Story Of London

London’s PeopleThe Patterers’ Street Literature

London has always been a noisy place. Amongst the cacophony of sound in the Victorian streets was the chanting of the “Patterers”, either moving or stationary. In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew devoted an entire chapter to an investigation of the artistry, lives and habits of these Londoners. In this extract he introduces us to the people who published the literature which was “pattered” on the streets of London.

The best known, and the most successful printer and publisher of all who have directed their industry to supply the “paper” in demand for street sale, and in every department of street literature, was the late “Jemmy Catnach,” who is said to have amassed upwards of £10,000 in the business. He is reported to have made the greater part of this sum during the trial of Queen Caroline, by the sale of whole-sheet “papers,” descriptive of the trial, and embellished with “splendid illustrations.” The next to Catnach stood the late “Tommy Pitt,” of the noted toy and marble-warehouse. These two parties were the Colburn and Bentley of the “paper” trade. Catnach retired from business some years ago, and resided in a country-house at Barnet, but he did not long survive his retirement.

“He was an out and out sort,” said one old paper-worker to me, “and if he knew you, and he could judge according to the school you belonged to, if he hadn’t known you long, he was friendly for a bob or two, and sometimes for a glass. He knew the men that was stickers though, and there was no glass for them. Why, some of his customers, sir, would have stuck to him long enough, if there’d been a chance of another glass (supposing they’d managed to get one) and then would have asked him for a coach home! When I called on him, he used to say, in his north country way – he wasn’t Scotch, but somewhere north of England – and he was pleasant with it, “Well, d__n you, how are you?” He got the cream of the pail, sir.”

The present street literature printers and publishers are, Mrs. Ryle (Catnach’s niece and successor), Mr. Birt, and Mr. Paul (formerly with Catnach), all of the Seven Dials, Mr. Powell (formerly of Lloyd’s), Brick-lane, Whitechapel, and Mr. Good, Aylesbury-street, Clerkenwell. Mr. Phairs, of Westminster, Mr. Taylor, of the Waterloo Road; and Mr. Sharp, of Kent-street, Borough, have discontinued street printing. One man greatly regretted Mr. Taylor’s discontinuing the business; “he was so handy for the New-cut, when it was the New-cut.” Some classes of patterers, I may here observe, work in “schools” or “mobs” of two, three, or four, as I shall afterwards show.

The authors and poets who give its peculiar literature, alike in prose or rhyme, to the streets, are now six in number. They are all in some capacity or other connected with street-patter or song, and the way in which a narrative or a “copy of werses” is prepared for press is usually this:- The leading members of the “schools,” some of whom refer regularly to the evening papers, when they hear of any out-of-the-way occurrence, resort to the printer and desire its publication in a style proper for the streets. This is usually done very speedily, the school (or the majority of them) and the printer agreeing upon the author. Sometimes an author will voluntarily prepare a piece of street literature and submit it to a publisher, who, as in the case of other publishers, accepts or declines, as he believes the production will or will not prove remunerative. Sometimes the school carry the manuscript with them to the printer, and undertake to buy a certain quantity, to insure publication. The payment to the author is the same in all cases – a shilling. Concerning the history and character of our street and public-house literature, I shall treat hereafter, when I can comprise the whole, and after the descriptions of the several classes engaged in the trade will have paved the way for the reader’s better appreciation of the curious and important theme. I say, important, because the street-ballad and the street narrative, like all popular things, have their influence on masses of the people. Specimens will be found adduced, as I describe the several classes, or in the statements of the patterers.

It must be borne in mind that the street author is closely restricted in the quality of his effusion. It must be such as the patterers approve, as the chaunters can chaunt, the ballad singers sing, and – above all – such as street buyers will buy. One chaunter, who was a great admirer of the “Song of the Shirt,” told me that if Hood himself had written the “Pitiful Case of Georgy Sloan and his Wife,” it would not have sold so well as a ballad he handed to me, from which I extract a verse:

“Jane Willbred we did starve and beat her very hard
I confess we used her very cruel,
But now in a jail two long years we must bewail,
We don’t fancy mustard in the gruel.”

What I have said of the necessity which controls street authorship, may also be said of the art which is sometimes called in to illustrate it.

The paper [Note 1] now published for the streets is classed as quarter sheets, which cost (wholesale) 1s. a gross; half sheets, which cost 2s.; and whole or broad sheets (such as for executions), which cost 3s. 6d. a gross the first day, and 3s. the next day or two, and afterwards, but only if a ream be taken, 5s. 6d. A ream contains forty dozen. When “illustrated,” the charge is from 3d. to 1s. per ream extra. Such cases as the Sloanes, or the murder of Jael Denny, are given in books – which are best adapted for the suburban and country trade, when London is “worked” sufficiently. These books are the “whole sheet” printed so as to fold into eight pages, each side of the paper being then, of course, printed upon. A book is charged from 6d. to 1s. extra (to a whole sheet) per gross, and afterwards the same extra per ream.


1 [Imperial measures:]The following passage contains references to imperial measures of quantity which are now largely obsolete. A gross was 12 dozen or 144 units. A score was 20 units. In paper measure, 24 sheets made up one quire and 20 quires made a ream, hence Mayhew’s equation of a ream and forty dozen. Back

2 The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.

Links to the other articles in the series.

The London Street Patterers

The Origins of Patterers
The Morals of Patterers
Long Song-Sellers
The Running Patterer
The Death and Fire Hunters
The Second Edition
The Standing Patterers: I