Ere Goes Coal!

In the late 1920s and early 1930s we were, statistically speaking, lower middle and working class families living in the southeast London district of Catford. By present-day standards we lived in poverty, although we certainly didn’t feel so. We and all our friends and families were in the same boat, and few of us had regular pocket money, even as 11 and 12-year-olds. A couple of us had paper rounds which brought in a few shillings a week, some of which we were expected to contribute to the family finances. No family I knew had a car, although most of us had a wireless set. Not all of us had electricity. A “penny for the gas” was often needed when the mantle began to flicker, and for many of us boys it was a weekly task to take the accumulator to the local garage for re-charging.

Times have certainly changed!

In this environment we either entertained ourselves with street games – ‘fug’, ‘tip-cat’ or, I regret to admit, ‘knocking down ginger’, a game all boys of this era will recognise. We would also watch the performances of the buskers who appeared regularly in the local market or on the kerb edge of the high street. There was much less traffic then, and little danger for the one-man band, the organ grinder and monkey or the sarsparilla seller (I wonder if any youngsters of today have ever enjoyed this soft drink – particularly when sold hot in winter at a penny a glass?).

Other hawkers entertained us with their patter – the banana man with his barrow, “Two a penny, five for tuppence!”; the woman with her “Penny a bunch of mint, a penny, only a penny a bunch of mint!”; or, during the August school holidays, with a tray full of shining brown orbs, each with a stick standing up in it, the man who shouted: “Toffee apples! Toffee apples, just made! Penny each!”

The supreme entertainment which attracted us the most was the regular appearances of a proper showman known to us by one of the phrases he used when, having received the requisite number of ‘copper coins’, he’d shout: “‘Ere goes coal!” and then perform.

He appeared only two or three times a year when he’d set up his gear at the station approach at about one o’clock on a Saturday ready for the arrival of clerks, typists and other office workers who would spew out of the down trains from the city for their ‘half-day’. We weren’t in the slightest bit interested in them -rather the performance their arrival heralded!

We never knew in advance when ‘Ere Goes Coal!’ would arrive, but the grapevine soon made his presence known, he arrived with a barrow containing a tarpaulin, buckets, rope and a jacket, and this last item intrigued us the first time we saw it. It had very long sleeves without openings, but had straps, and appeared to have its fastening at the back. It was, as we learned by our regular attendances, a strait-jacket. He’d spread the tarpaulin on the ground, with the buckets and jacket beside it. He would then strip down to his undervest to expose a muscular, tanned torso.

He was now ready for the trains, the times of which he obviously knew by heart. Originally
he had made half-hearted attempts to usher us boys out of the way – we represented no source of income – but in the course of time he became aware that our presence attracted others, so we were allowed to stay.

When the first train’s passengers emerged from the station he’d take a swig from a jug, put a lighted taper to his mouth and spray out a tongue of fire which immediately drew the crowd’s attention. Enough of them would stop to view. A few seconds of the flame was enough. Then he began his spiel. “Good afternoon, gentlemen” (very few women emerged from the train) “If you have but a few minutes to spare I will show you things that will amaze you. You may never see them again. A chance of a lifetime” and so he’d go on. The crowd would begin to grow, soon 30 to 40, and he’d continue: “All I ask, gentlemen, if you think my act is worth it, is one copper coin to help me make my living. Are there 12 sportsmen who will donate a penny – just one penny?”

After a short pause a coin would be thrown on to the tarpaulin. Then another, and another. When a dozen or so had been accumulated, he would hastily pocket them and go to his buckets. He’d lift the first to the centre of the tarpaulin, produce a dessert spoon, dig into the bucket with it and bring out a spoonful of sawdust. “‘Ere goes sawdust!” he would bellow, and at the same time swallow the spoonful. Then he’d go to the next bucket, bring out a spoonful of sandy, gritty-looking stuff and shout: “And ‘ere goes brick dust!”. Each mouthful was followed by a gulp of water. “What about coal dust?” was next. “A few more sports, and down it goes!” Enough coins would follow, and down went coal dust!

By this time the next train load had arrived, and he offered something different to keep the first audience in place. Producing his waistcoat, which he would don as far as possible, he’d say: “A couple of gents buckle me up and I’ll show you the impossible. I will escape from this jacket, however tight you strap me in.” He was always able to persuade someone to do this. When he was well strapped in, hands and arms behind him, and buckled firmly, he’d appeal once again for two more ‘sportsmen’. “Tie this rope round me, tight as you like, just to make sure. And if there are some sports with a couple of coppers to spare, I’m certain you’ll be amazed at my escape.” The patter would continue, non-stop. “Come along, gentlemen – just a copper or two”. More than ‘a copper or two’ would usually be forthcoming, and finally the show would begin. He’d writhe and struggle, fall to the ground – for effect, no doubt – and, sweating and groaning, he’d eventually loosen the ropes that were bound round the jacket. He took long enough to give the crowd its money’s worth, and would finally clamber to his feet, having divested himself of the strait-jacket.

In a most histrionic manner he would then bow to the crowd, thank everybody for their support, then collect his gear together, dress himself, wheel the barrow with its contents across the road to the door of the Railway Tavern, disappear inside and no doubt down a well-earned pint.

We don’t have many ‘Ere Goes Coal performers these days!

Gordon E. Monshall