London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Street Reciter.


STREET reciters are somewhat scarce nowa- days, and I was a long time before meeting with ; for though I could always trace them through their wanderings about the streets, and learn where they had been seen the night before, still I could never find myself. I believe there are not more than lads in London,—for they seem to be all lads,—who are earning a livelihood by street-reciting.

At length I heard that some street actors, as they call themselves, lived in a court in the City. There were of them— a lad, who was dressed in a man"s ragged coat and burst boots, and tucked--up trowsers, and seemingly in a state of great want; and the other decently enough attired in a black paletot with a flash white-and-red handkerchief, or "fogle," as the costermongers call it, jauntily arranged so as to bulge over the closely-buttoned collar of his coat. There was a priggish look about the latter lad, while his manner was ""cute," and smacked of ; and though the other seemed to slink back, pushed himself saucily forward, and at once informed me that he belonged "to the profession" of street declaimer. "I and this other boy goes out together," he said, as he took a short pipe from his mouth; and in proof of his assertion, he volunteered that they should on the spot give me a specimen of their histrionic powers.

I preferred listening to the modest boy. He was an extremely good-looking lad, and spoke in a soft voice, almost like a girl"s. He had a bright, cheerful face, and a skin so transparent and healthy, and altogether appeared so different from the generality of street lads, that I felt convinced that he had not long led a wandering life, and that there was some mystery connected with his present pursuits. He blushed when spoken to, and his answers were nervously civil.

When I had the better-natured boy alone with me, I found that he had been well educated; and his statement will show that he was born of respectable parents, and the reason why he took to his present course of life. At he seemed to be nervous, and little inclined to talk; but as we became better acquainted, he chatted on even faster than my pen could follow. He had picked up several of the set phrases of theatrical parlance, such as, "But my dream has vanished in air;" or, "I felt that a blight was on my happiness;" and delivered his words in a romantic tone, as though he fancied he was acting on a stage. He volunteered to show me his declamatory powers, and selected "Othello"s Apology." He went to the back of the room, and after throwing his arms about him for a few seconds, and looking at the ceiling as if to inspire himself, he started off.

Whilst he had been chatting to us his voice was—as I said before—like a girl"s; but no sooner did he deliver his, "Most potent, grave, and reverend Signiors," than I was surprised to hear him assume a deep stomachic voice—a style evidently founded upon the melo-dramatic models at minor theatres. His good-looking


face, however, became flushed and excited during the delivery of the speech, his eyes rolled about, and he passed his hands through his hair, combing it with his fingers till it fell wildly about his neck like a mane.

When he had finished the speech he again relapsed into his quiet ways, and resuming his former tone of voice, seemed to think that an apology was requisite for the wildness of his acting, for he said, "When I act Shakspeare I cannot restrain myself,—it seems to master my very soul."

He had some little talent as an actor, but was possessed of more memory than knowledge of the use of words. Like other performers, he endeavoured to make his "points" by dropping his voice to almost a whisper when he came to the passage, "I" faith "twas strange, "twas passing strange."

In answer to my questions he gave me the following statement:—

"I am a street reciter, that is, I go about the streets and play Shakspeare"s tragedies, and selections from poets. The boys in the streets call me Shakspeare. The time they called me so I smiled at them, and was honoured by the name, though it"s only passing! it"s only fleet!

I was born in Dublin, and my father was in the army, and my mother was a lady"s nurse and midwife, and used to go out on urgent business, but only to ladies of the higher classes. My mother died in Dublin, and my father left the army and became a turnkey in Dublin prison. Father left Dublin when I was about years of age, and went to Manchester. Then I went into an office—a herring-store, which had agents at Yarmouth and other fishing-ports; and there I had to do writing. Summer-time was our busiest time, for we used to have to sit up at night waiting for the trains to come in with the fish. I used to get an hour for every hour we worked over, and in the morning for coffee, and standing wages, whether I worked or played. I know all about herrings and herring-packing, for I was years there, and the master was like a father to me, and would give me money many times, Christmas-boxes, and new-years" gifts, and such-like. I might have been there now, and foreman by this time, in the Isle of Man, where we had a house, only I was too foolish—going to theatres and such-like.

You see, I used, before I went out as clerk, to go to a school in Manchester, where the master taught recitation. We used to speak pieces from Uwin"s "Elocution," and we had to get a piece off to elocution, and attitude, and position; indeed, elocution may be said to be position and attitude. We used to do "The Downfall of Poland," and "Lord Ullen"s Daughter," and "My name is Norval," and several others—"Rolla," and all them. Then we used to speak them at a time, and occasionally we would take different parts, such as the "Quarrel of Brutus," and "Cassius," and "Rolla," and the "American Patriot," and such-like. I will not boast of myself, but I was of the best in the class, though since I have gone out in the streets it has spoiled my voice and my inclinations, for the people likes shouting. I have had as many as persons round me in the Walworth-road at time, and we got between us; and then we lost several halfpence, for it was night, and we could not see the money that was thrown into the ring. We did the "Gipsy"s Revenge," and "Othello"s Apology."

Whilst I was at the herring-stores I used to be very fond of the theatre, and I"d go there every night if I could, and I did nearly manage to be there every evening. I"d save up my money, and if I"d none I"d go to my master and ask him to let me have a few halfpence; and I"ve even wanted to go to the play so much that, when I couldn"t get any money, I"d sell my clothes to go. Master used to caution me, and say that the theatre would ruin me, and I"m sure it has. When my master would tell me to stop and do the books, I"d only just run them over at night and cast them up as quickly as I could, and then I"d run out and go to the twopenny theatre on the Victoria-bridge, Manchester. Sometimes I used to perform there for Mr. Row, who was the proprietor. It was what is called a travelling "slang," a booth erected temporarily. I did William Tell"s son, and I"ve also done the "Bloody Child" in Macbeth, and go on with the witches. It was a very little stage, but with very nice scenery, and shift-scenes and all, the same as any other theatre. On a Saturday night he used to have as many as houses; start off at o"clock, after the factory hands had been paid off. I never had any money for acting, for though he offered me half-a-sovereign a-week to come and take a part, yet I wouldn"t accept of it, for I only did it for my own amusement like. They used to call me King Dick.

My master knew I went to the theatre to act, for he sent of the boys to follow me, and he went in front and saw me acting in Macbeth, and he went and told master, because, just as the act was over, he came right behind the scenes and ordered me out, and told me I"d have to get another situation if I went there any more. He took me home and finished the books, and the next morning I told him I"d leave, for I felt as if it was my sole ambition to get on to the stage, or even put my foot on it; I was so enamoured of it. And it is the same now, for I"d do anything to get engaged—it"s as if a spell was on me. Just before I left he besought me to remain with him, and said that I was a useful hand to him, and a good boy when I liked, and that he wanted to make a gentleman of me. He was so fond of me that he often gave me money himself to go to a theatre; but he said too much of it was bad.



After I left him I went with another boy to go to sea. I forgot all about the theatre, for it agitated my feelings when I left him, and I wished I had been back, for I"d been with him eighteen months, and he"d been like a father to me; but I was too ashamed to see him again. This boy and me started for Scarborough, and he had no money, and I had , that was all between us; but I had a black suit of clothes cost , which my master had made me a present of, for excelling the foreman in making up the books—for the foreman was hands of herrings ( herrings make a hand) short in week; and then I took the books the next week, and I was only herrings short, and master was so pleased that he bestowed upon me a present of a new suit of clothes.

I parted with my companion for this reason. day, after we had been walking, we were so hungry we could eat anything, and I had been accustomed to never being hungry, so that I was very much exhausted from fatigue, for we had walked miles that day, only eating piece of bread, which I got at a public-house where I gave a recitation. We came to a farm-house at a place called Bishop Wilton, in Yorkshire, and he went inside the door to beg for something to eat. There was a young lady came out and talked to him and gave him some bread, and then she saw me and had compassion on me, because I looked respectable and was so miserable. We told her we were cousins, and had left our fathers and mothers (for we didn"t like to say we had left our masters), and she said, "Poor boys! your parents will be fretting after you; I"d go back, if I was you." She gave him a large bit of bread, and then she gave me a big bit of cold plum-pudding. My companion wanted half my pudding besides his own bread, and I preferred to give him part of the pudding and not have any bread; but he wouldn"t, and struck out at me. I returned it, and then we fought, and an old woman came out with a stick and beat us both, and said we were incorrigible young beggars, and couldn"t be very hungry or we shouldn"t fight that way. Then I parted from my companion, and he took the direct road to Scarborough, and I went to York. I saw him afterwards when I returned to Manchester. His father left him , and he"s doing very well in a good situation in a commercial office.

I got bound for years to sea to a shipowner at Scarborough, but the mate behaved very bad to me and used me brutally. I couldn"t use the ropes as well as he thought I might, although I learned the compass and all the ropes very soon. The captain was a very good man, but I daren"t tell him for fear of the mate. He used to beat me with the rope"s end—sometimes the lead-rope—that was his usual weapon, and he used to leave marks on me. I took the part of Hamlet, and, instead of complaining, I thought of that part where he says,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have,

Than fly to others that we know not of.

That"s the best play of Shakspeare; he outdoes himself there.

When the brig got to Scheidam, in Holland, five miles off Rotterdam, I ran away. The vessel was a collier, and whilst they were doing the one, two, three, and pulling up the coals, I slipped over the side and got to shore. I walked to Rotterdam, and there I met an Irish sailor and told him all, and he told me to apply to the British Consul and say that I had been left ashore by a Dutch galliot, which had sailed the day before for Jersey. The Consul put me in a boarding-house—a splendid place, with servants to wait on you, where they gave me everything, cigars and all, for everybody smokes there—little boys scarce higher than the table—and cigars are only a cent each—and five cents make a penny. I was like a gentleman then, and then they put me in the screw steamer, the Irwell, and sent me back to Hull.

When I got to Manchester again, I went in my sailor-clothes to see my old master. He was very glad to see me, and asked me if I wanted anything to eat, and sent out for ale for me, and was so glad to see me that he gave me money. He took me back again at higher wages, 10s.—which was 1s. 6d. over—and I stopped there eight months, until they wrote to me from Dublin that father was very ill, and that I was to come over directly. So I went, and was by him when he died. He was sixty-two years of age, and left 400l. to my sister, which she is to have when she comes of age. He quarrelled with me because he was a Catholic, and I didn"t follow that persuasion, and he disowned me; but, just before he died, he blessed me, and looked as if he wanted to say something to me, but he couldn"t, for the breath was leaving him.

When I returned to Manchester I found my master had taken another servant, as he expected I should stop in Dublin, and there was no vacancy; but he recommended me to another merchant, and there I was put in the yard to work among the herrings, as he didn"t know my capabilities; but, in a short time I was put in the shop as boy, and then I was very much in favour with the master and the missus, and the son, and he used to bring me to concerts and balls, and was very partial to me; and I used to eat and drink with them at their own table. I"ve been foolish, and never a friend to myself, for I ran away from them. A lad told me that London was such a fine place, and induced me to sell my clothes and take the train; and here I"ve been for about eight months knocking about.

As long as my money lasted I used to go to the theatre every night—to the Standard, and the City-road, and the Britannia; but when it was gone I looked then to see what I might do. At first I tried for a situation, but they wouldn"t take me, because I couldn"t get a recommendation in London. Then I formed a resolution of giving recitations from Shakspeare and the other poets in public-houses, and getting a living that way.

I had learned a good deal of Shakspeare at school; and besides, when I was with my master I had often bought penny copies of Shakspeare, and I used to study it in the office, hiding it under the book I was writing in; and, when nobody was looking, studying the speeches. I used to go and recite before the men in the yard, and they liked it.

The first night I went out I earned 4s., and that was a great cheer to my spirits. It was at a public-house in Fashion-street. I went into the tap-room and asked the gentlemen if they would wish to hear a recitation from Shakspeare, and they said, "Proceed." The first part I gave them was from Richard the Third: "Now is the winter of our discontent;" and then they clapped me and made me do it over again. Then I performed Hamlet"s "Soliloquy on the Immortality of the Soul," and they threw down 2s. in coppers, and one gentleman gave me sixpence.

I"ve continued giving recitations from Shakspeare and selections from the poets ever since, and done very well, until I became ill with a cold, which made my voice bad, so that I was unable to speak. I"ve been ill now a fortnight, and I went out last night for the first time, along with another young fellow who recites, and we got 1s. 6d. between us in the "Gipsy"s Revenge." We went to a publichouse where they were having "a lead," that is a collection for a friend who is ill, and the company throw down what they can for a subscription, and they have in a fiddle and make it social. But it was not a good "lead," and poorly attended, so we did not make much out of the company.

When I go out to recite, I generally go with another boy, and we take parts. The pieces that draw bestwith the public are, "The Gipsy"s Revenge," "The Gold Digger"s Revenge," "The Miser," "The Robber," "The Felon," and "The Highwayman." We take parts in these, and he always performs the villain, and I take the noble characters. He always dies, because he can do a splendid back-fall, and he looks so wicked when he"s got the moustaches on. I generally draws the company by giving two or three recitations, and then we perform a piece; and whilst he goes round with the hat, I recite again. My favourite recitations are, "Othello"s Apology," beginning with "Most potent, grave, and reverend Signiors," and those from Hamlet, Richard III., and Macbeth. Of the recitations I think the people prefer that from Othello, for the ladies have often asked me to give them that from Othello (they like to hear about Desdemona), but the gentlemen ask for that from Hamlet, "To be, or not to be?"

My principal place for giving performances is the Commercial-road, near Limehouse, but the most theatrically inclined neighbourhood is the Walworth-road. The most money I ever took at one time in the streets was 4s. in the Walworth-road.

The best receipts I ever had was got in a public-house near Brick-lane, for I took 12s., and I was alone. There was a "lead" up there for a friend, and I knew of it, and I had my hair curled and got myself decently habited, I was there for about three or four hours, and in the intervals between the dances I used to recite. There were girls there, and they took my part, though they made me drink so much I was nearly tipsy.

The only theatrical costume I put on is moustachios, and I take a stick to use as a sword. I put myself into attitudes, and look as fierce as I can. When first the people came to hear me they laughed, and then they became quiet; and sometimes you could hear a pin drop.

When I am at work regularly—that"s when I am in voice and will—I make about 10s. a-week, if there"s not much rain. If it"s wet, people don"t go to the public-houses, and they are my best paying audiences. The least I have ever taken in a week is about 6s.

There isn"t many going about London reciting. It is a very rare class to be found; I only know about four who live that way, and I have heard of the others from hearsay—not that I have seen them myself.

I"m very fond of music, and know most of the opera. That organ"s playing something by Verdi; I heard it at the theatre at Dublin. I amuse them sometimes in the kitchen at my lodgings by playing on a penny tin whistle. I can do "Still, so gently," from "La Sonnambula," and hornpipes, and jigs, and Scotch airs, as well as "Cheer boys, cheer," and "To the West," and many others. They get me to play when they want to dance, and they pay me for them. They call me Shakspeare by name.

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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