London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


"Whisting Billy."


That"s my name, and I"m known all round about in the Borough as "Whistling Billy," though some, to be sure, calls me "Whistling Bill," but in general I"m "Billy." I"m not looking very respectable now, but you should see me when I"m going to the play; I looks so uncommon respectable, nobody knows me again. I shall go to the theatre next week, and I should just like you to see me. It"s surprising.

I ain"t a very fat chap, am I? but I"m just meaty enough for my perfession, which is whistling and dancing in public-houses, where I gives "em the hornpipe and the bandy jig, that"s dancing with my toes turned in.

My father was a barber. He only charged a penny for shaving, but he wouldn"t cut your hair under twopence, and he used to do well— very well sometimes; I don"t know whether he"s alive now, for I ain"t seen him these ten years, nor asked him for a halfpenny. Mother was alive when I left, and so was my two brothers. I don"t know whether they"re alive now. No, I don"t want to go and see him, for I can get my own living. He used to keep a shop near Fitzroy-square.

I was always fond of dancing, and I runned away from home for to follow it. I don"t know my own age exactly: I was as tall then as I am now. I was twelve when I left home, and it must be ten years ago, but I ain"t twentytwo: oh, dear no! Why, I ain"t got no whiskers nor things. I drink such a lot of beer and stuff, that I can"t grow no taller; gentlemen at the public-houses gives it me. Why, this morning I was near tipsy, dancing to some coalheavers, who gave me drink.

I used, when I was at father"s, to go to a ball, and that"s where I learned to dance. It was a shilling ball in the New-road, where there was ladies, regular nice ones, beautifully dressed. They used to see me dancing, and say, when I growed up I should make a beautiful dancer; and so I do, for I"d dance against anybody, and play the whistle all the time. The ladies at these balls would give me money then for dancing before them. Ah! I"d get my entrance shilling back, and four or five into the bargain. I"d generally take it home to mother, after buying a little sweet-stuff, or such-like, and I think that"s why mother would let me go, "cos I picked up a good bit of money.

It was another boy that put me up to running away from home. He axed me to go along with him, and I went. I dare say it troubled father a bit when he found I"d gone. I ain"t troubled him for ten years now. If I was to go back to him, he"d only send me to work, and I make a better living by myself. I don"t like work, and, to tell you the truth, I never did work, for it"s like amusement to me to dance; and it must be an amusement, "cos it amuses the people, and that"s why I gets on so well.

When I hooked it with that chap, we went to Croydon, in Surrey. We went to a lodginghouse where there was men and women, and boys and chaps, and all like that; we all slept in one room. I had no money with me, only my clothes; there was a very nice velvet cap; and I looked very different then to what I do now. This young chap had some tin, and he kept me. I don"t know how he earned his tin, for he"d only go out at night time, and then he"d come home and bring in money, and meat and bread, and such-like. He said to me, before I went pals with him, that he"d keep me, and that he"d make plenty of money. He told me he wanted a chum to mate with, so I went with him right off. I can"t say what he was. He was about thirteen or fourteen, and I never seed him do no work. He might have been a prig for all I knows.

After I"d been in the lodging-house, this chap bought a stock of combs and cheap jewels, and then we went out together, and he"d knock at the houses and offer the things for sale, and I"d stand by. There"s a lot of gentlemen"s houses, if you recollect, sir, round Croydon, on the London road. Sometimes the servants would give us grub instead of money. We had plenty to eat. Now you comes to speak of it, I do remember he used to bring back some old silver with him, such as old tablespoons or ladles, broke up into bits, and he"d make a deal selling them. I think he must have been a prig. At night we used to go to the public-houses and dance. He never danced, but sit down and looked on. He said he was my relation, and I always shared my drink with him, and the people would say, "Feed me, feed my dog," seeing me going halves with him.

I kept along with him for three years, he working in the day, and I at night, dancing. We parted at Plymouth, and I took up with another mate, and worked on to Exeter. I think my new mate was a regular prig, for it was through his putting me up to prigging that I got into trouble there. This chap put me on to taking a brass cock from a foundry. It was in a big wooden butt, with 150 gallons of water in it. I got over a gate and pulled it out, and set all the foundry afloat. We cut away, but two hours afterwards the policeman come to the lodging-house, and though there was a lot of boys and girls, he picked me out, and I had two months for it, and all my hair was cut off, and I only had dry bread and gruel every day, and soup twice a-week. I was jolly sorry for that cock business when I was caught, and I made up my mind never to take nothing more. It"s going to the lodging- houses puts fellows up to prigging. The chaps brings in legs of beef, and puddens, and clothes, and then they sells "em cheap. You can sometimes buy a pair of breeches, worth ten shillings, for two bob, for the chaps don"t like to take "em to sell at the shops, and would sooner sell "em for a"most nothing rather than be found out.

When I came out of quod I had a shilling give me, and I went and bought a penny whistle. I was always fond of music and dancing, and I know"d a little of playing the whistle. Mother and father was both uncommon fond of dancing and music, and used to go out dancing and to concerts, near every night pretty well, after they"d locked the shop up. I made about eleven bob the first week I was out, for I was doing very well of a night, though I had no hair on my head. I didn"t do no dancing, but I knew about six tunes, such as "Rory O"More," and "The Girl I left behind me," two hornpipes, (the Fishers" and the Sailors") "St. Patrick"s Day," and "The Shells of the Ocean," a new song as had just come up. I can play fifty tunes now. Whistles weren"t so common then, they weren"t out a quarter so much as now. Swinden had the making of them then, but he weren"t the first maker of them. Clarke is the largest manufactory of them now, and he followed Swinden. People was astonished at seeing a tune played on a tin whistle, and gave pretty liberal. I believe I was the first as ever got a living on a tin whistle. Now there"s more. It was at that time as I took to selling whistles. I carried "em on a tin tray before me, and a lid used to shut on it, fixed. I"d pitch before a hotel amongst the gentlemen, and I"d get 2d. a-piece for the whistles, and some would give me sixpence or a shilling, just according. The young gents was them as bought most, and then they"d begin playing on them, and afterwards give them to the young ladies passing. They was very pleased with me, for I was so little, and I done well. The first two months I made about 17s. or 18s. a-week, but after that they got rather dull, so I gived up selling of them and took to dancing. It didn"t pay me so well as the whistles, for it was pretty near all profit on them—they only cost me 3d. a-dozen. I travelled all round Devonshire, and down to Land"s End, in Cornwall—320 miles from London, and kept on playing the whistle on the road. I knew all about them parts. I generally pitched before the hotels and the spirit-shops, and began whistling and dancing; but sometimes I"d give the cottagers a turn, and they"d generally hand over a ha"penny apiece and some bread.

I stopped travelling about the south of England, and playing and dancing, for a little better than four years and a half. I didn"t do so well in winter as in summer. Harvest time was my best time. I"d go to the fields where they was working, and play and dance. Sometimes the master would hollar out, "Here, you get cut of this!" but the men would speak up for me and say, "Let him stop, master." Many a chap"s got the sack through me, by leaving off his work and beginning to dance. Sometimes, when the last load of hay was going home (you see, that"s always considered the jolliest part of the work), they"d make me get up to the top of the load, and then whistle to them. They was all merry—as merry as could be, and would follow after dancing about, men, women, and boys. I generally played at the harvest suppers, and the farmer himself would give me 4s. 6d. or 5s. the night, besides my quart of ale. Then I"d pick up my 6s. or 7s. in ha"pence among the men. I"ve had as many as two harvest suppers a week for three weeks or a month following, for I used to ax the people round what time they was going to have a supper, and where, and set off, walking nine or ten miles to reach the farm, and after that we find another spot.

It"s very jolly among farm people. They give you plenty of cider and ale. I"ve drunk the cider hot, whilst they was brewing it— new cider, you know. You never want food neither, for there"s more than you can eat, generally bread and cheese, or maybe a little cold biled pork. At night, the men and women used to sleep in a kind of barn, among the clean straw; and after the beer-shops had closed—they are all little beer-shops, 3d. a quart in your own jugs, and like that—they"d say to me, "Come up to the doss and give us a tune," and they"d come outside and dance in the open air, for they wouldn"t let them have no candles nor matches. Then they"d make theirselves happy, and I"d play to "em, and they"d club up and give me money, sometimes as much as 7s., but I"ve never had no higher than that, but never no less than 3s. One man used to take all the money for me, and I"d give him a pot o" ale in the morning. It was a penny a dance for each of "em as danced, and each stand--up took a quarter of a hour, and there was generally two hours of it; that makes about seven dances, allowing for resting. I"ve had as many as forty dancing at a time, and sometimes there was only nine of "em. I"ve seen all the men get up together and dance a hornpipe, and the women look on. They always did a hornpipe or a country dance. You see, some of "em would sit down and drink during the dance, but it amounted to almost three dances each person, and generally there was about fifty present. Usually the men would pay for the women, but if they was hard up and been free with their money, the girls would pay for them. They was mostly Irish, and I had to do jigs for them, instead of a hornpipe. My country dance was to the tune "Oh don"t you tease me, pretty little dear." Any fiddler knows that air. It"s always played in the country for country dances. First they dances to each other, and then it"s hands across, and then down the middle, and then it"s back again and turn. That"s the country dance, sir. I used to be regular tired after two hours. They"d stick me up on a box, or a tub, or else they"d make a pile of straw, and stick me a-top of it; or if there was any carts standing by loaded with hay, and the horses out, I was told to mount that. There was very little drinking all this time, because the beer-shops was shut up. Perhaps there might be such a thing as a pint of beer between a man and his partner, which he"d brought in a can along with him. They only danced when it was moonlight. It never cost me nothing for lodgings all the harvest times, for they would make me stop in the barn along with them; and they was very good company, and took especial care of me. You mustn"t think this dancing took place every night, but only three or four nights a-week. I find "em out travelling along the road. Sometimes they"ve sent a man from one farm-house to bespeak me whilst I was playing at another. There was a man as played on the clarionet as used to be a favourite among haymakers, but they prefer the penny tin whistle, because it makes more noise, and is shriller, and is easier heard; besides, I"m very rapid with my fingers, and makes "em keep on dancing till they are tired out. Please God, I"ll be down among them again this summer. I goes down regular. Last year and the year before, and ever since I can recollect.

When I"m in London I make a good living at dancing and playing, for I"m the only one that plays the whistle and dances at the same time. I"m reckoned the best hand at it of any man in town or country. I"ve often been backed by the company to dance and play against another man, and I generally win. I"ve been in hotels, and danced to gentlemen, and made plenty of money at it. I do all manner of tricks, just to make "em laugh — capering, or "hanky-panky," as I term it. I once had half-a-sovereign given to me, but I think it was a mistake, for he says, "Take that, and go on." I went home to clean myself, and had my trousers washed, and my shoes blacked, and went half-price to the theatre—the "Wic," I think it was—and paid my shilling, and went in as tidy as a gentleman.

When I first go into a public-house I go into the tap-room, and say, "Would you like to hear a tune, gentlemen, or see a dance, or a little bit of amusement?" If they say "No," I stand still, and begin a talking, to make "em laugh. I"m not to be choked off easy. I say, "Come, gentlemen, can"t you help a poor fellow as is the best dancer in England? I must have some pudden for breakfast, because I ain"t had nothing for three weeks." Then some say, "Well, I will see the best dancer in England; I"ve got a mag." Then after dancing I go to the gentleman who has given me most, and ask him six or seven times "to give me a copper," declaring he"s the only one as has given me nothing, and that makes the others laugh. I also ask the landlord to give a halfpint of beer to grease my feet, and that makes "em merry. I generally gets good nobbings (that"s a collection, you know). They likes the dancing better than music; but it"s doing them together that takes. I ax them if they"ll have the hornpipe or the Irish jig, and if they says the jig I do it with my toes turned in, like as if I was bandy; and that"s very popular. I have been to as many as forty public-houses in a evening, and dance inside; or if they won"t let me come in, they"ll say, "Dance outside as much as you like," and that"s very near as good for me. If I gets inside, I"ll mop up 1s. if it"s good company, or perhaps 3d. or 4d., and always plenty to drink—more than I can take, for I"m generally drunk before I can get home. They never gives me nothing to eat, but it don"t matter, for I"m seldom hungry; but "I like a drop of good beer," as the song says.

I"ve been engaged at concert-rooms to dance. I have pumps put on, and light trousers, and a Guernsey, dressed up as a sailor. That was in the country, at Canterbury, and I had 7s. and plenty to eat and drink. I"ve never appeared at a London concert-room, though I"ve been axed to come in and amuse the company; but I wasn"t tidy enough, and didn"t like.

When I dance in a public-house I take my shoes off and say, "Now, gentlemen, watch my steps." For the hornpipe I begin with walking round, or "twisting" as the term is; then I stands up, and does a double-shuffle— or the "straight fives" as we calls it; then I walk round again before doing the backsnatches, another kind of double-shuffle. Then I does the rocks of Scilly, that"s when you twists your feet and bends sideways; next comes the double steps and rattles, that is, when the heels makes a rattle coming down; and I finishes with the square step. My next step is to walk round and collect the money. The Irish like to see me do the jig better than the hornpipe. Them two are the only dances I know.

I make regular 2l. a-week. Yesterday I made 7s. 3d., and it was rainy, so I couldn"t get out till late. At Brighton Regatta I and my mate made 5l. 10s. between us, and at Dover Regatta we made 8l. between us. We squandered 2l. 10s. at the lodging-house in one night, betting and tossing, and playing at cards. We always follows up the regatta. We made only 2l. 10s. at Hastings Regatta. You see we pick up on a Saturday night our 11s. a-piece, and on other days perhaps 5s. or 8s., according to the day.

I used to go about with a mate who had a wooden leg. He was a beautiful dancer, for he made "em all laugh. He"s a little chap, and only does the hornpipe, and he"s uncommon active, and knocks his leg against the railings, and makes the people grin. He was very successful at Brighton, because he was pitied.

I"ve also been about with a school of tumblers. I used to do the dancing between the posturing and likes of that. I"ve learnt tumbling, and I was cricked for the purpose, to teach me. I couldn"t walk for three days. They put my legs round my neck, and then couldn"t get "em back again. I was in that state, regular doubled up, for two hours, and thought I was done for. Some of my mates said, "There, you"ve been and spoiled that chap." It"s dreadful painful learning tumbling. When I was out with the posturers I used to play the drum and mouth-pipes; I had a old hat and coat on. Then when my turn come, I"d appear in my professional costume, and a young chap who was a fluter—not a whistler, like me,—would give a tune, and I"d go on the carpet and give the Irish jig or the hornpipe.

There was four of us in the school, and we"d share a pound a-week each. We were down at Dover there, and put up at the Jolly Sailors. I left them there, and went alone on to the camp where the German Legion was— at Shorncliffe, that"s the place. I stopped there for three weeks, and did very well, taking my 7s. or 8s. a-day.

After that I got tired of dancing, and thought I"d like a change, so I went out on a fishing-boat. They didn"t give me nothing aweek, only 4s. when we come home after two months, and your clothes, and victuals aboard. We first went fishing for plaice, and soles, and turbots, and we"d land them at Yarmouth, and they"d send them on to Lowestoft, and from there on to London. Then we went codding off the coast of Holland, for cod and haddock. It was just drawing on winter, and very cold. They set me with a line and I had to keep sawing it backwards and forwards till I felt a fish bite, then to hawl it up. One night I was a near froze, and suddenly I had two cods bite at once, and they nearly pulled me over, for they dart about like mad, and tug awful; so I said to the master, "I don"t like this work." But he answers, "You must like it the time you stops here." So I made up my mind to bolt the first time I got to shore. I only did it as a change, to see if I liked it. You"re right there, there ain"t no drinking on board.

When you hawl up a cod they bound about the deck, and they"re as strong as a Scotch terrier dog. When we hold"em down, we prick them under the fin, to let the wind out of them. It would choke them if we didn"t let it out, for it hisses as it comes off. It"s from dragging them up so quick out of fifteen-fathom water that give "em the wind. When they were pricked, we chucked them into the well in the hold, and let them swim about. We killed them when we got to Gravesend by hitting them on the head with tom-boys — the sticks we hauls the line through. After three or four blows they"re stunned, and the blood comes, and they"re killed.

When I goes into the public-houses, part of my performance is to play the whistle up my nose. I don"t do it in the streets, because if I did there"d be thousands looking at me, and then the police would make a row. Last night I did it. I only pitched at one place, and did my night"s work right off. I took 4s. 3 1/2d. and lots of beer in an hour, from the cabbies and the people and all. At last the police told me to move on. When I plays the whistle up my nose, I puts the end of it in my nostril, and blows down it. I can do that just as easy as with my mouth, only not as loud. I do it as a variety, first in my mouth, then in my nose, and then back again in my mouth. It makes the people laugh. I"ve got a cold now, so I can"t do it so well as at times, but I"ll let you see what it is like.

He then inserted the wooden tongue of the whistle into his nostril, and blowing down it, began a hornpipe, which, although not so shrill as when he played it with the mouth, was still loud enough to be heard all over the house.

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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