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Chambers, William / Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 437 Volume 17, New Series, May 15, 1852



No. 437. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, MAY 15, 1852. PRICE 1-1/2_d._


There is no occupation in life, be it ever so humble, which is justly
worthy of contempt, if by it a man is enabled to administer to his
necessities without becoming a burden to others, or a plague to them
by the parade of shoeless feet, fluttering rags, and a famished face.
In the multitudinous drama of life, which on the wide theatre of the
metropolis is ever enacting with so much intense earnestness, there
is, and from the very nature of things there always must be, a
numerous class of supernumeraries, who from time to time, by the force
of varying circumstances, are pushed and hustled off the stage, and
shuffled into the side-scenes, the drear and dusky background of the
world's proscenium. Of the thousands and tens of thousands thus rudely
dealt with, he is surely not the worst who, wanting a better weapon,
shoulders a birch-broom, and goes forth to make his own way in the
world, by removing the moist impediments of filth and refuse from the
way of his more fortunate fellows. Indeed, look upon him in what light
you may, he is in some sort a practical moralist. Though far remote
from the ivy chaplet on Wisdom's glorious brow, yet his stump of
withered birch inculcates a lesson of virtue, by reminding us, that we
should take heed to our steps in our journeyings through the
wilderness of life; and, so far as in him lies, he helps us to do so,
and by the exercise of a very catholic faith, looks for his reward to
the value he supposes us to entertain for that virtue which, from time
immemorial, has been in popular parlance classed as next to godliness.

Time was, it is said, when the profession of a street-sweeper in
London was a certain road to competence and fortune--when the men of
the brooms were men of capital; when they lived well, and died rich,
and left legacies behind them to their regular patrons. These palmy
days, at any rate, are past now. Let no man, or woman either, expect a
legacy at this time of day from the receiver of his copper dole. The
labour of the modern sweeper is nothing compared with his of half a
century ago. The channel of viscous mud, a foot deep, through which,
so late as the time when George the Third was king, the carts and
carriages had literally to plough their way, no longer exists, and the
labour of the sweeper is reduced to a tithe of what it was. He has no
longer to dig a trench in the morning, and wall up the sides of his
fosse with stiff earth, hoarded for the purpose, as we have seen him
doing in the days when 'Boney' was a terror. The city scavengers have
reduced his work to a minimum, and his pay has dwindled
proportionately. The twopences which used to be thrown to a sweeper
will now pay for a ride, and the smallest coin is considered a
sufficient guerdon for a service so light. But what he has lost in
substantial emolument, he has gained in _morale_; he is infinitely
more polite and attentive than he was; he sweeps ten times as clean
for a half-penny as he did for twopence or sixpence, and thanks you
more heartily than was his wont in the days of yore. The truth is,
that civility, as a speculation, is found to pay; and the want of it,
even among the very lowest rank of industrials in London, is at the
present moment not merely a rarity, but an actual phenomenon--always
supposing that something is to be got by it.

The increase of vehicles of all descriptions, but more especially
omnibuses, which are perpetually rushing along the main thoroughfares,
has operated largely in shutting out the crossing-sweepers from what
was at one period the principal theatre of their industry.
Independent, too, of the unbroken stream of carriages which renders
sweeping during the day impossible, and the collection of small coin
from the crowd who dart impatiently across the road when a practicable
breach presents itself, equally so, it is found that too dense a
population is less favourable to the brotherhood of the broom than one
ever so sparse and thin. Had the negro of Waithman's obelisk survived
the advent of Shillibeer, he would have had to shift his quarters, or
to have drawn upon his three-and-a-half per cents. to maintain his
position. The sweepers who work on the great lines of traffic from
Oxford Street west to Aldgate, are consequently not nearly so numerous
as they once were, though the members of the profession have probably
doubled their numbers within the last twenty years. They exercise
considerable judgment in the choice of their locations, making
frequent experiments in different spots, feeling the pulse of the
neighbourhood, as it were, ere they finally settle down to establish a
permanent connection.

We shall come to a better understanding of the true condition of these
muddy nomads by considering them in various classes, as they actually
exist, and each of which may be identified without much trouble. The
first in the rank is he who is bred to the business, who has followed
it from his earliest infancy, and never dreamed of pursuing any other
calling. We must designate him as

No. 1. _The Professional Sweeper_.--He claims precedence before all
others, as being to the manner born, and inheriting his broom, with
all its concomitant advantages, from his father, or mother, as it
might be. All his ideas, interests, and affections are centered in one
spot of ground--the spot he sweeps, and has swept daily for the last
twenty or thirty years, ever since it was bequeathed to him by his
parent. The companion of his childhood, his youth, and his maturer
age, is the post buttressed by the curb-stone at the corner of the
street. To that post, indeed, he is a sort of younger brother. It has
been his friend and support through many a stormy day and blustering
night. It is the confidant of his hopes and his sorrows, and
sometimes, too, his agent and cashier, for he has cut a small basin in
the top of it, where a passing patron may deposit a coin if he choose,
under the guardianship of the broom, which, while he is absent for a
short half-hour discussing a red herring and a crust for his dinner,
leans gracefully against his friend the post, and draws the attention
of a generous public to that as the deputy-receiver of the exchequer.
Our professional friend has a profound knowledge of character: he has
studied the human face divine all his life, and can read at a glance,
through the most rigid and rugged lineaments, the indications of
benevolence or the want of it; and he knows what aspect and expression
to assume, in order to arouse the sympathies of a hesitating giver. He
knows every inmate of every house in his immediate neighbourhood; and
not only that, but he knows their private history and antecedents for
the last twenty years. He has watched a whole generation growing up
under his broom, and he looks upon them all as so much material
destined to enhance the value of his estate. He is the humble
pensioner of a dozen families: he wears the shoes of one, the
stockings of another, the shirts of a third, the coats of a fourth,
and so on; and he knows the taste of everybody's cookery, and the
temper of everybody's cookmaid, quite as well as those who daily
devour the one and scold the other. He is intimate with everybody's
cat and everybody's dog, and will carry them home if he finds them
straying. He is on speaking terms with everybody's servant-maid, and
does them all a thousand kind offices, which are repaid with interest
by surreptitious scraps from the larder, and jorums of hot tea in the
cold wintry afternoons. On the other hand, if he knows so much, he is
equally well known: he is as familiar to sight as the Monument on Fish
Street Hill to those who live opposite; he is part and parcel of the
street view, and must make a part of the picture whenever it is
painted, or else it wont be like. You cannot realise the idea of
meeting him elsewhere; it would be shocking to your nerves to think of
it: you would as soon think of seeing the Obelisk walking up Ludgate
Hill, for instance, as of meeting him there--it could not be. Where he
goes when he leaves his station, you have not the least notion. He is
there so soon as it is light in the morning, and till long after the
gas is burning at night. He is a married man, of course, and his wife,
a worthy helpmate, has no objection to pull in the same boat with him.
When Goggs has a carpet to beat--he beats all the carpets on his
estate--Mrs Goggs comes to console the post in his absence. She
usually signalises her advent by a desperate assault with the broom
upon the whole length of the crossing: it is plain she never thinks
that Goggs keeps the place clean enough, and so she brushes him a
hint. Goggs has a weakness for beer, and more than once we have seen
him asleep on a hot thirsty afternoon, too palpably under the
influence of John Barleycorn to admit of a doubt, his broom between
his legs, and his back against his abstinent friend the post. Somehow,
whenever this happens, Mrs G. is sure to hear of it, and she walks him
off quietly, that the spectacle of a sweeper overtaken may not bring a
disgrace upon the profession; and then, broom in hand, she takes her
stand, and does his duty for the remainder of the day. The receipts of
the professional sweeper do not vary throughout the year so much as
might be supposed. They depend very little upon chance contributions:
these, there is no doubt, fall off considerably, if they do not fail
altogether, during a continuance of dry weather, when there is no need
of the sweeper's services; but the man is remunerated chiefly by
regular donations from known patrons, who form his connection, and
who, knowing that he must eat and drink be the weather wet or dry,
bestow their periodical pittances accordingly.

No. 2 is the _Morning Sweeper_.--This is rather a knowing subject,
one, at least, who is capable of drawing an inference from certain
facts. There are numerous lines of route, both north and south of the
great centres of commerce, and all converging towards the city as
their nucleus, which are traversed, morning and evening, for two or
three consecutive hours, by bands of gentlemanly-looking individuals:
clerks, book-keepers, foremen, business-managers, and such like
responsible functionaries, whose unimpeachable outer integuments
testify to their regard for appearances. This current of
respectability sets in towards the city at about half-past six in the
morning, and continues its flow until just upon ten o'clock, when it
may be said to be highwater. Though a large proportion of these agents
of the world's traffic are daily borne to and from their destination
in omnibuses, still the great majority, either for the sake of
exercise or economy, are foot-passengers. For the accommodation of the
latter, the crossing-sweeper stations himself upon the dirtiest
portion of the route, and clearing a broad and convenient path ere the
sun is out of bed, awaits the inevitable tide, which must flow, and
which can hardly fail of bringing him some remuneration for his
labour. If we are to judge from the fact, that along one line of route
which we have been in the habit of traversing for several years, we
have counted as many as fourteen of these morning sweepers in a march
of little more than two miles, the speculation cannot be altogether
unprofitable. In traversing the same route in the middle of the day,
not three of the sweepers would be found at their post; and the reason
would be obvious enough, since the streets are then comparatively
deserted, being populous in the morning only, because they are so many
short-cuts or direct thoroughfares from the suburbs to the city. The
morning sweeper is generally a lively and active young fellow; often a
mere child, who is versed in the ways of London life, and who, knowing
well the value of money from the frequent want of it, is anxious to
earn a penny by any honest means. Ten to one, he has been brought up
in the country, and has been tutored by hard necessity, in this great
wilderness of brick, to make the most of every hour, and of every
chance it may afford him. He will be found in the middle of the day
touting for a job at the railway stations, to carry a portmanteau or
to wheel a truck; or he will be at Smithfield, helping a butcher to
drive to the slaughterhouse his bargain of sheep or cattle; or in some
livery-yards, currying a horse or cleaning out a stable. If he can
find nothing better to employ him, he will return to his sweeping in
the evening, especially if it be summer-time, and should set in wet at
five or six o'clock. When it is dark early, he knows that it won't pay
to resume the broom; commercial gentlemen are not particular about the
condition of their Wellingtons, when nobody can see to criticise their
polish, and all they want is to exchange them for slippers as soon as
possible. If we were to follow the career of this industrious fellow
up to manhood, we should in all probability find him occupying
worthily a hard-working but decent and comfortable position in

No. 3 is the _Occasional Sweeper_.--Now and then, in walking the
interminable streets, one comes suddenly upon very questionable
shapes, which, however, we don't question, but walk on and account for
them mythically if we can. Among these singular apparitions which at
times have startled us, not a few have borne a broom in their hands,
and appealed to us for a reward for services which, to say the best of
them, were extremely doubtful. Now an elderly gentleman in silver
spectacles, with pumps on his feet, and a roquelaure with a fur-collar
over his shoulders, and an expression of unutterable anguish in his
countenance, holds out his hand and bows his head as we pass, and
groans audibly the very instant we are within earshot of a groan;
which is a distance of about ten inches in a London atmosphere. Now an
old, old man, tall, meagre, and decrepit, with haggard eye and
moonstruck visage, bares his aged head to the pattering rain--

'Loose his beard and hoary hair
Stream like a meteor to the troubled air.'

He makes feeble and fitful efforts to sweep a pathway across the road,
and the dashing cab pulls up suddenly just in time to save him from
being hurled to the ground by the horse. Then he gives it up as a vain
attempt, and leans, the model of despair, against the wall, and wrings
his skeleton fingers in agony--when just as a compassionate matron is
drawing the strings of her purse, stopping for her charitable purpose
in a storm of wind and rain, the voice of the policeman is heard over
her shoulder: 'What! you are here at it again, old chap? Well, I'm
blowed if I think anything 'll cure you. You'd better put up your pus,
marm: if he takes your money, I shall take him to the station-us,
that's all. Now, old chap--trot, trot, trot!' And away walks the old
impostor, with a show of activity perfectly marvellous for his years,
the policeman following close at his heels till he vanishes in the
arched entry of a court.

The next specimen is perhaps a 'swell' out at elbows, a seedy and
somewhat ragged remnant of a very questionable kind of gentility--a
gentility engendered in 'coal-holes' and 'cider-cellars,' in 'shades,'
and such-like midnight 'kens'--suckled with brandy and water and
port-wine negus, and fed with deviled kidneys and toasted cheese. He
has run to the end of his tether, is cleaned out even to the last
disposable shred of his once well-stocked wardrobe; and after fifty
high-flying and desperate resolves, and twice fifty mean and sneaking
devices to victimise those who have the misfortune to be assailable by
him, 'to this complexion he has come at last.' He has made a track
across the road, rather a slovenly disturbance of the mud than a
clearance of it; and having finished his performance in a style to
indicate that he is a stranger to the business, being born to better
things, he rears himself with front erect and arms a-kimbo, with one
foot advanced after the approved statuesque model, and exhibits a face
of scornful brass to an unsympathising world, before whom he stands a
monument of neglected merit, and whom he doubtless expects to
overwhelm with unutterable shame for their abominable treatment of a
man and a brother--and a gentleman to boot. This sort of exhibition
never lasts long, it being a kind of standing-dish for which the
public have very little relish in this practical age. The 'swell'
sweeper generally subsides in a week or two, and vanishes from the
stage, on which, however ornamental, he is of very little use.

The occasional sweeper is much oftener a poor countryman, who has
wandered to London in search of employment, and, finding nothing else,
has spent his last fourpence in the purchase of a besom, with which he
hopes to earn a crust. Here his want of experience in town is very
much against him. You may know him instantly from the old _habitué_ of
the streets: he plants himself in the very thick and throng of the
most crowded thoroughfare--the rapids, so to speak, of the human
current--where he is of no earthly use, but, on the contrary, very
much in the way, and where, while everybody wishes him at Jericho, he
wonders that nobody gives him a copper; or he undertakes impossible
things, such as the sweeping of the whole width of Charing Cross from
east to west, between the equestrian statue and Nelson's Pillar,
where, if he sweep the whole, he can't collect, and if he collect, he
can't sweep, and he breaks his heart and his back too in a fruitless
vocation. He picks up experience in time; but he is pretty sure to
find a better trade before he has learned to cultivate that of a
crossing-sweeper to perfection.--Many of these occasional hands are
Hindoos, Lascars, or Orientals of some sort, whose dark skins,
contrasted with their white and scarlet drapery, render them
conspicuous objects in a crowd; and from this cause they probably
derive an extra profit, as they can scarcely be passed by without
notice. The sudden promotion of one of this class, who was hailed by
the Nepaulese ambassador as he stood, broom in hand, in St Paul's
Churchyard, and engaged as dragoman to the embassy, will be in the
recollection of the reader. It would be impossible to embrace in our
category even a tithe of the various characters who figure in London
as occasional sweepers. A broom is the last resort of neglected and
unemployed industry, as well as of sudden and unfriended
ill-fortune--the sanctuary to which a thousand victims fly from the
fiends of want and starvation. The broken-down tradesman, the artisan
out of work, the decayed gentleman, the ruined gambler, the starving
scholar--each and all we have indubitably seen brooming the muddy ways
for the chance of a half-penny or a penny. It is not very long since
we were addressed in Water Street, Blackfriars, by a middle-aged man
in a garb of seedy black, who handled his broom like one who played
upon a strange instrument, and who, wearing the words _pauper et
pedester_ written on a card stuck in his hat-band, told us, in good
colloquial Latin, a tale of such horrifying misery and destitution,
that we shrink from recording it here. We must pass on to the next on
our list, who is--

No. 4, the _Lucus-a-non_, or a sweeper who never sweeps.--This fellow
is a vagabond of the first-water, or of the first-mud rather. His
stock in trade is an old worn-out broom-stump, which he has shouldered
for these seven years past, and with which he has never displaced a
pound of soil in the whole period. He abominates work with such a
crowning intensity, that the very pretence of it is a torture to him.
He is a beggar without a beggar's humbleness; and a thief, moreover,
without a thief's hardihood. He crawls lazily about the public ways,
and begs under the banner of his broom, which constitutes his
protection against the police. He will collect alms at a crossing
which he would not cleanse to save himself from starvation; or he will
take up a position at one which a morning sweeper has deserted for the
day, and glean the sorry remnants of another man's harvest. He is as
insensible to shame as to the assaults of the weather; he will watch
you picking your way through the mire over which he stands sentinel,
and then impudently demand payment for the performance of a function
which he never dreams of exercising; or he will stand in your path in
the middle of the splashy channel, and pester you with whining
supplications, while he kicks the mire over your garments, and bars
your passage to the pavement. He is worth nothing, not even the short
notice we have taken of him, or the trouble of a whipping, which he
ought to get, instead of the coins that he contrives to extract from
the heedless generosity of the public.

No. 5 is the _Sunday Sweeper_.--This neat, dapper, and cleanly variety
of the genus besom, is usually a young fellow, who, pursuing some
humble and ill-paid occupation during the week, ekes out his modest
salary by labouring with the broom on the Sunday. He has his regular
'place of worship,' one entrance of which he monopolises every Sabbath
morning. Long before the church-going bell rings out the general
invitation, he is on the spot, sweeping a series of paths all
radiating from the church or chapel door to the different points of
the compass. The business he has cut out for himself is no sinecure;
he does his work so effectually, that you marvel at the achievement,
and doubt if the floor of your dwelling be cleaner. Then he is
himself as clean as a new pin, and wears a flower in his button-hole,
and a smile on his face, and thanks you so becomingly, and bows so
gracefully, that you cannot help wishing him a better office; and of
course, to prove the sincerity of your wish, you pay him at a better
rate. When the congregation are all met, and the service is commenced,
he is religious enough, or knowing enough, to walk stealthily in, and
set himself upon the poor bench, where he sits quietly, well behaved
and attentive to the end; for which very proper conduct he is pretty
sure to meet an additional reward during the exit of the assembly, as
they defile past him at the gate when all is over. In the afternoon,
he is off to the immediate precinct of some park or public promenade;
and selecting a well-frequented approach to the general rendezvous,
will cleanse and purify the crossing or pathway in his own peculiar
and elaborate style, vastly to the admiration of the gaily-dressed
pedestrians, and it is to be supposed, to his own profit. Besides this
really clever and enterprising genius, there is a numerous tribe of a
very different description, who must sally forth literally by the
thousand every Sunday morning when the weather is fine, and who take
possession of every gate, stile, and wicket, throughout the widespread
suburban districts of the metropolis in all directions. They are of
both sexes and all ages; and go where you will, it is impossible to go
through a gate, or get over a stile, without the proffer of their
assistance, for which, of course, you are expected to pay, whether you
use it or not. Some of these fellows have a truly ruffianly aspect,
and waylay you in secluded lanes and narrow pathways; and carrying a
broom-stump, which looks marvellously like a bludgeon, no doubt often
levy upon the apprehensions of a timorous pedestrian a contribution
which his charity would not be so blind as to bestow. The whole of
this tribe constitute a monster-nuisance, which ought to be abated by
the exertions of the police.

No. 6 are the _deformed_, _maimed_, _and crippled sweepers_, of whom
there is a considerable number constantly at work, and, to do them
justice, they appear by no means the least energetic of the
brotherhood. Nature frequently compensates bodily defects by the
bestowal of a vigorous temperament. The sweeper of one leg or one arm,
or the poor cripple who, but for the support of his broom, would be
crawling on all-fours, is as active, industrious, and efficient as the
best man on the road; and he takes a pride in the proof of his
prowess, surveying his work when it is finished with a complacency too
evident to escape notice. He considers, perhaps, that he has an extra
claim upon the public on account of the afflictions he has undergone,
and we imagine that such claim must be pretty extensively allowed: we
know no other mode of accounting for the fact, that now and then one
of these supposed maimed or halt performers turns out to be an
impostor, who, considering a broken limb, or something tantamount to
that, essential to the success of his broom, concocts an impromptu
fracture or amputation to serve his purpose. Some few years ago, a
lively, sailor-looking fellow appeared as a one-handed sweeper in a
genteel square on the Surrey side of the water. The right sleeve of
his jacket waved emptily in the wind, but he flourished his left arm
so vigorously in the air, and completed the gyration of his weapon,
when it stuck fast in the mud, so manfully by the impulse of his right
leg, that he became quite a popular favourite, and won '_copper_
opinions from all sorts of men,' to say nothing of a shower of
sixpences from the ladies in the square. Unfortunately for the
continuance of his prosperity, a gentleman intimate with one of his
numerous patronesses, while musing in the twilight at an upstairs
window, saw the fellow enter his cottage after his day's work, release
his right arm from the durance in which it had lain beneath his jacket
for ten or twelve hours, and immediately put the power of the
long-imprisoned limb to the test by belabouring his wife with it. That
same night every tenant in the square was made acquainted with the
disguised arm, and the use for which it was reserved, and the
ingenious performer was the next morning delivered over to the police.
The law, however, allows a man to dispose of his limbs as he chooses;
and as the delinquent was never proved to have _said_ that he had lost
an arm; and as he urged that one arm being enough for the profession
he had embraced, he considered he had a right to reserve the other
until he had occasion for it--he was allowed to go about his business.

No. 7, and the last in our classification, are the _Female
Sweepers_.--It is singular, that among these we rarely if ever
meet with young women, properly so called. The calling of a
crossing-sweeper, so far as it is carried on by females, is almost
entirely divided between children or young girls, and women above the
age of forty. The children are a very wandering and fickle race,
rarely staying for many weeks together in a single spot. This love of
change must militate much against their success, as they lose the
advantage of the charitable interest they would excite in persons
accustomed to meet them regularly in their walks. They are not,
however, generally dependent upon the produce of their own labours for
a living, being for the most part the children of parents in extremely
low circumstances, who send them forth with a broom to pick up a few
halfpence to assist in the daily provision for the family. The older
women, on the other hand, of whom there is a pretty stout staff
scattered throughout the metropolis, are too much impressed with the
importance of adhering constantly to one spot, capriciously to change
their position. They would dread to lose a connection they have been
many years in forming, and they will even cling to it after it has
ceased to be a thoroughfare through the opening of a new route, unless
they can discover the direction their patrons have taken. When a poor
old creature, who has braved the rheumatism for thirty years or so,
finds she can stand it no longer, we have known her induct a successor
into her office by attending her for a fortnight or more, and
introducing the new-comer to the friendly regard of her old patrons.
The exceptions to these two classes of the old and the very juvenile,
will be found to consist mostly of young widows left with the charge
of an infant family more or less numerous. Some few of these there
are, and they meet with that considerate reception from the public
which their distressing cases demand. The spectacle of a young mother,
with an infant on one arm muffled up from the driving rain, while she
plies a broom single-handed, is one which never appeals in vain to a
London public. With a keen eye for imposture, and a general
inclination to suspect it, the Londoner has yet compassion, and coin,
too, to bestow upon a deserving object. It is these poor widows who,
by rearing their orphaned offspring to wield the broom, supplement the
ranks of the professional sweepers. They become the heads of sweeping
families, who in time leave the maternal wing, and shift for
themselves. We might point to one whom we have encountered almost
daily for the last ten years. In 1841, she was left a widow with three
small children, the eldest under four, and the youngest in arms. Clad
in deep mourning, she took up a position at an angular crossing of a
square, and was allowed to accommodate the two elder children upon
some matting spread upon the steps of a door. With the infant in one
arm, she plied her broom with the other, and held out a small white
hand for the reception of such charity as the passers-by might choose
to bestow. The children grew up strong and hearty, in spite of their
exposure to the weather at all seasons. All three of them are at the
present moment sweepers in the same line of route, at no great
distance from the mother, who, during the whole period, has scarcely
abandoned her post for a single day. Ten years' companionship with sun
and wind, and frost and rain, have doubled her apparent age, but her
figure still shews the outline of gentility, and her face yet wears
the aspect and expression of better days. We have frequently met the
four returning home together in the deepening twilight, the elder boy
carrying the four brooms strapped together on his shoulder.

The sweeper does better at holiday seasons than at any other time. If
he is blessed with a post for a companion, he decks it with a flower
or sprig of green, and sweeps a clear stage round it, which is said to
be a difficult exploit, though we have never tried it. At Christmas,
he expects a double fee from his old patrons, and gets it too, and a
substantial slice of plum-pudding from the old lady in the first floor
opposite. He decks the entrance to his walk with laurel and holly, in
honour of the day, and of his company, who walk under a triumphal arch
of green, got up for that occasion only. He is sure of a good
collection on that day, and he goes home with his pocket heavy and his
heart light, and treats himself to a pot of old ale, warmed over a
fire kindled with his old broom, and sipped sparingly to the melody of
a good old song about the good old times, when crossing-sweepers grew
rich, and bequeathed fortunes to their patrons.


Animals possess the power of feeling, and of effecting certain
movements, by the exercise of a muscular apparatus with which their
bodies are furnished. They are distinguished from the organisations of
the vegetable kingdom by the presence of these attributes. Every one
is aware, that when the child sees some strange and unknown object he
is observing start suddenly into motion, he will exclaim: 'It is
alive!' By this exclamation, he means to express his conviction that
the object is endowed with _animal_ life. Power of voluntary and
independent motion and animal organisation are associated together, as
inseparable and essentially connected ideas, by even the earliest
experience in the economy and ways of nature.

The animal faculty of voluntary motion, in almost every case, confers
upon the creature the ability to transfer its body from place to
place. In some animals, the weight of the body is sustained by
immersion in a fluid as dense as itself. It is then carried about with
very little expenditure of effort, either by the waving action of
vibratile cilia scattered over its external surface, or by the
oar-like movement of certain portions of its frame especially adapted
to the purpose. In other animals, the weight of the body rests
directly upon the ground, and has, therefore, to be lifted from place
to place by more powerful mechanical contrivances.

In the lowest forms of air-living animals, the body rests upon the
ground by numerous points of support; and when it moves, is wriggled
along piecemeal, one portion being pushed forward while the rest
remains stationary. The mode of progression which the little earthworm
adopts, is a familiar illustration of this style of proceeding. In the
higher forms of air-living animals, a freer and more commodious kind
of movement is provided for. The body itself is raised up from the
ground upon pointed columns, which are made to act as levers as well
as props. Observe, for instance, the tiger-beetle, as it runs swiftly
over the uneven surface of the path in search of its dinner, with its
eager antennę thrust out in advance. Those six long and slender legs
that bear up the body of the insect, and still keep advancing in
regular alternate order, are steadied and worked by cords laid along
on the hollows and grooves of their own substance. While some of them
uphold the weight of the superincumbent body, the rest are thrown
forwards, as fresh and more advanced points of support on to which it
may be pulled. The running of the insect is a very ingenious and
beautiful adaptation of the principles of mechanism to the purposes of

But in the insect organisation, a still more surprising display of
mechanical skill is made. A comparatively heavy body is not only
carried rapidly and conveniently along the surface of the ground, it
is also raised entirely up from it at pleasure, and transported
through lengthened distances, while resting upon nothing but the thin
transparent air. From the top of the central piece--technically termed
thoracic--of the insect's body, from which the legs descend, two or
more membraneous sails arise, which are able to beat the air by
repeated strokes, and to make it, consequently, uphold their own
weight, as well as that of the burden connected with them. These
lifting and sustaining sails are the insect's wings.

The wings of the insect are, however, of a nature altogether different
from the apparently analogous organs which the bird uses in flight.
The wings of the bird are merely altered fore-legs. Lift up the front
extremities of a quadruped, keep them asunder at their origins by bony
props, fit them with freer motions and stronger muscles, and cover
them with feathers, and they become wings in every essential
particular. In the insect, however, the case is altogether different.
The wings are not altered legs; they are superadded to the legs. The
insect has its fore-legs as well as its wings. The legs all descend
from the under surface of the thoracic piece, while the wings arise
from its upper surface. As the wings are flapping above during flight,
the unchanged legs are dangling below, in full complement. The wings
are, therefore, independent and additional organs. They have no
relation whatever to limbs, properly so called. But there are some
other portions of the animal economy with which they do connect
themselves, both by structure and function. The reader will hardly
guess what those wing-allied organs are.

There is a little fly, called the May-fly, which usually makes its
appearance in the month of August, and which visits the districts
watered by the Seine and the Marne in such abundance, that the
fishermen of these rivers believe it is showered down from heaven, and
accordingly call its living clouds, manna. Reaumur once saw the
May-flies descend in this region like thick snow-flakes, and so fast,
that the step on which he stood by the river's bank was covered by a
layer four inches thick in a few minutes. The insect itself is very
beautiful: it has four delicate, yellowish, lace-like wings, freckled
with brown spots, and three singular hair-like projections hanging out
beyond its tail. It never touches food during its mature life, but
leads a short and joyous existence. It dances over the surface of the
water for three or four hours, dropping its eggs as it flits, and then
disappears for ever. Myriads come forth about the hour of eight in the
evening; but by ten or eleven o'clock not a single straggler can be
found alive.

From the egg which the parent May-fly drops into the water, a
six-legged grub is very soon hatched. This grub proceeds forthwith to
excavate for himself a home in the soft bank of the river, below the
surface of the water, and there remains for two long years, feeding
upon the decaying matters of the mould. During this aquatic residence,
the little creature finds it necessary to breathe; and that he may do
so comfortably, notwithstanding his habits of seclusion, and his
constant immersion in fluid, he pushes out from his shoulders and back
a series of delicate little leaf-like plates. A branch of one of the
air-tubes of his body enters into each of these plates, and spreads
out into its substance. The plates are, in fact, gills--that is,
respiratory organs, fitted for breathing beneath the water. The
little fellow may be seen to wave them backwards and forwards with
incessant motion, as he churns up the fluid, to get out of it the
vital air which it contains.

When the grub of the May-fly has completed his two years of probation,
he comes out from his subterranean and subaqueous den, and rises to
the surface of the stream. By means of his flapping and then somewhat
enlarged gills, he half leaps and half flies to the nearest rush or
sedge he can perceive, and clings fast to it by means of his legs. He
then, by a clever twist of his little body, splits open his old fishy
skin, and slowly draws himself out, head, and body, and legs; and,
last of all, from some of those leafy gills he pulls a delicate
crumpled-up membrane, which soon dries and expands, and becomes
lace-netted and brown-fretted. The membrane which was shut up in the
gills of the aquatic creature, was really the rudiment of its now
perfected wings.

The wings of the insect are then a sort of external lungs, articulated
with the body by means of a movable joint, and made to subserve the
purposes of flight. Each wing is formed of a flattened bladder,
extended from the general skin of the body. The sides of this bladder
are pressed closely together, and would be in absolute contact but for
a series of branching rigid tubes that are spread out in the
intervening cavity. These tubes are air-vessels; their interiors are
lined with elastic, spirally-rolled threads, that serve to keep the
channels constantly open; and through these open channels the vital
atmosphere rushes with every movement of the membraneous organ. The
wing of the May-fly flapping in the air is a respiratory organ, of as
much importance to the wellbeing of the creature in its way, as the
gill-plate of its grub prototype is when vibrating under the water.
But the wing of the insect is not the only respiratory organ: its
entire body is one vast respiratory system, of which the wings are
offsets. The spirally-lined air-vessels run everywhere, and branch out
everywhere. The insect, in fact, circulates air instead of blood. As
the prick of the finest needle draws blood from the flesh of the
backboned creature, it draws air from the flesh of the insect. Who
will longer wonder, then, that the insect is so light? It is aerial in
its inner nature. Its arterial system is filled with the ethereal
atmosphere, as the more stolid creature's is with heavy blood.

If the reader has ever closely watched a large fly or bee, he will
have noticed that it has none of the respiratory movements that are so
familiar to him in the bodies of quadrupeds and birds. There is none
of that heaving of the chest, and out-and-in movement of the sides,
which constitute the visible phenomena of breathing. In the insect's
economy, no air enters by the usual inlet of the mouth. It all goes in
by means of small air-mouths placed along the sides of the body, and
exclusively appropriated to its reception.

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Library mainpage -> Chambers, William -> Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 437 Volume 17, New Series, May 15, 1852