Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Chimney Sweep Slang

Like the gipsies or Romanies, the chimney-sweeping fraternity in the old climbing days had a language of their own - a limited smattering, certainly, but nevertheless sufficient slang words to speak to each other without persons who were present being able to understand their meaning. And very useful it was in many instances for them in the course of their disagreeable business. If one sweep met another strange member of the trade, to detect whether he was a greenhorn, as a novice was termed, the first would say, "Can you patter cant? (speak slang)?"  and, if a veteran, the stranger would reply, "Oh, yes, I know; nix is nothing, and a penny roll is a win buster," and directly they were hail friends well met. Doubtless the slang helped them occasionally to cover mischievous designs, as their cant words of warning were given to the rogue in time to escape with stolen booty, ere the owner, who is termed the splorger, or the skuffer, a cant name for police, understood that was the man they should have arrested. In another case, where the master sweep had the boy up a chimney difficult to ascend, and the mistress had refused to give as much for the sweeping as he demanded, he would put his head under the cloth before the grate, and call out, "Now, boy, are you near the top?" when an indistinct reply descended, which indicated he was not getting on very well. "That's right, my lad, pike the lew," meaning burk the top; then the lad would cry, "All up," and come gently down, leaving the top part of the chimney full of sooty for some other better-paid sweep to clear away.  But the mistress was not always to be deceived like that; she would insist upon seeing the boy's head or scraper out at the top of the chimney, and slang words were of no avail at such times. Housekeepers, as a rule, had an unjust suspicion of chimney-sweeps' movements while on their premises, therefore how needful it was they could apprise each other of the keen observation. Who could blame them, if they pattered cant - this, talked slang - in order to avoid running any risks?

The food of poor sweep-boys mostly came from the larders of those for whom they swept chimneys; the oldest would tell the youngest which was the best to ask for, the right moment, and the right person. "Now, Jim, mang (beg) the splorger or the rum mort (mistress) for a cant (piece) of panam and spreadham (butter), panam and fe (meat), or cas (cheese)." Now if the mistress had heard the plain English she would have known the master had told the boy what to ask for, whereas she thought it came spontaneous from the boy, and her compassion was the more excited.  If there were no grub forthcoming, some coppers must be tried for - a meg, a halfpenny; a win, a penny; twopence, a thrum; threepence; a si, a sixpence; a jug, a shilling; a kewtar, a sovereign. If it happened there was  tender-hearted mistress, or rum mort in slang, the sweep-boy would be told in cant to mang for a pair of stamps (shoes), then stockings, or any old tuggery, versus clothes, to keep the poor bare feet warm, but with not the slightest chance of his ever wearing them. They would be sold at the first second-hand clothes shop, or the rag and snoatcher (bone) man would buy them.

Many other cant words there are relating to the trade. A chimney-sweep was a feiker, and, strange to say, the words feik and feikment stood for those things which had no cant name. The sooty cloth was a tuggy, the scraper a deacon, the brush a switch, the soot was called queer, the horse was a prod, the cart a drag, rain was parney, a field a puv, a fire a glim, a door a gigar; water, lag; potatoes, spuds; servant, a dolly, and deiking for looking . A stick was a cosh, a knife a chif, eyes were ogles, and the face a mug, a house a ken, a barn or hovel to sleep in a crib, a cap a cadie. Thus it may be gathered from this vocabulary that the poor sweep-boy was more or less an outlaw, certainly an outcast, whose desperate needs of food and shelter made him keen, and likely to employ the slang he was taught and the sharpest methods to preserve his existence. Here I relate a specimen:-

The master and boy had been sweeping the kitchen chimney at an old lady's house, and when they had finished the servant told them there were no broken victuals to be given them, whereat they were much disappointed and out of temper, so on leaving they purposely annoyed the great watch-dog, kept chained to his kennel, to such a degree that the old lady came to the front door to see what caused the uproar. Then the boy was directly put up to mang for panem and fe. "Oh, but," said the lady, "your master should provide you with food." "Yes, ma'am," said the boy, "but he's got none." The artful master, perceiving the lady obdurate, he, standing a few paces off, plied the lad with urgent slang. "Mang, kiddie, mang, come away from the good lady; mang, kiddie, mang, don't tease the good lady; mang, kiddy-ma, mang-mang-mang." And in the end the twain prevailed, and the lady ordered the servant to give them the tardy supply.

George Elson, Last of the Climbing Boys, 1900

2 comments:

  1. And when you consider when climbing boys were banned, it's a bit shocking that they were still around (although "the last of") in 1900! Fascinating post, as usual.

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    1. Actually, I should have made clear, the author here is looking back on the mid-century when he was a child ... but certainly boy sweeps lingered in the provinces, even after (repeated) legislation was passed, until about the 1870s.

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