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London Street Musicians Part 2
Posted on Jun 12, 2003 - 08:50 AM by Bill McCann

The Strand Magazine was first published in 1891 and survived until after the Second World War. It published a mixture of fiction and factual studies of contemporary life. This series of five articles presents its summary of the musicians one might find on the streets of London in the 1890s. The additional notes are by Bill McCann.

The Italians

Italian Bagpipes
The Italian tribe of street musicians may be dealt with as a group. There are the bag-pipers, the children with the accordian and the triangle, the organ-man and the monkey and the hurdy-gurdy grinder. all of whom hail from the neighbourhood of Clerkenwell where there is an Italian colony. At the far end of Leather Lane, in Little Bath Street and Warner Street, they swarm, and there is quite the smell and noise of the back slums of an Italian city. The butcher' shops are stocked with the heads, trotters, and "innards" of bullocks, calves, sheep and pigs, and there is the "piggy-Wiggy pork-shop," and Italian barbers and cobblers. The Restaurant Italiano Milard is where many of the Italians spend their lazy day - which is Friday. There are also ice-cream makers, roast chestnut "merchants," and dealers in old clothes. Round the latter the Italian women congregate, and bargain for, and try on the gaudy-coloured garments - gowns petticoats, and shawls; which must have been specially selected to suit the taste of the Italians.

Accordian and Triangle

At the corner of Little Bath Street is the headquarters of the organ grinders. there they congregate early in the morning before they start on their rounds, and distribute their monkeys, babies and dancing children. The premises belong to one of the principal makers of piano organs in London, and the whole of the ground floor is arranged as a depot, where some hundreds of instruments are stored. Part of them may be hired but most of them are owned by the people we see playing them in the streets. A small sum is charged for "shed room," and any alterations or repairs can be done on the premises. The proprietors are Italians, an and are spoken of as very fair-dealing people. We found, on enquiry, that at least half of the owners of the piano-organs are English people who have bought their instruments, paying 10 or 15 for them by instalments. The charge for hire is about 10s. per week. "There is a choice of all the latest popular operatic and music-hall tunes, and generally all the tunes are changed every six months, though some tunes, like "The Lost Chord [Note 1] " and "The Village Blacksmith [Note 2] are seldom taken off the barrels. A piano-organ, if taken care of and protected from the wet, will last ten or twelve years. A new tune, if not very florid, can be put n for 9s. or 10s.

The Organ Grinder
The monkey-organ man with the old fashioned discordant barrel-organ is an old stager - the original "organ grinder." He looks out for streets where straw is laid down, and begins to grind immediately. An enraged pater-familias, who has just carefully tied up the knocker with a white kid glove, and muffled all the bells, calls out to the man, "Go away, do. Don't you see the straw?" The organ-grinder touches his hat, grins, sends the monkey to climb up the water-pipe and begins another tune. Ultimately he gets locked up, and then tells the magistrate that he did not go away because he thought the straw was put down so that the noise of the carts should not down the music!

The Hurdy-Gurdy

The Savoyard hurdy-gurdy player is almost extinct. The music is produced by the friction of a wheel on one or more strings, and the tone is regulated by pressure on keys. The men admit that thy get more money for sitting as artist's models than from playing. The hurdy-gurdy is amongst string instruments what the bag-pipes are amongst the wind instruments, but yet no one ever hears them played together. Probably the players themselves could not stand the combined noise.

Out with the babies
The Italians send out their wives with two babies - not always their own - and when the children get big enough, they take the place of the almost obsolete monkey, and do the begging. Older Italian girls pick up a lot of money in the City, and their success has prompted several English and Irish girls to imitate them by colouring their skins with walnut juice, and rigging themselves out in the Italian style. Many of these girls earlier danced round the piano-organs in the streets, and were paid to do so by the organ-grinders, as people who would give nothing for the music would give a penny to see the little ones dancing. Such a juvenile "Bal al fresco" makes a pretty picture not thought unworthy of the walls of the Royal Academy.

A Bal al Fresco


1 [By Arthur Sullivan.] Back
2 [The harmonious Blacksmith by Handel.] Back

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