The Independent Shoe Black
From Street life in London by J Thomson and Adolphe Smith
A LONG and uneven war has been waged for many years between the various members of the shoe-blacking fraternity. The factions that divide those who look to our boots for a mode of livelihood are wonderfully numerous. There are boys who maintain that no able-bodied man should seek to clean boots, that this work should be monopolized by children. Others, on the contrary, urge that the street should be free to all, and that if an able-bodied man chooses to devote himself to the art of blacking boots, as a free British subject, he has a right to follow this or any other calling, however humble it may be. Probably he is not fitted for anything better; and if so, it is to the interest of the community that he should be allowed to do, at least, that which he feels disposed to attempt. A third party will rejoin that this is altogether a false theory, that men who are capable of more worthy work should not be allowed to degrade themselves by menial offices,-a principle which, however, if universally applied, would soon revolutionize the whole face of society. So far as the London boot-blacks are concerned, this principle has, nevertheless, been carried out to a very great extent. The police authorities have taken upon themselves to interfere, indeed to destroy, the freedom of trade in the matter of cleaning gentlemen’s boots, and the independent boot-black is consequently treated by the authorities as if he was little better than a smuggler.
Useful, though perhaps unfair, patronage is accorded to the members of the Boot-black Brigades. These are the orthodox or legitimate boot-blacks, and they consequently find favour in the eyes of the police. The policeman, who is essentially a lover of order, an admirer of discipline, cannot understand why, if a boy wants to manipulate brush and blacking for a living, he should not join one of the brigades. He is likely to forget that the real attraction of street life, the one advantage it offers in exchange for all the hardships and poverty to be endured, is precisely that sense of independence and absence from discipline which no member of the brigade can enjoy. The shoe-black brigades, though excellent institutions, have decidedly trespassed on the freedom of street industries. Their organized and disciplined boys have the monopoly of various “beats” and “pitches” given them, and their exclusive right to clean boots in the streets or at the corners in question is rigorously enforced by the police. Yet, notwithstanding such privileges, the brigades are unpopular among the classes they are supposed to serve, and this opinion I find confirmed by the last Annual Report of the Ragged School Union.
The author of this Report qualifies results achieved in the year 1876 as a success, because the number of boys employed in the nine societies has been augmented to the extent of twelve recruits! In this huge metropolis, with its rapidly-increasing population-in a year, too, of commercial depression, when the poor are naturally driven to such expedients-only twelve new boys were found willing to join the nine different societies. An augmentation of one and one-quarter of a boy per society during twelve months cannot be qualified as a success.
The Boot-blacking Brigade movement was started in 1851, when 36 boys were enrolled, and they earned during the year £650. After labour extending over the whole metropolis, and unceasingly pursued during a quarter of a century, the number of boys has been increased to 385, and their annual earnings to £12,062. During the twenty-five years the boys have earned altogether £170,324; and the average benefits per week accruing to each boy, last year, amounted to twelve shillings. Considering the enormous influence brought to bear, the subscriptions, the patronage of the public, who generally prefer employing a boy wearing the brigade uniform, and, finally, the protection these boys receive from the police, I do not think that the above statistics are satisfactory. That independent boot-blacks should still be able and willing to wage war against the brigade boys, though the latter have every advantage, demonstrates how unpopular the movement is among the poor themselves. There is also the feeling that, if a boy is willing and sufficiently steady to submit to the discipline enforced by the managers of the brigades, he is worthy of some better employment than that of cleaning boots in the streets. This should be left to those who are less fortunate by reason of the bad education they have received, the bad instincts they have, through no fault of their own, inherited from vicious parents, and the disorderly disposition engendered by the bad company with which they have been surrounded from their youth upwards. In great towns, at least, there are always a large number of persons whom strict moralists-men who judge a fellow-man by his deeds, instead of taking into account his disposition and his surroundings-would condemn as altogether hopeless. Yet these persons, who are unfit for any good or steady work, must nevertheless live; if not in the streets, then, probably, in prison, or in the workhouse. But assuredly, instead of being supported by the rates or the taxes, it would be preferable that these unreliable and almost useless members of society should earn their living by cleaning boots, or carrying boards, or by any other similar catch-penny menial work. The police, however, are determined to debar this class from the free exercise of boot-cleaning in the streets.
An independent boot-black who has not secured a licence – for which, by the way, he must pay five shillings a year when, if ever, he does obtain it – is severely handled by the police. They will not allow him to stand in one place. If he deposits his box on the pavement, the policeman will kick it out in the street, among the carriages, where it will probably be broken, and the blacking spilt. The independent boot-black must be always on the move, carrying his box on his shoulders, and only putting it down when he has secured a customer. Even then, I have known cases of policemen who have interfered, and one actually kicked the box away from a gentleman’s foot, while he was in the act of having his boots cleaned. This excess of authority was, I believe, illegal; and, I am glad to say, justly resented by the gentleman in question, who insisted that the independent boot-black should continue his work, and defied the police to arrest him. The policeman had evidently exceeded his orders, and this was proved by the fact that he did not dare accept the gentleman’s challenge. Of course, if the shoe-black, though not belonging to a brigade, possesses a licence, he may do as he chooses, and need fear no interference, but the difficulty is to procure a licence. The police do not, I believe, absolutely refuse to give a licence to an able-bodied man, but they contrive to keep him waiting so long, probably twelve months, that he generally gives up the attempt, and turns his attention to some other sort of work, or else goes out with brush and blacking, but without the licence, and submits to the ill-treatment that results. On the other hand, an old man, a cripple, an infirm man, or youth who can draw up a petition and obtain the signature of four householders, will receive immediate attention at Scotland Yard, and have a licence given him gratuitously and without any delay. This clearly proves that the police seek, as far as they can, to make the cleaning of boots in the streets a matter of privilege, and to reserve that privilege for the exclusive use of members of the brigades, or for old men and cripples.
Such a policy, which has certainly many reasons in its favour, has not, however, been brought into force without considerable opposition. The independent boot-black, whose photograph is before the reader, found by experience that the system instituted was not altogether pleasant. He has served in two brigades, the “blues” and the “reds,” and found them both equally objectionable ; so, at last, he gave up the uniform, and became an independent boot-black. In this capacity, though free, he experienced all the persecutions to which I have alluded, and as he grew older and more tired of this life, he finally resolved to leave the narrow streets for the broader thoroughfares of the ocean. As a sailor, he promises to become a useful help to his captain and ship. His mother has to nurse an invalid husband, and must also provide for a large family. Under these circumstances, it was not always easy for her to spare the services of her son. But when he became an independent boot-black, he could go out at his own hours, and thus was of greater use to his mother in her trouble; and it was a great help to the family to know that whenever the boy had a few moments to spare, he might run out and hope to gain some pence by cleaning gentlemen’s boots.
The police have not been uniformly successful in stamping out unlicensed shoe- blacks. In some cases the tradesmen came out of their shops and spoke in their favour; they objected that the shoe-black had been standing outside their doors for many years, was well known to the neighbourhood, had proved himself useful in running errands, or lent his aid to put up the shutters in the evening, and that, consequently, the policeman would oblige them by leaving him alone. There are, therefore, a few independent boot-blacks who lead an easy life, and whom the police refrain from molesting, but these are the exception. Taking a broad view of the question, I may safely repeat that the freedom of trade has, in this respect, been destroyed. Only boys of the brigades and old men and cripples are welcome to practise the art of cleaning boots in the streets of the metropolis.