In November 1844 a crowd began to gather outside St James’s Church in Piccadilly. A policeman, curious about what was causing people to block the thoroughfare, discovered a small boy – ‘a ragged Puck-like urchin’ – standing on his head, perfectly balanced on a spike on one of the iron railings outside the building. He was warned off, but the next day had returned and another audience assembled to marvel at his acrobatic genius. The officer was obliged to arrest him and bring him before the court.
The boy’s name was Watts, and as he stood in front of the magistrate at Marlborough Street, Mr Hardwick, admitted he’d been brought before the bench at Marylebone under similar circumstances. He seemed perfectly at ease as he sized up with a professional eye one of the posts that bounded the dock.
Mr Hardwick asked the boy how he got his living.
“Vy I stands on my head for it,” he replied. “Here,” he continued, laying his hand on top of the post, “I’ll stand on top of this,” and pointing to some houses through the window: “or for a couple of browns I’ll stand on my head on von of them ‘ere chimney pots.”
“You must find some other means of earning your bread,” the magistrate warned. “If you collect mobs in the street so as to cause an obstruction, I must send you to prison.”
“I don’t care if you do” retorted Watts. “Better off than in a vorkhuss. Been in Marerbone last veek, but couldn’t stop no how.”
“‘‘Cos I was knocked about by t’other boys, and they put me in the new buildings, vere they puts none but the worst of characters.”
Mr Hardwick asked how many times he’d been to prison.
“Tell yer Vership the whole lot. First of all, I got seven days in Col’bathfields for begging. Ven I come out I guv up that dodge and stole a penny loaf, and got a fortnight at the [Brixton] mill. Next, me and my pal stole some horanges, and the beak guv us a month a piece at Tothill-fields. Arter that, I got seven days for jumping Jim Crow;1 arter that two months, as a pleseman cotched me by the scruff of my neck, and I hev a stone at him wot missed him, and hit a boy behind a slap in the nose. Next got three veeks at Horsemonger for nothing I knowd of. Arter that 30 shillings, or three weeks at the New Prison, for breaking vinders cos they chucked vater over me; and that’s all, except this here, vich is either Brixton or the vurkuss, vot yer vurship pleases.”
Watts had spoken without hesitation and prompted much amusement in the court. He was told he could make the choice himself. After a short pause, he decided another stint on the Brixton treadmill could wait. He would give the workhouse one more go.
1 Jump Jim Crow is a song and dance dating from 1828 usually performed in blackface.