Henry Mayhew

From Volume III, Section II - Street Musicians
Old Sarah


   One of the most deserving and peculiar of the street musicians was an old lady who played upon a hurdy-gurdy. She had been
about the streets of London for upwards of forty years, and being blind, had had during that period four guides, and worn out three
instruments. Her cheerfulness, considering her privation and precarious mode of life, was extraordinary.  Her love of truth, and the
extreme simplicity of her nature, were almost childlike. Like the generality of blind people, she had a deep sense of religion, and her
charity for a woman in her station of life was something marvellous; for, though living on alms, she herself had, I was told, two or three
little pensioners. When questioned on this subject, she laughed the matter off as a jest, though I was assured of the truth of the fact.
Her attention to her guide was most marked.  If a cap of tea was given to her after her day's rounds, she would be sure to turn to the
poor creature who led her about, and ask, "You comfortable, Liza?" or "Is your tea to your liking, Liza?"

   When conveyed to Mr. Beard's establishment to have her daguerreotype taken, she for the first time in her life rode in a cab; and
then her fear at being pulled "back'ards" as she termed it (for she sat with her back to the horse), was almost painful. She felt about
for something to lay hold of, and did not appear comfortable until she had a firm grasp of the pocket. After her alarm had in a mea-
sure subsided, she turned to her guide and said, "We must put up with those trials, Liza." In a short time, however, she began
to find the ride pleasant enough. "Very nice, ain't it Liza?" she said; "but I shouldn't like to ride on them steamboats, they say they're
shocking dangerous; and as for them railways, I've heard tell they're dreadful; but these cabs, Liza, is very nice." On the road she was
continually asking "Liza" where they were, and wondering at the rapidity at which they travelled. "Ah!" she said, laughing, "if I
had one of these here cabs, my 'rounds' would soon be over." Whilst ascending the high flight of stairs that led to the portrait-
rooms, she laughed at every proposal made to her to rest. "There's twice as many stairs as these to our church, ain't there, Liza?" she
replied when pressed. When the portrait was finished she expressed a wish to feel it.

   The following is the history of her life, as she herself related it, answering to the variety of questions put to her on the subject: -

   "I was born the 4th April, 1786 (it was Good Friday that year), at a small chandler's shop, facing the White Horse, Stuart's-rents,
Drury-lane. Father was a hatter, and mother an artificial-flower maker and feather finisher. When I was but a day old, the nurse took me
out of the warm bed and carried me to the window, to show some people how like I was to father. The cold flew to my eyes and I
caught inflammation in them. Owing to mother being forced to be from home all day at her work, I was put out to dry-nurse when I was
three weeks old. My eyes were then very bad, by all accounts, and some neighbours told the woman I was with, that Turner's cerate
would do them good. She got some and put it on my eyes, and when poor mother came to suckle me at her dinner-hour, my eyes was all
'a gore of blood.' From that time I never see afterwards. She did it, poor woman, for the best; it was no fault of her'n, and I'm
sure I bears her no malice for it. I stayed at home with mother until I was thirteen, when I was put to the Blind-school, but I only kept
there nine months; they turned me out because I was not clever with my hands, and I could not learn to spin or make sash-lines;
my hands was ocker'd like. I had not been used at home to do anything for myself - not even to dress myself. Mother was always out
at her work, so she could not learn me, and no one else would, so that's how it was I was turned out. I then went hack to my mother,
and kept with her till her death. I well remember that; I heard her last. When she died I was just sixteen year old. I was sent
to the Union - 'Pancridge' Union it was - and father with me (for he was ill at the time). He died too, and left me, in seven weeks after
mother. When they was both gone, I felt I had lost my only friends, and that I was all alone in the world and blind. But, take it
altogether, the world has been very good to me, and I have much to thank God for and the good woman I am with. I missed mother the
most, she was so kind to me; there was no one like her; no, not even father. I was kept in the Union until I was twenty; the parish
paid for my learning the 'cymbal:' God bless them for it, I say. A poor woman in the workhouse first asked me to learn music; she
said it would always be a bit of bread for me; I did as she told me, and I thank her to this day for it. It took me just five months to
learn the - cymbal, if you please - the hurdy-gurdy ain't it's right name. The first tune I ever played was 'God save the King,' the
Queen as is now; then 'Harlequin Hamlet,' that took me a long time to get off; it was three weeks before they put me on a new one.
I then learnt 'Moll Brook;' then I did the 'Turnpike-gate' and 'Patrick's day in the morning:' all of them I learnt in the Union. I
got a poor man to teach me the 'New-rigged ship' I soon learnt it, because it was an easy tune. Two-and-forty years ago I played 'The
Gal I left behind me.' A woman learnt it me; she played my cymbal and I listened, and so got it. 'Oh, Susannah!' I learnt myself by
hearing it on the horgan. I always try and listen to a new tune when I am in the street, and get it off if I can: it's my bread. I waited
to hear one to-day, quite a new one, but I didn't like it, so I went on. 'Hasten to the Wedding' is my favourite; I played it years
ago, and play it still. I like 'Where have you been all the night?' it's a Scotch tune. The woman as persuaded me to learn the cymbal
took me out of the Union with her; I lived with her, and she led me about the streets. When she died I took her daughter for my
guide. She walked with me for more than five-and-twenty year, and she might have been with me to this day, but she took to drinking
and killed herself with it. She behaved very bad to me at last, for as soon as we got a few halfpence she used to go into the public and
spend it all; and many a time I'm sure she's been too tipsy to take me home. One night I remember she rolled into the road at Ken-
sington, and as near pulled me with her. We was both locked up in the station-house, for she couldn't stand for liquor, and I was
obligated to wait till she could lead me home. It was very cruel of her to treat me so, but, poor creature, she's gone, and I forgive her
I'm sure. I'd many-guides arter her, but none of them was honest like Liza is: I don't think she'd rob me of a farden. Would you, Liza?
Yes, I've my reg'lar rounds, and I've I've kept to 'em for near upon fifty year. All the children like to hear me coming along, for I always
plays my cymbal as I goes. At Kentish-town they calls me Mrs. Tuesday, and at Kensington I'm Mrs. Friday, and so on. At some
places they likes polkas, but at one house I plays at in Kensington they always ask me for 'Haste to the Wedding.' No, the cymbal isn't
very hard to play; the only thing is, you must be very particular that the works is covered up, or the halfpence is apt to drop in. King David,
they say, played on one of those here instruments. We're very tired by night-time; ain't we, Liza? but when I gets home the good
woman I lodges with has always a bit of something for me to eat with my cup of tea. She's a good soul, and keeps me tidy and clean.
I helps her all I can; when I come in, I carries her a pail of water up-stairs, and such-like, Many ladies as has known me since they was
children allows me a trifle. One maiden lady near Brunswick-square has given me sixpence a week for many a year, and another allows
me eighteenpence a fortnight; so that, one way and another, I am very comfortable, and I've much to be thankful for."

   It was during one of old Sarah's journeys that an accident occurred, which ultimately deprived London of the well-known old hurdy-
gurdy woman. In crossing Seymour-street, she and her guide Liza were knocked down by a cab, as it suddenly turned a corner. They
were picked up and placed in the vehicle (the poor guide dead, and Sarah with her limbs broken), and carried to the University Hospi-
tal. Old Sarah's description of that ride is more terrible and tragic than I can hope to make out to you. The poor blind creature
was ignorant of the fate of her guide, she afterwards told us, and kept begging and praying to Liza to speak to her as the vehicle
conveyed them to the asylum. She shook her, she said, and intreated her to say if she was hurt, but not a word was spoken in answer,
and then she felt how terrible a privation was her blindness; and it was not until they reached the hospital, and they were lifted from.
the cab, that she knew, as she heard the people whisper to one another, that her faithful attendant was dead. In telling us this, the
good old soul forgot her own sufferings for the time, as she lay with both her legs broken beneath the hooped bed-clothes of the hospital
bed; and when, after many long weeks, she left the medical asylum, she was unable to continue her playing on the hurdy-gurdy, her hand
being now needed for the crutch that was requisite to bear her on her rounds. The shock, however, had been too much for
the poor old creature's feeble nature to rally against, and though she continued to hobble round to the houses of the kind people who had
for years allowed her a few pence per week, and went limping along musicless through the streets for some months after she left the
hospital, yet her little remaining strength at length failed, her, and she took to her bed in a room in Bell-court, Gray's-inn-lane, never to
rise from it again.