London has always been a noisy place. Amongst the cachophony 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 short extract he describes the subtleties involved in the art of “Strawing.”.
I have already alluded to “strawing,” which can hardly be described as quackery. It is rather a piece of mountebankery. Many a quack -confining the term to its most common signification, that of a “quack doctor” -has faith in the excellence of his own nostrums, and so proffers that which he believes to be curative: the strawer, however, sells what he knows is not what he represents it.The strawer offers to sell any passer by in the streets a straw and to give the purchaser a paper which he dares not sell. Accordingly as he judges of the character of his audience, so he intimates that the paper is political, libellous, irreligious, or indecent.I am told that as far back as twenty-five or twenty-six years, straws were sold, but only in the country, with leaves from the Republican, a periodical published by Carlisle, then of Fleet street, which had been prosecuted by the government; but it seems that the trade died away, and was little or hardly known again until the time of the trial of Queen Caroline, and then but sparingly. The straw sale reached its highest commercial pitch at the era of the Reform Bill. The most successful trader in the article is remembered among the patterers as “Jack Straw,” who was oft enough represented to me as the original strawer. If I inquired further, the answer was: “He was the first in my time.” This Jack Straw was, I am told, a fine-looking man, a natural son of Henry Hunt, the blacking [NOTE: shoe black or polish] manufacturer. He was described to me as an inveterate drunkard and a very reckless fellow. One old hand was certain that this man was Hunt’s son, as he himself had “worked” with him, and was sometimes sent by him when he was “in trouble,” or in any strait, to 32, Broadwall, Blackfriars, for assistance, which was usually rendered. (This was the place where Hunt’s “Matchless Blacking” and “Roasted Corn” were vended.) Jack Straw’s principal “pitch” was at Hyde Park Corner, “where,” said the man whom I have mentioned as working with him, “he used to come it very strong against Old Nosey, Hyde Park corner bully as he called him. [NOTE: “Old Nosey” was the common nickname for the ugly equestrian statue of the duke of Wellington which was then standing on Constitution Arch and which is now at Aldershot.] To my knowledge he’s made 10s., and he’s made 15s. on a night. O, it didn’t matter to him what he sold with his straws, religion or anything. There was no three-pennies (threepenny newspapers) then, and he had had a gentleman’s education, and knew what to say, and so the straws went off like smoke.” The articles which this man “durst not sell” were done up in paper, so that no one could very well peruse them on the spot, as a sort of stealth was implied. On my asking Jack Straw’s co-worker if he had ever drank with him, “Drank with him!” he answered, “Yes, many a time. I’ve gone out and pattered, or chaunted, or anything, to get money to buy him two glasses of brandy – and good brandy was very dear then – before he could start, for he was all of a tremble until he had his medicine. If I couldn’t get brandy, it was the best rum, ’cause he had all the tastes of a gentleman. Ah! he’s been dead some years, sir, but where he died I don’t know. I only heard of his death. He was a nice kindly fellow.”The ruse in respect of strawing is not remarkable for its originality. It was an old smuggler’s trick to sell a sack and give the keg of contraband spirit placed within it and padded out with straw so as to resemble a sack of corn. The hawkers, prior to 1826, when Mr. Huskisson introduced changes into the Silk Laws, gave “real Ingy handkerchiefs” (sham) to a customer, and sold him a knot of tape for about 4s. [William Huskisson was a Member of Parliament and the first person to be killed by a train in England. He was struck by Stephenson’s “Rocket” during the ceremonial opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.] The price of a true Bandana, then prohibited, and sold openly in the draper’s shops, was about 8s. The East India Company imported about a million of Bandanas yearly; they were sold by auction for exportation to Hamburg, etc., at about 4s. each, and were nearly all smuggled back again to England, and disposed of as I have stated.It is not possible to give anything like statistics as to the money realised by strawing. A well-informed man calculated that when the trade was at its best, or from 1832 to 1836, there might be generally fifty working it in the country and twenty in London; they did not confine themselves, however, to strawing, but resorted to it only on favourable opportunities. Now there are none in London -their numbers diminished gradually -and very rarely any in the country.