Singing in the Streets of London

Chapter 5 - Harry Deverill in his bandsman uniform, with Ernie, centre, and Joe, circa 1905
Harry Deverill with sons Ernie, middle, and Joe, taken around the time Olive Christian Malvery was traveling through the streets of London in disguise.

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.

singing in the streets

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.

Miss Malvery as a Flower Girl
“It is in no wise easy to ‘slip’ into a new life. Among the ‘people,’ as we term the labouring and poor classes, an outsider is very quickly recognised. I found, however, that my foreign appearance really helped me, for as I dealt mostly with women and girls, they made their own stories about me. By maintaining a discreet silence, I managed to get through. Being small and young-looking too, helped me. I get tired very quickly and show it, and poor Mr. C. [her assistant from Pearson’s Magazine], who was nearly always with me, got the rough side of several ‘gentle’ tongues for ill-treating me. It helped me wonderfully to have a man so big and burly, and such a splendid Cockney actor, to assume command of me. Together we were able to do what one alone could never have accomplished.”

Sources

“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.

The Fur-Puller’s Child

aesop's fables
A Victorian edition of Aesop’s Fables.

While researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we first came upon the term “fur-puller” as we combed through the notebooks of Charles Booth, who sent his social investigators out to document London poverty in the late 1800s. Booth and his workers inevitably visited Red Cross Street in the Borough, where our family lived, and where the people had jobs like bottle washer, rag sorter, seed packer and collar stitcher. There was “fur-puller” too — when Booth’s man spotted such a  woman engaged in her work, he jotted in his notebook: “one middle-aged woman pulling fur at her open window, air full of fluff and herself covered with it. Spoke in shaky husky voice, ‘Must do it to live you know!’”

She must have gone to the window for a much-needed breath of air, for according to the 1889 publication Toilers in London, fur-pulling was horrible, hazardous work. Many girls and women earned a living this way, working at home, where they could also look after little ones. They sat on low stools and held hare and rabbit skins between their knees, rubbing the down off with a knife, and then collecting it and returning it to the furrier for use in beds, sofas and pillows; the skins became cloaks and jackets. “The work is very unpleasant. … The down gets into [the fur-puller’s] nose and mouth. Her hair and clothes are white with it. She generally suffers from what she calls ‘breathlessness,’ for her lungs are filled with the fine down, and she is always more or less choked.”

The slightest draft caused the down to fly everywhere, and so windows and doors were usually kept closed, even in the stifling summer months. But the fluff nevertheless found its way into eyes, mouths, and noses, and clung to surfaces in the dank rooms where the work was done. The greasy skins, piled on beds and tables, reeked as they decayed. If the work was tucked away at the end of the day, evidence of it surely remained. In her 1906 work The Soul Market, Olive Christian Malvery called fur-pulling “a wretched, ill-paid, unhealthy trade,” but admitted the fur-pullers themselves didn’t seem bothered. “‘Dust? lor, we don’t mind that! We eats it, drinks it, and sleeps on it!'”

From the popular Victorian manual Chavasse’s Advice to a Wife by Pye Henry Chavasse, who also penned Advice to a Mother

In March of 1888, a coroner’s inquest was held into the death of a baby boy named Frederick Spinks Phillips, just nine months old. His mother was a fur-puller, and worked at home. “The fluffs from the skins being considered as detrimental to the child’s health,” she sent the boy out to be cared for each day by the widowed Elizabeth Nash, who had also worked in fur-pulling but had recently given up the job due to health problems. Nash had been caring for Frederick for about five weeks by the time he died, but she’d found him “troublesome,” according to an account in the London Daily News, and didn’t want to take him anymore. But day after day, Frederick’s mother continued to bring her baby boy so that she could carry on with her trade at home.

Nash testified that on the day of his death, Frederick had seemed ill. She’d put him to bed and gone out to the pub for some rum, though not enough to make her drunk. “On returning home, she saw the child was in a fit. She dashed some cold water in his face, but as that did not bring him to, she put him into a pail of cold water with his clothes on to see if that would revive him.” If she had done wrong she was sorry, she told the jury; she did not intend to drown the child, though she admitted, upon further questioning, that the baby had been “dipped in head-first.”

The constable called to the scene deduced she had been drinking. Two other witnesses said yes, she had drunk, but she was not intoxicated until much later that day, hours after the death had occurred. A doctor testified that little Frederick had died from “dentition convulsion” — yes, teething — rather than drowning, but that “the plunging of the child into cold water” had certainly accelerated his death. In the end, the jury returned a verdict of “death by misadventure,” and the coroner severely censured Elizabeth Nash.

Did she go on to care for other children? And did Frederick’s mother continue with her work? The article doesn’t say. But it does tell us that the coroner found this “one of the most extraordinary cases he ever remembered.”

Sources