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Battle of Bread: Children at work

'Loafers' talking about their children in the tap-room of a Spitalfields pub, 'True Little Britons' travelling to work, and an encounter with a crossing sweeper and his sister in Kings Cross.

Published in The Railway Review, 16 July 1880 - issue online in full through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.

Illustration: Hookey Alf of Whitechapel, from 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, available through the LSE Digital Library.Link opens in a new window

Hookey Alf of Whitechapel, from 'Street Life in London', 1877

The tap-room of the Last and Crown is situated in Spitalfields — a house of call for weavers, the various branches of the cabinet-making trade, and others who by the sweat of the brow earn their bread. The said resort of working men of evenings and dinner times was likewise much affected by a class that, having a mortal aversion for industrial perspiration, are, by a paradox, termed "loafers." "Which I meantersay," remarked one of the company, who had knotted hands and blunt nails, and whose tattered, rolled-up shirt sleeves and shoulders were thickly powdered with mahogany sawdust, giving him the appearance of having been liberally nutmegged for some confectionery purpose, "which I meantersay that ejercation is a jolly good thing for the masses, and the man who ses it aint, aint no man at all." On which his beer-bronzed nose turning ash colour, a dirty-looking fellow, of weaverish aspect, exclaimed to a neighbour falteringly, "What did he say? Edication was good for who?" "For the masses." The out-o'-work weaver expressed the relief he experienced in a short laugh, as he replied, "I thought he said that edication would be a good thing for the missus. Cus it all, you know! Don’t go a piling it up too high. It’s enough to have your home ruinated by being 'bliged to send your working boys and girls to school; but if it come to edgercating the missus as well, why it 'ud mean wurkus for such as me, and nothing but it." "And why such as you," I asked him; "you are a working man, and pretty strong, I should say." "Ah, I looks it, but I aint," replied the lazy rascal, with a sigh, as, helping himself from my tobacco pouch, he craftily squeezed into the bowl of his dirty pipe at least three times as much as might be smoked with any satisfaction. "There is something wrong with my in'ards, so the doctors say, and when I set about a job, after an hour or so I get that faint I’m 'bliged to knock off and have a rest and 'arf a pint of beer or something." "That must make it bad for your family, if you have one?" "Bless you, it do. It makes it awful hard on me, too — this ere edjercation, I mean, does. We could get on all right if it wasn't for them wisiting worriers. Look at me." I did, and discovered that somehow he had extracted all the tobacco from his pipe and concealed it, and was again helping himself.

"Look at me. Now I've got as willin' a three little workers — the youngest being ten and a gal — as any father would wish to have. My gal, when they let her, works at the lucifer match-box making, and being one of these cheerful little creeters as doesn't mind what time she gets to bed, or how early she gets up, I've known her to earn — ah! sevenpence-ha'penny or eight-pence a day. Then there's my two boys — one of them eleven and the other twelve and a 'arf, and both of 'em at the milk carrying when the worriers will let 'em. One can earn four shillings a week, and the other five. Make a reckoning of it," he continued, holding up a hand of dirty fingers; "three-and-three, say, for the little gal, and four, and five — there’s twelve-and-three. Then there’s the little bit my health will let me pick up — not much more though, really and truly, than pays for my rewivers when them faints come over me, but p'raps it might make a pound altogether. We could do proper then; but what's the consequence now that it has come to threatening to send a inwalead like I am to prison for a month if the boys and the gal stays away from school ever again? Why, the old woman — the missus, I mean — she has to turn out and go a-washing. It wrings my art, it do, to know that she’s got to do it, with that there cough she’s got; but we can’t starve. And s'pose we did? S’pose I did? what would the coroner bring it in? 'Died of the worriers?' Not him; he'd find some crackjaw name for my going off, and the parish would find me a deal suit, and there'd be an end of me."

No one who has not been at the pains to make personal inquiry into the matter can form an adequate idea of the enormous number of boys, of from fourteen say to sixteen, that London provides employment for.

They should be seen trooping over any of the metropolitan bridges and going Cityward to their daily employment. Blackfriars is as good a bridge as any, because it is by way of it the thousands of boys living at Lambeth, and Walworth, and Camberwell come. Six o’clock in the morning is not a bit too early to be on the look-out for them. It is not an exhilarating spectacle should the morning be very cold, or, still worse, very wet. They crowd the pavement, and as it grows towards seven o’clock there are so many of them they brim ever into the road, where the icy mud lies thick; and terribly bad it must be for small feet, the blue toes of which peep out at gaping upper-leathers.

They are but scantily clad, these poor little chaps, and not one in ten is possessed of an overcoat. They turn up the collars of their jackets, and, with a dilapidated old comforter wisped round their throat, hurry through the rain or snow, delightfully ignorant of how miserable they ought to be — chattering, laughing, and larking on the way, as though they were doing it for the mere fun of the thing, and could fall out of the ranks and return to homes and cosy comfort whenever they pleased.

But the most noticeable feature is a painful one, and one that gives rise to the saddest of sad reflections. It is evident at a glance that in far the majority of cases these willing little labourers are ill-fed. There is no false delicacy about them. Each one carries in a stuff bag, or simply wrapped in a piece of paper, his provisions for the day — for breakfast (they have not yet breakfasted, remember), for dinner, and tea.

Be not misled to false conclusions grounded on the bulk of the bundles and bags to be seen on a Monday morning. That day is a happy exception to the rule, and furnishes proof, if any were required, that poor mother at home does the best she can for them. There is meat for dinner on Sunday, and if it can anyhow be managed, baked potatoes and pudding as well; and, whoever else may go without, it is a sacred institution in poor families that enough must be saved for the boy or boys to take with them for Monday’s dinner.

But from Monday, looking Saturdayward, bundles and bags grow leaner. Take a dozen of them promiscuously — say on a Thursday — and you will find ten of the number to contain nothing but a few slices of dry bread — six usually: two for breakfast, dinner, and tea — and the entire bundle, placed in a scale, will not weigh a pound.

Nor is it exclusively amongst boys bred in decent poverty that your "True Little Britons" may be discovered for the seeking. It was no longer since than a week before Christmas, and during the horribly cold and slushy weather that then prevailed, I made the acquaintance of a small hero with a heart as big as that of Napoleon Bonaparte at its best, though it beat beneath as tattered an old jacket as ever was seen covering a pair of human shoulders, young or old. It was in the neighbourhood of King's-cross, and I was taking advantage of a crossing swept in the half-melted snow, selfishly pondering the while whether it was worth while to unbutton my overcoat to get a penny for the little sweeper, whose post was at the further end, when another boy, who was near him, called out, "D'ye hear, Squeaker, here's your old woman with the mock turtle."

As he pointed in my direction, I looked back, and found, close behind me, a little girl, who might have been twelve years old, and whose wizened mite of a face was overhung with a bonnet large enough for a grandmother, while an apron of coarse canvas, and with a bib to it, reached from her chin to her ankles. That was the "old woman" to whose coming the other youth had drawn "Squeaker's" attention, I could have no doubt, for there was the "mock turtle" in proof of it. It was contained in a three-pint publican’s can, and was evidently piping hot from the soup-kitchen. It was unmistakable that "Squeaker" was the crossing-sweeper boy. He sniffed the savoury soup afar off, and hailed it with a hooray and a flourish of his old stump of a broom.

"You're a reg'lar good sort, you are, Poll; there's no mistake about that," he exclaimed, gratefully; "soup a Wens'day, soup a Thursday, and now agin a Saturday! Jiggered if it aint almost worth while to come out and be friz to be thawed agin with this sort o' stuff; and such a whacking lot, too! Come on, Poll, and hev some while it's hot."

But Poll of the matronly bonnet and the charwoman's apron, though she licked her lips, and the steam of the soup made her eyes blink with pleasure, was not to be beguiled from a duty that evidently was part of the purpose of her visit.

"You get on with it, Charley," said she, giving him the can and fishing a spoon from the interior of her apron bib; "if there's a drop left I can have it. I’ve got the crossing to mind, don't you know — which it's time," she continued, as she whipped up the bottom of the apron and girt it about her waist, to give herself more freedom of action.

It certainly was time, if the rights of property were to be preserved. While the soup was changing hands, the young gentleman who had announced the advent of the "mock turtle" had seized on the unoccupied broom, and, on the strength of it, begged a copper from an old lady who had taken to the crossing. Poll was after him in a twinkling, but the mean rascal diverted the chase by flinging the broom into the middle of the road, and by the time she had recovered it he was out of sight.

"All right, Porkey, old son," remarked Charley, alias Squeaker, and who, anchored to the soup can, was for the moment helpless; "it's only borrered, Porky. I'll wait on you."

Then he carried his dinner to the least muddy step of an empty house near at hand, and proceeded to thaw himself at the rate of two spoonfuls a second. I waited until half the soup had vanished, and he had paused for breath, and then I inquired what it was the boy had run away with. As at the time I inserted a hand in my pocket, he must have known perfectly well what it meant, but he honestly replied, "On'y a ha'penny, sir. It's alwis a ha'penny with that old gal." And having squared that small account, with a trifling interest besides, Charley and I got on conversational terms.

"What did the boy mean when he said, 'It was your old woman that was coming?'"

Charley (I won’t call him Squeaker) looked up and half-laughed through his mud splashes as he replied. "Why, so she is my old woman — meaning mother, don't you know. We aint got no other, so she must be."

"'We,' did you say?"

"Ah! me and the two kids — my young brother and sister, which she’s my sister as well, as you might tell by her lightness." (He meant her likeness to him; but really it was as true one way as the other.)

"Then you haven't a mother?"

"She's the mother, don't I tell you."

"And have you got a father?"

"I'm the father," returned Charley, grinning, at the same time stuffing his old cap into the mouth of the can to keep warm a little of the soup he had left for Poll. "She's the mother and I'm the father, don’t you see? and the kids is ourn to look after, and we keep them atween us."

"But where are your parents?"

"Lord knows," says Charley, with a hopeless look up the Marylebone-road. "They hooked it at the hopping time, and they aint come back yet."

"And how old are the two younger children?"

"Five one is, and the other nigh about two."

"And you and your sister work for them?"

"Certiny we do; and keep the rent paid — two-and-nine a week. We're going to keep everything right and 'spectable till mother comes back again, and if she don't come, nor father neither, why------"

"Why, what then?" I asked, as Charley paused.

"Why, then, we're going to keep everything right and 'spectable, don't I tell you."

"And do you always sweep a crossing?"

"N-no; I'm general, I am," returned Charley, with the air of an elderly man. "I goes in for anything that shows a opening. This kind of weather shows a opening for crossings, and so I'm at it. But you daren't leave your crossing a minute, or somebody 'll come and prig it. That's why Poll brings my grub instead of me going home to it. She minds the crossing, don’t you see?"

"And what else do you turn your hand to?"

"Any mortal thing. Of mornings I'm papers — that's from about seven to ten; then I'm cigar lights till the evening 'uns come out; then I'm papers again till eight or so; then I'm lights again."

"Till what time, pray?"

"Eleven in general; earlier if it's wery wet; later when it's fine."

"And your sister — she stays at home and minds the little ones, eh?"

"Oh, no, she don't though," replied Charley, with an emphatic wag of his aged head. "Lor' bless you, no. Poll earns more'n I do. She's a 'ouse-step cleaner. She's out o' mornings about eight, and home again at twelve; and while she's gone young Bill minds the baby."

"Now you must tell me one thing more," said I — and my heart and interest so warmed towards Charley that I took out my notebook to make sure.

"What's that?"

"Tell me where you live; it may be worth your while."

Charley eyed me and the book in my hand, and it was painfully plain that a sudden alarm had seized on him. He rose from the steps, and, unstoppering the soup-can, replaced his old cap on his head. Then, without a word, he darted into the road and joined Poll, and while he hurriedly addressed her with his mouth as close to her ear as the enormous bonnet would admit, she looked across at me in a startled and defiant manner. Then she shouldered the old broom, and, Charley carrying the soup-can, they fled in different directions, and I lost them.

It needed but a moment's reflection to account for this sudden and unexpected proceeding. My "Where do you live?" the production of my book — and there I stood before Charley, aged only eleven, that most terrible of officials, a School Board visitor.

The next day, and the day after that, having business that way, I looked out for the brave little pair, but they had been effectually scared.