In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew has left us a detailed picture of London street life in the mid nineteenth century. One of the delights of the boys of his time was to let off "crackers" or fireworks behind some unsuspecting citizen. Mayhew set out in search of those who sold these illegal items and this is what he found and heard.
Of The Street-Seller of Crackers and Detonating Balls
This trade, I am informed by persons familiar with it, would be much more frequently carried on by street-folk, and in much greater numbers, were it not the one which of all street callings finds the least toleration from the police. "You must keep your eyes on both corners of the street," said one man, "when you sell crackers; and what good is it the police stopping us? The boys have only to go to a shop, and then it's all right." The trade is only known in the streets at holiday seasons, and is principally carried on for a few days before and after the 5th of November, and again at Christmas-tide.
"Last November was good for crackers," said one man; "it was either Guy Faux day, or the day before, I'm not sure which now, that I took 15s., and nearly all of boys, for waterloo crackers and ball crackers (the common trade names), 'waterloo' being the 'pulling crackers.' At least three parts was ball crackers. I sold them from a barrow, wheeling it about as if it was heartstone, and just saying quietly when I could, 'Six a penny crackers.' The boys soon tell one another. All sorts bought of me; doctors' boys, school boys, pages, boys as was dressed beautiful, and boys as hadn't neither shoes nor stockings. It's sport for them all." The same man told me he did well at what he called "last Poram fair," clearing 13s. 6d. in three days, or rather evenings or nights.
"Poram fair, sir," he said, "is a sort of feast among the Jews, always three weeks I've heard, afore their Passover, and I then work Whitechapel and all that way." I inquired of a man who had carried on this street trade for a good many years, it might be ten or twelve, if he had noticed the uses to which his boy-customers put his not very innocent wares, and he entered readily into the subject.
"Why, sir," he said, "they're not all boy customers, as you call them, but they're far the most. I've sold to men, and often to drunken men. What larks there is with the ball-crackers! One man lost his eye at Stepney Fair, but that's 6 or 7 years ago, from a lark with crackers. The rights of it I never exactly understood, but I know he lost his eye, from the dry gravel in the ball-cracker bouncing into it. But it's the boys as is fondest of crackers. I sold 'em all last Christmas, and made my 5s. and better on Boxing day. I was sold out before 6 o'clock, as I had a regular run at last - just altogether. After that, I saw one lad go quietly behind a poor lame old woman and pull a Waterloo close behind her ear; he was a biggish boy and tidily dressed; and the old body screamed, 'I'm shot.' She turned about, and the boy says, says he, 'Does your grandmother know you're out? It's a improper thing, so it is, for you to be walking out by yourself.' You should have seen her passion! But as she was screaming out, 'You saucy wagabone! You boys is all wagabones. People can't pass for you. I'll give you in charge, I will," the lad was off like a shot.At the fairs near London there is a considerable sale of these combustibles; and they are often displayed on large stalls in the fair. They furnish the means of practical jokes to the people on their return.
"But one of the primest larks I ever saw that way was last winter, in a street by Shoreditch. An old snob that had a bulk was making it all right for the night, and a lad goes up. I don't know what he said to the old boy, but I saw him poke something, a last I think it was, against the candle, put it out, and then run off. In a minute, three or four lads that was ready, let fly at the bulk with their ball-crackers, and there was a clatter as if the old snob had tumbled down, and knocked his lasts down; but he soon had his head out - he was Irish, I think - and he first set up a roar like a Smithfield bull, and he shouts, 'I'm kilt intirely wid the murthering pistols! Po-lice! Po-o-lice!' He seemed taken quite by surprise - for they was capital crackers - I think he couldn't have been used to bulks, or he would have been used to pelting; but how he did bellow, surely.
"I think it was that same night too, I saw a large old man, buttoned up, but seeming as if he was fine-dressed for a party, in a terrible way in the Commercial road. I lived near there then. There was three boys afore me - and very well they did it -one of 'em throws a ball-cracker bang at the old gent's feet, just behind him, and makes him jump stunning, and the boy walks on with his hands in his pocket, as if he know'd nothing about it. Just after that another boy does the same, and then the t'other boy; and the old gent - Lord, how he swore! It was shocking in such a respectable man, as I told him, when he said, I'd crackered him! `Me cracker you,' says I; 'it'ud look better if you'd have offered to treat a poor fellow to a pint of beer with ginger in it, and the chill off, than talk such nonsense.' As we was having this jaw, one of the boys comes back and lets fly again; and the old gent saw how it was, and he says, `Now, if you'll run after that lad, and give him a d --d good hiding, you shall have the beer.' 'Money down, sir,' says I, 'if you mean honour bright;' but he grumbled something, and walked away. I saw him soon after, talking to a Bobby, so I made a short cut home."
"After last Whitsun Greenwich Fair," said a street-seller to me, I saw a gent in a white choker, like a parson, look in at a pastrycook's shop, as is jist by the Elephant (and Castle), a-waiting for a 'bus, I s'pose. There was an old 'oman with a red face standing near him; and I saw a lad, very quick, pin something to one's coat and the t'other's gown. They turned jist arter, and bang goes a Waterloo, and they looks savage one at another; and hup comes that indentical boy, and he says to the red faced 'oman, a pointing to the white choker, 'Marm, I seed him a twiddling with your gown. He done it for a lark arter the fair, and ought to stand something.' So the parson, if he were a parson, walked away." There are eight makers, I am told, who supply the street-sellers and the small shops with these crackers. The wholesale price is 4d. to 6d. a gross, the "cracker-balls" being the dearest. The retail price in the streets is from six to twelve a penny, according to the appearance and eagerness of the purchaser. Some street traders carry these commodities on trays, and very few are stationary, except at fairs. I am assured, that for a few days last November, from 50 to 60 men and women were selling crackers in the streets, of course "on the sly." In so irregular and surreptitious a trade, it is not possible even to approximate to statistics. The most intelligent man that I met with, acquainted, as he called it, "with all the ins and outs of the trade," calculated that in November and Christmas, 100 pounds at least was expanded in the streets in these combustibles, and another 100 pounds in the other parts of the year. About Tower-hill, Ratcliff highway (or "the Highway," as street-sellers often call it), and in Wapping and Shadwell, the sale of crackers is the best. The sellers are the ordinary street sellers, and no patter is required.
Note: The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.