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London's PeopleThe Poor Man's Saturday Night in London: III
Posted on Dec 04, 2004 - 03:36 AM by Bill McCann

In the third instalment of our peek into a Victorian Saturday night in the New-cut, we see John and Mary happily make for their snug home with their purchases and turn our eyes to the less reputable denizens of the Saturday night market.



CHAPTER THREE

While John and Mary Jones, pleased with their first exploit in furnishing, are slowly wending their way homewards, we shall saunter through the Saturday-night market, and take a glance at the motley and ever-moving panorama which it presents to view. Owing to the system of late payments which prevails in too many establishments, there is a constant stream of working men's wives, who have but just received their market money, and are hastening to lay in a stock of provisions for the morrow, or it may be for the best part of the ensuing week.

Basket on arm, they group round the vegetable stalls, sounding the cabbages and lettuces, pressing the potatoes with vigorous thumb, or poising [i.e. weighing, derived from the Avoirdupois system of weights. ] green peas by the handful to judge of their content by weight. Here a weather-worn matron is musing pensively over a barrel of brine-sodden pork, from which she finally extracts a hand or a breast, for which she strikes a bargain at sixpence a pound. The butcher with untiring lungs is still firing off his

"Buy! Buy! Buy! What d'ye buy?"
and his assistants are busy as bees, haggling, chaffering, chopping and weighing pounds and half-pounds of steak or chop, with now and then a small joint.

There is a steady and clattering din, continuous as the noise of a rushing stream, rising from all sides, varied occasionally by an uproarious scream or a drunken yell. At the slop-shop under the awning the traffic is at its height: labouring men are trying on fustian jackets and gaudy crimson waistcoats, or half throttling themselves with spotted "belchers;" [neckerchiefs with large white spots on a blue background] anxious mothers, leading their ragged urchin sons by the hand are fitting their matted heads with a fourpenny cap, or their protruding toes with a pair of cheap Sunday shoes; a navigator is bargaining a pair of iron-soled bluchers [leather half-boots] of seven pounds weight; while slatternly girl bids ninepence for a wrinkled pair of dancing shoes, which she stuffs into her pocket, her basket already overloaded with greens, potatoes, bread, and a pig's face.

The pawnbroker's shop is crammed full with his thriftless and improvident patrons. It is going to be a fine day to-morrow; the weather has set fair, there is no fear of rain; on this account, Tom and Ned and Harry, and Nelly and Sally and Madge, and the whole of the improvident pledge-taking fraternity and sisterhood are flocking to the golden balls to get their best clothes out of pawn, that they may not be shut up at home for want of something to appear abroad in. Coats, waistcoats, and trowsers and shawls, dresses and mantles are tumbling down the spout in ticketed bundles all the evening long, and being handed over to the expectant owners, who, without a thought of extravagance, are paying from twenty to fifty per cent. per annum for the temporary use or abuse of the paltry sum raised upon them.

On the other hand, clothes and household necessities are brought to the general depository by the starving, the sick, the unfortunate, or the unemployed; who, but for a few pence or a shilling or two thus desperately secured, would be dinnerless on the morrow. You may mark a decided expression of recklessness in the countenances of most of these regular patrons of the money-lender, and with equal certainty you may recognise the aspect of vexation and disappointment which characterizes the rest.

One unpleasant trait is too general among the pawners, and it is evidenced by their immediate resort to the gin-shop, so soon as they emerge from the temple of the golden balls; they unhappily prefer the pawnbroker's pledge to the temperance pledge, and the consequence is that their property, even to their clothes, is reduced to a pocketful of dog's-eared duplicates, while their health and morals are irretrievably ruined.

We must not omit one repulsive feature, which unhappily is never wanting in the poor man's Saturday-night market. You can scarcely stand a minute in any part of it without recognising its disgraceful presence. We allude to the multifarious trade in impostures of all sorts which is carried on during the few hours preceding midnight, wherever the poor and the labouring classes are drawn together to spend their hard earnings. Just on the same principle as the shop-keepers and stall-owners prepare their goods and display their various manufactures to tempt the desire of the monied customer, so do the vile dealers in simulated misery and misfortune prepare their harrowing and heart-rending exhibitions to speculate upon the sympathy of the charitable poor. Every Saturday night in London, the lame, the halt and the blind, the maimed, the mutilated and the crippled, the widowed and the deserted, are manufactured by hundreds to reap the harvest of a certain amount of benevolence which is known to characterise the lower orders of the London working populace, the majority of whom, it should be remembered, are not Londoners born, but country-bred artisans who have come hither in pursuit of employment.

These miscreants display a wonderful ingenuity in the concoction of their stratagems and disguises. If the weather be dry and fine, as on the present occasion, they resort to some irreparable calamity as their stock-in-trade, such as total blindness or a semi-paralysis. If, however, it rain, hail, and blow a tempest, and the roads are running with streams of liquid mud, then the domestic-misery sham is most profitable, and, in place of one paralytic subject jabbering on crutches, you will see a regular pyramid of motherless children, all with clean faces and clean white aprons, standing bare-headed in the rain, and headed by a decent respectable-looking man, who intones a doleful tale about his want of work, his long sojourn in the hospital, and the death of his wife, who has left him with six helpless babes, for whose hapless sake he is compelled to appeal to your compassion, as sickness prevents him from working in their behalf. In some instances such appeals may be genuine, but the probability is that he has hired the children of their beggarly mothers at sixpence a head for the night, and there is no doubt but he will make a good speculation of it before the night is over, and in all probability get drunk with the proceeds.

Another very remunerative deception is "the poor gentleman." A young fellow of five-and-twenty, with a pale, sallow, and woe-begone complexion, stands with is back against a gas-lamp or the wall. He is clad in an undeniably gentlemanly garb of refined black cloth, threadbare and shabby by constant wear; a snow-white collar contrasts forcibly with the jaundiced hue of his sickly countenance; and snow-white wristbands of unspotted cleanliness, but fringed and jagged at the edges to denote his poverty and the hardness of his struggle to maintain a genteel appearance, half conceal his skeleton fingers, in which he grasps a single box of Lucifer matches. Around his brow there is a fillet of white linen, and he wears a green shade over his eyes.

His tout ensemble, as he hangs his head in an angle indicative of broken-hearted dejection, presents a spectacle of melancholy reverse of fortune and unmerited degradation, against which the hearts of poor men and their wives are not proof, and you may see them, with a half-expressed sympathetic moan, dropping into his open hand a share of their hard-won gains, which the unprincipled fellow will dissipate before the dawn in the nocturnal orgies of some den of thieves and cadgers, among whom he is renowned as a universal genius.

Blind men with a pair of excellent eyes under a bandage, chant their lying ditties. Men, who could walk you six miles an hour if anything were to be got by it, hobble about on wooden legs, bawling ballads for sale by the yard, and begging your custom for an old tar lamed for life in a cruise against the slave ships off the African coast. Wretched women, with half-clad infants at the breast borrowed babes, which will have to be returned in an hour or two unite their squalling voices to the general hubbub.

Fictitious cripples, proof against any quantity of liquor, and steeped in falsehood to their lips, are chanting pious hymns to psalm tunes, and turning their bleared eyes to heaven as though they had bidden farewell to hope upon earth. Even children of tender age, trained to these atrocious deceptions, exhibit themselves upon the kerb-stones, crying and moaning with anguish, in the characters of desolate orphans without food to eat or a shelter for the night.

These villainous deceptions all originate in the fact universally known, that the poor are ever ready to help the distressed; and it is true beyond a doubt, that the unsuspecting benevolence of the lower and labouring ranks has given rise to a thousand devices of unblushing fraud, which makes a prey of their charitable tendencies. These impostors, however, are not the only claimants for the stray coins of the crowd.

TO BE CONTINUED.

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