Story Of London

The Standing Patterers: 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 this extract Mayhew turns his attention to the sub-class of the Standing Patterer who made capital out of the notorious White House in Soho Square and the Mysteries of Mesmerism.

The standing patterer I have already described in his resemblance to the mountebank of old, and how, like his predecessor, he required a “pitch” and an audience. I need but iterate that these standing patterers are men who remain in one place, until they think they have exhausted the custom likely to accrue there, or until they are removed by the police; and who endeavour to attract attention to their papers, or more commonly pamphlets, either by means of a board with coloured pictures upon it, illustrative of the contents of what they sell, or else by gathering a crowd round about them, in giving a lively or horrible description of the papers or books they are “working.” The former is what is usually denominated in street technology, “board work.” A few of the standing patterers give street recitations or dialogues.Some of the “illustrations” most “in vogue” of late for the boards of the standing patteres were, -the flogging of the nuns of Minsk, the blood streaming from their naked shoulders, (anything against the Emperor of Russia, I was told, was a good street subject for a painting); the young girl, Sarah Thomas, who murdered her mistress in Bristol, dragged to the gallows by the turnkeys and Calcraft, the hangman; Calcraft himself, when charged with “starving his mother;” Haynau, in the hands of the draymen; the Mannings, and afterwards the Sloanes. The two last-mentioned were among the most elaborate, each having a series of “compartments,” representing the different stages of the events in which those heroes and heroines flourished. I shall speak afterwards of street-artists who are the painters of these boards, and then describe the pictures more fully. There are also, as before alluded to, what may be called “cocks” in street paintings, as well as street literature.Two of the most favourite themes of the standing patterers were, however, the “Annals of the White House in Soho-square,” and the “Mysteries of Mesmerism.” Both supplied subjects to the boards.The White House was a notorious place of ill fame. Some of the apartments, it is said, were furnished in a style of costly luxury; while others were fitted up with springs, traps, and other contrivances, so as to present no appearance other than that of an ordinary room, until the machinery was set in motion. In one room, into which some wretched girl might be introduced, on her drawing a curtain as she would be desired, a skeleton, grinning horribly, was precipitated forward, and caught the terrified creature in his, to all appearance, bony arms. In another chamber the lights grew dim, and then seemed gradually to go out. In a little time some candles, apparently self-ignited, revealed to a horror stricken woman, a black coffin, on the lid of which might be seen, in brass letters, Anne, or whatever name it had been ascertained the poor wretch was known by. A sofa, in another part of the mansion, was made to descend into some place of utter darkness; or, it was alleged, into a room in which was a store of soot or ashes.Into the truth or exaggeration of these and similar statements, it is not my business to inquire; but the standing patterer made the most of them. Although the house in question has been either rebuilt or altered -I was told that each was the case -and its abominable character has ceased to apply to it for some years, the patterer did not scruple to represent it as still in existence (though he might change the venue as to the square at discretion) and that all the atrocities perpetrated -to which I have not ventured even to allude -were still the ordinary procedures of “high life.”Neither did the standing patterer scruple, as one man assured me, to “name names;” to attribute vile deeds to any nobleman or gentleman whose name was before the public; and to embellish his story by an allusion to a recent event. He not unfrequently ended with a moral exhortation to all ladies present to avoid this “abode of iniquity for the rich.” The board was illustrated with skeletons, coffins, and other horrors; but neither on it, nor in a hardly intelligible narrative which the patterer sold, was there anything indecent.The “Mysteries of Mesmerism” was an account of the marvels of that “newly-discovered and most wonderful power in nature and art.” With it Dr. Elliotson’s, or some well-known name, was usually associated, and any marvel was “pattered,” according to the patterer’s taste and judgement. The illustrations were of persons, generally women, in a state of coma, but in this also there was no indecency; nor was there in the narrative sold.Of these two popular exhibitions there are, I am informed, none now in town, and both, I was told, was more the speculations of a printer, who sent out men, than in the hands of the regular patterers.Read All About It!It may tend somewhat to elucidate the character of the patterers, if I here state, that in my conversation with the whole of them, I heard from their lips strong expressions of disgust at Sloane, -far stronger than were uttered in abhorrence of any murderer. Rush, indeed, was, and is, a popular man among them. One of them told me, that not long before Madame Tussaud’s death, he thought of calling upon that “wenerable lady,” and asking her, he said, “to treat me to something to drink the immortal memory of Mr. Rush, my friend and her’n.”It is admitted by all concerned in the exercise of street elocution, that “the stander” must have “the best of patter.” He usually works alone, -there are very rarely two at standing patter, -and beyond his board he has no adventitious aids, as in the running patter, so that he must be all the more effective; but the board is pronounced “as good as a man.” When the standing patterer visits the country, he is accompanied by a mate, and the “copy of werses” is then announced as being written by an “underpaid curate” within a day’s walk. “It tells mostly, sir,” said one man; “for it’s a blessing to us that there always is a journeyman parson what the people knows, and what the patter fits.” Sometimes the poetry is attributed to a sister of mercy, or to a popular poetess; very frequently, by the patterers who best understand the labouring classes, to Miss Eliza Cook. Sometimes the verses are written by “a sympathising gent. in that parish,” but his name wasn’t to be mentioned. Another intelligent patterer whom I questioned on the subject, told me that my information was correct. “It’s just the same in the newspapers,” he continued; “why the ‘sympathising gent’ is the same with us as what in the newspapers is called “other intelligence (about any crime), to publish which might defeat the ends of justice.” That means, they know nothing at all about it, and can’t so much as venture on a guess. I’ve known a little about it for the papers, sir, -it doesn’t matter in what line.”Some standing patterers are brought up to the business from childhood. Some take to it through loss of character, or through their inability to obtain a situation from intemperate habits, and some because “a free life suits me best.” In a former inquiry into a portion of this subject, I sought a standing patterer, whom I found in a threepenny lodging-house in Mintstreet, Southwark. On my inquiring what induced him to adopt, or pursue, that line of life, he said: -“It was distress that first drove me to it. I had learnt to make willow bonnets, but that branch of trade went entirely out. So, having a wife and children, I was drove to write out a paper that I called ‘The People’s Address to the King on the Present State of the Nation.’ I got it printed, and took it into the streets and sold it. I did very well with it, and made 5s. a day while it lasted. I never was brought up to any mechanical trade. My father was a clergyman”
[here he cried bitterly].
“It breaks my heart when I think of it. I have as good a wife as ever lived, and I would give the world to get out of my present life. It would be heaven to get away from the place where I am. I am obliged to cheer up my spirits. If I was to give way to it, I shouldn’t live long. It’s like a little hell to be in the place where we live”
“associated with the ruffians that we are. My distress of mind is awful, but it won’t do to show it at my lodgings -they’d only laugh to see me down-hearted; so I keep my trouble all to myself. Oh, I am heartily sick of this street work -the insults I have to put up with -the drunken men swearing at me. Yes, indeed, I am heartily sick of it.”This poor man had some assistance forwarded to him by benevolent persons, after his case had appeared in my letter in the Morning Chronicle. This was the means of his leaving the streets, and starting in the “cloth-cap trade.” He seemed a deserving man.Links 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 Hunters
Patterers: The Second Edition
The Standing Patterers: I
Pattering Religious and Political Dialogues