There are other kinds of anonymity. Dickens knew of a woman, seen in the streets about the Strand, “who has fallen forward, double, through some affliction of the spine, and whose head has of late taken a turn to one side, so that it now droops over the back of one of her arms at about the wrist. Who does not know her staff, and her shawl, and her basket, as she gropes her way along, capable of seeing nothing but the pavement, never begging, never stopping, for ever going somewhere on no business! How does she live, whence does she come, whither does she go, and why?” Dickens saw her many times; he never knew her name, and she could not have seen the famous novelist as he passed her and, perhaps, looked back.
I used to pass a dwarf, dressed in old clothes and with wizened features, who in a hoarse voice would direct the traffic at the crossroads of Theobalds Road and Grays Inn Road; he was there every day and then suddenly, in the summer of 1978, he was gone. There was, even more recently, a young West Indian who would walk up Kensington Church Street dressed in silver foil and with balloons tied to his wrists. A gentleman, known colloquially as “The King of Poland,” used to walk barefoot along the Strand in red velvet robes and with a wreath upon his head. He, too, vanished without warning.
These London particulars have their own locale and are rarely seen beyond it; they are the sprites or spirits of a specific place, and belong exclusively to the city. There was the “musical small-coal man” of Clerkenwell who, after his daily round was over, organised concerts in his lodgings in Jerusalem Passage; he died when as a practical joke a ventriloquist, known as “Talking Smith,” pretended to be the voice of God proclaiming his doom. There was Lord Queensberry, “Old Q,” who every day sat at the window of his house at 138 Piccadilly; although he had only one eye, he leered and winked at every pretty female who passed in the street. And there was “the afflicted girl—white faced and expressionless” who sat for many years close to the Horse-Shoe of Tottenham Court Road, “oblivious of time and inured to suffering through all the noise and tumult.”
There were always such familiar faces in every locality. Today there are the lollipop men and women, helping children to cross the road, but until the early decades of the twentieth century the best known were the crossing-sweepers. Many crossing-sweepers remained at their posts—or on their particular “property,” as it was called—for thirty or forty years. There was the bearded crossing-sweeper at Cornhill—“Sometimes I get insulted, only in words; sometimes I get chaffed by sober people.” And there, at the corner of Cavendish Square, was Billy who could remember ancient riots—“The mob was carrying a quartern loaf dipped in bullock’s blood, and when I saw it I thought it was a man’s head; so that frightened me, and I run off.” One elderly sweeper “kept” the narrow passage from Berkeley Street into Stratton Street, and wore an old huntsman’s coat and hat. He once came into the police court as a witness, and the following exchange is recorded by Mayhew.
JUDGE: Are you a field-marshal?
WITNESS: No, my lord. I am the sweeper of the Lansdowne Passage.
There was “Sir” Harry Dimsdale of Seven Dials, according to Old and New London, “a poor diminutive creature, deformed and half an idiot” who hawked laces and threads at the turn of the nineteenth century; he followed the same routes, along Holborn or Oxford Street, and suffered the jeers of the children and the watermen who washed down the hackney-coach stands. He had only four or five teeth, but could bend a silver coin with them “when he could induce anybody to trust him with one.” His favourite amusement was to torment children by pinching them or throwing them to the ground, but his chief pleasure was found in drink. He was “helplessly drunk every evening … howling in the frenzy produced by his fiery draughts or uttering the low, dismal plaint caused by hunger or pain.” It is reported that his expression was one of “idiotcy, physical suffering and a propensity to mischief” but the mistress of his wretched lodgings—a back attic laid with straw—reported that at night she heard him praying. “Sir” Harry was known throughout London, and there is an extant engraving of him at the age of thirty-eight; but then he, too, suddenly disappeared. His is a curious story of suffering and isolation, but one with echoes and parallels in the modern city.
Other eccentric tradesmen led more amiable lives in the street. There was the famous character Peter Stokes, the “flying pie-man” of Holborn Hill in the early nineteenth century; as described by “Aleph” in London Scenes and London People, he “always wore a black suit, scrupulously brushed, dress coat and vest, knee breeches, stout black stockings, and shoes with steel buckles.” This tradesman, with an expression “open and agreeable, expressive of intellect and moral excellence,” would dash out of Fetter Lane on the stroke of twelve noon and run through the streets of the neighbourhood for the next four hours, dodging horses and wagons and coaches, incessantly crying “Buy! Buy! Buy!” He too was famous throughout London, and sat to an engraver with the basket of pies balanced neatly on his right arm.
Equally notable, in the streets of London, a little more than a century earlier, was “Colly Molly Puffe,” a short hunch-backed man who also sold pastries. He preferred to balance his basket upon his head rather than his arm and, despite his frail form, he had a stentorian voice with which he sang out his wares. His cry was unmistakable, and he was to be seen at city parades or public hangings, always brandishing a big stick to ward off any thief or urchin who tried to steal his goods.
Tiddy Doll was a vendor of gingerbread in the Haymarket who wore ornate and brightly coloured dress, complete with feathered cap, and had the distinction of being drawn by Hogarth; he was so well known by Londoners that “once being missed from his usual stand … on the occasion of a visit which he paid to a country fair, a ‘catch-penny’ account of his alleged murder was printed and sold in the streets by thousands.” His actual death was almost equally sensational: during a Frost Fair, when a festival was held upon the iced surface of the Thames, Tiddy Doll plunged through a sudden crack and was drowned.
There have been any number of London eccentrics and exhibitionists who achieved fame in the streets. There was a celebrated miser, Thomas Cook of Clerkenwell, who on his death-bed demanded his money back from the surgeon who had not cured him. There was a notorious doctor, Martin Van Butchell, who rode around the West End on a pony upon whose flanks he had painted spots. When at home in Mount Street he sold oranges and gingerbread on his doorstep and kept his first wife embalmed in the parlour. “He dressed his first wife in black, and his second in white,” according to Edward Walford in Old and New London, “never allowing either a change of colour.” He astonished his contemporaries by growing a beard—this at the end of the eighteenth century—and, equally astonishing to his fellow citizens, was “one of the earliest teetotallers.”
Benjamin Coates first came to public notice in 1810 when he hired the Haymarket Theatre so that he might play Romeo for one night; he appeared on stage “in a cloak of sky-blue silk, profusely spangled, red pantaloons, a vest of white muslin, and a wig of the style of Charles II, capped by an opera hat.” Unfortunately he had a “guttural” voice and the laughter which greeted his performance was increased by the fact that “his nether garments, being far too tight burst in seams which could not be concealed.” He was known, ever after, as Romeo Coates and was often seen driving through the streets in a carriage manufactured in the shape of a sea shell. For sheer vigour and energy we may put him beside the engraver William Woolett who, each time he finished a new work, fired a cannon from the roof of his house in Green Street, Leicester Square.
Certain women also made a singular impression. There was the rich and learned Miss Banks who wore a quilted petticoat with “two immense pockets, stuffed with books of all sizes.” When she wandered on her book-hunting expeditions through the streets she was always accompanied by a six-foot manservant “with a cane almost as tall as himself.” In this state she was, again according to Walford, “more than once taken for a member of the ballad-singing confraternity.” Miss Mary Lucrine of Oxford Street kept the shutters of her windows barred and never left her lodgings for some fifty years, one of several London spinsters who closed themselves off from the anxiety and violence of the city.
Some Londoners became notorious through their diet. In the middle years of the seventeenth century Roger Crab of Bethnal Green subsisted on “dock-leaves, mallows or grasse” and plain water, while in the late twentieth century Stanley Green, wearing cap and blazer, paraded in Oxford Street with a banner proclaiming “Less Passion from Less Protein.” For twenty-five years, crowds swirled about him, almost oblivious of his presence, engaged only in their usual uproar.