Regency streets would have been fairly active and interesting places, what with knife grinders, pot menders and chimney sweeps, milkmaids and streets sellers hawking everything from cherries to hot codlins — not to mention the miscellany of enterprising pickpockets and cut purses and those generally operating on the windy side of the law.
Exciting, those Regency streets.
There was a little woman, as I've been told,
Who was not very young, nor yet very old;
Now this little woman her living got
By selling codlins, hot, hot, hot!
But I digress.
Along with all those buyers and sellers, intent upon the mystery of commerce, there were artists out there hustling a living.
You had your street musicians. Most often, they'd be playing something portable, like a violin or a hurdy gurdy. I do not feel impelled to discuss what a violin is, but hurdy gurdy's are kinda interesting.
Hurdy gurdys, are instruments played by skill, to borrow phraseology from the insurance business. When you turn a crank, this rubs a wheel against the strings to make the music. A couple strings make a constant drone. The little keyboard on the side presses other strings to change the pitch and play a melody.
There's a performance on a hurdy gurdy here.
To my mind, this sounds a little like a bagpipe.
The hurdy gurdy player and the barrel organ grinder were often accompanied by capuchin monkeys who entertained the customers and 'passed the hat'.
Hurdy gurdys aren't to be confused with barrel organs which are altogether larger affairs. (The words were used interchangeably in the Regency, which is confusing.) Barrel organs are also played by turning a crank, but barrel organs use pipes and bellows to play a tune encoded by pins. Think music box. With a single tune. Very loud.
The barrel organ exists in the Regency, but it's more a Victorian institution. This to the right is a Victorian engraving of a barrel organ being played.
The music of barrel organs was not universally loved. As one writer put it:
As our nerves are rather delicate (fine minds are in general attended with fine nerves) the faintest and most distant squeaking of a hurdy-gurdy is sufficient, so to speak, to knock us off our perch. The very instant that we hear it, the fear of coming horrors completely overpowers us; and throwing down our pen we make a frantic rush to our remotest coal-cellar, where with cotton in our ears we tremblingly abide until we think the danger past. Punch 1860
What else? — You had your street singers, often accompanied by an instrument. Yer jugglers. Conjurors set up a table and showed off feats of magic and slight of hand. There were dancing bears and trained dogs doing tricks. There were even entire theatrical performances put on in the public streets by strolling players. There was the raree show or 'rarity show'.
a raree-show . . . has a very plain and mean external appearance; but if we look into it intently, the prospect inlarges by degrees, and gives us a most surprising and delightful entertainment, successively presenting to our view the greatest variety of nature and of art." Memoirs of the Society of Grub Street 1737
The raree show box would have glass spyholes in it. The pictures inside were set into viewing position by the operator pulling a string. The great attraction was the raree operator's patter, explaining the wonders within for whoever was lucky enough to pay his farthing and look through the glass.
And what was within? Illustrations of the wonders of nature. Art. Drawings of topical interest. Views of distant places.
One writer describes a raree show as being, " really very comical and diverting."
And another says:
AS I was going through Smithfield the other day, I observed an old fellow with a wooden leg, drest in a sailor's habit, who courteously invited the passer-by to peep into his raree-show, for the small price of an halfpenny. His exhibitions, I found, were very well suited to the times, and quite in character for himself: for among other particulars, with which he amused the little audience of children that surrounded his box, I was mightily pleased to hear the following; "— There you see the British fleet "persuing the French ships, which are running "away—There you see Major-General Johnson beating the French soldiers in America, and "taking Count Dieskau prisoner — There you "see the Grand Monarque upon his knees before "King George, begging his life." The Connoisseur, 1755
Raree shows were considered good fun, but a little . . . vulgar. Contemporary writers speak of someone bombastic as "bawling out with the tone and gestures of raree show men." The word itself was used to mean an empty amusement.
Last but not least … Punch and Judy.
Punch and Judy go way back. Back to Sixteenth Century Italian Commedia del'arte. Back to Seventeenth Century London. Samuel Pepys attended an early version of Punch and Judy as a marionette show at Covent Garden.
By the Regency, the Punch and Judy performance had moved onto the streets. Marionettes, with the heavy equipment and multiple operators, had been replaced by a single puppeteer and hand puppets.
The single puppeteer means only two puppets on stage, so Punch and Judy consists of a number of short scenes between two characters, one of them Punch.
Something about squawking, outraged Mr. Punch appealed to the Regency audience up and down the
social scale. Punch — the puppet with the personality disorder. Wild, cantankerous, so-much-not-a-pacifist Mr. Punch. He carries a stick — called a slapstick — as big as himself and whaps it about freely. He is gleefully self-satisfied. "That's the way to do it," he says, pleased — of course — as Punch.
Big cities still have a vibrant street life. What's your favorite 'free show' in the city?