Phil Gyford


Sunday 8 June 2003

PreviousIndexNext Life as a 19th century fire-eater

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.


Life as a 20th Century Chicken Farmer. Reminds me of some similarly barbaric practices involving chickens. Ever wondered how full grown chickens get from their homes to the slaughter house or abattoir. Bearing in mind that in the UK we slaughter millions every year. Twenty years ago I worked on a chicken farm. Every 12 weeks, its down to eight weeks now as against a seven year natural life span, we had to move truckloads of fully grown chickens. We used to start work at midnight, this was the time when it is dark and the chickens are more docile. There would be a team of men working on the trucks who put the chickens into crates and another team that caught the chickens and put them into each crate. I was part of this team.

We would go into the chicken house and catch seven chickens, four in the first hand, three in the second hand. Of course the chickens did not want to be caught, when they were caught they would either flap around or try and bite the hand that held them. We would have worn gloves but that made working more difficult. For years I had scars on my lower forearms where an irate chicken had nipped me with its beak. Invariably your reaction to such nips was to bang the offending chicken(s) against any convenient wall, in an attempt to subdue them. Having gained control of seven chickens in two hands you would walk out to the truck and pass them up to the proffered hands of the man on the truck who would unceremoniously deposit first 4 then 3 chickens in the same plastic crate. Any number of problems could occur and did occur as one man passed seven chickens to another. The four foot difference in height meant that sometimes the chickens legs snapped as you raised them up. Chickens legs are not that strong given the accelerated growing regime they are subjected to. On other occasions one or more chickens would be dropped. By the end of the nights work, we usually finished at 4.00am, your arms were exhausted.

On the chicken farm there was a smallish room called the chicken hospital, though I don't think any veterinarian ever saw the inside of this place. In here were what you might call 'disabled' chickens. Chickens that could not walk, or were impaired in some way. The only qualification you needed as a chicken to be in this room is that you could grow to full size and so be ultimately eaten

Chickens used to arrive on the farm 2 or 3 days old and leave at 12 weeks old. I never saw where they went or or from where they came, though it was the subject of much speculation amongst us casual workers. Many chickens died during this twelve weeks, one of my jobs was to walk up and down the chicken house of 30,000 chicks first thing each morning. Any dead chickens were put in a bucket. On a bad day you might get 2 or 3 bucketfuls, on a good day just half a bucket. Amongst very young chicks to mortality rate was quite high. I had no qualms about depositing dead ones in the bucket, to leave them in place would be to risk disease. Not so pleasant was the sight of some unhealthy chick, we were supposed to kill them and then put them in the bucket. The reasoning was that if they died midway through the day, no one would discover them until the next day and this may have lead to infection of surrounding chicks. Imagine trying to kill a chick which is barely a week old. You can't exactly ring its neck, it has no neck to ring. I never did find a satisfactory quick or humane way of killing them, in the end I just ignored them.

Its something to think about next time you queue up on a bank holiday to buy chicken. According to the vegetarian society, not sure how authoritative they are, "in 1992 over 600 million broiler chickens were slaughtered in the UK". Hard to believe but that works out at about 10 chickens per person per year.

Posted by Richard Hyett on 9 June 2003, 12:19 pm | Link

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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...
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