Never seed nuffin, cause I’m werry hard o’hearing
Nowadays, we take it for granted that the streetlights are lit as soon as it gets dark, but that has not always been the case. Wealthy Romans had a slave, a ‘laternarius’ who was responsible for lighting the lamp(s) on the outside of their villas, but anyone walking from A to B had to bring an oil lamp (or a slave with an oil lamp) to light his way. This remained the situation until well into the Victorian Age, although the slaves were by then replaced by servants or people with a light hired on the spot.
At various times, efforts were made by the authorities to force householders to light a lamp on the outside of their building, but they cast at best a gloomy shadow on the house itself and anyone walking in the street was in grave danger of treading into something unpleasant, or of meeting with undesirable characters hiding in dark corners. With the invention of gas lighting and the ever growing appearance of public lanterns and lampposts, there was no longer a need for individual house lanterns. But, until these public lights had covered the whole of the city, Londoners were obliged to arrange for lighting if they wanted to go out at night. If you were rich enough, you could have one or two liveried servants running in front of your own carriage with a light. Many houses had so-called ‘torch-extinguishers‘ or ‘torch-snuffers’ on their gates.
But, if you were less endowed with carriages or servants, you could hire the services of a link-boy. He would light your way with a link, a torch made of the dried pith of a rush plant dipped in fat or grease. These link-boys were usually poor urchins who tried to earn a bit of money. They had a bad reputation for luring the unwary traveller to a dark corner where he would fall into the hands of thieves with dire consequences.(1)
Let constant Vigilance thy Footsteps guide;
And wary Circumspection guard thy side;
Then shalt thou walk unharm’d the dang’rous Night,
Nor need th’officious Link-Boy’s smoaky Light.(2)
We find other authors also referring to link-boys, for instance Samuel Pepys, who regularly mentions them in his Diary, as on 4 February, 1660, “So with a linkboy to Scott’s” and on 22 June that same year, “and so by link home about 11 o’clock”. Dickens has a link-boy figuring in The Pickwick Papers: “Yes, there is”, interposed the link-boy, “I have been a ringing at it ever so long”. And W.M. Thackeray inThe luck of Barry Lyndon has them lighting the way in Dublin, “and so we rode on slowly towards Dublin, into which city we made our entrance at nightfall. The rattle and splendour of the coaches, the flare of the linkboys, the number and magnificence of the houses, struck me with the greatest wonder”.
A newspaper of 1840 refers to the declining need for link-boys/men and the strive amongst them for the best patches to pick up a customer in the report on a court case at Marlborough Magistrate Court(3). The journalist refers to linkmen as “useful nuisances on dark nights, once indispensable appendages to aristocracy” which are becoming a thing of the past because of gas lighting and an increased police force. One of these linkmen, whose name we incidentally never learn, brought a complaint about a policeman to the court, because he had allegedly been shoved and pushed out of the way for no reason. He was given the opportunity to state his case and the journalist tried to transcribe his statement phonetically:
“Arter I’d verk’d off the nobility and gentry at the Collerseum, I jest thought out of nateral curiosity as I’d jest look in, in my vay home to Vestminster, at the Hannever-skvare rooms, vere there jest happened to be a hevening consort, and ven I got there the company vast jest haccidental a coming out. Vhile I vornt a thinking of not nithin and doing nithin not to nobody votsomdever, up come this here pleseman and treads slap bang on my toes. Hullo, ses I, good luck to yer, mind vot yer arter, and vith that he stomps on em again. Do you call sitch proper usage for a man, ses I. Cut yer lucky, ses he, or I’m blest if I don’t stomp on yer head next. Vith that he shoves and shoves me off the curb, till I werry nearly went heel over tip slap into the kindle.”
The policeman said in his defense that “he had been ordered to keep the passage to the rooms clear for the company, and in particular not to allow the linkmen and cabdrivers to muster in their usual numbers”. As his witnesses he called James O’Leary (nickname Paddy Carey), the unofficial head of the regular linkmen of the area, the “St. Giles’s illuminati“, and Jack Greathead, another linkman “second only in reputation” to Paddy. Jack produced a large brass badge and said that he was the “principal linkman to her Majesty’s Royal Hopera-house and Hanover-skvare Rooms”. When asked what he knew of the alleged assault, Jack said that “that er waggerbun” had been encroaching on their patch and it served him right if he got into trouble with the policeman, “He arn’t von of us. He aint got no badge, and he never know’d how to handle a link”. He goes on to fulminate against the linkman and the magistrate has to repeat that he just wants to know what Jack has seen of the assault to which he replied “Never seed nuffin, cause I’m werry hard o’hearing” after which pronouncement he immediately returns to his complaint about the linkmen who should not have been there. Since the regulars were obviously not willing to testify against the policemen, but were far more interested in getting their own back on the interloper, and the complainant was unable to prove the assault, the case was dismissed. The paper reports the linkman’s reaction to the dismissal, “Oh, werry well. The police does jest as they likes vith us now, but they’ll find the boot’s on t’other leg werry soon”.
(1) More on the history of rushlights here
(2) John Gay, Trivia, 1716, book III, lines 111-114.
(3) The Morning Post, 14 May 1840.