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The Street Patterers: Long Song-Sellers
Posted on Oct 31, 2002 - 12:50 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. Here he investigates the habits and patter of a dying breed who were once conspicuous on the streets of London during the summer months.

I have this week given a daguerreotype of a well-known long-song seller, and have particularly done because the trade, especially as regards London, has all but disappeared, and it was curious enough. "Long songs" first appeared between nine and ten years ago. The long-song sellers did not depend upon patter -though some of them pattered a little -to attract customers, but on the veritable cheapness and novel form in which they vended popular songs, printed on paper rather wider than this page, "three songs abreast," and the paper was about a yard long, which constituted the "three" yards of song. Sometimes three slips were pasted together. The vendors paraded the streets with their "three yards of new and popular songs" for a penny. The songs are, or were, generally fixed to the top of a long pole, and the vendor "cried" the different titles as he went along. This branch of "the profession" is confined solely to the summer; the hands in winter usually taking to the sale of song-books, it being impossible to exhibit "the three yards" in wet or foggy weather. The paper songs, as they fluttered from a pole, looked at a little distance like huge much-soiled white ribbons, used as streamers to celebrate some auspicious news. The cry of one man, in a sort of recitative, or, as I heard it called by street-patterers, "singsong," was,

"Three yards a penny!
Three yards a penny!
Beautiful songs!
Newest songs!
Popular Songs!
Three yards a penny!
Song, song, songs!"
Others, however, were generally content to announce merely "Three yards a penny!" One cried "Two under fifty a fardy!" As if two hundred and fifty songs were to be sold for a farthing. The whole number of songs was about 45. They were afterwards sold at a halfpenny, but were shorter and fewer. It is probable that at the best had the songs been subjected to the admeasurement of a jury, the result might have been as little satisfactory as to some tradesmen who, however, after having been detected in attempts to cheat the poor in weights and scales, and to cheat them hourly, are still "good men and true" enough to be jurymen and parliamentary electors. The songs, I am informed, were often about 2 1/2 yards, (not as to paper but as to admeasurement of type); 3 yards, occasionally, at first, and not often less than 2 yards.

The crying of the titles was not done with any other design than that of expressing the great number of songs purchasable for "the small charge of one penny." Some of the patterers I conversed with would have made it sufficiently droll. One man told me that he had cried the following songs in his three yards, and he believed in something like the following order, but he had cried penny song books, among other things, lately, and might confound his more ancient and recent cries:

"I sometimes began," he said, "with singing, or trying to sing, for I'm no vocalist, the first few words of any song, and them quite loud. I'd begin
The Pope he leads a happy life,
He knows no care -
Buffalo gals, come out to-night;
Death of Nelson;
The gay cavalier;
Jim along Josey;
There's a good time coming;
Drink to me only;
Kate Kearney;
Chuckaroo-choo, choo-choo-choot-lah;
Hottypie-gunnypochina-coo (that's a Chinese song, sir);
I dreamed that I dwelt in marble halls;
The standard bearer;
Just like love;
Whistle o'er the lave o't;
Widow Mackree;
I've been roaming;
Oh! that kiss;
The old English gentleman,
etc., etc. etc.
I dares say they was all in the three yards, or was once, and if they wasn't there was others as good."
The chief purchasers of the "long songs" were boys and girls, but mostly boys, who expended 1d. or 1/2d. for the curiosity and novelty of the thing, as the songs were not in the most readable form. A few working people bought them for their children, and some women of the town, who often buy anything fantastic, were also customers.

When "the three yards was at their best," the number selling them was about 170; the wholesale charge is from 3d. to 5d. a dozen, according to size. The profit of the vendors in the first instance was about 8d. a dozen. When the trade had all the attractions of novelty, some men sold ten dozen on fine days, and for three or four of the summer months; so clearing between 6s. and 7s. a day. This, however, was not an average, but an average might be at first 21s. a week profit. I am assured that if twenty persons were selling long songs in the street last summer it was "the outside," as long songs are now "for fairs and races and country work." Calculating that each cleared 9s. in a week, and to clear that took 15s., the profit being smaller than it used to be, as many must be sold at 1/2d. each -we find 120 expended in long songs in the streets. The character of the vendor is that of a patterer of inferior genius. The stock-money required is 1s. to 2s.; which with 2d. for a pole, and 1/2d. for paste, is all the capital needed. Very few were sold in the public-houses, as the vendors scrupled to expose them there, "for drunken fellows would snatch them, and make belts of them for a lark."

Links to the other articles in the series.

The London Street Patterers

The Origins of Patterers
The Morals of Patterers
The Patterers' Street Literature
The Running Patterer
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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