Mayhew’s ‘Concertina Player on the Steamboats’


Mayhew’s ‘Concertina Player on the Steamboats’
from London Labour and the London Poor, vol. 3 (1861)

Introductory Note by Allan W. Atlas

Although Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) will need little introduction to those familiar with Victorian London (he was a journalist, novelist, playwright, travel writer, author of moralizing books for children, one of the founding editors of Punch, and, in a sense, a proto-sociologist), perhaps a few words of background are in order about his famous London Labour and the London Poor. Published in what would be its definitive, four-volume form by Griffin, Bohn in 1861, the origins of the work go back to a series of articles—called ‘Letters’—about London’s working poor, including street musicians and entertainers, that Mayhew contributed to the Morning Chronicle from 19 October 1849 to 12 December 1850. After falling out with the publisher of the newspaper along the way over political matters, Mayhew continued the series independently, publishing new installments on a weekly basis throughout 1851-1852. Finally, after breaking off work on the project altogether—he had to flee to Germany to escape his creditors—he picked it up once again in 1856, at which time he interviewed a few other street musicians, including the young concertina player who plied his craft on the steamboats that ran up and down the Thames.

As our concertinist tells us, he is almost fifteen years old, plays an imported ‘twenty-button’ German instrument for which he paid 16s. (he has a more expensive one at home), and spends 1s. each week to keep it in good order. Though he plays primarily on the steamboats, he supplements his earnings there (he seems to average about 5s. a day over the course of the year) by playing in a ballroom—with fiddle, harp, and fife—three evenings a week, where he earns another 2s. 6d. (plus food and drink) a night. He plays entirely by ear.

The entire four-volume work has been reprinted by Dover Publications (New York, 1968), with our document appearing in vol. 3, pp. 182-85. The bibliography on Mayhew is large, with an excellent starting point being the comprehensive study by Anne Humpherys, Henry Mayhew. Twayne’s English Authors Series 396 (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), to which should be added the recent study by Bertrand Taithe, The Essential Mayhew: Representing and Communicating the Poor (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1996).

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“I was always very fond of music, and if ever I heard any in the streets, I always followed it about. I’m nearly fifteen now; but I can remember when I was seven, being particularly taken with music. I had an uncle who was captain of a steamer that run to Richmond, and I was always on board with him; and they used to have a band on board. It wasn’t in particular a passage-boat, but an excursion one, and let to private parties, and a band always went along with them. I was taken along to run after orders for the steward; and when I had nothing to do, I used to go and listen to them. I learn all their tunes by heart. They mostly played dances, and very seldom any sentimental songs, unless anybody asked them. For myself, I prefer lively tunes. I don’t know much operatic music, only one or two airs; but they’re easier to play on the concertina than lively music, because it’s difficult to move the fingers very quickly. You can’t hardly play a hornpipe. It makes the arm ache before you can play it all through, and it makes such a row with the valve working the bellows up and down, that it spoils the music.”

“I had not got my instrument when I was in this steamboat. When I heard a tune, I used to whistle it. I asked my father to buy me a instrument, but he wouldn’t. I was always on the steamboat, helping uncle; and I could have had lots of time to learn music there. When they, the musicians, put the harp down in the cabin, I’d get playing on it. There was a hole in the green baize cover of the harp, and I used to put my hand in and work away at it. I learnt myself several tunes, such as the ‘Sultan Polka.’ I must have been eight years old then. I didn’t play it with both hands: I couldn’t do the bass.”

“I never had any lessons in music. I’ve done it all out of my own head. Before I had a concertina, I used to go about amusing myself with a penny tin whistle. I could play it pretty well, not to say all tunes, but all such as I knew I could play very well on it. The ‘Red, White, and Blue’ was my favourite tune.”

“I have a brother, who is younger than I am, and he, before he was ten, was put out to a master to learn the violin. Father’s a labourer, and does something of anything he can get to do; but bricklaying generally. He paid so much a quarter for having my brother Henry taught. I think it was about 16s. a quarter. It was a great expense for father at first; but afterwards, when we was hard up, Henry could always fly to the fiddle to earn a crust. Henry never took to music, not to say well. I can play more out of my own head than he can by notes. He’s a very good player now.”

“I was about getting on for twelve when father first bought me a concertina. That instrument was very fashionable then, and everybody had it nearly. I had an accordion before; but it was only a 1s. 6d. one, and I didn’t take a fancy to it somehow, although I could play a few tunes on it. I used to see boys about my own height carrying concertinas about the streets, and humming them. I always wanted one. There was a little boy I knew, he got one, and then I wanted one worse. He used to come to our house, and play all sorts of tunes, for he played very well. I like the concertina, because it’s like a full band. It’s like having the fiddle and the harp together. I used to ask this little boy to lend me his instrument, and I’d work the keys about a little, but I couldn’t do any airs.”

“I play entirely out of my own head, for I never had any lessons at all. I learn the tunes from hearing other people playing of [sic!] them. If I hear a street band, such as a fiddle and harp and cornopean playing a tune, I follow them and catch the air; and if it’s any sort of a easy tune at all, I can pick it up after them, for I never want to hear it more than twice played on an instrument.”

“At last, after bothering father a long time, he bought me a half-crown concertina. I was in bed when he brought it into my room, and he put it on the bed; when I woke up I see it. I instantly set to work, and before I had got up I had learnt ‘Pop goes the Weasel.’ I was just pleased. I was up and dressed, and playing it all day long. I never used to let anybody touch it, not even my own father hardly, for fear he should break it. I did break it once, and then I was regular dull, for fear I should lose all my tunes.”

“It took me six months before I could play it well, and then I could play a’most any tune I heard. The fingers had learnt the keys, and knew where the notes was, so that I could play in the dark. My brother could play the fiddle well, long before I could do any tunes. We used to play together duets, such as ‘A Boat, a Boat unto the Ferry.’ We never hardly went out together in the streets and play together, only once or twice, because a fiddle and a concertina don’t sound well together unless a harp’s with it, and then it’s beautiful.”

“How I came to get on the steamboats was this: father went to take a trip up to Kew one day, so I wanted to go, and he said if I could earn my fare I might go. So I thought I’d take my concertina and try. So I went, and I earned that day about 9s., all in halfpence and 4d. bits. That was only by going up to Kew and coming back again. It was on a Whitsun-Monday. Then I thought I’d do it again the next day, and I think I took about the same. Then I kept on them all together. I didn’t keep to the Kew boats, because they had got their regular musicians, and they complained to the superintendent, and he forbid me going. Then I went to the Woolwich boats, and I used to earn a heap of money, as much as 10s. every day, and I was at it all the week for the season.”

“I usen’t to pay any fare, but I got a free pass. It was mostly the crew. When I got out at the pier, I used to tell them I’d been playing, and they would let me pass. Now I know near every man that is on the river, and they let me go on any boat I like. They consider I draw customers, and amuse them during the trip. They won’t let some hardly play on board only me, because I’ve been on them such a long time—these three years. I know all the pier-masters, too, and they are all very kind to me. Sometimes, when I’m waiting for a boat to go up anywhere, I play on the piers, and I always do pretty fair.”

“In winter I go on the boats all the same, and I play down in the cabin. Some of the passengers will object to it if they are reading, and then I have to leave off, or I should put my own self in a hobble, for they would go and tell the captain; and if he wouldn’t say anything, then they would tell the superintendent. In winter and wet weather is my worst time; but even then I mostly take my 3s. In the winter time, my best time is between three o’clock and six, when the gentlemen are coming home from office; and I never hardly come out before two o’clock. In summer its good from twelve till eight o’clock. The passengers come to go to the Crystal Palace in the morning part. Those that are going out for pleasure are my best customers. In the summer I always take at the rate of about 6s. a-day. Pleasure-people mostly ask me for dancing tunes; and the gentlemen coming from business prefer song tunes. I have got a good many regular gentlemen, who always give me something when they are coming from business. There are some who give me 6d. every day I see them; but sometimes they go up by a different boat to what I’m in. There’s one always gives me 6d. whether I’m playing or not; and it’s about four o’clock or half-past that I mostly see him.”

“In winter my hands gets very cold indeed, so that I can scarcely feel the keys. Sometimes I can’t move them, and I have to leave off, and go down below and warm my hands at the cabin fire.”

“In the summer I sometimes go out with a mate of mine, who plays the piccolo. He’s very clever indeed, and plays most extraordinary. He’s a little bigger than me. He lives by playing music in the boats. We don’t play in the streets. I never played in the streets in my life. He don’t play in the winter, but works with his father, who makes hair-oil and that, and sends it out in the country. He’s a regular perfumer; and serves chandlers’ shops and that like.”

“There’s a tune we play together called the ‘Camp at Chobham.’ It begins with my doing the bugle, and he answers it on his fife. Then we do it in the distance like. Then come all the different marches the soldiers march to. Some people are so fond of it, that when they see us they come up and ask us to give it them. It takes a good quarter of an hour to play it. When I’m with him, I earn about the same as when I’m alone; but I like to go with him because it’s company.”

“One of the songs I play is, ‘Mother, is the battle over?’ That’s lately come out. It is a lady’s song, and they generally ask me for it. They also ask me for the Varsovienne. At the present time, the girls mostly ask me for ‘Polly, won’t you try me, oh!’ Sometimes I forget the tunes; they go right out of my head, and then, perhaps, a month afterwards they’ll come back again. Perhaps I’ll be fingering the keys, and I’ll accidental do the beginning of the air I’d forgot, and then I remember it all of a sudden the same as before. Then I feel quite glad that I’ve got it back again, and I’ll keep on playing it for a long time.”

“When once I begin to play, I can scarcely leave off. I used at first to play as I went along the streets, but now I feel too tired to do it. If I haven’t been out in the boats, I must have a play just the same. I like it very much. I don’t like any of the other instruments, now I’ve learnt this one so well. The fiddle is pretty good, but nothing, to my fancy, like the concertina.”

“The concertina I use now cost me 16s. It’s got twenty double keys—one when I pull the bellows out and one when I close it. I wear out an instrument in three months. The edges of the bellows get worn out: then I have to patch them up, till they get so weak that it mostly doubles over. It costs me about 1s. a-week to have them kept in order. They get out of tune very soon. They file them, and put fresh notes in. I get all my repairs done trade price. I tune my instrument myself. The old instruments I sell to the boys, for about as much as I give for a new one. They are very dear; but I get them so cheap when I buy them, I only give 16s. for a 25s. instrument.”

“I’ve got a beautiful instrument at home, and I give a pound for it, and it’s worth two. Those I buy come from Germany, where they make them, and then they are took to this warehouse, where I buy them.”

“Once I was turned off the penny steamboats. There was such a lot of musicians come on board, and they got so cheeky, that when they was told not to play they would, just the same, and so a stop was put to all music on board. If one was stopped all must be stopped, so I was told not to go. I still had my fourpenny boats. I never used to go on the penny boats hardly, for I never used to get much money in them. Now I am allowed to go on them just the same as before.”

“I can’t say how often I’ve been up the Thames. I never go as far as Chelsea hardly, only about twice a-day, for most of the people get out between London-bridge and Nine-elms. My general run is down to Hungerford and back to Blackfriars; and I do that about fifty times a-day.”

“I never go out on the Sunday. I mostly go to a Sunday-school, and then take a walk. Father wants me to be a scholar; I can read and write. I’m a teacher at the Sunday-school, and make the children read their lessons. I know multiplication, and addition, and all them. I go to school every night at half-past six and come home at nine. Father makes me and my brother go to school every day, and we pay 1s. each a-week. It’s a very good school, and the master is very kind. There are about 30 night scholars and 50 day ones, besides about 20 girls. His daughter teaches the girls.”

“At night when I leave school I go and play music three nights a-week at a ball. My brother goes with me. We go to a place in the Westminster-road on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. It’s a very nice ball-room, and there are generally about 200 there. They pay 1s. each. There are four musicians, a fiddle, a harp, a fife, and a concertina. It isn’t a Casino; it’s an assembly-rooms. We teaches on three nights in the week, and the pupils assemble and practice on the other nights.”

“The room is like a street almost, and the music sounds well in it. The other three play from notes, and I join in. I learnt their airs this way. My mother and father were very fond of dancing, and they used to go there nearly every night, and I’d go along with them, and then I’d listen and learn the tunes. My brother regularly played there. He was about ten years old when he first went to play there; but he could play any music that was put before him. In the daytime he blows the bellows at a blacksmith and engineer’s. The first time I played in a orchestra I felt a little strange. I had been to rehearsal. I went twenty times before I was confident enough to appear at night. I could play the tunes well enough, but I didn’t know when to leave off at the exact time they did. At last I learnt how to do it. I don’t have any stand before me. I never look at any of the others’ music. I look at the dancing. You’ve got to look at the time they’re dancing at, and watch their figures when they leave off. The proprietor knew father, and that’s how I came to have the job. I get 2s. 6d. a-night for playing there, and plenty to eat and drink. There’s bread and cheese and a drop of beer. On the other three nights when I’m not at the ball I stop at home, and get a bit of rest. Father sends us to bed early, about half-past nine, when I come home from school. On ball-nights I’m sometimes up to two o’clock in the morning. ”

“I take all the money I earn home to father, and he gives me a few halfpence for myself. All the year round it comes to 5s. a-day. I buy my own food when I’m out on the boats. I go to a cookshop. I like pudding or pie better than anything, and next to that I like a bit of bread and butter as well as anything, except pie. I have meat or veal pies. They charge you 6d. a-plate, and you have potatoes and all. After that I have a couple of pen’orth of pudding with sugar. I drink water. My dinner comes to about 9d. a-day, for I generally have a pen’orth of apples as dessert. It makes you very hungry going about in the steam-boats—very much so.”

“I’m the only boy that goes about the steam-boats with a concertina; indeed, I’m the only boy above-bridge that goes about with music at all on the boats. I know the old gentleman who plays the harp at the Essex pier. I often go and join in with him when I land there, and we go shares. He mostly plays there of a morning, and we mostly of an afternoon. We two are the only ones that play on the piers.”

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Henry Mayhew