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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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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,

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