London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
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
|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.
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, .