Story Of London

The Origins of Patterers

The Origins of Patterers
Posted on Oct 03, 2002 – 03:03 AM by Bill McCann

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 account of the history and origins of this singular class of street-seller.

Of the street-patterers the running (or flying) trader announces the contents of the paper he is offering for sale, as he proceeds on his mission. It is usually the detail of some “barbarious and horrible murder,” or of some extraordinary occurrence – such as the attack on Marshal Haynau – which has roused public attention; or the paper announced as descriptive of a murder, or of some exciting event, may in reality be some odd number of a defunct periodical. “It’s astonishing,” said one patterer to me, “how few people ever complain of having been took in. It hurts their feelings to lose a halfpenny, but it hurts their pride too much, when they’re had, to grumble in public about it.” On this head, then, I need give no further general explanation.In times of excitement the running patterer (or “stationer,” as he was and is sometimes called) has reaped the best harvest. When the Popish plot agitated England in the reign of Charles II. the “Narratives” of the design of a handful of men to assassinate a whole nation, were eagerly purchased in the streets and taverns. And this has been the case during the progress of any absorbing event subsequently. I was told by a very old gentleman, who had heard it from his grandfather, that in some of the quiet towns of the north of England, in Durham and Yorkshire, there was the greatest eagerness to purchase from the street-sellers any paper relative to the progress of the forces under Charles Edward Stuart, in 1745. This was especially the case when it became known that the “rebels” had gained possession of Carlisle, and it was uncertain what might be their route southward. About the period of the “affair of the ’45,” and in the autumn following the decisive battle of Culloden (in April, 1746), the “Northern Lights” were more than usually brilliant, or more than usually remarked, and a meteor or two had been seen. The street-sellers were then to be found in fairs and markets, vending wonderful accounts of these wonderful phenomena.I have already alluded to the character of the old mountebank, and to his “pompous orations,” having “as little regard to truth as to propriety.” There certainly is little pompousness in the announcements of the patterers, though in their general disregard of truth they resemble those of the mountebank. The mountebank, however, addressed his audience from a stage, and made his address attractive by mixing up with it music, dancing, and tumbling; sometimes, also, equestrianism on the green of a village; and by having always the services of a merry-andrew, or clown. The nostrums of these quacks were all as unequalled for cheapness as for infallibility, and their impudence and coolness ensured success. Their practices are as well exposed in some of the Spectators of 1711-12 as the puppet-playing of Powel was good-humouredly ridiculed. One especial instance is cited, where a mountebank, announcing himself a native of Hammersmith, where he was holding forth, offered to make a present of 5s. to every brother native of Hammersmith among his audience. The mountebank then drew from a long bag a handful of little packets, each of which, he informed the spectators, was constantly sold for 5s. 6d., but that out of love to his native hamlet he would bate the odd 5s. to every inhabitant of the place. The whole assembly immediately closed with his generous offer.”There is a scene in Moncrieff’s popular farce of “Rochester,” where the hero personates a mountebank, which may be here cited as affording a good idea of the “pompous orations” indulged in by the street orators in days of yore:”Silence there, and hear me, for my words are more precious than gold; I am the renowned and far-famed Doctor Paracelsus Bombastes Esculapus Galen dam Humbug von Quack, member of all the colleges under the Moon: M.D., L.M.D., F.R.S., L.L.D., A.S.S. – and all the rest of the letters in the alphabet: I am the seventh son of a seventh son – kill or cure is my motto – and I always do it; I cured the great Emperor of Nova Scotia, of a polypus, after he had been given over by all the faculty – he lay to all appearance dead; the first pill he took, he opened his eyes; the second, he raised his head; and the third, he jumped up and danced a hornpipe. I don’t want to sound my own praise – blow the trumpet, Balaam (Balaam blows trumpet); but I tapped the great Cham of Tartary at a sitting, of a terrible dropsy, so that I didn’t leave a drop in him! I cure the palsy, the dropsy, the lunacy, and all the sighs, without costing anybody a sigh; vertigo, pertigo, lumbago, and all the other go’s are sure to go, whenever I come.”In his unscrupulousness and boldness in street announcements, and sometimes in his humour and satire, we find the patterer of the present day to be the mountebank of old descended from his platform into the streets – but without his music, his clown, or his dress.There was formerly, also, another class, differing little from the habits of that variety of patterers of the present day who “busk” it, or “work the public-houses.””The jestours,” says Mr. Strutt, in his “Sports and Pastimes of the People of England,” “or, as the word is often written in the old English dialect, ‘gesters,’ were the relaters of the gestes, that is, the actions of famous persons, whether fabulous or real; and these stories were of two kinds, the one to excite pity, and the other to move laughter, as we learn from Chaucer: ‘And jestours that tellen tales, Both of wepying (weeping) and of game.’ The tales of ‘game,’ as the poet expresses himself were short jocular stories calculated to promote merriment, in which the reciters paid little respect to the claims of propriety or even of common decency. The tales of ‘game,’ however, were much more popular than those of weeping, and probably for the very reason that ought to have operated the most powerfully for their suppression. The gestours, whose powers were chiefly employed in the hours of conviviality, finding by experience that lessons of instruction were much less seasonable at such times, than idle tales productive of mirth and laughter, accommodated their narrations to the general taste of the times, regardless of the mischiefs they occasioned by vitiating the morals of their hearers. Hence it is that the author of the ‘Vision of Pierce the Ploughman’ calls them contemptibly ‘japers and juglers, and Janglers of gests.’ He describes them as haunters of taverns and common ale-house, amusing the lower classes of the people with ‘myrth of minstrelsy and losels’ tales,’ (loose vulgar tales,) and calls them tale-tellers and ‘tutelers in ydell,’ (tutors of idleness,) occasioning their auditory, ‘for love of tales, in tavernes to drink,’ where they learned from them to jangle and to jape, instead of attending to their more serious duties.
“The japers, I apprehend, were the same as the bourdours, or rybauders, an inferior class of minstrels, and properly called jesters in the modern acceptation of the word; whose wit, like that of the merry-andrews of the present day (1806) consisted in low obscenity accompanied with ludicrous gesticulation. They sometimes, however, found admission into the houses of the opulent. Knighton, indeed, mentions one of these japers who was a favourite in the English court, and could obtain any grant from the king ‘a burdando,’ that is, by jesting. They are well described by the poet: ‘As japers and janglers, Judas’ chyldren, Fayneth them fantasies, and fooles them maketh.”
“It was a very common and a very favourite amusement, so late as the 16th century, to hear the recital of verses and moral speeches, learned for that purpose by a set of men who obtained their livelihood thereby, and who, without ceremony, intruded themselves, not only into taverns and other places of public resort, but also into the houses of the nobility”The resemblance of the modern patterer to the classes above mentioned will be seen when I describe the public-house actor and reciter of the present day, as well as the standing patterer, who does not differ so much from the running patterer in the quality of his announcements, as in his requiring more time to make an impression, and being indeed a sort of lecturer needing an audience; also of the present reciters “of verses and moral speeches.” But of these curious classes I shall proceed to treat separately.Links to the other articles in the series.The London Street PatterersIntroduction
The Morals 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