Tag Archives: James Ware

Forty-One Of The Gang

To have been in the sun, according to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, was to be drunk, as both drink and exposure to the sun produce a red face, a good example, he asserts, of direct satire by indirect means. Sun over the fore-yard was a naval expression denoting that someone was dead drunk, perhaps the result of swallering a sailor, drinking and getting drunk on rum. A sailor, though, who had swallered the anchor was one who comes home, loafs, and shows no sign of going back to sea again.

A colourful phrase with an interesting history is sworn at Highgate, an oath by which the swearer asserts that they will never accept anything offered while they can get something better. It owed its origin to a coloured cartoon published by Laurie and Whittle of 53, Fleet Street on September 12, 1792. In Ware’s time the best example of the cartoon was to be found at the Old Gate House at the top of Highgate Hill, the only place where the oath can be properly administered.

The oath-taker is accompanied by a herald”, he writes, “who holds aloof the significant horns which are produced in letter form at the front of the tavern before which the operation is completed. The maid pins meanwhile a ragged clout to coat tail, while the mistress waits with a foaming pot of beer or rather a gallon measure, for the garnishing of everybody after the oath is complete”.   

The declaration runs “pray sir – lay your right hand on this book and attend to the Oath – you swear by the Rules of Sound Judgement that you will not eat Brown Bread when you can have White, except you like the Brown the better; that you will not drink Small Beer when you can get Strong, except you like the Small Beer better – but you will kiss the Maid in preference to the Mistress, if you like the Maid better – so help you, Billy Bodkin. Turn round and fulfil your oath”.

The exceptions show that the oath was not an oath and for amusement regulars of the pubs in the vicinity would convince newcomers to swear the oath. Certain privileges were endowed upon the oath-swearer. As well as getting to kiss the prettiest girl in the establishment, if they needed a rest in Highgate, they could kick a pig out of a ditch and take its place. If there were three pigs in the ditch, he could only remove the middle one and had to rest between the other two. Arriving without any money would entitle him to free drinks but if money was then found on his person, he had to stand a round for everyone in the pub.

Thirty-Eight Of The Gang

According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, there were compensations to be had from a spell of wet weather. Pavement were rudimentary and soon turned into a sea of mud, heralding the arrival of Shulleg Day. To prevent their long dresses from dragging in the mud, women would hitch them up, revealing a glimpse of ankle and lower leg to onlookers. Shulleg is a mangling of show-leg.

We know what a sit-down supper is, but what is fascinating was why it was necessary to emphasis that a meal would be taken sitting at a table. Apparently, in the late 1850s the medical press began to agitate against the practice of ostentatious and expensive banquets. The result was a more economical approach to feeding an assembled crowd, by inventing the stand-up meal, which by necessity was a thinner meal than a banquet. Old-fashioned people, Ware wryly observes, adopted this term to emphasis the difference.

Looking for an inventive way to describe an impossibility? Try six buses through Temple Bar, a phrase attributed to the MP, General George Thompson, who represented Tower Hamlets from 1847 and was a prominent abolitionist. John Bright, speaking in Leeds on October 18, 1883, gave some colour to the phrase when speaking against the proposed Suffrage Bill. He said that those proposing it “will be committing that great mistake which our old friend General Thompson used to describe as being made by the man who insisted on driving six omnibuses abreast through Temple Bar”. They just would not fit!

Thirty-Seven Of The Gang

According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, to see the elephant was to see something out to its conclusion. This colourful phrase owes its origin to the world of the circus where the final and most thrilling act, designed to send the spectators home happy and begging for more, involved an elephant.

Rail travel boomed in the mid-19th century and new lines and stations sprang up, especially around the metropolis. One such was Walworth Road Station on the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway which opened in May 1863, originally as Camberwell Gate but changed its name in in January 1865. It was built on a viaduct over three roads.

Even by 1868 it had earned a bad reputation, known as Shoot because of the immense number of persons “shot” out there”. Its poor reputation persisted through the years. The South London Press in November 1882 wrote, “a recent writer on the condition of Italy adduces the wretched character of most of the railway stations as evidence of the poverty of the country. I would give something to know his opinion of Walworth, as evidenced by the condition of the Shoot!” The station closed for good on April 3, 1916, and nothing remains of it today.

As a station, Walworth Road may have said to have shot into the brown, a figurative expression for failure. It came from rifle practice, a poor shot missing the black and white target altogether and landing in the brown butt, the earth.

Thirty-Six Of The Gang

According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, sapper was music hall slang for a gay, irresistible dog, derived from the chorus of a song popularised by Therese, a famous Parisian music hall cantatrice. It went, “rien est sacré pour un sssapeur”. She came over to appear on stage in London in 1866.

Is the language someone uses indicative of their social status? I raise the point in considering the terms used for safety matches. They were known as lucifers, but many regarded the term to be ludicrously pompous. The middle classes toned the description down by calling them lucifer matches, while the working classes just called them scratchers which described them to a tee. I shall go to my local fish and chip shop and ask for a bag of scaffold-poles and see what I get. It was London slang for the chips that accompanied fried fish, another example of nomenclature fitting the look of the object described.

I was familiar with the term of scrumping, taking fruit from a tree without the owner’s permission, but scrunging was a new one on me. It referred to the taking of unripe apples and pears, Ware opining that it was intended to replicate the sound made in attempting to eat these hard fruits. To be caught scrounging might have been second-hand sun, a term used to denote nothing to be proud of and derived from the poor unfortunates whose only daylight in their accommodation came courtesy of a reflection from a neighbouring wall.

Thirty-Two Of The Gang

What is a pig month? According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era it was any of the eight months without an R in their name when it was said to be safe to eat pork.

Pork is a common ingredient in pies. One of the first pie shops in London was established by Henry Blanchard, probably from around 1844. There all manner of pies could be purchased, ranging from fruit to meat to eel. It proved enormously popular with the paying public as pies cost just one penny. It was less well received by the itinerant pie sellers. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, noted that “the penny pie shops, the street men say, have done their trade a great deal of harm. These shops have now got mostly all the custom, as they make pies much larger for the money than those sold in the street”.

Perhaps these disgruntled pie sellers were instrumental for coining the phrase pie shop as a synonym for a dog, for the simple expedient that was what they alleged to be the main ingredient of the pies.

In street argot a pill was a dose, punishment suffering or a sentence because of being endless in its application. A pill pusher, though, was a doctor.

An objection that could be levied at Johnson’s government is that they are guilty of podsnappery. This was defined as “a wilful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient, at the same time assuming airs of superior virtue and noble resignation”. If only the latter was true.