In a previous look at John Thomson’s wonderful Street Life In London, we ventured out to Whitechapel to make the acquaintance of “Hookey Alf” and his fellow drinkers, whom Thomson and his word-smith, Adolphe Smith, encountered outside a pub on Whitechapel Road.
Today, we follow them through the streets of the Victorian Metropolis as they head for Drury Lane, close to Covent Garden, to make the acquaintance of another London “character” – “Caney” the Clown.
A VARIED AND AMUSING CAREER
According to Adolphe Smith:- “Even among the street folks of London there are not many who can boast of so varied a career as…Caney.”
Indeed, Smith goes on to inform his readers that “Caney…once enjoyed the exalted position of “pro.””
Expanding on the past of his subject smith tells us that:-
“Thousands of poor people and pale children remember how he amused and delighted them with his string of sausages and his old familiar and typical salutations, as he made his appearance at the yearly pantomime of the Standard or Britannia Theatre.”
FROM CLOWNING TO MENDING
However, by the time Thomson and Smith encountered him he had, again to quote Smith, “cut his last caper” and was earning his living by mending chairs for London households, an occupation which, so Smith informs us, “is precarious, and at best does not bring in much profit.”
Since most of the work involves re-caning the chairs, he soon found the nickname “Caney” being bestowed upon him by his customers and friends and, mindful of his former occupation, to that sobriquet was added “the Clown.”
CHEAP CHAIRS FOR LONDON
Smith, provides us with a little detail on why Caney’s service are required by Londoners in the first place, and the journey of the chairs that he repairs began in High Wickham, some journey to the west of London on the road out to Oxford. Smith writes that:-
“At High Wickham, the centre of the cheap chair manufacture, common beech chairs are made which are actually retailed in the East of London at less than £1 per dozen.
These prove very attractive to newly-married couples, who are thus led to imagine that they can furnish a room or two for a few shillings.
But, experience soon shows that the wood of these cheap chairs has not been properly dried: they crack, and shrink, part at the joints, and fall to pieces, so that the dearer but sound article proves the cheapest in the long-run.
These cheap chairs are generally made in the country, and men of Caney’s type would scorn such shoddy wares. At Wickham the children do the caning, the women varnish, the men undertake the French polishing and other rougher work.
When, by their joint labour, a family has produced a certain number of chairs, they entrust them to a van-driver, who takes them up to London and hawks them among the East End furniture-dealers. Having thus introduced into London a constant supply of cane-bottomed chairs, another industry, namely, that of mending the chairs when the cane had worn out, sprang up simultaneously.”
And thus, having hung up his clown’s outfit, Caney was able to find employment repairing these cheap chairs.
But, how did he come to make the transition from administering kick’s to the bottoms of amused Londoners to reapiring the cahirs on which those bottoms could rest at the end of a long day’s labour?
In his boyhood, Smith informs us, Caney was entranced by tales of the sea. So much so that, just like man a boy at the time, he ran away from home and signed joined a ship’s crew, finding, as Smith so eloquently puts it, that the sea was “more agreeable in romance than in reality.”
However, he persevered, and endured three voyages on the Newcastle collier “Briton.”
But, tragedy soon entered his young life. His fellow sailors, it seems, were a drunken bunch and, one day, a young boy, with whom he had become good friends, fell over board into the River Thames. The sailors were far too intoxicated to be able to save him and the boy drowned.
Caney was so traumatised by the incident that he resolved there and then to give up the life of a sailor and he duly, again to quote Smith, “walked forth boldly into the world, trusting to chance and fortune for bread and employment.”
THE OLD HOUSE AT HOME
At length, he found his way to Batterse Fields, where he gained employment at a local beershop known as the “Old House at Home” – which, according to Smith was ” a remarkable haunt familiar to all who knew Battersea twenty or thirty years ago.” Continuing with his biography of Caney, Smith informs us that:-
“For several years Caney remained in the employ of the eccentric landlord, and helped to keep the pigs, goats, &c., that [also] lived with in the one room the house possessed. Indeed, it was so curious an abode that there was once some difficulty in proving that it was a house at all. The beer licence had been refused on the ground that the hovel possessed no chimney; and, to be within the meaning of the Act, the landlord had to build a chimney at the last moment, thus reluctantly complying, in this detail at least, with the exigences of modern domesticity.”
FROM FAIR TO THE THEATRES
Moving on, Caney joined a travelling fair and, eventually, progressed to impersonating the “fool commonly known as “Pinafore Billy,” in which role he “amused the audiences by submitting to the jokes and kicks liberally bestowed on him by the clowns.”
Soon he had become a clown himself and, having served his apprenticeship on the boards of many provincial theatres, he made his London début, and was soon amusing audiences at theatres such as the Garrick, the Britannia, and the Standard.
He proved a dedicated and popular entertainer.
As Smith puts it:-
“He rendered good services at these houses in the cause of the people’s amusement. No consideration of bone or nerve interfered with his assaults on the pantaloon. He was irrepressible in the matter of bonneting the police; and he tumbled and danced, and fought, and shouted to the delight of his rough and ready audiences.”
FATE INTERVENES AGAIN
But it was this dedication, this determination to amuse his audiences come what may that, ultimately, ended his theatrical career, as he exerted himself so strenuously that he burst a varicose vein in his leg and, following an operation at St Thomas’s Hospital he was, so Smith writes, “finally pronounced to be cured, but forbidden to attempt any violent exercise.”
TAKEN PITY ON
Unable to return to his former calling, he sunk into despondency and poverty and had fallen as low as was possible when an itinerant pedlar took pity on him and initiated him into the art and mystery of mending umbrellas.
This was he able, according to Smith:-
“with a little practical assistance from others as poor as himself…to eke out a wretched existence at desultory and humble labour, now mending umbrellas, now making wire work, now dabbling in tinker’s work of all descriptions, and thus avoiding while health lasted, both starvation and the workhouse.”
However, of all the services he undertook and offered in his new career, it was he mending of chairs that he found to be the most in demand and soon, this had become his speciality.
STILL LIKED TO CLOWN AROUND
But his old calling, and his inherent talent to amuse, was not in the least bit diminished and he would often “grace the streets with some of his clownish antics,” especially at Christmas, and on other holiday’s, when he would don his clown’s outfit – which, according to Smith, “is certainly the worse for wear”, – and would follow “a band of itinerant street performers, among whom his superior accomplishments and experience insure ready welcome.”
Unfortunately, one particularly enthusiastic performance almost cost him his life as it reopened his varicose veins and, had it not been for his extremely strong constitution, the loss of blood would have proved fatal.
The result of this near death experience was, as Smith remarks, was that:-
“Caney had to observe greater self-control, and constantly curb that frolicsome disposition which formerly suited him to the profession of clown; till at last his care-worn face fails to reflect his natural joviality, and in him, as in others, we find the indelible stamp denoting a hard life of struggle and adversity.”
SMILE FOR THE CAMERA
No doubt, as Smith was noting down Caney’s story, Thomson was setting up his camera and, as the autobiography came to an end, Thomson asked their subject to assume a pose.
Happy to oblige, Caney gripped some of the cane between his fingers, and remained still for however long it took Thomson to record his image for posterity.
Meanwhile, in the background a servant girl appears to have chosen that precise moment to water the plants in the little window box behind the chair that Caney is repairing. You can almost hear Thomson shouting to her to keep perfectly still and to not move a muscle.
Once the photograph was taken, I like to picture Caney making a wisecrack about the experience and following it with a raucous roar of delighted laughter.
A BORN SURVIVOR
For, if nothing else, Caney was a born survivor who simply got on with life and threw himself headlong at the adversities that fate had placed in his path.
As Smith puts it:-
” from his early boyhood, Caney had not been accustomed to gentle treatment; and if, in after-life, he has occasionally indulged in the British privilege of grumbling, this need not be attributed to exaggerated sensibility on his part.”
I like to then picture Thomson and Smith handing him a shilling and then shaking him warmly by the hand as they retire to their respective homes and Caney returns to giving the citizens of Victorian London a more comfortable perch on which to rest their posteriors.
Sitting down, later that day, to transform his notes into the article that will accompany Thomson’s photograph of the, Smith might well smile to himself as he remembers the banter of their encounter.
A PROSPEROUS MAN FALLEN LOW
As his article concludes, he thinks back on Caney, remembers the story of his descent from the stages of the London theatres to the streets of the Victorian Metropolis and ends by reminding his readers that one can never know or predict what fate might have in store:-
The biographical sketch I have given of Caney affords a good example of the circumstances which may bring a comparatively prosperous man down to the level where he will gladly avail himself of these easy methods of earning an occasional shilling.
Rest in peace Caney, wherever that resting place may be.