I came across this following series of phrases while reading H.G. Wells's Kipps and I promptly have no idea what they mean:

There were times when Kipps would lie awake, all others in the dormitory asleep and snoring, and think dismally of the outlook Minton pictured. Dimly he perceived the thing that had happened to him—how the great, stupid machine of retail trade had caught his life into its wheels, a vast, irresistible force which he had neither strength of will nor knowledge to escape. This was to be his life until his days should end. No adventures, no glory, no change, no freedom. Neither—though the force of that came home to him later—might he dream of effectual love and marriage. And there was a terrible something called the "swap," or "the key of the street," and "crib hunting," of which the talk was scanty but sufficient. Night after night he would resolve to enlist, to run away to sea, to set fire to the warehouse, or drown himself; and morning after morning he rose up and hurried downstairs in fear of a sixpenny fine. He would compare his dismal round of servile drudgery with those windy, sunlit days at Littlestone, those windows of happiness shining ever brighter as they receded. The little figure of Ann seemed in all these windows now.

I think these expressions may be retail jargon because retail has been the focus of the book so far. But apart from that, I am stumped. Any insight would be much appreciated.

1 Answer 1


These are references to the condition of homelessness.


IT is commonly asserted, and as commonly believed, that there are seventy thousand persons in London who rise every morning without the slightest knowledge as to where they shall lay their heads at night. However the number may be over or understated, it is very certain that a vast quantity of people are daily in the above-mentioned uncertainty regarding sleeping accommodation, and that when night approaches, a great majority solve the problem in a somewhat (to themselves) disagreeable manner, by not going to bed at all.

People who stop up, or out all night, may be divided into three classes:- First, editors, bakers, market-gardeners, and all those who are kept out of their beds by business. Secondly, gentlemen and 'gents,' anxious to cultivate a knowledge of the 'lark' species, or intent on the navigation of the 'spree.' Thirdly, and lastly, those ladies and gentlemen who do not go to bed, for the very simple reason that they have no beds to go to.

The members of this last class - a very numerous one - are said, facetiously, to possess 'the key of the street.' And a remarkably disagreeable key it is. It will unlock for you all manner of caskets you would fain know nothing about. It is the 'open sesame' to dens you never saw before, and would much rather never see again, - a key to knowledge which should surely make the learner a sadder man, if it make him not a wiser one.

Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859

I can’t find appropriate references for the other two, but as one phenomenon is being described by all three terms, the meaning is certain.

‘Crib’ retains the meaning of a rudimentary dwelling or home or confined space, and hunting for such would be desirable if one has no fixed place to sleep.

  • 1
    The OED has a relevant entry for swap: – n. II, 2c. slang. to get (or have) the swap: to be dismissed from employment." So not quite the same thing as the key of the street, but very much related to it.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 5, 2020 at 15:56
  • 1
    And if you sleep in a dormitory provided by your place of employment, as Kipps seems to, the swap and the key of the street are indeed essentially the same thing.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 5, 2020 at 16:20
  • Very helpful, Spagirl and Peter Shor! Thank you both so very much. Dec 6, 2020 at 13:59

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