‘Street Arabs’

Posted: August 6, 2013 in Historic Interest
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The Street-Boy is as peculiar to the metropolis, as his prototype the gamin is to Paris. He has a shrewdness of observation, a precocious cunning, and, above all, an art of annoying, which we look for in vain amidst the youth of the rural districts. We confess, that for all our usually placid disposition, when walking in the streets we cannot stand the sarcasms of the little boys. They are like mosquitoes, who sting and buz about you, but are never to be caught; and whether they make an allusion to your white trousers, your long hair, or your peculiar hat, with observations similar to “Voudn’t I have a pair o’ ducks,” “I never see sech a mop,” or, “Oh, my! vot a lummy tile,” the shaft is sure to rankle a wound much deeper than you give it credit for. He is most acutely annoying to the Foreign gentleman, when he catches him off the pavement of Regent-street (for the Street-Boy does not often venture thereon), and delights his companions by marching after him with a droll imitative gait, or drawing attention to the flower-pot on his head.
The Street-Boy forms the most important part of the audience to all the out-of-doors exhibitions. His laugh is the loudest, his applause the most vigorous, and his remarks the most forcible; but at the same time his voluntary contribution is the worst. This principally arises from his never having any money – a circumstance which drives him to seek gratuitous amusements, in which he, nevertheless, finds far more pleasure than in those paid for by the superior orders. Where the monied idler pays a shilling to descend in the car of the Centrifugal Railway, he procures the same, excitement for nothing, by sliding down the hand-rail of the steps at the Duke of York’s column. On grand occasions, when; the wealthy hire a coach to go round and see the illumination, or other spectacle, he rides on the spikes behind, gratis; and, indeed, as connected with every species of parasitical carriage exercise, he appears to be case-hardened against any mechanical invention to render the position disagreeable. He sees the balloon, when it is up, just as well from Kennington-lane as from the interior of the gardens; and the same remark applies to a cheap view of time Girandola of St. Angelo over the palings.

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If there is one amusement upon which the Street Boy does not hesitate to expend the few pence he has picked up by holding horses, going on errands, or carrying carpet-bags from the railway and steam-boats, it is the theatre; and this arises more especially from a disinclination on the part of most managers to allow people to walk into their houses for nothing. In the gallery he is in his true glory. His very elevated situation gives him a feeling of superiority, and he is aware that his cry for an encore, or pleasant remark addressed to the orchestra, will have as much weight – nay, far more – than if it proceeded from an occupant of the dress circle. Nobody but himself can give that force of expression to “Now then, you cat-gut-scrapers; strike up there!” Next to the prompter, no one like him can regulate the scene-shifters: the single word “higher,” is sufficient to induce them to raise the obtrusive sky borders when they are in the way of something at the back of the stage; and the most independent actor feels called upon to display extra energy when our hero shouts the dictatorial “speak up,” from his lofty position. It is through his exertions, vocal and bodily, that a seat is procured for his friend “Fluffy Jack,” who comes in at half-price ; and his “order,” and ” turn him out, are as magisterial commands to the attendant policemen, he rewards any clever piece of mechanism, or agile leap of the harlequin (for it must be stated that the pantomime chiefly attracts him) by the appropriate exclamation, “Bravo, Rouse!” and he is one of the most animated whistle solo performers on his two fingers that you would meet with; indeed, by some extraordinary anatomical peculiarity it seems impossible for any one above time rank of a butcher’s apprentice, ever to produce the peculiar shrill note in question. We, ourselves, have no hesitation in confessing that we have tried to do it for hours together, and never got beyond a noise somewhat resembling that produced by blowing a pair of bellows into an empty ginger-beer bottle.
A singular antipathy to work of any description, is a leading characteristic of the Street-Boy. This does not depend upon a lack of perseverance, as he can play the castanets upon two pieces of slate like a Duvernay in corduroys, spin a top or hurl a stone with unerring effect, and produce tunes upon his cheeks and chin with singular precision; all which evidences of skill must have cost him much pains to acquire. Neither should we overlook the incomprehensible ingenuity he displays in putting on his clothes, in which he generally contrives to make one single button and a bit of string perform all the function, which those of a higher grade require at least a dozen to accomplish.

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When the Street-Boy gives himself up to idle for the whole day on the strength of a few accidental coppers, his favourite lounge is the vicinity of a baked potato-can-proprietors of which machine appear of late to have established certain coteriess andreunions around them. He has minutely studied the economy of these al fresco restaurateurs. He sees the advantage of keeping the butter always to leeward, and he knows the jet of steam, intended to be expressive of intense caloric reigning amongst the potatoes, has nothing at all to do with them- no more than the furious exhibition of vapour which appears to proceed from the dog-tarts in the windows of time St Giles’s confectioners.
The consumption of pickled whelks, oysters as big as soup-plates, and immature apples or small black cherries depends chiefly upon his patronage. When the Regent-street lounger fatigued and thirsty takes an ice at Very’s, or some limonade gazeuse in the Pantheon, the Street-Boy indulges in some curds and whey in Drury Lane, or a bottle of penny ginger-beer in the New Cut.
The only individual of whom the Street-Boy stands in awe is the policeman. He looks upon all square-keepers and beadles as so many large puppets to shoot his wit at; but he is afraid of the policeman, and there is no denying it. The only place where he throws off a portion of his fear is, as we have stated, the gallery of the playhouse; and then he relies principally upon his remote situation, or the practical difficulty of being approached through the unaccommodating masses that surround him.
Our business at present is merely with the boy. When he grows up he loses most of his attributes, and either becomes an errand carrier or a light porter – perhaps even a policeman; or, being detected in various acts of unlawful appropriation, becomes a traveller and finishes his career by a grand tour to the regions of the Pacific Ocean.

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