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New Chums. A Victorian Sketch.

Philip Mennell

THE term “new chum” is one of so wide and indefinite an application that, were I not to narrow its significance after a somewhat arbitrary fashion, I should find myself, in endeavouring to portray a few of the chief characteristics of the species, inditing a book instead of a sketch. How long the poor immigrant caterpillar must remain in the dark chrysalis of new chumship before he can be supposed to have expanded into the full-blown Colonial butterfly is a question upon which a great variety of opinions prevails, even amongst “old hands” (I use the term, not opprobriously, but in a perfectly parliamentary and Pickwickian sense, to denote old Colonial residents). Some limit the period to five years, the duration of an ordinary trade apprenticeship; some think seven years “the cheese;” whilst others, again, whom we charitably credit with an awful experience of


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new chum ignorance and stupidity, would, like Laban, of Biblical celebrity, protract the date of emancipation “yet other seven.” Leaving these highly respectable parties to their opinions, I will briefly explain what, for the purposes of the present sketch, I mean by the term. In the first place, I restrict its application to the new arrival, who, having landed with no capital beyond a few pounds, has hitherto failed in obtaining remunerative employment. I do not intend to refer to the new chum of the labouring class, who, if he be energetic and pushing, will very soon find himself outside the category of the unemployed. In short, I confine myself to such new chums as have not been inured to manual toil—members of the middle and upper middle-class at home, bred up to professions, mercantile clerkships, or—more commonly still—to nothing at all. In a word, I treat of the newly-arrived unattached gentleman-immigrant, who, notwithstanding all the warnings of prudence and experience, is constantly being landed—and, I am sorry to say, stranded—upon Australian shores. It is his joys and sorrows, shifts and troubles, economies and imprudences, that I sing. He is a much-tried individual, and his circumstances make him a meek and unobtrusive one. I therefore owe him an apology for dragging him out of his obscurity into the dazzling light of garish day.


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Let him rest assured that I should not have done so had I not hoped to point a moral as well as to adorn a tale. After the confinement, the constraint, and the dreary monotony of a long sea voyage, a reaction in this direction of indulgence—not to say over-indulgence—is very apt to set in on the part of immigrants on landing. This is generally so powerful in the case of the class of new chums to which I am referring as to overcome in a moment all those righteous and sober resolutions in which none are more prone to indulge, whilst under the influence of those remorseful self-introspections which are sure to obtrude upon the mental listlessness and inaction of a prolonged passage. The new chum of the fast order settles himself down at an expensive hotel, devotes his days to the billiard table, his nights to the demi monde. The crisis of his affairs is soon reached. Rung by rung he descends the ladder. His funds and his borrowing powers, if any, are soon alike exhausted. He “pops” or sells his watch and chain; the same with the rest of his available jewellery. Article by article, his clothes follow, till mine host, seeing how matters stand with him, and distrusting the security of his attenuated wardrobe, gives him a broad hint to quit. This hint, however loath, he is compelled to take, and packs accordingly—not his luggage (that is non est)—but himself. Thrown


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penniless upon the world, he drops at once to a level with the ordinary pauper loafer, who, however, has this great advantage over him, that he thoroughly knows his ground, has had a large experience in the cadging art, and though, like our new chum, he cannot, or will not, dig, unlike the former, to beg is not ashamed.

The early colonial career of the new chum of the steady-going type, unless he be gifted with the rare prudence of accommodating himself to his new position, and settling down without delay to cheap quarters and strict economies, though less blameable, is scarcely less felicitous in its practical results than that of his faster confrère. He, too, though far too proper to go “upon the burst,” must have a few little indulgences after his long abstinence, must take up his quarters at a comfortable hotel, and enjoy a short spell before, as he elegantly and expressively phrases it, “buckling to.” That word “spell” is a very short word, a very easy word, a very innocent-sounding word, but, as used in Mr. Steady-going's vocabulary, it is also a very comprehensive word, and, par conséquence, a very expensive word. It includes all manner of good living, good liquor—without excess, you understand—theatre-going, sight-seeing ad libitum, hansoms unlimited, luncheons “quite regardless,” drives into the country, rides into the bush, a run


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over to Ballarat, visits to the ship, nobblers round, and a host of other things too numerous to mention. The result is that Mr. Steady-going is almost as soon upon his beam-ends (that last remnant of my new chumship, the affectation of nautical phraseology, still clings to me, I see) as his more frolicsome brother, Mr. Fast. He is, however, somewhat wiser in his generation. He clings to his watch, his etceteras, his portmanteau, his boxes, especially that big one which contains his dress suit, his white ties, his white kids, his patent pumps, his silk waistcoats, his shiny blue surtout, his twenty-five white linen shirts—all marked—to the last. As soon as he considers that the amount of his account is about coincident with the amount of his resources, he calls for his bill, peruses it, pays it, though it exhausts his finances to the last pound, with the nonchalant air of a traveller who is passing on to an adjacent and equally luxurious stage, looks out a cheap but respectable lodging, to which he transfers his goods by car, as per special bargain. His landlady, to whose inquiring eyes he presents a dazzling vista of well-cut clothes, white shirt front, gold watch chain, studs, sleeve-links, well brushed bell-topper, speckless boots, irreproachable “Gamp,” and, above all, substantial luggage, thinks, poor, silly woman, she has landed a prize, and does not


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dream of insulting him by presenting her account for a matter of some weeks. This gives him time, as he classically expresses it, to turn round. He presents his business introductions, if he has any; looks up every unfortunate individual upon whom he has, or imagines he has, any claim; puts the screw on Mr. This, gives the tip to Mr. That—all with a view to obtaining that employment which has now become a matter of absolute and immediate necessity to him. This sort of work employs his mornings. At one he dines—or, as, with a view to some distant suggestion of a late dinner, he will persist in calling it, lunches—at a sixpenny restaurant. Furtively he glides in, and cautiously; with many glances to right and left, he slips out. This satisfactorily accomplished, he repairs to his lodgings, has a rest, a wash, and a brush up, and turns out just in time to take his part in doing the Blocknote —a duty which he religiously discharges every afternoon. He feels, to be sure, that he is a sort of ghost at the feast, a kind of one too many, an interloper, almost an impostor; for are not his fine feathers tantamount to a false advertisement of a full exchequer? Still, he thinks it best “on principle,” and as a matter of business, “to do the


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respectable,” and very efficiently he does it. Mark his brisk air, his well-assumed expression of easy satisfaction, his light, jaunty step. See how naturally he “coins his cheeks to smiles,” which are simply the products of will, and have no origin in a heart which could find its only adequate expression in a language of sighs, and you will cease to wonder at that hackneyed Spartan boy who smiled whilst the fox beneath his cloak gnawed his vitals. By six the farce is over, and our friend retires to his threepenny coffee, with bread and butter ad lib., which in his case indicates at least sixpenny-worth of butter, almost a whole loaf of bread, an hour and a-half's free sitting room, and the monopoly for that period of half-a-dozen newspapers. It is now time for him to be again upon the streets, or, perhaps, he turns into the library for a change. His stay there will, however, not be as long, as, with a mind ill at ease, he will in all probability find it impossible to settle down to steady reading, and to sit and think would be still more intolerable. He will therefore soon return to his old task of pacing Bourke and Collins Streets, varying the dull round with an occasional trip to the arcades, or the Hobson's Bay Railway Station. Not until his walk has degenerated, through sheer fatigue, into a toddle will he turn his steps homeward, and find repose—and


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he will be lucky if he always find it—in slumber. Such is a sample of his day. If he be thoroughly determined, and, putting aside false delicacy, press his claims, in season and out of season, he will in all probability gain a footing of some sort or another. If he fail, nothing can very long avert the catastrophe of his respectability, or prevent his sinking to the level of the more reckless gentleman whose descent to pauperism I have already depicted. “Fallen, fallen from his high estate.” Little by little his paraphernalia drops away. He is to be seen nightly hovering round the pawnshop, which it costs him I know not what pangs of agonising pride to enter. First go the small things, then he begins to deal in huge newspaper bundles, and you may know the end is near. His embarrassed air in demanding “an advance,” and the expression of mute misery with which he awaits the shopman's decision, are all against him. They tell of the rude presence of absolute necessity, and encourage that experienced functionary to drive a doubly-hard bargain with him. His clothes, he is told, are not of the “colonial cut,” and will be “moth-eaten to pieces” before they are got rid of. Then, after a feint of not taking in his property upon any terms, the poor new chum is offered about a tithe of what he has asked on them. This he is fain to accept, but saves his pride by muttering something


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about “not caring to carry them back home with him that night,” and “coming to-morrow and taking them out again, as he cannot afford to let them go at that price.” But, as he himself knows, and as the wily broker easily divines, there is very little likelihood that to-morrow—that “rare and luxurious” to-morrow—will ever come. But the poor lie preserves his self-respect, or he thinks it does, which is about the same thing.

Driven from the haunts of respectability by the growing seediness of his attire, the new chum, such as I have described, in not a few instances makes a final rise of a few shillings, and starts on the tramp up-country. Here a proportion turn tutors or book-keepers (these are lucky), obtain work on stations, get into stores, or are otherwise absorbed into the ordinary life of the country. The remainder either have the fatted calf killed for them at home, blossom into “sun-downers,” or worse still, degenerate into confirmed criminals. Of those who remain in town a small modicum obtain employment as waiters, grooms, boots, or even “to be generally useful” about hotels, but they do not, as a rule, settle very well to their unaccustomed billets, and are, most of them, in communication with “home,” with a view to a speedy return to their old haunts. Their life may be described as a perpetual “waiting for the mail.” Lucky will they be if their


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friends prove lenient and their expectations of a goodly remittance are realised. More often they get a stone instead of bread, a letter of recrimination and good advice instead of the letter of credit for which they so urgently plead. Nothing is more striking than the invincible repugnance manifested by the new chum, even when in direst need, to the receipt of public charity. He will do anything, dare anything, rather than accept it—go through any amount of private cadging, lie down in the cricket reserve, or pace the streets all night, as he is forced to do all day, rather than accept the “hospitality” of the Immigrants' Home or Benevolent Asylum. Once he has been humiliated by the taint of public charity, his self-respect is destroyed, and there remains very little hope of his ever emerging from the slough of despond into which he has fallen. What becomes of him is best known to the criminal statistician and the philanthropist. I draw a veil over his latter end.

The new chum, whilst doing Melbourne, is, like the country cousin in London, an easily recognisable individual. The very cut of his coat collar betrays him. When his fortunes are on the decline his air of wild misery and undemonstrative desolation are truly pitiable. The one treat of his dreary life is when—it generally happens in the evening—he falls in with some of his old shipmates similarly


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situated to himself. Nearly every evening you see a knot of these unfortunates collected in front of the theatre or opera-house door, like a group of Peris gathered round the gate of a paradise which they cannot enter. It is the one glimpse of sociability which they get throughout the day, and they make the most of it. Very merry they grow over the burlesque delineation of their mutual miseries, of which, when together, they can only see the comic side. Then, if one of the number have had the luck to make “a rise” during the day, he “shouts” tobacco for the lot, or sometimes—mirabile dictu—“nobblers round.” It is the old story of Nero and his fiddle over again. But if the whimsicalities which distinguish these chance-meetings prove even a temporary medicine for sick hearts, dashed hopes, tired limbs, and weary feet, who will cavil at this light-headed thoughtlessness? Sunday, from the absence of life and movement in the streets, is a dreary day for the new chum, if he keep to his Melbourne beat. If the day be fine, however, he will probably extend his walks to Sandridge or Williamstown, where he will find plenty of variety in inspecting the shipping. The sea air is, however, too hunger-inspiring to be economical, and if his exchequer be too low to stand the drains of an increased appetite, he must be content to be unfashionable, and remain in town. Under these


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circumstances, or if the day be wet, he will, in all probability, if his clothes be sufficiently decent, sit under Canon Handfield or the Rev. Charles Strong, always remembering to “clear out” before the collection, that scourge of the penniless church-goer. I take it for granted that he is a Protestant, as I cannot see how, on a Sunday, the impecunious new chum can be anything else. Should he, however, be rash enough to think of attending High Mass or Vespers at a Roman Catholic Church, he will find himself confronted at the entrance by a couple of lynx-eyed money-takers, and the chink of the coin as the worshippers drop in will tell him only too plainly that in these boasted churches of the poor there is no place for him. If, therefore, he hanker after the “sensuous worship” of Catholicism, he will have to be content with such harmonies as he can gather from the outside. On a week-day the penniless new chum would be ungrateful were he not something of a Roman Catholic, seeing what glorious shade and shelter the open churches of the creed afford to him from the glaring sun and pelting rain. On a Sunday, however, he must be a Protestant or nothing at all. If inclination, seediness of attire, impecuniosity, or all combined, make him the last, he will have to take refuge in the Fitzroy Gardens, where he will find free “sittings,” “sermons in stones,” and prayers, if he will, in the


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rustling of wind-shaken plants and trees. The new chum, however poor in pocket, is certain, after a few weeks upon the streets, to become rich in what Disraeli calls “accumulated experience.” He knows every turn of every street in Melbourne; the whole architecture and outline of the city is at his finger ends, for he has inspected it in sunshine and in shower, by night and by day—nay, at all times of the night and day, and from every possible point of view. He is a sort of walking guide-book to its public parks and buildings, a kind of dictionary of “things not generally known” to the mass of its inhabitants. He has thumbed every book in the Public Library, and has become a living encyclopædia of literary odds and ends. He is something of a theologian, for he has attended in turn all the churches and chapels of Melbourne. He is something of a politician, too, pinning his faith to the Colonial party, which, for the nonce, is most prone to assert the Englishman's “privilege of public meeting,” a right, the vindication of which by the current radicalism has secured him many an evening's shelter in the Town Hall, and others equally well-warmed and lighted. He knows more law than many lawyers, the Supreme Court in term-time being one of his favourite refuges. He must needs be something of a philosopher, having traversed the extreme poles of


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its phases. Last, but not least, amongst his numerous qualifications, he knows better than anyone how to lay out threepence to the best advantage. All this knowledge makes him a very desirable, or, at any rate, a very amusing companion, and accounts for the fact, which would otherwise be inexplicable, of his seldom being without tobacco, and, at least, one daily “nobbler,” the tobacco and the “nobblers” being, in fact, the price paid for his society by his less gifted but more solvent associates.

I have now lightly depicted some of the habits and manners of one of the great “social facts” of Australia. I have treated the subject from somewhat of a serio-comic standpoint; but I am not on that account unconscious of the shadow of tragedy which surrounds it. Pitiable as is the position of the unsuccessful new chum who has “come out” of his own accord, that of the emigrant who owes his misfortunes to the cruelty or carelessness of unfeeling friends has still greater claims to sympathy. It seems to be no uncommon thing for persons at home, who wish to be relieved of the surplus incumbrances, in the shape of sons, nephews, etc., to ship them off to the colonies, with funds utterly insufficient to give them a fair start on landing, and without affording them any fair opportunity of gauging their prospects in emigrating


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prior to starting. In this way, not only are the victims themselves reduced to the shifts and makeshifts I have described, but the useless, and, I am sorry to say, criminal, population of the colonies is most wantonly and unnecessarily swelled. Parents and guardians, who dare not expose their protégés to destitution on the streets at home, think nothing of what is practically the same thing when a long voyage intervenes, and they are divided by thousands of miles from the miseries of which they are the cause, and the public obloquy which should be their meed. If the persons thus sent out are thoroughly able-bodied, they may, after a time, overlive their troubles, but their chance of doing so is small indeed when, as is often the case, they are physically delicate, or even mentally deficient. The victims of this kind of “happy despatch” are not, unfortunately, confined to the sterner sex. A young girl at home commits a faux pas, and in order to avoid scandal, perhaps on the very eve of her confinement, when she most of all needs tender treatment, is put on board ship without any companion or attendant, except the ship doctor, who is not invariably the most skilful of his class. If she survive the sufferings of the voyage, and escape utter demoralisation on the passage, how can she hope, when landed in one of the great


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Australian ports, without friends, money, or character, to provide sustenance for herself and infant after an honest fashion? Ten to one she will be driven to find a living on the streets, and (pace, ye moralists) who is most to blame? The poor girl, or those who sent her out to certain destitution? It is not for me, the mere “idle singer of an empty day,” to point the moral of the facts to which I have adverted; but should they be taken up and ventilated by others, I shall not have “made a note” of them in vain.

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