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A History of the Cries of London by Hindley

Calls your bellman to his task


"That honest men that walk along, May see to pass safe without wrong."

Formerly it was the duty of the bellman of St. Sepulchre's parish, near Newgate, to rouse the unfortunates condemned to death in that prison, the night before their execution, and solemnly exhort them to repentance with good words in bad rhyme, ending with

"When St. Sepulchre's bell to-morrow tolls, The Lord above have mercy on your souls."

It was customary for the bellman to present at Christmas time to each householder in his district "A Copy of Verses," and he expected from each in return some small gratuity. The execrable character of his poetry is indicated by the contempt with which the wits speak of "Bellman's verses" and the comparison they bear to "Cutler's poetry upon a knife," whose poesy was--"_Love me, and leave me not_." On this subject there is a work entitled--"The British Bellman. Printed in the year of Saint's Fear, Anno Domini 1648, and reprinted in the _Harleian Miscellany_." "The Merry Bellman's Out-Cryes, or the Cities O Yes! being a mad merry Ditty, both Pleasant and Witty, to be cry'd in Prick-Song[3] Prose, through Country and City. Printed in the year of Bartledum Fair, 1655." Also--"The Bell-man's Treasury, containing above a Hundred several Verses fitted for all Humours and Fancies, and suited to all Times and Seasons. London, 1707." It was from the riches of this "treasury"

that the predecessors of the present parish Bellman mostly took their _own_ (!) "Copy of Verses."

In the Luttrell Collection of Broadsides (Brit. Mus.) is one dated 1683-4, entitled, "A Copy of Verses presented by Isaac Ragg, Bellman, to the Masters and Mistresses of Holbourn Division, in the Parish of St. Giles's-in-the-Fields." It is headed by a woodcut representing Isaac in his professional accoutrements, a pointed pole in his left hand, and in the right a bell, while his lanthorn hangs from his jacket in front; below is a series of verses, the only specimen worth giving here being the expression of Mr. Ragg's official duty; it is as follows:--

"Time Masters, calls your bellman to his task, To see your doors and windows are all fast, And that no villany or foul crime be done To you or yours in absence of the sun. If any base lurker I do meet, In private alley or in open street, You shall have warning by my timely call, And so God bless you and give rest to all."

In a similar, but unadorned broadside, dated 1666, Thomas Law, Bellman, greets his Masters of "St. Giles, Cripplegate, within the Freedom," in twenty-three dull stanzas, of which the last may be subjoined:--

"No sooner hath St. Andrew crowned November, But Boreas from the North brings cold December, And I have often heard a many say He brings the winter month Newcastle way; For comfort here of poor distressed souls, _Would he had with him brought a fleet of coals_."


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