Below is a fascinating account of child labour that reveals an unusual link between rural and city life in the mid-Victorian era. It was written by Henry Mayhew, who observed, documented, and described the state of working people in the 1840s for a series of articles later compiled into book form. The illustration comes from the picture library of Victorian engravings I run with my wife (ww.victorianpicturelibrary.com).
From London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew, 1851
The young gypsy-looking lad, who gave me the following account of the sale of birds-nests in the streets, was particularly picturesque in his appearance. He carried in one hand his basket of nests, dotted with their many-coloured eggs; in the other he held a live snake, that writhed and twisted as its metallic-looking skin glistened in the sun; now over, and now round, the thick knotty bough of a tree that he used for a stick
He said: ‘I am a seller of birds-nesties, snakes, slow-worms, adders, effets [lizards], hedgehogs (for killing black beetles); frogs (for the French – they eats ’em); snails (for birds); that’s all I sell in the summer-time. In the winter I get all kinds of wild flowers and roots. I gather bulrushes in the summer-time. Some buys bulrushes for ‘stuffing’, that is, for showing off the birds as is stuffed, and make ’em seem as if they was alive in their cases.
I sell the birds-nesties in the streets. The linnets has mostly four eggs, they’re for putting under canaries, and being hatched by them. The thrushes are merely for cur’osity – glass cases or anything like that. Moor-hens has from eight to nine eggs, and is 1d a-piece; they’re for hatching under a bantam fowl, the same as partridges. [He goes on to list many kinds of bird, including the sparrow hawk, horned owl, woodpecker, and kingfisher – sold for ‘cur’osity’, and for putting in glass cases] …
‘I take all the cross country roads across fields and into the woods. I start between one and two in the morning and walk all night – for the coolness – you see the weather’s so hot you can’t do it in the daytimes. When I get down I go to sleep for a couple of hours. I ‘skipper it’ – turn in under a hedge or anywhere. After I’ve had my sleep I start off to get my nests. I climb the trees, often I go up a dozen in the day, and many a time there’s nothing in the nest when I get up.
After I take a bird’s nest, the old bird comes dancing over it, chirupping and crying, and flying all about. When they lose their nest they wander about, and don’t know where to go. Oftentimes I wouldn’t take them if it wasn’t for the want of the victuals, it seems such a pity to disturb ’em after they’ve made their little bits of places.
‘There’s one gentleman I sells to has a hobby for them. He puts ’em into glass cases, and makes presents of ’em to his friends. I’ve sold him a hundred nesties, I’m sure. The most of my customers is stray ones in the streets. They’re generally boys. The boys of twelve to fifteen years of age is my best friends. They buy ’em only for cur’osity.’