London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Penny Profile-Cutter.


THE young man from whom the annexed statement was gathered, is of a class of street-artists now fast disappearing from view, but which some or years ago occupied a very prominent position.

At the period to which I allude, the steamboat excursionist, or visitor to the pit of a London theatre, whom Nature had favoured with very prominent features, oftentimes found displayed to public view, most unexpectedly, a tolerably correct profile of himself in black paper, mounted upon a white card. As soon as attention was attracted, the exhibitor generally stepped forward, offering, in a respectful manner, to "cut out any lady"s or gentleman"s likeness for the small sum of penny;" an offer which, judging from the account below given as to the artist"s takings, seems to have been rather favourably responded to.

The appearance presented by the profilecutter from whom I derived my information bordered on the "respectable." He was a tall thin man, with a narrow face and long features. His eyes were large and animated. He was dressed in black, and the absence of shirt collar round his bare neck gave him a dingy appearance. He spoke as follows:—

I"m a penny profile-cutter, or, as we in the profession call ourselves, a profilist. I commenced cutting profiles when I was 14 years of age, always acquiring a taste for cutting out ornaments, &c. My father"s a very respectable man, and been in one situation 27 years. I left school against his wish when I was 10 years old, for I didn"t like school much, though, mind you, I"m a good scholar. I can"t write much, but I can read anything. After leaving school, I went arrand-boy to a printer, and was there nine months. I had 4s. 6d. per week. Then I went to a lithographic printer"s, to turn a double-action press, but the work was too hard for a boy, and so I left it. I stopt there about nine weeks, and then I was out of work some time, and was living on my parents. I next went to work at a under-priced hatter"s, termed a "knobstick"s," but I was disgusted with the price paid for labour. I was a bodymaker. I learned my first task in four hours, and could do it as well as those who"d been at it for months. I earn"d good money, but I didn"t like it, for it was boys keeping men out of employment who"d served their seven years to the trade. I left the hatter"s after I"d been there two seasons, and then I was out of work for some months. One day I went to a fair at the Tenter-ground, Whitechapel. While I was walking about the fair, I see a young man I knew standing as "doorsman" at a profilecutter"s, and he told me that another profilecutter in the fair wanted an assistant, and thought I should do for it. He know"d I was handy at drawing, because he was at the hatter"s along with me, and I used to chalk the men"s likenesses on the shop door. So I went to this man and engaged. I had to talk at the door, or "tout," as we call it, and put or mount the likenesses on cards. I was rather backward at touting at first, but I got over that in the course of the day, and could patter like anything before the day was over. I had to shout out, "Step inside, ladies and gentlemen, and have a correct likeness taken for one penny." We did a very good business the two days of the fair that I attended, for I was not there till the second day. We took about 4l., but not all for penny likenesses, because, if we put the likeness on card we charged 2d., and if they was bronzed we charged 6d., and if they were framed complete, 1s. My pay was 4s. per day, and I was found in my keep.

When the Tenter-ground fair was over, the profilist asked me if I"d travel with him, and I agreed upon stated terms. I was to have 4s. for working days, and 1s. and keep, and lodgings &c. for off-days. So we started next day for Luton "Statties," or Statues as it should be called. Luton is 32 miles from London, and this we walked, carrying with us the booth and every requisite for business the whole of the distance. I had not got my father"s leave; I didn"t ask for it, because I knew he"d object. We started for Luton at 12 o"clock in the day, and got there by 10 o"clock at night, and our load was not a very light un, for I"m sure the pair of us couldn"t have had less than 3 cwt. to carry. I was so beat that I dropt down about a mile before we got to the town, but a stranger came up and offered to carry my load for me the rest of the journey. I went to sleep on the bank, though it was so late at night. While I was sleeping the horsepatrol came along and woke me up. He told me I"d better get on, as I"d only a mile to go. I got up and proceeded on, and turning the corner of the road, I distinctly saw the lights of Luton, which enlivened me very much. I reached the town about a half-an-hour after my mate. We had a very good fair. Fossett was there with his performing birds and mice, and a nice concern it was; but since then he"s got a fust-rate circus. He travels the country still, and his concern is worthy a visit from any body. There was Frederick"s theatrical booth there, and a good many others of the same sort.

We did very well, having no opposition, for we cut out a great many likenesses, and most of them twopenny ones. It"s a great place for the straw-plaiters, but there"s about seven women to one man. There was plenty of agricultural men and women there as well, and most of the John and Molls had their profiles cut. If a ploughman had his cut, he mostly gave it to his sweetheart, and if his girl had hers cut out, she returned the compliment.

From Luton we went to Stourbitch fair, Cambridge, and there we had very bad luck, for we had to build out of the fair, alongside of another likeness-booth, and it was raining all the while. We cut out very few likenesses, for we didn"t take above a half a sovereign the whole three days.

After leaving Stourbitch, we took the road for Peterborough-bridge fair. Being a crosscountry road, there was no conveyance, and not liking the job of carrying our traps, we got a man who had a donkey and barrow to put our things aside of his own, and we agreed to pay him 4s. for the job. After we"d got about ten miles on the road, the donkey stopt short, and wouldn"t move a peg. We didn"t know what to do for the best. At last one of our party pulled off his hat and rattled a stick in it. The donkey pricked up his ears with fright, and darted off like one o"clock. After a bit he stopt again, and then we had to repeat the dose, and so we managed at last to get to Peterborough. We had out-and-out luck at this fair, for we cut out a great many likenesses, and a rare lot of "em were bronzed. We took in the three days about 6l. This is supposed to be a great fair, and it"s supported principally by respectable people. Some of the people that came for profiles were quite gentlefolks, and they brought their families with them; they"re the people we like, because they believe we can cut a likeness, and stand still while we"re doing it. But the lower orders are no good to anybody, for when they enter the booth they get larking, and make derisions, and won"t stand still; and when that"s the case. we don"t take any trouble, but cut out anything, and say it"s like "em, and then they often say, "Ah, it"s as much like me as it"s like him." But we always manage to get the money. There was a good many dashing young shop chaps came and had their portraits taken. They dress very fine, because they"ve got no other way to spend their money, for there"s no theatre or concert-rooms in the place.

We went, after leaving Peterborough, to two or three other fairs. At last we got to a fair in Huntingdonshire, and there I quarrelled with my mate, because he caught me practising with his scissors; so I went into a stall next to where we stood and bought a penny pair; but the pair I picked out was a sixpenny pair by rights, for they had fell off a sixpenny card by accident. I practised with them, whenever I got a chance. We got on pretty well, too, at this fair. We took about 3l. in the three days. When we got to our lodgings—the first night was at a public house—I got practising again, and my mate snatched my scissors out of my hand, and never gave them to me any more till we got on to the road for another fair. When he gave them to me I asked what he took "em away for, and he said I"d no business to practise in a public-house; and I told him I should do as I liked, and that I could cut as good a likeness as him, and I said, "Give me my money and I"ll go,"—for he"d only paid me a few shillings all the time I"d been with him—but he wouldn"t pay me, and so we worked two or three more fairs together. One day, going along the road, we stopped at a public-house to get some dinner. There was a little boy playing with a ship. "Now," says I, "I"ll show you I can cut a better likeness than you, or, at all events, a more saleable one." I took my scissors up for the first time in public, and cut out the little boy full length, with the ship in his hand and a little toy horse by his side, but could not bronze it, because I"d not practised the brush. I pencilled the little landscape scene behind, and when I showed it to my mate he was surprised, but he found many faults which he himself could not improve upon. I sold the likeness to the boy"s mother for a shilling, before his face, and of course he was nettled. After dinner we started off again, making for Bedford fair; we"d sent our things on by the rail, and we soon begun talking about my cutting out. He wondered how I"d acquired it, and when I told him I"d practised hours unbeknown to him, he agreed that I should be a regular partner—pay half the expenses, and have half of the profits, and begin the next fair. When we got there the fair was very dull, and business very bad; we only took 11s.; he cut out all the busts, and I did all the full-lengths. He was very bad at full-lengths, because he"d got no idea of proportion, but I could always get my proportions right. I could always draw when I was a boy, and cut out figures for night-shades. Many a time, when I was only eight years old, I"ve amused a whole room full of people with "Cobbler Jobson" and "The Bridge is broken."

As things were so bad at Bedford, we agreed to come up to London, and not stop the other two days of the fair. When I came down stairs in the morning at 9 o"clock, I found my mate had bolted by the five-o"clock train, and left me in the lurch. He"d paid the reckoning, but he hadn"t left me a shilling of the money that he owed me. I had very little money in my pocket, because he"d been cash-taker, and so I had to tramp the whole fifty miles to London. When I reached London, I found out where he lived, and succeeded in getting my money within a few shillings. The next thing I did was to join another man in opening a shop in London, in the profile line—he found capital and I found talent, and very well we did. Most of our customers were working people, and often they"d come and have two or three likenesses, to send to their friends who"d emigrated, because they"d go easy in a letter. There was one old gentleman that I had come to me regularly every morning, for nearly three months, and had three penny likenesses cut out, for which he would always pay sixpence. He had an excellent profile, and was easy to cut out; he was one of those club-nosed old men, with a deep brow and double chin. One morning he brought all of them back that I had taken, and asked us what we"d give for the lot. I told him they were no use to me, for if I had them for specimens, people would say that I could cut only one sort of face, because they were all alike. After chaffing for about half an hour, he said he had brought them all back to have shirt collars cut, and to have them put on cards. We put them all on cards and he paid us a penny for each one, and when he took "em away he said he was going to distribute them among his friends. One day a gentleman rode up and asked us how much we"d charge to cut him out, horse and all. I told him we hadn"t any paper large enough just then, but if he"d call another day we"d do it for 3s. 6d. He agreed to give it, and call the following morning. I knew I couldn"t cut out a horse perfect, so I bought a picture of a race-horse for 6d., and cut it out in black profile paper, and when he came the next day as he sat on his horse outside, so I cut his likeness, and when I"d finished it I called him in, and he declared that it was the best likeness, both of him and his horse, too, that he"d ever seen; and it appears he had his horse painted in oil. When he paid us, instead of giving us 3s. 6d. as he"d agreed, he gave us 5s. After being at this shop for five months, trade got so bad we had to leave. The first month we took on the average 16s. a-day, but it gradually decreased till at last we didn"t take more than about 2s. a-day. It was winter, to be sure. Before we left this shop we got another to go into, a mile or two off; but this turned out quite a failure, and we only kept on a month, for we never got higher than three or four shillings a-day, and the rent alone was 8s. per week. The next shop we took was in a low neighbourhood, and we got a comfortable living in it. I always did the cutting out, and my partner the touting. We stopped in this place nine weeks, and then things begun to get slack here, so we thought we"d try the suburbs, such as Highgate, Clapham, and Kensington, places three or four miles out. We used to hang specimens outside the public-houses where we took our lodgings, and engage a room to cut in. In this way we managed to get the winter over very comfortable, but my partner was taken ill just as we"d knocked off, and had to go in the hospital, and so I now thought I"d try what is termed "busking;" that is, going into public-houses and cutting likenesses of the company. I often met with rough customers; they used to despise the ingenuity of the art, and say, "Why don"t you go to work? I"ve got a chap that ain"t so big as you, and he goes to work;" and things of that kind. On Saturday nights I"d take such a thing as 6s. or 8s., principally in pence, but on other nights not more than 2s. or 2s. 6d.: these were mostly tap-room customers, but when they"d let me go in a parlour I could do a good night"s work in a little time, and the company would treat me better. I soon left off busking, because I didn"t like the people I had to do with, and it was such a trouble to get the money when they were half tipsy. I never worked in theatres, because I didn"t like the pushing about; but I"ve known a man to get a good living at the theatres and steamboats alone. I took to steam-boats myself when I left off public-houses, working mostly in the Gravesend boats on the Sunday, and the ha"penny boats on the week-days. I"ve taken before now 14s. of a Sunday, and I used to vary in the ha"penny boats from 2s. to 4s. a-day.

I always attend Greenwich-park regularly at holiday times, but never have a booth at the fair, because I can do better moving about. I have a frame of specimens tied round a tree, and get a boy to hold the paper and cards. At this I"ve taken as much as 35s. in one day, and though there was lots of cheap photographic booths down there last Easter Monday, in spite of "em all I took above 8s. 6d. in the afternoon. Battersea-fields and Chalkfarm used to be out-and-out spots on a Sunday, at one time. I"ve often taken such a thing as 30s. on a Sunday afternoon and evening in the summer. After I left the steam-boats I built myself a small booth, and travelled the country to fairs, "statties," and feasts, and got a very comfortable living; but now the cheap photographs have completely done up profiles, so I"m compelled to turn to that. But I think I shall learn a trade, for that"ll be better than either of them.

The best work I"ve had of late years has been at the teetotal festivals. I was at Aylesbury with them, at St. Alban"s, Luton, and Gore House. At Gore House last August, when the "Bands of Hope" were there, I took about a pound.

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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