London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Street Clown.


HE was a melancholy--looking man, with the sunken eyes and other characteristics of semi-starvation, whilst his face was scored with lines and wrinkles, telling of paint and premature age.

I saw him performing in the streets with a school of acrobats soon after I had been questioning him, and the readiness and business-like way with which he resumed his professional buffoonery was not a little remarkable. His story was more pathetic than comic, and proved that the life of a street clown is, perhaps, the most wretched of all existence. Jest as he may in the street, his life is literally no joke at home.

I have been a clown for sixteen years," he said, "having lived totally by it for that time. I was left motherless at two years of age, and my father died when I was nine. He was a carman, and his master took me as a stableboy, and I stayed with him until he failed in business. I was then left destitute again, and got employed as a supernumerary at Astley"s, at one shilling a-night. I was a "super" some time, and got an insight into theatrical life. I got acquainted, too, with singing people, and could sing a good song, and came out at last on my own account in the streets, in the Jim Crow line. My necessities forced me into a public line, which I am far from liking. I"d pull trucks at one shilling a-day, rather than get twelve shillings a-week at my business. I"ve tried to get out of the line. I"ve got a friend to advertise for me for any situation as groom. I"ve tried to get into the police, and I"ve tried other things, but somehow there seems an impossibility to get quit of the street business. Many times I have to play the clown, and indulge in all kinds of buffoonery, with a terrible heavy heart. I have travelled very much, too, but I never did over-well in the profession. At races I may have made ten shillings for two or three days, but that was only occasional; and what is ten shillings to keep a wife and family on, for a month maybe? I have three children, one now only eight weeks old. You can"t imagine, sir, what a curse the street business often becomes, with its insults and starvations. The day before my wife was confined, I jumped and labour"d doing Jim Crow for twelve hours— in the wet, too—and earned one shilling and threepence; with this I returned to a home without a bit of coal, and with only halfa- quartern loaf in it. I know it was one shilling and threepence; for I keep a sort of log of my earnings and my expenses; you"ll see on it what I"ve earn"d as clown, or the funnyman, with a party of acrobats, since the beginning of this year.

He showed me this log, as he called it, which was kept in small figures, on paper folded up as economically as possible. His latest weekly earnings were, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Against this was set off what the poor man had to expend for his dinner, &c., when out playing the clown, as he was away from home and could not dine with his family. The ciphers intimate the weeks when there was no


such expense, or in other words, those which had been passed without dinner. , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , This account shows an average of a-week as the gross gain, whilst, if the expenses be deducted, not quite remain as the average weekly sum to be taken home to wife and family.

I dare say," continued the man, "that no persons think more of their dignity than such as are in my way of life. I would rather starve than ask for parochial relief. Many a time I have gone to my labour without breaking my fast, and played clown until I could raise dinner. I have to make jokes as clown, and could fill a volume with all I knows.

He told me several of his jests; they were all of the most venerable kind, as for instance: —"A horse has legs: he has fore legs and hind ones. fores are , and others are ." The other jokes were equally puerile, as, "Why is the City of Rome," (he would have it Rome), "like a candle wick? Because it"s in the midst of Greece." "Old and young are both of age: your son at is young, and your horse at is old: and so old and young are the same." "The dress," he continued, "that I wear in the streets consists of red striped cotton stockings, with full trunks, dotted red and black. The body, which is dotted like the trunks, fits tight like a woman"s gown, and has full sleeves and frills. The wig or scalp is made of horse-hair, which is sown on to a white cap, and is in the shape of a cock"s comb. My face is painted with dry white lead. I grease my skin and then dab the white paint on (flake-white is too dear for us street clowns); after that I colour my cheeks and mouth with vermilion. I never dress at home; we all dress at publichouses. In the street where I lodge, only a very few know what I do for a living. I and my wife both strive to keep the business a secret from our neighbours. My wife does a little washing when able, and often works hours for sixpence. I go out at in the morning and return at dark. My children hardly know what I do. They see my dresses lying about, but that is all. My eldest is a girl of . She has seen me dressed at Stepney fair, where she brought me my tea (I live near there); she laughs when she sees me in my clown"s dress, and wants to stay with me: but I would rather see her lay dead before me (and I had dead in my place at time, last Whitsun Monday was a twelvemonth) than she should ever belong to my profession."

I could see the tears start from the man"s eyes as he said this.

Frequently when I am playing the fool in the streets, I feel very sad at heart. I can"t help thinking of the bare cupboards at home; but what"s that to the world? I"ve often and often been at home all day when it has been wet, with no food at all, either to give my children or take myself, and have gone out at night to the public-houses to sing a comic song or play the funnyman for a meal—you may imagine with what feelings for the part—and when I"ve come home I"ve call"d my children up from their beds to share the loaf I had brought back with me. I know three or more clowns as miserable and bad off as myself. The way in which our profession is ruined is by the stragglers or outsiders, who are often men who are good tradesmen. They take to the clown"s business only at holiday or fair time, when there is a little money to be picked up at it, and after that they go back to their own trades; so that, you see, we, who are obliged to continue at it the year through, are deprived of even the little bit of luck we should otherwise have. I know only of another regular street clown in London besides myself. Some schools of acrobats, to be sure, will have a comic character of some kind or other, to keep the pitch up; that is, to amuse the people while the money is being collected: but these, in general, are not regular clowns. They are mostly dressed and got up for the occasion. They certainly don"t do anything else but the street comic business, but they are not pantomimists by profession. The street clowns generally go out with dancers and tumblers. There are some street clowns to be seen with the Jacksin-the-greens; but they are mostly sweeps, who have hired their dress for the two or three days, as the case may be. I think there are three regular clowns in the metropolis, and one of these is not a professional: he never smelt the sawdust, I know, sir. The most that I have known have been shoemakers before taking to the business. When I go out as a street clown, the first thing I do is a comic medley dance; and then after that I crack a few jokes, and that is the whole of my entertainment. The first part of the medley dance is called "the good St. Anthony" (I was the first that ever danced the polka in the streets); then I do a waltz, and wind up with a hornpipe. After that I go through a little burlesque business. I fan myself, and one of the school asks me whether I am out of breath? I answer, "No, the breath is out of me." The leading questions for the jokes are all regularly prepared beforehand. The old jokes always go best with our audiences. The older they are, the better for the streets. I know, indeed, of nothing new in the joking way; but even if there was, and it was in any way deep, it would not do for the public thoroughfares. I have read a great deal of "Punch," but the jokes are nearly all too high there; indeed, I can"t say I think very much of them myself. The principal way in which I"ve got up my jokes is through associating with other clowns. We don"t make our jokes ourselves; in fact, I never knew one clown who did. I must own that the street clowns like a little drop of spirits, and occasionally a good deal. They are in a measure obligated to it. I can"t fancy a clown being funny on small beer; and I never in all my life knew one who was a teetotaller. I think such a person would be a curious character, indeed. Most of the street clowns die in the workhouses. In their old age they are generally very wretched and poverty-stricken. I can"t say what I think will be the end of me. I daren"t think of it, sir.

A few minutes afterwards I saw this man dressed as Jim Crow, with his face blackened, dancing and singing in the streets as if he was the lightest-hearted fellow in all London.

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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