London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Street Negro Serenaders.


AT present I shall deal with the Ethiopian serenaders, and the better class of balladsingers. young men who are of the former class gave the following account. Both were dressed like decent mechanics, with perfectly clean faces, excepting a little of the professional black at the root of the hair on the forehead:—

We are niggers," said one man, "as it"s commonly called; that is, negro melodists. Nigger bands vary from four to seven, and have numbered as many as nine; our band is now six. We all share alike. I (said the same man) was the first who started the niggers in the streets, abour four years ago. I took the hint from the performance of Pell and the others at the St. James"s. When I first started in the streets I had five performers, four and myself. There were the banjo-player, the bones, fiddle, and tambourine. We are regu- larly full-dressed, in fashionable black coats and trowsers, open white waistcoats, pumps (bluchers some had, just as they could spring them), and wigs to imitate the real negro head of hair. Large white wrists or cuffs came out after. It was rather a venturesome "spec, the street niggers, for I had to find all the clothes at first start, as I set the school a-going. Perhaps it cost me 6s. a-head all round—all second-hand dress except the wigs, and each man made his own wig out of horse-hair dyed black, and sewn with black thread on to the skin of an old silk hat. Well, we first started at the top of the Liverpool-road, but it was no great success, as we weren"t quite up in our parts and didn"t play exactly into one another"s hands. None of us were perfect, we"d had so few rehearsals. One of us had been a street singer before, another a street fiddler, another had sung nigger-songs in public-houses, the fourth was a mud-lark, and I had been a street singer. I was brought up to no trade regularly. When my father died I was left on the world, and I worked in Marylebone stoneyard, and afterwards sung about the streets, or shifted as I could. I first sung in the streets just before the Queen"s coronation—and a hard life it was. But, to tell the truth, I didn"t like the thoughts of hard labour—bringing a man in so little, too—that"s where it is; and as soon as I could make any sort of living in the streets with singing and such-like, I got to like it. The first "debew," as I may say, of the niggers, brought us in about 10s. among us, besides paying for our dinner and a pint of beer a-piece. We were forced to be steady you see, sir, as we didn"t know how it would answer. We sang from eleven in the morning till halfpast ten at night, summer time. We kept on day after day, not rehearsing, but practising in the streets, for rehearsing in private was of little use—voices are as different in private rooms and the public streets as is chalk from cheese. We got more confidence as we went along. To be sure we had all cheek enough to start with, but this was a fresh line of business. Times mended as we got better at our work. Last year was the best year I"ve known. We start generally about ten, and play till it"s dark in fine weather. We averaged 1l. a-week last year. The evenings are the best time. Regent-street, and Oxford-street, and the greater part of St. James"s, are our best places. The gentry are our best customers, but we get more from gentlemen than from ladies. The City is good, I fancy, but they won"t let us work it; it"s only the lower parts, Whitechapel and Smithfield ways, that we have a chance in. Business and nigger-songs don"t go well together. The first four days of the week are pretty much alike for our business. Friday is bad, and so is Saturday, until night comes, and we then get money from the working people. The markets, such as Cleveland-street, Fitzroy-square (Tottenhamcourt- road"s no good at any time). Carnaby-market, Newport-market, Great Marylebone-street, and the Edgeware-road, are good Saturday nights. Oxford-street is middling. The New-cut is as bad a place as can be. When we started, the songs we knew was "Old Mr. Coon," "Buffalo Gals," "Going ober de Mountain," "Dandy Jim of Carolina," "Rowly Boly O," and "Old Johnny Booker." We stuck to them a twelvemonth. The "Buffalo Gals" was best liked. The "bones"—we"ve real bones, rib-of-beef bones, but some have ebony bones, which sound better than rib-bones—they tell best in "Going ober de Mountain," for there"s a symphony between every line. It"s rather difficult to play the bones well; it requires hard practice, and it brings the skin off; and some men have tried it, but with so little success that they broke their bones and flung them away. The banjo is the hardest to learn of the lot. We have kept changing our songs all along; but some of the old ones are still sung. The other favourites are, or were, "Lucy Neale," "O, Susannah," "Uncle Ned," "Stop dat Knocking," "Ginger Blue," and "Black-eyed Susannah." Things are not so good as they were. We can average 1l. a-piece now in the week, but it"s summer-time, and we can"t make that in bad weather. Then there"s so many of us. There"s the Somer"s-town "mob" now in London; the King-street, the four St. Giles"s mobs, the East-end (but they"re white niggers), the two Westminster mobs, the Marylebone, and the Whitechapel. We interfere with one another"s beats sometimes, for we have no arrangement with each other, only we don"t pitch near the others when they"re at work. The ten mobs now in London will have 50 men in them at least; and there"s plenty of stragglers, who are not regular niggers: there"s so many dodges now to pick up a living, sir. The Marylebone and Whitechapel lots play at nights in penny theatres. I have played in the Haymarket in "the New Planet," but there"s no demand for us now at the theatres, except such as the Pavilion. There are all sorts of characters in the different schools, but I don"t know any runaway gentleman, or any gentleman of any kind among us, not one; we"re more of a poorer sort, if not to say a ragged sort, for some are without shoes or stockings. The "niggers" that I know have been errand-boys, street-singers, turf-cutters, coalheavers, chandlers, paviours, mud-larks, tailors, shoemakers, tinmen, bricklayers" labourers, and people who have had no line in particular but their wits. I know of no connexion with pickpockets, and don"t believe there is any, though pickpockets go round the mobs; but the police fling it in our teeth that we"re connected with pickpockets. It"s a great injury to us is such a notion. A good many of the niggers—both of us here likes a little drop—drink as hard as they can, and a good many of them live with women of the town. A few are married. Some niggers are Irish. There"s Scotch niggers, too. I don"t know a Welsh one, but one of the street nigger-singers is a real black—an African.

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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