The London District Messenger Boy

W. B. NORTHROP November 1 1906

The London District Messenger Boy

W. B. NORTHROP November 1 1906

The London District Messenger Boy


This highly entertaining account of the duties which fall to the lot of the London district messenger boy is well worth reading. To-day there is scarcely a field of domestic or professional work in which the messenger boy is not found useful. The writer gives several examples of tasks which have been set, all requiring nerve and intelligence.

WHEN in doubt ring for a messenger boy,” is the advice of a well-known actor manager. It is a good rule; for there is scarcely an emergency to which the modern Mercury is unequal. In fact, the capabilities of the call-box are well-nigh inexhaustible. Veritably, it holds, in modern times, a position similar to that commanded by Aladdin’s lamp of old. Only, instead of rubbing a lamp, and ordering an unwieldy and somewhat terrifying Genie about, you pull a lever, and a harmless messenger boy presents himself willing to go anywhere or do anything that may reasonably be required.

Even in the fearsome field of domestic employment, messengers step in where mistresses fear to tread. Already the function of the nursemaid has been usurped by the boy in blue; and it looks as if we were coming within a measureable distance of the beautific time when even the cook might be defied with impunity. Doubtless, before many years, should coachman, cook, housemaid, nurse, or other domestic servant “give notice,” the alarming situation might be met with complacency by merely “ringing up” for the particular kind of help needed.

Indeed, it is not an unusual sight to-day to see little children escorted to the nearest kindergarten by smartly-dressed messengers. As “baby minders” the popularity of the District Service is growing daily. Lady suscribers very often require messenger boys to take babies out

for walks. Pushing perambulators in the park is not a task for which members of the messenger force compete very vigorously with each other; but, as the custom seems to be growing, doubtless before very long there will be organized a regular babyminding corps. These boys will be trained how to face all the infinite little predicaments that arise in the daily life of King Baby, from keeping the sun out of His Majesty’s eyes to—well, other things.

As a matter of fact, there is scarcely a field of domestic or professional work in which District messengers may not be found useful in one way or another. Indeed, the range of their employment is almost as astonishing as is the peculiar character of some of the tasks to which they are assigned.

The keynote of messenger duty is diversity. There is a fascinating uncertainty about the work that must be one of its strongest attractions to those engaged in the service. When a call is rung up for a boy at one of the numerous stations scattered about London, the lad who answers it does not know whether he will be required to take an old maid’s basket of kittens out for an airing, or carry a tube of dangerous explosive from one Government laboratory to another.

Not long ago a very cantankerous gentleman sent for a District messenger for the purpose of “changing poultices.” It seems that this gentleman had been taken ill, and, being a woman-hater, refused to ad-

mit a trained nurse to his presence. As a male attendant was not at the moment available, the doctor hit upon the happy expedient of calling in a District boy who performed his duties admirably.

In fact the enumeration of the peculiar bizarre—tasks to which London messengers are set reads more like romantic fable than sober truth. It was more or less the fashion a few years ago to ring up a messenger, and, in a nonchalent way, send him to the ends of the earth on a trivial quest, This somewhat expensive amusement was indulged in with an air of* careless indifference which conveyed a very effective impression.

One of the most notable instances of this kind was the trip made by Jaggers at the instance of Mr. Richard Harding Davis. Mr. Davis had made a wager with Mr. H. Summers Somerset, son of Lady Henry Somerset, that he could call up an ordinary messenger boy who would go from London to Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, and deliver letters properly, without written instructions, returning to London by a certain date.

The call was “ rung in,’: the boy Jaggers responded, took the letters, and started out on his journey without further preliminaries. The lad performed his task with marvelous celerity, and on his return to London became the hero of the hour. He was even presented to the late Queen Victoria, who praised him for his long and plucky journey.

Another extremely interesting adventure was that undertaken by Messenger C. J. Hill, who was required to deliver a collie dog, valued at £2000, to the Sultan of Turkey. The animal was a present from Sir Vincent Caillard, of the National Bank

of Egypt. When young Hill reached Constantinople with his, dumb charge he created quite a sensation, the members of the Sultan’s Court taking the greatest interest in him. On being presented ' to His Majesty, he was asked if he would not like to remain in Constantinople, and a place in the Palace was offered him. Though the pay was on princely scale, and the duties were comparitively light, the messenger declined the flattering offer, preferring the sober seriousness of dingy London to the golden glamour of the Eastern capital. On his return home, the Foreign Office notified Master Hill that a Court Honour had been conferred upon him in the shape of a decoration, which was duly forwarde to him, and which he wears to-day on State occasions.

The sending of boys on long-disdance journeys is no walmost a matter of everyday occurence. Recently a lad was sent to Madrid to collect luggage left behind by an English traveler who had vacated the Spanish capital in a great hurry. Boys think nothing of a “ run over to New York and back.”

American visitors often send them over to bring back forgotten articles, or to convey personal messages to friends at home.

One of the most interesting American trips ever taken was that performed for the late Col. M'Calmont. The Colonel one day rang up a messenger, and handed him a note “ for immediate delivery.” On looking at the address, it was ascertained that the point of delivery was Hansard, California, U.S.A. In less than two hours after receiving the commission, the messenger was en route to Liverpool, whence he caught the first boat to New York. Arriving at New York, he lost no time

in booking to California, at that time a seven-day trip by rail across the vast American continent. The note was safely delivered several hours before the arrival of the regular mails ; and, as this was Col. M'Calmont’s object in sending the note by this means, the trip proved a decided success. It is said that the fees in this case amounted to considerably over a hundred pounds, to say nothing of the special present made to the District messenger boy on his return to London.

District messengers are often sent to Paris to pay bills, and even to redeem pledges pawned in the French metropolis. These missions are generally of a very delicate nature, requiring great judgment, tact, and, of course, absolute secrecy. Only those who have been long in the service and who know French well are sent on such quests.

One of the strangest trips ever taken to France was by a District courier sent to the Pasteur Institute to bring back a tube of deadly microbes, required by an English scientist. On another occasion a messenger was despatched to Paris for some liquid air.

These messengers are very popular among scientific investigators, and even the Government occasionally employs them to carry various objects. Not long ago, a boy was required to go from one laboratory to another with a parcel of corditeone of the most powerful explosives known to man. As cordite is not dangerous unless handled in a certain way, the life of the messenger was not in jeopardy. However, persons who knew what he carried on this occasion were careful to give him a wide berth, and it is safe to say he was not subjected to any

rude ‘'shocks” by his playful companions.

Lecturers on medicine frequently require the attendance of messengers for the purpose of converting them into ” models” at physical demonstrations. A not very agreeable task imposed on one of the boys last year was the watching of a corpse. When duties such as this are required, it is the rule of the inspector to call for “ volunteers ” ; but it is seldom boys are daunted by any such demands.

District boys are in great favor among the blind. They are regularly employed in large numbers to take blind persons from place to place. It is said they are most successful in all situations requiring tact and sympathy. Some blind people have become so attached to their messenger guides* that they employ no other attendant. The boys are employed also to wait upon other persons suffering from various afflictions. They are useful in such employment as wheeling the paralytic about in bath chairs, reading to sick people, and doing other kindly offices which verge on the duties of the nurse. Many boys are very entertaining conversationalists, and several of them are quite successful in dealing with patients who prove unreasonable and refractory.

A boy was recently required to conduct a lunatic from London to a point some distance in the country. The journey was performed at night. Naturally, few were anxious to undertake a task requiring that they should be locked in a railway compartment at night alone with a lunatic. The manager of the District Company, who asked for volunteers for this work, was surprised to find, however, that several were quite

willing to perform this unpleasant duty.

But it is not “ all work and no play ” which falls to the lot of the London messenger. There are some so-called tasks which any of them would be highly delighted to fulfill. Last Christmas, two boys were employed to show the “ sights ” of London to a couple of Indian Princes and to aid them in their selection of presents to send home. It is scarcely necessary to say that the guides had a splendid time, from start to finish. The days were spent in sight-seeing and going to shows of various kinds ; every night there was a theatre, or a big dinner, and for a week these two youths lived in an earthly paradise. It was very hard on them when they had to return to the ordinary duties of life, after having, practically, been elevated into the rarer atmosphere of Royalty for more than a week.

London messenger boys are not employed by Indian Royalty only, however. They are much in favour in several of the titled families of England. Buckingham Palace and Marlborough House frequently send for them, while at the home of the Duke of Connaught—Bagshot Park—they may be said to be quite a part of the ordinary domestic arrangements. At Clarence House, too, His Royal Highness employs several messengers on the tennis courts to pick up balls. They are also engaged as caddies on a number of ducal golf courses.

A very unique service connected with the Messenger Boy Brigade is “ reminding.” This consists in calling some people to keep appointments, arousing others at stated times in the mornings, in order that they will be in time for work, keeping some posted with reference to events in which they are interested ;

and generally acting as a species of secondary memory, relieving the mind of many petty and vexatious yet, in themselves, important particulars. During the last solar eclipse boys were employed to remind persons of the hour ; and, when the last show of meteors was predicted, many boys were engaged to arouse scientific observers from their slumbers in order to observe the phenomena.

If you are interested in some coming event, and fear that, through some inadvertence, you might fail to think of it in time, you can employ a messenger to remind you, and you may depend upon it that your interest in the event will not be allowed to flag.

To the naturally forgetful, messengers have at times rendered yeoman service. A traveller to America via Liverpool recently forgot his eartrumpet. As the instrument was absolutely necessary to him, he wired to London to have it sent to Queenston, the first point of call of the boat the next morning. A messenger boy dispatched from London with the ear-trumpet arrived at Queenston in ample time to go on board, to the infinite relief of the passenger, who hailed the boy from the tender with great enthusiasm as soon as he saw him.

On an another occasion a traveler from Marseilles to India forgot some luggage at the French port. A boy was dispatched from London, and he succeeded, on reaching Marseilles, in having the baggage forwarded in such a way that it was placed on the Indian boat before it had reached the Suez Canal. There are hundreds of cases recorded where forgetful travelers have been wonderfully assisted by

calling in the aid of District messengers at the last moment.

It was out of an incident of this kind that the saying, arose : “When

in doubt—send for a messenger boy.” The story goes that a well-known London actor, traveling in the provinces, on one occasion forgot an important piece of “ stage property.” He was almost at his wits’ end over the matter when, looking out of the window of his hotel,. he chanced to see a messenger boy crossing the street. The idea occured to him to telegraph to London to have a messenger boy to look after the missing article. This was done with great success, and the situation saved.

There are often exciting incidents in the careers of messenger boys Not infrequently their services have been useful in connection with the trapping of criminals. Now and then call-boxes are used as burglaralarms. A notable case of this kind occured in St. John’s Wood a few years ago, at the residence of Mr. Cohen. Finding that his house had been broken into, Mr. Cohen rang up the District Messenger Station at Swiss Cottage, and conveyed the intelligence that a burglar was on his premises. Of course this was done without the knowledge of the trespasser. Two messenger boys went immediately and brought policemen to the spot, just in time to capture a man leaving the house with his booty.

Some of the tasks imposed upon messengers are ludicrous. For instance, one boy was required to lead a live donkey from Charing Cross to Euston. He left the station amid the applause and bantering chaff of the railway porters. As he proceeded to his destination, his progress became a species of truimphal

march, most of the street gamins of that section of London manifesting the livliest interest in the boy and his somewhat frisky charge.

Another boy was called up to take a basketful of kittens out for an airing. Taking pet dogs to walk in the parks is one of the most usual occupations of the messengers ; while they are often employed to look after other pets as well, such as small birds, parrots, and monkeys.

One of the most amusing experiences ever had by a messenger boy was to conduct a Chinese servant belonging to the family of a wealthy peer from London to a place on the Continent.

The Celestial from the Flowery Kingdom arrived in England direct from the East too late to meet his master, who had gone abroad, and the Chinaman was turned over to the tender mercies of a messenger boyc Of course, the stranger could not speak a word of English, nor did the boy know any Chinese ; while neither of them knew a word of French. The journey was performed by means of signs, the “inexplicable dumbshow ” affording an immense fund of amusement to the fellow-passengers of the strange pair. However, despite all his difficulties, the messenger delivered John Chinaman safely, and the efforts of the knight of the call-box were duly rewarded.

There are times, however, when the employment offered these boys are far from amusing or pleasant. Bank robbers and cheque forgers have occasionally utilized them as part of their “ system.” The usual thing is to call a boy to some first-class hotel-^where a room has been engaged as part of the plant—and send him to the bank with a forged cheque. The boy, innocently enough,

presents the cheque, and very often obtains the money before it is discovered that the document is a forgery. By this means the impostor himself is not seen in the bank, and cannot be identified subsequently, except of course, by the messenger boy.

Another form of employment which is to be deprecated is sending boys to various points for the express purpose of dispatching telegrams conveying the impression that the ^principal is absent on business.

This kind of work is, it is scarcely necessary to say, not encouraged by the company. As the boys when called out, however, are at the service of whoever employs them, they are not supposed to be more than mechanical instruments of their employers, who are responsible to the company for their time. If they are required to go down into the country to send a telegraph message back to London, that is part of their “ day’s work,” and the boys themselves are not supposed to ask questions.

One of the most important duties of messenger boys is acting as guides to London visitors. Many of the newly-elected Members of Parliament have employed them in this capacity, and found them extremely efficient. Several of the boys are endowed with exceptionally accurate information of a unique character concerning points of interest in London ; and nearly all know the streets of the metropolis ” like a book.” Indeed, it is part of the training of the messenger boy to know his streets quite as well as does the policeman or cab-driver.

As escorts for young boys, or for ladies visiting London for the first time, messenger boys have proved invaluable. The District Company

often receives a commission from an anxious parent to conduct some tender youth about the city in such a manner that instruction may be combined with amusement of the proper kind. Most of these boys seem to possess exceptionally sound ideas of their responsibilities in life. They are, as a rule, selected for service only after the most rigid inquiry into character, and it is doubtful if one would be able to find anywhere so numerous a body— they number nearly 1000—with so clean a record for upright service. As guides for young boys, children, and young ladies, they have never been known to render anything but exceptional service.

One of the most popular forms of messenger employment is in the theatre “ queue.” At the famous Terry benefit recently, no fewer than ninety-nine boys were engaged to hold places during the record wait of thirty hours. At nearly every performance of popular plays in London one may see lads holding places in line for those who are not willing to “ stand and wait.”

In certain offices in the City messenger boys are engaged to operate lifts, and do other responsible tasks usually assigned to well-trained officials. At times offices will need extra help in a clerical line, and not infrequently messengers are called in for this work.

All the call-boxes connected with the various central and sub-stations on the District service have a special indicating lever to be pulled in case of “ fire.” The very prompt action of messenger boys in notifying the nearest fire-station, or even smashing the glass fronts of the street alarms, has often prevented serious conflagrations.