London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the Street-Sellers of Tan-Turf.
TAN-TURF is oak bark made into turf after its virtues have been exhausted in the tan-pits. To make it into turf the manufacturers have a mill which is turned by horse-power, in which they grind the bark to a considerable degree of fineness, after which it is shaped by a mould into thin cakes about inches square, put out to dry and harden, and when thoroughly hardened it is fit for sale and for all the uses for which it is intended.
There is only place in London or its neighbourhood where there are tan-pits—in Bermondsey—and there only is the turf made. There are not more than a dozen persons in London engaged in the sale of this commodity in the streets, and they are all of the tribe of the costermongers. The usual capital necessary for starting in the line being a donkey and cart, with or to purchase a few hundreds of the turf.
There is a tradition extant, even at the present day, that during the prevalence of the plague in London the houses where the tan-turf was used in a great measure escaped that awful visitation; and to this moment many people purchase and burn it in their houses on account of the peculiar smell, and under the belief that it is efficacious in repelling infectious diseases from the localities in which it is used.
The other purposes for which it is used are for forming a sort of compost or manure for plants of the heath kind, which delight in a soil of this description, growing naturally among mosses and bogs where the peat fuel is obtained. It is used also by small bakers for heating their ovens, as preferable for their purposes, and more economical than any other description of fuel. Sometimes it is used for burning under coppers; and very often for keeping alight during the night, on account of the slowness of its decomposition by fire, for a single cake will continue burning for a whole night, will be found in the morning completely enveloped in a white ash, which, on being removed, discovers the live embers in the centre.
The rate at which the tan-turf is sold to the dealers, at the tan-pits, is from to per hun-
|dred cakes. Those at per are perfect and unbroken, while those at have been injured in some way or other. The quality of the article, however, remains the same, and by purchasing some of each sort the vendors are able to make somewhat more profit, which may be, on an average, about per , as they sell it at
While seeking information on this subject I obtained the address of a person in T—— mews, T—— square, engaged in the business. Running out of the square is a narrow street, which, about mid-way through, leads on the right-hand side to a narrow alley, at the bottom of which is the mews, consisting of merely an oblong court, surrounded by stables of the very smallest dimensions, not of them being more than feet square. or men, in the long waistcoats and full breeches peculiar to persons engaged among horses, were lounging about, and, with the exception of the horses, appeared to be the only inhabitants of the place. On inquiring of of the loungers, I was shown a stable in corner of the court, the wide door of which stood open. On entering I found it occupied by a donkey-cart, containing a couple of cakes of tan-turf; another old donkey-cart was turned up opposite, the tailboard resting on the ground, the shafts pointing to the ceiling, while a cock and or draggle-tailed hens were composing themselves to roost on the front portion of the cart between the shafts. Within the space thus inclosed by the carts lay a donkey and dogs, that seemed keeping him company, and were busily engaged in mumbling and crunching some old bones. On the wall hung "Jack's harness." In corner of the ceiling was an opening giving access to the place above, which was reached by means of a long ladder. On ascending this I found myself in a very small attic, with a sloping ceiling on both sides. In the highest part, the middle of the room, it was not more than feet high, but at the sides it was not more than feet. In this confined apartment stood a stump bedstead, taking up the greater portion of the floor. In a corner alongside the fire-place I noticed what appeared to be a small turn--up bedstead. A little ricketty deal table, an old smoke-dried Dutch clock, and a poor old woman, withered and worn, were the only other things to be seen in the place. The old woman had been better off, and, as is not uncommon under such circumstances, she endeavoured to make her circumstances appear better than they really were. She made the following statement:—
The poor woman, notwithstanding the extraordinary place in which she lived, and the confined dimensions of her single apartment (I ascertained that the sons slept in the stump bedstead, while she used the turn-up), was nevertheless cleanly in her person and apparel, and superior in many respects to persons of the same class, and I give her statement verbatim, as it corroborates, in almost every particular, the statement of the unfortunate seller of salt, who is afflicted with a drunken disorderly wife, and who is also a man superior to the people with whom he is compelled to associate, but who in evident bitterness of spirit made this assertion: "Bad as I'm off now, if I had only a careful partner, I wouldn't want for anything."
Concerning the dogs that I have spoken of as being with the donkey, there is a curious story. During his rounds the donkey frequently met the bitch, and an extraordinary friendship grew up between the animals, so that the dog at last forsook its owner, and followed the donkey in all his travels. For some time back she has accompanied him home, together with her puppy, and they all sleep cozily together during the night, Jack taking especial care not to hurt the young . In the morning, when about to go out for the day's work, it is of no use to expect Jack to go without his friends, as he will not budge an inch, so he is humoured in his whim. The puppy, when tired, is put into the cart, and the mother forages for her living along the way; the poor woman not being able to feed them. The owner of the dogs came to see them on the day previous to my visit.