William Chambers (1800-1883)
From 1800-1829 Literary Anecdotes

IN the winter of 1815-16, when the cold and cost of candlelight would have detained me in bed, I was so fortunate as to discover an agreeable means of spending my mornings. The sale of lottery tickets, I have said, formed a branch of my employer's business. Besides distributing the lottery circulars, it fell to my lot to paste all the large show-boards with posters of glaring colours, bearing the words `Lucky Office', `Twenty Thousand Pounds still in the Wheel', and such-like seductive announcements. The board-carriers —shilling-a-day men—were usually a broken-down set of characters; as, for example, old waiters and footmen, with pale flabby faces and purple noses; discharged soldiers, who had returned in a shattered condition from the wars; and tattered operatives of middle age, ruined by dram-drinking.

Among the last-named class of board-carriers, there was a journeyman baker who had an eye irretrievably damaged by some rough, but possibly not unprovoked, usage in a king's birthday riot. What from the bad eye, and what from whisky, this unfortunate being had fallen out of regular employment. Now and then, when there was a push in the trade, as at the Newyear, he got a day's work from his old employer, a baker in Canal Street....

From this hopeful personage, whom it was my duty to look after, I one day had a proposition, which he had been charged to communicate. If I pleased, he would introduce me to his occasional employer, the baker in Canal Street, who, he said, was passionately fond of reading, but without leisure for its gratification. If I would go early—very early—say five o'clock in the morning, and read aloud to him and his two sons while they were preparing their batch, I should be regularly rewarded for my trouble with a penny roll newly drawn from the oven. Hot rolls, as I have since learned, are not to be recommended for the stomach, but I could not in these times afford to be punctilious. The proposal was too captivating to be resisted.

Behold me, then, quitting my lodgings in the West Port, before five o'clock in the winter mornings, and pursuing my way across the town to the cluster of sunk streets below the North Bridge, of which Canal Street was the principal. The scene of operations was a cellar of confined dimensions, reached by a flight of steps descending from the street, and possessing a small back window immediately beyond the baker's kneading-board. Seated on a folded-up sack in the window-sill, with a book in one hand and a penny candle stuck in a bottle near the other, I went to work for the amusement of the company. The baker was not particular as to subject. All he stipulated for was something comic and laughable. Aware of his tastes, I tried him first with the jocularities of Roderick Random, which was a great success, and produced shouts of laughter. I followed this up with other works of Smollett, also with the novels of Fielding, and with Gil Blas; the tricks and grotesque rogueries in this last-mentioned work of fiction giving the baker and his two sons unqualified satisfaction. My services as a reader for two and a half hours every morning were unfailingly recompensed by a donation of the anticipated roll, with which, after getting myself brushed of the flour, I went on my way to shop-opening, lamp-cleaning, and all the rest of it, at Calton Street. It would be vain in the present day to try to discover the baker's work-shop where these morning performances took place, for the whole of the buildings in this quarter have been removed to make way for the North British Railway station.

From William Chambers, Memoir of Robert Chambers . . . , ed. cit., pp. 102-104.

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