London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry

1851

Of the Bird-Catchers Who are Street- Sellers.

THE street-sellers of birds are called by themselves "hawkers," and sometimes "bird hawkers."

Among the bird-catchers I did not hear of any very prominent characters at present, of the best known and most prominent having died within these months. I found among all I saw the vagrant characteristics I have mentioned, and often united with a quietness of speech and manner which might surprise those who do not know that any pursuit which entails frequent silence, watchfulness, and solitude, forms such manners. Perhaps the man most talked of by his fellow-labourers, was Old Gilham, who died lately. Gilham was his real name, for among the birdcatchers there is not that prevalence of nicknames which I found among the costermongers and patterers. reason no doubt is, that these bird-folk do not meet regularly in the markets. It is rarely, however, that they know each other's surnames, Old Gilham being an exception. It is Old Tom, or Young Mick, or Jack, or Dick, among them. I heard of no John or Richard.

For years, almost without intermission, Old Gilham caught birds. I am assured that to state that his "catch" during this long period averaged a week, hens included, is within the mark, for he was a most indefatigable man; even at that computation, however, he would have been the captor, in his lifetime, of

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birds! A bird-catcher who used sometimes to start in the morning with Old Gilham, and walk with him until their roads diverged, told me that of late years the old man's talk was a good deal of where he had captured his birds in the old times: 'Why, Ned,' he would say to me, proceeded his companion, 'I 've catched goldfinches in lots at Chalk Farm, and all where there's that railway smoke and noise just by the hill (). I can't think where they'll drive all the birds to by and bye. I dare say the time the birds saw a railway with its smoke, and noise to frighten them, and all the fire too, they just thought it was the devil was come.' He wasn't a fool, wasn't old Gilham, sir. 'Why,' he'd go on for to say, 'I've laid many a day at Ball's Pond there, where it's nothing but a lot of houses now, and catched hundreds of birds. And I've catched them where there's all them grand squares way, and in Britannia Fields, and at White Condic. What with all these buildings, and them barbers, I don't know what the bird-trade'll come to. It's hard for a poor man to have to go to Finchley for birds that he could have catched at Holloway once, but people never thinks of that. When I were young I could make times as much as I do now. I've got a pound for a good sound chaffinch as I brought up myself.' Ah, poor old Gilham, sir; I wish you could have seen him, he'd have told you of some queer changes in his time."

A shopkeeper informed me that a bird-catcher had talked to him of even "queerer" changes. This man died or years ago at an advanced age, but beyond the fact of his offering birds occasionally at my informant's shop, where he was known merely as "the old man," he could tell me nothing of the ancient bird-catcher, except that he was very fond of a talk, and used to tell how he had catched birds between and years, and had often, when a lad, catched them where many a dock in London now stands. "Where there's many a big ship now in deep water, I've catched flocks of birds. I never catched birds to be sure at them docks," he would add, "as was dug out of the houses. Why, master, you'll remember their pulling down St. Katherine's Church, and all them rummy streets the t'other side of the Tower, for a dock." As I find that the dock constructed on the north side of the Thames, the West India dock, was not commenced until the year , there seems no reason to discredit the bird-catcher's statement. Among other classes of street-sellers I have had to remark the little observation they extended to the changes all around, such as the extension of street-traffic to miles and miles of suburbs, unknown till recently. miles of houses have been built in London within the last years. But with the bird-catchers this want of observance is not so marked. Of necessity they must notice the changes which have added to the fatigues and difficulties of their calling, by compelling them, literally, to "go further a-field."

A young man, rather tall, and evidently active, but very thin, gave me the following account. His manners were quiet and his voice low. His dress could not so well be called mean as hard worn, with the unmistakable look of much of the attire of his class, that it was not made for the wearer; his surtout, for instance, which was fastened in front by buttons, reached down to his ancles, and could have inclosed a bigger man. He resided in St. Luke's, in which parish there are more birdcatchers living than in any other. The furniture of his room was very simple. A heavy old sofa, in the well of which was a bed, a table, chairs, a fender, a small closet containing a few pots and tins, and some empty bird-cages of different sizes hung against the walls. In a sort of wooden loft, which had originally been constructed, he believed, for the breeding of fancy-pigeons, and which was erected on the roof, were about a dozen or of cages, some old and broken, and in them a few live goldfinches, which hopped about very merrily. They were all this year's birds, and my informant, who had "a little connection of his own," was rearing them in hopes they would turn out good specs, quite "birds beyond the run of the streets." The place and the cages, each bird having its own little cage, were very clean, but at the time of my visit the loft was exceedingly hot, as the day was of the sultriest. Lest this heat should prove too great for the finches, the timbers on all sides were well wetted and re-wetted at intervals, for about an hour at noon, at which time only was the sun full on the loft.

I shall soon have more birds, sir," he said, "but you see I only put aside here such as are the very best of the take; all cocks, of course. O, I've been in the trade all my life; I've had a turn at other things, certainly, but this life suits me best, I think, because I have my health best in it. My father—he's been dead a goodish bit —was a bird-catcher as well, and he used to take me out with him as soon as I was strong enough; when I was about ten, I suppose. I don't remember my mother. Father was brought up to brick-making. I believe that most of the birdcatchers that have been trades, and that's not half a quarter perhaps, were brick-makers, or something that way. Well, I don't know the reason. The brick-making was, in my father's young days, carried on more in the country, and the bird-catchers used to fall in with the brickmakers, and so perhaps that led to it. I've heard my father tell of an old soldier that had been discharged with a pension being the luckiest birdcatcher he knowed. The soldier was a catcher before he first listed, and he listed drunk. I once —yes, sir, I dare say that's fifteen year back, for I was quite a lad—walked with my father and captain" (the pensioner's sobriquet) "till they parted for work, and I remember very well I heard him tell how, when on march in Portingal—I think that's what he called it, but it's in foreign parts—he saw flocks of birds; he wished he could be after catching them, for he was well tired of sogering. I was sent to school twice or thrice, and can read a little and write a little; and I should like reading better if I could manage it better. I read a penny number, or the 'police' in a newspaper, now and then, but very seldom. But on a fine day I hated being at school. I wanted to be at work, to make something at bird-catching. If a boy can make money, why shouldn't he? And if I'd had a net, or cage, and a mule of my own, then, I thought, I could make money." [I may observe that the mule longed for by my informant was a "cross" between two birds, and was wanted for the decoy. Some bird-catchers contend that a mule makes the best call-bird of any; others that the natural note of a linnet, for instance, was more alluring than the song of a mule between a linnet and a goldfinch. One birdman told me that the excellence of a mule was, that it had been bred and taught by its master, had never been at large, and was "better to manage;" it was bolder, too, in a cage, and its notes were often loud and ringing, and might be heard to a considerable distance.]

I couldn't stick to school, sir," my informant continued, "and I don't know why, lest it be that one man's best suited for one business, and another for another. That may be seen every day. I was sent on trial to a shoemaker, and after that to a ropemaker, for father didn't seem to like my growing up and being a bird-catcher, like he was. But I never felt well, and knew I should never be any great hand at them trades, and so when my poor father went off rather sudden, I took to the catching at once and had all his traps. Perhaps, but I can't say to a niceness, that was eleven year back. Do I like the business, do you say, sir? Well, I'm forced to like it, for I've no other to live by." [The reader will have remarked how this man attributed the course he pursued, evidently from natural inclination, to its being the best and most healthful means of subsistence in his power.] "Last Monday, for my dealers like birds on a Monday or Tuesday best, and then they've the week before them,—I went to catch in the fields this side of Barnet, and started before two in the morning, when it was neither light nor dark. You must get to your place before daylight to be ready for the first flight, and have time to lay your net properly. When I'd done that, I lay down and smoked. No, smoke don't scare the birds; I think they're rather drawn to notice anything new, if all 's quite quiet. Well, the first pull I had about 90 birds, nearly all linnets. There was, as well as I can remember, three hedge-sparrows among them, and two larks, and one or two other birds. Yes, there's always a terrible flutter and row when you make a catch, and often regular fights in the net. I then sorted my birds, and let the hens go, for I didn't want to be bothered with them. I might let such a thing as 35 hens go out of rather more than an 80 take, for I've always found, in catching young broods, that I've drawn more cocks than hens. How do I know the difference when the birds are so young? As easy as light from dark. You must lift up the wing, quite tender, and you'll find that a cock linnet has black, or nearly black, feathers on his shoulder, where the hens are a deal lighter. Then the cock has a broader and whiter stripe on the wing than the hen has. It's quite easy to distinguish, quite. A cock goldfinch is straighter and more larger in general than a hen, and has a broader white on his wing, as the cock linnet has; he's black round the beak and the eye too, and a hen's greenish thereabouts. There's some gray-pates (young birds) would deceive any one until he opens their wings. Well, I went on, sir, until about one o'clock, or a little after, as well as I could tell from the sun, and then came away with about 100 singing birds. I sold them in the lump to three shopkeepers at 2s. 2d. and 2s. 6d. the doxen. That was a good day, sir; a very lucky day. I got about 17s., the best I ever did but once, when I made 19s. in a day.

Yes, it's hard work is mine, because there's such a long walking home when you've done catching. O, when you're at work it's not work but almost a pleasure. I've laid for hours though, without a catch. I smoke to pass the time when I'm watching; sometimes I read a bit if I've had anything to take with me to read; then at other times I thinks. If you don't get a catch for hours, it's only like an angler without a nibble. O, I don't know what I think about; about nothing, perhaps. Yes, I've had a friend or two go out catching with me just for the amusement. They must lie about and wait as I do. We have a little talk of course: well, perhaps about sporting; no, not horse-racing, I care nothing for that, but it's hardly business taking any one with you. I supply the dealers and hawk as well. Perhaps I make 12s. a week the year through. Some weeks I've made between 3l. and 4l., and in winter, when there's rain every day, perhaps I haven't cleared a penny in a fortnight. That's the worst of it. But I make more than others because I have a connection and raise good birds.

Sometimes I'm stopped by the farmers when I'm at work, but not often, though there is some of 'em very obstinate. It's no use, for if a catcher's net has to be taken from one part of a farm, after he's had the trouble of laying it, why it must be laid in another part. Some country people likes to have their birds catched.

My informant supplied shopkeepers and hawked his birds in the streets and to the houses. He had a connection, he said, and could generally get through them, but he had sometimes put a bird or in a fancy house. These are the public-houses resorted to by "the fancy," in some of which may be seen or dozen singingbirds for sale on commission, through the agency of the landlord or the waiter. They are the property of hawkers or dealers, and must be good birds, or they will not be admitted.

The number of birds caught, and the proportion sold in the streets, I have already stated. The number of bird-catchers, I may repeat, is about the same as that of street bird-sellers, .

 
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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