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The London Street Patterers
Posted on Sep 27, 2002 - 03:01 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 the first of our extracts we give his lively and colourful introductory remarks on the class as a whole. Links to all the articles in the series will be found at the end of each.



OF THE STREET-SELLERS OF STATIONERY, LITERATURE, AND THE FINE ARTS.
We now come to a class of street-folk wholly distinct from any before treated of. As yet we have been dealing principally with the uneducated portion of the street-people -men whom, for the most part, are allowed to remain in nearly the same primitive and brutish state as the savage -creatures with nothing but their appetites, instincts, and passions to move them, and made up of the same crude combination of virtue and vice -the same generosity combined with the same predatory tendencies as the Bedouins of the desert -the same love of revenge and disregard of pain, and often the same gratitude and susceptibility to kindness as the Red Indian -and, furthermore, the same insensibility to female honour and abuse of female weakness, and the same utter ignorance of the Divine nature of the Godhead as marks either Bosjesman, Carib, or Thug.

The costers and many other of the streetsellers before described, however, are bad - not so much from their own perversity as from our selfishness. That they partake of the natural evil of human nature is not their fault but ours, -who would be like them if we had not been taught by others better than ourselves to controle the bad and cherish the good principles of our hearts.

The street-sellers of stationery, literature, and the fine arts, however, differ from all before treated of in the general, though far from universal, education of the sect. They constitute principally the class of street-orators, known in these days as "patterers," and formerly termed "mountebanks," - people who, in the words of Strutt, strive to "help off their wares by pompous speeches, in which little regard is paid either to truth or propriety." To patter, is a slang term, meaning to speak. To indulge in this kind of oral puffery, of course, requires a certain exercise of the intellect, and it is the consciousness of their mental superiority which makes the patterers look down upon the costermongers as an inferior body, with whom they object either to be classed or to associate. The scorn of some of the "patterers" for the mere costers is as profound as the contempt of the pickpocket for the pure beggar. Those who have not witnessed this pride of class among even the most degraded, can form no adequate idea of the arrogance with which the skilled man, no matter how base the art, looks upon the unskilled. "We are the haristocracy of the streets," was said to me by one of the streetfolks, who told penny fortunes with a bottle. "People don't pay us for what we gives 'em, but only to hear us talk. We live like yourself, sir, by the hexercise of our hintellects - we by talking, and you by writing."

But notwithstanding the self-esteem of the patterers, I am inclined to think that they are less impressionable and less susceptible of kindness than the costers whom they despise. Dr. Conolly has told us that, even among the insane, the educated classes are the most difficult to move and govern through their affections. They are invariably suspicious, attributing unworthy motives to every benefit conferred, and consequently incapable of being touched by any sympathy on the part of those who may be affected by their distress. So far as my experience goes it is the same with the street-patterers. Any attempt to befriend them is almost sure to be met with distrust. Nor does their mode of life serve in any way to lessen their misgivings. Conscious how much their own livelihood depends upon assumption and trickery, they naturally consider that others have some "dodge," as they call it, or some latent object in view when any good is sought to be done them. The impulsive costermonger, however, approximating more closely to the primitive man, moved solely by his feelings, is as easily humanized by any kindness as he is brutified by any injury.

A street Patterer

The patterers, again, though certainly more intellectual, are scarcely less immoral than the costers. Their superior cleverness gives them the power of justifying and speciously glossing their evil practices, but serves in no way to restrain them; thus affording the social philosopher another melancholy instance of the evil of developing the intellect without the conscience - of teaching people to know what is morally beautiful and ugly, without teaching them at the same time to feel and delight in the one and abhor the other - or, in other words, of quickening the cunning and checking the emotions of the individual.

Among the patterers marriage is as little frequent as among the costermongers; with the exception of the older class, who "were perhaps married before they took to the streets." Hardly one of the patterers, however, has been bred to a street life; and this constitutes another line of demarcation between them and the costermongers.

The costers, we have seen, are mostly hereditary wanderers -having been as it were born to frequent the public thoroughfares; some few of the itinerant dealers in fish, fruit, and vegetables, have it is true been driven by want of employment to adopt street-selling as a means of living, but these are, so to speak, the aliens rather than the natives of the streets. The patterers, on the other hand, have for the most part neither been born and bred nor driven to a street life - but have rather taken to it from a natural love of what they call "roving." This propensity to lapse from a civilized into a nomad state - to pass from a settler into a wanderer - is a peculiar characteristic of the pattering tribe. The tendency however is by no means extraordinary; for ethnology teaches us, that whereas many abandon the habits of civilized life to adopt those of a nomadic state of existence, but few of the wandering tribes give up vagabondising and betake themselves to settled occupations.

The innate "love of a roving life," which many of the street-people themselves speak of as the cause of their originally taking to the streets, appears to be accompanied by several peculiar characteristics; among the most marked of these are:

  • an indomitable "self-will" or hatred of the least restraint or control
  • an innate aversion to every species of law or government, whether political, moral, or domestic
  • a stubborn, contradictory nature
  • an incapability of continuous labour, or remaining long in the same place occupied with the same object, or attending to the same subject
  • an unusual predilection for amusements, and especially for what partakes of the ludicrous
  • together with a great relish of all that is ingenious, and so finding extreme delight in tricks and frauds of every kind.
There are two patterers now in the streets (brothers) well educated and respectably connected - who candidly confess they prefer that kind of life to any other, and would not leave it if they could.

Nor are the patterers less remarkable than the costermongers for their utter absence of all religious feeling. There is, however, this distinction between the two classes - that whereas the creedlessness of the one is but the consequence of brutish ignorance, that of the other is the result of natural perversity and educated scepticism - as the street-patterers include many men of respectable connections, and even classical attainments. Among them, may be found the son of a military officer, a clergyman, a man brought up to the profession of medicine, two Grecians of the Blue-coat School, clerks, shopmen, and a class who have been educated to no especial calling - some of the latter being the natural sons of gentlemen and noblemen - and who, when deprived of the support of their parents or friends, have taken to the streets for bread. Many of the younger and smarter men, I am assured, reside with women of the town, though they may not be dependent for their livelihood on the wages got by the infamy of these women. Not a few of the patterers, too, in their dress and appearance, present but little difference to that of the "gent." Some wear a moustache, while others indulge in an Henri Quatre beard. The patterers are, moreover, as a body, not distinguished by that good and friendly feeling one to another which is remarkable among costermongers. If an absence of heartiness and good fellowship be characteristic of an aristocracy - as some political philosophers contend - then the patterers may indeed be said to be the aristocrats of the streets.

The patterers or oratorical street-sellers include among their class many itinerant traders, other than the wandering "paper-workers" - as those vending the several varieties of street literature are generally denominated. The Cheap Jacks, or oratorical hucksters of hardware at fairs and other places, are among the most celebrated and humorous of this class. The commercial arts and jests of some of these people, display considerable cleverness. Many of their jokes, it is true, are traditional - and as purely a matter of parrotry as the witticisms of the "funny gentlemen" on the stage, but their ready adaptation of accidental circumstances to the purposes of their business, betrays a modicum of wit far beyond that which falls to the share of ordinary "low comedians." The street-vendors of cough drops, infallible cures for the toothache and other ailments, also belong to the pattering class. These are, as was before stated, the remains of the obsolete mountebanks of England and the saltinbanque of France, a class of al fresco orators who derived their names from the bench, - the street pulpit, rostrum, or platform - that they ascended, in order the better to deliver their harangues.

The street jugglers, actors, and showmen, as well as the street-sellers of grease-removing compositions, corn-salve, razor-paste, plating-balls, waterproof blacking, rat poisons, sovereigns sold for wagers, and a multiplicity of similar street-trickeries - such as oratorical begging, are other ingenious and wordy members of the same chattering, jabbering, or "plattering" fraternity. These will all be spoken of under the head of the different things they respectively sell or do. For the present we have only to deal with that portion of the "pattering" body who are engaged in the street sale of literature - or the "paper-workers" as they call themselves. The latter include the "running patterers," or "death-hunters;" being men (no women) engaged in vending last dying speeches and confessions - in hawking "second editions" of newspapers - or else in "working," that is to say, in getting rid of, what are technically termed "cocks;" which, in polite language, means accounts of fabulous duels between ladies of fashion - of apochryphal elopements, or fictitious love-letters of sporting noblemen and certain young milliners not a hundred miles from the spot - "cooked" assassinations and sudden deaths of eminent individuals - pretended jealous affrays between Her Majesty and the Prince Consort (but these papers are now never worked) - or awful tragedies, including mendacious murders, impossible robberies, and delusive suicides.

The sellers of these choice articles, however, belong more particularly to that order or species of the pattering genus known as "running patterers," or "flying stationers," from the fact of their being continually on the move while describing the attractions of the "papers" they have to sell. Contradistinguished from them, however, are the "standing patterers," or those for whose less startling announcements a crowd is necessary, in order that the audience may have time to swallow the many marvels worked by their wares. The standing patterers require, therefore, what they term a "pitch," that is to say a fixed locality, where they can hold forth to a gaping multitude for, at least, some few minutes continuously. They are mainly such street-sellers as deal in nostrums and the different kinds of street "wonders." Occasionally, however, the running patterer (who is especially literary) transmigrates into a standing one, betaking himself to "board work," as it is termed in street technology, and stopping at the corners of thoroughfares with a large pictorial placard raised upon a pole, and glowing with a highly coloured exaggeration of the interesting terrors of the pamphlet he has for sale. This is either "The Life of Calcraft, the Hangman," "The Diabolical Practices of Dr. - on his Patients when in a state of Mesmerism," or "The Secret Doings at the White House, Soho," and other similar attractively-repulsive details.

Latest edition!
Akin to this "board work" is the practice of what is called "strawing," or selling straws in the street, and giving away with them something that is either really or fictionally forbidden to be sold, - as indecent papers, political songs, and the like. This practice, however, is now seldom resorted to, while the sale of "secret papers" is rarely carried on in public. It is true, there are three or four patterers who live chiefly by professing to dispose of "sealed packets" of obscene drawings and cards for gentlemen; but this is generally a trick adopted to extort money from old debauchees, young libertines, and people of degraded or diseased tastes; for the packets, on being opened, seldom contain anything but an odd number of some defunct periodical. There is, however, a large traffic in such secret papers carried on in what is called "the public-house trade," that is to say, by itinerant " paperworkers" (mostly women), who never make their appearance in the streets, but obtain a livelihood by "busking," as it is technically termed, or, in other words, by offering their goods for sale only at the bars and in the tap-rooms and parlours of taverns.

The excessive indulgence of one appetite is often accompanied by the disease of a second; the drunkard, of course, is supereminently a sensualist, and is therefore easily taken by anything that tends to stimulate his exhausted desires: so sure is it that one form of bestiality is a necessary concomitant of another. There is another species of patterer, who, though usually included among the standing patterers, belongs rather to an intermediate class, viz., those who neither stand nor "run," as they descant upon what they sell; but those walk at so slow a rate that, though never stationary, they can hardly be said to move. These are the reciters of dialogues, litanies, and the various street "squibs" upon passing events; they also include the public propounders of conundrums, and the "hundred and fifty popular song" enumerators. Closely connected with them are the "chaunters," or those who do not cry, but (if one may so far stretch the English language) sing the contents of the "papers" they vend.

These traffickers constitute the principal street-sellers of literature, or "paper-workers," of the "pattering" class. In addition to them there are many others vending "papers" in the public thoroughfares, who are mere traders resorting to no other acts for the disposal of their goods than a simple cry or exposition of them; and many of these are but poor, humble, struggling, and inoffensive dealers. They do not puff or represent what they have to sell as what it is not -(allowing them a fair commercial latitude). They are not of the "enterprising" class of street tradesmen. Among these are the street sellers of stationery - such as note-paper, envelopes, pens, ink, pencils, sealing-wax, and wafers. Belonging to the same class, too, are the street-vendors of almanacs, pocket-books, memorandum and account-books. Then there are the sellers of odd numbers of periodicals and broadsheets, and those who vend either playing cards, conversation cards, stenographic cards, and (at Epsom, Ascot, etc.) racing cards. Besides these, again, there are the vendors of illustrated cards, such as those embellished with engravings of the Cyrstal Palace, Views of the Houses of Parliament, as well as the gelatine poetry cards - all of whom, with the exception of the racing-card sellers (who belong generally to the pattering tribe), partake of the usual characteristics of the street-selling class.

After these may be enumerated the vendors of old engravings out of inverted umbrellas, and the hawkers of coloured pictures in frames. Then there are the old book-stalls and barrows, and "the pinners-up," as they are termed, or sellers of old songs pinned against the wall, as well as the vendors of manuscript music. Moreover, appertaining to the same class, there are the vendors of playbills and "books of the performance" outside the theatre; and lastly, the pretended sellers of tracts -such as the Lascars and others, who use this kind of street traffic as a cloak for the more profitable trade of begging. The street-sellers of images, although strictly comprised within those who vend fine art productions in the public thoroughfares will be treated of under the head of The Street Italians, to which class they mostly belong.

Links to the other articles in the series.

The London Street Patterers

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

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Note: The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.


 

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