Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Billy the Cartwheeler

In 1970 The Scarecrow Press Inc., of Metuchen, New Jersey, issued a remarkable book called Billy the Cartwheeler Reminiscences by W. Harrison Culmer “The Last of the Dickens Boys.” I’m not sure what Dickens scholars thought of this tale, which can only be described as “startling,” but I had the uneasy feeling when reading it that my leg was being pulled to unconscionably long length. The memories were evidently composed in America sometime in the 1930’s.

The reminiscences of Billy the Cartwheeler (1859-1939) seem to be partly true, Culmer knows his London streets. His description of the Magdalen Ragged School he attended, situated in a cobble-stoned blind alley facing Tooley Street, is fine. His tales of Dickens are, however, an amazing species of melodramatic braggadocio, especially the tale of a Pickwickian carriage ride to a picnic with Charles Dickens at the reins.

Billy was one of those poor street boys who earned his living turning cartwheels in crowded thoroughfares for the coins tossed from admiring passengers in omnibuses and cabs. It was a dangerous way to make a living somersaulting through streets choked with pedestrians and traffic. To make a long story short “Dickens Boys,” (apparently there were seven of them), served as his sources for his writings when he needed information on the underworld of London. It seems quite strange that Dickens, a man who took long night walks all over London and had the assistance of the London detective police to make first-hand investigations into the Seven Dials and other insalubrious areas of the metropolis, should seek the assistance of a precocious ten year old street boy. Dickens comes across as a vaguely feather-headed old duffer with no firsthand knowledge of the geography of London.

There are no dates in this book but from hints in the texts I judge these “memories” to be from the years 1867-1869. Now to the point of this post:

Culmer mentions the serial Oliver Twist twice in the text. In the Preface and Author’s Introduction he recalls Dickens fame among street Arabs was because of the serialization of his popular works in penny weekly numbers. These appeared every Saturday afternoon with a medallion portrait of the author in the upper left hand corner of the parts.

The other mention gives more details about these penny numbers. One Saturday in March Billy the Cartwheeler walked to Exeter Place for a rehearsal of the Queen’s Choir made up of Ragged School students from the slums. Billy remembered the exact time, 12:30, because it was at that precise moment every Saturday that newsboys materialized all over London selling halfpenny numbers of Oliver Twist in a “single sheet, folded once, usually containing one chapter on the four pages.” The cover contained only the title with a portrait of Charles Dickens the size of a penny on one corner and “Ha’penny Edition” opposite. I might add that no such edition of Oliver Twist has survived to amuse this generation.

David Paroissien compiled Oliver Twist An Annotated Bibliography in 1986 in 313 pages of small text. The Annotated Bibliography is a thorough and authoritative look at every edition of Oliver Twist that has survived including plagiarisms, parodies, children’s versions and contemporary reviews of that marvelous work of Newgate Fiction. Alas no “Ha’penny Edition” with penny-sized portrait is mentioned. Chapman & Hall published a cheap edition in weekly numbers at one and a halfpenny in 1850 which had a special Cruikshank woodcut on the wrapper but there is no mention of a penny or ha’penny Oliver Twist appearing in 1867-1869.

Chapman & Hall issued The Adventures of Oliver Twist in 1867, illustrated, at three shillings per copy, and the covers carried a facsimile of Dickens signature on the cover to indicate “his present watchfulness over his own Edition,” but no portrait. There were numerous unauthorized works published in 1839 and penny parodies (Oliver Twiss the Workhouse Boy) that same year then nothing in pennies until 1881 when Charles Henry Ross edited a sixteen page scissors & paste hackwork Oliver Twist (The Penny Library of Popular Authors) concentrating on criminal excerpts for penny publisher Henry Vickers.

Billy also recalls a statue of Charles Dickens round which these penny weekly numbers were sold. Dickens was aghast at the thought of memorial statues to himself and it was not until 1891 that a statue was unveiled, not in London but in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dickens had a stipulation in his will that no monument or statue of him ever be erected, a dying wish his family recently tried to have annulled.

Ah, Billy, ye was a fine romancer, but Billy the Cartwheeler seems to be just that, a romance. It may be partly true, it may have more than one author, (Muriel Harding ?) it’s an enjoyable time-waster, but in the end it seems our Billy, the “last” of Dickens Boys, was but a leg-puller after all.


  1. Hi. I am both an historian and a relative of this Culmer and his family. I'd just like to point out that this book is a "reminiscence" that was written many years after the events. This kind of work is not expected to rise to the standard of formal history and personal memories, as every historian should know, are usually quite unreliable for particulars and documented fact. There is little doubt that Culmer knew Dickens and that Dickens took an interest in the young boy. We also know that Dickens was interested in the entire Mormon movement (no, I'm not a "cricket-stomper"). 8^) Don't be too hard on Billy. He wasn't an historian, but we should be grateful that he took time to leave his story for us.

  2. I thought I was being quite kind to Billy in my tongue-in-cheek sort of way. I'm still skeptical. Our University library has an enormous Dickens related collection -- thousands of books -- in not one index did I find this book ever mentioned. In addition -- while not an historian -- I have read almost every biography of Dickens I could lay eyes on and the 'memoirs' of Billy just struck me as wrong, wrong, wrong on so many points that I'll need definite proof before changing my mind. Hope you will take no offense, Mr. Burchell. I promise if I ever find myself to be wrong I will write another post admitting it! Thanks for writing -- now I'm off to look up "cricket-stomper" -- sounds like a ghastly occupation.