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London's PeopleThe Poor Man's Saturday Night in London: IV
Posted on Dec 11, 2004 - 06:05 AM by Bill McCann

A lively aspect of the Saturday night market were the bangers of drums and blowers of horns and would-be fiddlers all desperately trying to earn enough to buy something for their Sunday meal. Then, as the night advances, and the clocks toll eleven, there emerge onto the streets a different set of citizens to taste the delights of a fine night and its opportunities.


It is in the Saturday-night's market that the aspiring street musician makes his first debut before the public. If he be master of nothing in the world but a cracked fife, and if he can play but one tune upon that still he brings it to the market, and plays his one tune, and holds out his hat for a reward. It is here that the boys and girls make their first attempts upon the fiddle; and the lads blow most alarming blasts upon battered bugles and twenty-second-hand French horns. Antiquated and asthmatic paupers here bray away with impunity, if not with encouragement, upon cracked clarionets, or rasp out groaning cadences upon home-made violoncellos, which being lengthened by a stout staff tied to the back, serve for a crutch as well as a musical instrument. Little sham Highlanders with bare legs blow away at the bag-pipes without any idea of a melody; and men is smock-frocks who have neither ears nor voices, roar the words of an old song to a tune which was never heard before.

All this, and much more, which would not be tolerated in any other place or at any other time, meets with encouragement at this hour of the week and in the locality of the market. The reason is not difficult to discover: the people who are there themselves to make provision for the morrow, recognise in every effort to earn a penny, by whatever means, an attempt to do the same, or to procure the means of doing it. They know that this is the last opportunity in the week for the exercise of any calling, and, with the love of fair play so common to Englishmen, they are unwilling to abridge any man's chance of doing what he can for himself. Nay, more than this, it is observable that the discordant wailings of a wretched and untaught musician will frequently elicit, through compassion for his woeful want of skill, a contribution towards procuring him a meal for the morrow, which, perhaps, had he been more expert in his art, he would not have obtained.

It is now growing late: eleven o'clock has struck; the throng, though it has not decreased in numbers, has been for the last hour gradually changing in character. The middle-class housewives, who make good use of this market, and the more respectable order of working men and women, have nearly all left the spot, and their places are filled by the loser grade of the population. Too many of these, alas! are in a state of semi-intoxication; some have been dragged forth by their wives from the public-houses, and it seems very problematical whether they have sense enough, if they have money enough, without the aid of the women, to make a prudent provision for the morrow.

Some of the more respectable shopkeepers begin to make demonstrations of closing for the night: goods that have lain all day on the pavement are silently moved into the interior; gilded mirrors are veiled in canvas shrouds; the flaring gas is turned partially down to a modest light; and one after another the dealers in heavy articles close up their huge fronts and wind up the traffic of the week. By now the slop-seller, the shoe-shop, the butcher, grocer, baker, vegetable dealer, and general provision merchants are busier than ever. There is hardly an hour to elapse before midnight, and thousands of customers have yet to be supplied.

The ceremony of bargaining now becomes marvellously abbreviated; there is little time for judgement or selection. Those who have deferred their purchases to the last moment have now but a brief period allowed them to decide, so great is the press of business in all quarters. Among these are many who have but just received their wages, and who are forced by their employers weekly to undergo this loss and inconvenience. The crowding and clamour around the street-stalls in the Marsh is ceaseless and deafening.

The little ragged urchin is still roaring "buy my last bunch of onions," having sold a dozen last bunches within the last two hours. The tinman has got rid of the major part of his pots and kettles, and, being by this time half inebriated, is offering the remainder at a price plainly unremunerative. The earthenware and crockery, which two hours ago was a goodly pile, has nearly all walked off the ground, and the whole stock has dwindled down to a few mugs and jugs, brown glazed pans and baking dishes, most of which are in the hands of intending purchasers and are undergoing certain violent applications of the fist and knuckles calculated to test their soundness and integrity.

The poor flower seller has parted with most of her nosegays, but still sits with here pale and withered face among the ruddy wall-flowers, with a ball of thread in her lap with which she is quietly tying up more halfpenny bunches. The weaver of toasting-forks has disappeared, it is to be hoped with the means of buying something to toast for himself. The fire-screen carver has followed in the same track. The fish for the most part have floated off, and the huge pile of whelks upon the groaning boards have been transformed into crushed and trodden masses of shells under them. The pickled eels and the pickled salmon, which kept them company, exist no longer, unless it be as pickled Jones or pickled Robinson they having all been swallowed standing, by labouring men and their wives, with whom a stall supper in the street is a weekly symposium. Of vegetables, however, there is yet a goodly store on hand, which on all sides are changing owners with the utmost rapidity of which such a species of commerce is susceptible.

But there is one species of commerce, of which, repulsive as it is in its aspect, we must take momentary view, for it excels all others in the rapidity of its consumption. The commerce we allude to is that carried on at the gin-shop, where men and women, boys and girls, and even children, barter their health and reason for the stimulus of a brief excitement. Let us look in at one of these painted and gilded dens.



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