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 short extract he lifts the veil on the pornographic trade in Victorian London and the associated fraud perpetrated, mostly on "old men," by some Patterers.
This is one of those callings which are at once repulsive and ludicrous; repulsive, when it is considered under what pretences the papers are sold, and ludicrous, when the disappointment of the gulled purchaser is contemplated.
I have mentioned that one of the allurements held out by the strawer was that his paper -the words used by Jack Straw -could "not be admitted into families." Those following the "sham indecent trade" for a time followed his example, and professed to sell straws and give away papers; but the London police became very observant of the sale of straws -more especially under the pretences alluded to -and it has, for the last ten years, been rarely pursued in the streets.
The plan now adopted is to sell the sealed packet itself, which the "patter" of the streetseller leads his auditors to believe to be some improper or scandalous publication. The packet is some coloured paper, in which is placed a portion of an old newspaper, a Christmas carol, a religious tract, or a slop-tailor's puff (given away in the streets for the behoof of another class of gulls). The enclosed paper is, however, never indecent.
From a man who had, not long ago, been in this trade, I had the following account. He was very anxious that nothing should be said which would lead to a knowledge that he was my informant. After having expressed his sorrow that he had ever been driven to this trade from distress, he proceeded to justify himself. He argued - and he was not an ignorant man - that there was neither common sense nor common justice in interfering with a man like him, who, "to earn a crust, pretended to sell what shopkeepers, that must pay church and all sorts of rates, sold without being molested." The word "shopkeepers" was uttered with a bitter emphasis. There are, or were, he continued, shops - for he seemed to know them all - and some of them had been carried on for years, in which shameless publications were not only sold, but exposed in the windows; and why should he be considered a greater offender than a shopkeeper, and be knocked about by the police? There are, or lately were, he said, such shops in the Strand, Fleet-street, a court off Ludgate-hill, Holborn, Drury-lane, Wych-street, the courts near Drury-lane Theatre, Haymarket, Highstreet, Bloomsbury, St. Martin's-court, May's buildings, and elsewhere, to say nothing of Holywell-street! Yet he must be interfered with!
[I may here remark, that I met with no street-sellers who did not disbelieve, or affect to disbelieve, that they were really meddled with by the police for obstructing the thoroughfare. They either hint, or plainly state, that they are removed solely to please the shop-keepers. Such was the reiterated opinion, real or pretended, of my present informant.]
I took a statement from this man, but do not care to dwell upon the subject. The trade, in the form I have described, had been carried on, he thought, for the last six years. At one time, 20 men followed it; at present, he believed there were only 6, and they worked only at intervals, and as opportunities offered: some going out, for instance, to sell almanacs or memorandum books, and, when they met with a favourable chance, offering their sealed packets. My informant's customers were principally boys, young men, and old gentlemen; but old gentlemen chiefly when the trade was new. This street-seller's "great gun," as he called it, was to make up packets, as closely resembling as he could accomplish it, those which were displayed in the windows of any of the shops I have alluded to. He would then station himself at some little distance from one of those shops, and, if possible, so as to encounter those who had stopped to study the contents of the window, and would represent - broadly enough, he admitted, when he dared - that he could sell for 6d. what was charged 5s., or 2s. 6d., or whatever price he had seen announced, "in that very neighbourhood." He sometimes ventured, also, to mutter something, unintelligibly, about the public being imposed upon! On one occasion, he took 6s. in the street in about two hours. On another evening he took 4s. 8d. in the street and was called aside by two old gentlemen, each of whom told him to come to an address given (at the West-end), and ask for such and such initials. To one he sold two packets for 2s.; to the other, five packets, each 1s. - or 11s. 8d. in one evening. The packets were in different coloured papers, and had the impressions of a large seal on red wax at the back; and he assured the old gents., as he called them, one of whom, he thought, was "silly," that they were all different. "And very likely," he said, chucklingly, "they were different; for they were made out of a lot of missionary tracts and old newspapers that I got dirt cheap at a `waste' shop. I should like to have seen the old gent.'s face, as he opened his 5s. worth, one after another!" This trade, however, among old gentlemen, was prosperous for barely a month: "It got blown then, sir, and they wouldn't buy any more, except a very odd one."
This man - and he believed it was the same with all the others in the trade - never visited the public-houses, for a packet would soon have been opened and torn there, which, he said, people was ashamed to do in the public streets. As well as he could recollect, he had never sold a single packet to a girl or a woman. Drunken women of the town had occasionally made loud comments on his calling, and offered to purchase; but on such occasions, fearful of a disturbance, he always hurried away.
I have said that the straw trade is now confined to the country, and I give a specimen of the article vended there, by the patterer in the sham indecent trade. It was purchased of a man, who sold it folded in the form of a letter, and is addressed, "On Royal Service. By Express. Private. To Her Royal Highness, Victoria, Princess Royal. Kensington Palace, London. Entered at Stationer's Hall." The man who sold it had a wisp of straw round his neck, and introduced his wares with the following patter:
"I am well aware that many persons here present will say what an absurd idea -the idea of selling straws for a halfpenny each, when there are so many lying about the street; but the reason is simply this: I am not allowed by the authorities to sell these papers, so I give them away and sell my straws. There are a variety of figures in these papers for gentlemen; some in the bed, some on the bed, some under the bed." The following is a copy of the document thus sold: -
"Bachelors or Maidens, Husbands and Wives,On the back of this page is the following cool initiation of the purchaser into the mysteries of the epistle:
Will love each other and lead happy lives;
If both these Letters to read are inclined,
Secrets worth knowing therein they will find.
Letter "Dated from the Duchy of Coburg.
"My Dearest Victoria,
[unclear: ] "Your adored Lover, "ALBERT, "Prince of Coburg."
"Directions for the purchasers to understand the Royal Love Letters, and showing them how to practise the art of Secret Letter Writing:-Notwithstanding the injunction to buy both letters, and the seeming necessity of having both to understand the "directions," the patterer was selling only the one I have given.
"Proceed to lay open 'Albert's Letter' by the side of 'Victoria's,' and having done so, then look carefully down them until you have come to a word at the left hand corner, near the end of each Letter, having two marks thus --, when you must commence with that word, and read from left to right after you have turned them bottom upwards before a looking glass so that you may peruse the copy reflected therein. But you must notice, throughout all the words every other letter is upside down, also every other word single; but the next two words being purposely joined together, therefore they are double; and in addition to those letters placed upside down, makes it more mysterious in the reading. The reader is recommended to copy each word in writing, when he will be able to read the letters forward, and after a little practice he can soon learn to form all his words in the same curious manner, when he wants to write a 'secret letter.'
"Be sure when holding it up side down before a looking-glass, that the light of a candle, is placed between then by the reflection it will show much plainer, and be sooner discovered.
"If you intend to practise a Joke and make it answer the purpose of a Valentine, write what you think necessary on the adjoining blank page; then post it, with the superscription filled up in this manner: -After the word To, write the name and address of the party also place the word FROM before 'VICTORIA'S' name: then the address on the outside of this letter will read somewhat after the following fashion: -To Mr. or Mrs. so and so, (with the number if any,) in such and such a street: at the same time your letter will appear as if it came from Royalty.
"N.B. You must first buy both the letters, as the other letter is an answer to this one; and because, without the reader has got both letters, he will not have the secrets perfect."
That the trade in sham indecent publications was, at one time, very considerable, and was not unobserved by those who watch, as it is called, "the signs of the times," is shown by the circumstance that the Anti-Corn-Law League paper, called the Bread Basket, could only be got off by being done up in a sealed packet, and sold by patterers as a pretended improper work.
The really indecent trade will be described hereafter.
For a month my informant thought he had cleared 35s. a week; for another month, 20s.; and as an average, since that time, from 5s. to 7s. 6d. weekly, until he discontinued the trade. It is very seldom practised, unless in the evening, and perhaps only one street-seller depends entirely upon it.
Supposing that 6 men last year each cleared 6s. weekly, we find upwards of 93. expended yearly in the streets on this rubbish.
The capital required to start in the business is 6d. or 1s., to be expended in paper, paste, and sometimes sealing-wax.
The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.