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By the way ...

with Richard Graves

4. The Street-Singer

It can't have been much fun being poor old Charles Martin. He had spend most of his life wandering round the streets of Victorian London singing Tom Bowling and The Death of Nelson in the hope that someone would toss him a coin or two. Perhaps it wasn't so bad in the summer - but you had to eat during the winter as well. The wind blew cold, sometimes the snow lay thick on the long, long roads - and often there was the fog. London pea-soupers were bad enough at the best of times - but even worse if you had to sing for a living. There were noxious fumes from a million coal-fires and a thousand belching factory chimneys mixed with the smoke from steam engines that plied both the rail tracks and the metropolitan roads themselves. It all made you cough something terrible. Top notes became almost impossible. And folk do love those top notes, when all is said and done...

But even all that wasn't the hardest to bear. Parliament sitting in the nice warm House of Commons kept passing new bills to criminalise the hordes of street musicians trying to make an honest bob or two - the organ grinders (with or without monkeys), instrumentalists of all kinds, German bands and of course singers of all types and all ages. They all had to get used to being shooed away like dogs, arrested by the Police, and reviled by snooty butlers employed by posh families. The poorer areas of the City were more hospitable - but the folk there had no money to spare. Sometimes you would get a kind word and perhaps a half-penny or a piece of pie from a kitchenmaid who would sneak out of the servants' entrance when nobody was looking. But it was a hard life, sure enough.

Only the other day Charles Martin, old, weary, cold and ragged, had been hauled up before the magistrates and made to pay a fine. What with? Fortunately some toff had heard about this and come to help. He had produced the money to pay the fine, thus saving the old man from prison. Apparently the gent had previously heard poor Charles croaking his way through the latest addition to his repertoire - Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes. Furthermore the same Good Samaritan had later organised a charity appeal to help the old man in the future, raising £100 altogether - £100!, Nor was that all. There was the additional promise of one pound per week for ever more. Come to the house and the servants will have the money ready, he was told. A joke? Didn't seem like it. The Gent had given his card with the address on to show where to call. The card was in his pocket somewhere - if it hadn't fallen through the hole, that is. Yes, this is it. What was his name? Sullivan. Sir Arthur Sullivan, what is more ... A real good man, a real Christian. Time to get going again anyway. Try the next street now before it gets too dark. Let's have a go at Onward Christian Soldiers this time and see how they like that one ...

Copyright © Richard Graves, May 13th 1999

NOTE: An outline of Sullivan's encounter with Charles Martin is reported in The Musical Herald, February 1st, 1893.

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