BONA PARLARE – MR PUNCH SPEAKS





Punch is a hopera–a huproar, we calls it
Punchman, London 1840s

The puppets now known around the English-speaking world as ‘Punch and Judy’ arrived in England by way of Italy and France in the seventeenth century. Based on the Italian commedia del arte character of Pulcinella, or Punchinello, the play rapidly developed a distinctive English variation that included the introduction of the female figure eventually to be known as ‘Judy’. The Punchinello character was known to the slangery of the day as ‘Punch in hell’, a description that reportedly irritated the more respectable members of Mr Punch’s audience.

Samuel Pepys saw a Punch and Judy performance in London’s Covent Garden in 1662, though according to tradition, the first to publicly display the show in England was an Italian named Porsini who made a great deal of money, but eventually died destitute in a workhouse. According to a Punchman interviewed by the indefatigable Henry Mayhew in the 1840s ‘Every one in London knowed him: lords, dukes, squires, princes, and wagabones, all used to stop and laugh at his pleasing and merry interesting performance…’.

Mayhew described the Punchman as  “a short, dark, pleasant-looking man, dressed in a very greasy and very shiny green shooting jacket … Protruding from his bosom, a corner of the pandean pipes was just visible, and as he told me the story of his adventures, he kept playing with the band of his very limp and very rusty old beaver hat.” The ‘pandean pipes’ were accompanied by the swazzle, a device that the Punchman inserts at the back of his mouth to produce the raucous voice of Mr Punch, one of the trade secrets of the business.

The Punchman told Mayhew that Porsini passed on his skills and secrets to an apprentice and the show gradually grew and developed, though there were never large numbers of Punch and Judy acts in Britain as the skills involved, including puppetry, mimicry, music, speech and working the audience were not commonplace and also closely guarded once attained. Punch and Judy practitioners considered themselves to be well above the level of street hawkers, patterers and other busking entertainers. Inns were their preferred accommodation, rather than the cheaper lodging houses and padding kensfavoured by vagabonds and beggars.

There were sixteen frames, as they called the show and its portable structure, operating in England at this time, each worked by two men, eight in London and the other eight in various country locations. The Punchmen had a well organised and self-regulated network that mostly ensured no two frames were operating in the same region at the same time – ‘We all know one another, and can tell in what part of the country the others are. We have intelligence by letters from all parts.’, said Mayhew’s Punchman. However, ‘If two of us happens to meet at one town, we jine, and shift pardners, and share the money. One goes one way, and one another, and we meet at night, and reckon up over a sociable pint or a glass. We shift pardners so as each may know how much the other has taken…’.

The Punch and Judy show has long been associated with the seaside. Mayhew’s Punchman provides the original monetary rationale for this in a statement in which he substitutes ‘v’ for ‘w’ in some words, a common feature among low English speakers at the time, as immortalised by Dickens’ Fagin: ‘We in generally goes into the country in the summer time for two or three months. Watering places is werry good in July and August. Punch mostly goes down to the sea-side with the quality.’

The language of the Punchmen was a mixture of Italian, English, French and Cant, a patter known by them as Bona parlare, related to, though distinct from the Parlary of other travelling entertainers in fairs and circuses. Mayhew reproduces a likely conversation between two Punchmen, as given to him by his unnamed informant, who also provides translations of most of the words and phrases:
‘How are you getting on?’ I might say to another Punchman. ‘Ultra cateva,’ he‘d say. If I was doing a little, I‘d say, ‘Bonar.’ Let us have a ‘shant a bivare’–pot o’ beer. If we has a good pitch we never tell one another, for business is business. If they know we‘ve a ‘bonar’ pitch, they‘ll oppose, which makes it bad.

Co. and Co.’ is our term for partner, or ‘questa questa,’ as well. ‘Ultray cativa,’–no bona. ‘Slumareys’–figures, frame, scenes, properties. ‘Slum’–call, or unknown tongue. ‘Ultray cativa slum’–not a good call. ‘Tambora’–drum; that‘s Italian. ‘Pipares’— pipes. ‘Questra homa a vardring the slum, scapar it, Orderly’–there‘s someone a looking at the slum. Be off quickly. ‘Fielia’ is a child; ‘Homa’is a man; ‘Dona,’ a female; ‘Charfering-homa’–talking-man, policeman.


After describing the various uses of his clasp knife, the Punchman spoke of his other tools of trade, also allowing us to hear something of his distinctive patter, full of malapropisms, and breezy philosophy of life:

This here is the needle that completes our tools (takes out a needle from inside his waistcoat collar,) and is used to sew up our cativa stumps, that is, Punch‘s breeches and Judy‘s petticoats, and his master‘s old clothes when they‘re in holes. I likes to have everything tidy and respectable, not knowing where I‘m going to perform to, for every day is a new day that we never see afore and never shall see again; we do not know the produce of this world, being luxurant (that‘s moral), being humane, kind, and generous to all our society of life. We mends our cativa and slums when they gets teearey (if you was to show that to some of our line they‘d be horrified; they can‘t talk so affluent, you know, in all kinds of black slums). Under the hedgeares, and were no care varder us questa–‘questa’ is a shirt–pronunciation for questra homa


And in another passage we hear the probable evolution of the Shelta Johnny Scarpare into the modern English slang term, scarper. The Punchman is describing how the artist George Cruikshank sketched him, presumably as part of a book the artist worked on in the 1820s:

Once, too, when I was scarpering with my cullingin the monkey, I went to mendare the cativa slums in a churchyard, and sat down under the tombs to stitch ‘em up a bit, thinking no one would varderus there. But Mr. Crookshank took us off there as we was a sitting. I know I‘m the same party, ‘cos Joe seen the print you know and draw‘d quite nat‘ral, as now in print, with the slumares a laying about on all the tombstones round us.

The Punchman also described the nature of the Punch and Judy show performances:

Punch has two kind of performances– short shows and long ones, according to denare. Short shows are for cativa denare, and long pitches for the bona denare. At the short shows we gets the ha‘pence and steps it — scafare, as we say; and at the long pitches ve keeps it up for half an hour, or an hour, maybe–not particular, if the browns tumble in well–for we never leave off while there‘s a major solde (that‘s a halfpenny), or even a quartereen (that‘s a farden), to be made. The long pitches we fixes at the principal street-corners of London. We never turn away nothink.
‘Boys, look up your fardens,’ says the outside man; ‘it ain‘t half over yet, and we‘ll show it all through. The loquacious Punchman continued his lofty philosophical discourse for the benefit of Mayhew’s notebook, obviously enjoying the opportunity to word up such a gentleman:Punch is like the income-tax gatherer, takes all we can get, and never turns away nothink–that is our moral. Punch is like the rest of the world, he has got bad morals, but very few of them. The showman inside the frame says, while he‘s a working the figures, ‘Culley, how are you a getting on?’ ‘Very inferior indeed, I‘m sorry to say, master. The company, though very respectable, seems to have no pence among ‘em.’ ‘What quanta denarehave you chafered?’ I say. ‘Soldi major quartereen;’ that means, three halfpence three fardens; ‘that is all I have accumulated amongst this most respectable and numerous company.’ ‘Never mind, master, the showman will go on; try the generosity of the public once again.’ ‘Well, I think it‘s of very little utility to collect round again, for I‘ve met with that poor encouragement.’ ‘Never mind, master, show away. I‘ll go round again and chance my luck; the ladies and gentlemen have not seen sufficient, I think. Well, master, I‘ve got tres major’–that is, three halfpence–‘more, and now it‘s all over this time. Boys, go home and say your prayers,’ we says, and steps it.


The Punchman rounded off his verbatim account of a Punch and Judy show with a characteristic observation on the nature of the Punchmen’s lives:

Such scenes of life we see! No person would hardly credit what we go through. We travel often yeute munjare (no food), and oftentimes we‘re in fluence, according as luck runs.


When they were not in the country or at the seaside, the Punchmen would work in the city and suburbs. If they could find a pitch, that is a place to set up their frame and so attract a crowd of passers-by, they were sure of at least some income. Failing this, they resorted to wandering the streets of the better-off areas, calling out for business – dwelling on orders, as it was known:

We now principally dwells on orders at noblemen‘s houses. The sebubs of London pays us far better than the busy town of London. When we are dwelling on orders, we goes along the streets chirripping ‘Rootooerovey ooey-ooey-ooerovey;’ that means, Any more wanted? that‘s the pronounciation of the call in the old Italian style. Tooroveyto- roo-to-roo-toroo-torooey; that we does when we are dwelling for orders mostly at noblemen‘s houses. It brings the juvenials to the window, and causes the greatest of attractions to the children of noblemen‘s families, both rich and poor: lords, dukes, earls, and squires, and gentlefolks.


The Punchman was careful to emphasise the difference between walking the street and calling for work, or call-hunting, and the lower takings, but certainty of a crowd at a pitch, or relatively fixed street location for the performance: ‘Call-hunting,’–that‘s another term for dwelling on orders– pays better than pitching; but orders is wery casual, and pitching is a certainty’.

By 1742 at least, Punch had migrated to America where he continued to entertain all comers, eventually forming part of the various acts in travelling shows. Here, and in other English-speaking countries he is still a popular form of children’s entertainment, with a small but dedicated number of Punch and Judy professors keeping up the tradition.


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