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London's PeopleThe Poor man's Saturday Night in London: II
Posted on Nov 27, 2004 - 08:58 AM by Bill McCann

In the second instalment of our glance at a Victorian Saturday night in the New-cut, John and Mary buy their Sunday dinner and a fine set of table and chairs - which somewhat mystify poor John.

CHAPTER TWO

When John first "breathed out his tender tale" to Mary, it was not "beneath the milk-white thorn that scents the evening gale," but under a doorway beneath which the pair were driven by a shower of rain, as he was escorting her home from the bookbinder's where she wrought as a folder for seven-and-sixpence a week. The tender tale was, however, just as much to the purpose as though the milk-white thorn had waved over their heads instead of the sign of the golden teapot, and the treaty then and there ratified by the light of a gas-lamp was kept with as good faith as any ever made by the light of the moon, and witnessed by all the stars in the sky.

Since that eventful night, three months of courtship have been followed by three more of matrimony. The young couple have at last resolved upon doing what they ought to have done before they yoked together; that is to furnish a nest of their own, and to get clear of ready furnished lodgings, which they begin to find as comfortless as they are needlessly expensive. With this in view, Mary has been back to work at the binder's, and John has been labouring over-hours for the last month, and saving every penny he could spare to "buy sticks."

It was past nine o'clock to-night before he got away from the workshop and now he and Mary are come to the market, with the double view of replenishing the cupboard for the morrow's consumption, and of laying out a pound or two in substituting for the household goods of his landlady, household goods of his own. Mary has a little basket on her arm and the street-door key in her bosom, and she would rather get the provisioning done out of the way, before it grows later, and while there is plenty to choose from.

She is brought to a stand by the explosive

"Buy! Buy! What d'ye buy?"
of the butcher, and looks around upon his stall for the precise little cut of beef which will do hot for one day's and cold for another dinner. There it is, sure enough, hanging on the third hook.
"How is beef to day, Mr ---?" she asks.
"Pretty well, thankee, ma'am; how are you?"
"Pooh! None of that nonsense!"
"Beg pardon, ma'am, sevenpence-halfpenny sevenpence to you."
"well, weigh me that piece."
"That! Well to be sure, what a eye yur got. I put that piece up there for my own dinner tomorror:* but you shall have it three pounds, you see, good weight; one and nine thankee, sir; now then, buy! buy! buy! what d'ye buy?"
*Of course in this daguerreotype sketch the character of the tradesman is painted as it is, not as we would wish it to be.

The beef is in the basket, wrapped in a clean cloth, and Mary pops into the grocer's, where she would have to wait a long while, but for that John elbows a way for her to the counter. Having secured her tea an sugar and a little pat of butter, she directs her steps towards the Marsh in search of vegetables. It is now past ten o'clock, and the throng is very dense and growing momentarily more so. It is difficult to get along the pavement owing to the crows, and those who are in a hurry take to the road to save time.

Vegetables are cheap and plentiful enough; Mary, who took John's heart in his breast as a thing for granted, has no such confidence in the case of cabbages; she rends open their green waistcoats and has ocular demonstrations that the hearts are there before she pays her coppers for them. Irish Moll's onions get a pretty hard pinch between her taper finger and thumb, and one bunch after another is rejected before she is suited to her mind. Then there is nothing more to be got but a bag of flour from the baker's, where the best wheaten flour is ticketed at 6d. the quarter, delivered full weight from the scale, and a lump of salt bought for a halfpenny from a boy hawker in the street.

The demands of appetite of appetite being provided for, the pair have now leisure for an hour's promenade among the furniture shops and nondescript museums, where all manner of tempting bargains lie in wait for the slender purse.

Find New-cut (now The Cut) on the map

The cheap furniture and omnium-gatherum repositories are on Saturday night bathed in such a flood of light as day never pours on the scene. Broad flaring streams of gas are burning on all sides, and he minutest article in the remotest cavity is distinctly visible in the clear and shadow-less glare. Numerous salesmen are active both within and without the overstocked marts, and constant appeals are made to the passers-by, as though it were a fact not to be doubted, that every person there was in search of some particular article.

It is worth while to pause a moment and watch the tactics of the salesman employed. The bland politeness of the ordinary shopman is not to be found here; so far from conciliating, it would nauseate the generality of the customers. The utmost you can expect is a plain matter-of-fact civility. where a vast number of low-priced commodities are sold at very small profits, as is the case in most of these dusty museums, time cannot be wasted in effecting a sale: so the salesman too often cultivates a species of disreputable eloquence which, among unscrupulous employers, is significantly termed "bounce". The possession of this peculiar qualification enables the salesman to exercise in his transactions with his customers a species of despotism, which must however be of such a character, being seasoned with humour or the affectation of it, as not to give offence.

It is curious to notice how cleverly the affair is managed by a practised hand. While loudly talking down all objections, he contrives in the same breath to cajole, to deprecate, to flatter, and to overrule the hesitating customer, and to despatch a treaty which threatened to linger for an hour in less than three minutes; and this indeed he is obliged to do, or his employer would lose money by the transaction.

These attractive museums are besieged by crowds of chaffering purchasers up to the hour of midnight. Groups of labouring men rummage among the tool-boxes; boys and lads are tuning, and scraping, and twanging away at the fiddles; sportsmen are snapping fowling pieces, or whipping the air with fishing rods; poor scholars are routing among the books for some threepenny classic; bespectacled connoisseurs are peering in vain through the black varnish of a suppositious Van Dyke and thrifty housewives are cheapening kettles and crockery, or buying a brace of flat-irons for a shilling with a view to the next washing-day's exploits.

John Jones pulls up instinctively at the sight of the tools, among which he discerns some which would be of use to him in his own trade; but Mary pulls him out of temptation, and drags him away to the furniture-broker's next door, who has a stout table and a set of cane chairs of a very jaunty pattern, upon which she has set her heart.

"What is the article you were looking for tonight ma'am?" says the broker, who has seen her glancing at the table on previous evenings. "step in, ma'am; step in, sir; and look at the article."
John steps in, and overhauls the table and chairs, and demands the price. The price, to his astonishment, is less than he could have anticipated less indeed than he, who is a working hand at the cabinet-making business, knows they could be made for if a fair price wre paid for labour and material.. Impressed with this conviction, John hums and haws and begins fumbling for his purse; but Mary, who like too many people in this age of competition has no notion of giving the full amount of anybody's demand if she can help it, insists upon an abatement in the sum total and eventually succeeds in reducing by half-a-crown the amount to be paid for the table and chairs. They are paid for, piled upon a truck, and wheeled off in the rear of the young couple, who pioneer the way to their humble lodgings.

John as he walks slowly along, feels considerably mystified on the subject of the articles he has bought. He knows that, had they been made in his master's workshop, they would have cost more in production than he has paid for them, and he wonders where the profit to the dealer can come from, the goods being new. He is ignorant of the existence of a numerous class of small manufacturers known by the denomination of "garret-masters," who employing no other hands than those of their own families, purchase refuse timber, which they work up during the week, and then, under the compulsion of necessity, dispose of their manufactures on the Saturday at whatever price the brokers choose to fix upon them.

TO BE CONTINUED.



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