Last year I read Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (Amazon US, UK, or the full text online) which was written around 1850 and is his journalistic attempt to chronicle the lives of poor working (and non-working) inhabitants of the city. There were a couple of passages that were even more eye-opening than the rest, which I meant to publish here. Here’s the first one, from Mayhew’s interview with a man who usually earned his living as a fire-eater on the streets:
I was very hard up at one time — when I was living in Friar-street — and I used to frequent a house kept by a betting-man, near the St George’s Surrey Riding-school. A man I knew used to supply this betting-man with rats. I waw at this public-house one night when this rat-man comes up to me, and says he, “Hallo! my pippin; here, I want you: I want you to make a match. Will you kill thirty rats against my dog?” So I said, “Let me see the dog first;” and I looked at his mouth, and he was an old dog; so I says, “No, I won’t go in for thirty; but I don’t mind trying at twenty.” He wanted to make it twenty-four, but I wouldn’t. They put the twenty in the rat-pit and the dog went in first and killed his, and he took a quarter of an hour and two minutes. Then a fresh lot were put in the pit, and I began; my hands were tied behind me. They always make an allowance for a man, so the pit was made closer, for you see a man can’t turn round like a dog; I had half the space of the dog. The rats lay in a cluster, and then I picked them off where I wanted ‘em and bit ‘em between the shoulders. It was when they came to one or two that I had the work, for they cut about. The last one made me remember him, for he gave me a bite, of which I’ve got the scar now. It festered, and I was obliged to have it cut out. I took Dutch drops for it, and poulticed it by day, and I was bad for three weeks. They made a subscription in the room of fifteen shillings for killing these rats. I won the match, and beat the dog by four minutes. This wager was five shillings, which I had. I was at the time so hard up, I’d do anything for some money; though as far as that’s concerned, I’d go into a pit now, if anybody would make it worth my while.
The full fire-eater interview starts part-way down this page.