proof business, such as eating the link, and the burning tow, and so on. Then I manufactured a portable table: it folded up, and I could carry it under my arm. It was as large as an ordinary dressing-table. We went in equal shares. I was dressed with ballet shirt, and braces, with spangled tights and fleshings. We pulled our coats off when we begun to perform. All the tricks we carried in a bag.

The first pitch we made was near Bondstreet. He began with his part of the performance whilst I was dressing up the table. It was covered with black velvet with fringe, and the apparatus ranged on it. After him I began my performance, and he went round for the nobbings. I did card tricks, such as the sautez-le-coup with the little finger. It"s dividing the pack in half, and then bringing the bottom half to the top; and then, if there"s a doubt, you can convey the top card to the bottom again; or if there"s any doubt, you can bring the pack to its original position. It was Lord de Roos" trick. He won heaps of money at it. He had pricked cards. You see, if you prick a card at the corner, card-players skin their finger at the end, so as to make it sensitive, and they can tell a pricked card in a moment. Besides sautez-le-coup, I used to do innumerable others, such as telling a named card by throwing a pack in the air and catching the card on a sword point. Then there was telling people"s thoughts by the cards. All card tricks are feats of great dexterity and quickness of hand. I never used a false pack of cards. There are some made for amateurs, but professionals never use trick cards. The greatest art is what is termed forcing, that is, making a party take the card you wish him to; and let him try ever so well, he will have it, though he"s not conscious of it. Another feat of dexterity is slipping the card, that is, slipping it from top, bottom, or centre, or placing one or two cards from the top. If you"re playing a game at all-fours and you know the ace of clubs is at the bottom, you can slip it one from the top, so that you know your partner opposite has it. These are the only two principal things in card tricks, and if you can do them dexteriously you can do a great part of a wizard"s art. Sautez-le- coup is the principal thing, and it"s done by placing the middle finger in the centre of the pack, and then with the right hand working the change. I can do it with one hand.

We did well with pitching in the streets. We"d take ten shillings of a morning, and then go out in the afternoon again and take perhaps fifteen shillings of nobbings. The footmen were our best customers in the morning, for they had leisure then. We usually went to the squares and such parts at the West-end. This was twenty years ago, and it isn"t anything like so good now, in consequence of my partner dying of consumption; brought on, I think, by fire eating, for he was a very steady young fellow and not at all given to drink. I was for two years in the streets with the fireeating, and we made I should say such a thing as fifty shillings a-week each. Then you must remember, we could have made more if we had liked; for some mornings, if we had had a good day before, we wouldn"t go out if it was raining, or we had been up late. I next got a situation, and went to a wax-works to do conjuring. It was a penny exhibition in the New Cut, Lambeth. I had four shillings a-day and nobbings—a collection, and what with selling my books, it came to ten shillings a-day, for we had never less than ten and often twenty performances a-day. They had the first dissecting figure there— a Samson—and they took off the cranium and showed the brains, and also the stomach, and showed the intestines. It was the first ever shown in this country, and the maker of it had (so they say) a pension of one hundred pounds a year for having composed it. He was an Italian.

We were burnt down at Birmingham, and I lost all my rattle-traps. However, the inhabitants made up a subscription which amply repaid me for my loss, and I then came to London, hearing that the Epsom races was on at the time, which I wouldn"t have missed Epsom races, not at that time, not for any amount of money, for it was always good to one as three pounds, and I have had as much as seven pounds from one carriage alone. It was Lord Chesterfield"s, and each gentleman in it gave us a sov. I went down with three acrobats to Epsom, but they were dealing unfair with me, and there was something that I didn"t like going on; so I quarrelled with them and joined with another conjurer, and it was on this very occasion we got the seven pounds from one carriage. We both varied in our entertainments; because, when I had done my performance, he made a collection; and when he had done I got the nobbings. We went to Lord Chesterfield"s carriage on the hill, and there I did the sovereign trick. "My Lord, will you oblige me with the temporary loan of a sovereign?" "Yes, old fellow: what are you going to do with it?" I then did passing the sovereign, he having marked it first; and then, though he held it tightly, I changed it for a farthing. I did this for Lord Waterford and Lord Waldegrave, and the whole of them in the carriage. I always said, "Now, my Lord, are you sure you hold it?" "Yes, old fellow." "Now, my Lord, if I was to take the sovereign away from you without you knowing it, wouldn"t you say I was perfectly welcome to it?" He"d say, "Yes, old fellow; go on." Then, when he opened the handkerchief he had a farthing, and all of them made me a present of the sovereign I had performed with.

Then we went to the Grand Stand, and then after our performance they"d throw us halfpence from above. We had our table nicely fitted up. We wouldn"t take halfpence. We would collect up the coppers, perhaps five or six shillings worth, and then we"d throw the great handful among the boys. "A bit of silver, your honours, if you please;" then sixpence would come, and then a shilling, and in ten minutes we would have a sovereign. We must have earned our six pounds each that Epsom Day; but then our expenses were heavy, for we paid three shillings a-night for our lodging alone.

It was about this time that I took to busking. I never went into tap-rooms, only into parlours; because one parlour would be as good as a dozen tap-rooms, and two good parlours a-night I was quite satisfied with. My general method was this: If I saw a good company in the parlour, I could tell in a moment whether they were likely to suit me. If they were conversing on politics it was no good, you might as well attempt to fly. I have many a-time gone into a parlour, and called for my half-quartern of gin and little drop of cold water, and then, when I began my performances, it has been "No, no! we don"t want anything of that kind," and there has been my half hour thrown away. The company I like best are jolly-looking men, who are sitting silently smoking, or reading the paper. I always got the privilege of performing by behaving with civility to my patrons. Some conjurers, when the company ain"t agreeable, will say, "But I will perform;" and then comes a quarrel, and the room is in future forbid to that man. But I, if they objected, always said, "Very well, gentlemen, I"m much obliged to you all the same: perhaps another time. Bad to-night, better next night." Then when I came again some would say, "I didn"t give you anything the other night, did I? Well, here"s a fourpenny bit," and so on.

When I went into a parlour I usually performed with a big dice, three inches square. I used to go and call for a small drop of gin and water, and put this dice on the seat beside me, as a bit of a draw. Directly I put it down everybody was looking at it. Then I"d get into conversation with the party next to me, and he"d be sure to say, "What the deuce is that?" I"d tell him it was a musical box, and he"d be safe to say, "Well, I should like to hear it, very much." Then I"d offer to perform, if agreeable, to the company; often the party would offer to name it to the company, and he"d call to the other side of the room, (for they all know each other in these parlours) "I say, Mr. So-and-so, have you any objection to this gentleman showing us a little amusement?" and they are all of them safe to say, "Not in the least. I"m perfectly agreeable if others are so;" and then I"d begin. I"d pull out my cards and card-boxes, and the bonus genius or the wooden doll, and then I"d spread a nice clean cloth (which I always carried with me) on the table, and then I"d go to work. I worked the dice by placing it on the top of a hat, and with a penknife pretending to make an incision in the crown to let the solid block pass through. It is done by having a tin covering to the solid dice, and the art consists in getting the solid block into the hat without being seen. That"s the whole of the trick. I begin by striking the block to show it is solid. Then I place two hats one on the other, brim to brim. Then I slip the solid dice into the under hat, and place the tin covering on the crown of the upper one. Then I ask for a knife, and pretend to cut the hat-crown the size of the tin-can on the top, making a noise by dragging my nail along the hat, which closely resembles cutting with a knife. I"ve often heard people say, "None of that!" thinking I was cutting their hat. Then I say, "Now, gentlemen, if I can pass this dice through the crown into the hat beneath, you"ll say it"s a very clever deception," because all conjurers acknowledge that they deceive; indeed, I always say when I perform in parlours, "If you can detect me in my deceptions I shall be very much obliged to you by naming it, for it will make me more careful; but if you can"t, the more credit to me." Then I place another tin-box over the imitation dice; it fits closely. I say, "Presto—quick—begone!" and clap my hands three times, and then lift up the tincases, which are both coloured black inside, and tumble the wooden dice out of the under hat. You see, the whole art consists in passing the solid block unseen into the hat.

The old method of giving the order for the things to pass was this: "Albri kira mumma tousha cocus co shiver de freek from the margin under the crippling hook," and that"s a language.

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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