Charles Dickens  |  HOUSEHOLD WORDS |  1853



A Weekly Journal, conducted by CHARLES DICKENS

Volume VII

From the 5th of March to the 27th of August

Being from No. 154 to No. 179






About fifteen years ago a short iron-built man, used to balance a scaffold pole upon his chi, to whizz a slop-basin round upon the end of it, and to imitate fire-works with golden balls and gleaming knives, in the public streets of London. I am afraid his genius was not rewarded in his own country; for not long ago I saw him starring it in Paris. As I stood by to watch his evolutions, in the Champs Elysées, I felt a patriotic glow when they were rewarded with the enthusiastic applause of a very wide and thick ring of French spectators.

There was one peculiarity in his performance which distinguished him from French open air artistes – he never spoke. Possibly he was diffident of his French accent. He simply uttered a grunt when he wishes to call attention to any extraordinary perfection in his performance; in imitation perhaps of the “La! – la!” of the prince of French acrobats, Auriol. Whatever he attempted he did well; that is to say, in a solid, deliberate, thorough manner. His style of chin-balancing, knife-catching, ball-throwing, and ground and lofty tumbling, was not so agile or flippant as that of his French competitors, but he never failed. On the circulation of his hat, the French halfpence were dropped in with great liberality.

As the fall of the curtain denotes the close of a play, so the raising of the square of carpet signifies the end of a juggler’s performance; and, when my old acquaintance had rolled up his little bit of tapestry, and had pocketed his sous, I accosted him – “You are,” I said, “an Englishman?”

“That’s right!” he observed, familiarly.

“What say you to a glass of something, and a chat?”

“Say?” he repeated, with a very broad grin, “why, yes, to be sure!”

The tumbler, with his tools done up in a carpet-bag closed at the mouth with a bit of rope, and your humble servant were speedily seated in a neighbouring wine-shop.

“What do you prefer to drink?” I enquired.

“Cure-a-sore,” he modestly answered.

The epicure! Quality and not quantity was evidently his taste; a sign of, at least, a sober fellow.

“You find yourself tolerably well off in Paris?”

“I should think I did,” he answered, smacking his lips, “for I wos a wagabon in London; but here I am a artiste!”

“A distinction only in name, I suspect.”

“P’raps it is; but there’s a good deal of difference, mind you. In Ingland (I have been a’most all over it) a feller in my line is a wagabon. He don’t take no standing in society. He may be quiet, never get into no trouble and never give nobody else none; but that don’t help him. ‘He gits his living’ in the streets,’ they say, and that’s enough. Well, ’spose he does? He ’as to work tremenjus hard for it?”

“His certainly cannot be an idle life.”

“It just ain’t; if they’d only let us alone; but they won’t – them blessed Peelers I mean. How would you like it?” he continued, appealing to me with as hard a look in the face as if I had been his most implacable enemy, ‘how would you like it, if you had looked up a jolly good pitch, and a rig’lar good comp’ny was a looking on – at the wet end, in a slap up street, where there ain’t no thoroughfare – and jist as you’re a doin’ the basin, and the browns is a droppin’ into the ’at, up comes a Peeler. Then it’s ‘Move on!’ You must go;” he stared harder than ever, and thumped his hand on the table; “I say you must go and lose per’aps a pick up as ’u’d keep you for a week How would you like that?”

“I should expostulate.”

“Spostallate! – would you?” a slight curl of the lip, expressive of contempt at my ignorance of the general behaviour of policemen. “Ah! if you say ‘bo!’ to a Peeler he pulls you, and what’s the consequence? Why, a month at the Steel!” – which hard name I understood to be given to the House of Correction.

“But the police are not unreasonable,” I suggested.

“Well, p’raps some of ’em ain’t,” he remarked, “but you can’t pick out your policemen, that’s where it is.”

“Do the police never interfere with you here?” I asked.

“They used to it; and I’ve had to beg back my traps more than once from the borough of the Police Correctionell, as they call it; but then that was ’cause I was hignorant of the law. When they see that I could git a ’onest living, an old cove in a cocked hat ses he to me, ses he, ‘You’re a saltimbanc, you are. Wery good. You go to the borough of police for public morals, and the minister (not a parson, mind you, but the ’ed hinspector), if he’s satisfied with your character he’ll give you a ticket.”

“And did he?”

“Course he did; and I’m now one of the reg’lar perfession. I ain’t to be hinterfered with; leastways without I’m donkey enough to go on the cross and be took up. That’s the ticket,” he exclaimed triumphantly, pulling out a bronze badge, “I’m number thirty-five, I am.”

“And can you perform anywhere?”

“No; the police picked out thirteen good places – ‘pitches,’ we calls ’em – where we can play. There’s the list – thirteen on ’em all of a row – beginning on the Boulevards at the Place de la Colonne de Juilliet, and ending in the Champs Elysées.” He unfolded a neatly written document that plainly defined the limits of Paris within which he, in common with his co-professors, was allowed to display his abilities.

With a small gratuity for the new light thrown upon the subject of street performances, I parted from my enterprising countryman, wishing him every success.

I have sometimes wondered whether – considering that we have all sorts of licensed people about us; people who are licensed to cram us upon steam-boats; to crowd us into omnibuses; to jolt us in ramshackle cabs; to supply us with bad brandy and other adulterated drinks; licentiates for practising physic; licentiates for carrying parcels; licentiates for taking money at their own doors for the diversions of singing and dancing; licentiates for killing game with gunpowder, which other people have been licensed to make – it would not be wise to license in England out-of-door as well as in-door amusements.



n.b. copied with original spelling and dialect anomalies intact

Image:  London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images, taken from: The Guardian Website
ORIGINAL SOURCE: Sent in to ACAPTA by one of our well read members, publication details provided above.