While researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, it struck us that many aspects of the story included some connection to music: there were the Welsh lullabies sung by the cowkeeper’s family long after they’d migrated to Red Cross Street in London; the organ that churned out a steady blare of music from a fair set up in a disused burial ground; and the euphonium practiced each night by our great grandfather, Harry Deverill, who played in a Salvation Army band. The Army’s founder, William Booth, believed that “music is to the soul what wind is to the ship, blowing her onwards in the direction in which she is steered.” It transcended class and circumstance, as the Prince of Wales noted at the 1883 opening of the Royal College of Music. “[It speaks] in different tones, perhaps, but with equal force to the cultivated and the ignorant, to the peer and the peasant.”
In the late 1890s, one of the students at the Royal College of Music was a young woman named Olive Christian Malvery, who had come to London from India, and been astounded by the level of poverty she’d seen in the streets. Eager to expose the issue, she was hired in 1904 by Pearson’s Magazine to investigate women’s work in its various forms, and over the next many months, she disguised herself as a barmaid, a factory worker, a flower seller, and so on, and wrote about what it was like to live those lives, if only briefly. On one of her missions, she transformed into a street singer — otherwise known as a “griddler” or even a “needy griddler” — simply by approaching a woman singing in the streets of West Kensington. She claimed to be new to the game, and down on her luck, and asked if she could accompany the woman on her rounds. For several days they went about London together, offering songs for money. The woman seemed to know the best streets by instinct, but was ultimately unreliable because of her penchant for drink.
There was no shortage, though, of street singers with whom Malvery could associate to learn more about the trade, and next was a woman who sang with her three children, attempting to support the family while her husband was in jail. She and her daughters lived in the basement of a dwelling that held 16 families, though originally it had been a single-family home. The mother sometimes sent the girls out to sing alone, if she was ill from drinking, and the eldest daughter sometimes kept a bit of the earnings for herself without her mother knowing. “How they loved and clung to one another,” wrote Malvery, “those forlorn atoms for whom the big world had no place!” They were clever at avoiding the school inspector — a common skill among families who relied on income from school-age children — and liked to tell Malvery stories of their eccentric neighbours: a “crippled” man who’d chased one of the daughters when she’d stolen his cane; and a blind man who “saw enough for three.” They were street musicians too — one played the whistle, and the other sang hymns.
There were others who seemed more astute at making the life work for them: one foggy night as she walked home, Malvery came upon a young woman of 20 or so, singing and playing guitar outside a public house. She called herself a “chanter” and said she had been supporting her mother and brother for four years with her earnings. She liked her life, she told Malvery, and on the whole she was well-treated by the people she encountered during her rounds. Every night, no matter the weather, she stood in front of taverns with her guitar, singing. Visiting her at home, Malvery found a tiny but clean room, with books and magazines and flowers, and the brother, pale and sickly, making a cardboard model of a church. The place had “an air of refinement” that astonished her; but as she was discovering through the work she’d taken up: “One sees things … with altogether different eyes when one lives among people as one of themselves.”
Malvery’s articles, a series she called “The Heart of Things,” were eventually collected in a book titled The Soul Market, which one reviewer deemed “more interesting than any novel, for there are life-stories on every page. … Humour and pity, tragedy and mirth, tread in each other’s steps.” The book included theatrical photos of her as a flower seller, and a server “in a cheap coffee shop,” a sweet shop, and so on. Judging from the photo below, she seems to have embraced the theatricality of her project. What would her contacts have thought if they’d discovered what she was doing? There is an air of condescension when she pities “the miserable creatures I have been traveling among,” and claims “my heart was sore with so much contact with poverty and misery.” Yet her compassion rings true. In subsequent posts we’ll look at Malvery again, as well as other wandering philanthropists who masqueraded among the poor “to touch the heart of things.” For obvious reasons, first-hand accounts of impoverished street singers, flower sellers, and costermongers are rare — but stories like Malvery’s take us just a little closer.
“The Royal College of Music,” Gloucester Journal, 12 May, 1883.
The Soul Market. Olive Christian Malvery, Hutchinson & Co., London, 1906.
“England’s Own Jungle,” Morning Post, 19 November, 1906.
For more about the life and work of Olive Christian Malvery, see this work-in-progress online biography.
6 thoughts on “Singing in the Streets of London”
How fortunate that our family inherited musical genes on both sides. Many of us, at one time or another have sung in various groups or played the piano or other instrument. It really is an international language. Loved this musical story of London street singers.
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And whether you sing, play or just listen and enjoy, music touches the heart, and is a thread that runs all through The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Thanks for your comment!
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Loved ‘The Occupied Garden’. SO looking forward to this book!
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Hi Claire. How nice to hear that you enjoyed The Occupied Garden. Hard to believe it’s almost 10 years since it was first published, yet it seems to continue to resonate with readers. I hope you get as much enjoyment from The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and in the meantime, enjoy the blog posts.
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As with so many of the tales there is sadness and struggle, but also beauty. And often when we venture into the creative side whether through necessity or desire we view the soul, the heart, and as with Malvery and her attendance at the chanter’s home, “an air of refinement”. A complex existence which can be misunderstood unless like Malvery you are able to “live among people as one of ourselves.” Another great story!
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Well said, Heidi. I think you will see when you read the book how well that first sentence describes The Cowkeeper’s Wish – a tale of sadness and struggle, but also beauty. Thanks for commenting.
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