Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Battle of Bread: Birds of a feather

Songbirds in the slums - the trade for 'fancy' birds, competitive singing 'battles' in London pubs and the jobs around the trade, including conversations with a husband and wife team of turf-cutters and a bird catcher.

Published in The Railway Review, 17 September 1880 - read the original article through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.

We have the testimony of profounder philosophers than Lord Dundreary that there are "some things that no fellow can understand," and this passion for caged pets, whose only recommendation is the sweet music of their tiny throats, that is so commonly developed by a class whose habits and instincts are the coarsest and often the most brutal, surely deserves to be reckoned amongst them. It is not so long ago — scarcely ten years since — when there was to be found at Bethnal-green a song-bird market, held weekly, and which attracted greater crowds than Covent-garden and the Smithfield Meat Market put together. The oldest inhabitants of Hare-street or Club-row could not tell at what period the said "fair" was established. It eventually attained a size that was enormous as it was hideous, and the worst of its features was that it was held on Sunday, and was at its height during morning church time. The market-place commenced at the Shoreditch end of Sclater-street, and extended for a full half mile towards Brick-lane, branching left and right wherever an opening offered. Thither thronged the song-bird "fancy" from every riff-raff part of the metropolis — from the low-lying slums of Lambeth and Walworth, and Kent-street and Mint-street on the Surrey side of the Thames, and from Westminster, when Strutton-ground and Peter-street were in their prime, and from the Dials, and from Clare-market, and from the delectable neighbourhood of Saffron-hill. They came with money in the pockets of their dilapidated garments to buy the finch, the lark, or the linnet their hearts were set on, or they had designs to sell or barter, and carried their poor caged captives in their prisons, tied up as workmen carry the provisions for the day, in cotton handkerchiefs, and swinging in their hands. But it was not only song-birds that might be bought at this shameful market. The unwashed crowd that struggled for passage through the long narrow lane had, some of them, pigeons and rabbits, and cocks and hens and ducks, carried head downwards, in bunches, by the legs, and quacking and clucking in affright, with the banging and jostling to which they were subjected; and pigeons, and white mice, fancy rats and ferrets, together with such "fancy" materials as bird lime and "salt cat," and German paste, and chickweed and groundsel, and snails for blackbirds, and green turfs for larks, and birdcages, and bird traps, and birds stuffed and mounted on bits of branch, to serve as decoys for birdcatchers. Here they would "keep the game alive" until the opening of the public-houses reminded the roaring, rattling mob that it was nearly dinner time, and they should think about getting home. There is a Sunday song-bird market in the same locality still, but its dimensions have been considerably clipped by the Metropolitan Improvements Act.

That there has been no corresponding falling off in the demand for small song-birds amongst the lower classes I was assured on the spot no longer ago than Sunday last, and that by an individual who, from his own showing, should be something of an authority in such matters.

"There ain't no fallin' off, as I've heerd on," he remarked. "The fancy, you see, is that rooted, if you do away with it at one place, it's bound to crop up at another. There's a sort of a Sunday market now over at East-street, Walworth, and lots of other places. There can't be much difference, because the number of ketchers is about the same. Do birds fetch as much money now as ever they did? That depends. The right sort do. I know'd a man, not a year ago, who chucked over a good living for a battlin' chaffinch. Leastways, when I say a good livin', I mean that he has sacrificed his regler livelihood, and gone in for gambling, him and the battler. He was a crockery hawker, and had a barrer and as good a dicky — that's a donkey, you know — as a man could desire, and he swopped the lot, and a good pounds-worth of crockeryware as well, for a bird you wouldn't give twopence for to look at him — a scrub-tailed, one-eyed little beggar, with the top of his head as bald as a marvel. Was it in battlin' that he lost his eye? 'Scuse me, sir, but you make me larf. Just as if a bird could sing his heyes out! The kind of battlin' I mean is singing one bird against another for a wager. No; I reckon the reason why that finch come cock-eyed was having been 'scaled' once too often. What does scaling mean? Well, it's done away with now — at least, you must take care if you do it that the prewentions of cruelty coves don't come to find you out. Birds sing best when they're blind; there can't be a doubt about that. 'Specially match singers. It takes the flightiness out of 'em. It's the same with people. I went with a friend o' mine to the Blind School once, where his little gal was, and we stayed and went into the chapel with 'em, about a hundred and fifty of 'em. Lor', to hear 'em sing! I aint a man to be what you may call easily touched, but when I heerd them blind kids piping up altogether so beautiful, blessed if it didn't make my veins all of a twiddle, and I ses to my pal, 'Jemmy,' I ses, 'I wonder what them prewention fellers would say to this? Don't tell me any more that there's any harm in puttin' a bird’s eyes out.' No. Scaling isn't out-and-out blinding. But, 'spose a man is going to put his finch in training for a match — I aint sayin' that he'd do it now, but he used to at one time — he'd take five fine needles and he'd bind 'em to the end of a bit of stick, and he'd make 'em hot in the candle, and hold the pints to the bird's eyes, pooty close to 'em, but not so as to touch. Next morning you'd find 'em dulled like, and tempory the sight would be gone, and after a few days of sulking you'd find your finch settle down to his music, and come on like a house o' fire, just as if he was doing it to keep his blindness off his mind. But what was we talking about? Oh, ah, about Joe Sanders and his bargain. Joe didn't do so bad after all, but it was a up-hill start for him. His missus rucked on him, and no wonder, you'll say. Here's a man goes out in the morning, cheerful and 'spectable, with his donkey and barrer and his stock of crockery, and he comes home in the arternoon with nothing to show for the old lot but a ragged old one-eyed chaffinch tied up in its cage in a blue bird's-eye hankysher. There was a shine over it, which was no more than might ha' been 'spected, and the money had to be raised to pay the forty shillings, or a month, which was Joe's sentence for the assault on his missus. But Sanders wasn't a fool. He knew what that finch could do. He'd followed it for weeks before at matches, and took notice when nobody thought it of him, and, to give it in his own words, he set that finch down as the best battler that ever piped atween wood and wire. The supposed best belonged to the pipemaker that used to live in Bunhill-fields, who was always open to make a match, twenty pounds to fifteen, against anything that could be brought against his finch. It was a match too — that atween Joe Sanders' Baldpate and the pipemaker's Clinker — 'ammer and tongs, slam for slam, chalk for chalk. But Joe's bird wore the t'other down at last and won by seven chalks. Did I ever witness a bird-singing match? Many a score. I've took chalks at some of the best matches. One of 'em, at the Knave of Clubs, in Club-row, was for fifty pounds aside. But that's a many year ago. How's it managed? Oh, it's managed easy enough. It's in a taproom where a match generally takes place, and being choke full of the men that owns the birds and their friends, and very near all of 'em smoking, you might think it would spile the singing. But, you see, the birds are brought up rough. The matched birds are brought in their cages, covered, and hung just opposite each other, while the score-taker he sits at a separate table, with a slate and a bit of chalk. It's a match against time. The greatest number of perfect notes, say, in half an hour. What are the notes? Well, it depends where the chaffinch comes from. A Middlesex bird's note is quite different from an Essex one. The one says 'Toll-loll-loll-chuckwee-edo,' and the other 'Toll-lol-lol-lol-kiss-me-de-e-e-r,' with a long dragging out of the 'deer.' Only perfect notes count, and at the same instant the cages are uncovered, and the battle begins. A well-trained finch soon shows his qualities. He knows as well as you do that only perfect notes reckon, and he bowls 'em out round and sound as cherries, and as regler as clockwork. A finch may be quick at giving it mouth, but if he aint had proper schoolin' he'll 'slur' — I mean, he'll break off at 'we' and leave out the 'doo,' so as to race the other one for the next note. It's all over with a finch if he loses his temper. They're just like Christians in a prize ring for that. I've seen a good bird got in such a rage when he has found he couldn't beat down the other, that he's left off singing, and took to shrieking and banging hisself, beak and wings, against his cage. That's where a blind 'un gets the pull. He can't see anything to aggrawate him. The only thing agin' it is, a blinded bird can't see any signs his master makes him. Can a bird understand signs? Rayther. It's strict against the laws for a bird's owner to do so while a match is going on, but it is done. If a bird stops in his song - and they will so sometimes, beat dumb, as the sayin' is, by the other — a man can start it again with a cough, or a word, or a scrape of his foot. I once saw five pounds lost through a man wipin' his nose when he didn't ought to. His bird had as good as chucked the sponge up just at the moment when he looked like winning, and his owner took out his pocket hankysher, and away rattled the finch again. 'I claim a baulk,' said the other man; 'that was as rank a bit of "spurring" as ever I see.' 'What, mustn't a man wipe his nose?' 'Not with the hankysher you always use to tie up his cage in.' And the objection was allowed, and the money paid over."

The "toilers" who depend on the requirements of the songbird market to obtain a livelihood are, first of all, the birdcatchers, and then the chickweed and groundsel gatherers (who usually include snail picking as a light and lucrative branch of the business), and the "turf" cutters. Bird "turfs" are circular little patches of green sod, about as large as a breakfast saucer, and are offered to caged larks and the larger songsters by way of a shabby compromise for the boundless domain of field and meadow that was theirs before they were made captive. It is as miserable a business for the turf getters as for the larks themselves.

"It ain't like it used to be," I was told by an old fellow who with his wife, grey and bent as himself, I met toiling from Clapham to St. Giles's, with a rickety old barrow-load, she pushing at the handles, and he, with a rope round his waist, hauling in front. "It isn't because there's more of us at it. There never was more than about twenty. It is because of the new buildings, and London eatin' up the country. Where, at one time, you didn't have to take your barrow a couple of miles from home, now you have to go five or six miles. You might get turf, of a sort, nearer, but the bird shops won't have any but the clover sort, and that don't grow everywhere. It's such a heavy business, that's the wust of it. Five dozens of sods weigh about a hundredweight, more in wet weather; and all the bird shops give for 'em is twopence-ha'penny a dozen. How many have we got here? Twelve dozen. That's our reg'ler load, and as much as me and the old lady can comfortably tackle for any long distance. We do it every day 'cept Sundays and when there's a black frost. A white 'un we don't mind, but a black 'un scorches the green and turns it brown. Snow don't hurt it, on'y it's precious cold clearing it off before you can begin to cut. We're in general out at five in the spring and summer, and at daylight in winter, and we do one journey a day, which makes it about two in the arternoon when we've done, which gives us two and threepence after we've paid for the hire of the barrer. That's when we get free leave to cut it, but very often, when fields are let for building, the foreman of the job makes us pay the price of a pot of beer for our load, which makes a hole in the profits. I know that it would be better to hawk the turfs about and sell 'em retail. They'd fetch more, of course — always a ha'penny and sometimes a penny each. That's what I often say to my old lady here, but she won't hear of it."

"Cert'nly not," remarked the old lady alluded to, and proudly straightening her barrow-bent back as she spoke. "No street selling for me. I was brought up different. I'd sooner go into the house."

"You see," her old husband whispered to me, as his wife in a pet turned to the barrow from the pavement where we were talking, "the old gal's got such a sperrit. She's dead set against the retail. It's coming of a wholesale family, I s'pose. Bless you, yes. her father was a market gardener up Chiswick way, and used to send his cabbages to Covent-garden by the wagon load. But p'raps she's right after all about taking the turfs round to private houses. There'd be the load to drag about all day, and somehow I ain't such a puller as I used to be. The old lady ses it's her not being such a pusher; but I know which is the weak 'orse. 'Taint the grey mare, sir. Ha, ha! 'Scuse me, but it's a poor heart that can't make a joke. Did I ever try chickweed and grunsell? Yes, once I did, when the old lady was laid up with lumbager and couldn't stir out. The stock don't cost anything, and it's easier to get than turfs, and a jolly sight lighter. I tried it for nearly a week, calling it out, but I couldn’t stand it any longer. Oh, yes, it paid very well, but a man as has got any independence about him daren't touch chickweed and grunsell. In the way of dealin' in it I mean — it's got the beggar's brand on it, sir. Them cadging vagabonds that go about half naked, with a basketful of it just as a cover, have done for it. A man with chickweed and grunsell to sell is put down in the same scale with the man with lucifer matches, and as one you may chuck a ha'penny to, or call him to the door and offer him broken wittles. I never told the old lady about that little 'speriment of mine. 'Course I didn't take home the broken wittles. My eyes, the lumbager wouldn't have kept her in bed if I had."

The bird-catching business, as I was informed by a big, broad-shouldered fellow, with loose-laced "ankle-jacks" and a smock frock, which was clay-stained, as though it was his habit to recline at his ease in the fields and meadows while waiting for his prey, was "one of the uncertainest bloomin' ockipations a man could follow, and one that's most looked down on. I don't know who you might be" — I picked up his acquaintance as he came scowling and growling with his empty "store-cage" on his back out of a bird-selling shop near Old-street-road — "and I dont keer. I aint going to tell you anything what might be used as evidence agin me, don't you fear; but I will say this — it makes me raw to hear all this rubbish about the sin and 'ard 'artedness of ketching little birds, capterin' of 'em all a-singin' and a-pipin' in the woods and groves, and shuttin' of 'em up in prisons. Wot's larks and linnets and goldfinches got to be pittied for mor'en sparrers? Oh, it's their luvely music that should purtect 'em from harm, just as though they was all cocks that a man caught? I wish they was. Them wot peaches aint got no feeling for a poor ketcher, wot'll be layin' out with his nets as early as five o'clock of a mornin' till p'raps dinner time, and all he'll take will be a couple o' dozen of hen linnets that aint worth carrying home. Larks the same. They're better when they run that size, because you can twist their necks and eat 'em. What do I make on the average? Well, what do you say to eighteenpence or one and nine a day, take Sundays as well. That's a lot for a man to be called names for, aint it? 'Course it's the bird-sellers that gets the advantage; they pay us next to nothing, eightpence or ninepence apiece for larks — male birds, I mean — and half-a-crown a dozen for cock linnets. How much for hens? Oh, ninepence a dozen; sixpence if there's a glut of 'em. Take 'em all round, the finches I mean, and mix 'em up, cocks and hens, I reckon that they don't fetch men like me more'n tuppence-ha'penny each. It's there being such a precious lot of hens that spiles it. That what makes pegging for chaffinches pay best when you've got luck; you never get any but cock birds at that game. How is it done? Stand the price of a pot o' beer and a bit of 'bacca and I'll tell you. Well, then, you must have a good decoy finch, that will sing everywhere and anyhow. I dessay you've seen fellows carrying little birdcages tied up in hankyshers when you've been your country walks; and perhaps you've heard the bird singing inside, and wondered what it meant. It meant, if it was the right season, that the man wot carried the bird was a chaffinch pegger, and if he'd turned out his pockets and showed you what was in 'em you'd have found that he had a stuffed finch, mounted on a bit of stick, with a spike at one end, and you'd have found that he had some slips of whalebone and some bird-lime in a little tin box. And if you'd ha' followed him you'd seen some sport. He goes along with his bird piping up strong and hearty in the hankysher until another finch of the same kind in the trees hears him and answers. They're awful jealous is chaffinches, and beggars to fight. No two pairs of chaffinches ever was knowed to build in one tree on that account. Well, the free bird hears the caged one, and answers him, defying like, and challenging him to show hisself, and come on, and the ketcher spots the tree he's in. Then he sticks his mounted stuffed bird about six foot up in the trunk, and he smears his slips of whalebone with the bird-lime and he sticks 'em one, two, three in a triangle just above the dummy. Then he plants his decoy in the hankysher at the foot of the tree, and goes away a little. The free bird and the caged one goes at it, firing away at each other, till presently him in the boughs spies the dummy stuck against the trunk, and makes sure that it's him that has come to cause a jealousy. He gives mouth to a note then — a regular ringer — and down he swoops with his wings open on to the other, but the limed twigs ketch him, and down he tumbles to the ground, screaming with fright, when the ketcher comes up and collars him — a proper blue-beaked un' and in full song."