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 fourth instalment we hear about the infamous bogus Missionary known as “Chelsea George” of the prodigious beard. We are given details of the ingenious scheme he hatched with “Jew Jem” and “Russia Bob,” another pair who were not all that they seemed, and how it fell out.
Before quitting this part of my subject (viz. the character, habits, and opinions of all classes of patterers), I will give an account of the pre tended missionary proceedings of a man, well known to the vagrant fraternity as “Chelsea George.” I received the following narrative from the gentleman whose statements I have given previously. The scheme was concocted in a low lodging-house:”After a career of incessant ‘lurking’ and deceit, Chelsea George left England, and remained abroad,” writes my informant, “four or five years. Exposure to the sun, and allowing his beard to grow a prodigious length, gave him the appearance of a foreigner. He had picked up enough French and Italian, with a little Dutch and German, and a smattering of Spanish, to enable him to ‘hail for any part of the globe,’ and from the designed inarticulateness with which he spoke (sometimes four languages in one sentence) added to his sun-burnt and grotesque appearance, it was difficult to pall him upon any racket (detect him in any pretence), so that the most incredulous, – though often previously imposed upon – gave credence to his story, relief to his supposed necessities, and sometimes letters of introduction to their friends and neighbours.”Some time after his return to England, and while pursuing the course of a ‘high-flyer’ (genteel beggar), he met with an interruption to his pursuits which induced him to alter his plan without altering his behaviour. The newspapers of the district, where he was then located, had raised before the eye and mind of the public, what the ‘patterers’ of his class proverbially call a ‘stink,’ – that is, had opened the eyes of the unwary to the movements of ‘ Chelsea George;’ and although he ceased to renew his appeals from the moment he heard of the notice of him, his appearance was so accurately described that he was captured and committed to Winchester jail as a rogue and vagabond. The term of his imprisonment has escaped my recollection. As there was no definite charge against him, probably he was treated as an ordinary vagrant and suffered a calendar month in durance. The silent system was not then in vogue, consequently there existed no barrier to mutual intercourse between prisoners, with all its train of conscience-hardening tendencies. I do not say this to intimate unqualified approval of the solitary system, I merely state a fact which has an influence on my subject.”George had by this time scraped acquaintance with two fellow-prisoners – Jew Jem and Russia Bob. The former in ‘quod’ for ‘ pattering’ as a ‘converted Jew,’ the latter for obtaining money under equally false, though less theological, pretences.”Liberated about one time, this trio laid their heads together, – and the result was a plan to evangelize, or rather victimize, the inhabitants of the collier villages in Staffordshire and the adjoining counties. To accomplish this purpose, some novel and imposing representation must be made, both to lull suspicion and give the air of piety to the plan, and disinterestedness to the agents by whom it was carried out.”George and his two fellow-labourers were ‘square-rigged’ – that is, well dressed. Something, however, must be done to colour up the scene, and make the appeal for money touching, unsuspected, and successful. Just before the time to which I allude, a missionary from Sierra Leone had visited the larger towns of the district in question, while the inhabitants of the surrounding hamlets had been left in ignorance of the ‘progress of missions in Africa and the East.’ George and his comrades thought it would be no great harm at once to enlighten and fleece this scattered and anxious population. The plan was laid in a town of some size and facility. They ‘raised the wind’ to an extent adequate to some alteration of their appearances, and got bills printed to set forth the merits of the cause.“The principal actor was Jew Jem, a converted Israelite, with ‘reverend’ before his name, and half the letters of the alphabet behind it. He had been in all the islands of the South Sea, on the coast of Africa, all over Hindostan, and half over the universe; and after assuring the villagers of Torryburn that he had carried the Gospel to various dark and uninhabited parts of the earth, he introduced Russia Bob (an Irishman who had, however, been in Russia) as his worthy and self-denying colleague, and Chelsea George as the first-fruits of their ministry – as one who had left houses and land, wife and children, and taken a long and hazardous voyage to show Christians in England that their sable brethren, children of one common Parent, were beginning to cast their idols to the moles and to the bats. Earnest was the gaze and breathless the expectation with which the poor deluded colliers of Torryburn listened to this harangue; and as argument always gains by illustration, the orator pulled out a tremendous black doll, bought for a ‘flag’ (fourpence) of a retired rag merchant, and dressed up in Oriental style.”This, Jew Jem assured the audience, was an idol brought from Murat in Hindostan. He presented it to Chelsea George for his worship and embraces. The convert indignantly repelled the insinuation, pushed the idol from him, spat in its face, and cut as many capers as a dancing bear. The trio at this stage of the performances began ‘puckering’ (talking privately) to each other in murdered French, dashed with a little Irish; after which, the missionaries said that their convert (who had only a few words of English) would now profess his faith. All was attention as Chelsea George came forward. He stroked his beard, put his hand in his breast to keep down his dickey, and turning his eyes upwards, said: ‘I believe in Desus Tist – dlory to ‘is ‘oly Name!'”This elicited some loud ‘amens’ from an assemblage of nearly 1,000 persons, and catching the favourable opportunity, a ‘school of pals,’ appointed for the purpose, went round and made the collection. Out of the abundance of their credulity and piety the populace contributed sixteen pounds! [equivalent to £1,100 today.] The whole scene was enacted out of doors, and presented to a stranger very pleasing impressions. I was present on the occasion, but was not then aware of the dodge. One verse of a hymn, and the blessing pronounced, was the signal for separation. A little shaking of hands concluded the exhibition, and ‘every man went into his own house.'”The missionary party and their ‘pals’ took the train to Manchester, and as none of them were teetotallers, the proceeds of their imposition did not last long. They were just putting on their considering caps, for the contrivance of another dodge, when a gentleman in blue clothes came into the tap-room, and informed Jew Jem that he was ‘wanted.’ It appears that ‘Jem’ had come out of prison a day or two before his comrades, and being ‘hard up,’ had ill-used a lady, taken her purse, and appropriated its contents. Inquiries, at first useless, had now proved successful – the ‘missionary’ stood his trial, and got an ‘appointment’ on Norfolk Island. Russia Bob took the cholera and died, and ‘George the convert’ was once more left alone to try his hand at something else.”