Sucking The Monkey And Eating Babies’ Heads

Why do people fall for part works? Don’t they do the maths? Don’t they work out that their plastic model of the Titanic, for which they’ll collect all the bits over 126 issues at £4.99 will cost them coming up to seven hundred quid? No wonder so many fall by the wayside (the really interesting thing would be to know how many completed models of the Titanic there are. Their rarity might actually make them worth £700…) but thus was always the way. 

I’ve just acquired Part 6 of the Edwardian part work Living London from 1902. It looks, much like its modern counterparts, like a magazine, only the first article starts in the middle of a sentence and the last article finishes half way through another one, tantalisingly promising “Part 7 will be published Jan 15″.

Clearly whoever bought my copy never bothered with the rest of the encyclopaedia. Perhaps their head had already been turned by the lure of the new part work by the same publisher The Story of Our Planet, which the Daily News (probably accurately) describes as being “readable as a fairy tale”.  So my copy, part 6, stands alone, still in its little dustcover. Perhaps I should try to locate all the other parts and reunite them, 109 years later…

It would certainly be worth it, if for nothing else, for the fabulously florid journalism – predating Scoop by a good thirty-odd years but so hilarious that I reckon Evelyn Waugh’s pregnant mum must have been an avid part-work subscriber. The article that caught my eye enough to buy it was entitled In the London Docks, where R. Austin Freeman, which, if it’s the same R. Austin Freeman as the mystery-author, was doing a little moonlightery. As the roving reporter, Freeman goes to the London docks to experience a day with the labourers who gathered every morning in the hope of casual work unloading the freighters. 

We are to be in no doubt as to what kind of men these chaps are. 

“A strange assembly are these casuals; the dregs and leavings of society, the wastrels and failures from every rank of life. There in that crowd are mingled together criminals not twenty four hours out of gaol, men whose whole life has been spent in alternations of prison and doss-house, vagrants, tramps, doctors whose names have vanished from the register, disbarred barristers, unfrocked parsons, labourers without labour, soldiers, policemen, shop keepers – all classes of men…most are the of the common slum type, either criminal or loafer or both.”

Freeman spends several paragraphs describing these ghastly ne’er-do-wells (not seeming to realise that the ‘layabouts’ are there because they’re desperate to work), and my excuse for talking about this today is that Greenwich would have had its fair share of ‘wastrels’, too, so lazy that they would have got up at yeek-o’clock in the morning to trudge up to the docks, paying a waterman to take them across the Thames in the hope of work (this was published in Jan 1902, the foot tunnel wasn’t opened until August that year.)

I get the feeling that Freeman feels distinctly uncomfortable amongst these working men as they strain police cordons, trying to attract the attention of the ganger whose fist clutches a small number of the tickets to work they all want

“A forest of arms with outstretched hands rises into the air; the whole crowd surfes forwrad, a moving, struggling mass; the chain seems stretched to snapping point , the posts bend over in their sockets and the men in the front rank, crushed against the chain, crane forward with staring wolfish faces and make desperate snatches at the ganger as he passes along the line just out of reach.”

Freeman’s rooting for an old guy “a tall, venerable-looking, white-bearded old man, looking wistfully under his shaggy eyebrows. He was one of the first arrivals, and we hope that he may not go away empty and disappointed.” Things get quite heated, but in true newspaper style, the ganger picks the old chap out of the crowd for the final ticket – and it’s a tribute to Freeman’s journalistic skill that I actually feel relieved.

Freeman joins the holders of the golden tickets through a day’s work – loading, unloading, marking up the bales, checking in with the tallyman, sweating, heaving, toiling. He has a great eye for detail – noting, for example,  a little bill stuck on the wall, headed ‘Keynsham Property’, telling a certain Edward Allen to get in touch with them “where he will hear of something to his advantage”. Freeman goes off into flights of Phantom-like fantasy about an impoverished wretch with starving kiddies at home, unaware that he is in for a fortune (then says “but we must not stop to sentimentalise…”) 

Of course, like any article today, much of it’s spent discussing the stuff that goes a bit awry – the entire shipment of sugar that’s got overheated and is now solid lumps of ‘jaggery’, or the individual who, on exiting, seems a bit heavier than usual:

“Hullo,” exclaims the constable, “you feel rather lumpy, my man.”

“That’s my lunch,” the other explains feebly. 

“Lunch!” ejaculates the constable, “you don’t lunch off flat irons, do you?”

Actually what the workers do lunch off, is mainly beer and babies’ heads (pallid beef-steak puddings) unless they’re what’s known as “Royals” who are so posh they bring their lunch from home, wrapped in newspaper. 

My favourite occupation though, in this article, is of the industrious little group of naughty-boys who partake of the ancient art ‘sucking the monkey’ (as opposed to ‘swinging the monkey,’ which is a peculiarly Greenwich pastime…) Sucking the monkey (or ‘pony riding’) consisted of making a straw out of brown paper, inserting it into the bung-hole of the port-wine casks and sucking. A lot. Apparently it was quite a common trick, and by the afternoon there would be a fair few drunken roisterers, though newbies sometimes overdid it and ‘killed themselves right off.’

Actually – it occurs to me – this was printed in 1902. It’s loooooong out of copyright. What am I doing telling you about it? Here – read it yourself as the latest Phantom Pamphlet.


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One Comment to “Sucking The Monkey And Eating Babies’ Heads”

  1. Dazza says:

    So much has been lost to progress over the last 102 years.
    I’m sure that it must have been hell for the workers waiting to find out if they had work for that day and therefore would be able to feed themselves and their families, only to have to go through the same again the next day and then the next…….
    But, the old romantic in me says that the sense of worth of each of those men must have been tremendous.
    A trip to the Jobcentre in Woolwich is the most soul destroying experience I can think of. Most have developed a healthy attitude towards the whole thing – do it and forget it.
    Having just read back what I have typed I realise that things haven’t changed a lot after all……..