The history of children in London affords much material for contemplation. Whether in their mortality, in their savagery, or in their instinct for game, the great forces of the city are revealed. The first evidences are brief and elusive: fragments of small leather shoes and slippers, as well as bronze toys and bone whistles. The delight in game, or play, is profound and eternal. The tombstones of children from the Roman era still also survive; one is inscribed to Onesimus, the “helpful” child and “well-deserving” son, and another to “good Dexius, son of Diotimus.” The death of children is a constant thread in the history of London. In more than one sense, youth is a stuff which will not endure within the confines of the city.
Deep beneath the level of Poultry has been found the golden statuette of a baby and that small image represents all those ideas of holiness or sacredness which surround the child. There are accounts of children as prophets and visionaries; one young Londoner “was imbued, to the glory of God, with a knowledge which the master had not taught him.” We read of another who “had the job, along with two boys from the cathedral school,” of guarding the abbey at Westminster. There are accounts of children carrying baskets of sand and gravel to Smithfield in the early twelfth century in order to help Rahere in the building of St. Bartholomew’s great church there.
This connection of children with the protection, and even erection, of London’s sacred sites is a highly significant one; the city is acquiring the energy and innocence of its children, in an activity not far removed from that of child-sacrifice in the foundations of temples or of bridges. Certainly children were at the centre of civic and ecclesiastical ceremonies. It has been noted that “upon St. Nicholas, St. Katherine, St. Clement and Holy Innocents Day, children were wont to be arrayed in chimers, rockets, surplices, to counterfeit bishops and priests and to be led with songs and dances from house to house, blessing the people.” As late as the sixteenth century, just before the Reformation, “a boy habbited like a bishop in pontificabilis went abroad in most parts of London, singing after the old fashion.” In the Lord Mayor’s Show of 1516 the great procession was accompanied by “16 naked boys,” and children were an integral feature of all the city and guild pageants that were carried along Cornhill and Cheapside. We may also note here the curious and yet consistent pattern of superstition which surrounded children. During the Commonwealth “the prophesies of children were listened to intently,” and astrologers employed children as “scryers” or visionaries. “When a spirit is raised,” one book of magic suggests, “none hath power to see it but children of eleven or twelve years of age or such as are true maids.” Here the idea of innocence, in a corrupt and corrupting city, is powerfully effective.
The status of the child as a legal and commercial entity was also quickly established. Of William the Conqueror’s charter to Londoners in 1066, the second of the three precepts was “I will that every child be heir after his father’s death,” thus confirming a tradition of primogeniture. A complex system of wardship was also in place, so that there was no possibility that the children of the deceased might be fraudulently deprived of their inheritance. The commercial importance of the child in London is emphasised by the words of an ancient ballad, in which a married couple send their boy “away to fair London, an Apprentice for to find,” while the first extant record of a young London apprentice can be dated to 1265. Another commercial activity undertaken by children was that of begging, while children themselves were robbed, kidnapped and murdered for profit. One Alice de Salesbury was condemned to stand in the pillory because “she had taken one Margaret daughter of John Oxwyke, Grocer … and had carried her away and stripped her of her clothes that she might not be recognised by her family, that she might go begging with the said Alice, and a gain might be made thereby.” This activity of child-stealing continued upon the streets of London well into the nineteenth century, when it was called a “kinching lay”; the children of the affluent were a particular prey since they could be decoyed, and their clothes and jewellery sold. Many of them were killed upon the spot, to prevent their crying out or afterwards identifying their assailants. London could be a perilous place for the young.
William Fitz-Stephen preferred to emphasise the energy and vivacity of the youthful citizens, how they delighted in cockfighting and in “the well-known game of foot-ball” with an inflated pig’s bladder used as a ball. On the holy days of summer, the children engaged in leap-frogging, wrestling and “slinging javelins beyond a mark”; in winter, they indulged in snowballing and ice-skating, using the long shin bones of animals rather like the skateboards of the late twentieth century. Fitz-Stephen is at pains to emphasise the elements of competition and aggression in these games, to complement his description of the valiant spirit which marked out London from other cities. The “lay sons of the citizens rush out of the gate in crowds … and there they get up sham fights, and exercise themselves in military combat.” Young children were often given bows and arrows with which to practise their skills, since one day they might be required to defend their city. They were already “Londoners,” with a strong sense of civic identity and pride. In similar fashion schoolboys were taught how to engage in dispute and rhetorical combat one with another, while “the boys of the different schools wrangle with each other in verse, and contend about the principles of grammar or the rules of the perfect and future tenses.” In well-known public areas, such as the churchyard of St. Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, the children would mount upon makeshift stages and compete in “rhetorical harangues” or recitations. Here lies one of the origins of London drama but aptly, in Fitz-Stephen’s account, the elements of combat and aggression are compounded with spectacle and theatricality. In this respect the children of London are faithful images of the city itself.
One fourteenth-century bishop reproved “impudent youths” who scribbled in the margins of books, while Robert Braybroke in his “Letter of Excommunication” on 9 November 1385 complained of boys “good for nothing in their insolence and idleness, instigated by evil minds and busying themselves rather in doing harm than good.” They “throw and shoot stones, arrows and different kinds of missiles at the rooks, pigeons, and other birds nesting in the walls and porches of the church. Also they play ball inside and outside the church and engage in other destructive games there, breaking and greatly damaging the glass windows and the stone images of the church.”
A baker’s boy was carrying a basket of loaves up the Strand; he passed the bishop of Salisbury’s palace, and one of the bishop’s servants stole a loaf. The boy raised a “hue and cry” and a crowd of children, apprentices and other citizens engaged in what almost became a full-scale riot. Children were, in other words, part of the turbulent life of the turbulent city. The administrative reports of the fourteenth century record “a boy climbing up to a gutter to retrieve his lost ball; of others playing on a heap of timber when one fell and broke his leg; and of another, a schoolboy returning over London Bridge after dinner, who must needs climb out and hang by his hands from a plank on the side of the bridge, and fell in and was drowned.” They played “hoodman blind,” now known as blind man’s buff, and “cobnutte,” which is the present game of “conkers.”
There were rule-books for schoolboys which by indirection preserve the essence of a London childhood in the medieval city, with injunctions concerning “no running, jumping, chattering, or playing, no carrying of sticks, stones or bows, no tricks upon passers by; no laughing or giggling if anyone were to read or sing minus bene, rather less than well.” In turn there survive doggerel poems by schoolboys about their masters:
I would my master were an hare …
For if he were dead I would not care.
In a city where everyone was competing for notice, the children also clamoured. But they also seemed drawn to the forbidden places of London, as if in defiance against its threat. It is the spirit of impudence, or mockery, which has always been noticeable among London children. In the 1950s and 1960s they played a game called “Last Across” in which they would run across the road in imminent danger of being knocked down by cars. It is a question of meeting, and beating, the city on its own terms.
When the young Thomas More walked in the 1480s from his house in Milk Street to St. Anthony’s School in Threadneedle Street, the city pressed upon him in ways which he never forgot. He passed the Standard in Cheapside, for example, where public and bloody executions took place; children were not spared the spectacle of violent death. He passed churches, painted images of the saints, and the “pissing conduit” as well as the stalls of the fishmongers and butchers; he would have seen the beggars, some of his own age, as well as the prostitutes and the thieves or loiterers set up in the stocks. Like an adult he went dressed in doublet and hose because children were not considered “different” from their elders but simply younger versions of the same thing. At school he learned music and grammar, as well as useful proverbial phrases. “O good turne asket another … Many handes maken lite werke … The more haste, the werse spede.” He was also educated in rhetoric, and was one of those children who competitively exercised their talents in St. Bartholomew’s Churchyard. But the important point is, simply, that he was being trained for a career in the legal administration of London. It was undoubtedly and principally a civic education; he was taught to celebrate order and harmony, and much of his public career was devoted to introducing that order and harmony within the streets which he had known since childhood. Yet those same streets hardened him, as they hardened all their children. His own writing is filled with their slang and demotic; the hardness and theatricality of his own nature, as well as his wit and aggression, sprang from a characteristic London childhood.
London children, therefore, confronted harsh realities. If they were poor they were put out to hard service, working hours as long as their adult companions, but if they were the offspring of affluent families they were enlisted within the households of richer or more eminent citizens; the young Thomas More, for example, entered the household of the archbishop of Canterbury. It was necessary to work, or be punished. The records of Bridewell show that nearly half of its inmates were boys accused of nothing but vagrancy; they were “packte up and punnyshed alyke in Brydewell with rogues, beggers, strompets and pylfering theves.” This harshness is reflected in the commentaries of two Londoners, the late fifteenth-century William Caxton, and the early sixteenth-century Roger Ascham. Caxton complained that “I see that they that ben borne within [the city of London] encrease and prouffyte not lyke theys faders and olders,” while Ascham maintained that “Innocence is gone: Bashfulnesse is banished; moch presumption in yougthe.” These sentiments might be considered as the perpetual rage of age against youth, in the context of the changing generations, but it is interesting to note that they were made at a time when the city was expanding. Between 1510 and 1580 the population rose from 50,000 to 120,000, and it suffered from an excess of turbulence, unrest and energy; it seems likely that the children embodied that spirit in the most obvious and, to the older citizens, alarming way.
The image of the unruly young apprentice was a potent one within the city, for example, and as a result the civic authorities drew up tightly regulated and organised statutes of labour and discipline. Nothing could be allowed to disrupt commercial harmony. The apprentice was bound “and must obey. Since I have undertook to serve my Maister truly for seven years My duty shall both answer that desire And my Old Maister’s profite every way. I prayse that City which made Princes tradesmen.” By the latter comment the speaker meant that even those of noble birth could be enrolled as apprentices of a trade. The commercial instinct was very strong. Apprentices were forbidden to muster in the streets, drink in the taverns, or wear striking apparel; they were, in addition, allowed only “closely cropped hair.” In a similar spirit it was still the custom for children to kneel before their father to acquire his blessing before proceeding with the day’s events. They often dined at a separate, smaller table, and were served after the adults; then they might be questioned about their activities, or their learning at school, or asked to recite a verse or a proverb. Recalcitrant children were often whipped with “the juice of the birch” which is “excellent for such a cure if you apply it but twise or thrice.”
The songs, as well as the calls and cries, of children are part of the general sound of the city. “Home againe home againe market is done” must rival for antiquity “On Christmas night I turn the spit” or “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on.” In 1687 John Aubrey wrote that “Little children have a custome when it rains to sing, or charme away the raine; thus they all join in a chorus and sing thus, ‘Raine, raine, go away, come againe a Saterday.’” There are a great many songs and rhymes set specifically in London; this is perhaps not surprising, since the city had the largest congregation of children in the nation and, eventually, in the world. It has been stated by those authorities on childhood matters, Iona and Peter Opie, that most of these rhymes can be dated after 1600; certainly they emanated from London printer-publishers of the period, one of whom was jocularly known as “Bouncing B, Shoe Lane.”
But there are more significant urban features of these songs. They emanate from the street cries and ballads of London; their context is that of an oral culture. Some rhymes relate indirectly to wars or to political matters, while others refer to urban events such as an “Ice Fair” upon the Thames, or the burning “of a bridge of London town” in February 1633. Other songs came from the London theatres, such as “There was a jolly miller” and “When I was a little boy, I washed my mammy’s dishes.” “The house that Jack built” was originally the title of a London pantomime. In fact there were so many pantomimes and harlequinades—Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog, Harlequin and Little Tom Tucker, and a host of others—that it could be presumed that Londoners themselves had become like little children.
The printers of Shoe Lane, Paternoster Row and elsewhere issued a stream of story-books and song-books, catching the young with their usual commercial spirit, and again the presence of London filled their pages. “O was an oyster girl, and we went about town,” from an eighteenth-century spelling book, is only the plainest of a number of verses or songs which celebrated London trades and tradespeople. There are children’s songs on the milkmaids of Islington and the sweeps of Cheapside, as well as the tailors, the bakers and the candlestick-makers. Some of them begin “As I was going o’er London Bridge” as a great metaphor for the highway of life, but of course the most ancient and familiar is the mysterious song
London Bridge is broken down,
Broken down, broken down,
London Bridge is broken down,
My fair lady.
In its twelve verses it evokes a bridge that is continually being destroyed and rebuilt. Thus “Wood and clay will wash away … Bricks and mortar will not stay … Iron and steel will bend and bow … Silver and gold will be stolen away.” Why should such strange sentiments issue from the mouths of London children, unless it be a reference to the ancient belief that only the sacrifice of a child can placate the river and preserve the bridge unnaturally set across it? The Opies themselves suggest that the song “is one of the few, perhaps the only one, in which there is justification for suggesting that it preserves the memory of a dark and terrible rite of past times”; they then describe the connection of child-sacrifice with the building of bridges. So the singing child is alluding to a dreadful destiny within the city, and perhaps there is also an intimation that London itself can only be reared and protected by the sacrifice of children.
There is some element of this fatal relationship in that other great London song, “Oranges and Lemons,” where the invocation of old London churches reaches a climactic moment with the lines
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
Again the origins of this verse are mysterious. It has been suggested that they allude to the journey of a condemned man to the scaffold, when the bells of London rang out to mark the stages of his progress, or that in some way the song commemorates the bloody marital career of Henry VIII. Yet its power resides in its almost magical invocation of sacred places, with their names ringing out like an incantation. “Ring ye Bells at Whitechapple … Ring ye Bells Aldgate” as well as those at St. Catherine’s, at St. Clement’s, at Old Bailey, at Fleetditch, at Stepney and at Paul’s. A sacred as well as ferocious city is being invoked. It could be suggested, then, that death was often in the minds of London children.
“Pray, do tell me the time, for I have let my watch run down.”
“Why, ’tis half an Hour past Hanging-time, and time to hang again.”
In one of those silent patterns of oral mnemonics “hanging” became “kissing,” although of course the halter was known as “the kiss” or “the cheat.”
The point of rhymes and riddles was to train the perceptions of small children, so that they might learn how to survive in a difficult environment. That is why there is a tradition of sharpness and impertinence among young Londoners. When Winston Churchill met a boy outside Downing Street and asked him to stop whistling, the child replied: “Why should I? You can shut your ears, can’t you?” Aubrey and Swift collected examples of wit and sallies from street children, as have other compilers from Dickens and Mayhew to the Opies. The “artful dodger” is perhaps only a slightly dramatised version of any “street-wise” London child, that imp of the perverse who seems somehow to have inherited all the levelling and egalitarian spirit of the city in his or her own small person.
There was a film made just after the Second World War, entitled Hue and Cry, in which a boy’s quick-witted observations thwart a criminal gang. He is asked, “So you’re the boy who sees visions in the streets of London?” It is a question which might have been posed in the early medieval city. In a climactic scene of the same film the criminals are pursued by a gang of children across the bomb-sites and ruined buildings of the Blitz; here again is an eternal image of urban childhood. There are many pictures and descriptions of the London child against a background of flames, of the child carried to safety during the incursions of Boudicca or the depredations of the Great Fire, yet somehow the image of children clambering over ruins is more poignant. Whether it be Saxon children playing among the vestiges of Roman London, or twentieth-century children leaping among the bomb-sites of the Second World War, it summons up associations of eternal renewal and invincible energy which are precisely the characteristics of London itself.
Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street.
This mysterious image of streets filled with play is amplified by Zechariah VIII: 5—“And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the street thereof.” Children can be found clustering in certain areas for play, among them Exmouth Market, the Commercial Road, south and east of the Elephant and Castle, along the Goswell Road, and of course the scores of small parks and recreation grounds which echo across the capital. Certain areas seem to draw them towards games, as if the presence of the children will soften them and render them inhabitable. Children, for example, always congregated east of Aldgate Pump.
In 1931 Norman Douglas published a scholarly volume entitled London Street Games, perhaps in order to preserve the memory of a world which he sensed to be in some kind of transition. But it is also a vivid memorial to the inventiveness and energy of London children, and an implicit testimony to the streets which harboured and protected their play. There were girls’ games such as “Mother I’m Over the Water” or “Turning Mother’s Wringer” and skipping-rope games such as “Nebuchadnezzer” and “Over the Moon.” Their voices rose to the tapping of their feet upon the pavement.
Charlie Chaplin, meek and mild,
Stole a sixpence from a child,
When the child began to cry,
Charlie Chaplin said goodbye.
The texture of the city itself can create opportunities for play. Marbles were rolled in the gutters, and the paving stones were marked with chalk for a hopping game. Children made use of walls, against which “fag-cards” were flicked in games such as “Nearest the Wall Takes” or “Nearest the Wall Spins Up.” It was remarked that these games “make the boys uncommonly nimble with their hands, and this must help them later on, if they go in for certain trades like watch-making.” Then there were the “touch” games, one entitled “London.” The game of “Follow My Leader” was popular in the streets of London, particularly in the suburbs: it included crossing the road at precarious moments, following the route of railway lines, or knocking upon street-doors. And there was an evening game called “Nicho Midnight” or “Flash Your Light”; as one Cockney boy put it, “You have to play in the dark because torches are no good in the daytime.” Street games can be played in the darkness of London because “sport is sweetest when there be no spectators.” That is why old tunnels, disused railways lines, dilapidated parks and small cemeteries have become the site of games. It is as if the children are hiding themselves from London. From that secluded vantage, the boisterous may jeer or throw missiles at passing adults, or shout insults such as “I’ll punch your teeth in!” An instinctive savagery and aggression often seem to be at work in the city air.
Some of the most poignant memorials of children date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Carvings of charity children, for example, are still to be seen in Holborn and Westminster. There were statuettes of schoolchildren by St. Mary, Rotherhithe, where a “Free School for eight sons of poor seamen” was established in 1613. Two children of Coade stone were placed outside St. Botolph, Bishopsgate, with badges numbered “25” and “31.” Those belonging to St. Bride’s School were three feet six inches in height, which is a token of the average size of the London child. There are children in Hatton Garden and Caxton Street and Vintner’s Place; some of them wear the costume dating back almost three hundred years, with blue coat and yellow stockings (apparently worn to ward off rats), and are a perpetual reminder of an otherwise forgotten aspect of London childhood. They can be associated with all the other stone or wooden representations of children within the city. The “fat boy” in Giltspur Street, the pannies boy in the Bread Market near St. Paul’s, the boys playing a game of marbles above a doorway on Laurence Pountney Hill, the child brandishing a telephone in Temple Place, all are images of the child living within the city but now, as it were, taken out of time. In that sense they embody the eternal nature of childhood itself.
Yet the city of time could still degrade them. A late sixteenth-century writer noted that “manye lytle prettie children, boyes and gyrles, doe wander up and downe in the stretes, loyter in Powles, and lye under hedges and stalles in the nights.” In the spring of 1661 Pepys records that “In several places I asked women whether they would sell me their children; that they denied me all, but said they would give me one to keep for them if I would.” Samuel Curwen, another seventeenth-century diarist, was walking down Holborn when he noticed a crowd of people around a coach filled with children. They were aged between six and seven, “young sinners who were accustomed to go about in the evenings stealing, filching and purloining whatever they could lay their little dirty claws on, and were going to be consigned into the hands of justice.” Most of such children had been abandoned by their masters, or by their parents, to fall upon the mercy of the streets. Benjamin and Grace Collier, as reported in the County Records of the late seventeenth century, “privately made away with their goods and run away, leaving their children destitute.” Sara Rainbow served in an alehouse in Long Alley, Little Moorfields, for nine years “with very much hardship and of late a month’s causeless imprisonment in Bridewell, and other great cruelties, which she could not endure.” In 1676 she ran away, together with her two brothers; one boy sold himself for five shillings to a clipper bound for Barbados, while the other was never seen again.
There are pictures of such children selling, or begging, or stealing, upon the streets, “almost naked and in the last degree miserable, eaten up with Vermin, and in such nasty Rags, that one could not distinguish by their Clothes what Sex they were of.” Contemporary illustrations verify this unhappy condition. One image of a street child shows him wearing the ragged clothing of an adult with a tattered greatcoat and pitifully torn breeches; his hat and shoes are much too large, and by his side he carries a tin bowl to be used both for drinking and for cooking. He seems to be of no age and of every age, the acquisition of cast-off adult clothing serving to emphasise this ambiguous status. These wandering children are as old, and as young, as the city itself.
The records of parish children in the eighteenth century are filled with images which provoke sorrowful contemplation. Foundling children were often named after the part of London where they were taken up; the registers of Covent Garden parish are replete with names such as Peter Piazza, Mary Piazza and Paul Piazza. The phrase for those dropped or abandoned was “children laid in the streets,” which itself is sufficiently evocative. The parish officers were given ten pounds for each child brought into their care, on which occasion there was a feast known as “saddling the spit”; it was assumed “that the child’s life would not be long, and therefore the money might be spent on jollification.” Once more it is the pagan nature of these urban rituals which requires emphasis. A general opinion prevailed “that a parish child’s life is worth no more than eight or nine months purchase,” and it seems likely that their deaths were hastened by unnatural means. A parliamentary report of 1716 revealed that “a great many poor infants and exposed bastard children are inhumanly suffered to die by the barbarity of nurses.” In one Westminster parish, only one child survived out of five hundred “laid in the streets.”
If they lived, the poor children were lodged in the parish workhouses. These were essentially primitive factories where, from seven in the morning until six in the evening, the little inmates were set to work spinning wool or flax and knitting stockings; an hour a day was spent upon the rudiments of learning, and another hour for “dinner and play.” These workhouses were generally filthy and overcrowded places. That in the parish of St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch, for example, was “obliged to put thirty nine children into three beds.” It combined the aspects of both factory and prison, thus confirming its identity as a peculiarly urban institution; many of the children infected one another with “disorders” and contagious diseases, and were then despatched to hospitals. The quartet of London confinement—workhouse, factory, prison and hospital—is complete.
Children were confined precisely because, in their natural and liberated state, they were considered to be wild. They were still “half-naked or in tattered rags, cursing and swearing at one another … rolling in the dirt and kennels, or pilfering on the wharfs and keys.” These were the “ill natured cattal” with which “our prisons are daily filled and under the weight of which Tyburn does so often groan.” Very few social observers chose to discuss whether the conditions of London itself brutalised or dehumanised these small children; the reality was too overwhelming, and too palpable, to elicit any cogent analysis beyond the imagery of bestiality and savagery. Once the vagrant children had been trained to labour in the parish workhouse, for example, they are “as much distinguished from what they were before as is a tamed from a wild beast.” But that imagery can be applied elsewhere in the commercial jungle of London. “The master may be a tiger in cruelty, he may beat, abuse, strip naked, starve or do what he will to the poor innocent lad, few people take much notice, and the officers who put him out the least of anybody.” The reference here is to the “parish child” being sold off as an apprentice; although that condition has been immortalised in Oliver Twist in 1837, the cruelties and hardships associated with this trade in children have a particular eighteenth-century emphasis.
Consider the plight of chimney-sweeps, apprentices known as “climbing boys.” They were usually attached to their masters at the age of seven or eight, although it was also common for drunken or impoverished parents to sell children as young as four years old for twenty or thirty shillings. Small size was important, because the flues of London houses were characteristically narrow and twisted so that they became easily choked with soot or otherwise constricted. The young climbing boy was prodded or pushed into these tiny spaces; fearful or recalcitrant children were pricked with pins or scorched with fire, to make them climb more readily. Some died of suffocation, while many suffered a more lingering death from cancer of the scrotum known as “sooty warts.” Others grew deformed. A social reformer described a typical climbing boy at the close of his short career. “He is now twelve years of age, a cripple on crutches, hardly three feet seven inches in stature … His hair felt like a hog’s bristle, and his head like a warm cinder … He repeats the Lord’s prayer.” These children, blackened by the soot and refuse of the city, were rarely, if ever, washed. They were coated in London’s colours, an express symbol of the most abject condition to which it could reduce its young. A familiar sight, they wandered about, shouting out in their piping voices “to sweep for the soot, oh!” It was known as “calling the streets.”
In the harsh condition of London, however, they were rarely the objects of compassion. Instead, they were condemned as thieves, part-time beggars and “the greatest nursery for Tyburn of any trade in England.” Yet in one of those astonishing displays of theatrical ritual, of which the city was always capable, once a year they were allowed to celebrate. On the first of May, they were painted white with meal and hair-powder and as “lilly-whites,” to use the contemporaneous expression, they flocked through the streets where they called “weep weep.” They also banged their brushes and climbing tools as they paraded through the city. In this reversal we recognise both the hardness and gaiety of London: they had very little to celebrate in their unhappy lives, yet they were allowed to play, and become children again, for one day of the year.
But there are other connotations here, which reach deep into the mystery of childhood in the city. The climbing boys were characteristically dressed in foil, gold leaf and ribbons just as were the children in the pageants of the medieval city; in that sense they came to represent once more holiness and innocence, in however vulgarised a fashion. Yet, banging the instruments of their trade along the thoroughfare, they also become lords of misrule for the day; thus their wildness is being emphasised, itself a threat to the city unless it were formalised and disciplined within ritual patterns. All these elements converge—playfulness, innocence, savagery—to create the child in the city.
Peter Earle, in A City Full of People, has noted that early eighteenth-century London “offered many enticements” for young people. In particular the city offered “the lure of bad company, gambling, drink, idleness, petty theft and ‘lewd women.’” So London children were, from the beginning, at a disadvantage. In the spirit-shops lurked “children, who drink with so much enjoyment that they find it difficult to walk on going away.” In the engravings of Hogarth, too, children are often characterised as malevolent or mischievous tokens of the city; their faces are puckered up in misery or derision, and they tend to mock or imitate the conduct and appearance of their elders. In the fourth plate of A Rake’s Progress a young boy can be seen sitting in the gutter; he is smoking a small pipe, and reading with attention a newspaper entitled The Farthing Post. The sign of White’s gambling house can be seen in the distance, down St. James’s Street, and in the foreground five other children are engaged with dice and cards. One boy is a bootblack who has literally lost his shirt; another is a seller of spirits, while a third is a newspaper vendor known as a “Mercury.” Of nineteenth-century street-boys, too, it was noticed that “gambling was a passion with them, indulged in without let or hindrance.” In the early decades of the twentieth century, also, quite young children were still being arrested for street-gambling in games such as “Buttons.” So for at least two centuries London children have been associated with, or identified by, gambling. And why should they not be gamblers, faced with the general uncertainty of life in the city? Another boy, away from the foreground in the Hogarth engraving, is stealing a handkerchief from the rake himself. Here in miniature is the image of the eighteenth-century London child, busily engaged in all the adult life and activity of the streets. Their features are also stamped with greed and acquisitiveness, like tutelary spirits of place. In the series of engravings, “Morning,” “Noon,” “Evening” and “Night,” children play a significant role. Some of them wear exactly the same clothes as their elders, so that they have all the appearance of dwarf-like or deformed citizens; others are ragged street urchins, fighting for food in the gutter or huddled together for warmth beneath wooden street stalls.
The ragged children of the streets have a vivid emblematic quality, therefore, but in the photographs of nineteenth-century London they become more recognisable and more sorrowful. These are no longer characters or caricatures, but somehow familiar human faces, soft or plaintive, sorrowful or bewildered. It has been suggested that the philanthropic instinct had changed by the end of the eighteenth century, towards a more benign dispensation, but the actual conditions of London had not altered. “The amount of crime, starvation and nakedness or misery of every sort in the metropolis,” Dickens told a journalist in the mid-nineteenth century, “surpasses all understanding.” It surpassed understanding because that starvation and misery affected the very youngest and most vulnerable. In 1839 almost half the funerals in London were of children under the age of ten, and it was a pretty conceit of early photographers to pose small children among the tombstones of the city graveyards; it represents the brutality of Victorian naïveté.
In another genre of photograph three little girls sit in the street, their feet in the gutter and their bodies upon the flat stone pavement; one girl looks round with surprise at the camera, but the most striking impression is of their dark and faded clothes. It is as if they were mimicking the dark and cracked stone all around them, so that they might become almost invisible. It is often forgotten how drab and dirty the Victorian capital was; the thoroughfares were always filled with litter, and there was a general air of grime and grease. As Dickens wrote: “How many, who, amidst this compound of sickening smells, these heaps of filth, these tumbling houses, with all their vile contents, animate and inanimate, slimily overflowing into the black road, would believe that they breathe this air?”
There is another photograph, of seven little boys who have obviously been arranged in a tableau by the photographer; but it is a tableau of want. All of them are barefoot; one child is wearing a battered hat but his trousers are in rags and falling off at the knee. How they managed to live is something of a mystery still; they look careworn, but they are not starving. There is a famous picture of a boy selling Bryant & May matches; he holds up a box with an air of solemn defiance, as if to say—Take it or leave it, I shall survive.
In the early part of the century, Prince Herman Pückler-Muskau saw a child of eight driving his own vehicle, in the middle of a whirlpool of carriages, and commented that “such a thing … can only be seen in England, where children are independent at eight and hanged at twelve.” There is indeed the famous description by a traveller in 1826 of a group of twelve-year-olds, sitting in the condemned cells in Newgate, “all under the sentence of death, smoking and playing very merrily together.” In 1816 there were 1,500 inmates of London gaols who were under the age of seventeen. “Some were barely nine or ten,” according to the Chronicles of Newgate. “Children began to steal when they could scarcely crawl. Cases were known of infants of barely six charged in the courts with crimes.” Children formed regular gangs, “each choosing one of their number as captains, and dividing themselves into reliefs to work certain districts, one by day and by night.” Their favourite tricks were those of picking pockets, or shop-lifting, smash and grab where a young thief would “starr” a window pane, and robbing drunkards. In this last occupation, “The girls attacked him, and the boys stripped him of all he had.”
The street children of the nineteenth century were known as “little Arabs,” a title that indicated in jingoistic terms their propensity for savagery. It is perhaps appropriate to note in this context that the recalcitrant children of more affluent families were known as “little radicals,” as if to identify the source of social unrest in the energy of the young. Three different books were published in the 1870s and 1890s, each with the title The Cry of the Children, confirming the prevalence of that anxious note; it could be interpreted as a cry of battle as much as a cry of woe. Tolstoy visited London in 1860, and remarked that “When I see these dirty tattered children, with their bright eyes and angels’ faces, I am filled with apprehension as if I were seeing drowning people. How to save them? Which to save first? That which is drowning is that which is most valuable, the spiritual element in these children.” Charles Booth came across a group of “cockney arabs,” “small rough-looking children”—“I suggested they would be better at home and in bed at this time of night; to which a girl of about eight (and little at that) replied in saucily precocious style, speaking for herself and a companion, “Garn, we’re ahrt wiv ahr blokes; that’s my bloke.” “Yus,” says the other girl, “and that’s mine.” At this there was a general shout of laughter, and then came a plaintive plea. “Give us a penny, will you, Guv’nor?”’
London children were a paying proposition. “No investment,” wrote the author of The Children of the Poor in 1892, “gives a better return today on the capital put out than work among the children of the poor.” Some young children became “errand boys” or the carriers of beer; others donned a red uniform and were employed to clean up the horse manure in the busy streets. They held horses for those who wished to make a purchase; they carried trunks to and from the railway, or parcels for omnibus passengers; they stood at the doors of theatres and public places ready to call a cab, especially when the night “turned out wet”; and they helped porters whose duties had become too onerous, or cab-men who were befuddled with drink. It is possible to envisage a city of children—the number occupied in street-work was estimated between ten and twenty thousand—watching for work and taking it up with eagerness and alacrity when it was offered. They were the true progeny of London.
Others became street-sellers, and were recognisable figures with nicknames such as the Cocksparrow or the Early Bird. They were envied by “unemployed little ones, who look upon having the charge of a basket of fruit, to be carried in any direction, as a species of independence.” This is an interesting vision which these children possessed; to have even the smallest means of earning a living allowed you to become master or mistress of the streets, to wander as you will. Small boys and girls, known as “anybody’s children,” were hired by costermongers or small tradesmen to sell stock upon commission. Each child would undertake to bring back an amount for the wares he or she had been given, and could keep as “bunse” anything earned beyond that figure. At first light the children would assemble in the various street-markets. A boy would run up to the barrows of costermongers with the plea, “D’you want me, Jack?” or “Want a boy, Bill?” They waited all day to “see if they’re wanted” and, if they were fortunate, became the favourites of certain costermongers. A boy was often employed at “crying” the goods which he and his master were pushing in a barrow. This might appear to be a charming custom, except that “we find the natural tone completely annihilated at a very early age, and a harsh, hoarse, guttural, disagreeable mode of speaking acquired.” Here the physical effects of living in the city are clearly delineated; London wearied even the voices of the young, and turned high notes into harsh ones.
Another occupation for the children of London was to provide light entertainment for the citizens. Many small boys, for example, used to keep pace with the trams “not merely by using their legs briskly, but by throwing themselves every now and then on their hands and progressing a few steps (so to speak) with their feet in the air.” The favourite locale for this energetic activity was Baker Street, where the children cartwheeled “to attract attention and obtain the preference if a job were in prospect; done, too, in hopes of a halfpenny being given the urchin for his agility.” This display in the streets is an aspect of theatrical London, too, but the spectacle had its consequences. Mayhew examined the hands of one “urchin” and noticed that “the fleshy parts of the palm were as hard as soling-leather, as hard, indeed, as the soles of the child’s feet, for he was bare-footed.” So the city hardened its street children in every sense. The unhappy process is complemented by the description of their “stolid and inexpressive” countenances.
When the children worked “on their own hook” there were certain items which they could not sell. No child could master the sale of patent medicines because they did not have the experience to gull the public, nor were they skilful at selling “last dying speeches.” More curious, however, is the evident fact that these street juveniles did not sell such childish items as marbles or spinning tops. The reason here may be more profound. Who would wish to purchase items of childhood innocence and play from those who had always been denied such things?
Street children had their penny gaffs, commonly known as “low” theatres, where amateur dramatic representations were performed for an audience which also came from the street. They became a byword for filth and indecency. There were other forms of drama for more affluent London children, however, principal among them the toy theatre. It was sold with characters “penny plain and two pence coloured” which were cut out, pasted on to cardboard, glued to wires or sticks, and then pushed upon a wooden or cardboard stage. Play-acting was essentially a London pastime crucially combining the tradition of the caricature or satirical print, to be seen in the windows of every print-seller, with that of the London drama or pantomime.
The earliest of these childhood spectacles was manufactured in 1811, and they soon became immensely popular. When George Cruikshank was dilatory in their publication “the boys used to go into his shop and abuse him like anything for his frequent delays in publishing continuations of his plays.” The toy theatre was part of the history of London spectacle, in other words, emerging from the gothic and the phantasmagoric. It imitated the humour and heterogeneity of the London stage, also, with burlesques and buffooneries: The Sorrows of Werther became The Sorrows of Water, or Love, Liquor and Lunacy.
It was a city of melodrama in many respects, where the young loved to act and to recite. One of the daily reading lessons at London schools was taken from the drama, and there was a perfect “itch for acting” among the young boys and girls. In Vanity Fair(1847–8) Thackeray depicts two London boys as having a pronounced “taste for painting theatrical characters.” Another Londoner, writing of the early 1830s, stated that “nearly every boy had a toy theatre.”
There is a picture, composed in 1898, of “Punch By Night” which depicts a group of tiny children looking up in wonder at a Punch and Judy booth illuminated by oil-light. Some are barefoot, and some in rags, but as they stand on the rough stones their eager attentive faces are bathed in light; yet it may be that the illumination is emerging from them on this dark London night. A similar sense of the numinous emerges in descriptions of children at play in the streets of the city. Theodore Fontane, the German author, wrote of spring in the rookeries of St. Giles when “The children have taken their one, pitiful toy, a home-made shuttlecock, into the street with them and while, wherever we look, everything is teeming with hundred of these pale children grown old before their time with their bright, dark eyes, their shuttlecocks fly up and down in the air, gleaming like a swarm of pigeons on whose white wings the sunlight falls.” There is a sense of wonder, and mystery, vouchsafed in the wave of happiness and laughter emerging from the foul and squalid tenements of the poor. It is not a question of innocence contrasted with experience, because these children were not innocent, but somehow a triumph of the human imagination over the city. Even in the midst of filth, they have the need and the right to be joyful.
That sense, that human aspiration, is also present in the many descriptions of children dancing in the street. In A.T. Camden Pratt’s Unknown London there is an account of Holywell Street in the late nineteenth century with “the curious sight of the children in lines across the roadway at either end of the row, dancing to the music of a barrel organ that never seems to go away … It is noticeable that they all dance the same simple step; but the grace of some of these unkempt girls is remarkable.” It is as if it were some ritual dance, the dance of the city, to a music that never seems to fade. Evelyn Sharp, in The London Child, records how “sometimes, they danced in unison, sometimes as a kind of chorus to a little première danseuse in whirling pinafore and bare feet; and always they betrayed their kinship with the motley crowd that dances in wild abandonment to the jingle of the street organ.” Once more the street organ betrays its persistent presence, as if it were the music of the stones, but the simple ritualised step of the children has made way for wildness and “abandonment”; they are giving themselves up to forgetfulness and oblivion because in the savage dance they can ignore the conditions of their ordinary existence. Implicitly they are defying the city. If we can dance like this, what harm can you do us?
A poem of 1894 depicts “a City child, half-girl, half elf … babbling to herself” while playing hopscotch on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. London “roars in vain” to catch “her inattentive ear” and she does not bestow one glance upon the great church rising above her. Here the dignity and self-sufficiency of the “City child” are being celebrated, quite removed from all the demonstrations of power and business around her. She would appear to have been created out of the very conditions of the streets, and yet there is something within her which is able to ignore them. It is a mystery vouchsafed to the late nineteenth-century poet Laurence Binyon, who depicts two children in an alley once more dancing to the sound of a barrel organ—“face to face” they gaze at each other, “their eyes shining, grave with a perfect pleasure.” Their mutual enjoyment and understanding rise above the sordid material world that surrounds them. In George Gissing’s novel Thyrza (1887), Gilbert Grail turns into Lambeth Walk and as “he did so, a street organ began to play in front of a public house close by. Grail drew near; there were children forming a dance, and he stood to watch them. Do you know that music of obscure ways, to which children dance … a pathos of which you did not dream will touch you, and therein the secret of hidden London will be revealed.” It is the great secret of those who once existed in the dark heart of the city. It is defiance, and forgetfulness, compounded. It is the London dance.
Lambeth is now, like much of London, quieter than once it was. There seem to be no children on the streets, but a small green named Pedler’s Park in Salamanca Street has been classified as a “children’s play area”; where once all London was a “play area” now zones have been segregated for that purpose. Lambeth Walk, once the centre of Old Lambeth, is now pedestrianised with three-storey council houses of dark brick along it. It leads to a shopping mall, albeit a dilapidated one, down which staggers a drunken man cursing to himself; shops are boarded up, and some are derelict. But above the mall itself have been painted murals of children. One shows Lambeth Ragged School, in Newport Street, and is dated 1851. Another is of children, with their legs bare, exuberantly dancing after a watering cart; the image is taken from a photograph by William Whiffin, dated c. 1910, which showed some small boys playing in the spray. And then suddenly, on 1 July 1999, four young girls bring out a skipping rope and begin to play in the middle of Lambeth Walk.