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 allows a standing patterer to describe, in his own words, the nature of the calling and the hours worked on the streets.
EXPERIENCE OF A STANDING PATTERER
From one of this body I received, at the period just alluded to, the following information:-“I have taken my 5s. a day (said my informant); but ‘paper’ selling now isn’t half so good as it used to be. People haven’t got the money to lay out; for it all depends with the working man. The least we take in a day is, upon an average, sixpence; but taking the good and bad together, I should say we take about 10s. a week. I know there’s some get more than that, but then there’s many take less. Lately, I know, I haven’t taken 9s. a week myself, and people reckon me one of the best patterers in the trade. I’m reckoned to have the gift -that is, the gift of the gab.
I never works a last dying speech on any other than the day of execution -all the edge is taken off of it after that. The last dying speeches and executions are all printed the day before. They’re always done on the Sunday, if the murderers are to be hung on the Monday. I’ve been and got them myself on the Sunday night, over and over again. The flying stationers goes with the papers in their pockets, and stand under the drop, and as soon as ever it falls, and long before the breath is out of the body, they begin bawling out.”
[Here my informant gave a further account of the flying stationers under the gallows, similar to what I have given. He averred that they “invented every lie likely to go down.”]
“‘Here you have also an exact likeness,’ they say, ‘of the murderer, taken at the bar of the Old Bailey!’ when all the time it is an old wood-cut that’s been used for every criminal for the last forty years. I know the likeness that was given of Hocker was the one that was given for Fauntleroy; and the wood-cut of Tawell was one that was given for the Quaker that had been hanged for forgery twenty years before. Thurtell’s likeness was done expressly for the ‘papers;’ and so was the Mannings’ and Rush’s likenesses too.
The murders are bought by men, women, and children. Many of the tradespeople bought a great many of the affair of the Mannings. I went down to Deptford with mine, and did uncommonly well. I sold all off. Gentlefolks won’t have anything to do with murders sold in the street; they’ve got other ways of seeing all about it. We lay on the horrors, and picture them in the highest colours we can. We don’t care what’s in the ‘papers’ in our hands. All we want to do is to sell ’em; and the more horrible we makes the affairs, the more sale we have.
We do very well with ‘loveletters.’ They are ‘cocks;’ that is, they are all fictitious. We give it out that they are from a tradesman in the neighbourhood, not a hundred yards from where we are a-standing. Sometimes we say it’s a well-known sporting butcher; sometimes it’s a highly respectable publican -just as it will suit the tastes of the neighbourhood. I got my living round Cornwall for one twelvemonth with nothing else than a loveletter. It was headed, ‘A curious and laughable love-letter and puzzle, sent by a sporting gentleman to Miss H -s -m, in this neighbourhood;’ that suits any place that I may chance to be in; but I always patter the name of the street or village where I may be.
This letter, I say, is so worded, that had it fallen into the hands of her mamma or papa, they could not have told what it meant; but the young lady, having so much wit, found out its true meaning, and sent him an answer in the same manner. You have here, we say, the number of the house, the name of the place where she lives (there is nothing of the kind, of course), and the initials of all the parties concerned. We dare not give the real names in full, we tell them; indeed, we do all we can to get up the people’s curiosity.
I did very well with the ‘Burning of the House of Commons.’ I happened by accident to put my pipe into my pocket amongst some of my papers, and burnt them. Then, not knowing how to get rid of them, I got a few straws. I told the people that my burnt papers were parliamentary documents that had been rescued from the flames, and that, as I dare not sell them, I would let them have a straw for a penny, and give them one of the papers. By this trick I got rid of my stock twice as fast, and got double the price that I should have done. The papers had nothing at all to do with the House of Commons. Some was ‘Death and the Lady,’ and ‘Death and the Gentleman,’ and others were the ‘Political Catechism,’ and 365 lies, Scotch, English, and Irish, and each lie as big round as St. Paul’s.
I remember a party named Jack Straw, who laid a wager, half-a-gallon of beer, that he’d bring home the money for two dozen blank papers in one hour’s time. He went out into the Old-street road, and began a patter about the political affairs of the nation, and Sir Robert Peel, and the Duke of Wellington, telling the public that he dared not sell his papers, they were treasonable; so he gave them with a straw -that he sold for one penny. In less than the hour he was sold clean out, and returned and drank the beer.
The chief things that I work are quarter-sheets of recitations and dialogues. One is ‘Good Advice to Young Men on Choosing their Wives.’ I have done exceedingly well with that -it’s a good moral thing. Another is the ‘Drunkard’s Catechism;’ another is ‘The Rent Day; or, the Landlord gathering his Rents.’ This is a dialogue between the landlord and his tenant, beginning with ‘Good morning, Mrs. Longface; have you got my rent ready, ma’am?’ The next one is ‘The Adventures of Larry O’ Flinn.’ It’s a comic story, and a very good got-up thing. Another is ‘A Hint to Husbands and Wives;’ and ‘A Pack of Cards turned into a Bible, a Prayer-book, and an Almanack.’ These cards belonged to Richard Middleton, of the 60th regiment of foot, who was taken a prisoner for playing at cards in church during divine service.Read All About It!But the best I do is ‘The Remarkable Dream of a Young Man of loose character, who had made an agreement to break into a gentleman’s house at twelve at night on Whitsum Monday, but, owing to a little drink that he took, he had a remarkable dream, and dreamed he was in hell. The dream had such influence on his mind that he refused to meet his comrade. His comrade was taken up for the burglary, found guilty, and executed for it. This made such an impression on the young man’s mind that he became a reformed character.’ There is a very beautiful description of hell in this paper,” said my informant, “that makes it sell very well among the old women and the apprentice lads, for the young man was an apprentice himself. It’s all in very pretty poetry, and a regular ‘*****.’
The papers that I work chiefly are what are called ‘the standing patters;’ they’re all of ’em stereotype, and some of them a hundred years old. We consider the ‘death hunters’ are the lowest grade in the trade. We can make most money of the murders while they last, but they don’t last, and they merely want a good pair of lungs to get them off. But it’s not every one, sir, that can work the standing patters. Many persons I’ve seen try at it and fail. One old man I knew tried the ‘Drunkard’s Catechism’ and the ‘Soldier’s Prayer-book and Bible.’ He could manage to patter these because they’ll almost work themselves; but ‘Old Mother Clifton’ he broke down in. I heard him do it in Sun-street and in the Blackfriars-road; but it was such a dreadful failure -he couldn’t humour it a bit -that, thinks I to myself, you’ll soon have to give up, and sure enough he’s never been to the printer’s since. He’d a very poor audience, chiefly boys and girls, and they were laughing at him because he made so many blunders in it.
A man that’s never been to school an hour can go and patter a dying speech or ‘A Battle between Two Ladies of Fortune.’ They require no scholarship. All you want is to stick a picture on your hat, to attract attention, and to make all the noise you can. It’s all the same when they does an ‘Assassination of Louis Philippe,’ or a ‘Diabolical Attempt on the Life of the Queen’ -a good stout pair of lungs and plenty of impudence is all that is required. But to patter ‘Bounce, the Workhouse Beadle, and the Examination of the Paupers before the Poor law Commissioners,’ takes a good head-piece and great gift of the gab, let me tell you. It’s just the same as a play-actor. I can assure you I often feel very nervous. I begin it, and walk miles before I can get confidence in myself to make the attempt. I got rid of two quire last night. I was up among the gentlemen’s servants in Crawford-street, Baker-street, and I had a very good haul out of the grown-up people. I cleared 1s. 8d. altogether. I did that from seven till nine in the evening.
It’s all chancework. If it’s fine, and I can get a crowd of grown-up people round me, I can do very well, but I can’t do anything amongst the boys. There’s very little to be done in the day-time. I begin at ten in the day, and stop out till one. After that I starts off again at five, and leaves off about ten at night. Marylebone, Paddington, and Westminster I find the best places. The West-end is very good the early part of the week, for any thing that’s genteel, such as the ‘Rich Man and his Wife quarrelling because they have no Family.’ Our customers there are principally the footmen, the grooms, and the maidservants.
The east end of the town is the best on Friday and Saturday evenings. I very often go to Limehouse on Friday evening. Most part of the dock-men are paid then, and anything comic goes off well among them. On Saturdays I go to the New-cut, Ratcliff-highway, the Brill, and such places. I make mostly 2s. clear on a Saturday night. After nineteen years’ experience of the patter and paper line in the streets, I find that a foolish nonsensical thing will sell twice as fast as a good moral sentimental one; and, while it lasts, a good murder will cut out the whole of them. It’s the best selling thing of any. I used at one time to patter religious tracts in the street, but I found no encouragement. I did the ‘Infidel Blacksmith’ -that would not sell. ‘What is Happiness? a Dialogue between Ellen and Mary’ -that was no go. No more was the ‘Sorrows of Seduction.’ So I was driven into the comic standing patters.”The more recent “experiences” of standing patterers, as they were detailed to me, differ so little in subject, or anything else, from what I have given concerning running patterers, that to cite them would be a repetition.From the best information to be obtained, I have no doubt that there are always at least 20 standing patterers -sometimes they are called “boardmen” -at work in London. Some of them “run” occasionally, but an equal number or more, of the regular “runners” resort now and then to the standing patter, so the sum is generally kept up.Notwithstanding the drawbacks of bad weather, which affects the standing, and does not affect the running, patterer; and notwithstanding the more frequent interruptions of the police, I am of opinion that the standing patterer earns on an average 1s. a week more than his running brother. His earnings too are often all his own; whereas the runners are a ‘school,’ and, their gains divided. More running patterers become, on favourable occasions, stationery, with boards, perhaps in the proportion of five to four, than the stationary become itinerant. One standing patterer told me, that, during the excitement about the Sloanes, he cleared full 3s. a day for more than a week; but at other times he had cleared only 1s. 6d. in a whole week, and he had taken nothing when the weather was too wet for the standing work, and there was nothing up to “run” with.If, then, 20 standing patterers clear 10s. weekly, each, the year through -” taking” 15s. weekly -we find that £780 is yearly expended in the standing patter of London streets. The capital required for the start of the standing is greater than that needed by the running patterer. The painting for a board costs 3s. 6d.; the board and pole, with feet, to which it is attached, 5s. 6d.; and stock-money, 2s.; in all, 11s.