The Child in the City

by Colin Ward
Pantheon, 221 pp., $6.95 (paper)

The pieman, the apple-woman, the catsmeal man. The bagpipe-player and the ballad-singer. The rat-killer; the water-carrier: the knive-grinder. The German band. The hurdy-gurdy player and the penny jester: the cheap john and the screever. The Punch and Judy man. The old-clothes man, the buy-a-broom girl. The eel-man and the muffin man. The hird-seller, the flower girl. The rug-picker, puckman, street photographer, patterer, basket-maker, pavement artist.

In 1851, when Mayhew surveyed the life of the London poor, these were some of the people that the city child might have met on the pavement. As Colin Ward, quoting London’s Evening Standard. says: “A huge range of activities went on before his eyes—buying, selling, exchanging, displaying, mending, cajoling, courting, procuring, bribing, and simply meeting people. All London was laid out on the pavement.”

On his way the city child would also probably have met, say, a couple of aunts, a cousin and a grandmother, the corner shopkeeper, the publican, and a dozen children from down his alley. He might have hitched a ride on a tradesman’s cart or held the horses’ heads for a penny while the doctor visited; he could have seen sheep and cows in the park. and if he lived in a house with a few square of back yard there would have been chickens and a pig. Within his own “village” he would have been connected by invisible threads of kinship and acquaintance to most people he met. and if he wanted to explore outside it the roads were open, innocent of flyovers and ring roads, free of anything more lethal than a hansom cab.

He might, on the other hand, never have had the energy to explore beyond the square half-mile where he knew there were crates to sleep under, dustbins to forage in. and a crossing to sweep or a stretch of riverbank to cumb for old nails and lumps of coal. He might have had cut feer and caked rags, been unable to write his name or say where England was, have lost his parents to childbirth and cholera; he might himself have been the water-carrier or rag-picker. When he went back with a few pennies from the day’s work to find some shelter, though, it would have been through a scene like this!

Women were seated on the pavement, knitting, and repairing their linen; the doorways were filled up with bonnetless girls, who wore their shawls over their head, as the Spanish women do their mantillas; and the youths in corduroy and brass buttons, who were chaning with them, leant against the walls as they smoked their’ pipes, and blocked up the pavement, as if they were the proprietors of the place. Little children formed a convenient bench out of the kerbstone; and a party of four men were seated on the footway. playing with cards which had turned to the colour of brown paper from long usage, and marking the points with chalk upon the flags.

Good old days or bad…

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