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Chapter 20

THE FIRST OF MAY

'Now ladies, up in the sky-parlour: only once a year, if you
please!'
YOUNG LADY WITH BRASS LADLE.

'Sweep--sweep--sw-e-ep!'
ILLEGAL WATCHWORD.


The first of May! There is a merry freshness in the sound, calling
to our minds a thousand thoughts of all that is pleasant in nature
and beautiful in her most delightful form. What man is there, over
whose mind a bright spring morning does not exercise a magic
influence--carrying him back to the days of his childish sports,
and conjuring up before him the old green field with its gently-
waving trees, where the birds sang as he has never heard them
since--where the butterfly fluttered far more gaily than he ever
sees him now, in all his ramblings--where the sky seemed bluer, and
the sun shone more brightly--where the air blew more freshly over
greener grass, and sweeter-smelling flowers--where everything wore
a richer and more brilliant hue than it is ever dressed in now!
Such are the deep feelings of childhood, and such are the
impressions which every lovely object stamps upon its heart! The
hardy traveller wanders through the maze of thick and pathless
woods, where the sun's rays never shone, and heaven's pure air
never played; he stands on the brink of the roaring waterfall, and,
giddy and bewildered, watches the foaming mass as it leaps from
stone to stone, and from crag to crag; he lingers in the fertile
plains of a land of perpetual sunshine, and revels in the luxury of
their balmy breath. But what are the deep forests, or the
thundering waters, or the richest landscapes that bounteous nature
ever spread, to charm the eyes, and captivate the senses of man,
compared with the recollection of the old scenes of his early
youth? Magic scenes indeed; for the fancies of childhood dressed
them in colours brighter than the rainbow, and almost as fleeting!

In former times, spring brought with it not only such associations
as these, connected with the past, but sports and games for the
present--merry dances round rustic pillars, adorned with emblems of
the season, and reared in honour of its coming. Where are they
now! Pillars we have, but they are no longer rustic ones; and as
to dancers, they are used to rooms, and lights, and would not show
well in the open air. Think of the immorality, too! What would
your sabbath enthusiasts say, to an aristocratic ring encircling
the Duke of York's column in Carlton-terrace--a grand poussette of
the middle classes, round Alderman Waithman's monument in Fleet-
street,--or a general hands-four-round of ten-pound householders,
at the foot of the Obelisk in St. George's-fields? Alas! romance
can make no head against the riot act; and pastoral simplicity is
not understood by the police.

Well; many years ago we began to be a steady and matter-of-fact
sort of people, and dancing in spring being beneath our dignity, we
gave it up, and in course of time it descended to the sweeps--a
fall certainly, because, though sweeps are very good fellows in
their way, and moreover very useful in a civilised community, they
are not exactly the sort of people to give the tone to the little
elegances of society. The sweeps, however, got the dancing to
themselves, and they kept it up, and handed it down. This was a
severe blow to the romance of spring-time, but, it did not entirely
destroy it, either; for a portion of it descended to the sweeps
with the dancing, and rendered them objects of great interest. A
mystery hung over the sweeps in those days. Legends were in
existence of wealthy gentlemen who had lost children, and who,
after many years of sorrow and suffering, had found them in the
character of sweeps. Stories were related of a young boy who,
having been stolen from his parents in his infancy, and devoted to
the occupation of chimney-sweeping, was sent, in the course of his
professional career, to sweep the chimney of his mother's bedroom;
and how, being hot and tired when he came out of the chimney, he
got into the bed he had so often slept in as an infant, and was
discovered and recognised therein by his mother, who once every
year of her life, thereafter, requested the pleasure of the company
of every London sweep, at half-past one o'clock, to roast beef,
plum-pudding, porter, and sixpence.

Such stories as these, and there were many such, threw an air of
mystery round the sweeps, and produced for them some of those good
effects which animals derive from the doctrine of the
transmigration of souls. No one (except the masters) thought of
ill-treating a sweep, because no one knew who he might be, or what
nobleman's or gentleman's son he might turn out. Chimney-sweeping
was, by many believers in the marvellous, considered as a sort of
probationary term, at an earlier or later period of which, divers
young noblemen were to come into possession of their rank and
titles: and the profession was held by them in great respect
accordingly.

We remember, in our young days, a little sweep about our own age,
with curly hair and white teeth, whom we devoutly and sincerely
believed to be the lost son and heir of some illustrious personage-
-an impression which was resolved into an unchangeable conviction
on our infant mind, by the subject of our speculations informing
us, one day, in reply to our question, propounded a few moments
before his ascent to the summit of the kitchen chimney, 'that he
believed he'd been born in the vurkis, but he'd never know'd his
father.' We felt certain, from that time forth, that he would one
day be owned by a lord: and we never heard the church-bells ring,
or saw a flag hoisted in the neighbourhood, without thinking that
the happy event had at last occurred, and that his long-lost parent
had arrived in a coach and six, to take him home to Grosvenor-
square. He never came, however; and, at the present moment, the
young gentleman in question is settled down as a master sweep in
the neighbourhood of Battle-bridge, his distinguishing
characteristics being a decided antipathy to washing himself, and
the possession of a pair of legs very inadequate to the support of
his unwieldy and corpulent body.

The romance of spring having gone out before our time, we were fain
to console ourselves as we best could with the uncertainty that
enveloped the birth and parentage of its attendant dancers, the
sweeps; and we DID console ourselves with it, for many years. But,
even this wicked source of comfort received a shock from which it
has never recovered--a shock which has been in reality its death-
blow. We could not disguise from ourselves the fact that whole
families of sweeps were regularly born of sweeps, in the rural
districts of Somers Town and Camden Town--that the eldest son
succeeded to the father's business, that the other branches
assisted him therein, and commenced on their own account; that
their children again, were educated to the profession; and that
about their identity there could be no mistake whatever. We could
not be blind, we say, to this melancholy truth, but we could not
bring ourselves to admit it, nevertheless, and we lived on for some
years in a state of voluntary ignorance. We were roused from our
pleasant slumber by certain dark insinuations thrown out by a
friend of ours, to the effect that children in the lower ranks of
life were beginning to CHOOSE chimney-sweeping as their particular
walk; that applications had been made by various boys to the
constituted authorities, to allow them to pursue the object of
their ambition with the full concurrence and sanction of the law;
that the affair, in short, was becoming one of mere legal contract.
We turned a deaf ear to these rumours at first, but slowly and
surely they stole upon us. Month after month, week after week,
nay, day after day, at last, did we meet with accounts of similar
applications. The veil was removed, all mystery was at an end, and
chimney-sweeping had become a favourite and chosen pursuit. There
is no longer any occasion to steal boys; for boys flock in crowds
to bind themselves. The romance of the trade has fled, and the
chimney-sweeper of the present day, is no more like unto him of
thirty years ago, than is a Fleet-street pickpocket to a Spanish
brigand, or Paul Pry to Caleb Williams.

This gradual decay and disuse of the practice of leading noble
youths into captivity, and compelling them to ascend chimneys, was
a severe blow, if we may so speak, to the romance of chimney-
sweeping, and to the romance of spring at the same time. But even
this was not all, for some few years ago the dancing on May-day
began to decline; small sweeps were observed to congregate in twos
or threes, unsupported by a 'green,' with no 'My Lord' to act as
master of the ceremonies, and no 'My Lady' to preside over the
exchequer. Even in companies where there was a 'green' it was an
absolute nothing--a mere sprout--and the instrumental
accompaniments rarely extended beyond the shovels and a set of
Panpipes, better known to the many, as a 'mouth-organ.'

These were signs of the times, portentous omens of a coming change;
and what was the result which they shadowed forth? Why, the master
sweeps, influenced by a restless spirit of innovation, actually
interposed their authority, in opposition to the dancing, and
substituted a dinner--an anniversary dinner at White Conduit House-
-where clean faces appeared in lieu of black ones smeared with rose
pink; and knee cords and tops superseded nankeen drawers and
rosetted shoes.

Gentlemen who were in the habit of riding shy horses; and steady-
going people who have no vagrancy in their souls, lauded this
alteration to the skies, and the conduct of the master sweeps was
described beyond the reach of praise. But how stands the real
fact? Let any man deny, if he can, that when the cloth had been
removed, fresh pots and pipes laid upon the table, and the
customary loyal and patriotic toasts proposed, the celebrated Mr.
Sluffen, of Adam-and-Eve-court, whose authority not the most
malignant of our opponents can call in question, expressed himself
in a manner following: 'That now he'd cotcht the cheerman's hi, he
vished he might be jolly vell blessed, if he worn't a goin' to have
his innings, vich he vould say these here obserwashuns--that how
some mischeevus coves as know'd nuffin about the consarn, had tried
to sit people agin the mas'r swips, and take the shine out o' their
bis'nes, and the bread out o' the traps o' their preshus kids, by a
makin' o' this here remark, as chimblies could be as vell svept by
'sheenery as by boys; and that the makin' use o' boys for that
there purpuss vos barbareous; vereas, he 'ad been a chummy--he
begged the cheerman's parding for usin' such a wulgar hexpression--
more nor thirty year--he might say he'd been born in a chimbley--
and he know'd uncommon vell as 'sheenery vos vus nor o' no use:
and as to kerhewelty to the boys, everybody in the chimbley line
know'd as vell as he did, that they liked the climbin' better nor
nuffin as vos.' From this day, we date the total fall of the last
lingering remnant of May-day dancing, among the elite of the
profession: and from this period we commence a new era in that
portion of our spring associations which relates to the first of
May.

We are aware that the unthinking part of the population will meet
us here, with the assertion, that dancing on May-day still
continues--that 'greens' are annually seen to roll along the
streets--that youths in the garb of clowns, precede them, giving
vent to the ebullitions of their sportive fancies; and that lords
and ladies follow in their wake.

Granted. We are ready to acknowledge that in outward show, these
processions have greatly improved: we do not deny the introduction
of solos on the drum; we will even go so far as to admit an
occasional fantasia on the triangle, but here our admissions end.
We positively deny that the sweeps have art or part in these
proceedings. We distinctly charge the dustmen with throwing what
they ought to clear away, into the eyes of the public. We accuse
scavengers, brickmakers, and gentlemen who devote their energies to
the costermongering line, with obtaining money once a-year, under
false pretences. We cling with peculiar fondness to the custom of
days gone by, and have shut out conviction as long as we could, but
it has forced itself upon us; and we now proclaim to a deluded
public, that the May-day dancers are NOT sweeps. The size of them,
alone, is sufficient to repudiate the idea. It is a notorious fact
that the widely-spread taste for register-stoves has materially
increased the demand for small boys; whereas the men, who, under a
fictitious character, dance about the streets on the first of May
nowadays, would be a tight fit in a kitchen flue, to say nothing of
the parlour. This is strong presumptive evidence, but we have
positive proof--the evidence of our own senses. And here is our
testimony.

Upon the morning of the second of the merry month of May, in the
year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty-six, we went
out for a stroll, with a kind of forlorn hope of seeing something
or other which might induce us to believe that it was really
spring, and not Christmas. After wandering as far as Copenhagen
House, without meeting anything calculated to dispel our impression
that there was a mistake in the almanacks, we turned back down
Maidenlane, with the intention of passing through the extensive
colony lying between it and Battle-bridge, which is inhabited by
proprietors of donkey-carts, boilers of horse-flesh, makers of
tiles, and sifters of cinders; through which colony we should have
passed, without stoppage or interruption, if a little crowd
gathered round a shed had not attracted our attention, and induced
us to pause.

When we say a 'shed,' we do not mean the conservatory sort of
building, which, according to the old song, Love tenanted when he
was a young man, but a wooden house with windows stuffed with rags
and paper, and a small yard at the side, with one dust-cart, two
baskets, a few shovels, and little heaps of cinders, and fragments
of china and tiles, scattered about it. Before this inviting spot
we paused; and the longer we looked, the more we wondered what
exciting circumstance it could be, that induced the foremost
members of the crowd to flatten their noses against the parlour
window, in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of what was going on
inside. After staring vacantly about us for some minutes, we
appealed, touching the cause of this assemblage, to a gentleman in
a suit of tarpaulin, who was smoking his pipe on our right hand;
but as the only answer we obtained was a playful inquiry whether
our mother had disposed of her mangle, we determined to await the
issue in silence.

Judge of our virtuous indignation, when the street-door of the shed
opened, and a party emerged therefrom, clad in the costume and
emulating the appearance, of May-day sweeps!

The first person who appeared was 'my lord,' habited in a blue coat
and bright buttons, with gilt paper tacked over the seams, yellow
knee-breeches, pink cotton stockings, and shoes; a cocked hat,
ornamented with shreds of various-coloured paper, on his head, a
bouquet the size of a prize cauliflower in his button-hole, a long
Belcher handkerchief in his right hand, and a thin cane in his
left. A murmur of applause ran through the crowd (which was
chiefly composed of his lordship's personal friends), when this
graceful figure made his appearance, which swelled into a burst of
applause as his fair partner in the dance bounded forth to join
him. Her ladyship was attired in pink crape over bed-furniture,
with a low body and short sleeves. The symmetry of her ankles was
partially concealed by a very perceptible pair of frilled trousers;
and the inconvenience which might have resulted from the
circumstance of her white satin shoes being a few sizes too large,
was obviated by their being firmly attached to her legs with strong
tape sandals.

Her head was ornamented with a profusion of artificial flowers; and
in her hand she bore a large brass ladle, wherein to receive what
she figuratively denominated 'the tin.' The other characters were
a young gentleman in girl's clothes and a widow's cap; two clowns
who walked upon their hands in the mud, to the immeasurable delight
of all the spectators; a man with a drum; another man with a
flageolet; a dirty woman in a large shawl, with a box under her arm
for the money,--and last, though not least, the 'green,' animated
by no less a personage than our identical friend in the tarpaulin
suit.

The man hammered away at the drum, the flageolet squeaked, the
shovels rattled, the 'green' rolled about, pitching first on one
side and then on the other; my lady threw her right foot over her
left ankle, and her left foot over her right ankle, alternately; my
lord ran a few paces forward, and butted at the 'green,' and then a
few paces backward upon the toes of the crowd, and then went to the
right, and then to the left, and then dodged my lady round the
'green;' and finally drew her arm through his, and called upon the
boys to shout, which they did lustily--for this was the dancing.

We passed the same group, accidentally, in the evening. We never
saw a 'green' so drunk, a lord so quarrelsome (no: not even in the
house of peers after dinner), a pair of clowns so melancholy, a
lady so muddy, or a party so miserable.

How has May-day decayed!

Charles Dickens