The Victorian Omnium-Gatherum
Of all places in the world, the London police-courts afford the most curious revelations of civilised ethnology. Hardly a week passes but some extraordinary stratum of crime or misfortune, wherein human creatures are found imbedded, and human nature petrified or transformed, is brought to light.
The London newspapers lately chronicled the manner of life of a man who, while we cannot call him criminal, and have no right to deem him unfortunate, since he appears to enjoy his own mode of existence as much as anybody else - would seem to have chosen a career embracing a quintessence of vileness, misery, and wretchedness. In a recent assault-case heard before the magistrates at the Clerkenwell Court, this individual appeared as a witness. His real name is said to be Smith, but he has gained notoriety in the purlieus of Field Lane, Saffron Hill, and other kindred localities, under the sobriquet of 'The Jumper.' He is a ratcatcher by profession, but follows his calling in a style which places him apart from all his confrères in that elegant avocation, and induces us to believe that, his manner of carrying on business considered, there can hardly be ' two of a trade.' The man catches rats for those who keep sporting-dogs, and the field of his labours embraces all subterranean London. One-half of Jumper's life is spent in quest of prey from the metropolitan sewerage. Furnished with a bull's-eye lantern, a capacious and strongly-made folding-trap, and a short rake, he enters the main sewers at the foot of Blackfriars' Bridge, and tracing his dark and labyrinthine way beneath the busy thoroughfares of the metropolis, waist-deep in mud and filth of every description, he pursues his dangerous and revolting occupation. The sewers literally swarm with rats. Holding lantern and trap in his left hand, he thrusts his rake hither and thither. The disturbed vermin rush from their hiding-places, and, dazzled by the light, fall an easy prey to Jumper, who, gifted with a peculiar knack, catches them by hand, and places them in his cage as easily and indifferently as if they were young kittens. His under-ground journeys extend for miles. He has been under Newgate and along Cheap-side to the Mansion-House, the roaring traffic above him sounding like the dull rumbling of distant thunder. He has traversed from Holborn to Islington, closely inspecting all the divergent passages and odoriferous tributaries which fall into the cloaca maxima of the mighty metropolis. It is declared, indeed, that he knows more about the sewerage of London and its condition than any other living man, and that upon the strength of such qualification he would make an excellent chairman to the Board of Commissioners sitting in Greek Street, under whose premises he has so often rambled in pursuit of game.
It is recorded that on one occasion an obstruction occurred to a drain at the foot of Holborn Hill, and Jumper being known in the neighbourhood, was applied to. Terms were speedily agreed upon. Jumper started off to the foot of Blackfriars' Bridge, and in half an hour his voice was heard down the gully-hole. He quickly cleared away the obstruction, and received his reward, which was well deserved, as he had saved the public the expense and inconvenience of breaking up the thoroughfare.
It is not, however, to the rats alone that Jumper devotes his attention and industry. He frequently falls in with rich windfalls - or, to improve the metaphor, waterfalls - especially in the City. On one occasion he found a silk purse containing gold and silver ; on another a gold watch and seals; and he is constantly rooting up silver spoons, rings, and other articles of value.
Some time ago Jumper took on an apprentice, or rather a pupil, for the profession - a man named Harris - one bred to the horse-slaughtering business, and who, after such a course of preparation, might be supposed to have lost the sensitiveness of olfactory and stomachic nerves to a sufficient degree to enable him to enter on the new occupation. After a month's trial, however, he gave it up as a bad job. ' I can stand a tidy lot,' said he, somewhat crestfallen ; ' but I can't stand that 'ere !' So Jumper remains alone in his glory, 'monarch of all he surveys.' There is no man, however, who has not his trials : envy, jealousy, contempt, interference, are the common lot. Jumper's right has been disputed by a lord mayor, who threatened him with imprisonment on the ground of trespass; Jumper, however, still pursues his delectable calling. He has been three times attacked with typhus fever. but rapidly recovered on each occasion, apparently too tough, tried, and tanned for the grim assailant.
Jumper may be seen on Sundays well dressed, and generally with a watch in his pocket - presenting, indeed, a comfortable and well-to-do appearance. It may be added, that the rats bring him in from one shilling to eighteenpence a dozen; and so conversant is he with their haunts or burrows, that he requires but a couple of hours' notice to produce any given quantity, from a dozen to a hundred. This most extraordinary character is, we believe, at present in good health, and follows his calling with the greatest assiduity among the foundations of the London streets
From Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal 22 November 1851
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A Glimpse Into London's Early Sewers