London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Statement of another Street Conjurer.


IN London I had a great quantity of parlours where I was known and allowed to perform. One night I"d take the West-end, and another the East-end. Sometimes I have done four or five houses of an evening, and I have had to walk miles for that—to Woolwich and back for instance, or to Edmonton and back—and occasionally I"d only come home with 1s. 6d. I have also had 8s. from one parlour only, and then I"d consider that a night"s performance, and come home again.

I remember one very peculiar circumstance which happened to me whilst I was out busking. There is a house at the bottom of Yorkstreet, Westminster, where they wouldn"t allow any other conjurer but me. I was very friendly with the landlord, and I went there regularly every week, and I"d invariably take such a thing as 2s. or 3s. out of the room. If I found only a small muster in the parlour, I"d say, "I"ll come another evening," and go off to another parlour in Pimlico. One night the company in the parlour said, after I had been performing, "What a pity it is that one of your talent doesn"t take a large room somewhere, and we"d patronise you." "Why," says the landlord, "he can have my large room up-stairs if he likes." I agreed to it, and says, "Well, gentlemen, we"ll have it next Wednesday evening, if you think proper." The landlord didn"t tell his wife that there was a performance to take place on the Wednesday evening. When I went to this house to the appointment, there were about thirty assembled. The landlord was out. When we asked the landlady for the room, she wouldn"t, and we had all the difficulty in the world before we got the apartment. I wanted a large table-cloth to dress up my stand, for I have, in order to perform some of my tricks, to make a bag with the end of the table-cloth to drop things into. We sent the waiter to ask for this cloth, and says she, "I ain"t going to lend no conjurers tablecloths." Then a gentleman says, "Oh, nonsense, I"ll soon get you a table-cloth. She"ll lend me one in a minute." He goes to the bar, but the reply she made was, "I"m surprised at Mr. W. having such a performance up there, and no table-cloth shall you have from me." He came up-stairs, and said he had been grossly insulted at the bar; and then another gentleman said, "Well, this young man shan"t be disappointed, and we"ll see if we can"t find another house down the street, and move it to there, and we"ll all go." One went out, and came back and said he"d not only got a very large room and everything required, but the landlord had four friends in the bar who"d join our company. I made altogether about 1l. that night, for I made no charge, and it was altogether contribution. None of that company ever returned to that house again, so he lost the whole of his parlour customers. I could never go into that house again, and I really was sorry for the landlord, for it wasn"t his fault. This is a very good proof that it is to the advantage of landlords to allow respectable performers to visit their parlours.

At others times I have sometimes gone into a parlour and found the customers talking politics. If it was a very good company, and I saw good business, I"d try to break the thread of the discussion by saying when there was a pause in the debate, "Gentlemen, would you like to see some of my performances, such as walking round the ceiling with my head down?" Then they"d say, "Well, that"s very curious; let"s see you." Of course I couldn"t do this, and I only said it to attract notice. Then I"d do my card-tricks, and make a collection, and, after that, remark that as the ceiling-walking performance was a dangerous one, I must have a sovereign; of course they wouldn"t give this, and I"d take my leave.

One night, in Oxford-street, I met a singer, and he says, "Where are you going?" I told him I was hunting for a good parlour, and he told me he had just left a good company at such and such a house. I thanked him, and I went there. It was up a long passage, and I entered the room without asking the landlord"s permission, and I called for a glass of porter. As soon as I saw the waiter out of the room I made my appeal to the company. They were all of them agreeable and most happy to see my performances. After I"d done my performance I went to make a collection, and they said, "Oh, certainly not; we thought you"d done it for your own amusement; we never give anything to anybody. I lost one hour of the best time of the night. I said, "Very good, gentlemen, I"m satisfied if you are." It was an agreed plan with the landlord, for he came into the room; and he says, "What, another one!" and he seized me by the neck and pushed me out. As soon as I got outside I met another conjurer, and he asked where I"d been. I thought I"d let him be served the same as I was, so I showed him the house, and told him he could make a second "nobbings" as we term it. I stopped outside peeping over the glass, and presently I see him being pushed out by the landlord as I had been. We had a hearty laugh, and then we started off to Regent-street, to one of our principal houses, but there wasn"t a soul in the room. It was a house in a back-street, where none but grooms and footmen resort to. But we was determined to have some money that night, as both our families wanted it—both him and me did.

Passing a tobacconist"s shop in Regentstreet, we saw three gents conversing with the lady behind the counter. I told him I"ll go in, get a pickwick here, and see if I can"t have a performance in the front of this counter. These things only wants an introduction; so I looks at my pickwick, and says I, "This a pickwick? why I swallows such as these;" and I apparently swallowed it. One of them says, "You don"t mean to say you swallowed it?" "Certainly I did, sir," I replied; and then he makes me do it again. Then I told them I"d show them something more wonderful still, so I said, "Have you gentlemen such a thing as a couple of halfcrowns about you?" they gave me the money, and I did the trick of passing the money from hand to hand. I said to them, "Can you tell me which hand the money"s in?" says he, "Why, anybody can see it"s in that one." "No, sir," says I, "I think not." "If it ain"t," says he, "you may keep "em." Then I opened both hands, and they were in neither, and he asked where they was then; so I told him I"d given him them back again, which of course he denied, and appeared much surprised. Then I took "em out of his cravat. It"s a very clever trick, and appears most surprising, though it"s as simple as possible, and all done by the way in which you take them out of the cravat; for you keep them palmed, and have to work "em up into the folds. Of course I returned the half-crowns to him, but when I heard him say you may keep them I did feel comfortable, for that was something to the good. My friend outside was looking through the window, and I could see him rubbing his hands with glee; I got another half-crown out of them gentlemen before I"d done with them, for I showed "em a trick with some walking-sticks which were lying on the counter, and also cut the tape in two and made it whole again, and such-like performances. When a fellow is on his beam-ends, as I was then, he must keep his eyes about him, and have impudence enough for anything, or else he may stop and starve. The great art is to be able to do tricks with anything that you can easily get hold of. If you take up a bit of string from a counter, or borrow a couple of shillings of a gentleman, your tricks with them startles him much more than if you had taken them out of your own pocket, for he sees there"s been no preparation. I got ten shillings out of these two gents I spoke of, and then I and my mate went and busked in a parlour, and got fivepence more; so that we shared five and twopence-ha"penny each.

I have often made a good deal of money in parlours by showing how I did my little tricks, such as cutting the tape and passing the halfcrowns. Another thing that people always want to know is the thimble-rig trick. Of course it doesn"t matter so much showing how these tricks are done, because they depend upon the quickness and dexterity of handling. You may know how an artist paints a picture, but you mayn"t be able to paint one yourself.

I never practised thimble-rigging myself, for I never approved of it as a practice. I"ve known lots of fellows who lived by it. Bless you! they did well, never sharing less than their 4l. or 5l. every day they worked. This is the way it"s done. They have three thimbles, and they put a pea under two of "em, so that there"s only one without the pea. The man then begins moving them about and saying, "Out of this one into that one," and so on, and winds up by offering to "lay anything, from a shilling to a pound," that nobody can tell which thimble the pea is under. Then he turns round to the crowd, and pretends to be pushing them back, and whilst he"s saying, "Come, gentlemen, stand more backwarder," one of the confederates, who is called "a button," lifts up one of the thimbles with a pea under it, and laughs to those around, as much as to say, "We"ve found it out." He shows the pea two or three times, and the last time he does so, he removes it, either by taking it up under his forefinger nail or between his thumb and finger. It wants a great deal of practice to do this nicely, so as not to be found out. When the man turns to the table again the button says, "I"ll bet you a couple of sovereigns I know where the pea is. Will any gentleman go me halves?" Then, if there"s any hesitation, the man at the table will pretend to be nervous and offer to move the thimbles again, but the button will seize him by the arm, and shout as if he was in a passion, "No, no, none of that! It was a fair bet, and you shan"t touch "em." He"ll then again ask if anybody will go him halves, and there"s usually somebody flat enough to join him. Then the stranger is asked to lift up the thimble, so that he shouldn"t suspect anything, and of course there"s no pea there. He is naturally staggered a bit, and another confederate standing by will say calmly, "I knew you was wrong; here"s the pea;" and he lifts up the thimble with the second pea under it. If nobody will go shares in the "button"s" bet, then he lifts up the thimble and replaces the pea as he does so, and of course wins the stake, and he takes good care to say as he pockets the sovereign, "I knew it was there; what a fool you was not to stand in." The second time they repeat the trick there"s sure to be somebody lose his money. There used to be a regular pitch for thimble-riggers opposite Bedlam, when the shows used to put up there. I saw a brewer"s collector lose 7l. there in less than halfan- hour. He had a bag full of gold, and they let him win the three first bets as a draw. Most of these confederates are fighting-men, and if a row ensues they"re sure to get the best of it.

A very good place where I used to go busking was at Mother Emmerson"s in Jermynstreet. There used to be all sorts of characters there, jugglers, and singers, and all sorts. It was a favourite house of the Marquis of Waterford, and he used to use it nearly every night. I"ve seen him buy a pipe of port, and draw tumblers of it for any body that came in, for his great delight was to make people drunk. He says to Mrs. Emmerson, "How much do you want for that port, mother?" and then he wrote a cheque for the amount and had it tapped. He was a good-hearted fellow, was my Lord; if he played any tricks upon you, he"d always square it up. Many a time he"s given me halfa-pint of brandy, saying, "That"s all you"ll get from me." Sometimes I"d say to him, "Can I show you a few tricks, my Lord?" and then, when I"d finished, I knew he never gave money if you asked him for it, so I"d let him abuse me, and order me out of the house as a humbug; and then, just as I"d got to the door, he"d call me back and give me half-a-sovereign. I"ve seen him do some wonderful things. I"ve seen him jump into an old woman"s crockeryware-basket, while she was carrying it along, and smash everything. Sometimes he"d get seven or eight cabs and put a lot of fiddlers and other musicians on the roofs, and fill "em with anybody that liked, and then go off in procession round the streets, he driving the first cab as fast as he could and the bands playing as loud as possible. It"s wonderful the games he"d be up to. But he always paid handsomely for whatever damage he did. If he swept all the glasses off a counter, there was the money to make "em good again. Whenever I did any tricks before him, I took good care not to produce any apparatus that I cared for, or he"d be sure to smash it.

One night I hadn"t a penny in the world, and at home I knew they wanted food; so I went out to busk, and I got over in the Old Kent-road, and went to a house there called the Green Man. I walked into the parlour; and though I hadn"t a penny in my pocket, I called for four pen"orth of rum and water. I put my big dice down upon the table by the side of me, and begun sipping my rum, and I could see everybody looking at this dice, and at last, just as I expected, somebody asked what it was. So I says— "Gentlemen, I get my living this way, and if you like, I shall be happy to show you a few of my deceptions for your entertainment." They said, "Certainly, young man, we are perfectly agreeable." Ah! I thought to myself, thank heaven that"s all right, for I owed for the rum and water you see, and if they"d refused, I don"t know what I should have done. I pulled out my nice clean cloth and laid it upon the table, and to work I went. I had only done one or two tricks, when in comes the waiter, and directly he sees me he cries out, "We don"t allow no conjurers or anything of that kind here," and I had to pack up again. When he"d gone the company said, "Go on, young man, it"s all right now;" so I out with my cloth again; then in came the landlord, and says he, "You"ve already been told we don"t allow none of you conjurer fellows here," and I had to put up a second time. When he"d gone, the gents told me to begin again. I had scarcely spread my cloth when in comes the landlord again, in a towering rage, and shouts out, "What, at it again! Now you be off;" so I said, "I only did it to oblige the company present, who were agreeable, and that I hadn"t yet finished my rum and water, which wasn"t paid for." "Not paid for?" says he; "No," says I: "but I"m waiting here for a friend, and he"ll pay for it." You may imagine my feelings, without a penny in my pocket. "Don"t let me catch you at it again, or I"ll give you in charge," says he. Scarcely had he left again when the company began talking about it, and saying it was too bad to stop me; so one of them rings the bell, and when the landlord comes in he says, "Mr. Landlord, this young person has been very civil, and conducted himself in a highly respectable manner, and has certainly afforded us a great deal of amusement; now why should you object to his showing us some tricks?" "Thank heavens," thought I to myself, "I"m saved, and the rum will be paid for. The landlord"s manner altered all of a sudden, and says he, "Oh, certainly, gentlemen! certainly! if it"s your wish, I don"t mind the young man"s being here; though I make it a rule to keep my parlour select." Then I set to work and did all my tricks comfortably, and I made a collection of 7s. 6d. Then I rang the bell like a lord, and I put down a shilling to pay for the rum and water, and saying, "Gentlemen, I"m very much obliged to you for your patronage," to which they replied, "Not at all, young man," I walked past the bar to leave. Then the landlord comes up to me and says, shaking his fist, and blue in the face with rage, "If ever I catch you here again, you d——rogue, I"ll give you to a policeman." So, without more ado, I walks round to the other door, and enters the parlour again and tells the company, and they had in the landlord and blowed him well up. This will just show you the risks we have to run when out busking for a living, and what courage is wanted to speculate upon chances.

There are very few conjurers out busking now. I don"t know above four; one of "em has had the best chances in the world of getting on; but he"s a very uneducated man, and that has stood in his way, though he"s very clever, and pr"aps the best hand at the cups and balls of any man in England. For instance, once he was at a nobleman"s party, giving his entertainment, and he says such a thing as this:—"You see, my lords and ladies, I have a tatur in this hand, and a tatur in that; now I shall pass "em into this handkercher," Of course the nobleman said to himself, "Tatur! handkercher! why, who"s this feller?" You may depend upon it he was never asked there any more; for every thing in a wizard"s business depends upon graceful action, and his style of delivery, so that he may make himself agreeable to the company.

When a conjurer"s out busking, he may reckon upon making his 20s. a-week, taking the year round; pr"aps, some weeks, he won"t take more than 12s. or 15s.; but then, at other times, he may get 6s. or 8s. in one parlour alone, and I have taken as much as 1l. by teaching gentlemen how to do the tricks I had been performing. I have sometimes walked my twenty miles a-day, and busked at every parlour I came to, (for I never enter tap-rooms,) and come home with only 1s. 6d. in my pocket. I have been to Edmonton and back and only earned 1s., and then, pr"aps, at eleven the same night, when I was nearly done up, and quite dispirited with my luck, I"ve turned into one of the parlours in town and earned my 6s. in less than an hour, where I"d been twelve only earning one.

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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