London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Crippled Street Bird-Seller.


FROM the bird-seller whose portrait will be given in the next number of this work I have received the following account. The statement previously


given was that of a catcher and street-seller, as are the great majority in the trade; the following narrative is that of who, from his infirmities, is merely a street-

The poor man's deformity may be best understood by describing it in his own words: "I have no ancle." His right leg is emaciated, the bone is smaller than that of his other leg (which is not deformed), and there is no ancle joint. The joints of the wrists and shoulders are also defective, though not utterly wanting, as in the ancle. In walking this poor cripple seems to advance by means of a series of jerks. He uses his deformed leg, but must tread, or rather support his body, on the ball of the misformed foot, while he advances his sound leg; then, with a twist of his body, after he has advanced and stands upon his undeformed leg and foot, he throws forward the crippled part of his frame by the jerk I have spoken of. His arms are usually pressed against his ribs as he walks, and convey to a spectator the notion that he is unable to raise them from that position. This, however, is not the case; he can raise them, not as a sound man does, but with an effort and a contortion of his body to humour the effort. His speech is also defective, his words being brought out, as it were, by jerks; he has to prepare himself, and to throw up his chin, in order to converse, and then he speaks with difficulty. His face is sun-burnt and healthy-looking. His dress was a fustian coat with full skirts, cloth trowsers somewhat patched, and a clean coarse shirt. His right shoe was suited to his deformity, and was strapped with a sort of leather belt round the lower part of the leg.

A considerable number of book-stall keepers, as well as costermongers, swag-barrowmen, gingerbeer and lemonade sellers, orange-women, sweetstuff vendors, root-sellers, and others, have established their pitches—some of them having stalls with a cover, like a roof—from Whitechapel workhouse to the Mile End turnpike-gate; near the gate they are congregated most thickly, and there they are mixed with persons seated on the forms belonging to adjacent innkeepers, which are placed there to allow any to have his beer and tobacco in the open air. Among these streetsellers and beer-drinkers is seated the crippled bird-seller, generally motionless.

His home is near the Jews' burial-ground, and in of the many "places" which by a misnomer, occasioned by the change in the character and appearance of what the outskirts, are still called "Pleasant." On seeking him here, I had some little difficulty in finding the house, and asking a string of men, who were chopping firewood in an adjoining court, for the man I wanted, mentioning his name, no knew anything about him; though when I spoke of his calling, "O," they said, "you want Old Billy." I then found Billy at his accustomed pitch, with a very small stock of birds in large cages on the ground beside him, and he accompanied me to his residence. The room in which we sat had a pile of fire-wood opposite the door; the iron of the upper part of the door-latch being wanting was replaced by a piece of wood—and on the pile sat a tame jackdaw, with the inquisitive and askant look peculiar to the bird. Above the pile was a large cage, containing a jay—a bird seldom sold in the streets now—and a thrush, in different compartments. A table, chairs, and a hamper or used in the wood-cutting, completed the furniture. Outside the house were cages containing larks, goldfinches, and a very fine starling, of whose promising abilities the bird-seller's sister had so favourable an opinion that she intended to try and teach it to talk, although that was very seldom done now.

The following is the statement I obtained from the poor fellow. The man's sister was present at his desire, as he was afraid I could not understand him, owing to the indistinctness of his speech; but that was easy enough, after awhile, with a little patience and attention.

I was born a cripple, sir," he said, "and I shall die one. I was born at Lewisham, but I don't remember living in any place but London. I remember being at Stroud though, where my father had taken me, and bathed me often in the sea himself, thinking it might do me good. I've heard him say, too, that when I was very young he took me to almost every hospital in London, but it was of no use. My father and mother were as kind to me and as good parents as could be. He's been dead nineteen years, and my mother died before him. Father was very poor, almost as poor as I am. He worked in a brickfield, but work weren't regular. I couldn't walk at all until I was six years old, and I was between nine and ten before I could get up and down stairs by myself. I used to slide down before, as well as I could, and had to be carried up. When I could get about and went among other boys, I was in great distress, I was teased so. Life was a burthen to me, as I've read something about. They used to taunt me by offering to jump me" (invite him to a jumping match), "and to say, I'll run you a race on one leg. They were bad to me then, and they are now. I've sometimes sat down and cried, but not often. No, sir, I can't say that I ever wished I was dead. I hardly know why I cried. I suppose because I was miserable. I learned to read at a Sunday school, where I went a long time. I like reading. I read the Bible and tracts, nothing else; never a newspaper. It don't come in my way, and if it did I shouldn't look at it, for I can't read over well and it's nothing to me who's king or who's queen. It can never have anything to do with me. It don't take my attention. There'll be no change for me in this world. When I was thirteen my father put me into the bird trade. He knew a good many catchers. I've been bird-selling in the streets for six-and-twenty years and more, for I was 39 the 24th of last January. Father didn't know what better he could put me to, as I hadn't the right use of my hands or feet, and at first I did very well. I liked the birds and do still. I used to think at first that they was like me; they was prisoners, and I was a cripple. At first I sold birds in Poplar, and Limehouse, and Blackwall, and was a help to my parents, for I cleared 9s. or 10s. every week. But now, oh dear, I don't know where all the money's gone to. I think there's very little left in the country. I've sold larks, linnets, and goldfinches, to captains of ships to take to the West Indies. I've sold them, too, to go to Port Philip. O, and almost all those foreign parts. They bring foreign birds here, and take back London birds. I don't know anything about foreign birds. I know there's men dressed as sailors going about selling them; they're duffers—I mean the men. There's a neighbour of mine, that's very likely never been 20 miles out of London, and when he hawks birds he always dresses like a countryman, and duffs that way.

When my father died," continued the man, "I was completely upset; everything in the world was upset. I was forced to go into the workhouse, and I was there between four and five months. O, I hated it. I'd rather live on a penny loaf a day than be in it again. I've never been near the parish since, though I've often had nothing to eat many a day. I'd rather be lamer than I am, and be oftener called silly Billy—and that sometimes makes me dreadful wild—than be in the workhouse. It was starvation, but then I know I'm a hearty eater, very hearty. Just now I know I could eat a shilling plate of meat, but for all that I very seldom taste meat. I live on bread and butter and tea, sometimes bread without butter. When I have it I eat a quartern loaf at three meals. It depends upon how I'm off. My health's good. I never feel in any pain now; I did when I first got to walk, in great pain. Beer I often don't taste once in two or three months, and this very hot weather one can't help longing for a drop, when you see people drinking it all sides of you, but they have the use of their limbs." [Here two little girls and a boy rushed into the room, for they had but to open the door from the outside, and, evidently to tease the poor fellow, loudly demanded "a ha'penny bird." When the sister had driven them away, my informant continued.] "I'm still greatly teased, sir, with children; yes, and with men too, both when they're drunk and sober. I think grown persons are the worst. They swear and use bad language to me. I'm sure I don't know why. I know no name they call me by in particular when I'm teased, if it isn't 'Old Hypocrite.' I can't say why they call me 'hypocrite.' I suppose because they know no better. Yes, I think I'm religious, rather. I would be more so, if I had clothes. I get to chapel sometimes." [A resident near the bird-seller's pitch, with whom I had some conversation, told me of "Billy" being sometimes teased in the way described. Some years ago, he believed it was at Limehouse, my informant heard a gentlemanly-looking man, tipsy, d—n the street birdseller for Mr. Hobbler, and bid him go to the Mansion House, or to h—l. I asked the cripple about this, but he had no recollection of it; and, as he evidently did not understand the allusion to Mr. Hobbler, I was not surprised at his forgetfulness.]

I like to sit out in the sunshine selling my birds," he said. "If it's rainy, and I can't go out, because it would be of no use, I'm moped to death. I stay at home and read a little; or I chop a little fire-wood, but you may be very sure, sir, its little I can do that way. I never associate with the neighbours. I never had any pleasure, such as going to a fair, or like that. I don't remember having ever spent a penny in a place of amusement in my life. Yes, I've often sat all day in the sun, and of course a deal of thoughts goes through my head. I think, shall I be able to afford myself plenty of bread when I get home? And I think of the next world sometimes, and feel quite sure, quite, that I shan't be a cripple there. Yes, that's a comfort, for this world will never be any good to me. I feel that I shall be a poor starving cripple, till I end, perhaps, in the workhouse. Other poor men can get married, but not such as me. But I never was in love in my life, never." [Among the vagrants and beggars, I may observe, there are men more terribly deformed than the bird-seller, who are married, or living in concubinage.] "Yes, sir," he proceeded, "I'm quite reconciled to my lameness, quite; and have been for years. O, no, I never fret about that now; but about starving, perhaps, and the workhouse.

Before father died, the parish allowed us 1s. 6d. and a quartern loaf a week; but after he was buried, they'd allow me nothing; they'd only admit me into the house. I hadn't a penny allowed to me when I discharged myself and came out. I hardly know how ever I did manage to get a start again with the birds. I knew a good many catchers, and they trusted me. Yes, they was all poor men. I did pretty tidy by bits, but only when it was fine weather, until these five years or so, when things got terrible bad. Particularly just the two last years with me. Do you think times are likely to mend, sir, with poor people? If working-men had only money, they'd buy innocent things like birds to amuse them at home; but if they can't get the money, as I've heard them say when they've been pricing my stock, why in course they can't spend it.

"Yes, indeed," said the sister, "trade's very bad. Where my husband and I once earned at the fire-wood, and then , we can't now earn the of us, slave as hard as we will. I always dread the winter a-coming. Though there may be more fire-wood wanted, there's greater expenses, and it's a terrible time for such as us."

"I dream sometimes, sir," the cripple resumed in answer to my question, "but not often. I often have more than once dreamed I was starving and dying of hunger. I remember that, for I woke in a tremble. But most dreams is soon forgot. I've never seemed to myself to be a cripple in my dreams. Well, I can't explain how, but I feel as if my limbs was all free like— so beautiful. I dream most about starving I think, than about anything else. Perhaps that's when I have to go to sleep hungry. I sleep very well, though, take it altogether. If I had only plenty to live upon there would be


nobody happier. I'm happy enough when times is middling with me, only feels it won't last. I like a joke as well as anybody when times is good; but that's been very seldom lately.

It's all small birds I sell in the street now, except at a very odd time. That jackdaw there, sir, he's a very fine bird. I've tamed him myself, and he's as tame as a dog. My sister's a very good hand among birds, and helps me. She once taught a linnet to say 'Joey' as plain as you can speak it yourself, sir. I buy birds of different catchers, but haven't money to buy the better kinds, as I have to sell at 3d., and 4d., and 6d. mostly. If I had a pound to lay out in a few nice cages and good birds, I think I could do middling, this fine weather particler, for I'm a very good judge of birds, and know how to manage them as well as anybody. Then birds is rather dearer to buy than they was when I was first in the trade. The catchers have to go further, and I'm afeared the birds is getting scarcer, and so there's more time taken up. I buy of several catchers. The last whole day that I was at my pitch I sold nine birds, and took about 3s. If I could buy birds ever so cheap, there's always such losses by their dying. I've had three parts of my young linnets die, do what I might, but not often so many. Then if they die all the food they've had is lost. There goes all for nothing the rape and flax-seed for your linnets, canary and flax for your goldfinches, chopped eggs for your nightingales, and German paste for your sky-larks. I've made my own German paste when I've wanted a sufficient quantity. It's made of peameal, treacle, hog's-lard, and moss-seed. I sell more goldfinches than anything else. I used to sell a good many sparrows for shooting, but I haven't done anything that way these eight or nine years. It's a fash'nable sport still, I hear. I've reared nightingales that sung beautiful, and have sold them at 4s. a piece, which was very cheap. They often die when the time for their departure comes. A shopkeeper as supplied such as I've sold would have charged 1l. a piece for them. One of my favouritest birds is redpoles, but they're only sold in the season. I think it's one of the most knowingest little birds that is; more knowing than the goldfinch, in my opinion.

My customers are all working people, all of them. I sell to nobody else; I make 4s. or 5s.; I call 5s. a good week at this time of year, when the weather suits. I lodge with a married sister; her husband's a wood-chopper, and I pay 1s. 6d. a week, which is cheap, for I've no sticks of my own. If I earn 4s. there's only 2s. 6d. left to live on the week through. In winter, when I can make next to nothing, and must keep my birds, it is terrible—oh yes, sir, if you believe me, terrible!

This object is in collection Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
TARC Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights
View all images in this book
 Title Page
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