I was sitting quietly at home last weekend when I heard an unusual sound. A man’s voice, quite far away, in a plaintive, sing-song cry. Two rising notes, A, C. A few seconds later it came again, nearer and louder, slightly different words this time but the same two notes.
By this time, I had worked out what it was. An itinerant knife grinder was making his way up my street and every 15 seconds or so he would announce his calling in the ancient way, alternating several stock phrases but always to the same two-note call: “Knives-to-Grind”, “Grind-ing”, “Sharpening-Knives”, “Sharpe-ning”. It was rather beautiful, but haunting. Listen for yourself (it is quite faint to begin with but gets louder after c.30 secs) :
‘Knives to Grind!’
The Knife Grinder has been a presence on London’s streets for hundreds of years, and his cry certainly pre-dates the Civil War. The first pictorial reference I can find, of a grinder with his treadle-operated grindstone, is from 1655, in the splendidly illustrated The Cryes of London with their Severall Notes:
Here are several other later images,
The Knife Grinder
The rich grind the poor, is a saying of old
The merchant, the tradesman, we need not be told
Whether Pagan, Mahometan, Christian you be
There are grinders of all sorts, of ev’ry degree
Master Grinders enough at the helm you may find
Tho’ I’m but a journeyman – Knives to Grind!
(The Myrtle & Vine, or Complete Vocal Library (Vol. II). C. H Wilson, 1803)
If you would like to learn more about the Cries of London, there are many fascinating posts at the Spitalfields Life blog, where you can also obtain The Gentle Author’s Cries of London book on the subject.