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Britain’s child pavement artists
Stories of child screevers go back as far as the mid 1700’s, but in Britain, it peeked around the mid 1800’s. Newspapers were reporting gangs of young waifs & strays, pickpockets and thieves in the industrial metropolises.
Immortalised by Charles Dickens in his 1838 book, OLIVER TWIST. The orphans and street kids of London, led by the Artful Dodger and their elderly criminal trainer Fagin. This was not far from the truth, and indeed Dickens book of sarcasm and dark humour was a serious social novel, the sordid lives and cruel treatment of the street Arabs of London and other British cities was real.
Driven by poverty, children would roam the streets barefoot, looking for food or ‘browns’ (coppers), A hand to mouth existence, looking for their next meal. Some families where so poor, that the children would go out en-mass; brothers, cousins and sisters as young as three years of age would roam the streets, begging, stealing and doing anything to make ends meet.
Pavement art was just an extension of begging, another way to extract alms from the pavement foot passengers. The older children would learn it from their older siblings, and would pass it down to their brothers and sisters, and before long, children as young as three or four, where plying their trade as professional screevers. It was not unusual for the talented child artist with a good pitch to go home at the end of the day with pockets filled with pennies. Given to mother, it wasn’t too long before the family realised, this was a nice little earner.
Some of the younger children would also act as ‘look-outs’ for older screevers, making sure they don’t get caught by the Peelers (Policemen) as this report from Dundee, Scotland, 1897 confirms:
“At present there are some 300 children engaged on Dundee streets, their chief employment being the sale of matches, newspapers and studs. A number also act as “watchers” to street artists”
Life was not easy for the child screevers, they were seen as beggars and a blight on society. Treated as adults by the police; stories of children being beaten up, and thrown into prison for chalking on the pavements where not uncommon.
In 1885, Liverpool, Father Nugent gave a lecture on Street Arabs and “Nobody’s Children” talking of child pavement artists he said “if they could take such children by the hand, and put them into grooves where they might rise and develop those talents which God had largely blessed them with, no one could tell to what heights in the realm of art they might attain.”
Father Nugent was not new to child poverty, indeed he was a pioneer in child welfare, poverty relief and social reform. In 1850, he opened the Middle School for Boys in Rodney Street, Liverpool. It was this very same school that offered life changing opportunities to one of Liverpool’s best known child screevers JAMES WILLIAM CARLING.
Of course, in some cases, child exploitation was common. With parents ‘encouraging’ their children to ‘work’ on the streets.
In court in Glasgow (1902) A labourer, named Matthew Cannon, and his wife, were charged with contravening the act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, by allowing their son Matthew, nine years of age, to beg, under the pretence of drawing on the pavement. An officer of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children stated that the boy drew on the pavement a figure resembling a human head, under which he wrote “This is Baden Powell.” To which there was laughter in court.
There was also interruption by asking the charitably inclined public to “Help a poor wee boy, who had his arm taken off by a car.” The boy was barefooted and poorly clothed, and the stump of his left arm was exposed for the purposes of exciting sympathy. The boy could make 8 shillings on a Saturday, spending the money on theatres, pastry, and ice-cream. The accused were dismissed with an admonition on promising that the boy would be kept at school and give up art.
Source: Edinburgh Evening News (24th October 1902)
The NEW and revised Cruelty to Children act of 1904, made it increasingly more difficult for parents to exploit children into street begging, and it became a rarity to see child pavement artists on the streets. When they did appear, they made headline news.
The story of GEORGE WARD: The Youthful Street-Artist!
1904: The youngest street artist in London is George Ward, a bright little fellow 12 years of age, who has only taken to pavement art to help his mother to keep body and soul together. A press representative saw a crowd of passers-by tiptoeing round the youthful artist in Clapham-rise, where he was busy making his lightening sketches in coloured chalk. He is still a schoolboy, and when he is not poring over his lessons he is earning a few shillings for his mother.
His pictures have already attracted a good deal of attention among the residents, who are getting up a subscription list in order to have the boys artistic faculties properly developed. “Sometimes I feel inclined to cry,” he said to the newspaper man. “When they won’t believe I’ve drawn the pictures. A few minutes ago an old gentleman laughed at them, and said something about them being done by another man, but I drew a seascape while he waited and he was so pleased he showered all the coppers he had on me.” The lad carefully selects his studies. He can turn out realistic landscapes and seascapes in a few minutes, and he knows how to colour fruits, flowers, and birds.
Once he drew a salmon so true to nature that a dog came and sniffed at it. The boy’s remarkable talent was accidentally discovered by a teacher at Priory Grove School, Clapham, about six months ago, and he expects soon to be transferred to the LCC art classes. He began street work a few months ago without any tuition, but his mother hopes, with a proper art training, he will be able to earn a decent livelihood as a professional.
Source: Barrier Miner (Australia) Saturday 3rd December 1904
Written & researched by Philip Battle