Speaking to the grey friars of the Sepulcre Watch (*) reminded me of my maternal grandfather. I’ve got a very mixed family that muddies up even more over the last few generations. And two of those lines lie in Lambeth, and maternally that’s with Bill Vose. Bill’s still known to the grey friars, old as they are and they’re all from the same place. Lambeth, and famously the Walk. You’ll be familiar with the song and dance from the musical Me And My Girl. It was tremendously popular and if like the Hokey Cokey something horrible from your childish memory then Joseph Goebbels spoke out against it too. Indeed it was banned in Nazi Germany. So screw you Goebbels, you family-murdering fascist. But the Walk is a place, and certainly was, that whilst back in the C18th was the more salubrious Three Coney Walk (yup, rabbit as bloody Sam Gamgee would also have it) then in the 19th it was a market and a slum. It was bombed and cleared and endured through the war, then developed and frankly now whilst I hardly would wish slums again it’s bloody awful again. Only in its very own pissy-walled and broken-shopped way.
But here my Granda was born and raised. And he was bright because despite the sort of poverty we can scarce begin to imagine now he could read, and write and do his sums. He was a clever bastard, joining up a year before the war and spending the whole of it a corporal that never left England – but he did marry an officer in charge of an ack-ack battery, the weasel. He put off being demobbed until he had stepped up to a clerking job off Covent Garden. He was a Lambeth boy born but he never wanted back to the Walk. Not even dancing. Not even shouting ‘oi’!
But there on Lambeth Walk was the Feathers, a pub and one wherein women drank as well as men. And though Bill was not one to drink nor even to hang around pubs he was known in the Feathers. And the Feathers was notorious because it was where the odder sort of criminal hung out. Indeed it had by writ certain rights regarding them. You must remember that Lambeth was for centuries land held by the Bishopric of Winchester. This meant to a greater extent drinking holes, brothels and theatres. The Feathers slightly off all that but connected, distrusted and a little feared.
In the Feathers you’d once have found thimbles (thieves that stole the flames from candles, lanterns and even towards the end streetlights), nez (from the French for nose, they would swipe the scents of fresh flowers) and whippers (who ransomed the pets of the rich) – the first two to sell on. The women were often picks (magpies), not to be confused with pickpockets but robbers that caused small things to fall, break or otherwise be lost. There were nippers that used scrubbed-up youths up town to entice food and ale out of older men. There were galliards that distracted and caused diversions, commonly said to have been by dancing. These and more and ever watched by the pearlies – what became the charity raising kings and queens not much seen nowadays but then guards and clubmen for the costermongers of the markets, marked by a pearl button on their cap.
None of which makes it any less and historically too, a right old toilet.