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Of thimbleriggers and joculators

One especially widespread entertainment was gambling. It took place anywhere that people gathered — in markets, fairgrounds, racecourses, pubs, or in the street. Those in charge of them usually had some way of diverting a mug from his money by less than honest means.

One gambling game required a leather belt, garter or string tied into an endless loop. The man in charge twisted it into a figure-of-eight formation and asked someone to put a finger into one of the loops thus made. If the string snagged on his finger when the string was pulled away, he won. The trick was that there were two ways to make the figure-of-eight. In one, the game was genuine, with one loop snagging and the other not; in the other, neither did, and the victim always lost. It has been known under many names: pin and girdle, prick the garter, trick of the loop and strap game, but it has been commonly known from the sixteenth century and after as fast and loose, using fast in its sense of something fixed or immovable. The expression to play fast and loose had become an idiom before 1557, the date of its first recorded use. It was an obvious progression from the nature of the game to a sense of dishonestly or irresponsibly trifling with another’s affections.

Another gambling game was thimblerig, also known as pea and thimbles (as the shell game in North America, perhaps because the game was at times played with half walnut shells in place of thimbles) in which you had to guess under which of three thimbles a pea was hidden:

All races, fairs, and other such conglomerations of those whom Heaven had blessed with more money than wit, used to be frequented by minor members of ‘The Fancy,’ who are technically called flat-catchers, and who picked up a very pretty living by a quick hand, a rattling tongue, a deal board, three thimbles, and a pepper-corn. The game they played with these three curious articles is a sort of Lilliputian game at cups and balls; and the beauty of it lies in dexterously seeming to place the pepper-corn under one particular thimble, getting a green to bet that it was there, and then winning his money by showing that it is not. Every operator at the game was attended by certain of his friends called eggers and bonnetters — the eggers to “egg” on the green ones to bet, by betting themselves; and the bonnetters to “bonnet” any green one who might happen to win — that is to say, to knock his hat over his eyes, whilst the operator and the others bolted with the stakes.

The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims, by Andrew Steinmetz, 1870. Cups and balls was the larger-scale version of thimblerig. Green here means a naive player; a flat-catcher caught flats, Victorian slang for a mug or sucker, so named because he was the opposite of sharp. The sharp ones, or sharpers, were in charge of the games — in this case, he might be called a thimblerigger. The thimblerigger used sleight-of-hand to ensure the peppercorn was not where it seemed to be when the punter came to make his choice.

A common name for this type of swindler or confidence trickster was magsman, from mag, a slang term for a chatterbox, good verbal skills being a vital part of the process (it may derive from magpie, a noisy, chattering bird).

Another gambling game was spin-em-rounds, usually played in the street; it was mentioned by Henry Mayhew in his London Labour and the London Poor of 1851. Another name for it was wheel-of-fortune, in earlier times the name for the drum in which lottery tickets were spun before drawing. A slang dictionary of 1859 described it as

a street game consisting of a piece of brass, wood, or iron, balanced on a pin and turned quickly around on a board, when the point, arrow shaped, stops at a number and decides the bet one way or the other. The contrivance very much resembles a sea compass, and was formerly the gambling accompaniment of London piemen. The apparatus was then erected on the tin lids of their pie cans, and the bets were ostensibly for pies, but more frequently for “coppers,” when no policeman frowned upon the scene, and when two or three apprentices or porters happened to meet.

A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, by John Camden Hotten, 1859. Coppers here referred to the copper coins of small change; since Mr Hotten was staid in his writing, I suspect he wasn't making a pun on copper in the sense of a policeman, so called because he copped criminals, or more prosaically caught them.

The opportunity for cheating might seem less here, but, taking a line through crooked roulette wheels, there was no doubt much advantage to be got by a clever person in charge.

A game called three-up was also described by Mayhew. It was usually played in pubs:

“Three-up” is played fairly among the costermongers; but is most frequently resorted to when strangers are present to “make a pitch”, — which is, in plain words, to cheat any stranger who is rash enough to bet upon them. “This is the way, sir,” said an adept to me; “bless you, I can make them fall as I please. If I'm playing with Jo, and a stranger bets with Jo, why, of course, I make Jo win.” This adept illustrated his skill to me by throwing up three halfpennies, and, five times out of six, they fell upon the floor, whether he threw them nearly to the ceiling or merely to his shoulder, all heads or all tails. The halfpence were the proper current coins — indeed, they were my own; and the result is gained by a peculiar position of the coins on the fingers, and a peculiar jerk in the throwing.”

London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew, 1851.

The most famous of such crooked games is find the lady or the three-card trick, which is still widely played. Three playing cards, one of which is often the Queen of Hearts (hence one name for the game) or a king (sometimes known as the gentleman) were shown face up and then laid face down and rapidly moved about by the sharper. Somehow the mark never found the vital card. One way to disguise the final position was to collect the three cards in an open stack between the joints of thumb and second finger. With some practice, the dealer could release whichever card he wanted as he flicked your hand across the table and so confuse even someone watching closely. The game is often called three-card monte in North America, a name taken from monte, a Spanish game using 45 playing cards, which was once common in Mexico and California.

Such gambling games existed alongside street entertainers of many kinds, singers, hurdy-gurdy players, joculators (an elevated term for a jester or minstrel, from the Latin word), engastrimyths (a ventriloquist, another highfalutin term, from Greek gaster, belly, and muthos, speech), plus blind fiddlers, dancing dogs and performers of strange and exotic feats of strength and endurance.

Street entertainment in London at the end of the nineteenth century was recalled by a writer many years later:

At one point you would find a Highlander (probably from Camden Town) with bagpipes, and a lady partner doing the sword dance. A few yards away a man and woman doing a thought-reading act. Then a trained horse spelling “corn” and “hay” from lettered cards. ... Then a one-man band — a man who carried and worked with mouth and with different limbs, a big drum, a triangle, Pan-pipes, cymbals, and concertina. Then a contortionist and escapist being roped and manacled. Then a weight-lifter; an Italian woman with a cage of fortune-telling budgerigars; a tattooed sailor advertising a tattooist — in short, a small Bartholomew Fair every Saturday night, and a gusto to it which is, or seems to be, absent even from the Bank Holiday Fairs of to-day.”

London in my Time, by Thomas Burke, 1934. Bartholomew Fair had once been one of London’s most important summer fairs, trading in cloth and other goods as well as providing entertainment. It was suppressed in 1855 for encouraging debauchery and public disorder.

He might also have mentioned the hokey-pokey man, who sold ice-cream on the street, with his cry of “Hokey-pokey, a penny a lump!”, whose name may be from hocus-pocus, though some have pointed instead to the Italian O che poco!, “Oh, how little!” Incidentally, the dance called the Hokey-Cokey (“You do the Hokey-Cokey and you turn around / That’s what it’s all about”) was originally the Hokey-Pokey (as it still is in North America) or perhaps the Hokee-Pokee, definitely from hocus-pocus. Other foods were sold by the muffin-man, who in the winter usually sold crumpets instead, and the orange-girls of street and theatre, of whom Nell Gwyn is the most famous.

A journalist asked a workhouse master about the performers fallen on bad times who came through his doors:

I really believe we might give a very decent entertainment to our old people, if it was the time for their annual treat, without hiring a single professional from outside. We have at present in the house two families of acrobats, a sword-swallower, the fellow that eats burning tow with a fork [and] the black man who throws the half-hundred weight.

Mysteries of Modern London, James Greenwood, 1883. Tow is a bundle of untwisted fibres.

It occurred to workhouse master with some surprise that he had never entered a Punch-and-Judy man on the parish books, which he suggested was remarkable, considering that for more than a quarter of a century Punch had been supposed to be on his last legs. What had vanished, he commented, was the gallanty show (possibly from the Italian galante, courteous or honourable, that also gave us gallant), which Punch-and-Judy men of a previous generation had found to be a good way of earning money after dark. It was a shadow-puppet show, using silhouette figures projected on a white sheet stretched across the front of the booth, with a lantern or candles behind.

Another common public entertainment in towns and cities was the theatre or music-hall. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, any cheap playhouse was a gaff (from Romany gav, a town, which could also mean a fair or exhibition). The very cheapest sort, the lowest-life relative of the music-hall, was the penny-gaff, from the price of admission, mostly patronised by young people. Every social investigator who described such places was appalled by them:

The true penny gaff is the place where juvenile Poverty meets juvenile Crime. We elbowed our way into one, that was the foulest, dingiest place of public entertainment I can conceive. ... The odour, the atmosphere, to begin with, is indescribable. The rows of brazen young faces are terrible to look upon. It is impossible to be angry with their sauciness, or to resent the leers and grimaces that are directed upon us as unwelcome intruders. Some have the aspect of wild cats. The lynx at bay, has not a crueller glance than some I caught from almost baby faces.

London: A Pilgrimage, by Blanchard Jerrold, 1872.

A cheap theatre that presented lurid melodrama was given the slang name of blood-tub, from the vessel into which an animal’s blood was drained after slaughtering:

“I’d no idea there was a theatre in Bursley,” she remarked idly, driven into a banality by the press of her sensations. “They used to call it the Blood Tub,” he replied. “Melodrama and murder and gore — you know.”

Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett, 1911.

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Page created 09 Jul 2011