Liverpool Mercury, Feb 1913
The child of the abyss
The Liverpool street gamin’s point of view.
If you want to find the qualities of the future worker, tackle the little street urchin, and if you cannot find food for thought, sorrow, and admiration, then you have not gone about it the right way.
You will never get at the heart of a child or at a knowledge of his true circumstances if you adopt the Lady Bountiful attitude; if you stoop to lay a coin in his hand saying pityingly; “Poor little man! – tell me about your troubles.”
The poor little man will probably wink at a similar little man, and, taking you for a, “Soft snap,” will proceed to tell you his tale in the most effective manner his innocent mind can invent.
You will also select a pretty child, dishevelled, and with big innocent eyes, for, in your amateur charity, you will forget, that the pretty child is already in possession of a great gift and a profitable one, ever, in babyhood. A slum child can often reap a harvest of pennies.
The youngster who needs pity is the unattractive, with small weak eyes, depressed features, thin, unlovely hair, stunted body and often a sore foot or similar trouble.
I found a little urchin in the shadows of St George’s Hall, he sold matches, or rather held a box of matches before me, hoping I would not buy them but venture a penny for charity’s sake.
Chance of “Copy” made me bear the youngster the promise of a feed and possible coppers.
We took the car, it was crowded, as soon as he saw an empty space he darted for it, regardless that there was a line of ladies hanging on the straps. He grinned over to me delighted, it was evidently a triumph for him, that he was master of the situation for once, none of the “swells” had power to move him, no matter how much disgust they put into their glances at his dirty face and muddy bare feet.
Arriving at my local shopping street, I asked Tommy, which he would prefer with his tea, something hot and satisfying or cake, to which he promptly replied, “Cake!”
You will say, he could not have been very hungry, but, he was really, terribly hungry.
“Why do you choose cake?” I asked.
“Cause I like it,” was the natural reply.
A taste of luxury – that is what the lowliest of us crave.
However we got a mixture to satisfy both necessity and luxury, after we had disposed of it we both felt better.
I told Tommy to get off the chair upon, which he was evidently uncomfortable and squat by the fire.
As the warmth began to thaw away our differences, we had a chat about Tommy’s life, his home, and his people.
“You do go to school, don’t you?”
“Yes - I’m not thirteen yet; got another year to go.”
“Do you sell matches every Sunday?”
“Now tell me why do you dodge the policeman when you were coming here with me?”
“Cause I haven’t got a belt.”
“Why have you got to have a belt? Is it a kind of license?”
“Yes. If the policeman says anything to you ‘bout begging, you show ‘im the belt, and ‘e says nothing.”
“Well, why haven’t you got one, Tommy?”
“We’ve got to pay sixpence for it, and mother never can give me that.”
“How is it that you have no shoes and stockings? I thought you could always get clogs and a suit?”
“Not now, its too late, I’ve had one lot but they wore out. The winters over for police clothes.”
The bitter wind flung rain against the windows, the next two months at least would be bleak, yet, “The winters over for police clothes.”
“I suppose your mother has a pretty hard time, eh?”
“Rather! My fathers out of work now, “E’s ‘urt ‘is foot; and all the others are littler than me.”
“All! How many are there?”
“Five; ones only a baby though.”
“And who works for them, Tommy, now your father can’t?”
“I do, Saturdays and Sundays, mother goes round selling plants and flowers the rest of the week, ‘cept Mondays, when she waits for the clubman and cleans, the ‘ouse.”
“How does she manage to get the flowers? How much does she make?”
“She borrows four shillin’ from a woman who lends it reg’lar, then she gets a ‘andcart for the day for fourpence.”
“And how much does she take a day?”
“From six shillin’ to seven shillin’.”
“So, when she has paid for the cart and interest on the money, two shillings is about what she makes in a day, eh?”
“Yes, ‘tain’t much, is it.”
“No, Tommy, I’m afraid it isn’t much.”
I admitted as the thought of a day haggling and bargaining in the raw winter weather rose to my mind. Two shillings and five children – good heavens!
”How much have you to make till you go in tonight?”
“One shillin’ and sixpence.”
“And how long does it usually take you?”
“From half past ten in the morning till nine at night.”
“ You go home at nine?”
“Yes, I go to bed early on Saturdays ‘cause I go to church on Sunday mornings”
Did this child really kneel and offer his thanks for all his blessings and comforts?.
“Is one shilling and sixpence all you have for tomorrow?”
“How will your mother spend it?”
“Oh, bread, tea, sugar, meat.”
“How much meat?”
“Three – ha’p'worth.”
“What do you usually have for a meal – I mean on an ordinary day for dinner?”
“Tea and bread mostly, sometimes mother makes a cake with flour and water and margarine or something. We can’t eat much to bread buts its different.”
“I suppose you live better when your father works?”
“Sometimes, but sometimes ‘e spends the money and comes in drunk, mother says she’s sick of it; she’ll sell up one of these days and leave ‘im.”
“And has she much to sell?”
“Well, no, she asn’t, a table and chest-o’-drawers, a few chairs, and two beds – that’s bout all.”
“What would the policeman do if he saw you begging or selling matches without a belt?”
“Take me away and put me in a home.”
“And don’t you think you would be better in a home?”
“But you would be clothed and fed and taught a trade.”
“But I’d ‘ave to leave my mother!”
Tommy I don’t blame you for dodging the policeman!
“Who gives you most coppers on the street, men, or women?”
“Women, men buy the matches, women sometimes give me a penny for nothing, one lady gave me sixpence some time ago.”
“That dosen’t happen often, eh?”
“Oh – no, one shiilin’ was the most I ever got – from a man; He came out of the Hotel St George, he gave me a message to take far away to a lady.
He said if I took it he would give me sixpence, If I brought one back a shillin’.”
“And you brought one?”
If you should come across Tommy or his contemporaries, deal gently with them. They are dirty little beggars full of miniature sins, but such things are their misfortune, not their fault.
Copyright 2002 / To date