The Experience Of A Ham Sandwich Seller
by Henry Mayhew

A young man gave me the following account. His look and manners were subdued; and, though his dress was old and worn, it was clean and unpatched:—

“I hardly remember my father, sir,” he said; “but I believe, if he’d lived, I should have been better off. My mother couldn’t keep my brother and me—he’s older than me—when we grew to be twelve or thirteen, and we had to shift for ourselves. She works at the stays, and now makes only 3s. a week, and we can’t help her. I was first in place as a sort of errand-boy, then I was a stationer’s boy, and then a news agent’s boy. I wasn’t wanted any longer, but left with a good character. My brother had gone into the sandwich trade—I hardly know what made him—and he advised me to be a ham sandwich-man, and so I started as one. At first, I made 10s., and 7s., and 8s. a week—that’s seven years, or so—but things are worse now, and I make 3s. 6d. some weeks, and 5s. others, and 6s. is an out-and-outer. My rent’s 2s. a week, but I haven’t my own things. I am so sick of this life, I’d do anything to get out of it; but I don’t see a way. Perhaps I might have been more careful when I was first in it; but, really, if you do make 10s. a week, you want shoes, or a shirt—so what is 10s. after all? I wish I had it now, though. I used to buy my sandwiches at 6d. a dozen, but I found that wouldn’t do; and now I buy and boil the stuff, and make them myself. What did cost 6d., now only costs me 4d. or 4½d. I work the theatres this side of the water, chiefly the ’Lympic and the ’Delphi. The best theatre I ever had was the Garding, when it had two galleries, and was dramatic—the operas there wasn’t the least good to me. The Lyceum was good, when it was Mr. Keeley’s. I hardly know what sort my customers are, but they’re those that go to theaytres: shopkeepers and clerks, I think. Gentlemen don’t often buy of me. They have bought, though. Oh, no, they never give a farthing over; they’re more likely to want seven for 6d. The women of the town buy of me, when it gets late, for themselves and their fancy men. They’re liberal enough when they’ve money. They sometimes treat a poor fellow in a public-house. In summer I’m often out ’till four in the morning, and then must lie in bed half next day. The ’Delphi was better than it is. I’ve taken 3s. at the first “turn out” (the leaving the theatre for a short time after the first piece), “but the turn-outs at the Garding was better than that. A penny pie-shop has spoiled us at the ’Delphi and at Ashley’s. I go out between eight and nine in the evening. People often want more in my sandwiches, though I’m starving on them. ‘Oh,’ they’ll say, ‘you’ve been ’prenticed to Vauxhall, you have.’ ‘They’re 1s. there,’ says I, ‘and no bigger. I haven’t Vauxhall prices.’ I stand by the night-houses when it’s late—not the fashionables. Their customers would’nt look at me; but I’ve known women, that carried their heads very high, glad to get a sandwich afterwards. Six times I’ve been upset by drunken fellows, on purpose, I’ve no doubt, and lost all my stock. Once, a gent. kicked my basket into the dirt, and he was going off—for it was late—but some people by began to make remarks about using a poor fellow that way, so he paid for all, after he had them counted. I am so sick of this life, sir. I do dread the winter so. I’ve stood up to the ankles in snow till after midnight, and till I’ve wished I was snow myself, and could melt like it and have an end. I’d do anything to get away from this, but I can’t. Passion Week’s another dreadful time. It drives us to starve, just when we want to get up a little stock-money for Easter. I’ve been bilked by cabmen, who’ve taken a sandwich; but, instead of paying for it, have offered to fight me. There’s no help. We’re knocked about sadly by the police. Time’s very heavy on my hands, sometimes, and that’s where you feel it. I read a bit, if I can get anything to read, for I was at St. Clement’s school; or I walk out to look for a job. On summer-days I sell a trotter or two. But mine’s a wretched life, and so is most ham sandwich-men. I’ve no enjoyment of my youth, and no comfort.

“Ah, sir! I live very poorly. A ha’porth or a penn’orth of cheap fish, which I cook myself, is one of my treats—either herrings or plaice—with a ’tatur, perhaps. Then there’s a sort of meal, now and then, off the odds and ends of the ham, such as isn’t quite viewy enough for the public, along with the odds and ends of the loaves. I can’t boil a bit of greens with my ham, ’cause I’m afraid it might rather spoil the colour. I don’t slice the ham till it’s cold—it cuts easier, and is a better colour then, I think. I wash my aprons, and sleeves, and cloths myself, and iron them too. A man that sometimes makes only 3s. 6d. a week, and sometimes less, and must pay 2s. rent out of that, must look after every farthing. I’ve often walked eight miles to see if I could find ham a halfpenny a pound cheaper anywhere. If it was tainted, I know it would be flung in my face. If I was sick there’s only the parish for me.”

End of The Experience Of A Ham Sandwich Seller by Henry Mayhew