London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Whistling Man.

IT sometimes happens that a lad or a man, before being thrown for a living on the streets, has often sung a song to amuse his companions, or that he has been reckoned "a good whistler," so he resolves to start out and see if he cannot turn to pecuniary profits that which until now he had only regarded in the light of an amusement.

The young man from whom I elicited the annexed statement was of this class. His appearance was rather ungainly, and when he walked across the room he moved in so slovenly a manner that leg appeared to drag itself after the other with the greatest reluctance.

When telling me that he had never been guilty of stealing, nor imprisoned, all his life, he did so in such a manner, and with such a tone of voice, as left little doubt on my mind that he had been kept honest more by the fear of the gaol than by his own moral principle.

His face was long and thin, and his cheeks so hollowed by long whistling, that they appeared almost to have had a round piece of flesh scooped out of the centre of each of them. His large thick lips were generally kept half-an-inch apart, so that they gave the man a half-idiotic look; and when he rounded them for whistling, they reminded me somewhat of a lamb"s kidney.

I am a whistler—that is, I whistle merely with my lips, without the aid of anything besides. I have been at it about seven years. I am twenty next birthday. My father was, and is, a coach-painter. He is, I think, at the present time, working in Great Queen-street, Lincoln"s-inn-fields. I had three sisters and one brother. I was the youngest but two. When I got to be about seven years old my mother died, and then I used to get into the streets and stop out all day playing with other boys, most of them older than myself; and they often persuaded me to "hop the wag," that is, play truant from school, and spend the money which my father gave me to take to the master. Sometimes they took me to Covent-garden or Farringdon Market, where they used to prig a lot of apples and pears, not with the idea of selling them, but to eat. They used to want me to do the same, but I never would nor never did, or else I dare say I should have been better off, for they say "the biggest rogues get on best." I was always afraid of being sent to prison, a place I was never in in all my life. At last I was persuaded by two young companions to stop out all night, so we all three went to Mrs. Reding"s, Church-lane, and had a fourpenny lodging apiece. My pals paid for me, because I"d got no money. I left them the next morning, but was afraid to go home; I had got nothing to eat, so I thought I"d see if I gould get a few ha"pence by singing a song. I knew two or three, and began with the "Mariner"s Grave," and then "Lucy Neal." I walked about all day, singing nearly the whole of the time, but didn"t get a penny till about six o"clock. By nine o"clock I mustered 10d., and then I left off, and went to a lodging-house in Whitechapel, where I got something to eat, and paid my lodging for the night. It"s a custom always to pay before-hand. The next morning I felt very down-hearted, and was half a mind to go home, but was afraid I should get a hiding. However, I at last plucked up my spirits, and went out again. I didn"t get anything given me till about dinner-time, when a gentleman came up to me and asked me how so young a boy as me come to be in the streets? I told him I couldn"t earn my living any other way. He asked my name, and where I lived. I gave him both a false name and address, for I was afraid lest he should go to my father. He said I had better go home with him, so he took me to his house in Grosvenorsquare, which was a very fine un—for he was a very rich man, where he gave me plenty to eat, and made me wash myself, and put on a suit of his little boy"s left-off clothes. I stayed here three months, being employed to clean knives and boots, and run of errands. He used to send me twice a-week to the Bank of England with a cheque, which he used to write upon and tear out of a book, and I used to bring back the money. They always tied it up safely for me in a bag, and I put it into my pocket, and never took my hand off it till I got safe back again. At the end of three months he called me one day, and told me he was going with his wife and family into the country, where, he was sorry to say, there"d be no room for me. He then gave me 3l., and told me to go and seek for my friends, and go and live with them if I could.

I went home to my father, who was greatly pleased at seeing me again; and he asked what I had been doing all the time, and where I had got my clothes and money from. I told him all, and promised I would never run away again,—so he forgave me. However, for a long time he would not let me go out. At last, after a good deal of persuasion, he let me out to look after a place, and I soon got one at Mr. Cooper"s, Surgeon, in Seven Dials, where I had 4s. a week. I used to be there from seven o"clock in the morning till nine at night, but I went home to my meals. After I"d been at my place four months, I by accident set fire to some naphtha, which I was stirring up in the back-yard, and it burnt off all my eyelashes, and so I "got the sack." When he paid me my wages,—as I was afraid to tell my father what had happened,—I started off to my old quarters in Whitechapel. I stopped there all day on Sunday, and the next three days I wandered about seeking work, but couldn"t get none. I then give it up as a bad job, and picked up with a man named Jack Williams, who had no legs. He was an old sailor, who had got frost-bitten in the Arctic regions. I used to lead him about with a big painted board afore him. It was a picture of the place where he was froze in. We used to go all about Ratcliffe Highway, and sometimes work up as far as Notting Hill. On the average, we got from 8s. to 10s. a-day. My share was about a third. I was with him for fifteen months, till one night I said something to him when he was a-bed that didn"t please him, and he got his knife out and stabbed my leg in two places,—here are the marks. I bled a good deal. The other lodgers didn"t like to hit him for it, on account of his having no legs, but they kicked him out of the house, and would not let him back any more. They all wanted me to lock him up, but I wouldn"t, as he was an old pal. Two or three silk handkerchiefs was tied round my leg, and the next day I was took to St. Thomas"s Hospital, where I remained for about nine days. When I left the head-nurse gave me ten shillings on account of being so destitute—for I was without a ha"penny to call my own. As soon as I got out of the hospital I went down to Billingsgate, and bought some bread and pickled whelks at a stall, but when I pulled out my money to pay for "em some costermongering chaps knocked me down, and robbed me of 5s. I was completely stunned by the blow. The police came up to see what was the matter, and took me to the stationhouse, where I stopped till the next morning, when the inspector made me tell where my father lived, and I was taken home to him. For about a month my father kept me under lock and key, and after I had been with him about three months more I "stept it" again, and as I could always whistle very well, I thought I"d try it for a living; so I made a "pitch" in New-street, Covent Garden, and began by whistling "Will you love me then as now?" but there wasn"t many in the world as loved me. I did very well though that day, for I got about 3s. 6d. or 4s., so I thought I"d practise it and stick to it. I worked all about town till I got well known. I used, sometimes, to go into public-houses and whistle upon a piece of "bacco pipe, blowing into the bowl, and moving my fingers as if I was playing a flute, and nobody could tell the difference if they had not seen me. Sometimes I used to be asked to stand outside hotels, taverns, and even club-houses, and give "em a tune: I often had sixpences, shillings, and half-crowns thrown me. I only wish I had sich luck now, for the world"s topsy-turvy, and I can"t get hardly anything. I used then to earn 3s. or 4s. a-day, and now it don"t amount to more than 1s. 6d.

After I"d worked London pretty well, I sometimes would start off a few miles out to the towns and villages; but, generally, it wasn"t much account. The country chaps like sich tunes as "The Barley Stack," or "The Little House under the Hill." I often used to whistle to them while they danced. They liked jigs mostly, and always paid me a penny a dance each.

I recollect once when I was whistling before a gentleman"s house down at Hounslow, he sent his servant and called me in. I was taken into a fine large room, full of looking-glasses, and time-pieces, and pictures. I was never in sich a room before, all my life. The gentleman was there with his family,—about six on "em,— and he told me if I"d whistle, and learn his birds to sing, he"d give me a sovereign. He had three fine brass-wire cages, with a bird in each, slung all of a row from the ceiling. I set to work "like a brick," and the birds begun to sing directly, and I amused "em very much. I stopped about an hour and a half, and let "em have all sorts of tunes, and then he gave me a sovereign, and told me to call again when I come that way; but before I left he said the servants was to give me something to eat and drink, so I had dinner in the kitchen with the servants, and a jolly good dinner it was.

From Hounslow I walked to Maidenhead, and took a lodging for the night at the Turk"s Head. In the evening some countrymen come into the tap-room and kicked up a row with the missus because she couldn"t lodge "em. She run in to turn then away, when three of "em pitched into her right and left; and if it hadn"t been for me and another chap she"d have got killed. When they got her down I jumped upon the table and snatched up the only weapon I could find, a brass candlestick, and knocked one of "em down senseless, and the other fellow got hold of a broomstick and give it "em as hard as he could, till we beat "em right out of the place. There happened to be some police outside, drilling, who came over and took three of them to the stocks, where they was locked in for twenty-four hours. The next day the magistrate sentenced "em to three months" imprisonment each, and I started for London and never whistled a tune till I reached it, which was three days afterwards. I kept on at the old game, earning about 2s. 6d. a-day, till the militia was being called out, and then I joined them, for I thought it would be the best thing I could do. I was sworn in by Colonel Scrivens at Eton Mews. We was taken into a stable, where there was three horses. Four of us laid hold of a book altogether; and then, after asking us if we had any complaints, or were lame, or any way unfit for service, or was married, or had any children; and when we had said No, he asked us if we was free, able, and willing to serve in her Majesty"s militia, in either England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales, for the term of five years, if so long her Majesty required our services; and when we said we was, we took the oath and kissed the book.

The same day, which was the 11th of June, 1854, we was packed off from the Waterloo Station for Portsmouth. After being drilled for three weeks I was returned for duty, and went on guard. The first guard I mounted was at Detached Dock at Portsmouth—it"s where the convicts are. I didn"t do any whistling there, I can tell yer; I"d different sorts of work, for part of our duty was to bury the poor fellows that died after coming home invalided from the Crimea. The people through that used to call us the "garrison undertakers." I was there thirteen months, and never, the whole time, had more than two nights" bed a-week; and some part of the time the weather was very frosty, and we was often over our ankles in snow. I belonged to the 4th Middlesex, and no corps ever did so much duty, or went through so much hardships, as ours. From Portsmouth I was ordered, with my regiment, 950 strong, to Buttervant, county Cork, Ireland. When we reached the Irish Channel a storm arose, and we was all fastened under hatches, and not suffered to come upon deck for four days, by which time we reached the Cove of Cork: the Colonel"s horse had to be thrown overboard, and they, more than once, had serious thoughts of throwing all the luggage into the sea as well. I was ten months in Ireland. I didn"t do any whistling there; and then the regiment was ordered home again on account of the peace. But before we left we had a day"s sport, consisting of greasy-pole climbing, jumping in sacks, racing after a pig with a greasy tail, and all them sort of things; and at night the officers had a grand ball. We landed at Portsmouth on a Monday morning at four o"clock, and marched through to the station, and reached Hounslow about four o"clock the same afternoon. A month after we were disembodied, and I came at once to London. I had about 1l. 5s. in my pocket, and I resolved in my own mind never to go whistling any more. I went to my father, but he refused to help me in any way. I tried for work, but couldn"t get any, for the people said, they didn"t like a militia man; so, after having spent all my money, I found that I must either starve or whistle, and so, you see, I"m once more on the streets.

While I was in Ireland I absented myself from the barracks for twenty-one days, but fearing that a picket would get hold of me, I walked in one morning at six o"clock. I was instantly placed under arrest in the guard-room, where I remained four days, when I was taken before the Colonel, and to my great surprise I saw, sitting aside of him, the very gentleman who had given me the pound to whistle to his birds; his name was Colonel Bagot, as I found out afterwards, and he was deputy-magistrate for Middlesex. He asked me if I was not the chap as had been to his house; I told him I was, so he got me off with a good reprimand, and saved me being tried by a court-martial. When I first took to sleeping at lodging-houses they was very different to what they are now. I"ve seen as many as eighteen people in one cellar sleeping upon loose straw, covered with sheets or blankets, and as many as three in one bed; but now they won"t take in any little boys like as I was, unless they are with their parents; and there"s very few beds in a room, and never more than one in a bed. Married people have a place always parted off for themselves. The inspector comes in all times—often in the middle of the night—to see that the regulations ain"t broken.

I used, one time, to meet another man whistling, but like old Dick, who was the first at the profession, he"s gone dead, and so I"m the only one at it now anywhere. It"s very tiring work, and makes you precious hungry when you keep at it for two or three hours; and I only wish I could get something else to do, and you"d see how soon I"d drop it.

The tunes that are liked best in the streets is sich as "Ben Bolt" and "Will you love me then as now?" but a year or two ago, nothin" went down like the "Low-back Car." I was always being asked for it. I soon gets hold of the new tunes that comes up. I don"t think whistling hurts me, because I don"t blow so hard as "old Dick" used. A gentleman come up to me once in the street that was a doctor, and asked me whether I drunk much, and whether I drawed my breath in or blowed it out. I told him I couldn"t get much to drink, and he said I ought at least to have three half-pints of beer a-day, or else I should go into a consumption; and when I said I mostly blowed out when I whistled, he said that was the best, because it didn"t strain the lungs so much.

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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