Page:Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II Dec 1859 to June 1860.pdf/596

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June 16, 1860.]

THE SMALL THINGS OF LONDON.

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What a dreary business it was to watch them at their sluggish play; and how thin, shrill-voiced, big-boned women, who always appeared to be in a frenzy, would rush forward and with a few cuffs—to put a little spirit in them, I suppose—drag them to their wretched homes. There you might see them again crawling in and out of the mouldy houses in a listless way, or probably there would be one hollow-eyed little fellow who had got his cuffing over, and therefore was comparatively comfortable, sitting in the dirt before the paternal mansion with his back to the wall, and looking out upon vacancy in a speculative way.

Happily this description does not apply to the greatest portion of London. The children of the poor are to all appearance dirty, but healthy. It may well be that the explanation of this fact is that they are allowed to remain so long in the open air every day, chasing each other about the markets, or “overing” the posts according to their own pleasure. The London children soon gain a look of excessive sharpness, probably from the difficulty of solving the great halfpenny question with which they are brought face to face at a very early period of their existence. In my own quarter of the town—and no Londoner can pretend to an intimate knowledge of more than his own quarter—I have scores of little ragged friends whose ways of life I have daily opportunities of watching. What infinite pains they will take—what superhuman exertions they will make to earn the smallest coin! I know the exact corners where they will go to play it away at “buttons” when they have given themselves so much trouble to earn it. Of course this is not what takes place in the good-boy books, but it takes place in the streets of London. Had I been the son of a costermonger, and kicked by my parent out of the family residence at about seven a.m., and had I succeeded in earning a few halfpence by standing in the way of rich people who ride in cabs, or by turning wheels by the side of an omnibus, I believe I should have bought an eel-pie and a nice slice of greasy pudding, and risked the remainder of my earnings at “buttons.” There could but be a thrashing when one got home, and my papa could not have thumped the eel-pie, and the pudding, and the enjoyment I had derived from “buttons” out of me. What a singular thing it is that the little fellows—the progeny of professional beggars apart, who are brought up to the trade—so seldom beg of the passers-by. They are eager enough to render uncalled-for and unwelcome service, and to claim a reward, but that is purely a commercial transaction.

This is curious in a small and collateral way; but the real wonder is the enormous number of the London children. I don’t believe a word of the Registrar-General’s return. I have no kind of confidence in those Census papers which are occasionally distributed at our houses. In point of fact, when I know how the cook and housemaid at Gamma Lodge set the laws of their country at defiance upon the occasion of the last returns, and yet have not been sent to Newgate or the Tower—neither has the Attorney-General done anything to their prejudice in an ex officio way—how is it possible to have confidence on more critical points? Cook is fifty-seven years of age, if she is a day; she represented herself as twenty~six. Betty is a Particular Baptist, but returned herself as a member of the Establishment, because she considered it more genteel. Go and number the sands of the sea-shore, or the gnats who fly round your head on a summer’s evening, and you may be able to number the children of London. They ooze out from the pavement; they settle on the windows of the humblest apartments like flies. You can’t drive in a cab at a moderate speed down any of the London streets for fear of crushing a score or two of them under the horse’s feet. There is not a blind alley which is not choked with them. There is scarcely a shop where eatables are sold where they may not be discerned flattening their noses against the window-panes, and enjoying the pleasures of gastronomy in a vicarious way. It was but the other day I was lingering fondly about the Seven Dials, a locality which suits my humour on account of the bird-shops and the Celtic population, as well as from historic recollections, when on a sudden I became aware that I was afflicted with a plague of children. The place was crowded, but the children out-numbered the adults as two to one. I do not believe that the Seven Dials have any peculiar advantage in this respect.

It should also be remembered that we are only taking into calculation the children of the very poor. Petty tradesfolk of a very humble order indeed would not suffer their children to be running loose about the streets. These you may see on working days—at least the boys—returning from the schools at which they are imbibing the sweet rules of Practice and the French conjugations, generally with their arms round each other’s necks. Their little sisters are for the most part at boarding-schools, between certain limits of age, as say ten and fourteen; before and afterwards they are kept religiously at home under the maternal wing. Of course “genteel” children are out of the question. They are not allowed to swell the ranks of my dear little friends, the London Bedouins, a race with which I protest I have more sympathy than with the more orderly classes whose minds have been all set to Greenwich time, and who are really little better than incarnate formulaæ, or machines.

It would require a treatise especially devoted to the subject to give an accurate and scientific idea of the street children of London. There are the child-thieves, the child-beggars, the child-loungers, the child-tradesmen; or, more properly speaking, the trades-children; the child-wheels, the child-messengers, the child-sportsmen; or, say again, rather, the sports-children;—the Savoyard children who live by white-mice; the child-sweeps, and fifty other divisions which I must suggest rather than indicate. Every interest which is in full play amongst adults, equally stirs the child-mind of London. In the case of the children we can philosophise about them, and weigh and measure the value of their proceedings. The same thing might be done about ourselves by Beings slightly elevated above us in the scale of intelligence. I wonder how the idlers, and the lawyers who are killing themselves by overwork; and the spend-