Posted on Jan 10, 2005 – 04:57 AM by Bill McCann
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. An extensive section of the chapter gives us a very detailed description of the lifestyle and con tricks of the pattering class. In this first part we are introduced to a particular lodging house and its motley crew of inmates.
Having now giving an account of those who may be called the literary patterers (proper), or at any rate of those who do not deem it vain so to account themselves, because they “work paper,” I proceed to adduce an account of the different grades of patterers generally, for patter has almost as many divisions as literature. There is patter pathetic, as from beggars; bouncing, to puff off anything of little or no value; comic, as by the clowns; descriptive, as in the cases where the vendor describes, however ornately, what he really sells; religious, as occasionally by the vendors of tracts; real patter (as it is understood by the profession) to make a thing believed to be what it is not; classical, as in the case of the sale of stenographic cards, etc.; and sporting, as in race cards.The pattering tribe is by no means confined to the traffic in paper, though it may be the principal calling as regards the acuteness of its professors. Among these street-folk are the running and standing patterers (or stationers as they are sometimes, but rarely, styled) – and in these are included, the Death and Fire Hunters of whom I have spoken; Chaunters; Second Edition-sellers; Reciters; Conundrum sellers; Board-workers; Strawers; Sellers of (Sham) Indecent Publications; Street Auctioneers; Cheap Jacks; Mountebanks (quacks); Clowns; the various classes of Showmen; Jugglers; Conjurors; Ring-sellers for wagers; Sovereign-sellers; Corn-curers; Grease-removers; French-polishers; Blacking-sellers; Nostrum-vendors; Fortune-tellers; Oratorical-beggars; Turnpike-sailors; the classes of Lurkers; Stenographic Card-sellers, and the Vendors of Race-cards or lists.The following accounts have been written for me by the same gentleman who has already described the Religion, Morals, etc., of patterers. He has for some years resided among the class, and has pursued a street calling for his existence. What I have already said of his opportunities of personal observation and of dispassionate judgment I need not iterate.”I wish,” says the writer in question, “in the disclosures I am now about to make concerning the patterers generally, to do more than merely put the public on their guard. I take no cruel delight in dragging forth the follies of my fellow-men. Before I have done with my subject, I hope to draw forth and exhibit some of the latent virtues of the class under notice, many of whom I know to sigh in secret over that one imprudent step (whatever its description), which has furnished the censorious with a weapon they have been but too ready to wield. The first thing for me to do is to give a glance at the habitations of these outcasts, and to set forth their usual conduct, opinions, conversation and amusements. As London (including the ten mile circle), is the head quarters of lodging-house life, and least known, because most crowded, I shall lift the veil which shrouds the vagrant hovel where the patterer usually resides.”As there are many individuals in lodging houses who are not regular patterers or professional vagrants, being rather, as they term themselves, ‘travellers’ (or tramps), so there are multitudes who do not inhabit such houses who really belong to the fraternity, pattering, or vagrant. Of these some take up their abode in what they call ‘flatty-kens,’ that is, houses the landlord of which is not ‘awake’ or ‘fly’ to the ‘moves’ and dodges of the trade; others resort to the regular ‘padding-kens,’ or houses of call for vagabonds; while others – and especially those who have families – live constantly in furnished rooms, and have little intercourse with the ‘regular’ travellers, tramps, or wanderers.
“The medium houses the London vagrant haunts, (for I have no wish to go to extremes either way,) are probably in Westminster, and perhaps the fairest ‘model’ of the ‘monkry’ is the house in Orchard-street – once the residence of royalty – which has been kept and conducted for half a century by the veteran who some fifty years ago was the only man who amused the population with that well-known ditty, ‘If I’d as much money as I could tell, I would not cry young lambs to sell.'”Mister (for that is the old man’s title) still manufactures lambs, but seldom goes out himself; his sons (obedient and exemplary young men) take the toys into the country, and dispose of them at fairs and markets. The wife of this man is a woman of some beauty and good sound sense, but far too credulous for the position of which she is the mistress.”So much for the establishment. I have now to deal with the inmates.”No one could be long an inmate of Mr. -‘s without discerning in the motley group persons who had seen better days, and, seated on the same bench, persons who are ‘seeing’ the best days they ever saw. When I took up my abode in the house under consideration, I was struck by the appearance of a middle-aged lady-like woman, a native of Worcester, bred to the glove trade, and brought up in the lap of plenty, and under the high sanction of religious principle. She had evidently some source of mental anguish. I believe it was the conduct of her husband, by whom she had been deserted, and who was living with a woman to whom, it is said, the wife had shown much kindness. By her sat a giant in size, and candour demands that I should say a ‘giant in sin.’ When Navy Jem, as he is called, used to work for his living (it was a long while ago) he drove a barrow at the formation of the Great Western Railway. At present the man lies in bed till mid-day, and when he makes his appearance in the kitchen,’The very kittens on the hearth
They dare not even play.'”His breakfast embraces all the good things of the season. He divides his delicacies with a silver fork -where did he get it? The mode in which this man obtains a livelihood is at once a mixture and a mystery. His prevailing plan is to waylay gentlemen in the decline of life, and to extort money by threats of accusation and exposure, to which I can do no more than allude. His wife, a notorious shoplifter, is now for the third time ‘expiating her offences’ in Coldbath-fields.”Next to Navy Jem may be perceived a little stunted woman, of pretended Scotch, but really Irish extraction, whose husband has died in the hospital for consumption at least as many times as the hero of Waterloo has seen engagements. At last the man did die, and his widow has been collecting money to bury him for eight years past, but has not yet secured the required sum. This woman, whose name I never knew, has a boy and a girl; to the former she is very kind, the latter she beats without mercy, always before breakfast, and with such (almost) unvaried punctuality that her brother will sometimes whisper (after saying grace), ‘Mother, has our Poll had her licks yet?'”Among the records of mortality lately before the public, is the account of a notorious woman, who was found suffocated in a stagnant pool, whether from suicide or accident it was impossible to determine. She had been in every hospital in town and country, suffering from a disease, entirely self-procured. She applied strong acids to wounds previously punctured with a pin, and so caused her body to present one mass of sores. She was deemed incurable by the hospital doctors, and liberal collections were made for her among the benevolent in various places. The trick, however, was ultimately discovered, and the failure of her plan (added to the bad state of health to which her bodily injuries had gradually led) preyed upon her mind and hastened her death.”This woman had been the paramour of ‘Peter the crossing-sweeper,’ a man who for years went about showing similar wounds, which he pretended had been inflicted while fighting in the Spanish Legion -though, truth to say, he had never been nearer Spain than Liverpool is to New York. He had followed the ‘monkry’ from a child, and chiefly, since manhood, as a ‘broken-down weaver from Leicester,’ and after singing through every one of the provinces ‘We’ve got no work to do,’ he scraped acquaintance with a ‘school of shallow coves;’ that is, men who go about half-naked, telling frightful tales about ship wrecks, hair-breadth escapes from houses on fire, and such like aqueous and igneous calamities. By these Peter was initiated into the ‘scaldrum dodge,’ or the art of burning the body with a mixture of acids and gunpowder, so as to suit the hues and complexions of the accident to be deplored. Such persons hold every morning a ‘committee of ways and means,’ according to whose decision the movements of the day are carried out. Sometimes when on their country rounds, they go singly up to the houses of the gentry and wealthy farmers, begging shirts, which they hide in hedges while they go to another house and beg a similar article. Sometimes they go in crowds, to the number of from twelve to twenty; they are most successful when the ‘swell’ is not at home; if they can meet with the ‘Burerk’ (Mistress), or the young ladies, they ‘put it on them for dunnage’ (beg a stock of general clothing), flattering their victims first and frightening them afterwards. A friend of mine was present in a lodging-house in Plymouth, when a school of the shallow coves returned from their day’s work with six suits of clothes, and twenty-seven shirts, besides children’s apparel and shoes, (all of which were sold to a broker in the same street), and, besides these, the donations in money received amounted to 4s. 4d. a man.“At this enterprise ‘Peter’ continued several years, but -to use his own words -‘everything has but a time,’ the country got ‘dead’ to him, and people got ‘fly’ to the ‘shallow brigade;’ so Peter came up to London to ‘try his hand at something else.’ Housed in the domicile of ‘Sayer the barber,’ who has enriched himself by beer-shops and lodging house-keeping, to the tune it is said of £20,000, [ £1,435,153 in today’s money ] Peter amused the ‘travellers’ of Wentworth street, Whitechapel, with recitals of what he had seen and done. Here a profligate, but rather intelligent man, who had really been in the service of the Queen of Spain, gave him an old red jacket, and with it such instructions as equipped him for the imposition.”One sleeve of this jacket usually hung loosely by his side, while the arm it should have covered was exposed naked, and to all appearance withered. His rule was to keep silence till a crowd assembled around him, when he began to ‘patter’ to them to the following effect: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it is with feelings of no common reluctance that I stand before you at this time; but although I am not without feelings, I am totally without friends, and frequently without food. This wound (showing his disfigured arm) I received in the service of the Queen of Spain, and I have many more on different parts of my person. I received a little praise for my brave conduct, but not a penny of pension, and here I am (there’s no deception you see) ill in health – poor in pocket, and exposed without proper nourishment to wind and weather – the cold is blowing through me till I am almost perished.'”His ‘Doxy’ stood by and received the ‘voluntary contributions’ of the audience in a soldier’s cap, which our hero emptied into his pocket, and after snivelling out his thanks, departed to renew the exhibition in the nearest available thoroughfare. Peter boasted that he could make on an average fifteen of these pitches a day, and as the proceeds were estimated at something considerable in each pitch (he has been known to take as much as half-a-crown in pence at one standing), he was able to sport his figure at Astley’s in the evening – to eat ‘spring lamb,’ and when reeling home under the influence of whiskey, to entertain the peaceful inhabitants with the music of -‘We won’t go home till morning -‘”Whether the game got stale, or Peter became honest, is beyond the purport of my communication to settle. If any reader, however, should make his purchases at the puffing fishmonger’s in Lombard-street, they may find Peter now pursuing the more honest occupation of sweeping the crossing, by the church of St. Gabriel, Fenchurch-street.”