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 our second instalment we meet with the “Lurkers” including the infamous and ingenious Captain Moody. We then visit the disgusting “padding kens” and review the fabulous history of the “Prince of lurkers.”
“Among the most famous of the ‘lurking patterers’ was ‘Captain Moody,’ the son of poor but honest parents in the county of Cornwall, who died during his boyhood, leaving him to the custody of a maiden aunt. This lady soon, and not without reason, got tired of her incorrigible charge. Young Moody was apprenticed successively to three trades, and wanted not ability to become expert in any of them, but having occasional interviews with some of the gipsey tribe, and hearing from themselves of their wonderful achievements, he left the sober walks of life and joined this vagrant fraternity.
“His new position, however, was attractive only while it was novel. Moody, who had received a fair education, soon became disgusted with the coarseness and vulgarity of his associates. At the solicitation of a neighbouring clergyman, he was restored to the friendship of his aunt, who had soon sad reason to regret that her compassion had got the better of her prudence; for one Sunday afternoon, while she was absent at church, young Moody who had pleaded indisposition and so obtained permission to stay at home, decamped (after dispatching the servant to the town, a mile distant, to fetch the doctor) in the meantime, emptying his aunt’s ‘safety cupboard’ of a couple of gold watches and £72 in cash and country notes.
“His roving disposition then induced him to try the sea, and the knowledge he obtained during several voyages fitted him for those maritime frauds which got him the name of ‘Captain Moody, the lurker.’ The frauds of this person are well known, and often recounted with great admiration among the pattering fraternity. On one occasion, the principal butcher in Gosport was summoned to meet a gentlemen at an hotel. The Louisa, a brig, had just arrived at Portsmouth, the captain’s name was Young, and this gentleman Moody personated for the time being. ‘I have occasion,’ said he to the butcher, ‘for an additional supply of beef for the Louisa; I have heard you spoken of by Captain Harrison’ (whom Moody knew to be an old friend of the butcher’s), ‘and I have thus given you the preference. I want a bullock, cut up in 12 lb. pieces; it must be on board by three toorrow.’ The price was agreed upon, and the captain threw down a few sovereigns in payment, but, of course, discovered that he had not gold enough to cover the whole amount, so he proposed to give him a cheque he had just received from Captain Harrison for £100, and the butcher could give him the difference. The tradesman was nothing loth, for a cheque upon ‘Vallance, Mills, and West,’ with Captain Harrison’s signature, was reckoned equal to money any day, and so the butcher considered the one he had received, until the next morning, when the draft and the order proved to be forgeries. The culprit was, of course, nowhere to be found, nor, indeed, heard of till two years after, when he had removed the scene of his depredations to Liverpool.
“In that port he had a colleague, a man whose manners and appearance were equally prepossessing. Moody sent his ‘pal’ into a jeweller’s shop, near the corner of Lord-street, who there purchased a small gold seal, paid for it, and took his leave. Immediately afterwards, Moody entered the shop under evident excitement, declaring that he had seen the person, who had just left the shop secrete two, if not three, seals up his coat-sleeve; adding, that the fellow had just gone through the Exchange, and that if the jeweller were quick he would be sure to catch him. The jeweller ran out without his hat, leaving his kind friend in charge of the shop, and soon returned with the supposed criminal in his custody. The ‘captain,’ however, in the mean time, had decamped, taking with him a tray from the window, containing precious materials to the value of £300.
“At another time, the ‘captain’ prepared a document, setting forth ‘losses in the Baltic trade,’ and a dismal variety of disasters; and concluding with a melancholy shipwreck, which had really taken place just about that time in the German Ocean. With this he travelled over great part of Scotland, and with almost unprecedented success. Journeying near the Frith of Forth, he paid a visit to Lord Dalmeny – a nobleman of great benevolence – who had read the account of the shipwreck in the local journals, and wondered that the petition was not signed by influential persons on the spot; and, somewhat suspicious of the reality of the ‘captain’s’ identity, placed a terrestrial globe before him, and begged to be shown ‘in what latitude he was cast away.’ The awkwardness with which Moody handled the globe showed that he was ‘out of his latitude’ altogether. His lordship thereupon committed the document to the flames, but generously gave the ‘captain’ a sovereign and some good advice; the former he appropriated at the nearest public-house, of the latter he never made the least use.
“Old, and worn out by excesses and imprisonment, he subsists now by ‘sitting pad’ about the suburban pavements; and when, on a recent evening, he was recognised in a low publichouse in Deptford, he was heard to say, with a sigh: ‘Ah! once I could “screeve a fakement” (write a petition) or “cooper a monekur” (forge a signature) with any man alive, and my heart’s game now; but I’m old and asthmatic, and got the rheumatis, so that I am’t worth a d -n.’
“‘The Lady Lurker.’ – Of this person very little is known, and that little, it is said, makes her an object of pity. Her father was a dissenting minister in Bedfordshire. She has been twice married; her first husband was a schoolmaster at Hackney, and nephew of a famous divine who wrote a Commentary on the Bible, and was chaplain to George III. She afterwards married a physician in Cambridgeshire (a Dr. S -), who is alleged to have treated her ill, and even to have attempted to poison her. She has no children; and, since the death of her husband, has passed through various grades, till she is now a cadger. She dresses becomingly in black, and sends in her card (Mrs. Dr. S -) to the houses whose occupants are known, or supposed, to be charitable. She talks with them for a certain time, and then draws forth a few boxes of lucifers, which, she says, she is compelled to sell for her living. These lucifers are merely excuses, of course, for begging; still, nothing is known to have ever transpired in her behaviour wholly unworthy of a distressed gentlewoman. She lives in private lodgings.”
I continue the account of these habitations, and of their wretched occupants, from the pen of the same gentleman whose vicissitudes (partly self-procured) led him to several years’ acquaintance with the subject.
“Padding-kens” (lodging-houses) in the country are certainly preferable abodes to those of St. Giles’s, Westminster, or Whitechapel; but in country as in town, their condition is extremely filthy and disgusting; many of them are scarcely ever washed, and as to sweeping, once a week is miraculous. In most cases they swarm with vermin, and, except where their position is very airy, the ventilation is imperfect, and frequent sickness the necessary result. It is a matter of surprise that the nobility, clergy, and gentry of the realm should permit the existence of such horrid dwellings.
“I think,” continues my informant, “that the majority of these poor wretches are without even the idea of respectability or ‘home comforts,’ – many of them must be ranked among the worst of our population. Some, who could live elsewhere, prefer these wretched abodes, because they answer various evil purposes. With beggars, patterers, hawkers, tramps, and vendors of their own manufacture, are mingled thieves, women of easy virtue, and men of no virtue at all; a few, and by far the smallest portion, are persons who once filled posts of credit and affluence, but whom bankruptcy, want of employment, or sickness has driven to these dismal retreats. The vast majority of London vagrants take their summer vacation in the country, and the ‘dodges’ of both are interchanged, and every new ‘move’ circulates in almost no time.
“I will endeavour to sketch a few of the most renowned ‘performers’ on this theatre of action. By far the most illustrious is ‘Nicholas A -,’ a name known to the whole cadging fraternity as a real descendant from Bamfylde Moore Carew, and the ‘prince of lurkers’ and patterers for thirty years past. This man owes much of his success to his confessedly imposing appearance, and many of his escapes to the known respectability of his connections. His father – yet alive -is a retired captain in the Royal Navy, a gentleman of good private property, and one of her Majesty’s justices of peace for the county of Devon – the southern extremity of which was the birth-place of Nicholas. But little is known of his early days. He went to school at Tavistock, where he received a good education, and began life by cheating his schoolfellows.
“The foolish fondness of an indulgent mother, and some want of firmness in paternal discipline, accelerated the growth of every weed of infamy in Nicholas, and baffled every experiment, by sea and land, to ‘set’ him up in life.
“Scarcely was he out of his teens, when he honoured the sister country with his visits and his depredations. About the centre of Sackville street, Dublin, there lived a wealthy silversmith of the name of Wise. Into his shop (accompanied by one of his pals in livery) went Nicholas, whose gentlemanly exterior, as I have already hinted, would disarm suspicion in a stranger.
“‘Good morning sir, is your name Wise?
Yes, sir. -Well, that is my name.
Indeed, of the English family, I suppose?
Yes, sir, East Kent.
Oh, indeed! related to the ladies of Leeds Castle, I presume?
I have the honour to be their brother.
James, is your name James or John?
Neither, sir, it is Jacob.
Oh, indeed! a very ancient name. Well, I have occasion to give a party at the Corn Exchange Tavern, and I want a little plate on hire, can you supply me?’
A very polite affirmative settled this part of the business. Plate to the amount of £150 was selected and arranged, when Nicholas discovered that his pocket-book was at home (to complete the deception, his right arm was in a sling).
‘Will you, Mr. Wise (you see my infirmity), write me a few lines?
With the greatest pleasure,’ was the silversmith’s reply.
‘Well, let me see. “My dear, do not be surprised at this; I want £150, or all the money you can send, per bearer; I will explain at dinner-time. J. Wise.”
“‘Now, John, take this to your mistress, and be quick.’ As John was not very hasty in his return, Nicholas went to look for him, leaving a strict injunction that the plate should be sent to the Corn Exchange Tavern, as soon as the deposit was received. This happened at eleven in the forenoon – the clock struck five and no return of either the master or the man.
“The jeweller left a message with his apprentice, and went home to his dinner. He was met at the door of his suburban villa by his ‘better half,’ who wondered what made him so late, and wished to know the nature of the exigency which had caused him to send home for so much money? The good man’s perplexity was at an end when he saw his own handwriting on the note; and every means within the range of constabulary vigilance was taken to capture the offender, but Nicholas and his servant got clear off.
“This man’s ingenuity was then taxed as to the next move, so he thought it expedient to tax somebody else. He went with his ‘pal’ to a miscellaneous repository, where they bought a couple of old ledgers – useful only as waste paper, a bag to hold money, two ink-bottles, etc. Thus equipped, they waited on the farmers of the district, and exhibited a ‘fakement,’ setting forth parliamentary authority for imposing a tax upon the geese! They succeeded to admiration, and weeks elapsed before the hoax was discovered. The coolness of thus assuming legislatorial functions, and being, at the same time, the executive power, has rarely been equalled.
“There is an old proverb, that ‘It is an ill wind that blows nobody good.’ The gallant ‘captain’ was domiciled at a lodging-house in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, where he found all the lodgers complaining of the badness of the times -most of them were makers of nets. He sallied forth to all the general shops, and left his (fictitious) ‘captain’ card at each, with an order for an unusual number of nets. This ‘dodge’ gave a week’s work to at least twenty poor people; but whether the shopkeepers were ‘caught in a net,’ or the articles were paid for and removed by the ‘captain,’ or whether it was a piece of pastime on his part, I did not stay long enough to ascertain.
“Nicholas A- is now in his sixty-second year, a perfect hypochondriac. On his own authority – and it is, no doubt, too true – he has been ‘lurking’ on every conceivable system, from forging a bill of exchange down to ‘maundering on the fly,’ for the greater part of his life; and, excepting the ‘hundred and thirteen times’ he has been in provincial jails, society has endured the scourge of his deceptions for a quarter of a century at least. He now lives with a young prostitute in Portsmouth, and contributes to her wretched earnings an allowance of 5s. a week, paid to him by the attorney of a distant and disgusted relative.”