Encounter with an umbrella mender and a tinker at Clapham Common, including discussion of the working life of fellow residents of a Spitalfields lodging house ('early wormers', rush sellers and 'knockers up').
Published in The Railway Review, 23 July 1880 - read the original article through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.
Illustration: Caney the Clown, umbrella and chair mender, from 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, available through the LSE Digital LibraryLink opens in a new window.
It was in the neighbourhood of Clapham Common that I fell in with the umbrella-mender, busily and cheerfully at work, and that under conditions that would have daunted any man but one well accustomed to wrestle with difficulties.
It was exceedingly cold, and a small, saturating rain was falling, when I saw in the distance, and close under a wall, what appeared, as regards shape and colour, a cluster of gigantic toadstools. When I approached them more closely, however, I could hear a sound of singing, fitful and intermittent, proceeding from the spot, and could perceive a succession of puffs of white smoke arising from the monstrous fungi. Presently the whole enigma resolved itself into a bent-backed, grey-haired, shabby old fellow, squatting on the ground under an expanded "gig" umbrella, while two others of smaller dimensions were fixed on either side to keep the wind and rain from blowing in on him, as at one and the same time he smoked his short black pipe, sung snatches of a song between the puffs, and readjusted the dislocated ribs of a lady’s parasol.
I was wearing a mackintosh coat at the time, and as I paused to contemplate him he glanced at the shining garment and at me, and expressed his disapproval of both by a shrug of his shoulders and a more than usually vigorous puff at his pipe.
"Not nice weather for your trade, my friend," I ventured; "but I am glad to see you so busy."
"Dessay you are," returned the old umbrella-mender, gruffly, "but you arn't 'bliged, on my account, to loiter about in that trade spoiler o' yourn. You might catch cold, don't you know. Good luck to you; if you have a mind to gossip in the rain, master, do it — to 'blige me — with a Christian kivering over you."
And he handed me from his stock a serviceable gingham umbrella.
"And how do you get on at the mending business?" I asked him.
"Oh, I don't do amiss, take it all round," he replied, "though I don't often come on such a slice of luck as this morning. Ladies' school, this is," he continued, with a backward jerk of his thumb towards the wall against which his tent was pitched. "Seven gals' parasols, a lady's silk 'un, and two common 'uns belonging to the kitchen. I took 'em at a tanner (sixpence) each all round, and I can finish 'em by dark if I stick to 'em."
"Then you don't often earn five shillings in a day?"
"There are times, mister, when I don't earn more in a whole week. I've known the time when I could do my pound or five-and-twenty shillings a week easy."
"And how do you account for the falling of?"
"The quality of the article, sir. Slop goods at a low price. That's what has knocked over what you may call the second-hand trade in every branch you can mention. Take old clo’. There was a time when clothes were well made and of good stuff, and when a gentleman had done with 'em, a little touching up, and there they were, sound and serviceable, for Jack or Bill. But it 'aint worth while going about with a bag now. A man may do so and fill it; but when he takes it to the Exchange and empties it, the dealer shakes his head: 'They're dead 'uns,' he says, 'and no use to me.'"
"And what does the dealer mean when he says that?"
"Why, that it's all over with 'em, and they 'aint to be rewived nohow; that's what he means. It's the same with the secondhand boot and shoe trade. There was a lot of life in a pair of boots when I was a youngster; but now they puts the parts in at one end of a mill, and grinds 'em out all ready for fitting at the other end, so I'm told — just like they make navy biscuits at the dockyards. So it is with umbrellas. Who'll have a umbrella put in repair when they can go and buy a new one, of a sort, for about half-a-crown? How's it done? Why, by grinding and sweating sir. Umbrella-making used to be a good trade; but now it has come down to be as slop a'most as shirt work or army clothing. There are hundreds of women and gals glad of regular work as 'coverers,' if they can earn five-farthings or three-halfpence an hour at it. There are scores of 'm work at it round about where I lodge."
"And where may that be?"
"Old Nichol-street, Spitalfields."
"Is that what is called a common lodging-house?"
"Well, it is uncommon for one thing. It's a house used by street-workers like me, and chair-caners and basket hawkers, and travelling tinkers and flying glaziers. They've got a lock up shed for the barrows and baskets, and things which the lodgers take about with 'em all day, which makes it convenient."
"Yours is not a beggars' lodging-house, then?"
"It wouldn't be good for a beggar to put his nose in there. Not that there is much fear of that. They — the beggars and cadgers I mean — get on best amongst the fellows of the X division."
"You don't mean the police, surely?"
"Oh dear, no," replied the old umbrella man with a grin, "as much more t'other as can be. That's what they call the X division," said he, laying his forefingers crosswise, "on the cross, you understand, not square and straightfor'ad. Prigs, purse-trick men, and sharpers. They make plenty of money, and spend it as light as they get it; and they put up at common lodging-houses because it's handier if they want to move in a hurry. They're the sort the beggars like to get amongst. They'll run their errands, clean their boots, do their cooking. Bless you, yes. A man can lead a regler gentleman's life at a common lodging house if he's only got the money."
"And there are none of what you call the wrong sort at your lodging-house?" I asked him, still fishing for information in the depths of the old umbrella man's varied experience; "they all have a trade of some kind, and work for a living?"
"Well, I wouldn't exactly answer for that," he replied, thoughtfully, "there cert'nly are some of 'em who have the rummest ways of picking up a living. You wouldn't call 'early worming' a trade, perhaps?"
I was fain to confess that I had never heard of the occupation mentioned.
"Oh, it's common enough if it comes to that," he resumed; "we've got five or six 'worms' at our place. They're the only lodgers that they let lay abed till dinner time. They’re up so early, don't you see. In the summer time they’ll be out by two o'clock, so as to get the first of the daylight, and their game is to hunt for anything that has been dropped in the dark and not picked up again since the night before. They take the West-end for it mostly, and all round about the Strand, where the theatres are."
"It is difficult, I should imagine, to embark in a more precarious way of picking up a living?"
"Well, it aint altogether precarious," replied the old umbrella man, "because a man may pretty well depend on his stumps, and there's a market for them, at all events."
"And what, pray, are his stumps?"
"Cigar ends; he's pretty sure to bring home a pocket full of 'em, and he cuts 'em up like 'bacca, and sells it to the lodgers — that's wot I'm smoking now — and he can make enough that way to pay for his lodgings any how. I don't know about its paying. I only know this, that them I'm speaking of have been at it for years. There's one old fellow at our place who years ago used to make a living in the Strand by racing after omnibuses and giving the conductors coppers for silver. It was at the time ha'pence were scarce, and just before the bronze came out. Elevenpence-halfpenny for a shilling he used to give 'em, and did very well while it lasted. Better than at 'early worming' I should say, from his regretful way of talking about old times. Bless your soul, sir, it’s all stuff and nonsense about a man laying down to starve because he can't find no work to do. There's another of our fellows who trudges three times a week to Essex marshes to got rushes, and you'll find him every morning at Covent-garden or Farringdon, standing close by the wholesale watercress sellers, and the retailers buy his rushes in ha'porths and pen'orths for 'bunching.' When the fruit season is in full swing he's got a better game. He goes to Epping Forest, or somewhere where there's plenty of free trees growing, and he brings home a big basketful of large leaves for the costermongers to set out their barrows with. At other times he's a 'knocker-up.' But he don't do much in that line, and he can't expect to, for that's a precious pertickler line, and unless a man may be depended upon it plays old gooseberry, don't you see?"
I did not see, and begged my talkative old friend to explain.
"Look here, then," said he, "are you ever out early — very early, I mean — in the morning, and chance to go through streets where working men live? Very well, you are; and didn't you ever notice chalked on the pavement or on the door or wall of the houses all manner of figures, '1/2 past 3,' '1/4 to 4,' '5 o'clock,' and such like? There you are, then. That's what you may call the key to the knocking-up business. There are a many men, factory hands and those who ply at market, who have no reglar time for getting up. They don't know themselves what time it will be needful till they get home the night before. Well, they depend on the knocker-up to have 'em out at the time. He makes an engagement to do it, don't you see, for sixpence or ninepence a week, and of course he has to be on his beat very early, as he don't know what time the first one wants to be roused. It will be three o'clock maybe, and then he must be out by two, so as to have time to run through all his streets, and make sure; or he'll take a turn overnight, last thing, and before he turns in hisself. It's a ticklish job, I've heard him say, with some of the heavy sleepers. They take such a lot of hammering to wake 'em that the neighbours don't like it, and he's been pelted from windows and had water chucked down on him, and all manner of things. Then the police are awfully hard on knockers up. It's a job they've got a fancy for, and can do it easy in general, being on duty there; but there's no knowing when they may have a station-house job on, and they can't be in two places at the same time, and that's why the people would rather have a private knocker-up if they can get one."
"Does it pay?"
"Well, it's according to the number, I should say. About nine shillings a week the man I'm speaking of makes while he's at it. But then, don't you see, it's in all weathers, and it means a good many miles if the streets are far apart and the times are warious. Hark!" he continued, taking his short pipe from his lips and holding it up listeningly, "wasn't that a tinker?"
And as he asked the question the cry, "Pots to mend, kettles to mend," could be distinctly heard.
"If that's Dan'll, there's a job for him at the school here," remarked the umbrella man; and "Dan'll" it proved to be.
On such a wretched afternoon the tinker, with his barrow, was a cheerful object to contemplate, as he leisurely approached the spot where we were, with his fire-pot glowing ruddily and his drawling sing-song of what he was prepared to do in the way of soldering and grinding and sharpening. Close inspection disclosed the fact that "Dan'll" was a loutish young fellow, with gipsy blood in his veins, with a twinkling eye, and a nose suggestive of comic songs and hiccups. He smoked a short pipe, compared with which that puffed at by my old umbrella man was of virgin whiteness. He had by long experience learnt to hold it between his teeth while he sang out, which gave him a pugnacious appearance, and marked him a man it would be injudicious lightly to pick a quarrel with. A woman walked beside him, carrying a few lengths of cane in her hand, enveloped in a cloak the colour of tinker's smoke, and she had "ankle-jacks" and ankles like a man.
"What cheer, Josh? How goes it?" the tinker affably inquired, as he paused with his barrow.
"Oh, the same old tune, Dan'll."
"Not a werry rattlin' chorus to it, then," remarked the tinker sympathetically.
"There's a couple of 'all cheers to be had at the school here for the askin'," said the umbrella man; "they asked me if it was in my line, that's why I know."
"On to 'em Suke," the tinker remarked to the woman. "Stick it on if you can, but don't lose 'em. Good luck to yer!
Suke did not lose the job. She was some time gone, but she eventually made her appearance with two hall chairs under her arm, on which the tinker unhooked his brazier and brought it to the wall, and the old man put up another old umbrella to shelter the woman, whose nimble fingers were speedily busy at work. Dan'll gave her no help. It was not in his department perhaps. He made room for himself beside the old man under the gig umbrella, and lay on his stomach smoking his pipe. He glanced at me more than once, as though he couldn't well make me out, or what I meant by standing there.
"Mending something of hissen?" he presently asked of the umbrella man in an undertone.
"Oh, no, just stopped for a talk, that's all. Gentleman and me have been having a rare old civil jaw about them that get a living in the street."
Dan'll didn’t deign even to look towards me.
"Do he get his livin' in the streets?"
"I should say not," replied his acquaintance of the umbrellas civilly.
"I should say not; therefore, what the blazes do it matter to him who does?" inquired Dan'll resentfully.
"Ah! but it isn't everybody that can afford to talk so independent as you, Dan'll," remarked the woman, in a conciliatory tone; "others who get a livin' in the street might talk different. The gentleman hasn't asked you any questions about your business, has he?"
"And if the genl'leman did I shouldn't be ashamed to answer 'em," returned the tinker, with a prideful flourish of his muddy boots, as he rested on his elbows. "If the genl'leman wants to know how much a day I can earn with that there barrer, I tell the genl'leman that I can earn a matter of twelve shillings a day.
"That's with my caning, Dan," put in the woman.
"Your caning," said the tinker, contemptuously; "why, it isn't beer and bacca, and if the genl'leman wants to know — still addressing the old umbrella man, and not me - "how I make it out that I can earn as much. I tells him plumply, and not caring where he comes from, that I makes it out by charging a jolly sight more'en them that keeps shops charge."
"Shut up, Dan'll," remarked the woman; "you've got that rum in your tongue."
"I bain't a telling lies howsomever," said the tinker; "you may tell the genl'leman, if he should ask you, Josh, that I can knock off a shillin' a hour all the hours I am out with my barrer.
"Of course you can, I know that very well," remarked the old umbrella man — who at the same time nodded to me that what the tinker stated was quite correct — "yours is the best street game out, Dan'll, there's no doubt about that. But you don’t all earn ten shillings a day, mind you. I know them that can't earn more than six or seven."
"But do you really mean," I ventured to remark, "that six or seven shillings a day are the ordinary earnings of a street kettle and saucepan mender?"
"That's quite true," sighed the old umbrella man.
"And look here, Josh'yer," remarked the tinker emphatically, "if you should hear of a genl'leman who speaks of a travelling cutler — 'cos that's wot I am," said Dan'll, "as a kettle and sarsepan I'm open to that genl'leman my compliments, and tell him that mender, give fight him for whatever sum he might mention."
And as he at the same moment extinguished his pipe with the tip of his little finger, and took up a hole in his waist strap. I thought it as well to bid my friend the umbrella man a hasty good afternoon and bring my inquiries into the industries of the streets to an end, for the time at all events.