Story Of London

Street Patterers: The Death and Fire Hunters

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 this extract he turned his attention to the hunters of death and fires and indulges in a neat side-swipe at the established press on the way.

A Street Patterer
I have described the particular business of the running patterer, who is known by another and a very expressive cognomen – as a “Death Hunter.” This title refers not only to his vending accounts of all the murders that become topics of public conversation, but to his being a “murderer” on his own account, as in the sale of “cocks” mentioned incidentally in this narrative. If the truth be saleable, a running patterer prefers selling the truth, for then – as one man told me – he can “go the same round comfortably another day.” If there be no truths for sale – no stories of criminals’ lives and loves to be condensed from the diffusive biographies in the newspapers – no “helegy” for a great man gone – no prophecy and no crimson. – the death hunter invents, or rather announces, them. He puts some one to death for the occasion, which is called “a *****.” The paper he sells may give the dreadful details, or it may be a religious tract, “brought out in mistake,” should the vendor be questioned on the subject; or else the poor fellow puts on a bewildered look and murmurs, “O, it’s shocking to be done this way – but I can’t read.” The patterers pass along so rapidly that this detection rarely happens.One man told me that in the last eight or ten years, he, either singly or with his “mob,” had twice put the Duke of Wellington to death, once by a fall from his horse, and the other time by a “sudden and mysterious” death, without any condescension to particulars. He had twice performed the same mortal office for Louis Phillipe, before that potentate’s departure from France; each death was by the hands of an assassin; “one was stabbing, and the other a shot from a distance.” He once thought of poisoning the Pope, but was afraid of the street Irish. He broke Prince Albert’s leg, or arm, (he was not sure which), when his royal highness was out with his harriers. He never had much to say about the Queen; “it wouldn’t go down,” he thought, and perhaps nothing had lately been said. “Stop, there, sir,” said another patterer, of whom I inquired as to the correctness of those statements, (after my constant custom in sifting each subject thoroughly,) “stop, stop, sir. I have had to say about the Queen lately. In coorse, nothing can be said against her, and nothing ought to; that’s true enough, but the last time she was confined, I cried her accounchement (the word was pronounced as spelt to a merely English reader, or rather more broadly) of three! Lord love you, sir, it would have been no use crying one; people’s so used to that; but a Bobby came up and he stops me, and said it was some impudence about the Queen’s coachman! Why look at it, says I, fat-head – I knew I was safe – and see if there’s 1 anything in it about the Queen or her coach man! And he looked, and in coorse there was nothing. I forget just now what the paper was about. “My first-mentioned informant had apprehended Feargus O’Connor on a charge of high treason. He assassinated Louis Napoleon, “from a fourth edition of the Times,” which “did well.” He caused Marshal Haynau to die of the assault by the draymen. He made Rush hang himself in prison. He killed Jane Wilbred, and put Mrs. Sloane to death; and he announced the discovery that Jane Wilbred was Mrs. Sloane’s daughter. [Note 1]This informant did not represent that he had originated these little pieces of intelligence, only that he had been a party to their sale, and a party to originating one or two. Another patterer and of a higher order of genius – told me that all which was stated was undoubtedly correct, “but me and my mates, sir,” he said, “did Haynau in another style. A splendid slum, sir! Capital! We assassinated him – mysterious. Then about Rush. His hanging hisself in prison was a fake, I know; but we’ve had him lately. His ghost appeared – as is shown in the Australian papers – to Emily Sandford, and threatened her; and took her by the neck, and there’s the red marks of his fingers to be seen on her neck to this day!” The same informant was so loud in his praise of the ” Ass-sass-sina-tion” of Haynau that I give the account. I have little doubt it was his own writing. It is confused in passages, and has a blending of the “I” and the “we:”-“We have just received upon undisputed authority, that, that savage and unmanly tyrant, that enemy to civil and religious liberty, the inhuman Haynau has at last finished his career of guilt by the hand of an assassin, the term assassin I have no doubt will greet harshly upon the ears of some of our readers, yet never the less I am compelled to use it although I would gladly say the average of outraged innocence, which would be a name more suitable to one who has been the means of ridden the world of such a despicable monster.”Baron von Haynau[My informant complained bitterly, and not without reason, of the printer. “Average,” for instance (which I have italicised), should be “avenger.” The “average of outraged innocence!”]
“It appears by the Columns of the Corour le Constituonal of Brussels,”runs the paper, “that the evening before last, three men one of which is supposed to be the miscreant, Haynau entered a Cafe in the Neighbourhood of Brussels kept by a man in the name of Priduex, and after partaking of some refreshments which were ordered by his two companions they desired to be shown to their chambers, during their stay in the public or Travellers Room, they spoke but little and seemed to be very cautious as to joining in the conversations which was passing briskly round the festive board, which to use the landlord’s own words was rather strange, as his Cafe was mostly frequented by a set of jovial fellows, M. Priduex goes on to state that after the three strangers had retired to rest some time a tall and rather noble looking man enveloped in a large cloak entered and asked for a bed, and after calling for some wine he took up a paper and appeared to be reading it very attentively, in due time he was shown to bed and all passed on without any appearance of anything wrong until about 6 o’clock in the morning, when the landlord and his family, were roused by a noise over head and cries of murder, and upon going up stairs to ascertain the cause, he discovered the person who was [known] to be Marshal Haynau, lying on his bed with his throat cut in a frightful manner, and his two companions standing by his bed side bewailing his loss. On the table was discovered a card, on which was written these words ‘Monster, I am avenged at last.’ Suspicion went upon the tall stranger, who was not anywhere to be found, the Garde arms instantly were on the alert, and are now in active persuit of him but up to the time of our going to press nothing further has transpired.”It is very easy to stigmatise the death-hunter when he sets off all the attractions of a real or pretended murder, -when he displays on a board, as does the standing patterer, “illustrations” of ” the ‘dentical pick-axe” of Manning, or the stable of Good, -or when he invents or embellishes atrocities which excite the public mind. He does, however, but follow in the path of those who are looked up to as “the press,” -as the “fourth estate.” The conductors of the Lady’s Newspaper sent an artist to Paris to give drawings of the scene of the murder by the Duc de Praslin, -to “illustrate” the blood stains in the duchess’s bed-chamber.The Illustrated London News is prompt in depicting the locality of any atrocity over which the curious in crime may gloat. The Observer, in costly advertisements, boasts of its 20 columns (sometimes with a supplement) of details of some vulgar and mercenary bloodshed, -the details being written in a most honest deprecation of the morbid and savage tastes to which the writer is pandering. Other weekly papers have engravings – and only concerning murder -of any wretch whom vice has made notorious. Many weekly papers had expensive telegraphic despatches of Rush’s having been hung at Norwich, which event, happily for the interest of Sunday newspapers, took place in Norwich at noon on a Saturday.[I may here remark, that the patterers laugh at telegraphs and express trains for rapidity of communication, boasting that the press strives in vain to rival them, -as at a “hanging match,” for instance, the patterer has the full particulars, dying speech, and confession included -if a confession be feasible -ready for his customers the moment the drop falls, and while the criminal may still be struggling, at the very scene of the hanging. At a distance he sells it before the hanging. “If the Times was cross-examined about it,”observed one patterer, “he must confess he’s outdone, though he’s a rich Times, and we is poor fellows.” But to resume -]A penny-a-liner is reported, and without contradiction, to have made a large sum by having hurried to Jersey in Manning’s business, and by being allowed to accompany the officers when they conducted that paltry tool of a vindictive woman from Jersey to Southampton by steamer, and from Southampton to London by “special engine,” as beseemed the popularity of so distinguished a rascal and homicide; and next morning the daily papers, in all the typographical honour of “leads” and “a good place,” gave details of this fellow’s -this Manning’s -conversation, looks, and demeanour.Until the “respectable” press become a more healthful public instructor, we have no right to blame the death-hunter, who is but an imitator -a follower -and that for a meal. So strong has this morbid feeling about criminals become, that an earl’s daughter, who had “an order” to see Bedlam, would not leave the place until she had obtained Oxford’s autograph for her album! The rich vulgar are but the poor vulgar -without an excuse for their vulgarity.Latest edition!
“Next to murders, fires are tidy browns, [copper pennies]” I was told by a patterer experienced both in “murders” and “fires.” The burning of the old Houses of Parliament was very popular among street-sellers, and for the reason which ensures popularity to a commercial people; it was a source of profit, and was certainly made the most of. It was the work of incendiaries, -of ministers, to get rid of perplexing papers, -of government officers with troublesome accounts to balance, -of a sporting lord, for a heavy wager, -of a conspiracy of builders, -and of “a unsuspected party.” The older “hands” with whom I conversed on the subject, all agreed in stating that they “did well” on the fire. One man said, “No, sir, it wasn’t only the working people that bought of me, but merchants and their clerks. I s’pose they took the papers home with ’em for their wives and families, which is a cheap way of doing, as a newspaper costs 3d. at least.But stop, sir, -stop; there wasn’t no threepennies then, -nothing under 6d., if they wasn’t more; I can’t just say, but it was better for us when newspapers was high. I never heard no sorrow expressed, -not in the least. Some said it was a good job, and they wished the ministers was in it.”The burning of the Royal Exchange was not quite so beneficial to the street-sellers, but “was uncommon tidy.” The fire at the Tower, however, was almost as great a source of profit as that of the Houses of Parliament, and the following statement shows the profit reaped.My informant had been a gentleman’s servant, his last place being with a gentleman in Russell-square, who went to the East Indies, and his servant was out of a situation so long that he “parted with everything.” When he was at the height of his distress, he went to see the fire at the Tower, as he “had nothing better to do.” He remained out some hours, and before he reached his lodging, men passed him, crying the full and true particulars of the fire.”I bought one,” said the man, “and changed my last shilling. It was a sudden impulse, for I saw people buy keenly. I never read it, but only looked at the printer’s name. I went to him at the Dials, and bought some, and so I went into the paper trade. I made 6s. or 7s. some days, while the Tower lasted; and 3s. and 4s. other days, when the first polish was off. I sold them mostly at 1d. a piece at first. It was good money then. The Tower was good, or middling good, for from 14 to 20 days. There was at least 100 men working nothing but the Tower.
There’s no great chance of any more great buildings being burnt; worse luck. People don’t care much about private fires. A man in this street don’t heed so much who’s burnt to death in the next. But the foundation-stone of the new Royal Exchange -fire led to that -was pretty fair, and portraits of Halbert went off, so that it was for two or three days as good as the Tower. Fires is our best friends next to murders, if they’re good fires. The hopening of the Coal Exchange was rather tidy. I’ve been in the streets ever since, and don’t see how I could possibly get out of them. At first I felt a great degradation at being driven to the life. I shunned grooms and coachmen, as I might be known to them. I didn’t care for others.
That sort of feeling wears out though. I’m a widower now, and my family feels, as I did at first, that what I’m doing is ‘low.’ They won’t assist -though they may give me 1s. now and then -but they won’t assist me to leave the streets. They’ll rather blame me for going into them, though there was only that, or robbing, or starving. The fire at Ben. Caunt’s, where the poor children was burnt to hashes, was the best of the private house fires that I’ve worked, I think. I made 4s. on it one day. He was the champion once, and was away at a fight at the time, and it was a shocking thing, and so people bought.”After the burning of York Minster by Jonathan Martin, I was told by an old hand, the (street) destruction of the best known public buildings in the country was tried; such as Canterbury Cathedral, Dover Castle, the Brighton Pavilion, Edinburgh Castle, or Holyrood House -all known to “travelling” patterers -but the success was not sufficiently encouraging. It was no use, I was told, firing such places as Hampton Court or Windsor Castle, for unless people saw the reflection of a great fire, they wouldn’t buy.Notes:1 [Marshall Haynau: A reference to a great cause celebre in London in 1850. Haynau was an Austrian General and Prime Minister who had female spies flogged to death in the Siege of Brescia. See our article Shakespeare, Dr Johnson, the Brewery and the Hyena of Brescia
for the details of his London experience.] Back2 The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.Links to the other articles in the series.The London Street Patterers
The Origins of Patterers
The Morals of Patterers
The Patterers’ Street Literature The Street Patterers: Long Song-Sellers
The Running Patterer
The Street Patterers: ChauntersThe Second Edition
The Standing Patterers: I
Pattering Religious and Political Dialogues