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Henry Mayhew’s Punch & Judy Man

May 10, 2011
by the gentle author

“Ladies & Gentlemen, I’m now going to exhibit a performance worthy of your notice, and far superior to anythink you hever had an hopportunity of witnessing before”

There were none to be found in Spitalfields, when Henry Mayhew set out to find a Punch & Judy man for his interviews that were first published – appropriately enough – in Punch magazine before they were collected in three volumes as “London Labour & the London Poor” in 1851. As the Punchman that Mayhew spoke with explained, “The boys is the greatest nuisance we have to contend with, and many parts is swarming with boys, such as Vitechapel. Spitalfields, that’s the worst place for boys I ever come a-near, they’re like flies in Summer there, only much more thicker. They’ll throw one another’s caps into the frame and, do what we will, we can’t keep ’em from poking their fingers through the baize and making holes to peep through. But the worst of all is, most of ’em ain’t got a farthing to bless themselves with.”

Yet the City of London was not much better for Punch & Judy either -“People ‘as their heads all full of business there and them as is greedy arter the money ain’t no friend of Punch’s.” Then, as now, it was the West End that was the preferred location for street performers. “The best pitch of all in London is Leicester Sq, there’s all sorts of classes you see passing there.” confirmed the Punchman, “Then comes Regent St, the corner of Burlington St is uncommon good and there is a good publican there besides.” And I have no doubt that he was grateful of refreshment because, as this engaging testimony reveals, the life of a Punchman constituted thirsty and demanding work.

The performer of Punch that I saw was a short, dark, pleasant looking man, dressed in a very greasy and very shiny green shooting jacket. He was very communicative and took great delight in talking like Punch, with his call in his mouth, while some children were in the room, and who, hearing the well-known sound of Punch’s voice, looked all about for the figure.

“I am the proprietor of a Punch’s show,” he said. “I goes about with it myself, and performs inside the frame behind the green baize. I have a pardner what plays the music – the pipes and drum, him as you see’d with me. I have been five-and-twenty year now at the business. I wish I’d never seen it, though it’s been a money-making business – indeed the best of all, street hexibitions I may say. I am fifty years old. It’s a business that once you’ve got into it you can never get out. It’s a great annoyance being a public kerrackter, I can assure you, sir. Go where you will, it’s, ‘Punchy, Punchy!’ Something else might turn up, to be sure. We can’t say what the luck of the world is. I’m obliged to strive very hard – very hard indeed, sir, now, to get a living and at times, compelled to go short often. It’s the march of hintellect wot’s a doing all this, sir.

But I was a going to tell you about my first jining the business. The first time I ever went out with Punch was in the beginning of August, 1825. My dignity was being hurt at being hobligated to take to the streets for a living. I used to stand outside and patter to the figures. There was not much talk, to be sure, required then, and what little there was consisted merely in calling out the names of the figures as they came up and these my master prompted me from inside the frame. I know I could never have done it, if it hadn’t been for the spirits (a little drop of gin), as my master guv me in the morning. Yet the first time I ever made my appearance in public I collected as much as eight shillings, and my master said after the performance was over, ‘You’ll do!’

I kept on going with my master for two years and at the end of that time I had saved enough to start a show of my own. I bought the show off old Porsini, the man who first brought Punch into the streets of England. I’ve heard tell that old Porsini used to take very often as much as ten pounds a-day, and he used to sit down to his fowls and wine, and the very best of everything. But he never took care of a halfpenny he got. He didn’t study the world nor himself neither. At last, he reduced himself to want, and died in the St Giles’s Workhouse. He was past performing when I bought my show of him and werry poor. I gave him thirty-five shillings for the stand, figures and all. I bought it cheap, you see, for it was thrown on one side and of no use but such as myself.

The great difficulty in performing Punch consists in the speaking, which is done by a call or whistle in the mouth. Porsini brought the calls into this country with him from Italy and I larnt the use of mine from Porsini himself. I was six months in perfecting the use of it and now I’m reckoned one of the best speakers in the whole purfession. When I made my first appearance as a regular performer of Punch on my own account, I did feel uncommon narvous, to be sure, though I know’d the people couldn’t see me behind the baize, still I felt as if the eyes of the country were upon me. It was as much as ever I could do to get the words out, and keep the figures from shaking. The fust person who went out with me was my wife. She used to stand outside and keep the boys from peeping through the baize and she used to collect the money afterwards as well. She’s been dead these five years now.

Take one week or another, throughout the year, I should say I made then five pounds regular. You can see Punch has been good work, a money making business. Twenty years ago, I have often got eight shillings for one hexhibition  in the streets, and many times I’d perform eight or ten times in a day. We didn’t care much about work then, for we could get money fast enough. Arter performing in the streets of a day we used to attend private parties in the hevening. I have performed afore almost all the nobility.

There are altogether as many as sixteen Punch & Judy frames in England, and to each of these frames there are two men. We are all acquainted with one another, are all sociable together. If two of us happen to meet in one town, we jine and share the money. We all know one another, and can tell in what part of the country the others are. We have intelligence by letters from all parts. There’s a Punch I knows is either in the Isle of Man or on his way to it.”

Punch: What Toby, are you cross this morning?

Scaramouch: You have been beating and ill-using my poor dog, Mr Punch!

Judy: Here’s the child. Pretty dear! It knows its Papa. Take the child.

Punch: What is the matter with it? Poor thing! It has got the stomach ache, I dare say.

Punch: Get away, nasty baby.

Judy: I’ll teach you to drop my baby out the window!

Punch: How do you like my teaching, Judy, my pretty dear?

Punch: Stand still, can’t you, and let me get my foot up to the stirrup.

Punch: Oh Doctor! Doctor! I have been thrown, I have been killed.

Punch: Now Doctor, your turn to be physicked!

Blind Man: Pray Mr Punch, bestow your charity upon a blind man.

Jack Ketch: Mr Punch, you’re a very bad man.

Jack Ketch: Come out and be hanged!

Punch: Only shew me how and I will do it directly.

Punch: Here’s a stick to thump Old Nick!

Punch: Pray Mr Devil, let us be friends.

Punch: Huzza, huzza! The Devil’s dead!

Drawings by George Cruikshank, 1827, illustrating Giovanni Piccini’s “The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch & Judy.”

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Ros permalink
    May 10, 2011

    And this is wonderful too, a forebear of yesterday’s post. Mayhew’s distillation of what the Punch and Judy man said about his life and trade is so empathetic and tells us so much about society and the human spirit at that time. I think you’ve inherited the baton of the Mayhew tradition and that he’d be delighted you were running with it.

  2. Paul Jackson permalink
    July 20, 2014

    You see that’s what’s wrong. The two shows are markedly different, the supplier of Mayhew’s puppets; the old Italian had his show illustrated and those are the above pictures. The show that Mayhew records is a different show, different characters. One Italian, one English. Mayhew’s man includes a clown and publican and although this show predates the crocodile’s appearance it most certainly is not a natural evolution of his ‘masters’. Both are great but linking the pictures of one to the other, confuses and hides the fact that sometime around 1830 the Punch show changed, a period also coinciding with Grimaldi’s death.

  3. Ann permalink
    February 12, 2016

    My 2x great grandfather Thomas Aubrey Dean was a Punch and Judy Man. I came across this website from the 1841 census on brick lane. I think this might be the Deans I’m looking for T. Aubrey would be about 10 years old then. In his early 20’s he, his father Thomas, and brother George signed on with the Hudson Bay Company (1850) and went to Fort Nisqually in Present day Tacoma, Washington. In the Fort Nisqually journals they write of his Punch and Judy performances they were rather popular in the Northwest Frontier. He was also a fiddler and fiddle maker. Thanks for this article.

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