Volume III of “London Labour and the London Poor” by Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew has an interesting interview with a French hurdy-gurdy player from London circa 1850 (see pp.171-174). A touching insight into the life of a street musician. You can find the whole book on Google here but what follows is the relevant section:
French Hurdy-gurdy Player, With Dancing Children
“I play on the same instrument as the Savoyards play, only, you understand, you can have good and bad instruments; and to have a good one you must put the price. The one I play on cost me 60 francs in Paris. There are many more handsome, but none better. This is all that there is of the best. The man who made it has been dead sixty years. It is the time that makes the value of it.
“My wife plays on the violin. She is a very good player. I am her second husband. She is an Italian by birth. She played on the violin when she was with her first husband. He used to accompany her on the organ, and that produced a very fine effect.
“The hurdy-gurdy is like the violin - it improves with age. My wife told me that she once played on a very old violin, and the difference between that and her own was curious for sound. She was playing, with her husband accompanying her on the organ, near the chateau of an old marquis; and when he heard the sound of the violin he asked them in. Then he said, ‘Here, try my violin,’ and handed her the old violin. My wife said that when she touched it with the bow, she cried, ‘Ah, how fine it is!’ It was the greatest enjoyment she had known for years. You understand, the good violins all bridge where the bridge is placed, but the new violins sink there, and the tune is altered by it. They call the violins that sink the ‘consumptive’ ones.
“I am Dijon. The vineyard of Clos Nangent is near to Dijon. You have heard of that wine. Oh, yes, of course you have! That clos belongs to a young man of twenty-two, and he could sell it for 2,500,000 francs if he liked. At Dijon the bottles sell for 7 francs.
“My mother and father did not live happily together. My father died when I had three years, and then my mother, who only had twenty years of age, married again, and you know how it often happens, the second father does not love the first family of his wife. Some Savoyards passed through our village, and I was sold to them. I was their slave for ten years. I learned to play the hurdy-gurdy with them. I used to accompany an organ. I picked out note for note with the organ. When I heard an air, too, which I liked, I used to go to my room and follow the air from my memory upon the instrument. I went to Paris afterwards.
“You see I play on only one string in my hurdy-gurdy. Those which the Savoyards play have several strings, and that is what makes them drone. The hurdy-gurdy is the same as the violin in principle. You see the wheel of wood which I turn with the handle is like its bow, for it grates on the string, and the keys press on the string like the fingers, and produce the notes. I used to play on a droning hurdy-gurdy at first, but one night I went into a cafe at Paris, and the gentlemen there cried out, ‘Ah! the noise!’ Then I thought to myself - I had fifteen years - if I play on one string it will not produce so much noise as on two. Then I removed one string, and when I went the next night the gentlemen said ‘Ah, that is much better!’ and that is why I play on one string.
“I used to sing in Paris. I learnt all that of new in the style of romances, and I accompanied myself on the hurdy-gurdy. At Paris I met my wife. She was a widow then. I told her I would marry her when her mourning was over, which lasted nine months. I was not twenty then. I went about playing at cafes, and put by money. But when we went to be married, the priests would not marry us unless we had our parents’ consents. I did not know whether my mother was dead. I hunted everywhere. As I could not find out, I lived with my wife the same as if we had been married. I am married to her now, but my children were all born before marriage. At last I went to the Catholic priest at Dover, and told him my life, and that I had four children, and wished to marry my wife, and he consented to marry us if I would get the consent of the priest of the place where I had lived last. That was Calais, and I wrote to the priest there, and he gave his consent, and now my children are legitimate. By the law of France, a marriage makes legitimate all the children born by the woman with whom you are united. My children were present at my marriage, and that produced a very droll effect. I have always been faithful to my wife, and she to me, though we were not married.
“When my wife is well, she goes out with me, and plays on the violin. It produces a very good effect. She plays the seconds. But she has so much to do at home with the children, that she does not come out with me much.
“My age is twenty-five, and I have voyaged for seventeen years. There are three months since I came in England. I was at Calais and at Boulogne, and it is there that I had the idea to come to England. Many persons who counselled us, told us that in England we should gain a great deal of money. That is why I came. It took three weeks before I could get the permission to be married, and during that time I worked at the different towns. I did pretty well at Dover; and after that I went to Ramsgate, and I did very well there. Yes, I took a great deal of money on the sands of a morning. I have been married a month now - for I left Ramsgate to go to be married. At Ramsgate they understood my playing. Unless I have educated people to play to, I do not make much success with my instrument. I play before a public-house, or before a cottage, and they say, ‘That’s all very well;’ but they do not know that to make a hurdy-gurdy sound like a violin requires great art and patience. Besides, I play airs from operas, and they do not know the Italian music. Now if I was alone with my hurdy-gurdy, I should only gain a few pence; but it is by my children that I do pretty well.
“We came to London when the season was over in the country, and now we go everywhere in the town. I cannot speak English; but I have my address in my pocket, if I lose myself. Je m’elance dans la ville. To day I went by a big park, where there is a chateau of the Queen. If I lose my way, I show my written address, and they go on speaking English, but I do the pointed finger; and when I get near home, then I recognise the quarter.
“My little girl will have six years next February, and the little boy is only four years and a-half. She is a very clever little girl, and she notices everything. Before I was married, shed heard me speaking to my wife about when we were to be married; and she’d say, constantly, ‘Ah, papa, when are you going to be married to mamma?’ We had a pudding on our marriage-day, and she liked it so much that now she very often says, ‘Oh, papa, I should like a pudding like that I had when you married mamma.’ That is compromising, but she doesn’t know any better.
“It was my little girl Eugenie who taught her brother Paul to dance. He liked it very much; but he is young yet, and heavy in his movements; but she is graceful, and very clever. At Boulogne she was much beloved, and the English ladies would give her packets of sugar-plums and cakes. When they dance, they first of all polk together, and then they do the Varsovienne together, and after that she does the Cachuca and the Mazurka alone. I first of all taught my girl to do the Polka, for in my time I like the dance pretty well. As soon as the girl had learnt it, she taught her brother. They like dancing above all, when I encourage them, for I say, ‘Now, my children, dance well; and, above all, dance gracefully, and then I will buy you some cakes.’ Then, if they take a fancy to anything, if it is not too dear, I buy it for them, and that encourages them. Besides, when she says ‘Papa, when shall we go to France and see my little brother who is out at nurse?’ then I say, ‘When we have earned enough money; so you must dance well, and, above all, gracefully, and when we have taken plenty of money we will be off.’ That encourages them, for they like to see me take plenty of money. The little girl accompanies the music on the castanets in the Cachuca. It is astonishing how well she plays them. I have heard grown-up artists in the cafes chantants, who don’t play them as well as she does. It is wonderful in so young a child. You will say she has learnt my style of playing on the hurdy-gurdy, and my movements; but it is the same thing, for she is as clever to other music. Sometimes, when she has danced, ladies come up and kiss her, and even carry her off into their houses, and I have to wait hours for her. When she sees that I gain money, she has much more courage. When the little girl has done dancing with my Paul, then he, when she is dancing alone, takes the plate and asks for money. He is very laughable, for he can already say, ‘If you please, misses.‘ Sometimes the ladies begin to speak to him, he says, ‘Yes! yes!’ three or four times, and then he runs up to me and says, ‘Papa, that lady speaks English;’ and then I have to say, ‘No speak English.‘ But he is contented if he hears anybody speak French. Then he runs up to me, and says, ‘Papa, papa, Monsieur speaks French.’
“My little girl has embroidered trowsers and petticoats. You won’t believe it, but I worked all that. The ends of the trowsers, the trimmings to her petticoats, her collars and sleeves, all I have worked. I do it at night, when we get home. The evenings are long and I do a little, and at the end of the week it becomes much. If I had to buy that it would cost too much. It was my wife who taught me to do it. She said the children must be well dressed, and we have no money to buy these things. Then she taught me: at first is seemed droll to me, and I was ashamed, but then I thought, I do it for my business; and now I am accustomed to do it. You would fancy, too, that the children are cold, going about in the streets dressed as they are, but then the jumping warms them. They would tell me directly if they were cold. I always ask them.
“The day I was married a very singular circumstance happened. I had bought my wife a new dress, and she, poor thing, sat up all night to make it. All night! It cost me five shillings, the stuff did. I had a very bad coat, and she kept saying, ‘I shall be gay, but you, my poor friend, how will you look?’ My coat was very old. I said, ‘I shall do as I am;’ but it made her sad that I had no coat to appear in style at our marriage. Our landlord offered to lend me his coat, but he was twice as stout as I am, and I looked worse than in my own coat. Just as we were going to start for the church, a man came to the house with a coat to sell - the same as I have on now. The landlord sent him to me. It is nearly new, and had not been on more than three or four times. He asked 12s., and I offered 8s.; at last he took 9s. My wife, who is very religious, said, ‘It is the good God who sent that man, to reward us for always trying to get married.’
“Since I have been here, my affairs have gone pretty well. I have taken some days 5s., others 6s., and even 8s.; but then some days rain has fallen, and on others it has been wet under foot, and I have only taken 4s. My general sum is 5s. 6d. the day, or 6s. Every night when I get home I give my wife what I have taken, and I say, ‘Here, my girl, is 3s. for to-morrow’s food,’ and then we put the remainder on one side to save up. We pay 5s. a-week for our room, and that is dear, for we are there very bad! very bad! for we sleep almost on the boards. It is lonely for her to be by herself in the day, but she is near her confinement, and she cannot go out.
“It makes me laugh, when I think of our first coming to this country. She only wore linen caps, but I was obliged to buy her a bonnet. It was a very good straw one, and cost 1s. It made her laugh to see everybody wearing a bonnet.
“When I first got to London, I did not know where to go to get lodgings. I speak Italian very well, for my wife taught me. I spoke to an Italian at Ramsgate, and he told me to go to Woolwich, and there I found an Italian lodging-house. There the landlord gave me a letter to a friend in London, and I went and paid 2s. 6d. in advance, and took the room, and when we went there to live I gave another 2s. 6d., so as to pay the 5s. in advance. It seems strange to us to have to pay rent in advance - but it is a custom.
“It costs me something to clothe my children. My girl has six different skirts, all of silk, of different colours, grey, blue, red, and yellow. They last the year. The artificial flowers on her head are arranged by her mamma. The boots cost the most money. She has a pair every month. Here they are 3s., but in France they are dearer. It is about the same for the little boy; only as he does not work as much as his sister, he is not dressed in so distinguished a style. He is clean, but not so elegant, for we give the best to the girl.
“My children are very good at home. Their mother adores them, and lets them do as they like. They are very good, indeed.
“On Sunday, they are dressed like other children. In the morning we go to mass, and then we go and walk a little, and see London. I have, as yet, made no friends in London. I know no French people. I have met some, but they don’t speak to me. We confine ourselves to our family.
“When I am in the streets with good houses in them, and see anybody looking at the windows, then if I see them listening, I play pieces from the operas on my hurdy-gurdy. I do this between the dances. Those who go to the opera and frequent the theatres, like to hear distinguished music.”