London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Street Fire-King, or Salamander.


THIS person came to me recommended by of my street acquaintances as the "pluckiest fire-eater going," and that as he was a little "down at heel," he should be happy for a consideration to give me any information I might require in the "Salamander line."

He was a tall, gaunt man, with an absentlooking face, and so pale that his dark eyes looked positively wild.

I could not help thinking, as I looked at his bony form, that fire was not the most nutritious food in the world, until the poor fellow explained to me that he had not broken his fast for days.

He gave the following account of himself:—

My father was a barber—a three-ha"penny one—and doing a good business, in Southwark. I used to assist him, lathering up the chins and shaving "em—torturing, I called it. I was a very good light hand. You see, you tell a good shaver by the way he holds the razor, and the play from the wrist. All our customers were tradesmen and workmen, but father would never shave either coalheavers or fishermen, because they always threw down a penny, and said there was plenty of penny barbers, and they wouldn"t give no more. The old man always stuck up for his price to the day of his death. There was a person set up close to him for a penny, and that injured us awful. I was educated at St. George"s National and Parochial School, and I was a national lad, and wore my own clothes; but the parochials wore the uniform of blue bob-tailed coats, and a badge on the left side. When they wanted to make an appearance in the gallery of the church on charity-sermon days, they used to make all the nationals dress like the parochials, so as to swell the numbers up. I was too fond of entertainments to stick to learning, and I used to step it. Kennington-common was my principal place. I used, too, to go to the outside of the Queen"s-bench and pick up the racket-balls as they was chucked over, and then sell them for three-ha"pence each. I got promoted from the outside to the inside; for, from being always about, they took me at threepence a-day, and gave me a bag of whitening to whiten the racket-balls. When I used to hop the wag from school I went there, which was three times a week, which was the reg"lar racket-days. I used to spend my threepence in damaged fruit—have a pen"orth of damaged grapes or plums—or have a ha"porth of wafers from the confectioner"s. Ah, I"ve eat thousands and thousands of ha"porths. It"s a kind of a paste, but they stick like wafers— my father"s stuck a letter many a time with "em. They goes at the bottom of the russetfees cake —ah, ratafees is the word.

I got so unruly, and didn"t attend to school, so I was turned out, and then I went to help father and assist upon the customers. I was confined so in the shop, that I only stopped there three months, and then I run away. Then I had no home to go to, but I found a empty cart, situated in Red-cross-street, near the Borough-market, and there I slept for five nights. Then Greenwich fair came on. I went round the fair, and got assisting a artist as was a likeness-cutter, and had a booth, making black profiles. I assisted this man in building his booth, and he took a great fancy to me, and kept me as one of his own. He was a shoemaker as well, and did that when fair was over. I used to fetch his bristles and leather, and nuss the child. He lived near the Kent-road; and one day as I was going out for the leather, I fell upon mother, and she solaced me, and took me home; and then she rigged me out, and kept me, till I run away again; and that was when Greenwich fair came on again, for I wanted to go back then. At the fair I got to be doorsman and greasepot boy inside a exhibition, to let the people out and keep the lamps. I got a shilling aday for my attendance during fair time, and I travelled with them parties for five months. That was Peterson"s, the travelling comedian, or what we call a "mumming concern." When we got to Bexley, I thought I should like to see a piece called "Tricks and Trials," then being performed at the Surrey Theatre, so I cut away and come up to London again. There I got employment at a japanner, boiling up the stuff. I made a little bit of an appearance, and then I went home. I had learnt three or four comic songs, and I used to go singing at consart-rooms. I was a reg"lar professional. I went a busking at the free consart-rooms, and then go round with the cap. I principally sing "The Four-and-nine," or "The Dark Arches," or "The Ship"s Carpenter," and "The Goose Club."

It was at one of these free consart-rooms that I first saw a chap fire-eating. You see, at a free consart-room the professionals ain"t paid, no more do the audience to come in, but the performers are allowed to go round with a cap for their remuneration. They are the same as the cock-and-hen clubs. This fire-eater was of the name of West, and I know"d him afore, and he used to ask me to prepare the things for him. His performance was, he had a link a-light in his hand, and he used to take pieces off with a fork and eat it. Then he would get a plate with some sulphur, light it, place it under his nose, and inhale the fumes that rose from it; and then he used to eat it with a fork whilst a-light. After that he"d get a small portion of gunpowder, put it in the palm of his hand, and get a fusee to answer for a quick-match, to explode the powder, and that concluded the performance —only three tricks. I was stunned the first time I see him do it; but when I come to prepare the things for him, I got enlightened into the business. When his back was turned, I used to sniff at the sulphur on the sly. I found it rather hard, for the fumes used to get up your head, and reg"lar confuse you, and lose your memory. I kept on the singing at consarts, but I practised the fire-eating at home. I tried it for the matter of two months, before I found the art of it. It used to make me very thick in my voice; and if I began it before breakfast it used to make you feel ill: but I generally began it after meals. I tried the link and sulphur till I got perfect in these two. It blistered my mouth swallowing the fire, but I never burnt myself seriously at it.

After I learnt those, I got travelling again with a man that swallowed a poker, of the name of Yates. One of his tricks was with tow. He"d get some, and then get a fryingpan, and he"d put the tow in the fire-pan, and he"d get some ground rosin and brimstone together and put them on top of the tow in the pan. Then, when he"d set light to it, he used to bring it on the outside of the show and eat it with a knife and fork, while I held the pan. I learnt how to do the trick; this was when he had done with it, and I"d take it away. Then I used to eat the portion that was left in the pan, till I became the master of that feat.

When I left Yates I practised again at home until I was perfect, and then I went about doing the performance myself. The first place that I attempted was at the Fox and Cock, Gray"s-inn-lane, and I was engaged there at three shillings a-night, and with collections of what people used to throw to me I"d come away with about seven shillings and sixpence. I was very successful indeed, and I stopped there for about seven months, doing the fire-business; and I got another job at the same place, for one of the potmen turned dishonest, and the master gave me eight shillings a-week to do his work as well. I have continued ever since going to different concertrooms, and giving my performances. My general demand for a night"s engagement is four shillings and six pen"orth of refreshment. When I perform I usually have a decanter of ale and two glasses upon the table, and after every trick I sit down whilst an overture is being done and wash my mouth out, for it gets very hot. You"re obliged to pause a little, for after tasting one thing, if the palate doesn"t recover, you can"t tell when the smoke is coming.

I wore a regular dress, a kind of scalearmour costume, with a red lion on the breast. I do up my moustache with cork, and rouge a bit. My tights is brown, with black enamel jack-boots. On my head I wears a king"s coronet and a ringlet wig, bracelets on my wrists, and a red twill petticoat under the armour dress, where it opens on the limps.

For my performances I begin with eating the lighted link, an ordinary one as purchased at oil-shops. There"s no trick in it, only confidence. It won"t burn you in the inside, but if the pitch falls on the outside, of course it will hurt you. If you hold your breath the Cab Driver. [From a Photograph.] moment the lighted piece is put in your mouth, the flame goes out on the instant. Then we squench the flame with spittle. As we takes a bit of link in the mouth, we tucks it on one side of the cheek, as a monkey do with nuts in his pouch. After I have eaten sufficient fire I take hold of the link, and extinguish the lot by putting the burning end in my mouth. Sometimes, when I makes a slip, and don"t put it in careful, it makes your moustache fiz up. I must also mind how I opens my mouth, "cos the tar sticks to the lip wherever it touches, and pains sadly. This sore on my hand is caused by the melted pitch dropping on my fingers, and the sores is liable to be bad for a week or eight days. I don"t spit out my bits of link; I always swallow them. I never did spit "em out, for they are very wholesome, and keeps you from having any sickness. Whilst I"m getting the next trick ready I chews them up and eats them. It tastes rather roughish, but not nasty when you"re accustomed to it. It"s only like having a mouthful of dust, and very wholesome.

My next trick is with a piece of tow with a piece of tape rolled up in the interior. I begin to eat a portion of this tow—plain, not a-light —till I find a fitting opportunity to place the tape in the mouth. Then I pause for a time, and in the meantime I"m doing a little pantomime business—just like love business, serious—till I get the end of this tape between my teeth, and then I draws it out, supposed to be manufactured in the pit of the stomach. After that—which always goes immensely— I eat some more tow, and inside this tow there is what I call the fire-ball—that is, a lighted fusee bound round with tow and placed in the centre of the tow I"m eating—which I introduce at a fitting opportunity. Then I blows out with my breath, and that sends out smoke and fire. That there is a very hard trick, for it"s according how this here fire-ball bustes. Sometimes it bustes on the side, and then it burns all the inside of the mouth, and the next morning you can take out pretty well the inside of your mouth with your finger; but if it bustes near the teeth, then it"s all right, for there"s vent for it. I also makes the smoke and flame—that is, sparks—come down my nose, the same as coming out of a blacksmith"s chimney. It makes the eyes water, and there"s a tingling; but it don"t burn or make you giddy.

My next trick is with the brimstone. I have a plate of lighted sulphur, and first inhale the fumes, and then devour it with a fork and swallow it. As a costermonger said when he saw me do it, "I say, old boy, your game ain"t all brandy." There"s a kind of a acid, nasty, sour taste in this feat, and at first it used to make me feel sick; but now I"m used to it, and it don"t. When I puts it in my mouth it clings just like sealing-wax, and forms a kind of a dead ash. Of a morning, if I haven"t got my breakfast by a certain time, there"s a kind of a retching in my stomach, and that"s the only inconvenience I feel from swallowing the sulphur for that there feat.

The next is, with two sticks of sealing-wax and the same plate. They are lit by the gas and dropped on one another till they are bodily a-light. Then I borrow either a ring of the company, or a pencil-case, or a seal. I set the sealing-wax a-light with a fork, and I press the impression of whatever article I can get with the tongue, and the seal is passed round to the company. Then I finish eating the burning wax. I always spits that out after, when no one"s looking. The sealing-wax is all right if you get it into the interior of the mouth, but if it is stringy, and it falls, you can"t get it off, without it takes away skin and all. It has a very pleasant taste, and I always prefer the red, as it"s flavour is the best. Hold your breath and it goes out, but still the heat remains, and you can"t get along with that so fast as the sulphur. I often burn myself, especially when I"m bothered in my entertainment; such as any person talking about me close by, then I listen to "em perhaps, and I"m liable to burn myself. I haven"t been able to perform for three weeks after some of my burnings. I never let any of the audience know anything of it, but smother up the pain, and go on with my other tricks.

The other trick is a feat which I make known to the public as one of Ramo Samee"s, which he used to perform in public-houses and tap-rooms, and made a deal of money out of. With the same plate and a piece of dry tow placed in it, I have a pepper-box, with ground rosin and sulphur together. I light the tow, and with a knife and fork I set down to it and eat it, and exclaim, "This is my light supper." There isn"t no holding the breath so much in this trick as in the others, but you must get it into the mouth any how. It"s like eating a hot beef-steak when you are ravenous. The rosin is apt to drop on the flesh and cause a long blister. You see, we have to eat it with the head up, full-faced; and really, without it"s seen, nobody would believe what I do.

There"s another feat, of exploding the gunpowder. There"s two ways of exploding it. This is my way of doing it, though I only does it for my own benefits and on grand occasions, for it"s very dangerous indeed to the frame, for it"s sure to destroy the hair of the head; or if anything smothers it, it"s liable to shatter a thumb or a limb.

I have a man to wait on me for this trick, and he unloops my dress and takes it off, leaving the bare back and arms. Then I gets a quarter of a pound of powder, and I has an ounce put on the back part of the neck, in the hollow, and I holds out each arm with an orange in the palm of each hand, with a train along the arms, leading up to the neck. Then I turns my back to the audience, and my man fires the gunpowder, and it blew up in a minute, and ran down the train and blew up that in my hands. I"ve been pretty lucky with this trick, for it"s only been when the powder"s got under my bracelets, and then it hurts me. I"m obliged to hold the hand up, for if it hangs down it hurts awful. It looks like a scurvy, and as the new skin forms, the old one falls off.

That"s the whole of my general performance for concert business, when I go busking at free concerts or outside of shows (I generally gets a crown a-day at fairs). I never do the gunpowder, but only the tow and the link.

I have been engaged at the Flora Gardens, and at St. Helena Gardens, Rotherhithe, and then I was Signor Salamander, the great fire-king from the East-end theatres. At the Eel-pie-house, Peckham, I did the "terrific flight through the air," coming down a wire surrounded by fire-works. I was called Herr Alma, the flying fiend. There was four scaffold-poles placed at the top of the house to form a tower, just large enough for me to lie down on my belly, for the swivels on the rope to be screwed into the cradle round my body. A wire is the best, but they had a rope. On this cradle were places for the fireworks to be put in it. I had a helmet of fire on my head, and the three spark cases (they are made with steel-filings, and throw out sparks) made of Prince of Wales feathers. I had a sceptre in my hand of two serpents, and in their open mouths they put fire-balls, and they looked as if they was spitting fiery venom. I had wings, too, formed from the ankle to the waist. They was netting, and spangled, and well sized to throw off the fire. I only did this two nights, and I had ten shillings each performance. It"s a momentary feeling coming down, a kind of suffocation like, so that you must hold your breath. I had two men to cast me off. There was a gong first of all, knocked to attract the attention, and then I made my appearance. First, a painted pigeon, made of lead, is sent down the wire as a pilot. It has moveable wings. Then all the fire-works are lighted up, and I come down right through the thickest of "em. There"s a trap-door set in the scene at the end, and two men is there to look after it. As soon as I have passed it, the men shut it, and I dart up against a feather-bed. The speed I come down at regularly jams me up against it, but you see I throw away this sceptre and save myself with my hands a little. I feel fagged for want of breath. It seems like a sudden fright, you know. I sit down for a few minutes, and then I"m all right.

I"m never afraid of fire. There was a turner"s place that took fire, and I saved that house from being burned. He was a friend of mine, the turner was, and when I was there, the wife thought she heard the children crying, and asked me to go up and see what it was. As I went up I could smell fire worse and worse, and when I got in the room it was full of smoke, and all the carpet, and bed-hangings, and curtains smouldering. I opened the window, and the fire burst out, so I ups with the carpet and throw"d it out of window, together with the blazing chairs, and I rolled the linen and drapery up and throw"d them out. I was as near suffocated as possible. I went and felt the bed, and there was two children near dead from the smoke; I brought them down, and a medical man was called, and he brought them round.

I don"t reckon no more than two other fire-kings in London beside myself. I only know of two, and I should be sure to hear of "em if there were more. But they can only do three of the tricks, and I"ve got novelties enough to act for a fortnight, with fresh performances every evening. There"s a party in Drury-lane is willing to back me for five, fifteen, or twenty pounds, against anybody that will come and answer to it, to perform with any other man for cleanness and cleverness, and to show more variety of performance.

I"m always at fire-eating. That"s how I entirely get my living, and I perform five nights out of the six. Thursday night is the only night, as I may say, I"m idle. Thursday night everybody"s fagged, that"s the saying— Got no money. Friday, there"s many large firms pays their men on, especially in Bermondsey.

I"m out of an engagement now, and I don"t make more than eleven shillings a-week, because I"m busking; but when I"m in an engagement my money stands me about thirty-five shillings a-week, putting down the value of the drink as well—that is, what"s allowed for refreshment. Summer is the worst time for me, "cos people goes to the gardens. In the winter season I"m always engaged three months out of the six. You might say, if you counts the overplus at one time, and minus at other time, that I makes a pound a-week. I know what it is to go to the treasury on a Saturday, and get my thirty shillings, and I know what it is to have the landlord come with his "Hallo! hallo! here"s three weeks due, and another week running on."

I was very hard up at one time—when I was living in Friar-street—and I used to frequent a house kept by a betting-man, near the St. George"s Surrey Riding-school. A man I knew used to supply this betting-man with rats. I was at this public-house one night when this rat-man comes up to me, and says he, "Hallo! my pippin; here, I want you: I want to make a match. Will you kill thirty rats against my dog?" So I said, "Let me see the dog first;" and I looked at his mouth, and he was an old dog; so I says, "No, I won"t go in for thirty; but I don"t mind trying at twenty." He wanted to make it twenty-four, but I wouldn"t. They put the twenty in the rat-pit, and the dog went in first and killed his, and he took a quarter of an hour and two minutes. Then a fresh lot were put in the pit, and I began; my hands were tied behind me. They always make an allowance for a man, so the pit was made closer, for you see a man can"t turn round like a dog; I had half the space of the dog. The rats lay in a cluster, and then I picked them off where I wanted "em, and bit "em between the shoulders. It was when they came to one or two that I had the work, for they cut about. The last one made me remember him, for he gave me a bite, of which I"ve got the scar now. It festered, and I was obliged to have it cut out. I took Dutch drops for it, and poulticed it by day, and I was bad for three weeks. They made a subscription in the room of fifteen shillings for killing these rats. I won the match, and beat the dog by four minutes. The wager was five shillings, which I had. I was at the time so hard up, I"d do anything for some money; though, as far as that"s concerned, I"d go into a pit now, if anybody would make it worth my while.

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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