London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Strolling Actors.


WHAT are called strolling actors are those who go about the country and play at the various fairs and towns. As long as they are acting in a booth they are called canvas actors; but supposing they stop in a town a few days after a fair, or build up in a town where there is no fair, that constitutes what is termed private business.

We call strolling acting "mumming," and the actors "mummers." All spouting is mumming. A strolling actor is supposed to know something of everything. He doesn"t always get a part given to him to learn, but he"s more often told what character he"s to take, and what he"s to do, and he"s supposed to be able to find words capable of illustrating the character; in fact, he has to "gag," that is, make up words.

When old Richardson was alive, he used to make the actors study their parts regularly; and there"s Thorne and Bennett"s, and Douglas"s, and other large travelling concerns, that do so at the present time; but where there"s one that does, there"s ten that don"t. I was never in one that did, not to study the parts, and I have been mumming, on and off, these ten years.

There"s very few penny gaffs in London where they speak; in fact, I only know one where they do. It ain"t allowed by law, and the police are uncommon sewere. They generally play ballets and dumb acting, singing and dancing, and such-like.

I never heard of such a thing as a canvas theatre being prosecuted for having speaking plays performed, so long as a fair is going on, but if it builds at other times I have known the mayor to object to it, and order the company away. When we go to pitch in a town, we always, if it"s a quiet one, ask permission of the mayor to let us build.

The mummers have got a slang of their own, which parties connected with the perfession generally use. It is called "mummers" slang," and I have been told that it"s a compound of broken Italian and French. Some of the Romanee is also mixed up with it. This, for instance, is the slang for "Give me a glass of beer,"—"Your nabs sparkle my nabs," "a drop of beware." "I have got no money" is, "My nabs has nanti dinali." I"ll give you a few sentences.

"Parni" is rain; and "toba" is ground.

"Nanti numgare" is—No food.

"Nanti fogare" is—No tobacco.

"Is his nabs a bona pross?"—Is he good for something to drink?

"Nanti, his nabs is a keteva homer"—No, he"s a bad sort.

"The casa will parker our nabs multi" means,—This house will tumble down.

Vada the glaze" is—Look at the window.

These are nearly all the mummers" slang words we use; but they apply to different meanings. We call breakfast, dinner, tea, supper, all of them "numgare;" and all beer, brandy, water, or soup, are "beware." We call everbody "his nabs," or "her nabs." I went among the penny-ice men, who are Italian chaps, and I found that they were speaking a lot of mummers" slang. It is a good deal Italian. We think it must have originated from Italians who went about doing pantomimes.

Now, the way we count money is nearly all of it Italian; from one farthing up to a shilling is this:—

"Patina, nadsa, oni soldi, duey soldi, tray soldi, quatro soldi, chinqui soldi, say soldi, seter soldi, otter soldi, novra soldi, deshra soldi, lettra soldi, and a biouk." A half-crown is a "metsa carroon;" a "carroon" is a crown; "metsa punta" is half-a-sovereign; a "punta" is a pound. Even with these few words, by mixing them up with a few English ones, we can talk away as fast as if we was using our own language.

Mumming at fairs is harder than private business, because you have to perform so many times. You only wear one dress, and all the actor is expected to do is to stand up to the dances outside and act in. He"ll have to dance perhaps sixteen quadrilles in the course of the day, and act about as often inside. The company generally work in shares, or if they pay by the day, it"s about four or five shillings a-day. When you go to get engaged, the first question is, "What can you do?" and the next, "Do you find your own properties, such as russet boots, your dress, hat and feathers, &c?" Of course they like your dress the better if it"s a showy one; and it don"t much matter about its corresponding with the piece. For instance, Henry the Second, in "Fair Rosamond," always comes on with a cavalier"s dress, and nobody notices the difference of costume. In fact, the same dresses are used over and over again for the same pieces. The general dress for the ladies is a velvet skirt with a satin stomacher, with a gold band round the waist and a pearl band on the forehead. They, too, wear the same dresses for all the pieces. A regular fair show has only a small compass of dresses, for they only goes to the same places once in a-year, and of course their costumes ain"t remembered.

The principal fair pieces are "Blue Beard," "Robert, duke of Normandy," and "Fair Rosamond, or the Bowers of Woodstock." I recollect once they played "Maria Martin," at a fair, in a company I was with, and we played that in cavalier costume; and so we did "The Murder at Stanfield Hall," Rush"s affair, in dresses of the time of Charles the Second.

An actor"s share will average for a fair at five shillings a-day, if the fair is anything at all. When we don"t work we don"t get paid, so that if we only do one fair a-week, that"s fifteen shillings, unless we stop to do a day or two private business after the fair.

"Fair Rosamond" isn"t so good a piece as "Blue Beard," for that"s a great fair piece, and a never-failing draw. Five years ago I was with a company—Star and Lewis were the acting managers. Then "Blue Beard" was our favourite piece, and we played it five fairs out of six. "Fair Rosamond" is too sentimental. They like a comedy man, and the one in "Fair Rosamond" isn"t nothing. They like the secret-chamber scene in "Blue Beard." It"s generally done by the scene rolling up and discovering another, with skeletons painted on the back, and blue fire. We always carried that scene with us wherever we went, and for the other pieces the same scenes did. At Star"s, our scenes were somewhat about ten feet wide and eight feet high. They all rolled up, and there were generally about four in working order, with the drop curtain, which made five.

You may put the price of a good fair theatrical booth down at from fifty pounds to two hundred and fifty pounds. There"s some of them more expensive still. For instance, the paintings alone on the front of Douglas"s Shakesperian theatre, must have cost seventy pounds; and his dress must have cost a deal, for he"s got a private theatre at Bolton, and he works them there as well as at fairs.

The "Bottle Imp" is a very effective fair piece. It opens with a scene of Venice, and Willebald and Albert, which is the comedy man and the juvenile. The comic man"s principal line is, "I"ll tell your mother," every time Albert wants to go and see his sweetheart, or if he"s doing anything that he thinks improper. In the first act Albert goes to his sweetheart"s house, and the father consents to their union, provided he can gain so many ducats. Albert then finds out a stranger, who is Nicolo, who asks him to gamble with him at dice: Albert says he is poor. Nicolo says he once was poor, but now he has great wealth. He then tells Albert, that if he likes he can be rich too. He says, "Have you not heard of imps and bottle imps?" "Stuff!" says Albert; "me, indeed! a poor artist; I have heard of such things, but I heed them not." "But, boy," says Nicolo, "I have that in my possession will make you rich indeed; a drop of the elixir in this bottle, rubbed on the outside, will give you all you require; and if ever you wish to part with it, you must sell it for less than you gave." He gives three ducats for it, and as he gives the money the demon laughs from the side, "Ha! ha! ha! mine, mine!" Albert looks amazed. Nicolo says, "Ah, youth! may you know more happiness than I have whilst I had that in my possession:" and then he goes off. Albert then tries the power of the bottle. He says, "What, ho! I wish for wine," and it"s shoved on from the side. As he is drinking, Willebald exclaims, "O dear, O dear! I"ve been looking for my master. O that I were only safe back again in Threadneedle-street! I"ll never go hunting pretty girls again. Oh, won"t I tell his mother!" "How now, caitiff!—Leave me!" says Albert. "All right," says Willebald; "I"ll leave you— won"t I tell your mother!"

When Willebald goes, Albert wishes for sleep, and the Bottle Imp replies, "All your wishes shall be gratified, excepting one. Sleep you cannot have while I am in your possession." The demon then seizes him by the throat, and Albert falls on stage, demon exulting over him. Enter Willebald, who, seeing the demon, cries, "Murder! murder! Oh, won"t I tell their mothers!" and that ends the first act.

In the second and last act, Albert gives Willebald instructions to sell the bottle; "but it is to be for less than three ducats." Willebald says, "No marine-storekeeper would give three ducats for an old bottle;" but he goes off shouting, out "Who"ll buy a bottle? Who"ll buy a bottle?" In the next scene, Willebald is still shouting his bottle for sale, with folks laughing off stage and dogs barking. He says, "Ah! laugh away. It"s well to be merry, but I"m obliged to cry—Who"ll buy a bottle?" He then says he"s "not going walking about all day selling a bottle;" and then he says he"s got two ducats, and he"ll buy the bottle himself, sooner than trudge about Venice. Then he says, "Oh, Mr. Bottle, here are the ducats; now you are mine." Then the demon cries, "Mine, mine!" He says it was only the wind. Then he says, "Oh, how I wish I was at home again, and heard my little brothers and sisters singing!" And instantly from the sides you hear, "Boys and girls come out to play!" Then Willebald says, "I wish you"d hold your tongue, you little brutes!" and they cease. Next he complains that he"s so poor, and he wishes it would rain gold on him, and then down comes a shower. Then in comes Albert, who asks whether the bottle has been sold; and Willebald replies that it"s all right. "Thank heavens," cries Albert; "but yet I pity the miserable wretch who has bought it." "What do you mean? O dear, O dear! to frighten one so! I"ll tell your mother!" "Know ye not, caitiff!" continues Albert, "that that bottle contains a demon? O what a weight hast thou removed from my heart!" As Willebald is deploring his lot, enter a poor man, who asks for a drink of water; and Willebald tells him he can"t give him any water, but he has an elixir he shall have very cheap. The old man replies that he hasn"t got more than a petani, which is the sixtieth part of a farthing. However, Willebald sells him the bottle; and as it"s the smallest coin in the world, and the bottle can"t go no cheaper, the demon rushes in and seizes the beggar, who turns out to be Nicolo, the first who sold the bottle. As he is being carried off, Willebald cries out, "For shame, you ugly devil! to treat the old gentleman like that! Won"t I tell your mother!" and down comes the curtain.

The "Bottle Imp" is a very successful romantic drama. There"s plenty of blue fire in it. The "Bottle Imp" have it at every entrance that fellow do. There is some booths that are fonder of the "Bottle Imp" than any other piece. We played it at Bill Weale"s theatre more than any other drama. The imp is always acted by a man in a cloak with a mask on. You can see his cavalier boots under his cloak, but that don"t matter to holiday folk when once they know it"s intended to be a demon.

It"s a very jolly life strolling, and I wouldn"t leave it for any other if I had my choice. At times it"s hard lines; but for my part I prefer it to any other. It"s about fifteen shillings a-week for certain. If you can make up your mind to sleep in the booth, it ain"t such bad pay. But the most of the men go to lodgings, and they don"t forget to boast of it. "Where do you lodge?" one"ll ask. "Oh, I lodged at such a place," says another; for we"re all first-rate fellows, if you can get anybody to believe us.

Mummers" feed is a herring, which we call a pheasant. After performance we generally disperse, and those who have lodgings go to "em; but if any sleep in the booth, turn in. Perhaps there"s a batch of coffee brought forwards, a subscription supper of three. The coffee and sugar is put in a kettle and boiled up, and then served up in what we can get: either a saucepan lid, or a cocoa-nut shell, or a publican"s pot, or whatever they can get. Mummers is the poorest, flashest, and most independent race of men going. If you was to offer some of them a shilling they"d refuse it, though the most of them would take it. The generality of them is cobblers" lads, and tailors" apprentices, and clerks, and they do account for that by their having so much time to study over their work.

Private business is a better sort of acting. There we do nearly the entire piece, with only the difficult parts cut out. We only do the outline of the story, and gag it up. We"ve done various plays of Shakspeare in this way, such as "Hamlet" or "Othello," but only on benefit occasions. Then we go as near as memory will let us, but we must never appear to be stuck for words. Our prices of admission in the country for private business is threepence and sixpence, or sometimes sixpence or one shilling, for it all depends upon the town, but in London it"s oftener one penny and twopence. We only go to the outskirts and act there, for they won"t allow us in the streets. The principal parts for pitching the booth for private business in London, is about Lock"s-fields, Walworth. We opened there about six years ago last Easter.

Our rehearsals for a piece are the funniest things in the world. Perhaps we are going to play "The Floating Beacon, or The Weird Woman of the Wreck." The manager will, when the night"s performance is over, call the company together, and he"ll say to the lowcomedyman, "Now, you play Jack Junk, and this is your part: you"re supposed to fetch Frederick for to go to sea. Frederick gets capsized in the boat, and gets aboard of the floating beacon. You go to search for him, and the smugglers tell you he"s not aboard, and they give you the lie; then you say, "What, the lie to a English sailor!" and you chuck your quid in his eye, saying, "I"ve had it for the last fourteen days, and now I scud it with a full sail into your lubberly eye." Then you have to get Frederick off."

Then the manager will turn to the juvenile, and say, "Now, sir, you"ll play Frederick. Now then, Frederick, you"re in love with a girl, and old Winslade, the father, is very fond of you. You get into the boat to go to the ship, and you"re wrecked and get on to the beacon. You"re very faint, and stagger on, and do a back fall. You"re picked up by the weird woman, and have some dialogue with her; and then you have some dialogue with the two smugglers, Ormaloff and Augerstoff. You pretend to sleep, and they"re going to stab you, when the wild woman screams, and you awake and have some more dialogue. Then they bring a bottle, and you begin drinking. You change the cups. Then there"s more dialogue, and you tackle Ormaloff. Then you discover your mother and embrace. Jack Junk saves you. Form a picture with your mother, the girl, and old Winslade, and Jack Junk over you."

That"s his part, and he"s got to put it together and do the talk.

Then the manager turns to Ormaloff and Augerstoff, and says: "Now, you two play the smugglers, do you hear? You"re to try and poison the young fellow, and you"re defeated."

Then he say to the wild woman: "You"re kept as a prisoner aboard the beacon, where your husband has been murdered. You have refused to become the wife of Ormaloff. Your child has been thrown overboard. You discover him in Frederick, and you scream when they are about to stab him, and also when he"s about to drink. Make as much of it as you can, please; and don"t forget the scream."

"Winslade, you know your part. You"ve only got to follow Junk."

"You"re to play the lady, you Miss. You"re in love with Frederick. You know the old business: "What! to part thus? Alas! alas! never to this moment have I confessed I love you!""

That"s a true picture of a mumming rehearsal, whether it"s fair or private business. Some of the young chaps stick in their parts. They get the stage-fever and knocking in the knees. We"ve had to shove them on to the scene. They keep on asking what they"re to say. "Oh, say anything!" we tell "em, and push "em on to the stage.

If a man"s not gifted with the gab, he"s no good at a booth. I"ve been with a chap acting "Mary Woodbine," and he hasn"t known a word of his part. Then, when he"s stuck, he has seized me by the throat, and said, "Caitiff! dog! be sure thou provest my wife unfaithful to me." Then I saw his dodge, and I said, "Oh, my lord!" and he continued— "Give me the proof, or thou hadst best been born a dog." Then I answered, "My lord, you wrong your wife, and torture me;" and he said, "Forward, then, liar! dog!" and we both rushed off.

We were acting at Lock"s-fields, Walworth, once, doing private business, when we got into trouble, and were all put into prison for playing without a license. We had built up in a piece of private ground—in a dust-yard known as Calf"s—and we had been there eleven months doing exceedingly well. We treated the policeman every night, and gave him as much, with porter and money, that was equal to one shilling a-night, which was taken up from the company. It was something like a penny a-piece for the policeman, for we were rather afraid of something of the kind happening.

It was about the time that "Oliver Twist" was making such a success at the other theatres, and so we did a robbery from it, and brought out our version as "The Golden Farmer." Instead of having an artful dodge, we called our comic character Jimmy Twitcher, and made him do all the artful-dodgery business. We had three performances a-night in those days. We was in our second performance, and Jimmy Twitcher was in the act of getting through the window, and Hammer, the auctioneer, was asleep, saying in his sleep, "Knock "em down! going! going! gone!" when I saw the police in private clothes rising from the front seats, and coming towards the stage. They opened the side door, and let the other police in, about forty of them. Then the inspector said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I forbid any of you to move, as I arrest those people for performing without a license." Nobody moved. Three police took hold of me, one at each arm, and one at the back of the neck. They wouldn"t allow us to change our dresses, nor to take our other clothes, though they were close by. They marched us off to the Walworth station, along with about a hundred of the spectators, for some of them got away. My wife went to fetch my clothes for me, and they took her, too, and actually locked her up all night, though she was so near her pregnancy that the doctor ordered her pillows to sleep on. In the morning they took us all before the magistrate. The audience were fined one shilling a-head, or seven days; but they paid the shilling. We were all fined twenty shillings, or fourteen days. Some paid, but I couldn"t raise it, so I was walked off.

We were all in an awful fright when we found ourselves in the police-cell that night. Some said we should get six months, others twelve, and all we could say was, "What on earth will our old women do?"

We were all in our theatrical costumes. I was Hammer, the auctioneer, dressed in a long white coat, with the swallow-tails touching the ground, and blue bottoms. I had a long figured chintz waistcoat, and a pair of drab knee-breeches, grey stockings, and low shoes, and my hat was a white one with a low crown and broad brim, like a Quaker"s. To complete it, I wore a full bushy wig. As we were being walked off from Walworth to Kennington-lane, to go before the magistrate, the tops of the houses and the windows were full of people, waiting to see us come along in our dresses. They laughed more than pitied us. The police got pelted, and I caught a severe blow by accident, from a turnip out of a greengrocer"s shop.

I served all the time at Kingston, in my theatrical dress. I had nothing but bread and water all the time, with gruel for breakfast and supper. I had to pick oakum and make mats. I was only there two days before I was made deputy-wardsman, for they saw I was a decent sort of fellow. I was very much cut up, thinking of the wife so near her confinement. It was very hard, I thought, putting us in prison for getting our bread, for we never had any warning, whatever our master may have had. I can tell you, it was a nail in my coffin, these fourteen days, and one of us, of the name of Chau, did actually die through it, for he was of a very delicate constitution, and the cold laid hold of him. Why, fellows of our life and animation, to be shut up like that, and not allowed to utter a word, it was dreadful severe.

At this time a little penny work came out, entitled the "Groans of the Gallows." I was working at an establishment in Whitechapel, and it was thought that something fresh would be a draw, and it was suggested that we should play this "Groans of the Gallows," for everything about hanging was always a hit. There was such a thing as ten people in the piece, and five was prominent characters. We got it written by one of the company, and it was called "The Groans of the Gallows, or The Hangman"s Career, illustrated with pictures." This is how we brought it out. After an overture, the curtain rose and discovered a group on the stage, all with pots and pipes, gin measures, &c. They sing, "We won"t go home till morning," and "Kightly"s a jolly good fellow." Here the hangman is carousing with them, and his wife comes in and upbraids him with his intoxicating habits, and tells him that he spends all the money instead of purviding food for the children. A quarrel ensues, and he knocks her down with a quart pot and kills her. I was the hangman. There is then a picture of amazement from all, and he"s repenting of what he"s done. He then says, "This comes of a little drinking. From the half-pint to the pint, from the pint to the pot, and so on, till ruin stares me in the face. Not content with starving my children, I have murdered my wife. Oh that this may be a moral to all!"

The officers come in and arrest him, when enters the sheriff, who tells him that he has forfeited his life; but that there is a vacancy for the public executioner, and that if he will accept the office his life shall be spared. He accepts the office, and all the characters groan at him. This ends the first scene. In the second enters Kightly and two officers, who have got him and accuse him of murder. He is taken off proclaiming his innocence. Scene the third. Kightly discovered at table in condemned cell, a few months supposing to have elapsed. The bell is tolling, and the hour of seven is struck. Enter sheriffs with hangman, and they tell him to do his duty. They then leave him, and he speaks thus: "At length, then, two little months only have elapsed, and you, my friend and pot-companion, aye, and almost brother, are the first victim that I have to execute for murder,"—and I shudder you know—"which I know you are innocent of. Am I not a murderer, and do I not deserve hanging more than you? but the law will have it"s way, and I, the tool of that law, must carry it into force. It now becomes my painful duty to pinion your arms." Then I do so, and it makes such a thrill through the house. "I now take you from this place to your execution, where you will be suspended for one hour, and then it is my duty to cut you down. Have you any request to make?" He cries "None!" and I add, "Then follow me." I always come on to that scene with a white night-cap and a halter on my arm. All the audience was silent as death as I spoke, and with tears in their eyes. Scene the fourth. Gallows being erected by workmen. That"s a picture, you know, our fixing the top beam with a hammer, another at the bottom, and a third arranging the bolt at the top. The bell still tolling, you know. Ah, it brought it home to one or two of them, I can tell you. As soon as the workmen have finished they go off. Enter procession of sheriff, parson, hangman, and the victim, with two officers behind. The parson asks the victim if he has any request to make, and he still says "None," only he is innocent. The sheriffs then tell the hangman to do his duty. He then places the white cap over the man"s head, and the noose about his neck, and is about leaving to draw the bolt, when I exclaim, "Something here tells me that I ought not to hang this man. He is innocent, and I know it. I cannot, and I will not take his life." Enter officer in haste, with pardon for Kightly. I then say, "Kightly, you are free; live and be happy, and I am——" Here the sheriff adds, "Doomed to the galleys for life." That"s because I refused to kill him, you know. I then exclaim, "Then I shall be happy, knowing that I have not taken this man"s life, and be thus enabled to give up the office of executioner and it"s most horrid paraphernalia." Then there"s blue fire and end of piece.

That piece was very successful, and run for three weeks. It drew in a deal of money. The boys used to run after me in the streets and call me Calcraft, so great was the hit I made in the part. On one occasion a woman was to be hung, and I was going along Newgate, past the prison, on the Sunday evening. There was a quantity of people congregated, and some of the lads then recognised me from seeing me act in the "Groans from the Gallows," and they sung out "Here comes Calcraft!" Every eye was turned towards me. Some said, "No, no; that ain"t him;" but the boys replied, "Oh, yes it is; that"s the man that played it at the gaff." Of course I mizzled, for fear of a stone or two.

The pay of an actor in private business varies from two shillings and sixpence to three shillings, and each man is also supposed to sing two songs in each performance, which makes three performances a night besides performing a sketch. Your engagement lasts as long as you suit the audience; for if you"re a favourite you may have such a thing as nine months at a time. Whenever we have a benefit it"s a ticket one, which amounts to two hundred tickets and your night"s salary, which generally brings you in a pound, with your pay included. There"s one in the company generally has a benefit every Thursday, so that your turn comes once in about six months, for the musicians, and the checktakers, and all has their turn.

The expense of putting a new piece on the stage is not more than a pound, and that includes new scenery. They never do such a thing as buy new dresses. Perhaps they pay such a thing as six shillings a-week for their wardrobe to hire the dresses. Some gives as much as ten shillings; but then, naturally, the costume is more showy. All that we are supposed to find is russet boots, a set of fleshings, a ballet shirt, and a wig.

Town work is the more quiet and more general-business like. There"s no casualty in it, for you"re not in shares, but on salaries, and after your work there"s your money, for we are paid nightly. I have known as much as thirty-five shillings a-week given at one of these theatres, when the admission is only a penny and twopence. Where I was at it would hold from six to seven hundred people, and there was three performances a-night; and, indeed, on Saturdays and Mondays generally four. We have no extra pay for extra performances. The time allowed for each representation is from one hour to an hour and three-quarters. If we find there is a likelihood of a fourth house, we leave out a song each singer, and that saves half an hour. As soon as one house is turned out another comes in, for they are always waiting outside the doors, and there is a rush immediately the house is empty. We begin at six and are over by a few minutes before twelve. When we do speaking pieces we have to do it on the sly, as we should be stopped and get into trouble.

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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