London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Tight-Rope Dancers and Stilt- Vaulters.


I AM the father of two little girls who perform on the tight-rope and on stilts. My wife also performs, so that the family by itself can give an entertainment that lasts an hour and a half altogether. I don"t perform myself, but I go about making the arrangements and engagements for them. Managers write to me from the country to get up entertainments for them, and to undertake the speculation at so much. Indeed I am a manager. I hire a place of amusement, and hire it at so much; or if they won"t let it, then I take an engagement for the family. I never fancied any professional work myself, except, perhaps, a bit of sculpture. I am rather partial to the poses plastiques, but that"s all.

Both my little girls are under eight years of age, and they do the stilt-waltzing, and the eldest does the tight-rope business as well. Their mother is a tight-rope dancer, and does the same business as Madame Sayin used to appear in, such as the ascension on the rope in the midst of fireworks. We had men in England who had done the ascension before Madame Sayin came out at Vauxhall, but I think she was the first woman that ever did it in this country. I remember her well. She lodged at a relation of mine during her engagement at the Gardens. She was a ugly little woman, very diminutive, and tremendously pitted with the small-pox. She was what may be called a horny woman, very tough and bony. I"ve heard my father and mother say she had 20l. a-night at Vauxhall, and she did it three times a-week; but I can"t vouch for this, as it was only hearsay.

My eldest little girl first began doing the stilts in public when she was three-and a-half years old. I don"t suppose she was much more than two-and-a-half years old when I first put her on the stilts. They were particularly short, was about four foot from the ground, so that she came to about as high as my arms. It was the funniest thing in the world to see her. She hadn"t got sufficient strength in her knees to keep her legs stiff, and she used to wabble about just like a fellow drunk, and lost the use of his limbs. The object of beginning so soon was to accustom it, and she was only on for a few minutes once or twice a-day. She liked this very much, in fact so much, that the other little ones used to cry like blazes because I wouldn"t let them have a turn at them. I used to make my girl do it, just like a bit of fun. She"d be laughing fit to crack her sides, and we"d be laughing to see her little legs bending about. I had a new dress made for her, with a spangled bodice and gauze skirt, and she always put that on when she was practising, and that used to induce her to the exercise. She was pleased as Punch when she had her fine clothes on. When she wasn"t good, I"d say to her, "Very well, miss, since you"re so naughty, you shan"t go out with us to perform; we"ll teach your little sister, and take her with us, and leave you at home." That used to settle her in a moment, for she didn"t like the idea of having the other one take her place.

Some people, when they teach their children for any entertainment, torture the little things most dreadful. There is a great deal of barbarity practised in teaching children for the various lines. It"s very silly, because it only frightens the little things, and some children often will do much more by kindness than ill-usage. Now there are several children that I know of that have been severely injured whilst being trained for the Risley business. Why, bless your soul, a little thing coming down on it"s head, is done for the remainder of it"s life. I"ve seen them crying on the stage, publicly, from being sworn at and bullied, where they would have gone to it laughing, if they had only been coaxed and persuaded.

Now my little things took to it almost naturally. It was bred and born in them, for my father was in the profession before me, and my wife"s parents were also performers. We had both my little girls on the stilts before they were three years old. It"s astonishing how soon the leg gets accustomed to the stilts, for in less than three months they can walk alone. Of course, for the first six weeks that they are put on we never leave go of their hands. The knees, which at first is weak and wabbly, gets strong, and when once that is used to the pad and stump (for the stilts are fastened on to just where the garter would come), then the child is all right. It does not enlarge the knee at all, and instead of croooking the leg, it acts in a similar way to what we see in a child born with the cricks, with irons on. I should say, that if any of my children have been born knock-kneed, or bow-legged, the stilts have been the means of making their legs straight. It does not fatigue their ankles at all, but the principal strain is on the hollow in the palm of the foot, where it fits into the tread of the still, for that"s the thing that bears the whole weight. If you keep a child on too long, it will complain of pain there; but mine were never on for more than twenty minutes at a time, and that"s not long enough to tire the foot. But one gets over this feeling.

I"ve had my young ones on the stilts amusing themselves in my back-yard for a whole afternoon. They"ll have them on and off three or four times in a hour, for it don"t take a minute or two to put them on. They would put them on for play. I"ve often had them asking me to let them stop away from school, so as to have them on.

My wife is very clever on the stilts. She does the routine of military exercise with them on. It"s the gun exercise. She takes one stilt off herself, and remains on the other, and then shoulders the stilt she has taken off, and shows the gun practice. She"s the only female stilt-dancer in England now. Those that were with her when she was a girl are all old women now. All of my family waltz and polka on stilts, and play tamborines whilst they dance. The little girls dance with their mother.

It took longer to teach the children to do the tight-rope. They were five years old before I first began to teach them. The first thing I taught them to walk upon was on a pole passed through the rails at the back of two chairs. When you"re teaching a child, you have not got time to go driving stakes into the ground to fix a rope upon. My pole was a bit of one of my wife"s broken balancepoles. It was as thick as a broom handle, and not much longer. I had to lay hold of the little things" hands at first. They had no balance-pole to hold, not for some months afterwards. My young ones liked it very much; I don"t know how other persons may. It was bred in them. They couldn"t stand even upright when first they tried it, but after three months they could just walk across it by themselves. I exercised them once every day, for I had other business to attend to, and I"d give them a lesson for just, perhaps, half an hour at dinner time, or of an evening a bit after I came home. My wife never would teach them herself. I taught my wife rope-dancing, and yet I could not do it; but I understood it by theory, though not by experience. I never chalked my young ones" feet, but I put them on a little pair of canvas pumps, to get the feet properly formed to grasp the rope, and to bend round. My wife"s feet, when she is on the rope, bend round from continual use, so that they form a hollow in the palm of the foot, or the waist of the foot as some call it. My girls" feet soon took the form. The foot is a little bit tender at first, not to the pole, because that is round and smooth, but the strands of the rope would, until the person has had some practice, blister the foot if kept too long on it. I never kept my young ones on the pole more than twenty minutes at a time, for it tired me more than them, and my arms used to ache with supporting them. Just when they got into the knack and habit of walking on the pole, then I shifted them to a rope, which I fixed up in my back-yard. The rope has to be a good cable size, about one-and-a-half inches in diameter. I always chalked the rope; chalk is of a very rough nature, and prevents slipping. The sole of the pump is always more or less hard and greasy. We don"t rough the soles of the pumps, for the rope itself will soon make them rough, no matter how bright they may have been. My rope was three feet six inches from the ground, which was a comfortable height for me to go alongside of the children. I didn"t give them the balancepole till they were pretty perfect without it. It is a great help, is the pole. The one my wife takes on the rope with her is eighteen feet long. Some of the poles are weighted at both ends, but ours are not. My young ones were able to dance on the rope in a twelvemonth"s time. They wern"t a bit nervous when I highered the rope in my yard. I was underneath to catch them. They seemed to like it.

They appeared in public on the tight-rope in less than a twelvemonth from their first lesson on the broom-stick on the backs of the chairs. My girl had done the stilts in public when she was only three years and six months old, so she was accustomed to an audience. It was in a gardens she made her first performance on the rope, and I was under her in case she fell. I always do that to this day.

Whenever I go to fairs to fulfil engagements, I always take all my own apparatus with me. There is the rope some twenty yards long, and then there"s the pulley-blocks for tightening it, and the cross-poles for fixing it up, and the balance-poles. I"m obliged to have a cart to take them along. I always make engagements, and never go in shares, for I don"t like that game. I could have lots of jobs at that game if I liked. There"s no hold on the proprietor of the show. There"s a share taken for this, and a share for this, so that before the company come to touch any money, twenty shares are gone out of thirty, and only ten left for the performers. I have had a pound a-day for myself and family at a fair. At the last one I went to, a week ago, we took somewhere about 25s. a-day. When it isn"t too far from London, we generally come home at night, but otherwise we go to a tavern, and put up there.

I only go to circuses when we are at fairs. I never had a booth of my own. The young ones and my wife walk about the parade to make a show of the entire company, but unless business is very bad, and a draw is wanted, my little ones don"t appear on the stilts. They have done so, of course, but I don"t like them to do so, unless as a favour.

In the ring, their general performance is the rope one time, and then reverse it and do the stilts. My wife and the girls all have their turns at the rope, following each other in their performances. The band generally plays quadrilles, or a waltz, or anything; it don"t matter what it is, so long as it is the proper time. They dance and do the springs in the air, and they also perform with chairs, seating themselves on it whilst on the rope, and also standing up on the chair. They also have a pair of ladders, and mount them. Then again they dance in fetters. I am there underneath, in evening costume, looking after them. They generally wind up their tightrope performance by flinging away the balancepole, and dancing without it to quick measure.

One of my little girls slipped off once, but I caught her directly as she came down, and she wasn"t in the least frightened, and went on again. I put her down, and she curtsied, and ran up again. Did she scream? Of course not. You can"t help having a slip off occasionally.

When they do the stilts, the young ones only dance waltzes and polkas, and so on. They have to use their hands for doing the graceful attitudes. My wife, as I said before, does the gun exercise besides dancing, and it"s always very successful with the audience, and goes down tremendously. The performances of the three takes about twenty minutes, I think, for I never timed it exactly. I"ve been at some fairs when we have done our performances eighteen times a-day, and I"ve been at some where I"ve only done it four or six, for it always depends upon what business is being done. That"s the truth. When the booth is full, then the inside performance begins, and until it is, the parade work is done. There are generally persons engaged expressly to do the parade business.

I never knew my girls catch cold at a fair, for they are generally held in hot weather, and the heat is rather more complained of than the cold. My young ones put on three or four different dresses during a fair—at least mine do. I don"t know what others do. Each dress is a different colour. There is a regular dressing-room for the ladies under the parade carriages, and their mother attends to them.

Very often after their performances they get fruit and money thrown to them into the Photographic Saloon, East End of London. [From a Sketch.] ring. I"ve known seven or eight shillings to be thrown to them in coppers and silver, but it"s seldom they get more than a shilling or so. I"ve known ladies and gentlemen wait for them when they went to take off their dresses after they have done, and give them five or six shillings.

When we go to fairs, I always pack the young ones off to bed about nine, and never later than ten. They don"t seem tired, and would like to stop up all night, I should think. I don"t know how it is with other kids.

I send my young ones to school every day when there is no business on, and they are getting on well with their schooling. When we go to a country engagement, then I send them to a school in the town if we stop any time.

Ours is, I think, the only family doing the rope-dancing and stilt-vaulting. I don"t know of any others, nor yet of any other children at all who do it.

Stilt-vaulting is dying out. You never see any children going about the streets as you did formerly. There never was so much money got as at that stilt-vaulting in the streets. My wife"s family, when she was young, thought nothing of going out of an afternoon, after dinner, and taking their three or four pounds. They used to be as tall up as the first-floor windows of some of the houses. It must be very nearly twenty years since I remember the last that appeared. It isn"t that the police would stop it, but there"s nobody to do it. It"s a very difficult thing to do, is walking about at that tremendous height. If you fall you"re done for. One of my little ones fell once—it was on some grass, I think —but she escaped without any hurt, for she was light, and gathered herself up in a heap somehow.

There used to be a celebrated Jellini family, with a similar entertainment to what I give. They were at the theatres mostly, and at public gardens, and so on. They used to do ballets on stilts, and had great success. That must be forty years ago. There used to be the Chaffs family too, who went about the streets on stilts. They had music with them, and danced in the public thoroughfares. Now there is nothing of the kind going on, and it"s out of date.

I have been abroad, in Holland, travelling with a circus company. I"ve also visited Belgium. The children and my wife were very much liked wherever they went. I was on an engagement then, and we had 11l. aweek, and I was with them seven weeks. They paid our travelling expenses there, and we paid them home.

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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