Story Of London

Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part III

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 third instalment we hear about the techniques of the “hawkers” and visit the dreadful lodging houses, such as the “bug-trap,” frequented by the patterers as hey move around the country and which encourage all kinds of promiscuity. It ends with a short account of the religious and political beliefs of the Patterers and we hear the fate of the unfortunate missionary who ventured into St Giles’ Rookery.

The writer of this account was himself two whole years on the “monkry,” before he saw a lodging-house for tramps; and the first he ever saw was one well-known to every patterer in Christendom, and whose fame he says is “gone out into all lands,” for its wayfaring inmates are very proud of its popularity.”It may be as well,” writes the informant in question, “before submitting the following account, to state that there are other, and more elaborate marks -the hieroglyphics of tramping -than those already given. I will accordingly explain them.”Two hawkers (pals) go together, but separate when they enter a village, one taking each side of the road, and selling different things; and, so as to inform each other as to the character of the people at whose houses they call, they chalk certain marks on their door-posts:
“[irreproducible:] means ‘Go on. I have called here; don’t you call -it’s no go.'”[ irreproducible:] means ‘Stop -you may call here; they want’ (for instance) ‘what you sell, though not what I sell;’ or else, ‘They had no change when I was there, but may have it now;’ or, ‘If they don’t buy, at least they’ll treat you civilly.'”[ irreproducible:] on a corner-house, or a sign-post, means, ‘I went this way;’ or ‘Go on in this direction.'”[ irreproducible:] on a corner-house, or sign-post, means ‘Stop -don’t go any further in this direction.'”[ irreproducible:] as before explained, means ‘danger.'”Like many other young men, I had lived above my income, and, too proud to crave parental forgiveness, had thrown off the bonds of authority for a life of adventure. I was now homeless upon the world. With a body capable of either exertion or fatigue, and a heart not easily terrified by danger, I endured rather than enjoyed my itinerant position. I sold small articles of Tunbridge ware, perfumery, etc.. etc., and by ‘munging’ (begging) over them – sometimes in Latin – got a better living than I expected, or probably deserved. I was always of temperate and rather abstemious habits, but ignorant of the haunts of other wanderers, (whom I saw in dozens every day upon every road, and every conceivable pursuit) I took up my nightly quarters at a sort of third-rate public-houses, and supposed that my contemporaries did the same. How long my ignorance might have continued (if left to myself) I can hardly determine; an adventure at a road-side inn, however, removed the veil from my eyes, and I became gradually and speedily ‘awake’ to ‘every move on the board.’ It was a lovely evening in July, the air was serene and the scenery romantic; my own feelings were in unison with both, and enhanced perhaps by the fact that I had beguiled the last two miles of my deliberate walk with a page out of my pocket companion, ‘Burke on the Sublime and Beautiful.’ I was now smoking my pipe and quaffing a pint of real ‘Yorkshire stingo’ in the ‘ keeping room’ (a term which combines parlour and kitchen in one word) of a real ‘Yorkshire village,’ Dranfield, near Sheffield. A young person of the other sex was my only and accidental companion; she had been driven into the house by the over-officiousness of a vigilant village constable, who finding that she sold lace without a license, and – infinitely worse – refused to listen to his advances, had warned her to ‘make herself scarce’ at her ‘earliest possible convenience.'”Having elicited what I did for a living, she popped the startling question to me, ‘Where do you “hang out” in Sheffield?’ I told her that I had never been in Sheffield, and did not ‘hang out’ my little wares, but used my persuasive art to induce the purchase of them. The lady said, ‘Well, you are “green.” I mean, where do you dos?’ This was no better, it seemed something like Greek, -‘delta, omicron, sigma,’ (I retain the “patterer’s” own words to show the education of the class) – but the etymology was no relief to the perplexity. ‘Where do you mean to sleep?’ she inquired. I referred to my usual practice of adjourning to an humble public-house. My companion at once threw off all manner of disguise, and said, ‘Well, sir, you are a young man that I have taken a liking to, and if you think you should like my company, I will take you to a lodging where there is plenty of travellers, and you will see “all sorts of life.’ ” I liked the girl’s company, and our mutual acquiescence made us companions on the road. We had not got far before we met the aforesaid constable in company with an unmistakeable member of the Rural Police. They made some inquiries of me, which I thought exceeded their commission. I replied to them with a mutilated Ode of Horace, when they both determined that I was a Frenchman, and allowed us to ‘go on our way rejoicing.'”The smoky, though well-built, town of Sheffield was now near at hand. The daylight was past, and the ‘shades of the evening were stretching out;’ we were therefore enabled to journey through the throughfares without impertinent remarks, or perhaps any observation, except from a toothless old woman, of John Wesley’s school, who was ‘sorry to see two such nice young people going about the country,’ and wondered if we ‘ever thought of eternity!'”After a somewhat tedious ramble, we arrived at Water-lane; – at the ‘Bug-trap,’ which from time immemorial has been the name of the most renowned lodging-house in that or perhaps any locality. Water-lane is a dark narrow street, crowded with human beings of the most degraded sort – the chosen atmosphere of cholera, and the stronghold of theft and prostitution. In less than half an hour, my fair companion and myself were sipping our tea, and eating Yorkshire cake in this same lodging-house.”‘God bless every happy couple!’ was echoed from a rude stentorian voice, while a still ruder hand bumped down upon our tea-table a red earthen dish of no small dimensions, into which was poured, from the mouth of a capacious bag, fragments of fish, flesh, and fowl, viands and vegetables of every sort, intermingled with bits of cheese and dollops of Yorkshire pudding. The man to whom this heterogeneous mass belonged, appeared anything but satisfied with his lot. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I don’t know what this ‘ere monkry will come to, after a bit. Three bob and a tanner, and that there dish o’ scran (enough to feed two families for a fortnight) ‘is all I got this blessed day since seven o’clock in the morning, and now it’s nine at night.’ I ventured to say something, but a remark, too base for repetition, ‘put the stunners on me,’ and I held my peace.”I was here surprised, on conversing with my young female companion, to find that she went to church, said her prayers night and morning, and knew many of the collects, some of which she repeated, besides a pleasing variety of Dr. Watts’s hymns. At the death of her mother, her father had given up housekeeping; and, being too fond of a wandering life, had led his only child into habits like his own.”As the night advanced, the party at the ‘Bug-trap’ more than doubled. High-flyers, shallow-coves, turnpike-sailors, and swells out of luck, made up an assembly of fourscore human beings, more than half of whom were doomed to sleep on a ‘make-shift’ -in other words, on a platform, raised just ten inches above the floor of the garret, which it nearly equalled in dimensions. Here were to be huddled together, with very little covering, old men and women, young men and children, with no regard to age, sex, or propensities.”The ‘mot’ of the ‘ken’ (nickname for ‘matron of the establishment’) had discovered that I was a ‘more bettermost’ sort of person, and hinted that, if I would ‘come down’ with twopence more (threepence was the regular nightly charge), I, ‘and the young gal as I was with,’ might have a little ‘crib’ to ourselves in a little room, along with another woman wot was married and had a ‘kid,’ and whose husband had got a month for ‘griddling in the main drag’ (singing in the high street), and being ‘cheekish’ (saucy) to the beadle.”Next morning I bade adieu to the ‘ Bugtrap,’ and I hope for ever.”The same informant further stated that he was some time upon “tramp” before he even knew of the existence of a common lodging house:”After I had ‘matriculated’ at Sheffield,” he says, “I continued some time going to public-houses to sleep, until my apparel having got shabby and my acquaintance with misfortune more general, I submitted to be the associate of persons whom I never spoke to out of doors, and whose even slight acquaintance I have long renounced. My first introduction to a London paddin’ ken was in Whitechapel, the place was then called Cat and Wheel-alley (now Commercial-street). On the spot where St. Jude’s church now stands was a double lodging-house, kept by a man named Shirley – one side of it was for single men and women, the other married couples; as these ‘couples’ made frequent exchanges, it is scarcely probable that Mr. Shirley ever ‘asked to see their marriage lines.’ These changes were, indeed, as common as they were disgusting. I knew two brothers (Birmingham nailers) who each brought a young woman out of service from the country. After a while each became dissatisfied with his partner. The mistress of the house (an old procuress from Portsmouth) proposed that they should change their wives. They did so, to the amusement of nine other couples sleeping on the same floor, and some of whom followed the example, and more than once during the night.”When Cat and Wheel-alley was pulled down, the crew removed to George-yard; the proprietor died, and his wife sold the concern to a wooden-legged Welshman named Hughes (commonly called ‘Taff’). I was there some time. ‘Taff’ was a notorious receiver of stolen goods. I knew two little boys, who brought home six pairs of new Wellington boots, which this miscreant bought at 1s. per pair; and, when they had no luck, he would take the strap off his wooden-leg, and beat them through the nakedness of their rags. He boarded and lodged about a dozen Chelsea and Greenwich pensioners. These he used to follow and watch closely till they got paid; then (after they had settled with him) he would make them drunk, and rob them of the few shillings they had left.”One of these dens of infamy may be taken as a specimen of the whole class. They have generally a spacious, though often ill-ventilated, kitchen, the dirty dilapidated walls of which are hung with prints, while a shelf or two are generally, though barely, furnished with crockery and kitchen utensils. In some places knives and forks are not provided, unless a penny is left with the ‘deputy,’ or manager, till they are returned. A brush of any kind is a stranger, and a looking-glass would be a miracle. The average number of nightly lodgers is in winter 70, and in summer (when many visit the provinces) from 40 to 45. The general charge is, if two sleep together, 3d. per night, or 4d. for a single bed. In either case, it is by no means unusual to find 18 or 20 in one small room, the heat and horrid smell from which are insufferable; and, where there are young children, the staircases are the lodgment of every kind of filth and abomination. In some houses there are rooms for families, where, on a rickety machine, which they dignify by the name of a bedstead, may be found the man, his wife, and a son or daughter, perhaps 18 years of age; while the younger children, aged from 7 to 14, sleep on the floor. If they have linen, they take it off to escape vermin, and rise naked, one by one, or sometimes brother and sister together. This is no ideal picture; the subject is too capable of being authenticated to need that meaningless or dishonest assistance called ‘allowable exaggeration.’ The amiable and deservedly popular minister of a district church, built among lodging-houses, has stated that he has found 29 human beings in one apartment; and that having with difficulty knelt down between two beds to pray with a dying woman, his legs became so jammed that he could hardly get up again.”Out of some fourscore [fourscore = 80] such habitations, continues my informant, “I have only found two which had any sort of garden; and, I am happy to add, that in neither of these two was there a single case of cholera. In the others, however, the pestilence raged with terrible fury.”Of all the houses of this sort, the best I know is the one (previously referred to) in Orchard-street, Westminister, and another in Seven Dials, kept by a Mr. Mann (formerly a wealthy butcher). Cleanliness is inscribed on every wall of the house; utensils of every kind are in abundance, with a plentiful supply of water and gas. The beds do not exceed five in a room, and they are changed every week. There is not one disorderly lodger; and although the master has sustained heavy losses, ill health, and much domestic affliction, himself and his house may be regarded as patterns of what is wanted for the London poor.”As there is a sad similarity between these abodes, so there is a sort of caste belonging in general to the inmates. Of them it may be averred that whatever their pursuits, they are more or less alike in their views of men and manners. They hate the aristocracy. Whenever there is a rumour or an announcement of an addition to the Royal Family, and the news reaches the padding-ken, the kitchen, for half-an-hour, becomes the scene of uproar -‘another expense coming on the b -y country!’ The ‘patterers’ are very fond of the Earl of Carlisle, whom, in their attachment, they still call Lord Morpeth; they have read many of his lordship’s speeches at soirées, etc., and they think he wishes well to a poor man. Sir James Graham had better not show face among them; they have an idea (whence derived we know not) that this nobleman invented fourpenny-pieces, and now, they say, the swells give a ‘joey’ where they used to give a ‘tanner.’ The hero of Waterloo is not much amiss ‘if he lets politics alone.’ The name of a bishop is but another name for a Beelzebub; but they are very fond of the inferior clergy. Lay-agents and tract-distributors they cannot bear; they think they are spies come to see how much ‘scran’ (food) they have got, and then go and ‘pyson’ the minds of the public against poor people.”I was once (says our informant) in a house of this kind, in George-street, St. Giles’s, – the missionary who visited them on that occasion (Sunday afternoon) had the misfortune to be suspected as the author of some recent exposure in the newspapers. – They accused him, and he rebutted the accusation; they replied, and he rejoined; at last one of the men said, ‘What do you want poking your nose in here for?’ ‘The City Mission,’ was the answer, ‘had authorised -.’ ‘Authorised be d -d! are you ordained?’ ‘No, not yet, friend.’ The women then tore the poor gentleman’s nether garments in a way I must not describe. The men carried him into the yard, filled his mouth with flour of mustard and then put him in a water-butt.”It is, I am satisfied, quite a mistake to suppose that there is much real infidelity among these outcast beings. They almost all believe in a hereafter; most of them think that the wicked will be punished for a few years, and then the whole universe of people be embraced in the arms of one Great Forgiving Father. Some of them think that the wicked will not rise at all; the punishment of ‘losing Heaven’ being as they say ‘Hell enough for anybody. Points of doctrine they seldom meddle with.”There are comparatively few Dissenters to be found in padding-kens, though many whose parents were Dissenters. My own opinion (writes my informant) is, that dissent seldom lasts long in one family. In eight years’ experience I have found two hundred apparently pious men and women, and at least two thousand who call themselves Protestants, but never go to any church or chapel.”The politics of these classes are, perhaps, for the most part, ‘liberal Tory.’ In most lodging-houses they take one or two papers: the Weekly Dispatch, and Bell’s Weekly Messenger, are the two usually taken. I know of no exception to this rule. The beggars hate a Whig Ministry, and I know that many a tear was shed in the hovels and cellars of London when Sir Robert Peel died. I know a publican, in Westminster, whose daily receipts are enormous, and whose only customers are soldiers, thieves, and prostitutes, who closed his house the day of the funeral, and put himself, his family, and even his beer-machines and gas-pipes, into mourning for the departed statesman.”The pattering fraternity, that I write of, are generally much given to intemperance. Their amusements are the theatre, the free-and-easy, the skittle-ground, and sometimes cards and dominoes. They read some light works, and some of them subscribe to libraries, and a few, very few, attend lectures. Eliza Cook is a favourite writer with them, and Capt. Marryatt, the ‘top-sawyer,’ as a novelist. Ainsworth is the idol of another class, when they can read. Mr. Dickens was a favourite, but he has gone down sadly in the scale since his Household Words ‘came it so strong’ against the begging letter department. These poor creatures seldom rise in society. They make no effort to extricate themselves, while by others they are unpitied because unknown. To this rule, however, there are some happy and honourable exceptions.”Taken as a body, patterers, lurkers, etc. are by no means quick-sighted as to the sanctions of moral obligation. They would join the hue and cry against the persecutors of Jane Wilbred, but a promiscuous robbery, even accompanied by murder -if it was ‘got up clever’ and ‘done clean,’ so long as the parties escaped detection – might call forth a remark that ‘there was no great harm done,’ and perhaps some would applaud the perpetrators.” [Jane Wilbred, a servant, had been badly maltreated by her employer in 1850. ]