London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Penny-Circus Jester.


A MAN who had passed many years of his life as jester at the cheap circuses, or penny equestrian shows frequenting the fairs in the neighbourhood of London, obliged me with the following details:—

There are only two kinds of clowns, the stage and the circus clown, only there is different denominations: for instance, the clown at the fair and the clown at the regular theatre, as well as the penny gaff (when they give pantomimes there), are one and the same kind of clown, only better or worse, according to the pay and kind of performance; but it"s the same sort of business. Now the circus clown is of the same kind as those that go about with schools of acrobats and negro serenaders. He is expected to be witty and say clever things, and invent anything he can for the evening"s performance; but the theatre clown is expected to do nothing but what enters into the business of the piece. Them two are the main distinctions we make in the perfession.

I"ve travelled along with only two circuses; but then it"s the time you stop with them, for I was eighteen months along with a man of the name of Johnson, who performed at the Albion, Whitechapel, and in Museum-street, opposite Drury-lane (he had a penny exhibition then), and for above two years and a half along with Veale, who had a circus at the Birdcage, Hackney-road, and at Walworth.

At Museum-street we only had one "prad," which is slang for pony, although we used to introduce all the circus business. We had jugglers, and globe-runners, and tight-rope dancers also. We never had no ring built, but only sawdust on the stage, and all the wings taken out. They used to begin with a chant and a hop (singing and dancing), after which there was tight-rope hopping. As soon as ever the rope was drawn up, Johnson, who had a whip in his hand, the same as if it was a regular circus, used to say, "Now, Mr. Merryman." Then I"d run on and answer, "Here I am, sir, all of a lump, as the old man said what found the sixpence. I"m up and dressed, like a watchbox. Whatshall I have the pleasure for to come for to go, for to go for to fetch, for to fetch for to carry, to oblige you?" I usually wore a ring dress, with red rings round my trunks, and a fly to correspond. The tights had straight red lines. My wig was a white one with a red comb. Then Johnson would say, "Have the pleasure to announce Madame Leone." Then I give it: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Madame Leone, a young lady that threw her clothes into bed and hung herself upon the door-nail." Then she just gets up on the rope, and I go and sit down as if I was going to sleep. Mr. Johnson then says, "Come, sir, you"re going to sleep; you"ve got your eyes shut." I answer, "I beg your pardon, sir, I was not asleep." And then he says I was, and I contradict him, and add, "If I had my eyes shut, I am the first of the family that went to sleep so." Then he asks how that is? and I reply, "Because they were afraid of having their pockets picked;" and he says, "Nonsense! all your family was very poor, there was nothing in their pockets to pick;" and I add, "Yes, but there was the stitches though." All these puns and catches goes immense. "Now, sir," he continues, "chalk the rope." I say, "Whose place is it?" and he replies, "The fool"s." "Then do it yourself," I answer. And then we go on in this style. He cries, "What did you say, sir?" "I said I"d do it myself." "Now, Madame Leone, are you ready?" and she nods; and then I tell the music to toodelloo and blow us up. She then does a step or two—a little of the polka—and retires, and I am told to chalk the rope again, and this is our talk: "Oh dear, oh dear! there"s no rest for the wicked. Sir, would you be so kind, so obliging, as to inform me why I chalk the top of the rope?" "To prevent the young lady from slipping down, sir." "Oh, indeed! then I"ll chalk underneath the rope." He then asks, "What are you doing of, sir?" "Why didn"t you tell me when I chalked the top it"s to prevent the young lady from slipping down?" "Yes, sir." "Then I chalked underneath, to prevent her from slipping up again. Would you oblige me with your hand?" Then I look at it and say, "Plenty of corns in it; you"ve done some hard work in your time." "I have, sir." "Beautiful nails, too;" and then I rub the chalk on his hand, and when he asks what I"m doing of, I say "Chalking it." "What for, sir?" "Why, sir, to keep it from slipping into other people"s pockets." Then he gives me a click of whip and says, "Out of the way, sir! Now, Madame Leone, proceed."

When she"s finished the dance I cry, "Now I"ll get on the rope and have a try," and I mount very courageously, crying, I"d be a butcher"s boy, Born in the Borough, Beef-steaks to-day And mutton chops to-morrow.

Then I find the rope move, and pretend to be frightened, and cry, "O Lord, don"t! it shakes." Then I ask, "Mr. Johnson, will you chalk my pulse and hand me up the barber"s-pole?" and when I"ve got it I say, "Here"s a nice ornament on a twelfth-cake." I also ask him, "I say, sir, did you ever know some of myfriends was first-rate rope-dancers?" "No, sir." "Oh yes, sir, they danced to some of the large houses." "What house was that, sir? was it Victoria?" "I know nothing about Victoria, sir; you must ask Albert." "Perhaps, sir, it was the Garrick." "Oh, catch my brother dancing in a garret." "Perhaps, sir, it was Covent Garden." "No, sir, he never danced in no garden, nor a lane neither." "Perhaps, sir, it was the Haymarket." "No, sir; nor the Corn-market." "I see, sir, you can"t remember the house." "No, sir; I"ll tell you, sir, it"s a high stone building between Holborn and Newgate-market." "Oh, you mean Newgate." "Yes, sir; don"t you remember we were both in there for pot stealing?" "Come down here, sir, and I"ll give you a flogging." "You mean to say, sir, you"ll give me a flogging if I come down?" "Yes, sir." "Then, sir, I shall remain where I am." I then tell the music to toodelloo and blow us up, and I attempt to dance, and he lets the rope down, which throws me on to my back. He asks, "Are you hurt?" and I reply, "No, I"m killed." "Get up, sir." "I"ll not move, sir." "I"ll give you the whip, sir." "That"s no use, sir; I"ve made a bargain with it, that if I don"t touch it it won"t touch me. Oh, ain"t I bad! I"ve got the cobbler"s marbles, or else the hen-flew-out-of-the-window." "Here"s a policeman coming!" and then I jumps up in a minute, and ask, "Where?"

Then I go to his whip, and touch it. "What"s this, Mr. Johnson?" "My whip, sir." "I"ll tell you what it is, Mr. Johnson, I"ll bet you a bottle of blacking and a three-out brush, that you can"t say "my whip" to three questions that I shall put to you." "I"ll take you, sir." I then take the whip from him, and say, "Providing, sir, you was to meet a poor blind old man, and you was to give him a ha"penny, and you was to meet me and make me a present of a 5l. note, what would you deserve?" He says, "My whip, sir." "Yes, sir; that"s one to you. I say, sir, you"ve got a daughter, and if she was to marry and get a great deal of money, what would you deserve?" "My whip, sir." "Certainly, sir; that"s two to you. Now, sir, providing you was a top of that rope, and I was to undo the rope and let you down, and I was to give you the cobbler"s marbles with the hen-flew-out-of-the-window, and tell you that a policeman was a-coming, what should I deserve?" Then he don"t like to say, "My whip," and stammers out; at last he says it, and then I beat him round the stage till he runs off. Then I lay it down and cry cocka- doodle-do, crowing for victory, and he creeps in and gets the whip again, and then lashes me.

After juggling and globes, we always did "a laughable sketch entitled Billy Button"s ride to Brentford," and I used to be Jeremiah Stitchem, a servant of Billy Button"s, that comes for a "sitiation." It opens this way. Jeremiah makes applications for this situation. He asks, "What can you do?" "Everythink and nothink." "Can you clean plates?" "I can break "em." "Can you run errands?" "All ways." He is engaged at 4s. a-week and his board; and then comes some comic business about a letter coming by post. Billy tells him to bring him a light to read this letter, and he sets fire to it. This letter is from Brentford, saying that his sister"s ill and that he"s wanted directly. He goes to a livery stable and asks for a lady"s pony, at the same time saying he wants it quiet. The man Circus Clown at Fair. says he"s got three: one that is blind, and threw the last gentleman that rode it into a ditch, and Billy won"t have that. The other is lame of one leg, and he don"t like that, for he wants a lady"s pony that is very quiet. Then this stable-keeper recommends this pony, saying it"s very quiet, but it"s a kicker. Then first he gets up the wrong way, and the head comes round to the tail of the horse; Jerry then tells him he"s wrong, and then offers to give him a "bung up," and chucks him right over the pony"s back on to the ground on the other side. He then gets on properly, ready for starting, and tells Jerry he may expect him home in a day or two. He tries to start the pony, but it won"t go. Jerry takes a needle and pretends to stick it into the pony"s flank, which causes it to kick and rear until he throws Billy Button off; and then the pony chases Jerry round the stage with his mouth open to bite him. Then there"s a regular confusion, and that winds it up.

If that pony catched you he"d give it you, too. He caught hold of me one night by my trousers, and nearly shook my life out of me. It hurt me, but everybody roared and thought it all right. After that I hit upon a dodge. I used to have a roll of calico tacked on to my back, and the pony would catch hold of it and pull out about four yards of what looked like a shirt. Those ponies are very playful, and may be taught anything.

The stage-clown"s dress is what we term full dresses, with a wig and a tail, but the circus clown"s is merely the top-knot, and the ring dress, as if they are spangled they are always on the twist, something in the style of the serpent. They don"t do the red half-moon on the cheek, like stage clowns, but they have just a dab, running up to the cheek-bone. A stage-clown"s dress costs from from 5l. to 10l.; but a circus clown can make a suit complete, with pumps and all, for from 30s. to 35s. There"s such a thing as fourteen or fifteen yards of canvas in a stage-clown"s full dress; and that"s without exaggerating.

Veal"s was the best circus I was at; there they had six prads (horses) and two ponies, and the performers were the best then of the day; for they had Monsieur Ludowic, a Frenchman, and the best bare-back juggler about. Mr. Moffat"s troupe, and Mr. Emery"s, was there also. Mr. Douglas was clown along with me, and little Ned and Sam was the tumblers. We had a large tent and regular circus, and could accommodate 1500 or 1600 people. I had 35s. a-week all the time I was there, (near 2 1/2 years), and it wasn"t much, considering the work, for I had to produce all the pantomimes and act as ballet-master as well.

It is, and it ain"t, difficult to ride round a circus standing up. I"ve known one man, who had never rode before in all his life, and yet went on one night, when they were short of hands, and done the Olympians to the best of his abilities, without falling off, though he felt very nervous. For these scenes they go slowly. You have to keep your eye fixed on the horse"s head. I"ve been in a circus so long, and yet I can"t ride. Even following the horse round the ring makes me feel so giddy at times, that I have had to catch hold of the tent-pole in the middle just to steady myself.

I wasn"t the regular principal clown at Veal"s—only on occasions; I was the speaking clown and jester. I used to do such things as those:—For instance, there is a act—which is rode—called "The Shipwrecked Sailors," where he rides round the ring, introducing the shipwreck hornpipe, and doing a pantomime of giving a imitation of the sinking of the ship, and his swimming and returning safe on shore. Between the parts I used to say to the ring-master, "Are you aware, sir, that I"ve been to sea?" He"d say, "No, sir." Then we"d go on: "Yes, sir; I once took a voyage to the Ickney Nockney Islands, off Bulbusen, just by the Thames Tunnel, in the mud." "Indeed, sir!" "Yes, sir; and I"ve seen some wonderful sights, sir, in my time." "Indeed, sir!" "Yes, sir: on this occasion it come so cold, that as the captain was on the quarterdeck, as he gave the word of command to the men, the words dropped out of his mouth lumps of ice on the deck. The ship would have been lost, had I not had the presence of mind to pick the words up, put them into a fryingpan, and warm them over the galleyfire: and as they thawed, so I gave the word of command to the men." "Dear me, sir! that was a wonderful sight!" "It was indeed, sir!" "I don"t believe a word of it." "Ah, sir, if you"d have been there, you"d have seen it yourself." "I don"t believe a word of it, Mr. Merryman." "Oh! come, sir, you must believe some." "Well, I believe a part it." "Then I believe the other part, sir, and so that makes the lot." "That"s right, sir." "Well, sir, I went for another voyage; and going through the Needles our vessel sprung a leak; not an onion, a leak; and she got a hole in her side." "She, sir?" "Yes, sir, the ship; so the pumps was put to work; but as fast as they pumped the water out it came in at the hole, and the ship was sinking, when the captain came on deck and asked if there was any man courageous enough to stop the hole. Of course, sir, I was there." "But you"re not courageous." "Ain"t I, sir? try me." "Now, says he, "if there"s any man will stop this hole, to him will I give the hand of my daughter and 150l. So away I went down in the hold, and there was more than about 15 foot of water, and I pops my head in the hole until they got the vessel ashore. So you see, sir, I had the hand of his daughter and the 150l." "That was a good job for you, Mr. Merryman." "No, sir; it was a bad job." "How was that, sir?" "Because when I was married I found that she was a cream of tartar." "Then, sir, you had the money; that was a good job for you." "No, sir; that was a bad job, sir." "How so?" "I bought some sheep and oxen, and they died of the rot." "Ah! that was a bad job, Mr. Merryman." "No, sir; it was a good job; for shoes were very dear, and I sold the hides for more than I gave for the cattle." "Well, that was a good job." "No, sir, that was a bad job: for I built houses with the money and they got burned down." "Indeed, sir! that was a very bad job for you." "Oh no, sir; it was a very good job, because my wife got burnt in them, and, you see, I got rid of a tormenting wife."

There"s another famous gag ring-jesters always do, and I was very successful with it. After the act of horsemanship is over, when the ring-master is about leaving the ring, I say, "Allow me to go first, sir;" and he replies, "No, sir, I never follow a fool." Then we go on:—"I always do," meaning him. "What did you say, sir?" "That"s quite true, sir." "I say, sir, did ever you see my sweetheart?" "No, sir." "There she is, sir; that nice young girl sitting there." "I don"t see her."—"Yes, there, sir, a-winking at me now. Ah! you little ducksey, ducksey, ducksey!" "I don"t see her, sir." Then I gets him to the middle of the ring, and whilst he is pretending to stare in the direction I pointed to, I bolt off, saying, "I never follows a fool."

At fairs we do pretty well, and a circus always pays better than an acting-booth. We are always on salaries, and never go upon shares. The actors often say we look down upon them, and think them beneath our notice; and I dare say it"s true, to a great extent. I"ve heard our chaps cry out, "Won"t you be glad when herrings are cheap?" or, "How were you off for bits of candle and lumps of coke last night at sharing?" Then, no doubt, we live better at circuses, for we do our steaks and onions, and all that sort of thing; and, perhaps, that makes us cheeky."

Some jesters at circuses get tremendous engagements. Mr. Barry, they say, had 10l. a-week at Astley"s; and Stonalfe, with his dogs, is, I should think, equal to him. There"s another, Nelson, too, who plays on the harmonicon, and does tunes on bits of wood— the same as went on the water in a tub drawn by geese, when the bridge broke down at Yarmouth—he"s had as much as 15l. a-week on a regular travelling engagement.

There ain"t so many jesters as tumbling clowns. I think it"s because they find it almost too much for them; for a jester has to be ready with his tongue if anything goes wrong in the ring. I shouldn"t think there was more than from thirty to forty jesters in England. I reckon in this way. There are from ten to fifteen circuses, and that"s allowing them two jesters each. In the threepenny circus, such as Clarke"s or Frazier"s, the salary for a jester is about 2l. a-week, take the year round.

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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