London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry

1851

Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Musical instruments.

 

OF this trade there are branches; the sale of instruments which are really -hand, and the sale of those which are pretendedly so; in other words, an honest and a dishonest business. As in street estimation the whole is a -hand calling, I shall so deal with it.

At this season of the year, when fairs are frequent and the river steamers with their bands of music run oft and regularly, and out-door music may be played until late, the calling of the streetmusician is "at its best." In the winter he is not unfrequently starving, especially if he be what is called "a chance hand," and have not the privilege of playing in public-houses when the weather renders it impossible to collect a street audience. Such persons are often compelled to part with their instruments, which they offer in the streets or the public-houses, for the pawnbrokers have been so often "stuck" (taken in) with inferior instruments, that it is difficult to pledge even a really good violin. With some of these musical men it goes hard to part with their instruments, as they have their full share of the pride of art. Some, however, sell them recklessly and at almost any price, to obtain the means of prolonging a drunken carouse.

From a man who is now a dealer in secondhand musical instruments, and is also a musician, I had the following account of his start in the -hand trade, and of his feelings when he had to part with his fiddle.

I was a gentleman's footboy," he said, "when I was young, but I was always very fond of music, and so was my father before me. He was a tailor in a village in Suffolk and used to play the bassfiddle at church. I hardly know how or when I learned to play, but I seemed to grow up to it. There was two neighbours used to call at my father's and practise, and one or other was always showing me something, and so I learned to play very well. Everybody said so. Before I was twelve, I've played nearly all night at a dance in a farm-house. I never played on anything but the violin. You must stick to one instrument, or you're not up to the mark on any if you keep changing. When I got a place as footboy it was in a gentleman's family in the country, and I never was so happy as when master and mistress was out dining, and I could play to the servants in the kitchen or the servants' hall. Sometimes they got up a bit of a dance to my violin. If there was a dance at Christmas at any of the tenants', they often got leave for me to go and play. It was very little money I got given, but too much drink. At last master said, he hired me to be his servant and not for a parish fiddler, so I must drop it. I left him not long after—he got so cross and snappish. In my next place—no, the next but one—I was on board wages, in London, a goodish bit, as the family were travelling, and I had time on my hands, and used to go and play at public-houses of a night, just for the amusement of the company at first, but I soon got to know other musicians and made a little money. Yes, indeed, I could have saved money easily then, but I didn't; I got too fond of a public-house life for that, and was never easy at home.

I need not very closely pursue this man's course to the streets, but merely intimate it. He had several places, remaining in some a year or more, in others , , or months, but always unsettled. On leaving his last place he married a fellow-servant, older than himself, who had saved "a goodish bit of money," and they took a beershop in . A "free and easy" (concert), both vocal and instrumental, was held in the house, the man playing regularly, and the business went on, not unprosperously, until the wife died in child-bed, the child surviving. After this everything went wrong, and at last the man was "sold up," and was penniless. For or years he lived precariously on what he could earn as a musician, until about or years ago, when bitter winter's night he was without a farthing, and had laboured all day in the vain endeavour to earn a meal. His son, a boy then of , had been sent home to him, and an old woman with whom he had placed the lad was incessantly dunning for due for the child's maintenance. The landlord clamoured for arrear of rent for a furnished room, and the hapless musician did not possess thing which he could convert into money except his fiddle. He must leave his room next day. He had held no intercourse with his friends in the country since he heard of his father's death some years before, and was, indeed, resourceless. After dwelling on the many excellences of his violin, which he had purchased, "a dead bargain," for , he said: "Well, sir, I sat down by the last bit of coal in the place, and sat a long time thinking, and didn't know what to do. There was nothing to hinder me going out in the morning, and working the streets with a mate, as I'd done before, but then there was little James that

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was sleeping there in his bed. He was very delicate then, and to drag him about and let him sleep in lodging-houses would have killed him, I knew. But then I couldn't think of parting with my violin. I felt I should never again have such another. I felt as if to part with it was parting with my last prop, for what was I to do? I sat a long time thinking, with my instrument on my knees, 'til—I'm sure I don't know how to describe it— I felt as if I was drunk, though I hadn't even tasted beer. So I went out boldly, just as if I drunk, and with a deal of trouble persuaded a landlord I knew to lend me on my instrument, and keep it by him for months, 'til I could redeem it. I have it now, sir. Next day I satisfied my creditors by paying each half, and a week's rent in advance, and I walked off to a shop in Soho, where I bought a dirty old instrument, broken in parts, for I was great part of the day in doing it up, and in the evening earned by playing solos by Watchorn's door, and the Crown and Cushion, and the Lord Rodney, which are all in the Westminster-road. I lodged in . There was a young man—he looked like a respectable mechanic—gave me , and said: 'I wonder how you can use your fingers at all such a freezing night. It seems a good fiddle.' I assure you, sir, I was surprised myself to find what I could do with my instrument. 'There's a beer-shop over the way,' says the young man, 'step in, and I'll pay for a pint, and try my hand at it.' And so it was done, and I sold him my fiddle for No, sir, there was no take in; it was worth the money. I'd have sold it now that I've got a connection for half a guinea. Next day I bought such another instrument at the same shop for , and sold it after a while for , having done it up, in course. This it was that put it into my head to start selling -hand instruments, and so I began. Now I'm known as a man to be depended on, and with my -hand business, and engagements every now and then as a musician, I do middling."

In this manner is the honest -hand streetbusiness in musical instruments carried on. It is usually done by hawking. A few, however, are sold at miscellaneous stalls, but they are generally such as require repair, and are often without the bow, &c. The persons carrying on the trade have all, as far as I could ascertain, been musicians.

Of the street-sale of musical instruments by drunken members of the "profession" I need say little, as it is exceptional, though it is certainly a branch of the trade, for so numerous is the body of street-musicians, and of so many classes is it composed, that this description of -hand business is being constantly transacted, and often to the profit of the more wary dealers in these goods. The statistics I shall show at the close of my remarks on this subject.

 
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 Title Page
 INTRODUCTION
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work
Crossing-Sweepers