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Tuer, Andrew White, 1838-1900 / Old London street cries ; and, The cries of to-day : with heaps of quaint cuts including hand-coloured frontispiece (1885)

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  [p. 121]  

From "Notes and queries."

LONDON STREET CRY.—What is the meaning of the old London cry, "Buy a fine mousetrap, or a tormentor for your fleas" ? Mention of it is found in one of the Roxburghe ballads dated 1662, and, amongst others, in a work dated about fifty years earlier. The cry torments me, and only its elucidation will bring ease.

The Leadenhall Press, E.C.

LONDON STREET CRY (6th S. viii. 348)—Was not this really a "tormentor for your flies" ? The mouse-trap man would probably also sell little bunches of butcher's broom (Ruscus, the mouse-thorn of the Germans), a very effective and destructive weapon in the bands of an active butcher's boy, when employed to guard his master's meat from the attacks of flies.

  [p. 122]  

LONDON STREET CRY (6th S. viii. 348, 393).—The following quotations from Taylor, the Water Poet, may be of interest to Mr. TUER :—

"I could name more, if so my Muse did please,
Of Mowse Traps, and tormentors to kill Fleas."

The Travels of Twelve-pence.

Yet shall my begg'ry no strange Suites devise,
As monopolies to catch Fleas and Flyes."

The Beggar.


I notice a query from you in N. and Q. about a London Street Cry which troubles you. Many of the curious adjuncts to Street Cries proper have, I apprehend, originally no meaning beyond drawing attention to the Crier by their whimsicality. I will give you an instance. Soon after the union between England and Ireland, a man with a sack on his back went regularly about the larger streets of Dublin. His cry was :

"Bits of Brass,
Broken Glass,
Old Iron,
Bad luck to you Castlereagh."
  [p. 123]  

Party feeling against Lord Castlereagh ran very high at the time, I believe, and the political adjunct to his cry probably brought the man more shillings than he got by his regular calling.

H. G. W.

P.S.—I find I have unconsciously made a low pun. The cry alluded to above would probably be understood and appreciated in the streets of Dublin at the present with reference to the Repeal of the Union.



The "Tormentor," concerning which you inquire in Notes and Queries of this date, was also known as a "Scratch-back," and specimens are occasionally to be seen in the country. I recollect seeing one, of superior make, many years ago. An ivory hand, the fingers like those of "Jasper Packlemerton of atrocious memory," were "curled as in the act of" scratching, a finely carved wrist-band of lace was the appropriate ornament, and the whole was attached to a slender ivory rod of say eighteen inches in length. The finger nails were sharpened, and the instrument was thus available for discomfiting "back-biters," even when   [p. 124]   engaged upon the most inaccessible portions of the human superficies. I have also seen a less costly article of the same sort carved out of pear-wood (or some similar material). It is probable that museums might furnish examples of the "back scratcher," "scratch back," or "tormentor for your fleas."

Very truly yours,

On turning over the leaves of Notes and Queries, I happened on your enquiry re "Tormentor for your fleas." May I ask, have you succeeded in getting at the meaning or origin of this curious street cry ? I have tried to trace it, but in vain. It occurs to me as just possible that the following circumstance may bear on it :—

The Japanese are annoyed a good deal with fleas. They make little cages of bamboo—such I suppose as a small bird cage or mouse-trap—containing plenty of bars and perches inside. These bars they smear over with bird-lime, and then take the cage to bed with them. Is it not, as I say, just possible, that one   [p. 125]   of our ancient mariners brought the idea home with him and started it in London ? If so, a maker of bird cages or mouse-traps is likely to have put the idea into execution, and cried his mouse-traps and "flea tormentors" in one breath.

Faithfully yours,

From "Notes and Queries," April 18th, 1885.

LONDON CRIES—A cheap and extended edition of my London Street Cries being on the eve of publication, I shall be glad of early information as to the meaning of "A dip and a wallop for a bawbee"[1*] and "Water for the buggs."[2*] I recollect many years ago reading an explanation of the former, but am doubtful as to its correctness.


One who was an Edinburgh student towards the end of last century told me that a man carrying a leg of mutton by the shank would traverse the streets crying "Twa dips and a wallop for a bawbee." This brought   [p. 126]   the gude-wives to their doors with pails of boiling water, which was in this manner converted into "broth."




The Cockney sound of long ā which is confused with received ī, is very different from it, and where it approaches that sound, the long ī is very broad, so that there is no possibility of confusing them in a Cockney's ear. But is the sound Cockney ? Granted it is very prevalent in E. and N. London, yet it is rarely found in W. and S.W. My belief is that it is especially an Essex variety. There is no doubt about its prevalence in Essex, so that [very roughly indeed] "I say" there becomes "oy sy." Then as regards the ō and ou. These are never pronounced alike. The ō certainly often imitates received ow, though it has more distinctly an ō commencement ; but when   [p. 127]   that is the case, ou has a totally different sound, which dialect-writers usually mark as aow, having a broad ā commencement, almost a in bad. Finer speakers— shopmen and clerks—will use a finer a. The sound of short u in nut, does not sound to me at all like e in net. There are great varieties of this "natural vowel," as some people call it, and our received nut is much finer than the general southern provincial and northern Scotch sounds, between which lie the mid and north England sounds rhyming to foot nearly, and various transitional forms. Certainly the sounds of nut, gnat are quite different, and are never confused by speakers ; yet you would write both as net.

The pronunciation of the Metropolitan area is extremely mixed ; no one form prevails. We may put aside educated or received English as entirely artificial. The N., N.E., and E. districts all partake of an East Anglian character ; but whether that is recent, or belongs to the Middle Anglian character of Middlesex, is difficult to say. I was born in the N. district, within the sound of Bow Bells (the Cockney limits), over seventy years ago, and I do not recall the ī pronunciation of ā in my boyish days, nor do I recollect having seen it used by the older humourists. Nor do I find it in "Errors of Pronunciation and Improper Expressions, Used Frequently and Chiefly by the   [p. 128]   Inhabitants of London," 1817, which likewise does not note any pronunciation of ō like ow. Hence I am inclined to believe that both are modernisms, due to the growing of London into the adjacent provinces. They do not seem to me yet prevalent in the W. districts, though the N.W. is transitional. South of the Thames, in the S.W. districts, I think they are practically unknown. In the S.E. districts, which dip into N. Kent, the finer form of aow for ou is prevalent. The uneducated of course form a mode of speech among themselves. But I am sorry to find even school teachers much infected with the ī, ow, aow, pronunciations of ā, ō, ou, in N. districts.

Of course your Cockney orthography goes upon very broad lines, and you are quite justified in raising a laugh by apparent confusions, where no confusions are made by the speakers themselves, as Hans Breitmann did with the German. The confusion is only in our ears. They speak a language we do not use. To write the varieties of sounds, especially of diphthongs, with anything like correctness, requires a phonetic alphabet which cannot even be read, much less written, without great study, such as you cannot look for in readers who want only to be amused. But another question arises, Should we lay down a pronunciation ? There never has been any authority capable of doing   [p. 129]   so. Orthoepists may protest, but the fashion of pronunciation will again change, as it has changed so often and so markedly during the last six hundred years ; see the proofs in my Early English Pronunciation. Why should we not pronounce ā as we do ī, pronouncing ī as we do oy ? Why should we not call ō as we now call ow, pronouncing that as aow ? Is not our ā a change from ī (the German ei, ai) in say, away, pain, etc. ? Is not our ou a change from our sound of oo in cow, etc. ? Again, our oo replaces an old oh sound. There is nothing but fashion which rules this. But when sounds are changed in one set of vowels, a compensating change takes places in another set, and so no confusion results. In one part of Cheshire I met with four sounds of y in my, never confused by natives, although a received speaker hears only one, and all arose from different sources. Why is one pronunciation horrid (or aw-ud), and another not ? Simply because they mark social grades. Of course I prefer my own pronunciation, it's been my companion for so many years. But others, just as much of course, prefer theirs. When I brought out the Phonetic News, in phonetic spelling, many years ago, a newsvendor asked me, "Why write neewz ? We always say nooze."

Very truly yours,
  [p. 130]  

greyscale device


[1*] See p. 29.

[2*] See p. 29.

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