Story Of London

Patterers: The Street Card-Sellers I

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 the next of our extracts he turns his attention to an already dead breed – the patterer who specialised in the selling of various forms of cards. We first make the acquaintance of an “educated Patterer” who sells do-it-yourself short-hand kits!

I have before mentioned that the street-stationers -the sellers of writing-paper, envelopes, pens, and of the other articles which constitute the stationery in the most general demand were not to be confounded with the pattering “paper-workers.” They are, indeed, a different class altogether. The majority of them have been mechanics, or in the employ of tradesmen whose callings were not mechanical (as regards handicraft labour), but what is best described perhaps as commercial; or as selling but not producing; as in the instances of the large body of “warehousemen” in the different departments of trade. One street-stationer thought that of his entire body, not more than six had been gentlemen’s servants. He himself knew four who had been in such employment, and one only as a boy – but there might be six.The card-sellers are, in the instances I shall show, more akin to the class of patterers, and I shall, therefore, give them first. The more especially as I can so preserve the consecutiveness of the accounts, in the present number, by presenting the reader with a sketch of the life of an informant, in whose revelations I find that many have taken a strong interest.OF THE SELLER OF THE PENNY SHORT-HAND CARDS.
All ladies and gentlemen who “take their walks abroad,” must have seen, and of course heard, a little man in humble attire engaged in selling at one penny each a small card, containing a few sentences of letter-press, and fifteen stenographic characters, with an example, by which, it is asserted, anybody and everybody may “learn to write short-hand in a few hours.” With the merits of the production, self-considered, this is not the place to meddle; suffice it that it is one of the many ways of getting a crust common to the great metropolis, and perhaps the most innocent of all the street performances. A kind of a street lecture is given by the vendor, in which the article is sufficiently puffed off. Of course this lecture is, so to speak, stereotyped, embracing the same ideas in nearly the same words over and over and over again. The exhibitor, however, pleads that the constant exchange and interchange of passengers, and his desire to give each and all a fair amount of information, makes the repetition admissible, and even necessary. It is here given as a specimen of the style of the educated “patterer.”The Lecture.”Here is an opportunity which has seldom if ever been offered to the public before, whereby any person of common intellect may learn to write short-hand in a few hours, without any aid from a teacher. The system is entirely my own. It contains no vowels, no arbitrary characters, no double consonants, and no terminations; it may therefore properly be called `stenography,’ an expression which conveys its own meaning; it is derived from two Greek words; stenos, short, and grapho, I write, [unclear: ] graphi, the verb to write, and embraces all that is necessary in fifteen characters.
I know that a prejudice obtains to a great extent against anything and everything said or done in the street, but I have nothing to do with either the majority or minority of street pretenders. I am an educated man, and not a mere pretender, and if the justice or genuineness of a man’s pretensions would always lead him to success I had not been here to-day. But against the tide of human disappointment, the worthy and the undeserving are so equally compelled to struggle, and so equally liable to be overturned by competition, that till you can prove that wealth is the gauge of character, it may be difficult to determine the ability or morality of a man from his position.
I was lately reading an account of the closing life of that leviathan in literature, Dr. Johnson, and an anecdote occurred, which I relate, conceiving that it applies to one of the points at issue – I mean the ridicule with which my little publication has sometimes been treated by passers-by, who have found it easier to speculate on the texture of my coat, than on the character of my language. The Doctor had a niece who had embraced the peculiarities of Quakerism; after he had scolded her some time, and in rather unmeasured terms, her mother interfered and said,
‘Doctor, don’t scold the girl -you’ll meet her in heaven, I hope.’
‘I hope not,’ said the Doctor, ‘for I hate to meet fools anywhere.’
I apply the same observation to persons who bandy about the expressions ‘gift of the gab,’ ‘catch-penny,’ etc., etc., which in my case it is somewhat easier to circulate than to support. At any rate they ought to be addressed to me and not to the atmosphere. The man who meets a foe to the face, gives him an equal chance of defence, and the sword openly suspended from the belt is a less dangerous, because a less cowardly weapon than the one which, like that of Harmodius, is concealed under the wreaths of a myrtle.
“If you imagine that professional disappointment is confined to people out of doors, you are very much mistaken. Look into some of the middle-class streets around where we are standing: you will find here and there, painted or engraved on a door, the words ‘Mr. So-and-so, surgeon.’ The man I am pre-supposing shall be qualified, – qualified in the technical sense of the expression, a Member of the College of Surgeons, a Licentiate of Apothecaries’ Hall, and a Graduate of some University. He may possess the talent of Galen or Hippocrates; or, to come to more recent date, of Sir Astley Cooper himself, but he never becomes popular, and dies unrewarded because unknown:
before he dies, he may crawl out of his concealed starvation into such a thoroughfare as this, and see Professor Morrison, or Professor Holloway, or the Proprietor of Parr’s Life Pills, or some other quack, ride by in their carriage; wealth being brought them by the same waves that have wafted misfortune to himself; though that wealth has been procured by one undeviating system of Hypocrisy and Humbug, of Jesuitism and Pantomime, such as affords no parallel since the disgusting period of Oliverian ascendancy.
Believe me, my friends, a man may form his plans for success with profound sagacity, and guard with caution against every approach to extravagance, but neither the boldness of enterprise nor the dexterity of stratagem will always secure the distinction they deserve. Else that policeman would have been an inspector!
“I have sometimes been told, that if I possessed the facilities I professedly exhibit, I might turn them to greater personal advantage: in coarse, unfettered, Saxon English, ‘That’s a lie;’ for on the authority of a distinguished writer, there are 2,000 educated men in London and its suburbs, who rise every morning totally ignorant where to find a breakfast. Now I am not quite so bad as that, so that it appears I am an exception to the rule, and not the rule open to exception. However, it is beyond all controversy, that the best way to keep the fleas from biting you in bed is to ‘get out of bed;’ and by a parity of reasoning, the best way for you to sympathize with me for being on the street is to take me off, as an evidence of your sympathy.
I remember that, some twenty years ago, a poor man of foreign name, but a native of this metropolis, made his appearance in Edinburgh, and advertised that he would lecture on mnemonics, or the art of memory. As he was poor, he had recourse to an humble lecture-room, situated up a dirty court. Its eligibility may be determined by the fact that sweeps’ concerts were held in it, at ½d. per head, and the handbill mostly ended with the memorable words: ‘N. B. -No gentleman admitted without shoes and stockings.’
At the close of his first lecture (the admission to which was 2d.), he was addressed by a scientific man, who gave him 5s. -(it will relieve the monotony of the present address if some of you follow his example) – and advised him to print and issue some cards about his design, which he did. I saw one of them – the ink on it scarcely dry as he had got it back at the house of a physician, and on it was inscribed: ‘Old birds are not caught with chaff. From Dr. M -, an old bird.’ The suspicious doctor, however, was advised to hear the poor man’s twopenny lecture, and was able, at the end of it, to display a great feat of memory himself. What was the result? The poor man no longer lectured for 2d. But it is tedious to follow him through a series of years. He was gradually patronised throughout the kingdom, and a few months ago he was lecturing in the Hanover-square Rooms, with the Earl of Harrowby in the chair.
Was he not as clever a man when he lectured in the sweeps’ concert-room? Yes; but he had not been brought under the shadow of a great name. Sometimes that `great name’ comes too late. You are familiar with the case of Chatterton. He had existed, rather than lived, three days on a penny loaf; then he committed suicide, and was charitably buried by strangers. Fifty years or more had elapsed, when people found out how clever he had been, and collected money for the erection of that monument which now stands to his memory by St. Mary Redcliff Church, in Bristol. Now, if you have any idea of doing that for me, please to collect some of it while I am alive!”TO BE CONTINUEDLinks to the other articles in the series.The London Street PatterersIntroduction
The Origins of Patterers
The Morals of Patterers
The Patterers’ Street Literature
Long Song-Sellers
The Running Patterer
The Death and Fire HuntersThe Second Edition
The Standing Patterers: I
Pattering Religious and Political Dialogues
Of Cocks
Of Strawing
The sham of Indecent Street Trade
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part I
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part II
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part III
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part IV
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part V
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part VI
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers – Part VII