One day he walk’d up to an oyster stall,
To punish the natives, large and small;
Just thirty dozen he managed to bite,
With ten penny loaves – what an appetite!
But when he had done, without saying good day,
He bolted off, scot free, away;
He savag’d the oysters, and left the shell –
Dando, the bouncing seedy swell.
The Life and Death of Dando, The Celebrated Oyster Glutton (Street Ballad).
For one man the meagre diet in Brixton was much more of a punishment than the dreaded treadmill. Indeed it was John Dando’s insatiable appetite that frequently put him in prison. His modus operandi was simple: he feasted on what he couldn’t afford, touring London’s eateries, consuming huge quantities of food then refusing to pay.
He was committed to Brixton for a month in April 1830 charged with devouring, at a coffee shop, ‘3lbs of animal food, a half-quartern loaf, sundry eggs and washing down the whole with upwards of a dozen cups of coffee.’ But old habits died hard and the governor, Mr Green, had him placed in solitary confinement for having robbed other prisoners of bread and beef: ‘in fact so ravenous was his appetite while in [Brixton], that nothing in the shape of food, belong to whom it might, could be left within his reach that he did not devour.’
Oysters, though, were Dando’s weakness. They were a staple of the nineteenth century poor, heaved up the Thames from the beds in Essex, offloaded at Billingsgate and taken away in their barrel loads to be hawked around London, usually on street stalls from where they were eaten straight from the shell. Dando was reputed to have consumed thirty dozen large ones in a single sitting with a proportionate amount of bread and brandy. And his appetite for them was always sharpened by a diet of prison gruel.
On the evening of his release from Brixton he walked straight into a shop and devoured thirteen dozen washed down with five bottles of ginger-beer. He took the latter as he was ‘troubled with wind in his stomach.’ But once again his bill went unpaid.
For seven or eight years he served a string of sentences punctuated by what he liked to call ‘blow-outs’ at oyster shops. So prolific a thief was he that the newspapers published a description ‘for the benefit of the oyster-dealers and the public in general: he stands five feet seven inches in height – 29 years of age, and is lame in the right foot. His hair is brown – complexion fair – and he generally wears a gaol dress.’
In 1831, after another feat of unpaid-for gluttony, the magistrate inquired about this peculiar clothing. To laughter in the court he replied: “The jacket came from Brixton, the waistcoat . . . was bestowed to me at a similar establishment at Guildford; and the trousers I know I acquired by hard servitude in your Middlesex House of Correction.”
Despite his appearance he had all the charm and swagger of a man about town. His sentence in Brixton had been succeeded by a stay at the house of correction in Guildford. Immediately on his release he walked the thirty miles to London, spending his shilling release-money on bread, cheese and beer along the way. On his arrival in the city, penniless, he called in on an unsuspecting oyster-seller, quickly devouring eleven dozen large oysters, a half-quartern loaf and eleven pats of butter.
At the conclusion of the meal he made a pretence of searching his own pockets, then claiming: “Really, Mr Oysterman, I have no cash about me; I must pay you next time I pass this way”, before walking off ‘whistling a merry tune’. When the stall-owner objected, Dando replied: “But, my good fellow, what am I to do, if I have not got the money? As the saying is, you can’t draw blood from a stone.”
His arrest was swift and he once again found himself before the magistrate at Union Hall, Maurice Swabey, who exclaimed:
“I suppose you are brought here again for gormandizing, and not paying for it?
“I had a few oysters, it is true, your worship.”
“What have you to say to the charge?”
“Nothing, Sir, but that I was very hungry” came the simple reply.
When Swabey, surprisingly, released him from custody, the oyster-seller quickly slipped out of the court where he lay in wait for Dando, whom he ambushed with a bucket of water before giving him a good thrashing with a cane ‘to the infinite amusement of a throng of persons who had assembled outside’.
Such punishments were an occupational hazard for Dando. Although romanticised by the newspapers as something of a folk-hero, to the beleaguered costermongers he was a shameless thief. He was frequently seen around town with a black-eye, and indeed claimed no one in London ever had so many dreadful beatings.
But he apparently cared little for them, with the exception of one from a man he had defrauded in Kennington: ‘Then, he said, he narrowly escaped with his life, for not being able to pay for a paltry three dozen of oysters, he was dragged through a horse pond, rolled in the mud, and so belaboured with cudgels, that his bones ached for a month after. He made a vow never to go near Kennington again, and he kept his word.’
Dando died in the cholera epidemic of 1832 after returning to London from a tour of the oyster-sellers of Kent – and its prisons. He had quickly found himself in Coldbath Fields, where at five on a Tuesday afternoon he was taken sick, passing away within a few hours.
There was an affectionate obituary in the Morning Chronicle: ‘Dando used to pride himself that he was no thief, and said he considered it hard to be committed to prison for getting into debt without the means of paying, a thing which was done every day with impunity by those much better off than himself.’ Dickens also wrote fondly of Dando, imagining ‘he was buried in the Prison Yard and they paved his grave with oyster shells.’