Story Of London

The Morals of Patterers

London has always been a noisy place. Amongst the cacophony 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, the second of our extracts, we give his very detailed description of the way in which these particular street-sellers live their lives. It also contains some rich examples of the slang which was peculiar to this class of Victorian people.


In order that I might omit nothing which will give the student of that curious phase of London life in London streets the condition of the patterers a clear understanding of the subject, I procured the following account from an educated gentleman (who has been before alluded to in this work), and as he had been driven to live among the class he describes, and to support himself by street-selling, his remarks have of course all the weight due to personal experience, as well as to close observation:

“If there is any truth in phrenology,” writes the gentleman in question, “the patterers to a man are very large in the organ of ‘selfesteem,’from which suggestion an enquiry arises, viz., whether they possess that of which they may justly pique themselves. To arrive at truth about the patterers is very difficult, and indeed the persons with whom they live are often quite in the dark about the history, or in some cases the pursuits of their lodgers.

“I think that the patterers may be divided into three classes. First, those who were well born and brought up. Secondly, those whose parents have been dissipated and gave them little education. Thirdly, those who whatever their early history will not be or do anything but what is of an itinerant character. I shall take a glance at the first of these classes, presupposing that they were cradled in the lap of indulgence, and trained to science and virtue.

“If these people take to the streets, they become, with here and there an exception, the most reprobate and the least reclaimable. I was once the inmate of a lodging-house, in which there were at one time five University-men, three surgeons, and several sorts of broken-down clerks, or of other professional men. Their general habits were demoralised to the last degree their oaths more horrid, extravagant, and farfetched than anything I ever heard: they were stupid in logic, but very original in obscenity. Most of them scoffed at the Bible, or perverted its passages to extenuate fraud, to justify violence, or construct for themselves excuses for incontinence and imposition.

“It will appear strange that these educated persons, when they turn out upon the street, generally sell articles which have no connection with literature, and very little with art. The two brothers, who sell that wonder-working paste which removes grease from the outside of your collar by driving it further in, were both scholars of Christ’s Hospital. They were second Grecians, and might have gone to college; but several visits to suburban fairs, and their accompanying scenes of debauch, gave them a penchant for a vagabond life, and they will probably never relinquish it. The very tall, man there are several others, who sells razors and paste on a red pagoda-looking stall, was apprenticed to a surgeon in Colchester, with a premium of 300 guineas; and the little dark-visaged man, who sells children’s money-boxes and traps to catch vermin, is the son of a late upholsterer in Bath, who was also a magistrate of that city.”

The poor man alluded to was a law-student, and kept two terms in Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Many similar cases might be mentioned cases founded on real observation and experience.

“Some light may be thrown upon this subject by pointing out the modus operandi by which a friend of mine got initiated into the ‘art and mystery of patterism.”I had lived,’he said, ‘more than a year among the tradesmen and tramps, who herd promiscuously together in low lodging-houses. One afternoon I was taking tea at the same table with a brace of patterers. They eyed me with suspicion; but, determined to know their proceedings, I launched out the only cant word I had then learned. They spoke of going to Chatham. Of course, I knew the place, and asked them, ‘Where do you stall to in the huey?’ which, fairly translated, means, ‘Where do you lodge in the town?’ Convinced that I was ‘fly,’ one of them said, ‘We drop the main toper (go off the main road) and slink into the crib (house) in the back drum (street).’ After some altercation with the ‘mot’ of the ‘ken’ (mistress of the lodging-house) about the cleanliness of a knife or fork, my new acquaintance began to arrange ‘ground,’ etc., for the night’s work. I got into their confidence by degrees; and I give below a vocabulary of their talk to each other:

BluffAn excuse
FlamA lie
FlagAn apron
Mill TagA shirt
SmeeshA shift
Hay-bagA woman
DoxyA wife
TevissA shilling
BullA crown

“The cant or slang of the patterer is not the cant of the constermonger, but a system of their own. As in the case of the costers, it is so interlarded with their general remarks, while their ordinary language is so smothered and subdued, that unless when they are professionally engaged and talking of their wares, they might almost pass for foreigners.

“There can be no doubt,” continues my informant, “that the second class of street patterers, to whom nature, or parents, or circumstances have been unpropitious, are the most moral, and have a greater sense of right and wrong, with a quick sightedness about humane and generous things, to which the ‘aristocratic’ patterer is a stranger. Of the dealers in useful or harmless wares although, of course, they use allowable exaggeration as to the goodness of the article many are devout communicants at church, or members of dissenting bodies; while others are as careless about religion, and are still to be found once or twice a week in the lecture-rooms of the Mechanics’ Institute nearest to their residence. Orchard-street, Westminster, is a great locality for this sort of patterers. Three well-known characters, Bristol George, Corporal Casey, and Jemmy the Rake, with a very respectable and highly-informed man called ‘Grocer,’ from his having been apprenticed to that business, have maintained a character for great integrity among the neighbours for many years.

“I come now to the third class of patterers, those who, whatever their early pursuits and pleasures, have manifested a predilection for vagrancy, and neither can nor will settle to any ordinary calling. There is now on the streets a man scarcely thirty years old, conspicuous by the misfortune of a sabre-wound on the cheek. He is a native of the Isle of Man. His father was a captain in the Buffs, and himself a commissioned officer at seventeen. He left the army, designing to marry and open a boarding school. The young lady to whom he was betrothed died, and that event might affect his mind; at any rate, he has had 38 situations in a dozen years, and will not keep one a week. He has a mortal antipathy to good clothes, and will not keep them one hour. He sells anything chiefly needle-cases. He ‘patters’ very little in a main drag (public street); but in the little private streets he preaches an outline of his life, and makes no secret of his wandering propensity. His aged mother, who still lives, pays his lodgings in Old Pye-street.

“From the hasty glance I have taken at the patterers, any well-constructed mind may deduce the following inference: because a great amount of intelligence sometimes consists with a great want of principle, that no education, or mis-education, leaves man, like a reed floating on the stream of time, to follow every direction which the current of affairs may give him.

“There is yet another and a larger class, who are wanderers from choice, who would rather be street-orators, and quacks, and performers, than anything else in the world. In nine cases out of ten, the street-patterers are persons of intemperate habits, no veracity, and destitute of any desire to improve their condition, even where they have the chance. One of this crew was lately engaged at a bazaar; he had 18s. a week, and his only work was to walk up and down and extol the articles exhibited. This was too monotonous a life; I happened to pass him by as he was taking his wages for the week, and heard him say, ‘I shall cut this b—-y work; I can earn more on the streets, and be my own master.’

“It would be a mistake to suppose that the patterers, although a vagrant, are a disorganized class. There is a telegraphic dispatch between them, through the length and breadth of the land. If two patterers (previously unacquainted) meet in the provinces, the following, or something like it, will be their conversation: “Can you ‘voker romeny'(can you speak cant)? What is your ‘monekeer'(name)?” Perhaps it turns out that one is ” Whiteheaded Bob,” and the other “Plymouth Ned.” They have a “shant of gatter” (pot of beer) at the nearest “boozing ken” (ale-house), and swear eternal friendship to each other. The old saying, that “When the liquor is in, the wit is out,” is remarkably fulfilled on these occasions, for they betray to the “flatties” (natives) all their profits and proceedings.

“It is to be supposed that, in country districts, where there are no streets, the patterer is obliged to call at the houses. As they are mostly without the hawker’s licence, and sometimes find wet linen before it is lost, the rural districts are not fond of their visits; and there are generally two or three persons in a village reported to be “gammy,” that is (unfavourable). If a patterer has been “crabbed,” that is (offended) at any of the “cribbs” (houses), he mostly chalks a signal on or near the door. I give one or two instances:

Cooper’dspoiled by the imprudence of some other patterer
Gammylikely to have you taken up
Flummutsure of a month in quod [prison]

“In most lodging-houses there is an old man who is the guide to every “walk” in the vicinity, and who can tell every house, on every round, that is “good for a cold ‘tater. [potato]” In many cases there is over the kitchen mantlepiece a map of the district, dotted here and there with memorandums of failure or success.Patterers are fond of carving their names and avocations about the houses they visit. The old jail at Dartford has been some years a “padding-ken.” In one of the rooms appears the following autographs:

“Jemmy, the Rake, bound to Bristol; bad beds, but no bugs. Thank God for all things.”

“Razor George and his moll slept here the day afore Christmas; just out of ‘stir'[jail], for ‘muzzling a peeler.'”

“Scotch Mary, with ‘driz'[lace], bound to Dover and back, please God.”

Sometimes these inscriptions are coarse and obsence; sometimes very well written and orderly. Nor do they want illustrations.At the old factory, Lincoln, is a portrait of the town beadle, formerly a soldier; it is drawn with different-coloured chalks, and ends with the following couplet:

“You are a B for false swearing,

In hell they’ll roast you like a herring.”

“Concubinage is very common among patterers, especially on their travels; they have their regular rounds, and call the peregrination “going on circuit.” For the most part they are early risers; this gives them a facility for meeting poor girls who have had a night’s shelter in the union workhouses. They offer such girls some refreshment, swear they are single men, and promise comforts certainly superior to the immediate position of their victims. Consent is generally obtained; perhaps a girl of 14 or 15, previously virtuous, is induced to believe in a promise of constant protection, but finds herself, the next morning, ruined and deserted; nor is it unlikely that, within a month or two, she will see her seducer in the company of a dozen incidental wives. A gray-headed miscreant called “Culter Tom” boasts of 500 such exploits; and there is too great reason to believe that the picture of his own drawing is not greatly overcharged.

“Some of the patterers are married men, but of this class very few are faithful to the solemn obligation. I have heard of a renowned patterer of this class who was married to four women, and had lived in criminal intercourse with his own sister, and his own daughter by one of the wives. This sad rule has, however, I am happy to state, some splendid exceptions. There is a man called “Andy” well known as the companion of “Hopping Ned;” this “Andy” has a wife of great personal attractions, a splendid figure, and teeth without a parallel. She is a strictly-virtuous woman, a most devoted wife, and tender mother; very charitable to any one in want of a meal, and very constant (she is a Catholic) in her religious duties. Another man of the same school, whose name has escaped me, is, with his wife, an exception to the stigma on almost the whole class; the couple in question have no children. The wife, whose name is Maria, has been in every hospital for some complaint in her knees, probably white swelling; her beauty is the theme of applause, and whenever she opens her mouth silence pervades the “paddin’ken.” Her common conversation is music and mathematics combined, her reading has been masculine and extensive, and the whisper of calumny has never yet attacked her own demeanour or her husband’s.

Of patterers who have children, many are very exemplary; sending them to Day and Sunday-schools, causing them to say grace before and after meals, to attend public worship, and always to speak the truth: these, instances, however, stand in fearful contrast with the conduct of other parents.

“I have seen,” proceeds my reverend informant, “fathers and mothers place their boys and girls in positions of incipient enormity, and command them to use language and gestures to each other, which would make an harlot blush, and almost a heathen tremble. I have hitherto viewed the patterer as a salesman, having something in his hand, on whose merits, real or pretended, he talks people out of their money. By slow degrees prosperity rises, but rapid is the advance of evil. The patterer sometimes gets ‘out of stock,’ and is obliged, at no great sacrifice of conscience, to ‘patter’ in another strain. In every large town sham official documents, with crests, seals, and signatures, can be got for half-a-crown. Armed with these, the patterer becomes a ‘lurker,’ that is, an impostor; his papers certify any and every ‘ill that flesh is heir to.’ Shipwreck is called a ‘shake lurk;’ loss by fire is a ‘glim.’ Sometimes the petitioner has had a horse, which has dropped dead with the mad staggers; or has a wife ill or dying, and six or seven children at once sickening of the small-pox. Children are borrowed to support the appearance; the case is certified by the minister and churchwardens of a parish which exists only in imagination; and, as many people dislike the trouble of investigation, the patterer gets enough to raise a stock in trade, and divides the spoil between the swag-shop and the gin-palace.

Sometimes they are detected, and get a ‘drag'(three months in prison). They have many narrow escapes: one occurs to me, of a somewhat ludicrous character. A patterer and lurker (now dead) known by the name of ‘Captain Moody,’ unable to get a ‘fakement’ written or printed, was standing almost naked in the streets of a neighbouring town. A gentleman stood still and heard his piteous tale, but having been ‘done’ more than once, he resolved to examine the affair, and begged the petitioner to conduct him to his wife and children, who were in a garret on a bed of languishing, with neither clothes, food, nor fire, but, it appeared, with faith enough to expect a supply from ‘Him who feedeth the ravens,’ and in whose sacred name even a cold ‘tater was implored. The patterer, or half-patterer and halfbeggar, took the gentleman (who promised a sovereign if every thing was square) through innumerable and intricate windings, till he came to an outhouse or sort of stable. He saw the key outside the door, and begged the gentleman to enter and wait till he borrowed a light of a neighbour, to show him up-stairs. The illumination never arrived, and the poor charitable man found that the miscreant had locked him into the stable. The patterer went to the padding-ken, told the story with great glee, and left that locality within an hour of the occurrence.”

Concerning the mendicancy and vagrancy of patterers, I shall have more to say when I speak of vagrancy in general, and when I describe the general state and characteristics of the low lodging-houses in London, and those in the country, which are in intimate connection with the metropolitan abodes of the vagrant. My present theme is the London patterer, who is also a street-seller.

Links to the other articles in the series.

The London Street Patterers

The Origins of Patterers
The Patterers’ Street Literature
Long Song-Sellers
The Running Patterer
The Death and Fire Hunters
The Second Edition
The Standing Patterers: I
Pattering Religious and Political Dialogues